Thursday, 30 March 2017


I finished my first book seventy-six years ago. I offered 
it to every publisher on the English-speaking earth I had ever heard of. Their refusals were unanimous: and it did not get into print until, fifty years later,
publishers would publish anything that had my name on it.
                                                                        George Bernard Shaw

   Shaw's experience strikes a chord with most published authors. We may not soar to the heights of GBS's fame but we have all proved the truth of the old dictum, 'Nothing succeeds like success'. Back in the early days of my efforts to become acknowledged as a serious writer with something valuable to say, I received a series of rejection slips. Then I was approached by an educational publisher who desperately needed an author for a school text book. The project had no connection with what I had written earlier but there was a captive market for it and, inevitably, the book sold well. The interesting thing was that when I approached other publishers with MSS that had originally been rejected, they were now favourably received. I had a track record. The risk factor of taking on this novice author had been diminished.
   Does such a tale make for cynicism and despair among those still waiting for their lucky break? It should not. We need to take on board four basic facts:

1. Publishers are people - or, rather, they employ commissioning editors who are people. They have their own preferences and areas of expertise. Anything you can find out about the editor you wish to approach will help. This is where an agent comes in handy but  you can often learn about editors from their online profiles.

2. Publishers have to publish to stay in business. Editors have to find promising propositions to work on if they are to avoid redundancy. So keep on submitting.

3. Publishers receive far more MSS than they can, with the best will in the world, give detailed consideration to. Some have been sent to the wrong place by writers who haven't done their homework properly. Some have been sent by complete novices. Some have been sent by agents with their recommendations. Some have come from 'celebs' or writers already known to a wide public. Some have been sent by authors who already have been published. Which do you think will be considered first?

4. Editors are accountable to their marketing departments. They have to persuade the money men that the books they want to take on will show a profit. Always stress to editors that you have considered carefully the market potential of your masterpiece.

   No industry has changed more drastically than the publishing industry over the last few decades. When I began to write commercially the main London publishers occupied small offices in West End back streets and their staff were dedicated to the maintenance of high literary standards. They relied on the sales of well-established authors to enable them to back new writers of promise. Now most have been gobbled up by conglomerates operating out of glitzy office blocks and are primarily committed to keeping their shareholders happy. They do still care about finding and promoting new talent but the emphasis has moved decidedly towards 'safe' projects - T.V. tie-ins, celebrity biographies, cookbooks and genre fiction (such as romance, crime and fantasy) which will sell in supermarkets. One response to changing market realities and the development of new technology has been the emergence of a swarm of new, small-scale publishers. Their appeal is to the hopefuls who have been unable to interest mainstream houses. They can offer to see your work into print without close scrutiny as to its quality because (a) they print on demand, (b) they don't pay royalties and (c) they don't employ a host of professionals covering the many aspects of editing, production, promotion and marketing. They rely heavily on internet selling and expect their authors to do the lion's share of online promotion. The end results tend to be books that are more expensive and of  more variable quality than those produced under well-established imprints.
   Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. You are much more likely to get your MS printed by one of the smaller operators but that's only the first rung on a long ladder leading to public recognition and you may well not climb higher (even if you are ready to invest hours of time in tweeting and all the other methods of self-promotion recommended by the publisher). To be taken on by a well-established publishing house is hard (particularly if you do not have an agent to fight your corner). If you are offered a contract you will be in for a long, exacting editorial process designed to hone your work thoroughly. But your book will be made known internationally through the intercontinental publishing grapevine. You will be in the hands of an imprint which has cachet with reviewers and bookshops and will be assisted by an army of expert editors, proof-readers, designers and promoters. And you will be paid a royalty (usually with an advance element).
   Whatever publishing route you choose there will be hazards along the way and no guarantees of success. One service 'old fashioned' publishers offer to the reading public is to turn down MSS. This may sound harsh but there are too many mediocre and downright bad books published. This has a degrading effect on the book bizz in general. If you are a born writer with a genuine gift that comment won't put you off. If you are not ...

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