Monday, 11 April 2011

HAVE YOU BEEN TO OXFORD?

Because, apparently, if you haven't, you don't stand a chance of being published.

When someone said this to me the other day, I first ignored it, assuming it was a joke. Or a slip of the tongue. Maybe she didn't say Oxford; maybe she said, "the University of Common Sense and Jolly Good Writing". But then she said it again, more clearly. "No, seriously: if you go into Waterstone's and pick up ten books, five of the authors have been to Oxford and the other five have Creative Writing MAs. Literally. I'm not joking."

This is utter tosh, and I told her so. It's patently false. What I didn't say is that it's stupidly self-destructive, the sort of rabid excuse that multi-rejected writers use when they are scraping the barrel of reassurance. (Remember, I was a rabid and multi-rejected writer once. I know what it feels like and I hugely sympathise, but my ignorance now embarrasses me. I probably spoke from the wrong end of my body sometimes. Hell, maybe I still do. Please tell me when that happens.)

Besides, how do publishers know if you've been to Oxford when they ask to see your MS, eh? It's not as though you would say in your covering letter, "I didn't go to Oxford. Sorry. And I'm not bestest friends with Martin Amis, either. Boo hoo." You wouldn't mention your university because it would be as irrelevant as the fact that you once went on holiday to Lyme Regis or have ridden a yak, unless your book is about Lyme Regis or yak-riding.

Mind you, this same aspiring writer also told me that publishers and agents don't read covering letters. They do, actually, unless they have already said they aren't receiving submissions, in which case why should they even open it, let alone read it? I grant you that they might occasionally read the sample first, if they're feeling contrary, and the sample might be so bad that they don't read the covering letter - but trust me: if the writing's not shite, they'll read the letter. I grant you also that they don't always read the whole letter: sometimes they don't need to. Sometimes the first few lines tell them all they need to know. Honestly, I've seen covering letters where the first sentence was so rotten that to read the second one would probably be fatal. I'm not talking about marginal rot; more hyperboliferous shite.

But, back to Oxford, or your (and my) not having been there.

This attitude of ignorance about the reasons why agents and publishers make their sometimes unwelcome - sometimes even stupid, but not that stupid - decisions, is what made me start this blog. It is what keeps me crabbit. It is also not what I expect to hear from any writer who is going about publication the right way. This type of refusal to face the truth will blind you to it. It's also a sign of fear: you're too frightened to face the fact that your book may not be good enough or not publishable and you prefer to blame the foolish publishers and agents for ignoring you because you went to the wrong university, or not a university at all. As if they care. Honestly, they've got more moths in their muesli*  to worry about.

[*Sore point. Anyone know how to remove moths from cereal cupboards?]

Listen. Publishers and agents only care about three things:
  1. Have you written a book they can sell?
  2. Can they sell the book you have written? That's the same, by the way, but it's very important so I've said it twice. Deliberate tautology.
  3. Are you a complete divot who will impede their ability to sell your book through your foolish behaviour and refusal to learn how publishing works? [NB many published writers are divots but it's recommended to hide such traits until after signing the deal.]
I have said it before and I will say it again: if you write a book which a good publisher believes will have sufficient readership, gain sufficient acclaim and/or sales, and make a half decent return on their fairly considerable investment, and if they have room for it on their list and budget, and an editor who loves it, they will publish it. Unless the stars are wrong.

Mind you, I did once spend a very happy weekend in Oxford some years ago, so maybe that thing about needing to have been to Oxford is true after all. Eureka! The answer to your publishing dreams: buy yourself a weekend return ticket to Oxford. WTH didn't I think of that before and save myself a load of heartache?

Alternatively, write a publishable book and work your butt off to make it so. And then submit it with a large dollop of common sense. And magic fairy dust.

PS Some clever people go to Oxford; others don't. One of the things that marks clever people out is that they have an unsurprising tendency to be clever. Clever people have this bizarre habit of succeeding quite often at some of what they set out to do. However, lots of equally clever people didn't go to Oxford. They, being equally clever, will be equally likely to succeed at what they set out to do. And if that's writing books, that's what they will succeed at.

PPS By the way, what's wrong with Cambridge?

