Monday, 22 March 2010


An awesome post over on Editorial Ass the other day had me cheering in my seat, somewhat inappropriately as I was on a train at the time. She (I always assume Ed Ass is a she) makes some essential points about the panic and stress that sets in while authors are submitting their work, warning that this panic and stress can cause poor decisions and end in inferior publication.

EA says:
"It's better not to be published at all than to get published in an inferior way. Doors begin to close if you try to take shortcuts. Instead, take your time to do things right. Accept no compromises. You will be much unhappier with a published book that has gone awry than with an unpublished book that still has potential."
Thing is, the zen which EA asks us to conjure up is nigh on possible, and she acknowledges that it is at least very difficult. As writers desperate to get our writing out there, we desire publication and we desire it NOW. Or sooner if at all possible.

But every bit of her advice is absolutely right. Difficult or impossible though it is, we must put that burning desire aside in favour of another burning desire: to get the right book published in the right way. Successful publishing is not just about this one book: it's about you as a writer, and you will carry your first book with you for the rest of your writing life. Yes, if you go on to be stunningly successful, you may not mind too much, but a poor first book nowadays can make it difficult to go forward, partly because poor sales figures can no longer be hidden. Thanks, Nielsen Bookbloodyscan.

EA says, crucially:
"Book publication is affected by many factors. A book may deserve to get published, but the market may be wrong. A book idea may be wonderful, but the execution may not be really up to snuff and need more work. The author may be a fantastic writer, but maybe this particular manuscript isn't the best book on its own, or maybe it's a good book but not a good debut. In all of these cases, if the author pushes, pushes, pushes for publication no matter what, they will damage both their future career as a writer and their relationship with their art."
Those are the very good reasons why your very good work may not have achieved publication. Yes, it's maddeningly, teeth-gnashingly, finger-chewingly, gut-wrenchingly horrible when we can't get published for these reasons. (Remember that I have been there: 21 years of anger and desperation gnawed at me while I failed to be published but somehow succeeded in smiling at the world and pretending nothing was wrong.)

The problem nowadays, more than ever, is that it's actually easier than ever to get published - if we include being published badly. What do we mean by "published badly"? There are two main ways:
  • when a genuine publisher doesn't know what it's doing. Anyone can set up a publishing company and it's a very laudable thing to do, but it's a case of Author Beware. If it's brand new, what relevant background and back-up does the publisher have? How do they plan to get your book into shops? If it's not brand new, what sales figures, reviews and exposure did they achieve for previous publications? How aggressive are they in the industry? (They need to be. An example of a good small and newish publisher - about five years old now, I think - is Strident Publishing. Strident by name and strident by nature! I know Keith Charters well and he's tireless in selling his authors' books and has a business background behind him, as well as being an author himself.) Crucially, ask about copy-editing, proof-reading and design processes - does your proposed publisher outsource and pay properly for this?
  • when a company masquerading as a publisher is actually part of the self-pubbing industry - there's nothing wrong with decent self-pubbing, as long as it isn't masquerading as something else. (Google the name of the company plus the word "self-publishing"; and, just in case, with the word "scam"...) Too many authors don't know the difference and then laud their "publishing deal" as though something more had happened than that they'd paid for a service. Note: if you pay anything for publication or have to sell your own books rather than receiving a % on each book sold by the company, you have not "been published"; you have paid for publication. This is not just a matter of semantics - I explain below why you should be careful.
But does this matter? Can't my first published book just be a toe-in-the-water thing, an experiment, a stepping-stone to future success? After all, it will show publishers that I'm serious, won't it?

Only if the book is a success. And I cannot tell you how unlikely this is. Have you any idea how hard the book-selling process is? It is hard enough for big publishers with their sales forces and marketing departments to achieve good sales, and often they fail. But it is far harder for anyone else. On the rare occasions when you hear of a runaway success from self-publishing or from a publisher who doesn't know what he's doing, there's always something untold in the story: for example, the author may have put many thousands of his own money, or at the very least had huge chutzpah, annoyed the hell out of every bookseller and librarian on the planet and had no time for writing or living. Or the author already had a background in sales / marketing and was perfectly willing to spend time and money using it. And certainly the author had some way of engineering many events to sell the book. Runaway success like this is enormously rare, which is why you hear the same-old-same-old few examples trotted out every time. I'm NOT saying don't self-publish, but I am saying go into it with eyes wide open because success comes rarely and at a huge price - if you're a writer, you are likely to love writing, not selling. And you're likely not to understand the business. If you do, and you do prefer selling to writing, and you have lots of money to invest in paying for help, fine.

