On rethinking literary success and going indie
For most of my literary career—I use the term ironically—I’ve been out of print.
My first book, a Young Adult novel, was accepted for publication when I was in my final year of high school; my second in my third year of university. I had good reviews in all the newspapers, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s still had separate books sections, and libraries bought my novels. This was Australia: there was no fanfare, no book tour, no international deals, no life-changing money. I did not win any literary awards or rack up huge sales. I didn’t even have an agent. Most writers didn’t. I kept studying and, eventually, I got a public sector job, because I didn’t expect to earn a living writing novels.
After I moved to London, around the turn of the millennium, my third novel came out, a YA fantasy with a female protagonist. I acquired a London agent and my Australian publisher requested a sequel, because fantasy novels always came in trilogies. At last, after over a decade of hard work and hope, my literary career was about to launch.
And what did this mean, twenty years or so ago? Awards, reviews in all the right (print) newspapers and magazines, signing queues at literary festivals in expensive or exotic locales, the validation of a prestigious imprint and—the defining pinnacle—being able to give up the day job and write full-time. Promotion for the next book, organised entirely by the publisher, meant being interviewed respectfully by broadsheet journalists in your book-lined study.
In my naivety, I spent three years writing the sequel without a contract. My editor stonewalled me for a year after I’d submitted it. Eventually, she commissioned a reader’s report from another of her authors, a male writer who wrote for boys. In this report, he made clear his preference for steampunk and his contempt for high fantasy, quoting China Miéville on Tolkien as the ‘wen on the arse of fantasy literature’.
Poleaxed but compliant—what choice did I have?—I made the brutal changes laid out in the report. It was like cutting fingers and toes off a baby. Skilful and sympathetic structural or developmental editing can make a book; feedback from someone who fundamentally doesn’t understand or even like your work, who actually despises it, is destructive and soul-crushing.
Not long after I’d returned my revised draft, I had a brief, apologetic email from my editor: management had decided not to go ahead, because long YA fantasy novels ‘didn’t sell’. This was around 2003. J. K. Rowling had already published five of the seven Harry Potter novels. My first agent disappeared, and my second couldn’t sell the novel either.
The rejected sequel had an ISBN—production had progressed that far—and so my unpublished book appeared on Goodreads, along with a two-star review from the same man writer who’d produced the shitty reader’s report. Why continue kicking something you’d already killed? I fought Goodreads very, very hard to have my unborn ghost book taken down.
And so I fell into the crowded wayside with all the other writers who’d had their chance and not ‘made it’. This wayside rut runs parallel to the even deeper one full of writers who have never been published at all. Which is worse? The industry, run mostly by younger people, favours young, photogenic debut authors, not lightly foxed second editions.
I left London and did an MLitt in Creative Writing. I wrote another novel, the kind now mocked as the ‘sad girl novel’, except that I’m Gen X and I was writing 15 years ahead of the curve. Imagine, a novel about late 20-something women who don’t have smart phones and who trawl for dates on Guardian Soulmates or Match.com—on their home computers! With dial-up internet! Or, if they’re really bad, or careless, their work computers. Historical fiction.
I freelanced as a copy-editor while researching, in the National Library of Scotland, yet another novel, this one set in mid-century Australia. I continued to submit to agents. I lived for a while in Tokyo. Predictably, I wrote a novel about living in Tokyo. The agents got younger. I got older. The personalised, ‘positive’ rejections dried up and the default response became nothing at all. A template rejection email felt like old world politesse.
And the literary world in general got harder, more closed. After a series of mergers that resulted in the Big Five, accountants took over from editors. The eye of the needle got smaller. So did the needle. Articles appeared in the Guardian bemoaning the death of the mid-list and the collapse of writer incomes. Writers who’d enjoyed the brief period in the 1980s–1990s when non-bestseller, literary authors could earn real money, or at least enough to live on, in North London, bemoaned its end. It was no longer possible to patch together a reasonable living, between books, from reviewing and other literary hackwork.
One London-based writer, infamously, bemoaned that he couldn’t afford to keep up rental on his separate writing studio and had to commission a builder to convert his attic. The response below the line was brutal, but not enough to make me feel sorry for him.
And yet, paradoxically, the notion of a ‘literary career’ has gained an even stronger hold, even as ‘literary’ success did not result in ‘career’ money. Creative writing programmes produce credentialled graduates with middle-class expectations. I was perplexed by an aggrieved article in which a young Australian writer bemoaned having to work in call centres to pay her rent, even though she’d won a prestigious award. Writers like Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney, who achieve both literary and financial success, are once in a generation. They’re outliers.
