A few weeks ago, Alison Wells posted something on Facebook that made me think. When I mentioned it to Alison, she told me that I’d actually mis-read what she’d written. Never mind! What I thought she’d written made me think…. Confused yet? 🙂
Increasingly, I’ve been wondering what one has to do to catch the attention of a half-decent publisher. I was published for the first time when I was 12. Since then, my work has been published in anthologies (the first when I was 17), magazines, newsletters, newspapers and (in another month or so) an academic journal. I have written for television – magazine programmes, dramas and a soap for teenagers – and I have been commissioned to write plays and musicals.
For the past four years or so, I have been trying to find a publisher for my book because I don’t want to self-publish. While I know there are many good reasons to go that route, there are many reasons why I don’t feel it’s the right way to go with this particular book. It’s a memoir, called Gullible Travels and (ostensibly) it deals with the 10 years I spent in Asia. I do a lot of stupid things in the book and I realised that, in order to explain why, I needed to explain where the seeds of stupidity were sown. I was adamant I was not going to write a tome of misery lit. And I didn’t. I came up with a literary device that tells the back story in a dramatic way, but without being dreary, or disturbing the narrative. The book has been edited, read by beta-readers, read by a proper editor and edited again. And then again. And then once more, to be sure, to be sure. I am very pleased with the manuscript I now have.
I do not have an agent and, if I’m honest, my attempts to attract one were a bit on the half-hearted side. I don’t meant that when I contacted agents I was half-hearted – far from it! Any agent I contacted I did so because they had been personally recommended to me or because I was familiar with their work and how they treat their writers. I only contacted agents with whom I felt my work and I would be a good fit. There are many agents that I’d love to work with, but they don’t represent the memoir genre (I just mis-typed ‘gene’ there – was it really a typo?!), so I’ve left them alone (save for following them on Twitter 🙂 ). In a way, I’m lucky, because many publishers will accept unsolicited and un-agented submissions in this genre, where they won’t in others. So, really, it’s not the end of the world that I don’t have an agent.
I’ve approached publishers directly. Some have passed without reading a word of the book – which is fair enough. Some have asked me to send them the full manuscript – which I do with cautious excitement. In the interests of full disclosure, I was very excited the first time but after that disappointment (‘Your story is fascinating, but it doesn’t fit our current list. Good luck placing it elsewhere’), I’ve tempered my emotional reaction to a request for a ‘full’. I draw hope from the fact that no one has written back to say ‘You are delusional. You cannot write.’ or any variation on that theme. I draw hope from the fact that many, many good writers were rejected countless times before their books found homes. I am aware that this is the one project I have not shelved (I have written two other books that I couldn’t even find now on the desktop if I went looking for them!) so I feel in my gut that it has merit and I really should stick my shoulder to the wheel and work a bit harder to get it published.
I think part of the difficulty for me – and people like me who have not published a full book of their own work before – is that publishing is a gamble. We are asking publishers to take a gamble on our work. We are asking them to predict the future. We are asking them to know what will sell in the future based on what has sold in the past. That’s a hard thing to do. Last night, I was listening to The Green Room on Newstalk with Orla Barry. She was interviewing writer Joe Lansdale and he nailed it:
‘They get scared because it isn’t familiar,’ he said, when talking about bringing something new and fresh and different to the party.
And, for that, I can’t blame them. But I wonder what one has to do to convince a publisher that you have readers for your book? That you have people who want to read what you have written. For example, at an international conference on trauma about a month ago, I read from my memoir for the first time. I topped and tailed what I was reading with ‘academic stuff’ and then I read various extracts from the book, bridging them to reveal where I was in my history, so as not to confuse my audience.
The reaction was better than I could possibly have hoped for. I spoke the final word of my 20 minute presentation. And there was silence. Now, 150 years ago, I trained as an actor, so I knew that this was a good thing. After about 3 seconds someone just went ‘Wow’. And then the applause kicked in. I was thrilled. I had given birth and my baby was not ugly.
Later, several people approached me and asked where they could buy copies of the book. Those were squirmy moments for me when I had to admit that, actually, they couldn’t because it wasn’t published. This was met with disbelief.
‘Why ever not?’ one therapist asked.
‘Are they afraid?’ asked another, bluntly.
I had no answer. I still don’t.
These delegates – therapists, counsellors, doctors, mental health professionals and academics – wanted to read my book for themselves, but some also wanted to offer it as ‘bibliotherapy’ to their clients. They really believed that my book would help their clients and passionately wanted to get their hands on it. I had to disappoint them.
More than one person has said to me that I am just ahead of my time, and because of that, I make people uncomfortable. Now, I don’t think I’m a maverick or a trail-blazer or a thought-leader. I do think, however, that I have written a book that could be very useful to a certain cohort of people, and very entertaining to another.
A few weeks ago, I happened to be talking about the book with a young woman who works in the theatre and is in her late twenties. I was musing about the possibility of turning (part of) Gullible Travels into a play. Her enthusiastic response was:
‘Please do! I’d go and see it! And I’d love to read the book, as well. Will you keep me up-dated?!’ I was surprised that she’d be interested in the content. I was wrong. It clearly struck a chord with her. Similarly, it has struck a chord with a man who survived Belsen (he was in tears listening to me read and he thought it was fiction).
So I have people who want to read my book, it has been trialled on real live people who thought it was worth reading/listening to and I am happy to do whatever I can to promote it. I just don’t know what to do to get the attention of a publisher. Maybe I should make a video of me reading from my book and stick it up on You Tube? Maybe I should say that, if you’re a publisher and you’re reading this, I’m a safe bet. There are more than just my three best friends who want to read Gullible Travels. I already have an international audience waiting to read the book (or listen to it on audiobook!). Or maybe I should just upload the thing as a PDF here (with a paypal button beside it!) and let whoever wants to read it go right ahead? 🙂
If you have thoughts, comments or advice, please pop them in a note below. Thanks!