So you’ve written a masterpiece? I believe you. Millions wouldn’t, but I do. So you’ll be cracking open the bubbly then? Didn’t think so. You may have written a masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean anybody else will be reading it unfortunately. The publishing world is something of a riddle inside a mystery inside of an old Agatha Christie whodunit?
Unfortunately barriers to entry in publishing are almost insurmountable for new authors.A recent investigation into New York Literary Publishing Houses estimated that 10,000 novels arrive at their doorstep’s each month, of which a tiny few might become published. Surely it is hard to accept that 9,990 of those novels were woeful compared to the stand-out masterpieces which found justifiable success?
I have just finished reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan (2006, Penguin Press) which sheds light on the pitfalls of the literary world and is recommended reading for all of us. Taleb’s argument, in literature, as in general life, is that success, such as publishing, is often attributable solely to luck and randomness. The retrospective search for shared and identifiable traits of those lucky few who get published in an attempt to mimic their styles and get published yourself is ultimately in vain-for it excludes the spontaneity involved in the publishing process. Dickens’ famous characters, Tolstoy’s treatment of themes, Orwell’s simple prose; blindingly obvious ways to get published perhaps, but only in retrospect. These author’s were the lucky few published, hence their styles, and not the myriad unknown potential masterpieces, have come to be benchmark comparisons for unpublished authors. Alas, I digress ( it is a seriously good read).
So, back to that masterpiece you’ve written students, every bit as good as Thackeray and Austen you say (I believe you, honest). Wait. There are more barriers to come. Firstly, existing agents and publishers looking for the next big thing search only in the ashes of the current big thing. So if what you’ve written doesn’t easily fall into genre categorisation you won’t make it past the slush pile. All the struggles of the perfect query letter, the perfect synopsis, none of these can necessarily improve the mood of the man angrily fingering the slush pile of your masterpieces.
Until we come to the internet, with its capacity to bypass traditional ports of publishing. Self-publishing does not have the stigma of being a ‘vanity press’ anymore, where only friends and family might purchase the book. It can offer genuine exposure, and that exposure can last interminably so long as it is stored in a web page.
There have been some celebrated (though still few) cases of author’s finding great success through a snow-balling effect, where a small pool of sales increases through word- of-mouth. These bottom-up stories are at least encouraging in shaking up the publishing industry, keen not to miss the next big thing by not even seeing the next big thing.
The development of digital storage of books also signals a breakaway; its sales thus far have been predominantly in the under 35-age bracket, but that at least sends a message for the future. The success, and cost, of self-publishing is still materialising but might prove just the outlet for that undoubted masterpiece after all. Having said that, so many books are online, again a lucky break is needed.
Knowing people in the trade is of course a boost, as is having a journalist background. Sheer persistence never hurt, though suicide is perhaps a step too far ( as unfortunately befell John Kennedy Toole, whose A Confederacy of Dunces received widespread posthumous critical acclaim) What is clear though, is that the next J.K Rowling can only come at the expense of thousands of rejections of other supposed masterpieces