Pride and Publication

In Others
July 20, 2007

I was writing a response to Guy’s post at Vex Appeal (which is a response to a post on the Penguin blog which is a response to a news story about a bloke who sent out Jane Austen chapters under his own name to see what’d happen) in the comments, but it got a bit long, so I thought I’d put it here instead.

OK, so, confession. I also had a bit of a sense of humour failure listening to that guy on the Today programme. OK, he’s done a funny thing. It *is* funny. (Although quite obviously Jane Austen’s novels wouldn’t get published today. For one thing, she wouldn’t *write like that* today. She *invented* the free-indirect voice, for goodness’ sake. She’d be producing some astonishing innovation in form that everyone would end up using, not just historical pastiche.)

But, getting back to the point, the guy said about the most annoying thing it’s possible to say to anyone involved in books. “It’s a Catch-22 situation; you can’t get a publisher without an agent and you can’t get an agent without a publisher.” Which is *just not true*. Getting published is difficult, because it relies not just on how good you are, but also on whether your work is saleable (a completely different phenomenon; it’s possible to be very very good, but for no one to be interested in buying your work. Sad but true.) But, if your work is good, you’ll probably eventually find an agent to represent you. (Probably. Nothing is certain.)

Fundamentally, this guy seems pretty typical of a certain kind of person one does sometimes encounter at literary events. They’ve tried to get published and failed and now believe that the system is corrupt and that only insiders get anywhere. Which… isn’t true. This guy wasn’t sending out bits of Jane Austen because he thought it was funny, he was trying to prove a point; that publication is impossible, no matter how good your work is.

The thing is, it’s probably easier for him to believe that than it is for him to believe that his novel isn’t that good, and he should put it aside now, call it his “training book” and start work on a new one. It’s hard to accept that work we’ve done is rubbish. However, it’s one of the most important skills of doing good creative work. As is the ability to take criticism. Which one gets the feeling this guy really hasn’t mastered.

In summary: if you’re trying to become a published writer, don’t spend your time trying to woo agents or publishers, or trying to prove to them that they’re rubbish, or worrying about the literary “in-crowd”. Spend your time *writing*.

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