Reality Check

Published by: RichardB on 9th Oct 2017 | View all blogs by RichardB

Five years ago (My God, is it really that long?), I wrote a blog called Climbing Mountains about the successive hurdles you have to get yourself over on the way to producing a publishable novel. The last hurdle I mentioned was trying to get published. At the time I was only a few weeks into the first draft of what became the first novel I'm prepared to own up to, and that was as far as I could see at the time. Now that my second is going out on submission I think it's time for another reality check.


Apologies to those old hands who know all this already. Different apologies to any whose dreams I may be about to shatter, but the further along your writing road you are before you learn all this the more acute your disillusionment is going to be, so the sooner you learn what you're up against the better. I'm not advising you to give up: just to go in with your eyes open. And take it one step at a time.


Am I understood? Okay. Take a deep breath. Here we go.


So you've got yourself over all those writing hurdles, and worked hard to hone your craft. You've finished that first draft. You've edited it and rewritten it, again and again. You've polished it to within an inch of its life. You're as satisfied as you can be that your plot and characters are compelling, and that your prose sparkles and sings. Congratulations: this is where the agony really begins.


Because unless you're content to sing to an empty room, you want readers. You want your book to be published. And that involves a whole new set of hurdles to be overcome. The good news is that it's only the first one that's down to you. The bad news is that the first one is the biggest.


It's pretty well known, but worth saying again: an established agent will receive over a thousand unsolicited manuscripts every year. And out of all those hopeful writers she will offer representation to perhaps one or two. That's a hit rate of 0.1 to 0.2 per cent.


That's not quite as bad as it looks, because at least three-quarters of those manuscripts will be, as the Crabbit Old Bat, Nicola Morgan, once pithily put it, 'pure shite'. And yours will be better than that, because you've put all that work into honing your craft, haven't you? You'd better have, because even if your writing is in that top quarter your chances are still less than one per cent, and those statistics mean that agents are going to seize any excuse to reject your book. Not because their life's mission is to trample on the dreams of aspiring writers, or because they are keepers of the gates of an exclusive club, but because they simply don't have the time to give careful consideration to every manuscript. Finding new writers is only a small part of their job. By far the greater part of their time is spent looking after their existing clients.


So you try your damnedest not to give them that chance. You put at least as much sweat into your covering letter and synopsis as you did into your manuscript. You do your research, identifying which agents might like your book. You check up on their websites, taking careful note of anything they say and especially the submission guidelines, which you follow to the letter. Only then do you send off your submissions.


And then you enter the living hell that is Waiting For An Answer. You'll be lucky to hear anything in less than about six weeks. And you'll be even luckier if they're not all rejections. Less than one per cent, remember. And also remember that it's not enough to have written a compelling, beautifully written book. It has to be a book that the trade perceives a chance of selling in the current market. Agents and publishers are not in it for the love of supporting struggling writers. Well, that may be part of their motivation, but they also have to make a living. All the agents you have submitted to will be sharply aware of this. If they weren't, they wouldn't still be in business. Or soon won't be.


But suppose you strike gold. You get a reply saying that Agent X would like you to send her the full manuscript. Yay! Break out the champers, or whatever else you like to celebrate with. You deserve it, because you've got yourself over that first hurdle, and not many do. But hang on: you haven't made it yet.


Because it's only the first hurdle. I recently read on here (Sorry, but I can't remember who posted it) of an agent being asked how many of her full manuscript requests resulted in an offer of representation from her, and the reply was one in every three or four. The odds have shortened drastically, but they're still against you. Knowing that, of course, isn't going to stop you feeling full of joy and sending off a reply with the full manuscript before the virtual dust has even settled in your in-box. And then you're back in hell, waiting again. It's been known to take months.


Now let's suppose that your wait ends the best way, with Agent X telling you that she LOVES your manuscript and inviting you up to London (very, very few agents are based anywhere else) for a meeting. You've probably never been so excited. You go up, you have lunch together, you talk and talk about the one thing you love talking about most in the world: your book. To someone who's actually interested. And at the end of it all she offers you representation. You're over the moon. You have an agent. You've made it.


Er, sorry. Not quite.


The first thing that will happen is that your lovely new agent will make some suggestions about how your book can be made better. This usually are suggestions, not demands, and can be open to (quite possibly interesting) discussion, but agents and writers have been known to part company when the irresistible agent meets the immovable writer on such an issue. Hopefully that won't happen, so off you go on another rewrite. Or several.


Then hell starts up all over again because, no matter how much Agent X loves your book, she's got to find a publisher's editor who feels the same way. And even though she has nous, knowledge of the trade, and contacts that you haven't, there is no guarantee that she will succeed.