PPS Cambridge is where I'm going to be this weekend. I hope to see some of you there at the lovely Cambridge Wordfest. If you're free at 10.30 on Saturday, head along to the Cambridge Union Dining-Room, on Bridge St. Booking here. Who knows? Maybe it's even better than going to Oxford.

63 comments:

Keren David said...

Great excuse not to get on with it...I think I'll just write to my publisher letting them know I didn't go to university and maybe I won't have to finish this book..

catdownunder said...

Oh, right. I went to Oxford once - for a conference. I was there for two days and one night and I did not see any of the tourist things. I did have a meal at High Table in an ancient Oxford College. The mealtime topics ranged from the literary merits of Mickey Mouse to the cricket and my one and only sporting achievement. I am not sure Oxford is all it is said to be - but they did look after a nervous Antipodean cat very nicely. I rather suspect that they like to read books written by non-Oxford graduates too.

Rebecca Brown said...

Don't be silly. The reason agents & publishers don't want my book is, obviously, because they're antiquated relics of a bygone era. Oxford has nothing to do with it.

Ahem.

Sarah said...

'Divot' as an insult. Awesome.

Jane Travers said...

I've seen "Educating Rita" and "An Education. That counts, right? *clutches straws firmly*

Sophie Playle said...

I think what you say about clever people applies equally to motivated people, too. The thing about Oxford and Cambridge students is they have to work so hard... Not necessarily harder than ANY other student and any other university, but they are up there.

Being self-disciplined and self-motivated is equally (if not more?) important than being clever. You can have those traits without going to a good university, but the people at good universities are likely to have those traits.

Something like that, right?

Nicola Morgan said...

Sophie - exactly like that. ;)

Sarah - glad to be of service!

Jane - absolutely. I'm sure.

Keren - good plan.

Rebecca - that, too.

cat - yes.

Sally Zigmond said...

And there was me thinking that the only way to be published was to have a friend who works in publishing.

Graeme K Talboys said...

It's true. I went to Oxford once for a weekend. Fifteen years later my first book was published by the 109th publisher to consider the proposal. Having been to Oxford was clearly the clincher (that and psychic publisher who knew I'd been there without my offering the information).

Nicola Morgan said...

Sally - oh yes, I fogot that one. Another thing i didn't have when i eventually got published.

Graeme - kuh, there you go proving me wrong again. Oh all right, we DO need to have been to Oxford.

Is there any published author who hasn't been? Je reste ma valise.

Jennysmith said...

Seems a rather archaic thing really - all that Oxbridge brigade thing.

Good post.

Quillers said...

I am now hoping that having holidayed near Oxford, and gone into the city for a day trip, my publishing deal is in the post.

Mind you, we had KFC for lunch, thereby confirming my lower class status, so I may have spoiled my chances.

Must admit though these are the things I used to say until I realised that writing to be published is actually an ability to listen, learn and work really hard at it.

Book Maven said...

Well, I went to Cambridge. (but I go to Oxford about once a week - does that count?).

Actually, it's all Horse Feathers isn't it? You don't need to have been to ANY university, let alone Oxbridge.

Just write a stonking good book, people, as Nicola says.

Easy!

Mary

Trevor said...

Whether a writer went to uni obviously has nothing to do with getting published and anyone who uses that as an excuse is a bit of a twonk. Can you answer me one question though? Why do agents have to 'Love,' the book. I've read thousands of books over my lifetime and only 'love;' less than 30. I really, really like hundreds of others though. It seems like a bit of a cop out to me when agents say they don't 'love' it enough. Really like it should be enough to get that book a deal, surely.

Nicola Morgan said...

Trevor - it's a fair question and i've blogged about it before (I'll do it again soon.) But the thing is that agents and editors do have to LOVE the book because they have to fight for it through the acquisition meeting and if they don't love it they can't fight for it. tell me: if you had to persuade a sales and marketing dept who hadn't read the book to take on (invest money in) one of those books that you read but didn't love, would you be able to persuade them? I don't think so. You have to believe in something to make people part with money when it's YOUR job on the line. (Though sometimes it's not about loving the book but about believing 100% that it will sell in quantities.)

Trevor said...

