Monday, 15 September 2008


The publishing game is a funny one. You’d have thought that writing a book was one of the hardest things you can do, but you’d be wrong. The really hard bit is getting it published.

Most UK publishers won’t even look at your book unless you’ve got a literary agent, although some authors have done it the other way around (Iain Banks, for instance). So you have to send off the first three chapters of your magnificent octopus* to literary agents along with a letter outlining why it’s interesting and a synopsis of the book itself. You also have to enclose an SAE (stamped addressed envelope). Agents are aggressively analogue and won’t respond by email. 98% of them won’t take submissions by email and they are really, really picky about people following the rules, Manuscripts should be double spaced, printed one side, loose bound. Letters should be straightforward and informative, not quirky or different. And so on. Agents make aspiring authors jump through an awful lot of hoops. In the right sequence, too, if you don’t mind.

The putative author is lucky to get any response at all beyond a photocopied rejection slip. Most agents don’t even bother reading the contents of their daily ‘slushpile’ – the 40-odd envelopes that land on the agency doorstep every day. I rather suspect many give the job of going through these submissions to the secretary or an intern.

Some are better than this. But they are in the minority.

So it’s a soul-destroying process. You send off batches your manuscript (or MS as it’s called in the trade) and get batches of copied rejections back for your efforts. If you’re really lucky – and everyone involved will tell you how lucky you are to get this – you’ll get some feedback, a few lines of encouragement and perhaps even a tip or two on improving the book. Writers buffeted by constant rejection receive these occasional flashes of light with an almost pathetic gratitude. And all this, mind you, to get someone to agree to bother representing you and therefore take 10-15% of your earnings.

Enter a bit of Web 2.0 thinking: publisher HarperCollins has launched a brilliant new website called Authonomy. Writers can post their work up on Authonomy, anything from 10,000 words to a complete book, and people can visit the site and read their books. If people like a book, they can put it on their virtual bookshelves, which increases the book’s ranking. Every month, HarperCollins’ editors skim the top 5 books off the pile and take them off to read. Getting an HC editor to read your book is, particularly if you’ve been drowning in the shitty stench and mush of the slushpiles for a while, probably worth a finger or so.

So, new talent gets a chance and the slushpile gets disintermediated. And it will, if others follow this example. On Authonomy, new authors can support each other, read each other’s work and comment, as can readers in general. People can be as critical as they like or as supportive as they like. And, the theory goes, over time good work will get recognised and make its way to the top of the tree. There are also forums on the site where people can discuss writing and publishing in general, plug their books or make recommendations. Not bad, huh?

There are question marks, of course. Isn’t this all a bit demeaning, a sort of literary ‘Big Brother’ where people are scrabbling over each other, all pretending to be nice to each other as they seek out that top five slot? Yes, there are elements of that. Does it replace the slushpile? No, it doesn’t – but it’s a first step for a business that has remained maddeningly crusty, dusty and analogue.

Why do I know all this stuff about writing or even give a damn? Because my book’s up there with over 1,000 others. It’s called ‘Space’ and I wrote it a few years back because voices in my head told me to do it. It’s a wilfully self-destructive and scabrous little thing, intended to make you laugh and to generally behave as badly as a book could behave. It’s also been rejected by pretty much every agent in the UK. Irritatingly, it made all those that read it laugh, but many felt it was too different. I do hate that.

Anyway, do feel free to wander over to Authonomy and have a read of Space. If it makes you laugh, feel free to put it on your bookshelf and help propel me closer to getting an HC editor to read the damn thing.

Similarly, feel free to have a look at Keefieboy’s book, ‘Travels in Xanadu-du’, which is also up there!

* Magnum opus. It’s a Black Addder joke...


Keefieboy said...

Thanks for the plug!

i*maginate said...

I read the first few paras. Ben Johnson sounds quite interesting. ;-)

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