I was reminded recently of why I decided to self-publish A Year in Lisbon.
I was at a conference at the weekend whose focus was on getting a book published. It had nothing to do with self-publishing; this was about trying to get your book published with a mainstream, corporate publisher.
The focus of the conference was on getting an agent. Very few publishing houses now accept manuscripts from authors, and so they rely on literary agents to find and vet writers for them. So the first thing a budding writer needs to do is find an agent.
I was involved in a workshop with twelve other hopefuls and a literary agent from London called Simon Tremin. He had some useful advice about how to approach an agent, and about what to put in a synopsis and how to write an email to best get your point across.
There was also an agent panel which took place later, with five other literary agents who answered questions from the hundred or so assembled authors hoping to get published.
One of the aspects mentioned was the concept of an “elevator pitch”. This comes from the world of Hollywood movies and the idea is this: if you are stuck in a lift (or “elevator”) with a movie producer and you have an idea for a movie, you need to be quick and to the point in explaining your project. In fact, you need to be able to do it in two sentences.
We were given some examples of two-sentence summaries of various books. This was put forward as an important thing to think about when you are promoting a book, or trying for an agent or a publisher. The Elevator Pitch – 100,000 words of a novel boiled down to twenty.
I felt like asking – what if James Joyce had had to give an elevator pitch for Ulysses? How would that have worked? Two guys travel round Dublin separately over the space of one day, going to a funeral, doing a bit of shopping, going to the beach. What the fuck does that have to do with the masterful, complex world that Joyce created in his novel?
The point that was made seemingly over and over again was that agents are busy people and they have to be grabbed by your elevator pitch, by your 150 word summary in your email, by your first couple of pages. There was no real sense that books or writers deserved a bit of time and attention; you could spend a year and a half writing a novel, and it could be rejected in two minutes based on a short summary that doesn’t grab.
Earlier in the day, Simon Tremin had told a story about an unpublished writer that was on a well-known creative writing course. Apparently she was the next big thing, and so every agent in London was trying to get her to sign with them. Simon tracked her down, and managed to convince her to sign with his agency. She then told him that she had actually submitted a novel to him the year before, but that he had not been interested then. He seemed to think that this story was proof that you should keep trying, even if you get rejected.
To me, this did not illustrate what he though it did. To me, this was evidence of a certain amount of group-think in the world of agents. This unnamed writer actually submitted work to Simon in the past and he wasn’t interested, and it was only when he knew that every other agent wanted her, that he began to try to track her down.
The whole conference more or less convinced me that looking for an agent and a publisher is – at least for the novels that I have written and will write – basically a waste of time. So few writers actually get agents, and of them only 70% actually get published, and so the default setting of any agent is to simply reject your work, unless it is revolutionary, extraordinary or a sure-fire bestseller. And if it so happens that what you write does not fit into the typical genres of YA, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, crime, chick-lit or historical fiction, then your chances of success are miniscule.
Luckily, there is another possibility. Self-publishing is increasingly accessible, and is now a real option. Writers are no longer at the mercy of an agent somewhere in Haymarket or Whitehall, sitting in their office and rejecting your work when your 150 word summary is not mind-blowing enough. We no longer have to beg and plead to get past the gatekeepers of culture, who used to decide who could and could not publish their book to the world.
I appreciate that agents and publishers are busy people, and that they receive a huge number of submissions every week, but it is clear to me that the system is set up so that they will miss a lot of really good writing.
Bookshops are full of books that have been rejected over and over and over again by publishers and agents, until they finally found someone that saw something great in them. J.K. Rowling is the classic example. It was only because she was persistent that she has become the massive success that she has. But I don’t know if I could be bothered to go on begging and pleading to be let in to the magic inner circle of published authors, when the chances are that it is never really going to happen.
I would rather just put books out myself. It will be on a small scale, and I won’t make any money, but at least someone will read them, and I will have some control over the process. And I won’t have to prepare a fucking elevator pitch for anyone.