But what if I don't mind about small sales? I just want my book out there. I need to see it between lovely covers, in a shop. Pleeeeeease!

I know, I know. Trust me, I do so know how you feel. But another aspect of bad publishing is that it probably won't be between lovely covers. It will be between crappy covers, looking all limp with cheap paper and print that goes too close to the edge because the publisher was cutting costs. It will be full of typos and weird fonts and widows and orphans and peculiar layouts. And the back cover blurb will make everyone laugh, for the wrong reasons. (I have several examples on my shelves, sent to me by authors furious at what has been done to them and their beloved books by unscrupulous companies masquerading as publishers.)

Oh, and it won't be in a shop. Most books published by most publishers are not in most shops. For self-pubbers, multiply that ten-fold.

And when you then write another better book, how you will wish that the first one wasn't published! I offer you Editorial Ass's wise words again:
"Some projects, however good they are, never need to see the light of day, because they've been stepping-stones on your road to self-development. They are what will train you to write the book that really matters."
The book that really matters. Isn't that what really matters to you? The thought that the book you are trying to sell now, that you have slaved and sweated and angsted over, may not be the book that should be published, is a terribly difficult thought to bear. But the moment when you come to that decision and start another book, gently wrapping the first one up and laying it to rest with an ausible sob, could be the most important and positive moment of your writing life.

You may be interested to know that I have two such novels, and about a week ago I realised that I am now ready to write them again, and properly. I have realised how to make them work. And gosh am I glad they were not published! I shudder at the thought.

I'd also like to you to read this older, excellent post from the Kidlit people here. Please. It underlines all the above.

Now, it could be that the novel you are writing or submitting now IS fabulous and will be published well and for all the right reasons. But it is statistically more likely that it isn't and that you are still at the practising stage. Think of it as being like wanting to be a concert pianist: you wouldn't want to go on stage before you were good enough, would you? You'd wait till your teacher said you were ready. Well, consider the distinct possibility that this piece of writing is not the piece that will happily launch your career, but that it is very usefully making you better, until you will one day be ready, and then you can launch your career, knowing that you really are on the way to success and that you will look at your first published book with pride.

It comes back to my oft-repeated "simple" theory of getting published: write the right book in the right way and send it to the right publisher in the right way at the right time.

And that right time might not be now because this book might not be the right one. But it will make you better.


Thomas Taylor said...

This post feels very relevant to me right now. I have a novel out on submission, and I find all perspective has leaked out of my brain. I THINK it might be a great debut novel, but what do I know?

catdownunder said...

Ouch! Another brisk licking.

HelenMWalters said...

I found this very timely as well. I've hit a point with my novel where I have to make a huge decision. I could tinker with it as it stands and hope to make it better, I could do a radical rewrite which would be a huge amount of work but would probably make it a much better novel, or I could scrap it and start writing another one. In my heart I think I know it's the option involving all the work but my brain wants to cry when I think about it.

The final option is to give up and stick to writing short stories and articles, but I can't see myself doing that. Too stubborn.

Emma Darwin said...

An even larger does of common sense and compassion than usual: thank you, Nicola.

HelenMHunt, don't forget, though, that putting the current novel aside isn't scrapping it. It's only putting it aside. Like Nicola, I tend to move on from a novel which hasn't worked (and ohhhhh thank the Lord they weren't published!) and then later realise that I'm ready for another go at those ideas/characters/story. In other words, if they're any good, their time will come.

Indeed, I sometimes think that, once you've reached a certain level of basic competence, you could write an okay-ish novel about just about anything. What sorts the okay-ish novel you might write, from the terrific novel you need to write, is the ideas/characters/story. And it's no bad test of whether any give set of those are the basis for something terrific, to see whether they go on clamouring from the closed drawer in your brain for years, even when you're doing something else. If they do, then chances are that one day, you'll have the craft and the prose to do them justice.

Gillian Philip said...

"I realised that I am now ready to write them again, and properly. I have realised how to make them work. And gosh am I glad they were not published! I shudder at the thought."