I was talking about agents rather than publishers, Nicola. I've been on the end of a finance director not believing in a submission that an editor thought was worth publishing and I can understand why the word 'love is used in that context, but I still think that 'believing' in a book is a better statement. I wish agents in particular, who don't generally have to deal with finance and marketing men when they make their decision on an author, would use it. No one can 'love' that many books. I think a lot of them use the word as it wounds less clinical than 'believe'.
I've had a few annoying letters telling me that they (the agent) thinks the works is original and well written but they didn't 'love,' it enough. Whenever I see the 'love' excuse I always feel like writing back to tell them I'd sooner have the plain truth. I never do though, rest assured. :)

Graeme K Talboys said...

Of course, there is the little matter of the millions of authors who've never set foot in the UK, let alone Oxford.

I can sympathise with some writers who must wonder what it takes to get into print; I've had some pretty weird reasons given for rejections in my time along with those much rarer acceptance letters you have to read twice because you can't quite believe them first time round.

Andrew Culture said...

In my experience the exact same attitudes exist in the music industry. From what I can gather there are three rules that sum up most of the advice on getting a book published:

1. Make an effort
2. Don't be a dick
3. See point 1.

Trevor said...

Please excuse the typos in my last comment. I was in a bit of a hurry when I wrote it. I don't send query letters to agents containing that many mistakes...honestly :)

Phillipa said...

There is a third way:

Write a publishable book and work your butt off to make it so. And then submit it with a large dollop of common sense. And magic fairy dust.

(and hide the fact you went to Oxford. Or claim your dad was a miner, you were brought up in a council house, went to the local comp and worked your butt off to get to Oxford. No fairy dust needed.)

Helen said...

I went to Oxford when I was a student so I should be fine. I went for a weekend and was studying elsewhere but I'll keep that quiet. I'm concerned (because I don't have one) about the number of new writers who have a Masters in Creative Writing. I've heard that publishers and agents trawl these courses for new talent. Is it really that much of an advantage to have done such a course?

Nicola Morgan said...

Helen - the only people I've ever heard say that agents and publishers trawl MA Creative Writing courses looking for talent are the people who run those courses and are keen for people to sign up...

Trevor - I do know what you mean. Thing is it's very hard to explain why a book doesn't leap out as being just right or convincing or whatever. Agents are trying to second-guess publishers/editors and they have to be sure enough before they spend a lot of time and energy pushing something that they aren't going to be paid for. It doesn't help you, but it's just how it is, I'm afraid. ;(

Helen said...

Thank you, Nicola. That makes perfect sense!

Claire King said...

There is nothing wrong with Cambridge and I wish I'd been able to get to the lit fest!

Months in cereal cupboards - take everything out of the cupboard. Find where the moths are incubating (tell tale tiny silk threads at best, larvae at worst and chuck it out. Take the bin bag out of the house! Then Milton the whole thing. Then buy sticky things to put on cupboard doors to catch any strays. Voila.

Excellent post!

Trevor said...

Thanks for the replies, Nicola.
I understand that agents have to choose carefully. It's just this 'don't love it,' phrase that irks. :) I've given up trying to get an agent now anyway. These days I go straight to the organ grinder and forgo any attempt to engage the monkey in conversation. It hasn't worked as yet, but I'm spending less time watching my inbox and when I do get a reply it doesn't contain the dreaded, L word :)

Cat Marsters/Kate Johnson said...

Ah, this is like my other old favourite, that you can only get published if you're young and blonde and they don't want crabbit old bats. Whenever I hear this (being young and blonde, especially when I first got published) I ask people if they think I sent a photo with my covering letter.

The scary thing is, some of them think I did.

Miriam Drori said...

Thank you, Nicola, for this excellent post. I'm off to write a book about yak-riding in Lyme Regis. When the rider gets home, she finds moths in the cupboard and has to go to Oxford in search of a solution. That turns out to be fortunate because she gets published...

Ebony McKenna. said...

I laughed my head off at this.

I have been to Oxford once for a visit. Just after Christmas. It was the coldest I have ever been in my life. Horizontal sleet and snow. Biting winds. I thought I might fall down flat on my face and not get up and just die there.

We stayed at a very expensive hotel with horridly slack service and when we checked out they didn't even ask if we'd had a nice stay.

So there ya go, another published one who's been there. It's a conspiracy!

Dear Trevor. Don't give up. Write the absolute best book you can, then while it's on submission, write another one. Make it even better than the first.
Do four impossible things before breakfast etc etc.
Lather, rinse, repeat.

