The trials of getting your novel published part 2: Some more of the journey (January 2020)

Last week seemed overrun with other peoples’ work, technical stuff, reading fiction (a 723 page work of historical fiction completed over an immersive four days), wrestling with social media and of course keeping the website alive and active (hah).

There was also a bit of helpful wrestling with a fellow author at Unbound whose book, Draca, is due out on the 14th May 2020. Geoff Gudgion is bravely considering a London book launch and this brings to mind all sorts of wild imaginings. The most important thing isn’t the venue or how much nosh and booze to order, but who will be there and making sure they’re the best candidates for the job of promoting the book.

It got me thinking about whether I should do the same for The Draftsman which is supposedly due out in May or June. A needling steely voice in my head says yes, but the rest of me, limp and weedy, says no. Why is that? Money? Publisher’s support? Neither. The reason is that despite 30+ years experience with press conferences, speaking and running seminars, I find the whole idea of a book launch quite terrifying.

Think about it. You have to invite people to show up (having found them first). What if they don’t, and how do you bear yet more rejection? Then, with as much gushing sincerity and enthusiasm, you have to welcome those few brave souls who do come, and hope that none of them are people you already know. What do you say to them? How do you talk about yourself without sounding like an American (sorry Americans, but I know you know what I mean)? How do you talk about your book in a way that doesn’t come across as either unbelievably pretentious, embarrassed by it, or just plain bombastic? And if you are able to raise a modicum of passion about what you want to say what tone do your strike? How do you keep from ranting and scaring everyone? How do you avoid making idiotic jokes that no one will understand? How do you keep yourself from necking too much wine before, during and especially after the presentation?

Martinis are always an excellent option too.

When I reached that point in the anxious wondering about having a book launch, I went for the nearest slab of Cote d’or Belgian chocolate rather than imagine any more of the awfulness. It’s fine, wonderful even, that Geoff is getting on with it, and in a way a launch would be okay for me to try. But mostly it just wouldn’t without involving a lot of chocolate and champagne first, and that really wouldn’t do. But maybe that’s the germ of an idea for how to manage it? Don’t manage it, succumb to the chocolate and champagne, bite the nails until they bleed, don’t speak or see anyone that you care about in case you lose it. Instead accept that you will turn into a screaming wild banshee for a little while and go for it. Get a list from Unbound of all their peeps who cover book launches and who have a proven track record of getting their stuff published. Get a venue willing to dish up just chocolate and champagne. (You could also contact Ann Cater who organises blog tours.) Get people along to talk together about what they do and what they look for in new releases. Encourage them to sit and sprawl on comfy furniture. Ply them and yourself with ample gobs of chocolate and champagne (you might have had enough by now and be onto the gin instead). Chat some more about what they want to write about and then lie as much as necessary about the book. All that remains is to finish the remnants of chocolate and champagne and probably gin (shame to waste it) and job done!

The trials of getting your novel published part 1: The journey so far

Let’s ignore the dramas of writing, rewriting, fear of writing, panic when your brain is just not up to the task. And especially let’s not talk about the contact problem, the one where your bottom refuses utterly to make contact with the chair. Let’s assume you’ve safely gathered in all the words you need and that you have your work of fiction, collection of poems or short stories, whatever, ready to sell. This is a massive assumption, one that immediately alienates a whole slew of potential readers of this blog who still sail the rough seas of WIP. The intention isn’t to alienate though. This blog might help you feel less alone and more like carrying on nurturing your ideas, meeting people who don’t yet exist and harvesting the right crop of words to get them and their doings onto the page. Once they are captured, here’s what you can expect.

Manuscript in hand, you need to sell it so the obvious place to start is with a literary agent. Of course, an agent, that rare and fickly breed of wonderful salespeople, will take somefinding. The name agent is really not accurate in the wider context of commerce. Agents are sales men and women looking for what they can most successfully pitch to buyers in an open market. These buyers are the commissioning editors and publishers who will take a punt on a title and/or an author in the hope that the book will sell. Depending on how confident they are the publisher will then invest, one hopes, enough money to get the book edited, designed, produced, printed and distributed to as many outlets as possible. 

