The reality of success and rejection in the publishing industry

time is short

This year, the Jamaican writer Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. In the aftermath of his win, much was made of how the manuscript of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected almost 80 times before finally being accepted by a publisher and printed in 2005.

James himself has said that, in face of such overwhelming rejection, he actually stopped writing and destroyed his own work:

“There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.”

While social media seized on this and encouraged writers “not to give up” and to “keep going”, while posting various motivational pictures and GIFs and quotes, it also cast light on the thoughts and feelings of countless writers across the world, who, faced with constant rejection, either give up or seek alternative routes to getting their work out there – most notably with the rise of self-publishing.

Of course, this trend is nothing new. One of the most celebrated minds in the history of letters, Henry David Thoreau, confronted his own trials in seeking publication as he completed A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack Rivers.

Unable to find a publisher for the book, Thoreau paid out-of-pocket for a print run of 1000 copies – but sold less than 300. What is interesting to note, however, is his response to such rejection, as he considers the experience in this funny and poignant diary entry (which can be found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861):

“For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, — 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed, —

H.D. Thoreau’s
Concord River
50 cops.

So Munroe had only to cross out “River” and write “Mass.” and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can see now what I write for, the result of my labors.

Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.”

Define your own success

What does such an entry teach us? Put simply, it’s about defining your own success. This is of course a topic Thoreau discussed extensively in his 1854 paean, Walden. Take the following extract, for instance:

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”

Or this, as Thoreau nears a conclusion:

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

What this hints at, is that we are likely looking at success entirely in the wrong way. James’s Booker Prize victory is not his success – nor should writers measure their own success by such metrics.

This is not simply posited for philosophical reasons. But also because such metrics are symbolic of institutionalised failings within the publishing industry.

The establishment

Time and time again, the literary establishment will seize upon stories of writers who meet inordinate obstacles, overcome rejection to achieve publication and recognition and success. It is a story that has perhaps disturbing echoes of the arc of the American dream – and undoubtedly one Kurt Vonnegut would find remarkably easy to draw in his famous ‘graphs’ of stories. However, as with the American Dream, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one: because by focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a select, chosen few.

This is an issue engrained within many literary institutions – with honourable exceptions, such as Litro Magazine. And it is one discussed in detail by the writer Chimamanda Ngozo Adichie in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”:

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”

The real story beneath James’s overarching American-Dream-narrative is of the systemic failings within the publishing industry, the literary establishment – and indeed the wider media industry – to permit different artists and culture a voice.

Until we begin to define and measure success by our own standards – as both writers and readers – those in power will continue to use measurements of success that do everyone but their shareholders a disservice.




How to find a literary agent

literary agent

After embarking on an MA in Writing (/misguided attempt to avoid work), I wrote a story about a girl who is sent to live on an island surrounded by sea monsters. I had over-elaborate visions of mystery and madness and double- and triple-twists. It was the story I’d been trying to write and had wanted to read for years but had never managed to pull off.

Like all dedicated bookworms, I’ve wanted to be a published author for years. When I finished my sea creature story for the millionth time, and I didn’t know what else I could do with it, the only next step was look for an agent, those terrifying guardians of the gates of publishing. They’re like ghosts. Everyone thinks they might have seen one once, or knows someone who swears they exist, but they’re pretty hard to actually get hold of.

I’d sent stuff out before, really bad stuff, and felt immediately embarrassed by every rejection, but madness/fear of oblivion made me try again anyway. Three manuscript requests, a lot of rejections, and even more silences later, I was offered representation by DGA. I haven’t grown any wiser in the meantime, but if there’s anything I can say to other writers looking for an agent, it’s this:

Going sideways won’t necessarily work

Before submitting to agents in the traditional way, I threw myself at every conceivable opportunity to get my writing seen by someone. I wondered if I could sidle, like a literary crab, into the unsuspecting pocket of an agent relaxing at the metaphorical beach. I signed up for meet-an-agent events (there’s one at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, and it demonstrates the soul and potential of independent sellers over online behemoths – you should go!). I went to snobby literary festivals and turned up whenever an agent came to campus. I entered competitions and threw stuff at magazines and read at launches in case there was an interested party in the audience.