Debs Riccio said...

I went to Oxford... had a delicious slice of cheesecake upstairs somewhere and bought a set of colour-coded chopping boards from Lakeland. They're still in use them 15 years later.
When do I get my publishing deal please and should I give the chopping boards more emphasis in my query letters in future?

DanielB said...

Well, I went to Oxford. As a student. Having first been a state grammar school boy from an ordinary home. Yes, a proper Oxford University student at St John's College. And I came away with a degree. That has absolutely bugger-all to do with my having subsequently been published.

My university studies didn't really prepare me for any career, let alone one in publishing. They helped me develop an analytical mind, read critically, focus on a lot of work in a short space of time, present arguments... You could argue that these are all good training for aspects of writing, but people can learn them in any number of contexts.

I think the effect of an "old boys' network" in general is hugely exaggerated, which is partly why I play down my Oxford connections. I've had one or two people in the past assuming that it's thanks to these that I got a "foot on the ladder", which is just insulting rubbish.

Phillipa said...

I echo what Daniel and Sophie said.


I went too. To Wadham. I'm very very sorry that I went and will wear a hair shirt for the rest of the day - but I think I can make amends with this Secret to Getting Published.

When I met my agent (wo who went to Cambridge) we exchanged a funny handshake. They teach you it at Fresher's Fair.

That's all you need - a funny handshake. Don't let anyone tell you different.

Don't waste your time being distracted from writing the best book you can by tosh like this.

Phillipa said...

I meant the statement about Oxford not Nicola's blog post!

Nicola Morgan said...

Philippa - I was confident enough to have guessed that ;) However, this Cambridge handshake - I never learnt it. I must have been asleep during that lecture. Maybe that's why I took so long to get published. If only I'd known!

Chris Blizzard said...

My first thought on reading that was "but is it true?"

I tend to like to analyse things that way. If the statement is actually true, then you have to ask the question of WHY those figures are there.

As you say, I'm willing to bet it's not because the publisher cares where you studied (or even IF you studied). It will be down to the courses provided being particularly good at preparing people to write things they can sell.

Oh, and my take on the motivation being as important as being clever... I dare say being clever is worthless.

Deb Salisbury said...

To trap moths, order this online: Propest Pheronet Trap (Lure Inside Glue)

It's a triangle with sticky stuff inside, plus a scent to lure in moths. It works amazingly well.

Great post!

Nicola Morgan said...

Chris, trust me: it's not true! Unless you specifically chose to pick five from Oxford grads and five from CW MAs. Which would rather defeat the purpose of the claim.

Helen said...

If an Oxford graduate does a Masters in Creative Writing, does that mean they've doubled their chances...? It does seem that more and more people who have done a creative writing course are being published but is that because the course increases the likelihood of success or is it because more and more people are doing them?

Nicola Morgan said...

helen - an Oxford grad who did a CW MA would absolutely definitely get a two-book deal!

Seriously, i think both your suggestions are true: more people are doing them and the courses will help SOME writers writer a more publishable book. After all, they'd be pretty crap if they made no difference at all to one's ability to write, wouldn't they? But, a) the fact of having gone on a course doesn't make you more attractive to a publisher/agent (sometimes the reverse, actually) and b) if you're good enough you can just as easily manage without doing the course. Or going to Oxford...

Helen said...

Its reassuring that you think they're not the be-all and end-all, Nicola. I had thought of doing one but I hesitated over giving up a year and several thousand quid for the privilege.

Trevor said...

I read an article somewhere that said publishers were moaning about SW courses turning out formulaic writers.
Makes sense, if they're all being taught exactly the same way of doing things you're going to get thousands of clones. Re the earlier poster; I didn't go to uni, I did work down a coal mine and I was born into poverty. Did it make me a great writer? unfortunately not, sob.

womagwriter said...

I was going to do the 'I went to Oxford as a student, for a day-trip' joke but looks like about half a dozen people beat me to it.

So I'll add a different comment - I know lots of published authors and none of them went to Oxford. (Except maybe for weekends or day trips.)

JO said...

