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  • Matthew Stokoe


This article was originally published on under the banner "Words from the Wise". Copyright Matthew Stokoe 2016.

Novice writers all think they’re going to be picked up immediately by a major, by Harper Collins or Random House etc., and that they’re going to get a half-million-dollar advance and start doing TV interviews, maybe sell the film rights to Hollywood. It’s natural. Writing a novel is such a monumental achievement, the writing of it should be enough. Trouble is, it isn’t. This thing you’ve created, this stack of pages, this collection of your own blood and pain and fear and hope, this thing that is so REAL to you, doesn’t really exist until it’s out in the world. Until it’s in the form of a book that others can read.

You can do this yourself, of course, both in paper format, through companies like Lulu or CreateSpace, or in ebook through Amazon/KDP and multiple others. But you don’t want that. Not when you’ve just finished your first novel. You want the legitimacy, the kudos, the bragging rights, the vindication of having someone else, someone in the publishing industry, an expert in the field no less, deem your book to have meet the secret, subjective and ever-changing criteria that separate the amateur from the professional. You want someone other than yourself, your partner and your granny to shout to the world YOU ARE A WRITER! THIS IS A REAL BOOK!

So, until you’re forced to rethink this paradigm, you’re left with no choice but to find a publisher. And to do this, unfortunately, you’re almost certainly going to have to get an agent – a process that, in the majority of cases, will provoke suicidal ideation on more than one 3am awakening. I’m not going to tell you how to find one, because I don’t know. Though I have had agents in the past, I don’t now. One thing that I do know is true, though, is that you will be a million miles ahead of the game if you get yourself an “in”. What’s an in? An in is something that everyone else doesn’t have.

It might be something as banal as having Facebook friended the wife of a literary agent a couple of years back because you liked the pics she posted of the organic wool sweaters she knits. By the time you’ve finished your novel, you alone, then, of all the hundreds (I’m not exaggerating) of writers querying that agent that month will be able to start your email with: “As a friend of your wife and a fellow admirer of handmade woolen outerwear, I wonder if I might take a few minutes of your time….”

Ok, not the best example, but you get the point. Any connection you can make in the world of writing and publishing may, one day, be something you can use to make an agent pay that life-transforming little extra attention to you and respond to your query with those glorious words: “Please provide three sample chapters (double spaced, Time New Roman font, no attachments) at your earliest convenience….”

Two points here. One, it’s actually my personal opinion that social media is next to useless as a marketing tool for an unknown writer or for forming connections with people deep enough for them to bother helping you. You need to do more than just friend people. Two, and pay attention, all agents are not equal. Some are good, honorable, talented, hardworking people. And some… well, they’re just fucking criminally useless. So research them. This is your life we are talking about here. Literally. If you want to be able to support yourself financially, and if you want your books to reach the number of readers they deserve to reach - if you just want to get published, for Christsake - then choosing an agent who is too lazy, uncommitted or inept to sell a book that could otherwise have found a buyer may mean you end up pumping gas for forty years instead of having sexy book-nerds queue up to ask for your phone number at readings.

On to publishers. My warning above applies here too. Many, many times more so. Agents don’t generally sign you to long-term exclusive contracts. Publishers do. The starting point for the life of a publishing contract is usually the length of copyright. I say the starting point, because contracts should be open to a certain amount of negotiation and even a novice writer (via his/her agent, of course) should attempt to limit the period during which the publisher has rights to his work. I’ve generally not had too much trouble whittling things down to around 7 – 10 years. If things go well with the publisher you can always extend your agreement. But if it should happen that the publisher is no longer promoting or effectively selling your book you’ll at least have the opportunity to take your work back and start selling it yourself.

But even 7 – 10 years is a long time to have to suffer a publisher who does not perform as you would have them perform. So it behooves the novice writer to choose wisely. I opened this piece mentioning Harper Collins, Random House etc. And this is where, in your imagination, as you slog your way through your tenth rewrite, you’ll no doubt see yourself starting your publisher quest. But this may not be the best thing for you or your book. There is no point submitting your work to a publisher who simply does not publish the kind of book you’ve written. All that’s going to happen is you’re going to get a gut-freezingly demotivating rejection letter. And you’re going to get plenty of those anyhow from publishers who do publish your type of book. Finding the right publisher is your agent’s job. His knowledge of what all the various publishers are looking for is why he charges his 15%, and this knowledge is one of the things you should look for when choosing him or her.