Each opportunity gave me optimism, sometimes in the form of an actual business card, followed by the gradually dawning realisation that mostly people were just being polite.

But it’s worthwhile anyway. The more chances you get to meet other writers, the better. You’re doing something, practising for disillusionment, and collecting anecdotes (hard currency for when you’re swapping stories with other writers). And in any case, the approach might just work.

In my case, I clenched my teeth together and redrafted. Again.

It pays to be a lean, mean submitting machine

Later, when I couldn’t work on my manuscript any more without wanting to bang my head against the wall, I started a real campaign of submitting through agents’ slush piles.

Most advice about submitting to agents, written or verbal, is a variation on: choose who you submit to carefully. Research every agent and think hard about if they’re the right person for you.

Like a wayward teenager in angst mode, I immediately did the opposite. I callously worked A-Z through The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I made a spreadsheet of agents and submission deadlines. I had full-on affairs with colour coding and date ranges.

It’s undoubtedly true that you should only sign up with an agent if it feels right, but I figured the chances of finding one were so astronomically slim I might as well ask everyone. In the end I found someone brilliant, so I’m glad I gave myself the best chance of that meeting. It’s not pretty, but I wouldn’t have dragged myself through the process without the bright lights of Excel and a fear-driven, one-a-day regime of submitting stuff.

Small aside: a creative writing course doesn’t help anyone get an agent

I loved my degree and MA. I met some fantastic people, took some great classes, and got to write, drink, and eat nothing but tinned soup for years. I learned plenty about self-improvement, but at no point did anyone other than my tutors seek out anything I’d written, and there were no connections to the world of representation or publishing (something that originally sold it to me when I was in sixth form, to be honest).

Creative writing students have more opportunities than most to get face-to-face with authors, agents and publishers, but my agent found me in the slush pile, and I don’t know anyone who has benefitted otherwise. Take a course if you want to be workshopped and spend years pinning poems to trees, but if not, save your money for booze and strip clubs.

A hodgepodge of tips

  • That thing they say about being careful with copy and paste in your cover letter is true. (Despite what I assumed was my unimpeachable professionalism, I went to that dark place.)
  • Rejections can be photo frame-worthy. If it looks like an agent has read past the first page, something’s gone a bit right. I was seriously proud when I was turned down for being ‘too dark for children’. (And you start being able to tell the difference between personal and form rejections very quickly, a great trick to get out at parties.)
  • Replies to unsolicited letters/extracts usually take months, except for when they only take hours, sending you into a sweaty panic because your full MS isn’t actually ready. Be prepared.
  • Consequently, it will become shield-your-eyes painful to open your email inbox. Professionals recommend that for the next year, a friend/pet should do it for you.
  • If an agent wants to meet/speak to you, there’s very little you can do to prepare. Try not to appear mad and you’ll be fine. It doesn’t actually matter what you wear, so it’s fine to put away those intellectual non-prescription specs.
  • Luck plays a huge part in the whole process, but if you open yourself up to as many opportunities as possible, you’ll get luckier. Go forth!


This isn’t it

I thought that once I’d signed on the agent’s dotted line I’d feel like a ‘real writer’. I thought I’d know what I was doing, and I would suddenly have the bravery to strike out on my own, sit down, and write. But if someone asks me what I do, despite the fact that I’m up at 6 AM to edit a new chapter in time for publication day, I say I’m a digital copywriter with a specialism in cat food. I still don’t feel like I have official permission to write (I suspect it’s a clandestine operation for everyone) and it hasn’t become any easier.

But if you can’t stop writing and you’re stubborn enough to keep trying, it’s the best sort-of job in the world. And on the whole, it’s great to know that someone else likes your demons (/sea monsters).

About the author of this post

Charlotte Salter is a digital copywriter by day, YA author by night. Her first middle-grade novel, Catacomb Hill, is due to be published in the US by Dial Books in Spring 2017. She likes sea monsters, mushroom identification, and sword fighting (but not all at once).