How to not be sad when trying to get a book published

I guess this is hardly a great sell for The Fulcrum (Hey! No publisher wanted my book but you should totally read it!) and so I will only post two blogs about the shittiness of getting it into the world: one about (trying to get on the bandwagon of) traditional publishing and one about self-publishing.

And I do so because I am a good person (ha!) and feel that if even one of you can be spared some of the heartache by being emotionally prepared for it, then my work here is done. (It’s not, of course, it’s just something to say because I plan to do quite a lot more.)

Just two points: This is specifically for my South African wannabe authors, but I guess, maybe sorta kinda, interesting for anyone else. Also, this is about fiction and specifically novels.

And then: If this all sounds depressing, don’t worry about it. Your novel could be the lucky exception to it all and honestly, who’s really to say, because it’s all just a crapshoot anyway.

So with that out the way, on with the biz…

1. Know that your SA publisher wants a very specific book

At the time that I started looking for a publisher for The Fulcrum I was told to go local first. If you want a chance of getting your book published at all, use your home-country base they said. At the time, we had about five publishers I could approach. We have less now, since most of them have been swallowed up by NB.

Whatever genre you’re writing in, if you’re pitching as a first-time author, your SA publisher wants South Africa – South African characters or South African setting or South African story. Best if it’s all three.

I doesn’t matter that they don’t write this up on their submissions page, it’s what they’ll tell you eventually. There might be 1% chance of your Sci-Fi YA novel set on Gadzorka getting picked up and I know of one first-time author whose publisher was okay with stepping outside this formula – but those are not great odds.

I obviously don’t know every single book ever published by new SA authors, but in general, that’s the first flavour they’ll want.

2. Stick to the formula

I’ll get to US and UK agents later, but I think it is fair to say that if you want any chance of being picked up by an agent or a publisher anywhere, the formula is this: stick to genre, 80 000 to 120 000 words. Genre was a tricky thing for me to get around because that’s not how my brain on storytelling works. And to my detriment.

The Fulcrum came to me the way it did, and the way it did was as a genre-hopping, 205 000-word fairy. I went with it because I didn’t know better. (To be fair, even if I did know better I would probably still have gone with it because what else is a newbie author but a delusional hopeful.)

More established authors who have proven their storytelling and sellability can get away with it; I’m not sure a first-time author will easily hook an agent or publisher with this.

“A Bit Spec-Fic Maybe”, “Probably Sci-Fi in The Broader Picture”, “Sort of Fantasy and Magic Kind Of” with some “Thriller Probably”, that’s “Plot-based but Character-Driven Mostly” is not a genre

Again, it could happen, but I promise you, if you’re writing your first book and want to improve your chances of being traditionally published choose a genre and stick to it.

“Sci-Fi”, “Fastasy”, “Historical Fiction”, “Magical Realism”, “Alternative History”, “Literary Fiction”, “Women’s Interest” (can you ever), “Thriller” etc – these are genres agents and publishers can sell easily. Something that’s “A Bit Spec-Fic Maybe”, “Probably Sci-Fi in The Broader Picture”, “Sort of Fantasy and Magic Kind Of” with some “Thriller Probably”, that’s “Plot-based but Character-Driven Mostly” is not a genre.

TV and film are good with absorbing these crossovers, book publishing isn’t.

3. Understand what a US or UK agent is about

The local folks have all said ‘no, not for us thanks’, so you think ‘ah fuckit let me go to where the big readers are and where my story might have a chance to live’.

Just a minute there, bucko. Take it easy.

Because of the very, very small book economy and generally few writers in SA, publishers don’t require an agent.

Because of the giant book economy (and the masses more book-reading and -writing people) in the US and UK, publishers need a gatekeeping zone – agents, pitching conventions, workshops … anything that funnels, filters and processes the enormous influx of work – so that they only have to sift through the hundred books they get pitched by agents as opposed to the thousands upon thousands of manuscripts that would otherwise clog up their servers.

Think of an agent as someone who works through the slush piles and chooses the products they believe they will most easily be able to sell to a publisher. They’re making a commission on the sale so they obviously want to choose a product they love and think they can move.