Oh yes, yes, yes, yes. (Are you having what I'm having?) I have a ms just like this sitting on my hard drive. How I wailed and wept when my (now) agent said no. How glad I am, when I look at it now, that it never saw the light of day. I now have the opportunity to write it PROPERLY and not be mortally embarrassed whenever I look at it.

Lovely to see you giving Strident a mention - they are indeed a wonderful and energetic small publisher, doing their best for their authors in a really tough industry. (*Declares interest* They publish some of mine.)

HelenMWalters said...

Thanks Emma. Yes, you are absolutely right and I do think that the main two characters and some of the minor characters of this novel won't go away and their time will come - it's just a matter of when and in what format. And whether I can do them justice.

Linda Strachan said...

Excellent post, Nicola. I have been published by both big and small publishers, including the excellent Strident.
Personally I love working with small (but professional) publishers.
But as you say it has to be the right book and the right publisher and when getting published at all can seem like the only goal it is very tempting to think you can self-publish as the easy route.
There is a reason why publishers have editors, designers and all the other talented and experienced people working for them - they know about books.

I have seen some self-published books that look terrible and are virtually unreadable. Obviously not all are like that.
It can be difficult to 'see' your own writing at times, and it can help to give it time to 'compost' for a while so that you can see any problems more clearly, and not be - as Gillian says 'mortally embarrassed'.

How bad would that feel if it was out there in print!

Catherine Hughes said...

A very timely post for me, too. I have a novel out on submission and the second (personal) rejection came back at the end of last week.

It was a novel I never really intended to write. But I was struggling with my previous WIP and kept seeing the opening scene of this one in my head. So, when it came time to NaNo, I just gave in and ran with the basic idea I had and the story simply flowed and here we are. I can't imagine that a novel I almost didn't write - something that just fell out of my head and flowed out of my fingertips - could be 'the one'.

So, although I still feel the disappointment, I'm OK with not publishing this one. I'm OK with not publishing my first one. And I've accepted not publishing my second, but it still hurts because it was so very, very close to my heart and I really, truly believed in it.

I think we authors have to be able to balance self-belief with self-awareness and that is a very, very hard thing to do. It is also sometimes distressing. Like Thomas, I struggle to keep my perspective and, like Helen, I could cry at the thought of all the work I need to do to get my WIP (I've returned to the struggling one) in shape.

Persistence and perspective are what we need, but sometimes they are the hardest things to maintain.

Nicola Morgan said...

(Am just back at my desk belatedly and am going to correct the typos in a minute, btw - there's something about blogger which makes it impossible (for me) to see typos in the little box you have to write in, and I only spot them afterwards.)

Helen - as Emma says, putting it aside is not permanent. Sometimes we rushed at the idea to early and it needs more time. I don't want to say "maturity" because it sounds as though I'm saying your novel / you are "immature2 but sometimes, like cheese, the idea becomes better as it ages, and needs to be kept in a dark place meanwhile! It's a horrible time when you reach that point in a novel, but I am sure you have the strength to do what needs to be done - you might consider giving yourself a break first?

Gillian and Linda - yep, he does work hard for you, doesn't he! It didn't occur to me that you'd see this so I'm glad I mentioned Strident and now Keith owes me a coffee at least!

cat - cats loved to be licked! It makes you relaxed!

Thomas - good luck!

Emma - yep, it's a tough message but one that resonates with pretty much everyone as soon as they are published.

Kathryn Evans said...

Dear Nicola,
I think I love you. In a whip lashing sort of a way. Am going to print this off and stick it in my 'reasons-not-to-feel-sorry-for-yourself' file.

Lucy Coats said...

Be careful what you wish for--so absolutely right, Nicola. You only get one shot at a debut, so it'd better be the right one in this day and age of 'here today. gone tomorrow'. To have a tried and tested publisher at your back, with the whole professional machine of publicity, sales and marketing is a pearl worth holding out for. To have a good and experienced editor who is going to work with you to make your book better, ditto. Do NOT rush into self-publishing just to get your book 'out there'. Wishes which are granted too easily are most often those which are not worth having, and in publishing terms can be more of a poisoned chalice than an elixir of fame and fortune.

This post should be required reading for all authors aspiring to be published. Thank you for telling it like it is, Nicola--crabbitness rools ok!

Unknown said...

Sounds so simple: 'write the right book in the right way and send it to the right publisher in the right way at the right time.'

