J.K Rowling, with sales of 450 million copies of her Harry Potter series, received 12 rejections before she got the deal with Bloomsbury. The judgements of agents and publishers aren’t infallible. They’re just informed opinions about what is likely to sell. They can be wrong.
You tell yourself this when the rejections start coming in. The first one or two I was able to deal with as disappointing. As it got beyond five or six, I began to wonder “Can they all be wrong?” Maybe, I thought, my book isn’t as good as I believe it is. Maybe it’s the wrong book. Maybe I need to wait until I’m a better writer, and I’ve learned more.
By the end of 2014, I really felt that the book just wasn’t good enough. I stopped submitting to agents. Friends in my writing group tried to console me, but they were friends after all. I stopped listening to them. I said that until someone in the business told me I had a good book, I wasn’t going to believe. I weighed up my options. Option one, I could abandon A Prize of Sovereigns, and start work on the new book that was taking shape in my subconscious. Option 2, I could go back to a literary consultancy for some work on the book. Option 3, I could just tough it out, and continue to try to place the book, pretending that I believed in it.
I think most writers go through such times. People like to tell us it’s character-building. Really it’s just shitty.
In the end, what I did wasn’t completely any of the options I’d worked out. I did start work on my new book, but I didn’t completely abandon A Prize of Sovereigns.
At the same time as submitting it to agents, I had also been entering it for novel competitions. I didn’t win any prizes either. More rejections. But it was a small step from the competitions to try offering it to publishers who accepted un-agented submissions. So I was mixing option 1 and option 3. And then I realised there was also an option 4. If I started submitting my short stories to literary magazines I would increase my chances of success, which might make me feel better about my writing ability, and I might also built up some literary credentials with which to impress agents more.
I had submitted a few stories to magazines in the past, rather desultorily. I had 100% rejection rate there too. But I had never approached short stories as strategically as I had novels. I didn’t really know anything about what made for success.
Here’s another top tip coming, if you’re interested in placing short stories. There’s an amazing website called Duotrope (www.duotrope.com). For a relatively modest subscription it puts all sorts of strategic information at your fingertips. It’s a listing. You can look up what sort of stories different magazines are interested in, and what genres they publish. Now of course you can get that information from the magazines themselves. What you can’t get from them is their acceptance rates and their response times. When I looked up the magazines I had submitted to in the past, I almost slapped myself on the side of the head. Every single one of them had an acceptance rate of less than 1%. Unless I was better than 99% of other writers, of course they weren’t going to publish me.
At the beginning of 2015, I began to make a list, and started more rationally targeted submissions. I selected a group of magazines with acceptance rates ranging from the virtually unattainable below 1% all the way out to under 50%. I decided that submitting to anything that accepted more than half of what was sent to them wasn’t going to help me get those much needed literary credentials.
The new strategy paid off quite quickly. I had a story accepted in February by Alfie Dog, an online site with a 47.5% acceptance rate that sells stories in much the same way that iTunes sells music (alfiedog.com/fiction/stories/neil-macdonald/). It wasn’t a high prestige publication, but it was an acceptance. It did wonders for my self-confidence. And then the following week, an online publisher, Big World Network, offered to serialise A Prize of Sovereigns. Publication began on a weekly basis in May (bigworldnetwork.com/site/series/aprizeofsovereigns/).
At last, I could begin to believe in my novel again. Someone had seen merit in it. I didn’t abandon the short story strategy but began to send stories to magazines with tougher acceptance rates. I also began to tailor stories for particular magazines. Up until the present, all I’ve had is rejections, but some of the rejections have been very cheering. A magazine with an acceptance rate below 30% liked the writing so much they asked me to submit other work, as did one with an acceptance rate below 20% and one with an acceptance rate below 3%. I haven’t broken through yet into the literary firmament, but finally I have some reason to believe it can be done. Instead of blank rejections, some editors have taken the trouble to give me critiques and explanations of what made them decide against publication this time. You never get that from an agent.
That pretty much brings you up to date with where I’ve got to. Except for one last thing. A well respected publisher to whom I sent the first 30 pages of A Prize of Sovereigns liked it and asked in April to see the whole manuscript. They’re still looking at it. My fingers are firmly crossed.
This ends the historical section of the blog. I can stop relying on memory. From this point on, you’re along for the ride with me. I may make it, I may not. Whatever happens, I’m sure I’m going to learn new things along the way.