First words, first time
I am a writer. Well, almost a writer. According to one literary friend, you’re not a real writer until you’ve had a book published. The short pieces, fiction or non-fiction, even the contest prizes don’t count, he argues, because “anyone can knock out 3000 words” and because, until a commercial publishing house is prepared to spend time, money and marketing on you, you are not truly legitimate.
But that’s the problem. Publishing experts say that writing the novel is the easy part. The real work starts when we try to sell it. They’re not kidding.
How do I know this? Because I am, as they say, “between” publication right now. As we speak, my Young Adult novel manuscript has done the rounds of every respected children’s book publisher in Australia, most likely never raising its ugly head from the bottom of the much maligned slush pile, beyond getting the cursory 60 second skim before it ends up where they've all ended up. In the rejection pile. One of about ten thousand manuscripts that have done much the same thing this year alone.
Because I'm practical but ambitious, I waver between dreaming my manuscript will be selected for publication first time around, to hoping the rejection is at least personalised, and not just another form letter on photocopied letterhead. Even a friendly, scribbled “not for us” in the top right-hand corner is somehow less painful than the two-paragraph “this is a subjective business” blurb that no one reads, or even believes, because we all know that what it really means is “you suck” (“…but don’t let this prevent you from submitting to other publishers.”)
Of course, the downside to personalised rejections is that I inevitably try to read encouragement into them, and even an invitation to try again. When an agent or publisher tells me “I didn’t fall in love with your story” what I tell myself they really mean is, “it’s extremely worthy of publication, and you deserve far more than I’m prepared to offer you.” When they say, “I didn’t find your protagonist believable”, what they really mean is “your brilliantly-written, unforgettable heroine is too progressive for our staid old marketing team.”
I’m not alone in this desire to read between those tired old lines. There are whole online forums dedicated to breaking down and analysing the various literary rejections, deconstructing their tone, language and implied meaning. And in between these postings, contributors sit about in various corners of the world, reminding each other that it’s really about the words not the money, that we are brilliant writers NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE SAYS, even if we never make it, and even if the commercial publishing world refuses to acknowledge what is patently obvious to everyone else here at this forum… That we deserve to be published. Of course, our main reason for believing this is because our mum likes our characters, or our year ten English teacher told us we were good writers, or our friends think we tell funny stories, but hey, that there is the reading public. We’ve done our own market research thanks, and have very strong results to show for it.
The moment we leave the forum, we rush straight back into the seeking-publication mayhem, no better informed, no better prepared, but tragically, more determined than ever. Despite all the writing for publication books, submission guides and how-to articles we’ve devoured, analysed and critiqued, and despite the robust exchange of rejection horror stories, rumoured six-figure successes, and industry gossip, there is so much contradiction and misinformation, that much of our time is dedicated to the business of understanding the process, than submitting our work or, heaven forbid, actually writing the manuscripts in the first place.
What’s worse, published writers are no help. At conferences and workshops, I ask popular authors how they identify their target market, and whether it’s a good idea to include similar titles in query letters, but am inevitably met with blank stares and vague rumblings about how they just write the books without thinking about publication. The moment I use the word “pitch” their eyes glaze over, and they mumble something about that being the agent’s problem.
“But what,” I persist, “if you don’t have an agent?”
“Oh,” they say, cheerfully, “then you’ll probably never get published.”
“OK. How do you get an agent?”
“The same way you get a publisher.”
Right then. Back to the slush pile.