An open letter to The Publishing Industry (namely literary agents and publishers…)
If you’re in the publishing industry and reading this, then thank you. I know how busy you are, so I’ll try and be brief. (If you’re another disillusioned writer: chin up, friend – you’re not alone.)
I’m guessing you got into this industry because you like reading.
I would like to think that for most of you this is still the case. You’re still not tired of books, though your life is dominated by them. You still hope that the next thing you pick up will be The One. Something electric, original, unputdownable. But it seems many of you have settled for The Safe Sell. Your main concern is what the market looks like, what’s selling big, who’s already popular. You can’t chance anything ‘too niche’, anything that shows potential but is too raw. Anything too risky.
Up until about a year ago, I was blissfully naive about the publishing industry. I had completed my first novel manuscript and submitted it for a full critique. Until that point I had no idea if what I’d written was any good. I was delighted when my editor got back to me with some helpful ideas for tweaking and told me, yes, it had potential for publication. All I had to do was select a few literary agents, send my sample chapters and synopsis and soon I’d be a published author, right?
It didn’t take long for my puppyish enthusiasm to be dashed, not only by my own experiences, but by reading those of others, to the point that I am now pretty cynical about the industry. I thought it would be helpful to turn that disappointment into something positive, as bitterness isn’t a good look on anyone. These are a few points that I think will help create a better relationship between the publishing industry and new writers, which in turn should help create a more vibrant and inclusive creative environment.
1. Please respond to submissions
I know you’re busy, but it’s a bit much to expect writers who’ve worked hard on their manuscripts to trust that you’ve actually looked at their work if you’re not even willing to send a stock email. The message that silence sends is: “I’m too busy and important to respond to a nobody like you.”
It’s bad enough when your website says that if you’ve not responded by x amount of time then you’re not interested, but even more galling are those that cheerfully state that you’ll get back to writers within a certain time, but you then send a big hollow nothing. Touting false hope.
Janklow and Nesbitt, for example, made such promises (since removed from their website) but managed to ignore my initial submission, follow up query and Twitter message – thrice smitten! While Fledgling Press promised to look into my submission when I tweeted them (as all good marketers should when publicly questioned) but then shunted my query into the ether.*
I forgive you, as I’d like to move on, but don’t make promises you can’t keep. Or, even better, do make promises and then keep them. Does it really take much to send a simple email, when you’ve already taken the time (or have you?) to go through the writing sample? Perhaps you can ask an intern to do it. You get brownie points if you actually personalise it with the writer’s name. It demonstrates compassion, rather than haughtiness.
Special mention to Linen Press, who not only responded to me quickly, but even sent brief feedback. It made the rejection more bearable, so thank you.
2. Diversify / diversity
If the stock responses are true, you sometimes ‘enjoy reading’ submissions but they ‘don’t fit’ with your list. I understand that you have preferences but are you really not willing to diversify at all, even if you enjoy something? To authors of any kind of ethnic minority, this can sound like code for ‘your work is too ‘ethnic’ for me.’
Before the film was released, I found The English Patient in the ‘black interest’ section of the library, the librarians obviously thinking only non-white people would be interested in reading about foreign escapades written by a (successful, award-winning) foreign author. I don’t need to state how insulting this is to everyone (but it looks like I have). I thought literature was supposed to broaden our minds.
I recently read about a south Asian writer, who despite having won several awards had not found a publisher. Even more discouraging was the below the line comment from another Asian writer, who had relegated ethnic minority characters to secondary roles in order to be published. She felt that if writers were not willing to submit to the standard ethnic tropes (eg exotic tales in British India) and simply wrote about ‘normal’ characters who happened to be from an ethnic minority, then most publishers would not be interested. Not exotic / stereotypical enough, yet too ‘niche’, it would seem.
Interestingly, a number of Booker Prize winners have come from the Commonwealth and have presumably managed to sell reasonably well, so it turns out people are able to cope with something different. And do you really only want to cater for those who can’t?
3. Take risks
I’ve read of authors being touted as success stories because they’ve initially self-published, worked hard at marketing themselves and then, when they start selling well, are offered publishing deals. Shouldn’t you be doing this leg work, not waiting until something’s a safe bet before getting your hands dirty?
I know some of you do take risks and I applaud you, especially at a time when the industry seems so market-driven. I understand the need to be market-driven by the way, but does that mean you always have to be so risk averse?
4. Publish more women
A cursory glance at the names of those working at literary agencies and publishers would suggest many, if not the majority, are women, yet I was shocked to read about a woman who after receiving many rejections, submitted her work under a male pseudonym and subsequently received more requests to see her work.
Last year these indie publishers put out a call for more women writers, stating that the few submissions they received from women were generally more polished than those they received from men, who were more likely to submit drafts too early and so get rejected. I don’t think women make better writers, but this speaks volumes on the differing levels of confidence between men and women, which isn’t helped if there is gender disparity in who gets published.
Are we really still in the days of the Brontes?
I know there are innovative, dynamic, brave literary agencies and publishers out there, but the industry needs a shake up.
Once I’ve heard back (or not) from the current tranche of submissions, I plan to give up trying for the foreseeable future. I don’t have the energy or morale to self-publish right now. Many writers more talented than me have fallen by the wayside – manuscripts full of promise lie in attics, in dusty boxes under beds, on thumb drives – while commercial dross gets the green light.
You are the gatekeepers, but many of you seem more like haughty bouncers turning people away from the party because they’re wearing the wrong shoes. Go on, take some risks. They could pay off.
* This paragraph was mainly for catharsis.