Publishers are a funny lot. They are all looking for the next big thing. All desperate to sign the next JK Rowling or George R R Martin, make their fortunes, and be noted as the ones who found ‘the one’. But that’s not what’s funny about them. What’s funny is that although they are all dead keen to find that major talent, they are mostly so lily-livered that if it came up and slapped them in the face with a manuscript, they would quiver with fear and reject it. Unless of course the author could satisfactorily respond to the great Qualifying Question, “ah, but what is it like? Of which current bestseller is it a clone?”
Until you admit, or even proudly boast, that you’ve basically copied someone else’s idea, appropriated their style, or have jumped on the latest bandwagon with both feet, you’re on your own mate. Publishers will run a mile before they’ll take a punt on you.
History is littered with examples of genius that has been shunned, ignored and even swatted away like an annoying fly by the great powers of publishing. Richard Bach’s Jonathon Livingston Seagull, L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are all works that were too different to be picked up by the wise ones at major publishing houses, at least initially.
Frank Herbert collected something like 20 rejections for his epic Dune – although nowadays he might have uttered the magic word, “serial”, and been given a crack. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at 31, in part because he couldn’t find a publisher for his work, A Confederacy of Dunces. It was later awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Presumably Toole couldn’t answer the crucial question, “yes, but what other books is it like?”
It’s a question that could easily have stopped the authors of many a bestseller, from Ms Rowling to Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, to Brett Easton Ellis.
“So tell us, Brett, where do you see American Psycho in the bookshop? What would it be next to?”
As a writer, it’s irritating and degrading to have to face such a question, knowing that unless you can answer it with, “well, it’s Game of Thrones meets Harry Potter with vampires and bondage,” you’re screwed. You’re untouchable, and the very powerful implication is that your work must be crap because it isn’t ‘like’ somebody else’s.
So my advice to you, dear reader who is a writer and who has created something so utterly unique it will shatter all records and create a genre all of its own (until publishers find someone who can say, “it’s like that one – you know, that one that everybody loves right now”), is to self publish. That way, no one can reject you simply because you’ve chosen to tell a different story.
And my advice to publishers* is to stop being such bloody cowards and take a risk on a new author once in a while.
*I joke of course. As if a publisher would deign to read my blog. Unless someone tells them it’s like Jeff Goins’ blog.