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Making it II
The black box of traditional publishing
This piece is part of an occasional series on succeeding as a writer.
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On the first post in this series, Michael Woudenberg made an excellent observation. “I think the biggest thing is the opacity of the publishing world,” he said. “Sure, I could self-publish with a few clicks of the mouse, but real publishing...it’s like a black hole in my research.”
Meanwhile, David Woods asked what’s probably the most existential question in all literature. At the end of this piece, I’ll give my answer (which may not be the answer for other writers).
Why write? There are billions of books of all kinds in the world. Why would a person choose to read a particular one that is not assigned in a university class? Most current writers seem to write for fame and money, and some find a formula for writing that captures enough interest/conflict to be profitable. This is not a moral judgment.
Stepping into the system
Michael’s comment above is, I’m afraid, accurate. And I say that as someone who—if one were to give “nepo baby” an unusually wide definition—came from an advantaged background (fee-paying independent school, top of the class, Oxford).
My parents were absolutely not writers or in any way literary, however, which is why the definition has to be so broad. Yes, my father’s mistress was a columnist, so he had some awareness through her of the world of media and journalism, but as I learnt during my adventures in literature-land, book publishing is related to journalism and commentary in the same way as human beings are related to chimpanzees. Yes, there is overlap, but the difference is not one of degree, but kind.
My entrée to literature and the arts was thus through an unpublished manuscript competition—the most famous of several in the land of my birth—The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. The Australian is the country’s main national daily. Vogel is a baking company, famous for high-quality German-style rye bread and related products.
This meant the entry form was prominently printed in the newspaper (in more than one section, too), while the early 90s were print journalism’s heyday. Everyone who could read more than “the cat sat on the mat” bought at least a weekend or Sunday edition of a broadsheet newspaper, if only for the form guide or the cryptic crossword. The entry form was easy to find, so I found it.
I was editor of my school magazine in the Upper Sixth, and had won or been shortlisted for various writing competitions as a teenager. In my early twenties, I had written most of a novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. In the first instance, I sent it to University of Queensland Press. This was partly because it was a local publishing company, and partly because I was an undergraduate at the University of Queensland at the time.
One of the editors at UQP (a woman called Sue Abbey) wrote back praising the quality of my writing, but also criticising me for submitting an unfinished manuscript. This taught me an important publishing lesson: when you are first starting out in fiction, your novel must be complete. “Missing the last chapter” (as mine was) isn’t good enough.
I paid the press a visit on the strength of this letter and asked Ms. Abbey what I ought to do. She suggested entering a finished m/s in The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. “The entry form will be in the paper; I think you’ll do well”.
I took her advice. I duly won the award (in 1993).
The black box of publishing
The Australian/Vogel guarantees publication to the winner, but the company (Allen & Unwin) with carriage of the award doesn’t always just publish the winner. Often a runner-up is named, as are several shortlisted or commended entries. However, it’s a mistake to think that one of those still coveted—remember, such prizes attract hundreds or even thousands of entries—positions is a route into the black box of publishing.
This piece, by Australian YA author(on her substack) describes exactly the sort of runaround shortlisted/commended/runner-up authors often experience.
In 2015, I entered my first novel into an unpublished manuscript competition [Ed—not the Australian/Vogel]. My work did not win, but in 2016, it was commended (a status below “runner-up”). In the wake of this, a publisher approached me, and then, after taking a month or so to review the manuscript, politely said that they did not want to publish my novel. This was very much like the experience I had had with academic publishers.
I was emboldened by my “commended” status and the interest of this publisher to approach agents and other publishers with my manuscript. I was not prepared for what followed. Timeliness and politeness? Forget it. One’s manuscript could stay with a publisher or agent for months or years before they replied, and the replies, if they came at all, were terse. It was so different to my experience of academic publishing that it was difficult to know what to do. Should I approach someone else, when the first person wasn’t bothering to respond?
I followed some Australian agents and publishers on Twitter, hoping to get a clue. And then—after four weeks—I unfollowed most of them. It may have been coincidence, or a quirk of the particular people whom I chose to follow, but I noticed that if one person tweeted a particular view, within a few hours, the rest seemed to follow suit, agreeing in their own words. I wondered if I was imagining this, or, if I wanted my writing to be accepted, did I have to march in lockstep in the same way? I felt I’d somehow stepped into The Midwich Cuckoos, the scent of new-mown hay in my nostrils.
An agent eventually responded to one of my emails, saying I would have to totally rewrite the novel before they would consider it. Delighted to finally get some feedback, I spent the next month rewriting the novel in the way that they had asked, and returned it for consideration. I did not hear back for six months. Eventually, the agent replied briefly that they were not interested.
Rejection wasn’t (and isn’t) the problem here. I’m an academic—I’m used to rejection, harsh criticism, and biting peer review—and I’m quite prepared to admit that maybe my work just wasn’t good enough. It was the dilatory and unprofessional response which made my hackles rise.
A novelist friend was outraged when I told her of this experience, and introduced me to a publisher. My first novel was published in 2019. My friend warned me, however, that publishers of novels had always behaved like this, even to famous authors, and that I should not feel slighted.
I am the novelist friend to whom Katy refers, and what happened to her (once I found out about it) made me very annoyed indeed. The publisher to which I introduced her had at that point published one of my novels, and was able to rely on the fact that a prominent manuscript prize had shortlisted hers as “proof of concept” as it were. The whole process was nonetheless fraught—plagued with rudeness, slowness, and general faffle.
A tame black hole for a filing system
Even during the editorial and design process for my (winning) first novel, I formed the view that publishers seemed to rely on a tame black hole for a filing system. Bits of edited m/s would go missing, phone calls would not be returned, paperwork—including executed contracts—would pile up around the office.
This is where my (non-) nepo-baby background came to the fore. I was, at that point, an arts/law undergraduate. No law firm would be able to get away with this sort of behaviour without complaints to the Law Society (it’s the kind of thing that tends to indicate bill-padding, something for which lawyers are widely despised).
I’d also worked since the age of 14 years and nine months, first at Woolworths (in Australia, a supermarket with a particular focus on fresh groceries) and then Myer (the Australian equivalent of Debenhams or House of Fraser). This kind of behaviour towards the people who ultimately make retail business profitable (ie, the customers) would have seen me out on my ear quick smart. I said this to sundry literary types at the time.
As discussed in the initial Making It piece, my first novel was a controversial bestseller for various public reasons. However, one of the (private) reasons I made myself unpopular with the literary establishment was my expectation that publishers would not behave like Dewey, Cheetham, & Howe; the sort of shop that left fruit and vegetables on the shelves to rot, or tried to sell the previous year’s fashions at top markup 12 months later.
The literary agent
Most writers who do not gain entry to the “system” via an unpublished manuscript prize must first obtain representation. As Katy’s experience shows, this is not easy, even with a shortlist showing one can write. I was able to do without an agent for many years not only because my writing was already popular but because I was a commercial solicitor—an agent added nothing to what I already knew about contractual negotiation and intellectual property.
However, with the world of publishing becoming increasingly woke and harder to parse, a couple of years ago I did engage an agent (I was in the fortunate position of having three from which to choose) and went with Matthew Hamilton. He has an ideologically diverse, even iconoclastic stable—from Paul Mason to Douglas Murray. He will place my next book (probably a memoir), and has been excellent when it comes to getting my work into UK magazines.
My rationale for writing is simplicity itself. I think I have something to say, and can do so in a euphonious, witty way. Some writers feel compelled to write, others are miserable when they aren’t writing, while others again are miserable when they are (but do it anyway). I suspect there are as many reasons for writing as there are writers.
To be continued.