And even if she does, can you rest on your laurels? Not on your nelly, mate. The editor will also have ideas for improvements. And it's not a good idea to dismiss this input from the editor (or the agent) lightly. These people are not arrogant know-it-alls out to prove that they're superior beings to you. They are professionals with far more knowledge than you have about what makes people buy books and keep reading them. What they are actually doing is, as Emma Darwin puts it, trying to help you write the book you thought you'd already written. It may just happen that the book they think you've written isn't the same book that you thought you'd written. Then you are going to have problems.


But that doesn't happen often, so let's suppose you've finished yet another round of rewrites and your book's all ready to go. Now there's yet another hurdle. That editor has to sell your book at the publisher's acquisitions meeting, to people who are business people, not (at least not necessarily) book lovers, and who almost certainly haven't even read it. They're not interested in your singing prose, your fascinating characters, or your nail-biting plot. They're interested in only one thing: will it sell?


Well, miracles can happen. Now you're offered a publishing deal. Phew. Big, big celebrations. You're a published author.


Not just yet. All these processes take time (at least a year for the final stage between that offer of a contract and actual publication), and by the time your dream comes true and you're holding your published book in your hands you'll be lucky if you have any nails left. But it's all been worth it. Maybe you'll even see your book in Waterstone's window. You've really made it now.


Or have you? There are hundreds of novels published every year. What's to say that yours is going to be one of the few that really sell? Despite their expertise and assessment of the market, those publishers have taken a gamble on you, and they may have got it wrong. When you've finished admiring that window display in Waterstone's, walk into the nearest branch of The Works, and look at those tables piled high with discounted books. Why do you think they are there?


And even if your book isn't one of the many that sink without trace, there's no guarantee that your next book will be accepted. Yes, you've got a much better chance than someone with an unsolicited manuscript in the slush pile, but you can't count on it. The writer of the most successful novel (that I've heard of) ever to come out of the Word Cloud couldn't get her second book published. Unless you become one of the stellar few, there is never going to be a time when you can sit back, relax, and say 'I've made it.' 


Which brings us (finally!) to the last point. Remember that the James Pattersons and J K Rowlings of this world are only a tiny percentage of published authors. The vast majority of authors, even established ones, don't earn enough out of writing alone to make a good living. You might be able to give up the day job, but you'd better have something else up your sleeve.


So is there no crumb of comfort anywhere? Well, yes, there is. With all those factors in play, all those hurdles to be got over, failure to get published doesn't necessarily mean you have to flay yourself and convince yourself that your writing is rubbish. There are all sorts of other reasons (including bad luck) why you haven't made it.


Footnote: yes, I know. I haven't said anything about self-publishing. This blog is long enough as it is, and self-publishing presents a whole different set of challenges. And if you do decide to go down that route, bear in mind that, done properly, it will entail you laying out substantial sums of money (on professional editing, proof reading and cover design, for starters) that you are most unlikely ever to recoup. Not hundreds but thousands upon thousands of self-published novels come out every year, the vast majority of them are downright awful, and the brutal truth is that very few of them attain even three-figure sales. 



  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    Dear Richard,
    You have one skill in your favour. You write with clarity, simplicity and logic.
  • Scheherazade
    by Scheherazade 9 months ago
    Lovely blog Richard, wise words. Although your full MS figure might be a bit out...I once asked a top agent at York how many books out of full MS requested did she take on - 1 in a 100!
  • Hilly
    by Hilly 9 months ago
    None of this stops us, does it Richard. Onward and upward.
  • Philippa
    by Philippa 9 months ago
    Ah, great blog. It feels, doesn't it, like trying to scale a monstrous (but beautiful) citadel, where the air becomes ever more rarified and the fall ever higher. But, we take our courage in our hands....
  • Willow
    by Willow 9 months ago
    Great blog Richard. Currently in that hellish waiting for an answer limbo. Good luck everyone
  • Aiyla
    by Aiyla 9 months ago
    What are you trying to do to us RichardB? No, no no we will not give up :) Keep doing what you love. You just never know ...
  • Dolly
    by Dolly 9 months ago
    Hi Richard. I felt shattered just reading it! I'm on my second novel, an achievement in itself. I've re-written the first one along with a series of draconian edits. It is now ready to do the rounds again. However, you point out one thing that everyone should understand. Agents and publishers are motivated by money; will it sell? I'm also a poet, musician and singer songwriter. I treat this in a troubadour fashion, as being successful in music is very similar to writing. You have to jump through a series of flaming hoops, run to the equator, do a hundred back-flips, and walk backwards the length of of Britain, and even then, you might fail. Then there is the other reason that Richard didn't really touch on: fashion, and those in a position to dictate it. If a song or a book becomes successful, then the style is mercilessly copied by people who are hoping to be famous. Personally, I think you should write to the best of your ability and more, but most of all enjoy, because most of the enjoyment of writing, whether, its prose, poetry or music, comes from being creative, and we're all that and more, aren't we?
  • Sandra
    by Sandra 9 months ago
    Superbly-written blog Richard.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 9 months ago
    As good an explanation as any of why anyone who's in it for the money should probably put their resources into picking lottery numbers instead. It's a tough old business all right. Ah, but a man's reach exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for? It may be that the gulfs will wash us down. It may be we touch the happy isles and see the brave Achilles, whom we knew.

    Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
  • stephenterry
    by stephenterry 9 months ago
    An excellent blog, albeit, IMO, the hurdles can be boiled down to the following. I think writers on here should understand that they must write a book that will sell if they want to get published the traditional way. And that's the main sticking point, because who can tell? Agents and Publishers cut the odds in this way:

    If you are a 'celebrity' or made news headlines. Even if your book is crap, the public will buy it.
    If you've been published before AND have a ready audience who will buy it.
    If your novel is shortlisted for a literary prize, people will buy it to put on their coffee table.
    If the subject matter is in fashion/demand - providing you're at the head of the queue.

    And so on until they exhaust their list to maybe consider a first time writer. Which is most of us. Therefore we are 'competing' with similar writers in whatever genre the book is in. And the genre had better be discernible or we're on the slush pile.

    As a final observation, when I visit my second hand bookshop it's jammed full of published writers I've never even heard of - there are hundreds of books on offer. And of the 'well known names' often these writers have written many novels, probably to keep themselves solvent. For a newbie with one book on offer to an agent, the odds are against it ever seeing the light of day.

    That's the reality, but hey, we're writing for fun, aren't we...
  • bazbaron
    by bazbaron 9 months ago
    Well put, ST. Pot of gold and rainbows come to mind.
  • Penworthy
    by Penworthy 9 months ago
    An excellent blog, Richard. In that little matter of sticking to submission guidelines I've often wondered, if we could see the first submissions of successful authors, we would probably find that they had broken the guidelines but got published anyway.
  • Lizzielion
    by Lizzielion 9 months ago
    Thanks for the clarity, Richard. Sitting here working on draft number eight, doing some light housework suddenly seems quite attractive.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 9 months ago
    It's pretty well known that the Faber and Faber reader who originally saw William Golding's sub for Lord of the Flies hated it ('Rubbish and dull. Pointless'), but probably less well known that the editor who decided to take it on despite the unfavourable reception demanded a LOT of changes. These were mostly in the form of cuts. There was a great deal of religious allegory in the original draft, a much longer original opening (thirty pages on the nuclear war that forms the backdrop) and a somewhat longer ending. It was also originally titled 'Strangers from Within' and, it is said, went through 19 further suggested titles before the eventual one was settled upon. However, the editor, Monteith, suggested that Golding shorten the original opening - Golding went one further and on his own initiative, cut it altogether. This is a wonderful example of 'accept/adapt/reject' to my mind. However, it's worth noting that the book went through many rounds of editing, and by the end, Golding was so sick of it he could barely bring himself to look at the pages any more.
  • Lizzielion
    by Lizzielion 9 months ago
    Wow, Daeds. How come you know all this stuff? That's fascinating.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 9 months ago
    Thanks Lizzielion. The processes of some authors fascinate me, and a lot of information is out there in biographies, documentaries etc (there was an Arena special on Golding a year or two ago for some anniversary or other). Joseph Conrad was another whose process is painful, although I'm not sure how much of that was down to his editor and how much his own perfectionism.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 9 months ago
    And I'm not sure how much of the possibly forthcoming lack of success of my novel is going to be down to my own chronic habit of being easily discouraged...
  • Catasshe
    by Catasshe 9 months ago
    The best people are easily discouraged, Richard. :-)
  • Yo
    by Yo 9 months ago
    "You'll never be a Prem footballer, son." But some do become Prem footballers.

    "You'll never win the lottery." But people do win the lottery.

    "You'll never invent anything that makes money." But people do invent things that make money.

    Anyway, that's my take on this!

    As young 17 year-olds I worked with a guy at our local Tesco. Wet-behind-the-ears teenagers whose only aim in life was to make enough money to spend on beer at the weekend. He worked on wines and spirits, I worked as a trainee butcher, a couple of years later he left and went on to other things.