Goodness, my writing must be really crap. I went to Oxford - about 35 years ago, and didn't study writing, but had a great time anyway. But now, though I've had short stories published, I could paper the loo with rejections for the novel. (I'm getting the message - it's just not good enough!)
How interesting that this post has led to such a great cross-section of replies. You have obviously touched a nerve, Nicola.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

This may be irrelevant.

Apparently, it takes someone who went to Oxbridge under a minute to drop it into conversation with a new acquaintance.

A group of mates at a drinkies 'do' timed it once, being forewarned... and the collective roar of 'Thar She Blows' at the appropriate moment was rather memorable.

I said it might be irrelevant...

Nicola Morgan said...

Vanessa - also the complete opposite of my experience. My H and I reckon we can tell in conversation whether someone has been to Cambridge by the way they coyly don't say the name of the university. People tend to say "When I was at university in Nottingham" etc etc, but "when I was at university" if they were at Ox/Cambs. Which is of course a complete generalisation and obviously doesn't always work, but he and I are certainly both coy about it because we would very much hate to seem to use it as a badge.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Re agents trawling creative writing courses: why would they not, if, as some here have pointed out, cw courses must concentrate and improve writing talent (unless, as others have pointed out, agents think cw courses produce too many clones)? I've known of agents being invited to talk to CW students and in the process picking up students for publication. The Manc uni MA has run a prize for the best student, which is representation by Curtis Brown (don't know if they still do).

I agree that it's not the only route to publication, though.

Anna Bowles said...

I've worked for at least one publisher who took a look at Creative Writing MAs as a way of nobbling good writers early in their career, so it does happen.

I went to Oxford and while I don't know of any specific cases of it helping me it actually hindered me in a work context once - a long time ago I had a rather neurotic boss who was convinced that just because I'd been to Oxford I thought I was better than her and she needed to keep me down. I expect it has been an advantage on the whole though, because of the quality of the teaching. But is it the only possible means to success in publishing - nooo.

Dan Holloway said...

OK, I'm going to fall for the bait. I did go to Oxford (still based there), and it was immensely helpful - in enabling me to write a thriller set there, in the dark underbelly of academia - The Company of Fellows (as featured on this website last summer in the synopsis thingy)
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Company-of-Fellows/dp/B004PLMHYC/
just 70p on Kindle and over a month now in the UK Kindle top 100 thrillers.

Irresistible plug over. I have to say the "you have to go to Oxbridge" thing winds me up enormously (I mean REALLY winds me up - the kind of inverted snobbery prejudices people have about you when they find you went to Oxford are quite mind-boggling). That I went to Oxford never even got my little toe in the door. So if going to Oxford gives you three quarters of a foot on the ladder the only logical conclusion is that actually my writing is even more bleeding awful than already suspected. Which may of course be true.

Back when I was subbing, though, like Nicola, I never told anyone I'd been, so perhaps I missed my chance. Except, of course, when I subbed Company of Fellows, when I figured the fact I'd spent 10 years inside the Theology Faculty was relevant to writing a book set there.

widdershins said...

This wanna-be reminds me of an old saying, "The person who says it cannot be done, should get out of the way of the person doing it."

DanielB said...

Nicola, agree about the coy thing. I am too, because of the assumptions some people make. Many people still think Oxford and Cambridge are full of public-school snobs who spend all their time punting, rowing and having Brideshead-style drinking contests, and who got in because Daddy knows the Dean. Their ideas are about 75 years out of date. Even during my university years in the 1980s and early 1990s, I found plenty of people just like me. The majority of Oxford students come from state schools.

HelenO said...

The whole 'If you haven't been to Oxford...' myth seems to have been well and truly trashed - and rightly so - by the comments above, but could I add something about the Oxford connection / old boy network / 'It's who you know' argument?

I've worked as a commissioning editor in publishing, and I've had many a friend, acquaintance and neighbour thrust their unpublished manuscript into my hands. I'm always hopeful it will be good, but you know what? The I-absolutely-have-to-publish-this manuscripts have never come through that route (despite the fact that, yes, I was a student as a proper Oxford college in the 80s), but from good agents, and from other people within the business who'd spotted talent, couldn't fit in into their own list, and thought I might be able to take it on.

I do know writers who've attended Arvon courses and got introductions to agents via the tutors ... but again, that was about talent. (And in case anyone's reading this and thinking they can't afford an Arvon course, check out their website: they do offer bursaries to people on low incomes.)

