Wednesday, 28 January 2009

From my postbag

It has been almost a week since my last confession.

This is due, in part, to the fact that though I do have sins to confess, there's scant chance of me coughing them up here, and so I'm silenced, struck dumb by discretion which, by nature, I'm not good at. All this leaves my weekend a bit of a crime scene which I dare not approach - much like my sitting room in which there is still a large bite missing from the ceiling, protected by a milimetre of polythene and supported by black gaffer tape which is apparently supposed to stop the rest of it falling down. It seems safer to keep away from both areas altogether. I can't sit down in comfort and I can't spill the beans. Damn it, it's annoying.

So, instead, I turn to my postbag and my speciality - unsolicited manuscripts which, despite the website disclaimer, people continue to send in to us, usually addressed to the Senior Editor, The History Editor, The Fiction Editor or even The Editorial Director.

Dear Prospective Writers,

I am sorry to disabuse you of the notion that your manuscript will ever reach these people who, in some cases, don't even exist. If you are going to submit an unsolicited manuscript and clearly haven't bothered to take the time to look at our submission criteria, wouldn't it occur to you that if we were indeed to go to the trouble of plucking your work from amongst the many tales of alien abduction, sexual abuse and gay bear/twink erotica, and publish it, then it might behove you to invest the effort to find out the name of the person you should approach?

Of course, the people who are pay-grade appropriate with the power to publish your book don't often open their own post and so still wouldn't see it, and if you did ring up to ask their name you with would only hear me tell you, with real sympathy, honest, that there was no point in sending in an unsolicited manuscript because we don't accept them.

However, the point still stands. Poor research already handicaps you and my way, you'd save yourself the postage, at least.

'But I'm a published writer,' you might say.

'So, you must have an agent?'

'No, but I have written several books for East Kent County Council.'

'I'm afraid you still need to try and find an agent.'

'But I can't get an agent.'

Yes, I know, it's horrible. I have been you. Finding an agent is not easy. But just because one turns you down, it doesn't mean they all will. A friend has been trying for years and on her third unpublished novel found a wonderful girl who took her on immediately. I myself was told by the first agent I approached that I should just give up and not bother. Nobody would ever publish my book, he said. It had nothing going for it, no plot and no voice. I cried for three days. Unhappily, it was not the last time I cried. And when I did find an agent, Praise Be Her Name which, no, don't bother asking, I'm not sharing, I was turned down by absolutely everybody, and their assistant assistant's work-experience A level student (a weekend sobbing on the bathroom floor in a posh hotel in Oxford) and - read this and weep with me - this included Pedantic Press itself, who said no twice.

This fact my agent felt driven to reminisce with me over lunch today as she raised a glass of champagne to my imminent publication: 'All those rejections!' she said gleefully, and then her lips started to move but since I had my fingers in my ears whilst humming softly to myself and rocking, I didn't hear her elaborate.

Agents. You can't live without them and you can't shoot them in the head, however, getting something published without one is almost impossible.

And pretty *ing difficult with one.

Believe me, I feel your pain.

I also realise, as a recent correspondent, pointed out (in this somewhat unequal salutation in which a Sir is the equivalent rank of a Ms) that with the policy of only accepting manuscripts from literary agents that we are also:

I love the 'these agents' part (you can hear the lip curl) though I'm not quite sure what they have to do with the present recession. Poor things, you can't blame them for everything - they're not the freemasons. The same correspondent then goes on to warn us that by refusing to accept unsolicited manuscripts we have ruined our chances of discovering another:
"Kafka or JK Rowlin"

This may also, sadly, be true.
However, when you consider that most of the letters that accompany submissions look more or less like this:
I think you'll agree that should another Kafka appear, we might just be able to pick him out from the dross. I mean, dividing submissions into those who can spell and those who write notations and/or illustrations for flying machines in the margins, immediately narrows down the field. However,if the loonies would only stop cluttering up the in-trays maybe publishers would be more inclined to be lenient with their strictly no submissions policy.

A recent addition to our complaints section (another of my esteemed duties) has been the following:

Oh dear.

The 'dreaded' sticker. Who pray dreads the sticker?

I'm so sorry that some readers don't like it, but speaking as a first time novelist, I'd walk naked through a car wash for one of those prized stickers. I'd say print it on, stick it on, emboss it on the cover instead of of my name, just remove the cover and put a ruddy big RICHARD AND JUDY medallion on the front and drench the whole thing in Galaxy chocolate and all I would do is cheer loudly while handing out big fat cigars to all my friends and grovelling on my knees to the good God of Increased Sales.

For every discerning lover of literature who objects to joining the Richard and Judy charabang, there are are significantly more readers who pick up the book on the basis of the recommendation and so extend the reach of a book's potential readership. The author is happy. The publisher is happy. The reader, who has discovered a cracking good read, is also happy. It's a win-win situation...

erm, except for the people who don't want the embossed endorsment to sully their reading pleasure and those unlucky individuals in the publishing houses and bookstores who have to stick all the stickers on the books.

I leave you with the final words of our disgruntled Catch 22 correspondent who, after a long rant on what is wrong with publishing, signs himself:

I assume he sees himself in terms of the Watergate Scandal (with England added just in case we thought he was an informant in Washington, duh!) and not the Linda Lovelace film.

But there's no way to be absolutely sure.

(Probably a good thing.)