Do as I say – not as I did

This is by way of a letter to an internet friend who, being young enough to be my daughter, will, I hope, not take amiss some motherly advice of a literary nature.

Dear T,

You write really well, are dedicated and your blogs are full of common sense. However, I’m here to offer a friendly warning. Very much as I did years ago, you speak passionately about finishing your novel then finding a publisher (if I write well enough and my story’s worth reading, I’m bound to get published – that’s what I thought).  Once the product was complete and as good as I could make it, all the hard work would be done.  It was just a matter of time before someone in the business recognised its worth.

I’ll try to keep this short, although the timescale covers more than twenty years.  The promise of success came early for me with the commissioning editor of Orion’s fantasy & sci-fi imprint asking to see the manuscript of Tribes, having enjoyed the sample I’d sent her.  Almost unheard of!  A hit the first time out? Unfortunately, it wasn’t ready (I’d been advised to send some chapters out beforehand as it would be ages before anyone wanted the whole thing).  In truth, I could have sent it to her but I wasn’t happy with the writing.  It finally went and I waited – and waited.  I met the editor at a conference and she told me to be patient. ‘These things take time,’ she said.  Too right!

Anyway, I said I’d try to keep this short.  –  The editor suddenly left the company and another took over.  When I enquired about my manuscript the new man said he knew nothing about it but made it clear he wasn’t interested anyway.  My suspicions are – rather like a new alpha male taking over the pack and killing the cubs that aren’t his – he’d disposed of all previous clutter.  I doubt that I’m the only author with such a tale of woe.

Never mind, put it down to experience.  Tribes went out again – and again.  I received a nice phone call from the agent of Ian Banks (God rest his gifted soul) who told me that I was a born storyteller.  But, when I sent him the complete manuscript, he rejected it on the basis of it not quite measuring up as a fantasy novel.  I have to agree.  Tribes is no fantasy novel.

Tribes yoyoed back and forth with the usual encouraging remarks but no takers until ..  would you believe it?  An editor at Orion was impressed by the sample and keen to read the whole thing.  I don’t even recall sending it there but obviously I did (after a while you do a mad bulk send-out in desperation).  She read it, she loved it and her colleagues loved it.  But there was a very big BUT.  The same commissioning editor was in charge.  I waited for the inevitable and Tribes was rejected, not quite measuring up once again.

Onward and upward.  By now I had a second novel (third actually since I’d already sent Charybdis to Virago and received a pleasing but negative response – the standard card, yet on the back a hand-written comment to the effect,  We really are very sorry to have to turn this down but it’s not quite right for our list.  Send us anything else you have.)  That was OK. 

Anyway, Immortali.  That would be the one.  It took three years to write and passed muster at the writers group; it was revised at least three times.  ‘Take some of it to Julian Rathbone,’  I was advised.  (Look him up if you’re not familiar with his wonderful books, The Last English King, etc.).  In trepidation I approached Julian at a conference and he asked to read the whole thing, eventually pronouncing it to be, ‘the most original and imaginative thing he’d ever read.’  Until his death, he remained helpful and encouraging and even recommended the novel to his own publisher, Little Brown.  They rejected it on the basis of it being too close to Sarah Dunant’s (already on their list).  Ah, well!

So, what’s left?  Self-publishing.  Yes, I’m not proud. The golden glow of acceptance had eluded me but I still believed in my books.  And suddenly here’s the internet and the giant Amazon with self-published authors making life-changing sums. My publisher perhaps wouldn’t like the term self-published but I feel my books are.  However, the public has spoken.  They don’t care who publishes their books.  And those mainstream publishing houses who were so snooty about the whole thing now come sniffing around the winners with eye-watering offers of cash.  So much for integrity.   

So, what I’m saying to you, T, is – get your writing out there!  Even if you feed it out slowly in dribs and drabs (didn’t do the ‘Grey’ woman any harm, did it?).  And the fact that you are publishing, sharing the creation of your book with potential readers, doesn’t mean you can’t present it to a trad publisher once your satisfied with the end result – if that’s what you want. 

But those walls are crumbling.  Publishers may be putting on a brave face but they, agents (and unfortunately bookshops) are running scared.  They no longer hold the keys.  At a recent convention at the University of Southern California, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted a ‘massive implosion’ in the film industry.  OK that’s film, but the storm’s engulfing writing too.  The Barbarian Technology is smashing the old, ordered edifice to bits and, in the words of George Lucas:  ‘It’s because all the gatekeepers have been killed.’