Thursday, March 08, 2012

Hidden treasure

Mslexia dropped through my letterbox this morning. Always good for the latest industry trends and issues of interest to writers, this morning it held a special treat for me: the news that my friend Rosie Garland (who once thrilled audiences as Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen poet) has won the Mslexia competition for an undiscovered novel, with her novel The Beast in all her Loveliness. Not only that - another of her novels is on the 9-strong shortlist! The Beast... garners huge praise from judges Jenni Murray, who compares her to Angela Carter, and Sarah Waters, women who know their stuff when it comes to good writing, and fellow judge agent Clare Alexander says it has 'so much energy and exuberance, it glued me to the page.'

There's no way, at this rate, that Rosie is not now proved to be the fine and exciting writer I have always known her to be, yet in the 'How I Did It' section she describes the struggles she has encountered in a commercialised publishing industry. Such struggles are all too common now for literary writers who are however hardly free to air them before achieving this kind of success, and so the difficulties lie hidden. Mslexia, however, hearing 'rumours from agents that the market for fiction was in freefall, publishing deals were harder to come by, advances were decimated, and established authors were being tossed on the scrap heap' and noting that 'it's a sad fact that many agencies employ junior staff to sift submissions' and that in such a situation success depends on contacts, launched their competition to test how much good debut literary fiction has been left lying by the wayside. Their results appear to be spectacular: they say they were 'seriously impressed by the standard of the writing on show'. To find out why so much good writing was lying hidden they contacted the hundred (!) longlisted authors. It wasn't that the writers weren't sending their stuff out; far from it, but only 15% had managed to get an agent. Amongst the rest Mslexia encountered a tale of 'near misses', agents recognising the merit of manuscripts, even working for long periods with the authors on manuscripts, but ultimately feeling unable to sell them. Rosie herself writes of an agent who sent her winning book out only once, leaving it languishing after a single rejection before finally confessing to her that 'the market was so dire at the moment, he had been told by the agency to concentrate on non-fiction.'

God help us, is all I can say, and I'm not just talking about us writers but our so-called civilisation.

15 comments:

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

I can relate. I am on the hunt for a good agent and it is tough, very tough. I get those responses 'Your novel is vg but we can't sell it.' Madly frustrating.

Dan Holloway said...

I have known several of the writers on the longlist for several years now and have followed their tribulations, nearly moments and eventual heartache through that time. The only solace I can find is in the exceptional work in translation that is beginning to find its way into the pages of the cultural media, and the hope that it will be the start of something wider. Sadly, I fear that increasing critical acclaim will not be matched by the kind of sales to make publishers change their minds. The day we got a glowing write-up in the Guardian for Penny Goring's dazzling The Zoom Zoom, we sold 4 ebooks and a paperback - reviews just don't shift books and publishers want sales.

A sorry state, as you say. The public deserves better. Or maybe they don't want better. Either way, it's a sorry state

Elizabeth Baines said...

Very frustrating, Nuala. Ten years ago someone with your writing talent would have been snapped up by an agent long ago.

Dan, it is hard to know where the problem lies, whether it's with the public or not, but after running a very literary short story mag for 5 years (metropolitan) I can't help feeling that with enough determination, flair and energy and the right stratagems you can sell anything, as the snake-oil salesman said. The trouble is, though, it DOES require a fantastic amount of all those things, and I guess the rewards are nothing to what you can get for the more easily saleable kinds of literature such as genre.

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Hi E
I've had 2 agents. Both useless. I want a FIRECRACKER!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yup, that's another point. A useless agent is worse than none, as you've no control.

Alison Wells said...

Hi all. For me this follows on from reading a blogpost yesterday (can't find the link now) of the ills of legacy publishing and the poor treatment of writers. Perhaps markets are saturated, perhaps we live too much with the culture of hype - a small handful of the chosen luminaries with engaging or controversial personalities. Perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong w the publishing system. Indeed if someone of Nuala's calibre struggles, it doesn't inspire optimism. It's a confusing time for writers and publishers. I'm exploring all publishing options because I can't see a clear best path. As you say, if writing of such fantastic quality if having difficulty then something is very wrong.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I agree, Alison, it's a very confusing time for all, writers and publishers. I wish you very good luck with your own investigations re routes to publishing.

Sue Guiney said...

