In an email last year, Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers answered some questions about getting published. The answers are useful for many of us.
“But to get back to the deluge of responses to last week’s email, there were a few themes that stood out.
1. Small publishers
A couple of small publishers wrote to me, reminding me their universe constitutes another credible path to publication. They’re right. It does. And it’s a good route, too. For literary fiction, especially, there are some brilliant tiny publishers who have an adventure and enthusiasm you might find hard to find at a bigger firm. If you have troubles finding an agent (but have reason to believe your book is good enough), then definitely explore a direct submission to a small publisher in your area.
2. Is there a particular problem with literary fiction?
Those of you writing literary fiction seemed to think there was a particular problem in getting your work accepted. Well, yes and no. Yes: in the sense that literary fiction doesn’t generally sell a lot, which means publishers – and you – have to work harder to establish a commercial case for your book. As far as you’re concerned, that means coming up with an elevator pitch which is compelling, albeit literary. The exemplary case here is Hilary Mantel and her Wolf Hall trilogy. Before Wolf Hall, she wrote terrific, but small, books, that were widely respected but of minor consequence in terms of sales. Then an idea occurred to her with clear “tell me more” potential – and the result was the literary phenomenon of the decade.
In other words, if you’re writing excellent literary fiction with a strong elevator pitch, it’ll sell every time, I promise.
3. I’m a man, I’m old, I’m …
Yes, most literary agents are white, metropolitan, left-leaning, middle-class women with liberal arts degrees. But for one thing, they aren’t all like that. And for another, agents’ tastes range right across the market. My own agent represents high-end literary fiction, and serious non-fiction, and heart-warming women’s fiction, and crime fiction … and really any book that tells a strong story and tells it well. In the end, it’s the manuscript that makes the sale not you. One of the glorious democratic advantages of the slushpile is that agents don’t know your age, your background or a great deal else. If you worry (let’s say) that your age is a disadvantage, then don’t mention it. It’s the manuscript that matters. You – thankfully – are somewhat unimportant.
4. How much is personal taste a factor?
It is and it isn’t.
It is, in the sense that an individual agent needs to chime with your book. If your book is set at sea, for example, and a particular agent just has a dislike of the ocean, that’s probably a tough sell. But you’re going to get your book out to 10-12 agents, perhaps even 15. So those personal taste issues even themselves out. And in the end, agents are looking for assets they can sell at a good price. That’s a largely objective question. Any two agents will agree much more than not. Finding and selling manuscripts is their job.
5. Is there a self-pub market for X?
There’s a self-publishing market for pretty much everything, but especially any sort of genre fiction. t’s also a terrific way of selling niche subject-led books that address specific topics. So “How To Prune Fruit Trees”, for example, will sell – in small volumes, but constantly – to people looking for help on that exact subject.
The only area where I think self-pub is not likely to help you is with literary fiction. I don’t know of any contemporary example of successful self-published literary work.
It’s also worth saying that you can’t meaningfully self-publish without also marketing your work. Books very seldom sell themselves. But there are tools for marketing and a well-known, well-worn approach that works. Needless to say, Jericho members can get all the help they need there, and for free.
6. Can I make a living from genre X / publishing approach Y?
Probably not. Across the whole of publishing history, it’s rare for authors to make a living from writing. That remains true today. You can go into your local flagship bookstore and look at the books on the front tables. Most of the writers there, aside from the world’s major bestsellers, won’t be able to rely on writing income alone.
That said, the people who make the most money these days are successful and hard-working self-pub authors. If you’re happy with the marketing challenge, and write good quality genre fiction, then a regular six-figure income is within your grasp.”
I write literary fiction – at least that’s what most of it it. Some of it’s pretty terrible, some is quite good. It’s all self published, in spite my efforts at great elevator pitches. And I have to confess that I haven’t put anywhere near the effort I put into writing that I put into sales and marketing. I enjoy writing; for me, selling is a lot less fun.