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Thursday, 19 April 2012

A case of the Emperor's New Clothes?

Right now I'm mulling over a serious problem. What do I tell my two new online students, or any writing students, who work with me at perfecting their novels ready for a publisher? Do I stick with the traditional advice or do I give in to my now serious doubts and discuss them, giving the students that publishing information?

There is no doubt, I repeat this, no doubt, that the basic information handed out in books, on websites, and in writers' magazines or online writers' groups on how to get published with traditional publishers is correct. And this information is a must for new writers to follow. I have no problems with presenting it to my students at all. I know that often a first novel is not publishable even if many of the new writers don't yet accept that. All writers need to believe in themselves, to be arrogant enough to keep writing in the face of rejections. As they struggle with editing, query letters, synopsis and researching agents they are learning and you hope that one day, if they have sufficient of a writers' 3Ds or 3Ps, they will get there, write a publishable novel. Probably with their fourth or fifth attempt.

But what happens when you have more experienced writers, writers who have been publishing short stories, plays, articles, poems for a few years, and who have now written several novels? These writers really have the skills to follow the How to Get Published instructions. They have an original, well written, perfectly edited and presented manuscript. They have an attention grabbing but fully detailed synopsis, and their query letters are a work of art. They have researched their agents and publishers carefully. They have done everything necessary and yet cannot rouse the interest of an agent or publisher.

Current traditional thinking is that their novel simply isn't good enough or it would be published. All writers learn this very quickly and accept it as gospel. But is it?

To make way in traditional publishing a writer needs an agent. Agents are the guardians of the gateway to the traditional publishers. Some very helpful U.K. agents told me they take on one or two people a year and receive, according to the size of their agencies, 4,000 to 8,000 queries a year. Allowing for the slush pile rule that only 10% of the queries are worth reading that still means 400 to 800 query packages to be read. If each agent selects two that leaves anything from 398 to 798 manuscripts unpublished.

Are they unpublishable? How much does luck play a part in choices? How much does fashion play a part? How much does the agent's own preferences play a part? How much does 'we want more of the same', commercial candy floss play a part? How much do business considerations like the writer's age, where they live or how contract savvy they are play a part?

I'm beginning to think that this idea that these novels are not good enough is in fact a case of the Emperor's New Clothes and that giving the traditional advice to these more experienced writers, is keeping them locked into the traditional publishing world and its systems at a time when there are other opportunities. Of course the traditional publishing world is happy to keep these writers dangling, hoping that one day they too can have a Penguin or Oak tree, on their novel, because publishing is a business and the publishers want new writers. So if it's not this year, it might be next year or the year after that. Keep 'em hoping with the idea that their novel isn't publishable yet but the next one might be.

Cynical? Possibly, but I think I will be recommending that the experienced writers I know, with manuscripts which we have read, worked on and enjoyed, can try the traditional route of course, but that they will be better off with the Small Presses, those e-book and POD publishers who are open to submissions without an agent. And for those writers with energy and excellent PR ideas, who don't give a fig for the snooty put downs which self published fiction so often receives, I would even recommend that they can go that route and see how much they can earn!

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