Although I'm convinced this is true, you do have to make sure the agent actually reads your submission. I recently dug myself out of the deep black rejection hole I'd crawled into and sent out my MS to a couple of agents. I got very prompt replies, which were so obviously mail-merged I wondered if they'd even bothered to read my submission.

Today I've started a new novel (my 3rd MS), so here we go again.

CC MacKenzie said...

Excellent post Nicola.

Had exactly this conversation a couple of days ago regarding online self publishing after people were gleefully considering it.
I asked the 'what if' question. What if you're not ready. What if it's not good enough. What if it comes back and bites you on the **** when you've improved and honed the craft. It's out there for ever. There is a reason why you can't get published.

Personally, I'm terrified of how quickly newbies like me are able to jump the gun online. This is such a timely post for developing authors.

I have two MSS in a drawer, put aside (thank you Emma feels better than binned.) One whispers to me and a distant part of my brain mulls it over. I've no idea if anything will come of it. But the potential is there even if I blush when I read it, because I can see how far I've travelled.

However, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It can make you careless and believe you're better than you truly are. I need to be able to make a reader care about my characters, laugh, cry and draw emotional blood from my stories. The laugh is almost there, the rest is not. I dream of the day a reader says, Christine I loved this.

The journey is a joy, I'm learning more every single day, and will reach the destination when my work is good enough. Which of course will be the beginning of another journey to the next destination. It never ends, does it? How fantastic is that?

Anonymous said...

Sound advice as always. I always recommend that authors riding the Submission Train begin writing another book while they wait. It makes the time pass much more quickly because you're not watching the clock.

Well, at least maybe not as much...

Karen said...

Brilliant post. It took me ages to accept that my first ever novel, despite receiving some positive feedback from agents, was never going to be published and to let it go. When I look back at it I'm grateful, it just wasn't ready.

Jo Treggiari said...

My first book was published by a small indie press. I made the deal myself without an agent.
I do worry that I made a bad deal. Not because of any contractual weirdness but because there wasn't much of a push behind it.
I'm trying to re-embrace the book again having written a few more since then and having (I think) become a more dexterous writer.
There are a few passages I would change. All writers are like this I think. Always wanting to go back in and touch things up, so I'm not sure what is merely fussing and what is actually bad writing.
It sold adequately. In the neighborhood of 2000 copies, got some good reviews.
As far as I can tell my new agent and publisher ignored the fact that I had been previously published. My new contract is with a big publisher. The genre is YA rather than MG.
What is most important to me, at this stage, is that my book is promoted and marketed well. I'd much rather take a lower advance (or even no advance although my agent wouldn't be happy with that) and have the pub put the money towards increasing the book's visibility.
I know there are lots of great, creative small indie presses who do this well. Often the indies are the first to take advantage of new methods of promotion. Like YA blog sites for instance, and word-of-mouth buzz.
Since my YA isn't coming out until Fall 2011 I can't compare the experiences yet.

Anonymous said...

Some very clear and useful advice, thank you.

I wonder what people's thoughts are on blogging a novel or other work of fiction. I'm reading Thaw on-line and am enjoying that, so I was thinking about blogging some of my work. Do you think that's a good idea? Is it just another form of self-publishing? Perhaps it would be less harmful as an experiment, since it wouldn't be an official publication?

DT said...

Wise words, as ever. I've just finished the first draft of my third (as yet unpublished) novel.

Nicky said...

Great post. It is also worth pointing out that you can write the wrong book at any time during your career. I have written a couple that will probably never sell and aren't as good as I thought they were. I think they were novel numbers seven and ten respectively. I am currently writing novel number twelve which is at least commissioned, but these days you never know...

sheilamcperry said...

Although this is obviously excellent advice as usual, and well worth reading, I am still in several minds about it. As a person who is probably too advanced in years to have time for the conventional route (and see previous entries on that topic!), I am not sure I can wait 20+ years, going over and over my manuscript and typing changes with my gnarled old fingers, only to be turned down because of not having enough years left in me to justify the expenditure of publishers' money! There has to be a better way.

Theresa Milstein said...

I need to keep reading these types of posts to keep my focus on moving ahead, rather than feeling discouraged. When I send queries and I'm not getting offers, it's hard to decide whether to tinker with it, pick up an older manuscript, or begin a new one. Self-publishing seems tempting for the reasons you state, but is not for me, also based on the reasons you state.

I'll keep trying the old-fashioned way.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm getting closer to the querying stage (still months away tho) and I'll definitely make sure I do my research :)

Lisa J Yarde said...

