There’s a lot wrong with the publishing industry. A lot right, too, given that so many wonderful books get produced every year – but my experiences of it have been pretty grim. I’ve reached the point of basically ignoring it because, weirdly, it seems so damned inimical to writers. It shouldn’t be like this.
I’m not claiming to be the greatest writer ever (although, deep in the core of my soul, I’m completely convinced that I am), but I am competent, creative and productive. For what it’s worth, I have a 1st class degree in English Literature. I have an MA in creative writing, with a Distinction. I’ve had well over 100 short stories published in good, reputable magazines, quite a few of them considered “professional”. I’ve won a few awards. I’ve published novels through small presses (more on them later as that’s something I’ll continue to do). I’ve also indie-published novels, and relished the freedom that gives me.
But … I’ve never had an agent and I’ve never had a deal with a major publisher, and that bugs me. I confess, I’ve never understood why this is the case. It isn’t for lack of trying. And yeah, yeah, agents are stupidly busy and big publishers are overwhelmed and they’re not necessarily looking for “really good” or “original” – they’re looking for big-sellers. They want formula and they’re probably quite happy with a big bag of cliché a lot of the time. I’m not interested in writing anything formulaic, but, still, I do write in big genres – science fiction and fantasy – and I do it (I believe) pretty well. And I basically feel ignored, shunned and let down by a publishing industry that doesn’t give a fucking damn.
Okay, why should it? It doesn’t owe me anything. It has more than enough books to be dealing with, so why should it care? It doesn’t matter that quite a few of the books it does produce are no more than okayish, a bit predictable, a bit formulaic, because there are plenty of them and they sell, and, ooh, they have such pretty covers, and there are plenty of other writers to pick up if the current ones don’t sell big. I know I’m not alone in feeling let down. I’d guess the vast majority of writers feel the same: the big publishers, the industry, the whole panoply of gatekeepers seem to be there to keep us out. It’s frustrating, and I’m willing to bet it means that a lot of truly brilliant potential books never get written – because budding authors become disillusioned and frustrated and they give up. Are nascent talents nurtured until they’re ready for greatness? I see no sign of it.
I know, also, that I should be pretty well-placed to succeed. I’m an oldish white guy, and the (sad) fact is that people like me have something of a head start in many walks of life. I don’t like that fact – but I know it’s true (anyone who doesn’t accept this is simply betraying their own privilege). Okay, I come from a working-class background and don’t have agents and publishers in my circle of friends to give me a leg-up – but I should still be able to get somewhere. My successes aside (and huge respect to Elsewhen Press who publish my Witchfinder General books and who do treat me well), I can’t get anywhere.
If I’m honest, I don’t even understand why I desire this so much. More on indie-publishing and small presses: there are huge benefits to both. I firmly believe that many good and great books have been created over the past few years simply because writers circumvented those damned blinkered gatekeepers and put their books out themselves. Probably a load of crap ones were produced, too, but that’s fine. And small presses: being signed to a good one (as I am) is a joy. They care about books and they care about writers. Imagine! They’re happy to work with books that are excellent but which may not hit all the right notes to sell millions. They even reply to you when you get in touch – a basic piece of courtesy that evades so many in this industry.
But still, the truth is that I won’t feel like I’ve achieved everything as a writer without an agent and a book deal with a major publisher. Despite everything, that’s something I still want to achieve. So many merely competent writers have done so; I don’t get why it eludes me. And, sure, when (if) I get there, I’ll probably write a post on how wonderful and fair the publishing industry – but if I do, don’t believe me. Too much greatness gets stifled by the way this broken business works.