I’m not sure why I’m putting this up because it’s something I’ve not been interested in for a long time now, and every time I research it, I’m reminded why. But if you’re interested in writing fiction, traditional publishing is still the only way of attaining any significant “financial” reward for your work. In order to achieve this you need a publisher and an agent, but you should be realistic about your chances of securing either. As I’m fond of saying: someone always wins the lottery, even though the odds are vanishingly small, but for every person who wins, there are millions of others tearing up their tickets (or manuscripts) wondering why they ever bothered.
But if you’re deadly serious and determined to scale the edifice of the traditional publishing world, and become a successful author you need to narrow the odds a bit. This starts before you ever put pen to paper. Published books fall into a number of genres. Each one has a specific heading which can neatly pigeon hole a story, and if your book doesn’t fit clearly into one of them you’re off to a bad start already. It’s no use writing to a publisher or an agent and saying your book is likely to appeal to a wide audience. That’s really not good enough. You must be specific. Say it’s like one of those Twilight books, or a Light Romance, or Crime, or Historical Aventure. And there’s nothing to be gained from inventing your own weird crossover genre because publishers have figures that show how much a book in a particular “official” genre is likely to generate. No use twisting one of your own stories to fit a recognisable genre either. You start with the genre and you write something specifically to fit it, after overdosing on reading other books in that genre until they’re coming out of your ears and you can barely bring yourself to contemplate writing something similar. This is otherwise known as studying the “market”. However, be aware that the “top” genre you identify at the time you begin writing is likely to be at the bottom by the time you “finish”, because tastes are so fickle, darling!
Want to carry on?
So, you hack away for a couple of years and produce your novel. What then? Do you seek a publisher or an agent? Well this is where your Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook comes in. I’ve not bought one for a decade or more, but I presume they still publish it. It’s about two inches thick and it makes you feel like an important writer simply by handing it over to the check-out girl in Smiths or Waterstones. In there, along with a lot of other stuff, the nature of which I can’t recall, you’ll find the listings of Publishers and Agents. Read them carefully. There’s no point sending a light romance to a sci-fi publisher eh? That’s what all those trite self help “how to get published” books will tell you. But there’s more. Indeed the “how tos” are enless, mysterious and constantly changing. You may find for example that that the publisher suddenly decides they don’t read unsolicited manuscripts any more. What are are unsoliscited manuscripts? Well, they are you, my friend. That’s what they are. Unsolicited equates to: un-asked for and translates as: you’re wasting your time sending your story in. This publisher only reads stuff sent to them by agents – and the last time I passed this way it seemed to be all of them. Even if you find a publisher who will sully themselves by actually reading your unsolicited manuscript, don’t expect them to give it any priority. It’ll land in a pile of other unsolicited material to be picked up and flicked through when editors and their readers have nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon. But don’t blame them. They didn’t ask for it. It’s like junk mail to them. What would you do? Put it in the bin? Or would you read it on the off chance it might be to your advantage? Whatever, expect to wait six months for a reply, longer for the return of your manuscript, with a standard rejection letter.
Not sounding so glamorous now, is it?
Want to carry on?
I think the advice these days is for the newbie writer to steer clear of publishers, and to seek an agent instead from the outset. But don’t waste your postage on sending in the full manuscript. Send a few chapters, a synopsis and a snappy introductory letter that tells the agent how brilliant you are, and why you stand out from the hum-drum cloud of losers, but without sounding sick-makingly and pretentiously juvenile, nor grovellingly desperate. Tricky, I know,… and humiliating for you, I can assure you, but it’s what you want, so go ahead.
The agents’ listings in Writer and Artist’s Year Book will probably also suggest you don’t send your synopsis off to more than one agent at a time, but since you’re unlikely to see it again for six months you should ignore this rather archaic advice and send it off simultaneously to as many as you like. I mean life’s too short, isn’t it? And you may have to write to twenty agents in order to score with just one.
What I’m trying to say is the odds of attracting an agent’s attention are small – even if your work is reasonably literate and yew can spel. Trust your uncle Michael: there are thousands of writers just like you: unknown, ambitious, filled with a sense of the vital importance of their own work. A few will make it and get a fabled life-changing acceptance letter. The rest are also-rans whom no godlike reader will ever know. Celebrities? You say they’re off to a head start? Well of course they are, but there’s no use crying over it. Publishing’s a business, and celebrities sell. Does that surprise you? I know, terrible isn’t it.
