Each year hordes of young London writers look to add their voices to the bitter chorus arising from the capital’s literary scene. Publication by a commercial publishing house remains the apex of cultural achievement. Here is the unvarnished and unimprovable guide to getting published, by a member of The Fence in a senior position at a major publishing house.
1. Be Rich
You are unlikely to finish your novel. If you do, you are not going to get an agent to represent you. If you do, you are not going to get a publisher interested in publishing you. If you somehow manage that, you will receive the following email from your would-be publisher:
‘We love your book, it is redolent of Nabokov; destined to be a classic to be cherished and savoured by generations of readers. The entire team has fallen in love with the manuscript and are honoured by the prospect of publishing such a luminous novel. We feel that we should offer you £1000 for the manuscript, to be paid in four instalments.’
It is not news that writers don’t get paid much, but it will feel like news when you see how little the publisher is actually offering you. Writers from Stefan Zweig to William Burroughs have artfully sidestepped this problem by being born rich. We suggest that you do too.
2. No One Cares
No one is going to read your book. Not your friends, not your family, not your agent, not your publicist, not your reviewers: no one is going to read your book. Those who do read it (or say they have read it), will not read it with the intensity or care with which you laboured to compose it. This is a problem that even the most celebrated authors face. At the 2018 Booker Prize ceremony, senior members of the Faber editorial team were heard loudly referring to Anna Burns’ soon to be Booker-winning novel Milkman as ‘Postman’. You will suffer this indignity too. Deal with it.
3. Get Political
One corollary of no one actually reading your book is that talking about said book becomes a pointless exercise. Professional writers know not to talk about discussing something particular to them – like the book they have just written – but instead to discuss something common to everyone: the unerring wind of the news cycle. Discover the conventional wisdom of the literary world on political affairs and loudly broadcast your agreement with it via social media. Extravagantly tie your literary productions to said views when possible. No one will care whether there is an actual link between your novel and your views on the Tory hegemony, for as we have detailed above: no one will have read it. They will, however, feel comforted by your total and uncritical acceptance of their worldview, and hence will be more inclined to publish you.
4. Be Compliant
The worst thing an author can be referred to in the publishing world is ‘difficult’. Difficult writers refuse to play the game that their editors, marketers, and publicists have laid out for them. They often have the delusion that they and their work are special (see Point 2 above). They are needy, opinionated, and unreliable. Everyone hates working with them and secretly prays their book flops. Needless to say, don’t be this person. From the very earliest moments of contact with publishing professionals signal your intention to submit completely to their every whim. This posture will take you far.
5. Your Agent Is Lying To You
The economics of publishing are dire for all parties, but are particularly poor for agents. They are dependent on an unruly band of writers for their very survival. It is a matter of life and death to them to use their writers’ meagre gifts to extract an advance from a publisher. Consequently, they are going to do and say everything to keep you in the game, and ready and able to endure the punishment meted out in the submissions process. They will convince you that there is no shame in submitting your literary novel as YA instead. They will wax eloquently about the merits of a publishing house they know to be subpar. They will stoutly defend the minuscule advance you are offered for your book. You will have to tolerate all of this. Again: deal with it.
6. Do Write A Proposal
Writing a full-length book and then submitting it is a delusional idea. This is why professionals know to write an in-depth proposal (something you can do with a laptop and a British Library membership in three months), that carefully and strategically outlines the book on offer. Almost all non-fiction projects are bought on proposal. The kicker is that a not insignificant amount of novels are bought this way too. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a famous example. The moral of the story: amateurs write full manuscripts; professionals write polished proposals.
7. Do Your Own Work
No one else is going to do it for you. Publishers – big, brand name, global companies – regularly publish books with glaring factual, grammatical, and spelling errors on their very first pages. To return to Point 2: no one cares. No one is reading your book. Agent, editor, and everyone else is going to merrily let you embarrass yourself in print, missing in their speed-read of your manuscript the factual slip-up and misspelt word that will be lined up as star witnesses to your incompetence in a gleefully malicious Sunday Times review.
8. Read Contemporary
Here’s a secret about the publishing world: everyone involved in it spends their time reading submitted work. An agent hawks a manuscript to two dozen editors. If these editors think the book has any promise, they then share it with sales, publicity, and marketing teams. Consequently, hundreds of people in the industry end up reading a book that only one publishing house will put into print. All this is to say that publishing professionals are very present-focused in their reading. What they’re actually reading now probably won’t be published for another 14 months at least. All this reading of manuscripts and proposals precludes the kind of leisurely perusing of D.H. Lawrence and Iris Murdoch which you may think constitutes the bulk of their working week. For them, doing so would be like a Sony A&R flack going into the office and listening to Bach. Lesson: if you want to be able to have an intelligible conversation with a publishing type read as contemporary as you can. Better yet, read pre-publication proofs.
9. Don’t Be Original
The only reason you should invest time in reading old and venerable books is so you can loot them for their plots and structures. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is a retelling of E. M. Forster’s Howards End. It was shortlisted for the Booker. The current best-selling dystopian novel Vox is a knock-off of The Handmaid’s Tale. Salman Rushdie’s novel Quichotte is a rehash of Don Quixote. The list goes on. People tend to quote Oscar Wilde’s maxim about literary plagiarism as if it was just a drollery. He was being deadly serious. Plagiarism solves two problems in one go. First, it gets you off the hook of actually having to figure out the twists and turns of a 300+ page novel. Second, it gives the publisher a ‘hook’ with which to talk about your book.
10. Seriously, Don’t Be Original
A lot of people will read Point 10 and think something like: ‘Hah, my favourite novel is Time’s Arrow and that was totally original. This idiot at The Fence doesn’t know what she/he is talking about.’ 1) That person has never secured a book deal, nor is likely to. 2) Time’s Arrow was Martin Amis’s seventh novel after two decades of continuous literary activity. So: either plagiarise from a successful book, or fictionalise your own life experience.
11. Do the Obvious
Confirmation bias is endemic in bookstores. A budding young literary type stands in front of a bay of fiction and only sees what they’re passionate about writing, be it meta-fiction, auto-fiction, magical realism, etc. To get to that particular bay of fiction, they have had to walk through an entire book store studiously ignoring the hundreds of other titles in more prominent locations selling many more copies than the latest Ben Lerner essay collection. That little anthology of Brexit jokes you swept past contemptuously has probably sold more copies than the entire extant graduate body of the UEA writing program. It has an author who has a happy agent, a happy editor, a happy family, and a healthy bank account. This author has options if they want to write a novel, or write a more substantial work of non-fiction, or compose another lucrative novelty book. There are very few Teju Coles and Elif Batumans in the world. There are, however, plenty of canny writers making headway in the industry by taking the latter course.
12. De Mortuis Nihil Nisi Bonum
There is the famous example of Otto Weininger who fatally shot himself to publicise his first and last book Geschlecht und Charakter (1903). This secured him only a footnote in literary history and for this reason alone the editors of The Fence do not endorse suicide in the cause of self-promotion – at least not initially. Conversely, in the golden years of one’s literary career death can be a shrewd move. Just as ‘statesman’ is the name for a dead politician, so ‘literary treasure’ is a term reserved for the recently deceased writer. A writer’s death is not only a brilliant publicity moment but also an opportunity to guilt retailers into placing huge orders of stock otherwise destined for the furnace. Additionally, with the writer safely entombed, agents and publishers can now meet on an easy basis without pesky authorial interventions on matters like jacket design.