When Kate Mildenhall asked Tony Birch what he’d change about the publishing industry on the always fabulous First Time Podcast recently, he responded with the wish that publishers would take more chances on debut writers, making the observation that it can be soul-destroying to write a novel that never gets published. His comment hit me square in the chest, because this is an issue I’ve been wrestling with lately. I’m working on my third manuscript while sending out my second, and am yet to sign a publishing deal. What if I never do get a novel published? What then? What next? I’m invested in the dream of transitioning to a career as a novelist some time in the next decade, but what if I’m kidding myself? Many other writers are, of course, in the same position, so thought I’d share my thoughts, sketchy as they are, and a way forward in case others can relate.
Writing itself offers many rewards unrelated to the publishing process. I stand by the assertion that there’s much to be gained from writing itself, even if you never do get published, and I wouldn’t trade the rich, creative life I have now for the one I had pre-writing. But for me, one of the most rewarding parts of writing is sharing your words with others, connecting with readers. Without publication, that connection with readers is impossible. If a novelist writes a book that no one reads, does it even exist?
Self-publish, you say? Take that decision out of the hands of gatekeepers and do it yourself? Tempting as it is to self-publish, I know enough people who’ve taken this path to understand the commitment involved in doing it well and the real risk of struggling to find a readership even if you do. Self-publishing is an excellent option, but one that doesn’t work for everyone, and one I personally am not ready to undertake just yet. Never say never, though…
There are, however, many publishing options between Big-5 publisher and self-publishing. There are small publishers, digital-only publishers and hybrid publishers as well as serialised websites like Substack and Wattpad. If publishers aren’t bashing down your door, it’s a good idea to take a step back and reevaluate your goals before developing a short and longterm submission strategy. I recommend doing the same before submitting to literary journals.
- Evaluate your goals: It’s pointless submitting to a digital-only publisher if your greatest desire is to see your physical book on bookshop shelves. Nor is it worth publishing with a boutique publisher if you want to be an international bestseller on Amazon. Before sending the manuscript out for the umpteenth time, pause to consider what you want from this novel, where you would love to be, career wise, in five years and ten years. Will this opportunity get you there?
- Do your homework: Beyond the big-5 there are some innovative, exciting publishers and a lot of vanity publishers and sharks as well. Know the difference before sending your work out. Sites like Writer Beware are worth a look, as is a thorough google of publisher reviews, and unless you have money to burn and zero interest in learning how to self-publish, avoid publishers who expect authors to pay for the privilege of publishing with them. This is a business deal, so go in with your eyes open.
- Submit in tiers: Gone are the days when most publishers and agents expect exclusive submissions, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use a scattergun approach when pitching to publishers. Target your dream publishers first, especially if you can find a way to pitch directly or access them via contest entries and thereby avoid the dreaded slush pile, but have a plan B, C and so on lined up in case you don’t get the response you want (or any response at all).
- Have another project on the go: If your goal is to become a novelist, you need to start a new project. If a publisher is interested in your manuscript, they will always want to know what else you’re working on. And if no one is interested, you’ll have something to keep your mind off the gruelling submission process and a shiny new prospect to get excited about down the track.
- Decide on a querying endpoint: It’s easy to become despondent when submitting to publishers. Beyond making sure the work you send out is your best, as an author you have no control over whether a publisher will offer you a deal. It’s a business decision, and a rejection may have little to do with the quality of the work. It’s true that you only need one yes, but it’s also increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of hope when you’ve been sending the same work out for years. It helps to have a querying endpoint in mind. For example, if x, y and z publishing options don’t pan out, I will shelve this manuscript/self-publish/shift focus to the next manuscript etc. You can even build a timeline into this strategic plan. For me, having a plan is a way of taking back control and shifting the narrative from ‘What if I’m never published?’ to ‘I will be published, but I’m not yet sure exactly when or how.’
How would you cope with the thought of never getting published?