    About a year ago I bumped into him in the pub and here is his story:

    He did something extraordinary and against all the odds, he won! Perseverance, obsession and an unshakeable determination not to fail or to be dismissed lightly, he found his way to succeed. I can't say I ever saw that in him as a teenager, but belief in his product saw him triumph at an unlikely age

    So, I say this. Don't put down the pen. Instead, become obsessive, become unshakeable, be up for the fight and develop a thick skin, because what you're writing is unique to your brain and that's a good starting point for the war you're about to fight.
  • nba
    by nba 9 months ago
    Yo, Yo!
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 9 months ago
    Ah, I never said give up. In fact I specifically stated that I *wasn't* saying give up. I'm just saying you should go in with your eyes open.
  • Yo
    by Yo 9 months ago
    Nobody said you said 'give up' Richard. It's a generic statement to say 'keep going' even if you think all the time and effort is going to waste. Your blog is very useful for any aspiring writer to get a sense of reality because having that will push us on to try that much harder. Some of us will put down our pens, but the ones who want it enough will knuckle down over the coming months and substitute thoughts of Christmas into a marketing plan for the masterpiece on their laptop. Stuff Santa, time to get to work!

    Oh, and if anyone does ask what we want in our stockings this year then it's 'money' and no skimping on it either. Editing and marketing won't come cheap.
  • Caducean Whisks
    by Caducean Whisks 9 months ago
    Nicely laid out and summed up, Richard.
    I don't have much more to add, except in response to Yo's last point that 'editing won't come cheap.' No, it won't, but paying for it isn't the greater hardship. Having an editor doesn't mean they'll re-write it for you and make it good while you have a lovely time elsewhere.
    It's not like getting a plumber in - you go out for the day while he does his thing, then you come back and the plumbing works (in theory).
    No. An editor will point out bits and pieces and reflect back to you how your work comes across, and give you new ideas to think about and may suggest things you can do. But that's the crux of it: things YOU can do. They won't do it for you.
    And this bit requires digging deep yet again, girding your loins, rolling up your sleeves, and getting on with it even when you don't want to.
  • Sandra
    by Sandra 9 months ago
    @ Whisks - "Hear, hear!!"
  • Janeshuff
    by Janeshuff 9 months ago
    Yes Whisks! From one currently girding up her loins, rolling up her sleeves and digging deep yet again, you are right.
  • Tony
    by Tony 9 months ago
    Great stuff, Richard. One thing not mentioned, which I've found invaluable is having the so-called elevator pitch learned off by heart and ready at the drop of a - well, merest hint of possible interest. Primarily, it's a pithy one or two sentence summing up of what your book is all about, designed to grab someone's interest (and that can be used if you're lucky enough to find yourself going up (or down, the direction is immaterial) in a lift with an agent.) However its use extends well beyond enrapturing a potential agent.

    How many times have you been asked by friends, people in the pub, whoever, when they hear you've written a book, 'Have your? What's it about?' and you launch into a rambling reply that tends to be different every time as you recall various strands of your intricate plot depending on what's uppermost in your mind at the time, and your listener's eyes gradually glaze over...

    Instead, trot out your elevator pitch - brief, succinct and good enough to make them want to buy it! (Of course it is - it was good enough to make an agent want to read it - wasn't it? It should have been!!) Because, although my experience has been in self-publishing, even going down the traditional route, publishers expect the writer to put in a lot of effort in promoting sales. And, of course, if you buy some author copies and sell them, you'll make a lot more per sale than the standard royalty from a bookshop sale.

    So, it is well worth writing the best elevator pitch you can come up with and learning it. I've long since lost count of the numerous times I have written or spoken mine - and even lost count of the number of sales of 'Dillon's Rising' that have resulted. Still small beer, but every one counts.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 9 months ago
    I may not have mentioned the elevator pitch, but I do have one for my current effort, thanks partly to the editor who did my WW critique. 'A man on the run from an abusive relationship finds a new life as a live-in barman in a remote pub in Wales, but the pub has sinister secrets of its own...' Dat-de-da-da-daaah.
  • Little Wol
    by Little Wol 6 months ago
    RichardB - this blog made me want to laugh and cry simultaneously. As one who is in the very early stages - MS written, edited by a WW editor, submitted to various agents, received one full MS request, and now well into week 9 of "waiting to hear back from the agent", agony is becoming my default position. Advice I would give to any aspiring author; don't write because you want to be an author, write because you love writing, because it's compulsive and you simply have to. Because that is the best part, the rest is, well, agony.
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