Monday is creaking itself into position once again, and another chain of days is about to start careering down the slippery slope we call a ‘week’. I hope you had a restful weekend and you’re primed and ready for it.
This past weekend was full of bad news. I’m trying not to even think about some of the news stories that made me sad, or angry, over the last few days – and there were many. I’m not ignoring the fact that things happened in the world which made my red mist descend, and which upset me greatly, but this blog post is all about the positive. Right? Right.
So, let’s not talk about the sad stuff. Not today.
In the spirit of focusing on the non-enraging, one of the more interesting stories over the weekend centred on the kerfuffle surrounding ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling‘, a book which was published to no great acclaim in April. Purporting to be the debut novel of a former soldier and military policeman named Robert Galbraith, the book was receiving good reviews, but had not sold in any huge numbers – reports vary between 500 and 1,500 copies sold – but those who had read it, by all accounts, liked it. Robert Galbraith, the mysterious author, had admitted to writing under a pseudonym to, I suppose, protect his former colleagues and avoid any sort of security issues surrounding his foray into crime writing, but that was far from being the biggest secret Mr. Galbraith was sitting on.
Over the weekend, ‘Mr Galbraith’ was unmasked. Not an ex-military police officer, nor even a man, ‘Galbraith’ is, in fact, J.K. Rowling.
The most interesting thing about the whole situation, I think, is the fact that the manuscript of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ was, apparently, submitted to at least one publisher (under its pseudonym, of course), and was turned down as being ‘not marketable’; it didn’t stand out from the crowd enough, apparently. It wasn’t head and shoulders above any of the other promising submissions received, and so it wasn’t picked up. I have great respect for the editor of the publishing company who turned the book down purely on its merits, and who is now brave enough to admit it, and to give her reasons for her decision; she could have tried to wash her hands of responsibility, or pretend the decision to turn the book down was a tortuous one. She could have fawned all over J.K. Rowling. She could (horror of horrors!) have apologised for her decision. Instead, she simply explained how she felt the book was solid, decent, well written – but nothing amazing.
I thought this was remarkable. Not only because the editor in question is a brave and principled person, but because it made me feel a whole lot better about the rejections I get which are worded along much the same lines: ‘Thank you for your submission; your work is perfectly fine, but just not marketable in the current publishing climate’, or ‘Your work is not suitable for us – but our opinion is not exhaustive, so don’t give up.’ Whatever your opinion of ‘Harry Potter’ is – whether you believe the books are good, or not – it’s beyond question that J.K. Rowling is the publishing sensation of our time. Anything with her name on it is a foregone conclusion, in terms of publication. It turned out that ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ was eventually published by an imprint of the publisher who handled her book ‘The Casual Vacancy’ last year, but it seems that she submitted it to other publishers, just like any debut author – but found, apparently, little success. The book has received very positive feedback from readers, so it’s not necessarily that her work was not good; it just wasn’t good enough for a publisher to take a punt on it, particularly in the crowded crime/detective fiction market.
This news story has given me a lot to think about, and no mistake. The first conclusion one could draw would be this: what’s the point of anyone trying to get a book published, as an unknown debut author, if a writer with the ability of J.K. Rowling can’t get picked up? Well – yes and no. That’s an insidious and dangerous way to think; it erodes hope and chips away at the future, and should be avoided. There are always exceptions; there are always chances worth jumping at. You’ve got to have faith in your own work, and keep on going with the submissions even if there seems to be no light on the horizon. Rowling herself was turned down by twelve publishers before she placed ‘Harry Potter’ with Bloomsbury. It can happen. People get published every day. They can’t all be world-defining geniuses. Sometimes, a submission will be good enough – not the best submission in the history of writing, but good enough for a particular agent or publisher, and that’s all you need.
So, instead of being disheartened by the saga of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ (in hindsight, rather an apt title), I’m choosing to be encouraged by it. A submission is never going to hit the mark with everyone who reads it; not every publisher is going to like, or even tolerate, some of the work you produce – and that’s not a personal thing, despite how hard it can be to separate yourself from your creative work. It doesn’t mean that if you get knocked back by two, or five, or ten agents or publishers, that you should give up the search – there will, hopefully, be an appreciative ear out there for what you’re writing, and what a shame it would be to give up before you find it.
Of course, if every person to whom you submit your work says something along the lines of: ‘In our opinion, a novel about interstellar time-travelling leprechauns written in rhyming couplets which can, due to the fact you’ve written it in disappearing ink, only be read on the first Tuesday of every month in full moonlight is not exactly the most market-friendly thing; perhaps you should consider submitting something else, or reworking this entirely,’ then maybe it’s time to start thinking: it’s not them. It’s me.
Until then, keep the faith.