Why you will never get published (through traditional outlets) today

“Rich people may have finally found the way to heaven: a genetically engineered camel that would fit into the eye of a needle.”

To writers still aspiring to be taken up by one of the traditional publishing houses: our eye to writing heaven has just gotten smaller.

camel.jpgLet’s look at the odds working against authors wanting to publish a first novel:

There are hundreds of competent writing courses out there, which in turn raises the quality for submissions to publishers. Your writing, if beautiful, has to compete with hundreds of others who are more or less as good as, if not better than, yours.

So let’s look at the other factor in getting published: content. Or topic. Or what you write about. If you’re a novelist, the story you present in your first novel must be distinctive, fresh, and easily marketable. It is perhaps this last point that provides us with some worry – more and more marketing campaigns in the publishing industry have huge pictures of good looking authors to use while promoting their fiction – authors are sold next to their books.

Let’s talk about reading habits:

In a survey of 2,000 adults, a third had not bought a new book in the previous 12 months. 34% said they did not read books. (Expanding the Market, Book Marketing Ltd, 2004)

Whether they use the internet or not wasn’t asked, though I believe it should – the internet is primarily a text based medium where reading reigns supreme. Back to the topic at hand: less and less people are reading books, buying books, enjoying literature. There are a myriad of reasons, but let’s just step back and conclude that while book nuts are not shrinking dramatically, they’re not growing exponentially either.

But the number of books, content and writing out there are growing exponentially.

A lot of the above points are discussed and presented poignantly in a Guardian Unlimited article I’ve just finished consuming. The future looks bleak.

Before I became a journalist, I worked as a reader for Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus. I learnt that if it is true that everyone has a novel in them, most people would be best advised to keep it there.

And then there was this story Kate Kellaway had to share that struck me:

One day, I came upon a first novel. I found it in the slush pile, but there was nothing slushy about it. It was a fairy tale for adults which Cape went on to publish: A Mirror for Princes by Tom de Haan. This was a pseudonym because de Haan, who worked in the City, did not want anyone to know he was a writer. Everyone at Cape was surprised by his quaint, refreshing lack of ego. (Did he see novel writing as a vice?) Tom Maschler, then the editorial director, pointed out that his insistence on a pseudonym might make it tricky to publicise his book. But de Haan would not budge and Maschler tactfully gave in.

Today, de Haan would not have got his own way (and perhaps his books might have sold better). Certainly, the idea of a novel quietly selling itself now, with no sense of the writer behind it, is far-fetched. Kate Saunders, one of the judges of this year’s Orange Prize for fiction (the longlist, just announced, has half-a-dozen first novels on it), says: ‘It is harder for first novelists to get noticed now. They will find, increasingly, that they are judged alongside their work – and are less likely to be taken on if they are not photogenic or newsworthy.’

If that doesn’t make you sigh and throw your hands up in frustration I’ll admit you’re superhuman. Yes, the eye of the needle to heaven is tiny. The article tries to throw some hope our way with five case studies of successful first novelists at the very end, just before the conclusion. They’ve made it, and I think constant perseverance might serve us all well, but we’ve got to admit somewhere along the way that the odds are just stacked so high against us. There has to be a smarter way of getting published (I hear people screaming the word ‘novel in blog form’ at this very instant). But there’s still a few kinks with that concept … and I’ve already listed down the reasons we probably won’t read fiction online.

Is this bad for literature? What does this mean for aspiring writers? And is internet the next frontier of publishing?

Either way it looks bad – if only the best, most refreshing, most marketable novels get published, then the not so good, not so refreshing and not so marketable ones end up online. Which just makes things worse for the lot of us online readers – who already have to grapple with the problems of reading off a screen, and the instant enjoyment that simple to read items like news and gossip offer us.

This one bears thinking about. May I harness your brains as well?
PS: I can’t bear writing such a depressing post, and concluding it on such a dour note. Let me close with a one liner:

Bad spellers of the world, untie.

Hope that helps.

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Category: News · Publishing · Writing