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The Big Myth of Traditional Publishing

I recently had some correspondence with a wannabe writer who was discouraged, to say the least, by some feedback that he’d received from an editor. ‘Dazed and confused’ might be closer to the mark.

He had sent off a manuscript that he’d been working on for some time and which was approaching, he thought, the stage at which he might dare to send it off to possible publishers. But, like many writers in his position, he had yet to receive any kind of input from anyone other than himself: writing is a lonely business, and the moment when a writer has to seek the viewpoint of another is often fraught with terror. What if the story upon which you have lavished so much love and attention simply doesn’t work for someone else? What if errors to which you have been blind all along suddenly leap out at you when seen through the eyes of another? Not just typographical or grammar errors, but fundamental flaws in the telling of the tale itself?

The response that this author had received had been fairly crushing. He’d been told that an agent or publisher would have struggled to get past the first page, that the whole manuscript would have been put aside before the meat of the tale was even approached. This was backed up by logical arguments, not stated just as an opinion: the book’s vocabulary was wrong, its starting point was wrong, it wouldn’t appeal to its target market, and so forth.

When in this situation - ghastly as it is - it is worth reminding oneself of a clear and unarguable fact, something which it is easy to forget but which is statistically proven.

What an agent (or publisher) thinks about a story has been proven utterly, totally absolutely WRONG almost an infinite number of times more than it has been proven right.

You can tell by the number of best selling classic books that were rejected umpteen times by agents and publishers before they broke through to the public.

Remember that.

Let’s shatter the myth of traditional publishing once and for all: agents and publishers do not have, and never have had, the magical keys to the kingdom of success.

Take any book from the shelves and test it out.

Look at the first Harry Potter book. The opening is so boring that it put me off at first. I actually stopped reading, and assigned the whole series to the dustbin as a 'silly craze'. That was when the books first came out; I was in my early 40s.

What the hell did I know…?!!

Tolkien's entire opus of Middle-earth tales was considered 'boring', 'dry' and 'unreadable' by others until be broke through with The Hobbit - then the publishers were only too keen to have his stuff; it saved their bacon.

Grown-ups are particularly bad guides when it comes to what children love.

Traditional mainstream publishing presents itself as the answer to so many writers, doesn’t it? And of course, traditional publishing houses have access to many levels of expertise in the industry of getting books to readers: they have copy editors, proofreaders, graphic designers, technical people, and marketing departments. These people are good at what they do. But telling whether or not a book is going to ‘make it’ is NOT something that traditional publishers are very good at.

Consider the following examples of famous works which went the traditional publishing route (as everything did prior to the wonderful World Wide Web):

From a rejection slip for article sent to the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling:

'I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language.’

Kipling was one of the most popular writers in England, in both prose and verse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the first English-language writer to receive the prize, the youngest person ever to receive it.

From a rejection slip for The Diary of Anne Frank:

'The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.’

First published in 1947, Anne Frank's diary is one of the most powerful memoirs of the Holocaust. The diary has been translated into 67 languages with over 30 million copies sold.

From rejection slip for George Orwell's Animal Farm:

'It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.’

Animal Farm has been translated into several languages including Hungarian, Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian, has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and has been included on a top 100 list of books between 1923 and 2005.

From rejection slip for Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It:

'These stories have trees in them.’

It has since sold more than a million copies. (By the way, it was MacLean’s first book and he didn’t start writing until he was 70.)

The above authors met with rejection from traditional publishing houses for long enough to kill them. But they didn’t die - they persisted.

It’s a good idea to always have something you’re writing - or several things you’re writing - that have nothing to do with the piece that you’ve just had rejected. And carry on writing.

But don’t bother trying to ‘learn’ from your rejection. Publishers, editors, even the close friends to whom you show your work, will all have different viewpoints, many of them contradictory. If you learn one thing from one, you’re likely going to have to learn its opposite from another.

Just learn the secret language of fiction, master the mysterious force that attracts and drives readers, and write. You are your best teacher, after that. Publication is now the easy bit, by comparison. Take further consolation from looking over this list:

Dune by Frank Herbert – 13 rejections. As of the year 2000, it had sold 12 million copies.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham – 45 rejections. 13 million copies sold.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle – 29 rejections. 14 million copies sold.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 38 rejections. More than 30 million copies sold.

Carrie by Stephen King – over 30 rejections. Sold one million copies in the first year alone, with King going on to sell over 350 million copies as a writer.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – 18 rejections. Over 60 million copies sold.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – 14 rejections. Harry Potter books went on to sell 450 million copies world-wide.

Look at the following well-known authors:

Louis L’Amour, author of over 100 western novels – over 300 rejections before publishing his first book.

John Creasey, author of 564 mystery novels – 743 rejections before publishing his first book.

Ray Bradbury, author of over 100 science fiction novels and stories – around 800 rejections before selling his first story.

And finally, with a moral to it, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter – rejected so universally that the author decided to independently publish the book, which has now sold 45 million copies.

Rejection as a writer from traditional publishers is a bit like bad weather. It happens. It’s probably unavoidable. Do what you can to shelter from it. Don’t let it stop you doing what you have to do. Recognise that, like weather, it changes.

But recognise also that you have an alternative. You can independently publish your own work, more easily now than at any point in history, and getting easier all the time.

You can be a writer, and you can be successful; you can spot exactly what’s wrong with your writing and fix it: your work can be moulded into shape and it can be made attractive to others, even publishers. And you can bypass them and publish it anyway.

That’s because there is a way of doing fiction properly - i.e. so that it works as a story. Write your book as you originally envisaged it and make it work for YOU. Then listen to a bit of beta reader type advice and see if you want to tweak it.

But take courage!

If you meet with daunting rejection, you are in good company.

For how to create fiction that will attract readers, get my book How Stories Really Work; for setting yourself up in a career as a writer, get Become a Professional Author.


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