Thursday, October 15, 2009

Be Thankful for the Gatekeepers

Here is a recurring nightmare. If you're an aspiring author and this doesn't give you cold shivers, you should take your own pulse. You may, in fact, be dead.

It’s happened. The phone-call you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. Your book is being published! And not just one; you're offered an advance on two more. It’s more money than you ever imagined; apparently, there is much excitement about your manuscript, and expectations are high.

You tell your friends, your acquaintances, your neighbours, anyone who will listen. People around you get bored with your constant jabbering about your book, but you don’t care. You’ve reached the unattainable. You have arrived.

The launch comes. It’s a big deal, you've invited as many people as you could think of. Artwork from the book is draped about the hall, red wine is flowing, a pile of brand-new novels stands guard next to a chirping cash-register. As you sit and sign copy after copy, your face flushed from wine and the heat of the occasion, you reflect that life couldn’t possibly get any better than this.

The next day, you start checking the review pages on all the sites you can think of. You check them five times a day, in between writing book 2 in the series. Nothing. Why can’t people read faster than this? Finally, a review. Your fingers tremble as you click the link to read it. Not good. Whoever this person is, they didn’t really get your book at all. Their review cuts like a knife, but you shake your head and force yourself to get over it. It’s only one person’s viewpoint, after all.

The days pass, and you find yourself ringing a few friends who have the book, on the pretence of idle chit-chat or a discussion about an upcoming social event. They say nothing about the novel and, in the end, you come right out and ask. After a moment’s silence, they say “Yeah, it was really good. I really enjoyed it.” But it sounds forced, awkward, and they seem keen to get you off the phone.

More reviews, each as negative as the last. Words begin to make regular appearances – “trite”, “mediocre”, “unoriginal”. Who are these people with such a damning view? Did they read your book or just the back cover? You tell yourself not to worry, it's a bad patch. The positive reviews will come soon. But they don’t. Three stars out of five is the best you get, and that’s from someone who gives five to almost everything. There’s a tone of mockery and laughter about the reviews, and a constant refrain rings like a bell in your ears: “How on earth did this get published?”

Meetings with your publisher are less than encouraging. She reassures you that sometimes books take a while to get moving, and that many great novels started off this badly. You ask for specific examples, but she simply plays with her pen and purses her lips. As time passes, she is more open. Sales are worrying. Sales are very worrying. At this rate, it looks as though you won’t earn back even a tenth of your advance.

The crunch. A meeting is called with your publisher and a very stern-faced company CEO. The talk is direct and brief. The company will not be publishing the second or third book in the series. The title has not lived up to expectations. The market has made its view abundantly clear.

Now, you don’t mention the book to anybody. Your greatest hope is that they will forget. You’ve tried to publish again, a different genre altogether, without mentioning your previous publication history. But it’s always the same. “You’re the author of that book, aren’t you?”, and the conversation is over.

And, in those bitter moments, when you sit and stare at the unopened box of books on the floor of your study, your mind always comes back to one thing. Why did that publisher tell you it was good enough? Why did she tell you that you were ready? Why did she open the door to failure and humiliation rather than snapping it shut with a quick form-letter rejection? Even you know, now, that your book is utter rubbish. You've learned so much in the interim, you're certain you could write a best-seller. All you need is a chance, a chance that will never come, because you only get one.

And yours, my friend, is gone.


  1. Good God, Peter! I'm getting ready for bed right now. I wish I hadn't read that. That scenario is all the reason to work harder and get feedback in advance.

  2. Heh. Thank all that's holy for the gatekeepers indeed, who can at least screen for quality.

    Sadly, there's no guaranteed screen for commercial success, and it doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with quality. Or arguably ever at all.

    C'est la vie! ;)

  3. Jonathan,

    Hope you didn't lie awake in a cold sweat! Believe it or not, this was actually supposed to be an encouragement to put rejection in its proper context. Perhaps I should hold back on the encouraging posts for a little while.....


    Welcome! I agree with you totally about quality vs. success. There are a few examples floating around in my head, but perhaps they should stay there ;-)

    Thanks for stopping by!


  4. The perspective is much appreciated. Keep on with the encouragement. Sometimes it's hard not see myself in any of the situations. The imagination is a blessing and a curse, to be sure.