These last couple of weeks I’ve been looking into the mysteries of having work accepted for publishing and I came across a few things that I thought might be worth sharing with other people, particularly writers.
It appears to me that the people in charge of saying whether your work is good enough to be read by the community at large are using some kind of rubric to judge who you are before they even read any of your writing. The rubric will include stuff like where your name appears in a Google search, if you have a website and how much you have archived on that website, any literary associations you have, for example, do you have connections with an editor, are you friends with an already-published writer. There will probably be other criteria like where have you worked, where you live, who are you married to, which school does your kid go to and if you’ve have anything published previously, who was it published by, and a whole bunch of other stuff. All of these answers will have a way for them to be objectively measured, sometimes by a numerical value so that you get spat out at the bottom of the rubric as a whole number: Jennifer Parry = 2, which sux for me because their minimum for consideration might be 7. Bear in mind that this is all BEFORE they even read anything you’ve written. Ever wondered how the big publishing houses have the capacity to accept open submissions? This is how they’re doing it. There are few of these rubrics on the internet if you care to sift through mountains of stuff to find them.
From what I’ve seen during this investigation, it appears that to be given the chance to be a successful writer, you need to already successful at something else, or be married to someone who is successful. This applies to fiction and non fiction, although it’s particularly important for non fiction.
If you are a nobody, like me, and have a great non fiction story to tell, forget about submitting it to a traditional publishing house because none of them, and that includes agents, are interested in hearing from everyday people, even if you have a gut wrenching personal account of an atrocity, unless you are connected in some way to a bigger authority, nobody is interested. At the minimum you need some kind of PhD. Many non fiction writers in Australia have been journalists or involved in the media. Many of them are experts in a field, even if it’s not what they’re writing about, but still, they have some kind of public profile. I’m guessing that the reason publishers only want writers like these is because they’re proven and because the writers are already connected, which makes marketing them and their writing much easier and more profitable. Their work is also more likely to have a longer shelf life, especially if the writer has a continued presence in the media or in their field of expertise. Basically, they’re a brand already.
From what I’ve seen it’s a similar story with fiction, but probably not quite as dire, but still, it does appear that it’s the same here: already being successful at something else is a great way to become a successful writer of fiction if you’re looking to be published by a traditional publishing house or have your work even looked at by an agent. It’s likely that they’ll still be using some kind of rubric to assess who you are as a person before they even read any of your stuff.
Don’t forget either that these people are all friends with each other and the same thing goes here as it does when it comes to applying for jobs: they’re going to favour their mates rather than people they don’t know, even if you are the better candidate for the position. For example, I came across a memoir that was recently published by one the big houses. It’s written by a “nobody” and is about someone who does something not so extraordinary. When I looked into it I discovered that yes, this person is probably a good writer, but more importantly I discovered that they were connected to what the publisher would consider to be the right people. When I looked at this person’s background I discovered a few things that made me think it likely that the writer has well-positioned friends in terms of the publishing industry given the focus of their memoir.
Obviously, anyone can self publish anything these days, so you could just avoid the whole thing by self publishing, but that doesn’t make what the publishing houses or agents do right. I’m not saying that they ALL do this or that I know for 100% certain that this goes on for each and every single submission, but something is certainly awry and the evidence, which is out there for anyone who cares to look, does suggest that the evaluation process isn’t particularly unbiased.
Self publishing is a great option, but it’s very expensive. I often have people say to me, “Just self publish it” as though doing that is as simple as one-two-three, but it’s not. I’ve just had an 11K word manuscript edited and that cost $300. Ok, so that’s not too bad, but now I have to work out how to do a bunch of other stuff like, cover art, imprint page, ISBN, then creating an eBook out of it, uploading it for sale, working out how much to charge and deciding if I’m going to print hard copies and if I can afford to do that and blah, blah, blah. I’d be hoping to get away with it for under $1000, but I don’t know if I will. After all that I have to market it and distribute the physical copies if I decide to go down that road. Will I even make my money back? I don’t know. That’s not such a big deal for one book, but if you are investing this amount, sometimes more, for every book you produce, then the amount of work you can produce is really finite.
Sometimes it’s really hard to not think, what’s the point of even bothering? But I do like writing and after spending half the day re-reading my own memoir I can’t accept that it’s my writing or my story preventing me from being published.
Someone in the literary industry recently said to me that they didn’t feel sufficiently enthusiastic about my memoir to publish it. In a later email they said they only accept work that makes them feel passionate and my story didn’t make them feel passionate, and I got to wondering what kind of person doesn’t have some kind of emotional response in the face of suicide, terminal illness, family destruction, abuse, addiction and resurrection? I think the kind of person who doesn’t feel that is someone who hasn’t read the story or even the synopsis in the first place (I didn’t score high enough on their rubric), but doesn’t want you to realise that’s what’s going on because anyone with any level of humanity about them would not write an email like this to someone who has written largely about their personal experience of suicide and mental illness, both extremely sensitive themes, not to mention also topical and important.
“Shh,” I said to myself, “I know their secrets.”