As an avid fan of this blog I admit to an unashamed bias. I am a friend of the writer but also a veteran observer of that almost mythical Houyhnhnm-land of publishing and its real rulers. I should modestly admit, among self-justifications for ‘interfering’, to having published over 100 book titles under my pseudonyms, many translated into over 20 languages. Therefore, I admit to reading, in this blog, the best déjà vu entertainment on that particular world that has been a part of my existence for many decades.
Now here’s the thing: there is a serious message for all ‘wannabes’ to be garnered here. Remember who really ruled the Houyhnhnms? The Yahoos are no unbiased judges who can recognise your talent even if writ in 72pt type. The ‘creative Houyhnhnm world’ is just as prejudiced, subjective, and uncreative as are most human institutions.
The first thing to disabuse yourself of is the romantic notion that you write your book, send it to an agent, or publisher, and a kindly eye will immediately fall on it before their owner exclaims to the world that it is the best thing since supercalifragilisticexpialisdocious. Sombre observation shows one manuscript in 100 ever emerges from the ‘slush pile’. This is a technical term in publishing meaning the pile of unsolicited manuscripts), situated in a dark corner of the office. Each agent and publisher maintains such a pile. One manuscript among the many might catch the attention of a bellicose eye but certainly not a kindly one. Never labour under the impression that talent alone or even the most brilliant ‘publishing pitch’ will ensure your work is examined or taken seriously. Pure luck is the only criteria for a successful publishing ‘pitch’. So don’t waste too much time on resorting to self-promotional elegies of grandiloquence in spite of what some agents claim they require.
Edgar Wallace had to self-publish his world famous classic The Four Just Men even way back in 1905 and had the idea of paying himself for advertising on the side of London buses to ensure sales. J. K. Rowling had her masterpiece rejected 12 times. Stephen King confessed his manuscript was rejected 30 times before he was able to bound into the ‘inner circle’. And John Le Carré’s Spy Who Came In from the Cold was rejected with the observation that he had absolutely no future as a writer – that was from a publisher sent to the agent he had just managed to acquire. Well, the list is endless. As Marcus Tullius Cicero really said before he lost his head ‘Bene, Yahoo praecepta, ius omnibus?’
Even writers with established reputations do not always convince the Yahoo fraternity with their work. I select one salutary tale from the many.
I was lucky to have a first book published on my 25th birthday (a pure coincidence). Ten years or so later my work, fiction and non-fiction was selling well, I had a modest reputation, and the editor of a large paperback publishing house had just bought in two of my novels for original publication. The release dates were scheduled and I had read page proofs of one of these titles and even approved a rather good jacket cover. Then the editor left the company after an emotional altercation with the managing director. A new editor was appointed.
This new editor was a fully paid up member of the Yahoo Fraternity. He called me up and without preamble informed me that the company (himself) would not be publishing either of my two novels. By then I was ‘Yahoo-wise’, so I merely pointed out that he then had to pay me the full advances under the terms of the contract, published or not. This was done with bad grace. Most importantly – and by all let this be heard (as Oscar once expressed it) - the reason volunteered by the new editor was that he personally did not like my work and therefore felt it did not fit in with his vision by which I presumed he meant it sat badly in his dream of creating a list of Nobel (or at least Booker) prize winners from which he would be hailed as the ‘coming man’ of the literary world. Oh, in case it is of interest, this Yahoo left the publishers a year or so later and became an agent.
Well, as I say, at this time I knew where the real power of the Houyhnhnm world lay. Straightway (that is on the very same day) my two mss went to an alternative publisher. The editor, one who just wanted to have a commercial property than achieve literary prizes, accepted them both immediately. So, subsequently, both titles were published and went into several editions, hardback, paperback, US rights and translation and are still bringing in some royalties today (those damned eBooks). My lesson was I escaped this encounter not only with increased cynicism plus two sets of advances paid me on novels which are still earning money forty years later.
Nil desperandum, as old Horace Flacus wrote … and he should know about giving way to despair, having deserted from Brutus’ army during the battle of Philippi, when despairing that the battle was about to end badly for Brutus (which it did). As he fled, so I am told, he uttered his less well known quote … hoc ipsum apud inferos militum! Very loosely rendered as ‘blow this for a game of soldiers’! So just remember the Houyhnhnm is a game, it is deceptive and the Yahoos are usually in control. So do not take their pronouncements too seriously; it is a lesson which the author of these regular musings so ably demonstrates.