This is as we had feared. Not surprising, but worrying. Yes, indie presses are there to fill the gap, but they can only do so much. A culture without fiction? Too frightening to contemplate.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it's true that although small presses are taking up some of the slack they've limited resources...

Kate Dunn said...

The book world is changing so fast and it's sad to think that the rich and varied pool of literary talent will be slowly drained away, unless we find a way of stemming the flow ourselves.
I've got a dedicated and insightful agent who has worked with me for two years on my current novel, which she has just started sending round to publishers, but even with this fantastic support I still have very low expectations of being published conventionally and think that indie publishing will be the way forward.

Emmale said...

What's really sad is the possibility that all these wonderful writers who struggle to find agents (let alone get published) will simply conclude that their writing is not good enough and, as a result, give up.

Of course, we write because we love to write, but we don't do it in a vacuum and a little industry recognition can go a long way.

Charlie Cornelius said...

I'm going through it again, at the moment. I used to have an agent (many years ago), but gave them the shove as I was doing far more to place my books than they ever managed.

Since then I've muddled through, but have become increasingly frustrated by the way that doors are being slammed in the faces of the very people on whom the whole business depends - writers. When you cannot get an agent interested in a spy novel endorsed by two of the world's best selling authors; when you cannot get an agent interested in a fantasy book endorsed by an author who is arguably the world's best and certainly most influential living author, you know there are problems, not with your own writing (these people would not risk their own reputations by endorsing rubbish), but with the 'establishment’.

I've had agents who have become interested and then shut off communication when they learn I am disabled (and thus not able to get out and about promoting my work), I've had an agent inviting me to phone up and discuss my work and then hang up on me mid-sentence, not to mention all those that have never bothered with as much as a rejection email, or who have scrawled illegibly on my submission.

Publishers are equally set in a destructive mode when the only excuse they can come up with for rejecting a work is that it is the wrong length for the genre (who decreed that, for goodness sake?), or that they wouldn’t make enough profit.

I have had moderate success with getting work published (commercial and literary, fiction and non-fiction), I've even self-published to some success. People other than my Mum do buy my work, complete strangers who leave wonderful reviews on Amazon. But it is hard graft and takes an inordinate amount of time away from what I do best – writing.

I often wonder how much better my work – and that of the many other excellent struggling authors – would sell if it had the sort of muscle behind it that an agent and publisher could provide. For that to happen, however, they need to think outside the M25; they need to take a chance on something new, something out of the ordinary, something that dares to reject or challenge the status quo; they need to find a model in which they remember what I wrote above – without writers, there is nothing.

True, they can keep pushing out safe and mediocre work; they can keep promoting all the people that really no longer need huge marketing budgets; they can keep looking for bandwagons to tailgate. In the end, though, that will continue to impoverish us all. And the excuse that they are only giving the public what they want simply will not wash. The reading public will read. They won’t stop reading if you put books in front of them that are well written and lively.

Sorry, a bit of a rambling semi-rant, but I know I’m not alone in this and it is very difficult not to believe in an ‘establishment’ that has timidly withdrawn into its shell and become afraid of the very thing that would give it strength and vitality.

Claire King said...

I have bitter-sweet feelings about this post, being one of the lucky ones who was read by an agent and then by a publisher, at the right time, with all of these things sliding into place together and the novel deal being done. I'm not great in big organisations, and so my agent is not part of a big agency and my publisher is relatively small, I wonder if these things helped me.

Of course I've been the other side of it, and I see so many writers who I respect still going through it, and it is such a tough test of one's self-confidence and resolve.

I'm hoping that this is some kind of fluctuation, and that the tide will turn. Soon.

kate brown said...

I read your post a few days ago and I've been thinking about it a lot.

This blog post from Kate Pullinger is interesting.

http://www.katepullinger.com/blog/comments/a-provocation-no-more-outsourcing-knowledge-to-agents/

She says that writers need to have a better understanding of the publishing industry and, in my case, I think she's certainly right. Although, I'm still not sure how I would put that knowledge to use.

From talking to other writers, I get the feeling we're generally reluctant to talk about our negative experiences. I wonder whether this leaves us even more vulnerable than we might be if we felt more able to share?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Kate, I think you're right. It's all part of the marketing process isn't it, not to let negative vibes attach to us, so we just keep quiet. Thanks for the link, I'll hot foot over there when I get a mo.