On Publishing: Movies vs. Reality

Recently I had occasion to remark how authors’ biographical blurbs tend to cut out the less glamorous details of authors’ pasts — while the very people who do the cutting whine endlessly that the public has an overglamorized image of authorship, as if they were not personally, directly part of all that.

Fiction, of course, also plays its part in this overglamorization — and in ways besides its depicting what authors do as mainly sitting about in bookshops autographing copies of their latest for starstruck fans. There is also how it skips over the little matter of publishing the thing. We hear about people writing (hear, rather than see, generally), and then, bam, there they are in the bookshop autographing away, even if, so far as we know, they are first-time writers who have no agent, editor, etc. lined up.

It gives the impression that all you have to do is finish the book, and then there is someone to take it off your hands — when, as the reality of authorship for the great majority shows, the hardest writing process is likely to be infinitely easier than getting a publisher to even look at the thing, never mind take it; that point the one at which the real struggle begins. The writing, after all, is up to the writer; but publishing is where other people get a say. If someone is a celebrity, or connected; if they are an “insider”; they can do deals. But what a director who had had an experience of being both outsider and insider in Hollywood once told me, while “insiders can do deals . . . outsiders can get lost,” with Park Avenue no less unfriendly a place that way than Tinseltown.

The big publishers generally won’t do deals with someone who doesn’t have an agent, and tell anyone who would approach them “Get an agent” as if it were as simple as getting a plumber — but agents won’t take on people who aren’t published, because it’s their job to represent people with careers, not create those careers for them. There are slush piles here and there, but the priority accorded them is low, the task of going through them entrusted to unpaid interns who might occasionally find something — but at best an agent getting five or ten thousand submissions this way might pick one up for their list. The rest get silence — or form rejection letters, often after months or even years of waiting for an answer.

In short, there just aren’t that many opportunities even to have your work seriously looked at — while it is worth remembering that those who do the looking can always find a reason to say “No,” even if they bother to give any reason at all (the silence, or the form rejection letter, sparing them even the obligation to offer flimsy excuses for a brush-off).

The result is that the slush pile just isn’t a serious way in — and unless you have connections there aren’t likely any others, meaning that for the great majority, no matter what the quality of the manuscript they have in hand, there is no way in at all. And many beat their heads against the wall for years, even decades, either ignorant of that reality, or desperately denying it.

But you’d never know it from the movies — or for that matter, from the vehement denunciation by Big Publishing’s trolls of those who, realizing that their choice is either to not be published at all, or to publish themselves (often, publish themselves on a zero-budget, wholly DIY basis), opt for the latter with all its disadvantages and its hardships and its risks. The trolls, vehement that publishing should be the monopoly of a professional elite; vehement that if that elite’s selection is less than perfectly open and meritocratic and fair, that one may be denied their chance simply because “they didn’t pick their parents well” this is just too bad for them; vehement that anyone whom the gatekeepers refuse to admit into the charmed circle of professionals, turning the outsider who can get lost into the insider who can do deals, should resign their dreams of authorship; are of course outraged by what they see as Defiance of Authority by the Unwashed.

But the self-publishers persist anyway.

So far little would seem to have come of the fact — so much so that those desperately hoping for the victory of all those writers chasing their dreams over the elite that sneered in their faces for so long have probably felt something of the heartbreak all too familiar to the supporters of defeated revolutions. But to say that this will never change is another thing, “never” being a very long time indeed.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.



Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.