Alan Mahar, publishing director of Tindal Street Press, explains the challenges faced by the first-time novelist.
Last week I went to speak to the students in the Tindal Street Masterclasses. They meet in a room in Fazeley Studios in Digbeth, tutored by Josie Barnard. They have been receiving expert advice, exercises, feedback and critical discussion. They’re honing their literary skills and polishing their novels in progress. Several of them already have manuscripts complete and ready for submission. They are keen to make the step up from writing seriously in private to writing seriously in public. And being paid for it. What advice could I offer?
Well, I had to explain that I couldn’t guarantee to publish their books because Tindal Street is such a very small publisher and only publishes seven new titles – out of 700 submissions a year. One in a hundred is the odds. The competition is fierce. But publication can happen. If you work hard and write something really interesting and special, and have some good fortune along the way, your book can be published.
I approach the question of publishing a novel from two opposite directions – as a one-time novelist and now as a publisher. As a writer, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of rejections; I’ve suffered the nearly-but-not-quites and the agony of waiting for the postman to return those SAE brown envelopes. I’ve endured the anxiety of sending out written work and waiting for feedback; hanging on every word, every nuance of a rejection.
Sometimes I wish I had known then what I know now about publishing. Then again maybe it’s best not to think about the cold facts of probability. Maybe I was better off not knowing how hard it is to get published.
The dream of writing is all about risk and sacrifice. It can’t be balanced financially in an accountant’s double entry system. We write because we love reading, and we have something ourselves to say in writing. Something new that hasn’t been said quite this way before: hence the name “novel”. It’s an adventure, a voyage of self-discovery. It’s also one of the finest forms of creative intelligence. To achieve publication in novel writing is to do something very difficult, very demanding; and, then, if lots of people get to hear about your book, finding that you have readers is a huge bonus.
I started as a short story writer and had quite a few published in some of the better literary magazines. I targeted my stories towards those magazines and had modest success. No money to speak of, of course, but consistent publication at least. And when editors see some story success, they have an expectation that you will be able to write a novel next. So I expected, when my stories started to get longer and longer that, like a sprinter, building up to longer distances I would eventually be capable of running a full marathon. Well, it doesn’t happen quite like that. A novel isn’t just a story extended to 80,000 words. A novel is a completely different vehicle: a different body, chassis, a different engine altogether.
The first idea I had for a novel got started and then ground to a halt at ten thousand words; and had to be abandoned. A few years in the wilderness later I discovered a way of getting going again and, working on it for a couple of years in bursts, I managed to send a finished manuscript to a couple of editors and one of them liked it so much she thought she was going to publish it. So excited was I at this unexpectedly speedy realisation of my dream that I rushed down the champagne shop and prepared to celebrate.
Unfortunately, a week later the same editor called to say her colleague hadn’t liked it so much, so she couldn’t offer to take it on, after all. For me: despair, disappointment; my one chance dashed so quickly. But, being quite persistent, I dusted it down and sent it to an agent who took it on, suggested changes and then prepared to send out to a range of publishers, two of whom were interested enough to offer for it. I plumped for Gollancz and Flight Patterns, my first novel about a French aviator, nicknamed the Birdman, came out in the summer of 1999. Very satisfying after all the hard work. It received a few polite and positive reviews and that was pretty well that. Didn’t disturb the bank balance much. It wasn’t a bad book but it didn’t make an impression on the world. So, no, I couldn’t give up my day job.