Monday, 28 July 2008

Insight into the fate of the perfect submission

Whether you're a writer, an aspiring writer or an avid reader you're probably aware that currently the UK print market is drawing in its horns - and the thing is I can't remember a time since I began writing professionally (back in the 80s when the world could end if your cat pulled the lead out of the back of your PET computer) when the current year hasn't been more tight than the last for the publishing industry. But books still get published. Best sellers, even from the occasionally newbie, fly up the charts and money is still made by publishers and authors alike. The market never stops needing books, but how do you convince a publishing house or an agency your book is the one they really need?

Note: Nowadays getting an agent is not unlike getting a publisher. The process you're liable to go through will look pretty much identical. If you get an agent first then they submit to a publishing house for you and it will go in with a harder sell and further up the chain of command than you can generally achieve as a solo author. In fact many publishers will now no longer read unsolicited manuscripts. (Though this can sometimes be overcome by meeting a publisher in a bar, buying them lots of drinks and getting them to agree to allow you to send in a few pages - and yes, this does still happen. I've done it and so have other writers I know.) However, in any case the first barrier your MS will hit is the submissions reader.

Let's assume you've written the best cover letter, have the most polished manuscript (or have a real go-getter of an agent who's going to do the approach for you)  and have got your work onto the desk of a submission reader. There are now an almost limitless number of factors the hand of fate can employ to determine your destiny. Here are a few examples -

  1. Is your submissions reader (SR) paid solely to read new ms? This is highly unlikely.
  2. Is your SR a senior member of staff, who will have a great deal of sway with the department, but who has less than 10% of there time to spend reading new work (the rest of the time they're either promoting authors and/or books - i.e. have a punishing round of dinners and parties to attend)?
  3. Has your book about the grief felt on the death of a beloved aunt landed in the lap of someone who has just buried a beloved aunt. (Lucky, lucky you.)
  4. Has your book about the beloved aunt landed in the lap of someone whose aunt disinherited them this morning? (Much less lucky you)
  5. Does your SR have a hang-over (from all those parties)?
  6. Is your SR nineteen doing office experience, has little knowledge of the book world and throws up a little in her mouth when she reads about your protagonist octogenarian swinger couple? (Your leading lady sounds just like her grandmother -euw!)
In reality most agents and publishers do their best with submissions, but if your work is going in without invitation and is therefore ending up on the slush pile it may well be read by a very junior member of staff who is learning the market. In all likelihood it will take a long time for anyone to read it - the primary business of both industries is to promote whoever they already have on board, and it is not unheard of for the slush pile to be periodically RTS-ed in order to allow oxygen back into the office. Popular agents and publishers can receive hundreds of manuscripts a day. That's trees worth of paper stacking up day after day after day. (Don't get me started on why everyone doesn't take email submissions.)

But to continue our scenario - it's three months later and you haven't heard a thing. When you're feeling upbeat you imagine your submission is being handed round the department, passed up the line and soon you'll hear that someone wants to talk to you. But when you're feeling down you imagine your submission is a lost leaf in the virtual forrest of submission awaiting your chosen SR. And then there's always the chance it was lost in the post.

So what do you do? After a reasonable length of time do you email? I'd say after three months you were entitled to query. But then what if you query and are told you've made it through the first round? Do you query again in a few months time or do you wait? How do you keep yourself in the mind of a very busy agent or publisher without becoming an annoyance? It's a hard call and one where everyone has to find their own middle ground. 

You have to create the best work you can. You have to believe in it-(don't be British and apologize for being a writer. You have to be clear, straight forward and professional in your dealings with agents and publishers. You have to be proactive without becoming a liability. 

Ultimately, you have to trust your work to speak for itself - and trust the post office to get it there in the first place.


Khalid said...

I am about to finish a novel written in English. I keep reading that a writer has to participate in marketing and have potentials in order to score some points with a publisher in addition to a quality product (my novel for instance).

My dilemma is that I am a Pakistani who has never travelled abroad to the West, nor do I see prospects of doing so in the near future.

This is my first novel in English. My first ever was an Urdu novel with NO readership in the west.

How should I see my position? Writing a books is up to me and let us assume I have written an excellant novel. A lot yet is not up to me if I wish to have it published in UK or US.

Any thoughts to encourage me?


Caroline Dunford said...

Hi Khalid
Here's my encouraging thoughts
The reality in UK publishing is that a publisher is only likely to spend a lot of time and effort in arranging personal appearances by the author if their novel is considered a 'flagship' novel. This does sometimes happen with a first or second novel, but there only a handful of novels that are 'flagship' ones each year and of those few will be new writers.
Also a tremendous amount of publicity can be done via the internet or other general forms of advertising. If your novel is very timely then perhaps your publisher might want to get you on tv or radio, but (at least in my case) there's always been the option of going to a local station and having it transmitted from there.
And then of course there is always the possibility that your novel is a stand out world wonder in which case your publisher will pay to get you to wherever you need to be.

Slightly less encouraging thoughts
Authors are expected to do a lot of their own publicity nowadays and those of us in the west do have the option of befriending local bookstores and arranging talks. But having said that I'm running workshops at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, and they pride themselves on bringing in writers from *all* over the world, and are especially interested in good writers that might not be otherwise heard of in the west.

But if overseas travel is not for you then I strongly suggest creating your own website, and also joining writers communities on places like livejournal - social networking with other authors, even if only by the internet - can be invaluable.

I certainly would not let location stop you from submitting your work to western publishers.

Good luck!


Khalid said...

Dear Caroline

It was like Christmas come early to have recieved your comments. I know next to nothing about blogging and I am not sure if a blog is a perfect site for professional advise. So, put up with a novice as a further question has occurred:

My novel (first draft of 75,000 words completed) is based on my personal observations living in the middle
of the things happening in this part of the world that you must be listening, reading and watching. I have spun a yarn and come up with a story that encompasses many contemorary aspects. I have
published one Urdu novel before and it was acknowledged as a good
story. I can make a claim , therefore, that I can tell a story.

I have command over English as my peers keep bolstering me. Some of
them are English speaking from the west working in Pakistan. That
said, I am still unsure whether the English I write will be acceptable in your part of the world. The fact that I havn't studied abroad makes this question recurs and slows me down in my editing efforts.

Is there a way you could guide me on the above?

I am trying to establish myself with LiveJournal as recommended by
you and thank you for that.


Caroline Dunford said...


While you should always present the very best and most polished manuscript you can, it is the story and the idea contained within that count the most. Any good publisher will provide you with editorial help if your work is strong enough to be commissioned.

Khalid said...

Dear Caroline

While web is replete with advise to writers on subjects that interest the readers, I do not find a 360 feedback as to what readers prefer to read in UK and the US.

I have written my novel with terrorism to be the stage where my story is enacted. On the other hand, over the years since 9/11 the subject has been rendered run of the mill by the journalism. I have made a unique setting. It came so naturally to me becuase I live so near to the sharp edge of the things.

I do not' have intelligence agencies or terrorist among the characters. I have people caught in the middle, people both good and bad who want out etc.

How will I know whether all above will draw attention of readers if at all the book draws attention of the agents and publishers?


Caroline Dunford said...


I'm afraid there isn't a way to know. This is what writing is about. You write the story you have to tell and hope that agents, publishers and readers enjoy it.

Good luck