This includes you, by the way. Not just your book.

UK agents. Here’s the short version: Unless you have 1 and 2 covered, you’re not making it anywhere in the UK. My feeling was that most agents there want a possible Booker nominee. (Of course, if you have a literary fiction novel with 1 and 2 covered then GET YOUR BUTT THERE GO GO GO!)

US agents. It’s possible you could get an agent in the States, but only if you have 2 covered and then, frankly, unless you’ve got an element of 1 covered, what distinguishes you from the bazillion other manuscripts they get? So best you try to get published in your own country first … oh wait, you can’t because it’s not South African enough … etc

4. Prepare for the heartbreak and madness of tap-dancing like a circus bear for an agent

So. Agents. If you choose the US market, which I did, there are some things to bear in mind that might help alleviate the pain.

Even though I didn’t get signed, I LOVED the energy of the US marketplace. Especially in genre fiction they want commercial, they think big and broad, they want to see opportunities exploited – film, TV, series, you name it.

The feeling I got was less about thinky, thoughtful awards (although those are great and the more you have the better), but mostly: sell sell sell. Which, frankly, is great. Selling books and screen rights means reaching as wide an audience and reader-base as you can and that’s very fucking cool.

There is a lot of homework you’ll have to do to prep your pitch for an agent. There are many, many, many sites available for insights. Here are a few that really stuck with me.

• Jericho Writers
• Publishers Marketplace
• Manuscript Wishlist
• Rejection: Live! (A nice shot of anxiety, courtesy of Piers Blofeld)
• People who write your query letter for you!

But this listicle isn’t to help you find an agent or craft your perfect pitch. This listicle is to warn you about not losing your mind as you do.

Finding an agent felt like wandering through codependent madness. You’ll find as many contradictory pieces of advice as you’ll find advice: get personal / don’t get personal; show me who you are, use your voice / don’t deviate from the format; show that you’ve researched me and why I should sign your book / don’t assume you know me, don’t get friendly or clever … it’s exhausting. It’s like being subject to a moody dominatrix.

The general vibe sometimes feels like: ‘Show all the respect, spend all the time doing all the research and crafting your pitch to manipulate the fleeting emotional experience of the agent or the agent’s reader on the specific day – which you have no idea about and no control over – and then be happy with a form rejection letter.’

An aside: I always thought a rejection letter would be better than nothing; I was wrong. Some agents use a time frame as a rejection (‘If you haven’t heard from us within three months consider this a pass.’) which is waaaaay better than: ‘Hi , I just didn’t connect with the story in my heart. Better luck next time.’

Agents need to sell your work on. The more complicated and messy and problematic it feels,
the quicker it’s taken off the table.

If I sound bitter, it’s probably because the experience left a very bitter taste in my mouth. Between the publishers and the agents, I got about 70 rejection ‘letters’ and of those only three were humane. It didn’t feel radical cool, my friends. It felt very, very bad.

However. Had I stuck to Point 2, I probably would’ve had a better experience of it.

Once I laid my ego gently to the side and looked at the situation clearly, it was obvious that chances of getting signed were almost zero.

I didn’t get a clear genre or good elevator pitch for The Fulcrum (‘Every generation faces its own apocalypse’ I only got when I was doing the first social media post), and on top of that it was way too big. (Of course, they might just have hated the idea and didn’t think it was sellable, but I choose to ignore that possibility because I love it so much.)

So there you have it

I could’ve continued pitching – there are a few publishers who don’t use agents – but it started feeling like to do so would be like choosing to keep stabbing myself in the heart, and that didn’t seem like a vibe at all.

Which is why I decided to self-publish. And boy, do I wish I didn’t have to. If you would like to read up more about what that entails, here’s a post about it.

Happy life and snoozles to you and yours.


(PS Tom says I should say these little splice banners are clickable but … like … that’s obvious isn’t it? Isn’t it? If you didn’t know they were clickable through to the book will you let me know? This self-marketing business is new to me and I live in a bubble of my own thoughts sometimes.)

Dominatrix photo by Maria Vlasova on Unsplash