Some time ago an article appeared in the The Author, the Society of Authors organ or magazine of scholarship. It was written, as I recall, by Giles Gordon, a literary agent of some note and flamboyant reputation. He stated, in that article, that he visited many book clubs, reading groups and the like, peopled by vast numbers (well numbers) of keen, middle-aged women who read and bought books. He would discuss their choices with them and, on the whole, enjoy an evening of literary discussion, but at every meeting he was asked the same question. “Where?” He was asked. “Were the authors such as Daphne du Maurier, Doris Lessing, Dorothy L Sayers, or a new PD James? These authors wrote intelligent fiction, with a story, with action, but not too visceral, not too masculine and not too simple. He replied that, as an agent, he was unable to place such fiction. Publishers were looking for the quick and the big buck, not for the moderate success, that grew slowly but surely to an excellent but moderate set of sales. Either that or they were looking for the next Booker Prize winner, whatever it was, it was clear that the “in-between” book did not interest them. “Publishers” I remember him writing,” were missing a trick. They were not serving a keen and consistent market that would support them through the difficult times.”
I read that article and I wrote to him. I rarely do that, but I did on this occasion. What I said was that I agreed, I too thought that the moderate market was being ignored. I had tried for years to place my work, but despite the many and various compliments I received, the consistent mantra was that they did not feel they could find a market for my work, what they meant was – a big enough market. I told him, that I had given up. I would continue to write, but sod publishers (well I didn’t put it quite like that) but you get the gist. I would continue to write, I would earn a living at something and I would publish, but I would self publish. I didn’t want to hear any more from some young executive, the patronising rejections that hide their greed. I sent the letter and forgot about it. A few days later I got a reply that went like this “..of all the letters that I received in support of the article, you are the only one, that did not send a manuscript. Bless you.” Basically, I got it, he couldn’t place the work. I have always regarded that as good kharma.
Honestly, I am self critical enough to be aware that maybe I deserve to be rejected. However a great many of my rejections speak of how much the prospective editors enjoyed my work, but that the market is not there for my choice of topic or if I could just make it more bloody or a little bit more “literary” I might succeed. It’s easy to think that one is just being let down gently but then I was encouraged by the comments of Karl Marlantes about his own novel Matterhorn, reputedly a defining novel on the Vietnam war. The publicity on his book states that he was thirty years in the writing of it….. not exactly. According to what he said on Friday night’s Front Row on Radio 4, (link here for as long as iPlayer will run it) he first offered the manuscript in the 1970s. “Nah” said the publishers “No one’s interested in a novel on Vietnam, it won’t sell”. In the 1980s he offered the piece (apparently the ultimate Vietnam novel) to publishers and they said “Nah – Hollywood has done Vietnam, no one’s interested now”. In the 1990s he offered this great novel to publishers and they said “Could you just move it, to Iraq or Afghanistan and then there might be a market for it”. Now, in 2010 it’s published, apparently it’s brilliant, no doubt it wasn’t bad in 1975, although Marlantes concedes it might be better now, but it’s not substantially different. I don’t know whether my work measures up, but I do know I have been given many of the same excuses as Marlantes. Even so, I still have five years and another round of rejections to go before I catch up, otherwise you can judge for yourself – there’s my novel on the blog, or Angelmaker at Lulu.