Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why You Don't Get Published

Jean Hannah Edelstein on the Guardian blog today tells the heartbreaking truth about publishers' slush piles:
It was my first job out of university: I was bright-eyed and idealistic and imagined that I might become some kind of beneficent tweedy sprite, conveying the writing of unknown literary artistes to the masses. By the time I left my job in publishing a few weeks ago, my idealism was in tatters, destroyed by the piles of typescripts I received from people who told me that their fondest desire was to write full time while sitting in a villa overlooking the Mediteranian, despite the fact that they didn't know how to spell it. ... The envelopes and emails rolled in, and I rolled them out with the standard knockback letter. It stopped being funny; it felt arduous. I hated that it was my job to shatter people's dreams of being published, but I also hated that so many of them had such illiterate dreams. The physical act of writing a book may not be difficult, but there's a big difference between smacking away at a keyboard and writing something that anyone who doesn't really love you wants to read. The majority of people who submitted their work went wrong after the first few pages at best, if the cover letter wasn't dreadful.
If you haven't slashed your writerly wrists yet, you might want to read about Patricia Chui's slush pile experiences on Salon.com:
It's a worthy sentiment to give every aspiring writer a shot, no matter how long that shot may be. After all, every slush writer fervently believes that his manuscript is just as good as what's being sold at Barnes & Noble and that all he needs is a snappy cover letter and a foot in the door to get a publisher to realize it, too. Yet the sad truth is that the vast majority of slush is, to put it kindly, unpublishable. Not good or bad, just ... there, bland and forgettable, like an unadorned rice cake. If the odds of discovering something special in the mix are slim, it isn't because publishable manuscripts are sprinkled with pixie dust, but because so much of what's submitted seems like varying degrees of the exact same thing.
If you're a Malaysian writer, your chances of getting published locally are very much higher simply because local publishers are desperate to have something decent to put out and quotas to meet. MPH editor Eric Forbes doesn't mince words when he tells Malaysian authors why their work sucks:
Whether we like it or not, the fact of the matter is that most writers lack even the most basic of language skills. There are many common mistakes that writers make that they are unaware of. These are the stuff editors look out for: grammar (why? simply because most writers lack knowledge of basic grammar); punctuation (to make sure the commas, full-stops, colons, semicolons, hyphens and dashes are placed at all the right places); inconsistencies; unnecessarily repetitious phrases; readability (toning down on circumlocutious writing and overly long paragraphs by breaking them down into manageable chunks); pruning clich├ęs (or allowing its sparing use); correcting the spelling and ensuring the use of consistent spelling throughout the book; checking facts and figures; revising and rewriting sentences and reorganising paragraphs for clarity of thought and fluidity; doing away with excess research and making sure the writer writes more if there is a dearth of content.
Manuscripts like these wouldn't even get a look in in the UK or the US, you know.

11 comments:

midnite lily said...

I was just thinking the other day,
how do you believe in your story enough to know that people will want to read it? aren't there other better stories?
especially after reading ur "teacher's pet" entry.

I'm embarrassed to say that I've actually begun the novel I want to write. but it's so easy to be put down and give up...

Ron said...

I try to avoid reading anything along the lines of Edelstein's blog subject: I get so down from them I can't write for days. I think of all the hours of my life I've wasted putting words on paper that no one will ever read.

When I come out of my 'downer' I realise the choice is not mine: I could no more stop writing than I could eating or breathing.

Ron said...

And one last thing:

Edelstein writes, 'It was my first job out of university.'

I think that's part of a larger problem. We need some publisher's readers who have never seen the inside of a university.

Tunku Halim said...

That's why Malaysian writers are so lucky.

But back to the slush piles, the question is how come so many publishers manage to reject JK Rowling and the disguised Patrick White?

I understand that many publishers don't have the resources to even read a good portion of their slush piles. Hence automatic rejection.

bibliobibuli said...

it is a downer of a subject and for that i sort of apologise ... and sort of don't because so many wannabe's i meet have such unrealistic expectations for their extremely rough around the edges work - and worst of all don't even bother to read other authors believing they are a special case!

but don't get too down - there are those folks who DO get published and DO do well.

Pelukismelukis said...

This seems like a good indication and wake up call for me (a person who is quite prone to delusion) to throw in the towel and not bother with publishing my work.

Anonymous said...

Actually pelukis, you're supposed to say "f.. you, what do you know ?" and published it anyway, and see it become a big success so you can say "I told you so." :D

bibliobibuli said...

pelukismelukis - actually a big danger is precisely this ... good writers who might get published get discourages and give up when they hear too much slush pile talk. i love what i've seen of your book so far. if i had the money i'd want to publish you.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with highlighting the facts of the publishing business and the craft of writing. Writing is tough. Writers must be passionate about the writing process. There will always be good and bad writers, though more of the latter. Good writers don't just give up. They rise to the occasion. Facts are facts and writers must not be deluded from these facts. If you care about writing and believe in improving the way you write, you are what the publishing industry needs. Don't give up; go forward! Believe me, this is advice coming from the heart!

Anonymous said...

Yes it's easy to get published here.. I know someone who write such gems as "I shudder when the cold water hits my buttocks" -- she's published and selling fairly well.

In this part of the world it's about accessibility and marketing. If you have both you will sell.

lil ms d said...

malaysian writers must also remember, upon publication of their book, they have to market it, publicise it, sell it... chase after distributors... it's a one writer's show here...