Would you buy this book? Would you sell it?

This is a mammoth task at every step of the way. Pity the poor editors wrestling with some 100,000 words, most of which are superfluous, choking a brilliant storyline in confusion. The designers have to decide what the book should look like, what cover best reflects the contents, what typeface, leading, page layout and so on. And they might even have to read the thing. The production and printing will be the easiest bit, because these are automated processes: spit digital files in and printed book blocks out. 

But the hardest bit, the bit that makes all the difference and the bit that only a worthy publisher can do is the distribution part. This is about sales, persuading book sellers to buy your book so that they can sell it to your hoardes of adoring fans. This has to be harder than writing the thing in the first place, and hats off to the amassed armies of people who do this. You are the people who bridge the gap between the author and the reader and you are the people who make sure that the market gets the works it wants, across the market and that’s a tough call.

Laurel Lindström Unagented but happy.

For the author and the aspirants wrestling with an unruly WIP, the trick is find an agent willing to take a chance but with so many of us, hopes of success are meagre at best. The only option is to work and work some more to make your book either as commercial as possible, or as unique as you are. For most of us the latter is the preferred course, but it’s unlikely to get you an agent any time soon.

Where does getting your novel published actually start?

Obviously with writing the thing in the first place. But then what? Most first time wannabee authors, me included, haven’t a clue about the publishing business. We all think that the most important thing of all is the manuscript, but that is niaïve and foolish. Very foolish.

It’s foolish because the most important thing about the book business, as with any other business, is sales. Sales dictates how every other part of the complex machine that is fiction publishing functions. You think it’s just a simple process of designing a cover, getting an ISBN number, plus a bit of editing argy bargy and some layout and your work is ready for the press. However the process that leads to you holding a copy of your printed novel in your grateful clammy hands, is entirely sales driven. This is something to keep in mind when you are working, and even if that idea offends your sense of art and ego, it’s fundamental to getting your work published.

Take the agent thing to start with. Most literary agents are totally overwhelmed by us wannabees, some receiving upwards of 500 submissions a week. Who can read all those synopses without help from a willing intern or three? If they’ve a stack of lovingly completed entire manuscripts agents and their minions generally skim, having dutifully read the first and last chapters. It’s a bit like being able to tell a decent wine from a crap one. That first sniff says it all.

And that isn’t even slightly fair because many first time authors work so hard at their words. Many however start off without warming up properly, without brutal focus on what they are trying to convey. They jump into their texts with no limbering up or stretching, no mental or emotional preparation and absolutely no objectivity. They may have plenty of the self-critical variety of objectivity, the beat-me-with-a-biscuit-until-it-hurts sort which is not the same as a rigorous editor in your head telling you what works and what doesn’t.

The excitement you feel when you see your first cover is matched only by the exhaustion of getting the edits right.

Ruthlessness from the very start is mandatory. If a sentence is too long cut it, even though you love the sound of all those luscious words. Remember that your work is not an extension of you, and just because you’re agonising over it and struggling, that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Usually the opposite is true. Good writing hurts not because of you and your personal agonisings, but because it’s hard to use words as building blocks for an abstract construction, a story that takes flight beyond you and your ideas.

Someone once asked me what advice I would give to people starting out as fiction writers, as if I had any authority. Of course I don’t but thirty plus years of writing and earning a decent living at it have taught me that you, author, are not important. But the work is, so do your best to keep your face out of the pie. 

This probably all sounds mean and unsupportive, but writing is about entertainment, engagement and expressing something that others will find meaningful, for whatever reason. If the work doesn’t achieve this on some level, interest will be sparse. And it comes back to sales. Much as we distain commerce in art, it is a reality that has to be respected because ultimately the market doesn’t lie.