I’ve spent most of the weekend working on my book but it’s getting harder and harder to write. I am my own harshest critic which leads me to regularly delete great swathes of text, but at least I am not one of those writers who think that anybody can write a book. To date 86% of my intended 80,000 words are written and edited. Some writers write the whole thing and edit afterwards. Others, like me edit and re-edit over and over as they progress. Neither is right or wrong. Just as the style of our writing varies, so does our method of completion. But this has gone on for long enough. I’ve set myself a deadline – the book has to be written, final edit completed and ready for submission by 30th April.
That’s when the really hard work begins. First off is finding out which agents or publishers to target. There’s no point in sending it to someone whose bread & butter is dystopian fantasy. I am looking for an agent who deals in Women’s fiction/Irish fiction/Wartime romance and doesn’t have an aversion to graphic(ish) war scenes. It narrows it down. My starting point will be the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Yearbook – an invaluable tome full of advice, contact names and numbers for editors, agents and publishers and, importantly, submission criteria. It is also a great help to look inside novels of a similar genre to see who the author is thanking – what publishers, which agents, who is their editor?
The statistics are, to say the least, discouraging. The fact is that the odds on getting published are a bit like winning the lottery jackpot – very slim indeed. But hey, someone’s got to get lucky. And it really does come down, in no small part, to luck. The big publishers each receive around 4-5,000 unsolicited manuscripts each year. Many don’t even accept unsolicited ones so they go straight in the shredder. Those that do will add them to the slush pile where they can sit unread for months as those which have come via agents take precedence. So sending the manuscript to an agent is the thing to do then?
Not necessarily…many agents don’t accept unsolicited work either. The first thing to do is contact them with a letter introducing yourself and a synopsis of your book’s plot (some will accept the first three chapters at this stage but with others you are relying on that synopsis to get them to request more – which at least then becomes a solicited, rather than unsolicited manuscript. Even then your book may not get read. Why would you, as an agent, spend your time reading new writers when you already represent several successful authors guaranteed to earn you money. Around 90% of those that are picked up will fail by the end of the first page, 98% by the end of the first chapter. It’s not looking good, is it? Read on, it gets worse.
Some of the reasons that a new writer fails to attract an agent are simple: poor story, poor writing. Other reasons are less tangible – perhaps the agent is just too busy – inundated with manuscripts, maybe the timing is wrong – they’ve taken on their quota for the year, or perhaps your kind of story is not the kind of thing the agent likes or isn’t in fashion at the moment. The only thing you can do is to keep trying. Remember that JK Rowling’s rejections ran well into double figures. Which only goes to prove that great stories by good writers which will overwhelmingly capture the public’s imagination, don’t necessarily mean a contract. Further demonstrating how hard it is for a new writer – when Rowling submitted a story to her publisher under a pseudonym it was instantly rejected.
So how about if you ARE that lucky lottery winner? Well, one thing is for sure – you’re not going to make your fortune yet! The average annual income earned by published writers is a little short of £12,000. No I didn’t miss a zero off. I’ll say it again …£12,000. Of course the Joanna Trollopes and James Pattersons earn far in excess of that. Lots of writers do but that’s the thing about averages – they take account of everyone and there are an awful lot of struggling writers out there.
If that contract does get signed, bear in mind that no risky, untested writer is going to pick up a publisher’s advance of more than a a few thousand and a large proportion of that will have to be used on self promotion. Marketing and advertising cost a great deal and a new writer will have to do lots of the groundwork themselves to get their book into the shops. Even publishers get it wrong for there are books which don’t even sell enough copies to cover the advance and every year the major publishing houses write off large amounts of money. They’re bound to be cautious when it comes to investing in new writers.
Even with that all important contract and the advance in your pocket there are no guarantees that your book will get published. The editing process can take months …6, 9, 12. Who knows? Then there’s the typesetting and printing and the timing for release: the publisher’s launch schedule may not have a slot for six months and if that takes you to December, January or February , hard luck. New books are rarely published in those months. It’s easy to see that your ‘bestseller’ could take two years to hit the shops. And if, whilst all this is going on, another writer with a very similar storyline is just ahead of you in the game, your publisher might pull the plug and yours will end up being shelved (and unfortunately not in Waterstones)! You get to keep the advance but at what cost? What other publisher is going to risk an author who has already taken an advance but not delivered? You won’t get the chance to explain.
Of course, we’ve all heard of the massive earnings that the Fifty Shades writer earned, but remember she began by -publishing online in a genre that was pretty much untapped before her high sales came to the notice of a publisher. Subsequent copy-cat authors earned very much less. So will I consider self publishing? No. I think it’s a great platform for niche books, for the kind of books where mainstream publishers are few, and often small with scant resources for promotion. But professional editors, jacket designers, type setters and printers don’t come cheap. They don’t even come fairly inexpensive; they cost A LOT.
E-publishing is very much more cost effective but it’s not the way I want to go. Writing my book has been for my own satisfaction. Getting it published would be wonderful, a dream come true but it’s not the be all and end all. For me, the writing, the achievement of having accomplished it, is the prize. It tells (loosely, and with considerable embellishment) the story of my parents meeting during the Korean War. It began three years ago as a research project at university and continued because I developed an abiding interest in the memoirs I read.
It all Sounds rather depressing but just like that lottery – you have to be in it to win it.