Thanks for this post, it's very timely as I'm considering self-publishing. It's a big decision, too important to rush into but posts like this help me keep perspective.

Donna Hosie said...

I read the original post and agreed with every word. A postscript would be that it is also better to remain unagented than sign with an agent who is clueless. A great manuscript that has the potential to be published can turn toxic in the hands of an agent doesn't know what he/she is doing.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great post...I hope all the I-want-to-be-published-so-badly-I'll-do-anything people will read it.

David John Griffin said...

> "It comes back to my oft-repeated "simple" theory of getting published: write the right book in the right way and send it to the right publisher in the right way at the right time."

Excellent advice as always. I guess the best way to tip the scales would be to keep sending out stuff (although agents taking up to 6 months to reply is the drag), and, as you've often written Nicola, keep on writing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lisa - (welcome to this blog!) - good luck with your decision. You're right: it's a big one and important to stay grounded - sounds as though you'll make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Sharon - indeed!

Donna - absolutely.

Sheila - I hope you won't have to wait till your fingers are gnarled! To be honest (tough thought coming up here) sometimes, if you go over and over and over something too much and don't get anywhere, at some point you would be much better shelving that idea and starting afresh on a new one. I'm not saying this is definitely the case for you, but I do think that sometimes we try to force things to work when actually we should view them as practice and start something new.

Sylvia - the general view is that there are big, big dangers. Yes, it is in effect a form of self-publishing and yes in theory you can put some publishers off. No harm in putting teasers and snippets but I'd be cautious about blogging a novel. (Different with non-fic). However, I am NOT an expert on this and the situation is also quite fluid. I'd be interested to hear what Jane at How Publishing Really Works thinks.

Sarah Duncan said...

This can't be repeated too often. Not all publishing is the same, and you can usually spot a non-conventionally published book a mile off just by the poor design, let alone the contents.

First time writers actually have an advantage over the previously published because no one knows (yet) if they're going to be the next big thing, so they can get good advances and marketing budgets. Shame to throw that away just because you can't wait.

HelenMHunt - I did the radical rewrite for my first novel, and it moved it from rejection to auction and international publication so I'd listen to what your heart is telling you.

Anonymous said...

I think it really, truly boils down to personal goals, needs, desires, etc. There is no "right." There is only "right for me." (Or "you" understood.)

Very useful and informative post, particularly for those who have incorrect ideas about what they will (or won't) gain from taking certain routes, but not everyone wants the same thing.

Glynis Peters said...

I have a polishing cloth out and am shining up my WIP. It has been torn apart and restructured, simply because I have read advice from published authors, editors and agents.
My writing education has reached the time where I am studying for the finals. :)

Lynn said...

Let me tell you a cautionary tale about bad publishing. I'm not a starry-eyed novice because I've had six books published with mainstream publishers, but this was my debut novel. My baby.

I sent chapters to an established publisher who owns several imprints. I'll give you a clue - his ghost-writer finally spilled the beans about him in a hilarious book called Ghosting. But I didn't know that then.

Two days after I had posted my chapters, I came home to see my answer machine light blinking.
'I lurve your book.' said a voice with an exotic accent. 'I want to publish it. Phone me in my office.'
OK it had to be a joke. Someone was teasing me. Cruel. I rang the office, and no it wasn't a joke. It was every writer's dream-come-true. A contract came by email the next day and I signed. A week later a choice of gorgeous glossy covers popped into my inbox. Wow this publisher was keen. And fast. I was over the moon.

Now no writer wants a debut novel out there unless an experienced editor has first cast a critical eye over it. Yes. Yes. Of course, the novel would be edited. But then came the page proofs. Did I like the font? Did I like the spacing.

Hang on. We've missed out a stage. What about the editing, the working closely with someone who will pick up the flaws and mend them?
'It's already perfect.' said the publisher.
'Oh no it isn't.' I replied.

To cut a long, wretched story short, I pulled out of the contract. It cost me almost £1000 and I was threatened with the legal heavies.

I'm glad it wasn't published. The novel was not perfect. I put it in the drawer and six months ago mended it myself. It's out there now trying to find a better publishing home.

I am a small publisher myself and wouldn't dream of putting out a book without editing, re-drafting, copy-editing, and discussion with the writer until we are both satisfied. It takes as long as it takes but I try to get it right.

Lynn Michell
Linen Press