But it’s worse than that. Given a hundred unknown writers, all of them with a readable story and a punchy query letter, the one who’ll get their work taken on is the one who knows the agent personally, bumped into them at a literary do and made friends with them, or got themselves introduced to that agent by another writer the agent already represents and whose opinion they value. This isn’t Michael Graeme being a cynical old git. It’s human nature. It’s how deals are made in the real world. Don’t live in the big city where those literary parties are thrown? Don’t know any agents or other suited literary types? Don’t even know any other writers, published or unpublished? Live out in the countryside in some remote village no one’s ever heard of, but like to write? Don’t let me put you off, it’s still possible to get yourself published, but you need to understand the obstacles in your path.
Want to carry on?
So,… you’re a newbie writer. You’ve attained the impossible heights of success and by hook or by crook, you’ve secured an agent, and miracle of miracles, after a couple of years, your agent has even found you a publisher for this manuscript, the gist of which you can barely recall by now. But you’re not a name yet. What’s a name? A name is a label. A brand. It is a mythical symbol, a magical spell. Cast thine name upon the bookshelves of the hightstreet and the buyer knows instantly what to expect. A name sells books in large quantities. A name alone attains that mythological status: the professional writer.
But you’re a newbie so don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of money on a big print run, nor a promotional tour allowing you to sample the high life: first class travel, top hotels, celebrity parties, millions of adoring fans. A thousand copies or so. That’s your limit. They’ve done the mathematics. They know the market. They know a thousand copies is what you’ll sell so they’re not going to print any spares. Think about this: I don’t know how big a cut the Publishers or the Agents take, but if you break even, you’ll be lucky. What does that mean? It means you can call yourself a published author, but you’re a long way from making your living at it. A thousand or so people have read your work! Is that good? Well, of course it is and considering the odds you were up against, well done to you.
But think about this:
I put my novel Push Hands online, about a year ago and it’s been downloaded about 7000 times, and rising. The Lavender and the Rose went up last month, and it’s already up to 1500. I’m an independent author, hacking stuff out in whatever spare moments the day or night allows. You can go into any bar in the world these days and ask who Michael Graeme is, and no one will know – but it’s the same for you. We are the same, you and I, dear wannabe writer, both of us obscure. You’ve “sold” more books than me, but more people are likely to have read one of my books than yours.
My message to the frustrated wannabe writer is this: does your dayjob pay the bills? Can you bear it? Then make your peace with it, and consider going independent. You’ll never make a fortune, but you’ll achieve a global readership almost by default. Your words, your thoughts, your idiosyncrasies,.. they are important to us. Who are we? We are you. We are readers, writers, onliners, just like you. Upload them to the collective, to what in modern parlance is known as “the cloud”. Cool eh? Don’t sniff at the online independent freebie ebook thing because you can shift a lot of copies that way. If it’s down to money for you and you’re determined to quit that boring dayjob, then so be it, go for paper, and good luck. Otherwise hang in there. You’re important. Traditionally published or not.
Relevant anecdote: Michael Graeme is a secret. I live and work under the name of my primary personality, and no one except my immediate family can link the two. I was listening to a conversation between a couple of colleagues in my day-job office, one who had just bought an Amazon Kindle and was amazed by the amount of free original fiction available online, and wondered why he would ever want to pay for fiction again. Another colleague countered rather sniffily: okay, but is it any good? Colleague number one said: Who cares? Of course some of its crap but its not cost me anything, so what’s the problem? Have you never paid good money for a book, only to decide it was crap? And some of this free stuff’s okay.
Age-wise both colleagues were in the fifty plus bracket. But then a young lad,… seventeen or eighteen joined in, and said he liked blagging free fiction on his iPod touch of an evening from this site called Feedbooks. I concluded therefore the indy publishing scene was appealing to a very wide demographic. I smiled, kept my secret, pleased that people were still enjoying simply reading stuff.
Free? Why not? How weird is that? It makes a change when just about every other person in the real world is trying to sell you something you don’t want and making you feel like an idiot for not wanting it. The world of writing is changing, and traditional publishing is beginning to looking seriously dull – especially for the wannabe writer. Whether you are a reader, a writer, or both, take a look at Feedbooks or Lulu or Smashwords. Seek out their free stuff. Give it the first paragraph test. I dare you. Some of it you’ll cringe at because it’s more idiosyncratic than legible. Some of it you’ll find a bit ragged around the edges, like reading your mate’s submission for his English creative writing homework. But some of it will grab you, suck you in and move you to tears. This is the work of ordinary people who like to write. This is the indy scene; anarchic, careless of spelling and grammar at times, but sincere, raw and thought provoking. Let those celebrities pen their sterile, expertly edited yarns, and their jolly autobiographies to adorn the highstreet bookshelves, but if you want truly sincere meat and drink, if you want it told the way it is, it’s now to be found exclusively in “the cloud” and its tagged “free”.