Gemma Noon said...

Nicola, I'm afraid I'm the one that would blow the "when I was at Uni..." argument for you, since I went to both Liverpool (undergrad) and Liverpool John Moores (postgrad) it is just easier to say "Uni" then start specifying. Even If I say "Uni at Liverpool" I have to stop and explain which one, and then usually forget what my point was in the process.

The reason I'm not published yet is simply down to my not having written a good enough book yet. A touch depressing, but true. Oh, and the fact I never went to Oxford, even for a day trip.

Elizabeth Baines said...

But sometimes, HelenO, it does happen. I do happen top know people who've got published through personal contacts - and some of those were Oxford uni contacts! And I got an agent via an Arvon tutor.

I do agree that it's easy to use this excuse if you're not getting published, rather than to consider the possibility that your ms is just not good enough yet, but if you have got a good ms there's nothing like a good contact to help it on its way. And if the publishing opportunities start contracting...

NikkiF said...

Looking forward to Miriam's book being on the Christmas best seller list!

In defence of creative writing courses, the one I did required me to submit something in order to make it through the selection process and then to discuss it in interview. All of our group were already writing before the course started, in a wide variety of genres. There may be some courses out there that produce cloned writers, but they're not all like that.

HelenO said...

Hi Elizabeth - I can only speak from my own experience. Some authors will capitalize on personal contacts in order to get their work in front of an agent or editor. (That's why people want to give me mss. - because they know I work in publishing.) If their writing's good enough (and if their work fits the editor's list / requirements at that particular time, etc. etc.), they may go on to be published. But I've never signed up an author through that route, and in my experience you absolutely don't need those contacts in order to get published.

Personally, I hope that publishing opportunities will never contract to the point where the only people getting picked up are those with contacts. That would be very sad!

Nicola Morgan said...

Elizabeth / Helen - I think the point helen was making, which is what i also think, is that contacts don't get you published. Contacts may get your MS read by a useful person but if that book isn't A1 good enough it won't be published. Therefore you do not need contacts (though they may speed the path if you're good enough already.) The fact that someone did have contacts and did get published doesn't mean she got published because of contacts. Contacts are neither necessary nor sufficient.

Sarah said...

The publisher who liked my book,but not enough to convince the sales director was based in - Oxford! Hmmmm.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Helen, it's reassuring to hear you voice this!

Nicola: Yes, of course, your logic is impeccable.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Eek, actually, no: it doesn't logically follow that just because a contact won't necessarily get you publication, you therefore don't need a contact to get a good ms published

Very good to know that you don't, though.

Dan Holloway said...

Daniel - we must have been around at the same time - I started in 1989 (hence my fascination with Eastern Europe).

Elizabeth/Nicola - yes, I think your point about "getting it under an important person's nose" is the practical corollary of Elizabeth's point about your logic. If someone's ms isn't good enough that won't help. But if they do have a winner, then getting it straight to a senior editor rather than an intern *has* to help

lauren said...

I don't think I have ever told a publisher where I went to university before having to fill in the author info sheet - and that comes a very long time after signing the contract. I suspect at least 50% of my publishers don't know where I went to university (Cambridge), or even if I went at all.

As for creative writing MAs, if a student has talent the course can help them refine it - or not, depending on the course. If the student has little talent, it's waste of time. I see MA students of both types. The greatest benefit to most of them is to be part of a community of writers, and to carry that community on after finishing the course. The year spent having someone take their ambition seriously, and building friendships with other people who write, is more valuable than the course content.

Anne A said...

I know people have been joking about it, but I seriously understood "been to" as "visited" until I got to "Creative Writing MA's" and thought, oh, she meant as in for a degree. (Before that I was wondering why people who had visited Oxford said so in their jacket covers...)

DanielB said...

I teach on a well-regarded Creative Writing MA (Sheffield Hallam). It definitely doesn't try to produce "cloned" writers and it's not generally thought that there is a distinctive "voice" of the course. The diversity of the various writers and students is seen as a strength.

Tessa Conte said...

Cambridge? What's wrong with it? Well obviously it just isn't Oxford, is it? That about says it all...

Tessa.xx

ps. Does the fact that I did read something at Oxford mean I automatically get published? Please say yes.