By the way, the other two important things to consider about an agent are the number and strength of his personal connections to key players in the publishing industry; and his knowledge of contracts. Unless you’re a contract lawyer yourself, you’ll rely on this knowledge to protect you from unfair or disadvantageous clauses in your publishing contract (it’s not unheard of, though, for an agent to hand this off to an attorney).

Now, it may be that the major publisher you daydreamed about as you wrote your book, after being approached by your agent, actually does accept your book. Great! Congratulations. But what if that doesn’t happen? Because, you know, there’s a really, really, really good chance it won’t. Well, this is when you start working your way through all the other publishers out there. But don’t despair. It could be a good thing to be published by a smaller publisher – you may get more attention from them and, if you don’t write mainstream literature, they may be able to better target a niche audience for you.

A few paragraphs back I suggested the new writer to choose their publisher wisely. This is sound, obvious, common sense advice. The only problem is, that for a lot of writers, even writers who have published a book before, it can turn out to be meaningless. Because, after having spent two years, three years, five years writing your novel, and then another year finding an agent and then maybe another two years looking unsuccessfully for a publisher (and this timeline is by no means unrealistic), when someone does finally say yes it will seem, and understandably so, that you and your agent have succeeded in locating the only company on the planet who is willing to take a punt on your book.

When this happens, then no matter how good or bad the publisher, it’ll feel like you have very little choice indeed - either to go with them, or to spend another unknown number of years checking your inbox twenty times a day for emails from your agent.

I suspect the majority of writers will grasp at the immediately available straw. And, who knows, it may turn out okay. You get your book into print. You can start legitimately telling people you’re an author. And maybe the book will take off and the publisher will actually be good enough to pay you your royalties. But if things don’t turn out okay, they you’re a long time stuck with someone else controlling this beautiful thing that you poured so much of yourself into. To see what you’ve created, what you know is a good book, what you know should have made you successful, being mismanaged to the point where you get nothing back from it beyond a few copies to show your friends…. Well, that’s the kind of thing that can end up destroying a writer.

So how do you make the decision? How do you decide whether to go with what appears at the time to be your only option, or to hang tight until some point in the future when a more enlightened publisher – maybe – enters the market? Well, that’s something you’ll have to figure out on your own - there are just too many variables and it’s too personal a choice. But here’s something to think about….

Publishing is about money. Editors and publishers love to crap on about art and culture and giving society a voice, and reflecting the zeitgeist, etc., etc. But underneath everything, publishing (and agenting, too, in fact) is a business, and businesses exist for one reason and one reason only – to make money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting at all that you force your writing to conform to this dollar-driven ethos. But when you understand that the publishing business is, when considered broadly, nationally, globally, as impersonal and resource hungry as a car manufacturer or an industrial-scale food producer, you’ll understand why, if you don’t write stories about vampires, teen lovers or safely conventional middle-aged detectives, it is so fucking hard to get published. Publishers want to publish good work, of course. They don’t set out to publish shit. But more than wanting to publish good work, they want to publish work that sells.

And this means you have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. If you want to sell a shitload of copies, get flown around the world, bank six- and seven-figure advances, then write the kind of stuff the big publishers want and be happy doing it and be happy spending the money. But if you don’t want to write that kind of stuff, if writing is more to you than just cobbling together a darn good tale, if you want to talk about things that aren’t ordinarily talked about, say things that challenge the majority, that champion the minority, that call bullshit on all the bland gutless hacks who make sure their wallets are firmly in their back pockets each time they sit down to write, then be that kind of writer. Be that kind of writer. Because somewhere in the world, at some point in time, your book will be needed. Not to wile away an hour or two before sleep, not to pass a holiday weekend lying on the beach, but to show someone, some other lonely, lost, hurting human being that they are not alone. And even if it is only one person, and even if that person lives on the other side of the planet, it is enough. It is enough, when they turn the last page and set down your book, that they find their life forever changed because of what they have just read. Because of what you have written.

But if you are brave enough, or insane enough to write this way, don’t expect a big advance and a contract with a major publisher. It might be safe not to expect even to earn a living. I’m not saying it can’t happen - there are a handful of notable cases that prove it can – it’s just that it probably won’t.

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