For someone who grew up in Australia, the possibility of earning a living as a writer was always miniscule. Colleen McCullough, an international bestseller, was despised by all the ‘real’ writers for being a bestseller and therefore a hack. Back then, journalists had desk jobs. The teaching of creative writing at universities had yet to cross the Pacific from America. Doing crappy jobs, living hand-to-mouth and not having a pension plan was all part of the literary life. In the 1970s, and 1980s, writers like Helen Garner lived on the dole, which was a lot easier to get and was known, affectionately, as the Paul Keating Arts Grant, after the then prime minister. Award-winning, critically validated literary writers—as Garner became—lived off Australia Council grants and journalism. Other writers got day jobs and wrote around the edges.
You sucked it up. You could’ve studied accountancy or got a teaching diploma, something sensible. Or you married someone with a real job. Of course, if the partner with a job was a woman, she still did all the housework and childcare. (If you have been feeling insufficiently outraged lately, read Garner’s account, in her diaries, of being married to a Great Man Writer.)
I went to university expecting that I’d have to work to support my writing, rather than being supported by it. The experience of the American writer Meghan Daum almost exactly my age, who did a Columbia MFA in her 20s and went on to earn a living as a freelance writer in New York (although it cost her), is utterly alien to me. Enterprising and ambitious Australians who could even imagine that kind of life simply got on the plane to New York. Lacking such a spirit of enterprise, I did an MA in international relations and applied for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra. I wanted to have an interesting life that would give me lots to write about (ok, I was in my 20s).
And lo, the salad days of publishing passed and I hadn’t had so much as a lettuce leaf.
As being published got harder, in the 2010s, an industry grew up around helping people to get published (or not). Editors who’d lost their jobs in corporate overhauls became editorial consultants. Agencies (Curtis Brown) and publishers (Faber) set up their own, pricey, writing courses and manuscript assessment services. A bifurcation arose between university courses teaching students how to write ‘literary’ fiction and how to teach the next generation of literary writers and ‘industry’ courses that taught writers how to actually get published (see Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC for the US view).
An aspiring writer these days can attend a conference run by Jericho Writers or Mslexia magazine. A slew of competitions for unpublished manuscripts, often with entry fees, seem to promise a fast track out of the slush pile. Unfortunately for the briefly-once-been, if you’ve ever been published before, you’re disqualified. Once you’ve crossed to the other side, you’re a ‘published author’, even if you can’t get published again. You can only lose your literary virginity once.
Of course, bestsellers keep on selling, in the parallel dimension of commercial fiction. Those writers are doing fine. They keep publishing houses afloat and publishers treat them well. I’m talking about the writers who fall into that vast space between Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code. ‘Literary’ not necessarily in the sense of being difficult (unreadable), experimental or High Art, but not genre either. Well-written, intelligent novels that don’t fit into any niche, that open up new perspectives, that don’t follow a formula, tie up all loose threads and provide a happy or genre-appropriate ending. (Many ‘commercial’ writers would protest that their books fit this description.) Try pitching one of these to an agent. Good luck.
With the benefit (finally) of a settled day job after my long years of wandering, I could afford literary consultancies and weekend writing conferences. And, honestly, I felt like a bit of a mug. The people who run these consultancies and events are, in the main, very well-meaning, and I feel mean for saying this, but it’s true.
The fact is, it’s almost impossible to have a ‘literary’ or ‘mid-list’ novel published by a traditional publisher these days. Even if you find an agent—and I’ve had three—that’s no guarantee that an editor will even look at your work. My last agent couldn’t even get a reply out of some editors and she’d been in the business for decades. It used to be much easier to sell books, she told me, before she stopped replying to my emails.
She also told me that paying for a professional edit might just get me ‘over the line’. One of her other authors had done this. At the time I was unemployed. The other author had a ‘supportive’ husband.
If the odds are so bad to begin with, throwing more money on the table potentially makes you even more of a loser.
I began to rethink literary success, because I wasn’t getting any younger and failing lay so very heavily on me. I had a steady job, a mortgage, a pension. After years of precarity, this security was important to me. I became modest in my ambitions. I mentally deleted the visions of Guardian reviews; of attending literary festivals as a guest rather than a punter paying more than the price of a paperback to breathe the same air as the writer; of being summoned to the medieval magnificence of the London Guildhall to hear whether I’d won the Booker.
Publication with an indie press, a few good reviews in the right places, a small and select group of readers that would grow after each book, because I’ve always been conscientious and productive. That’d do. Maybe after book two or three I could aspire to a part-time teaching job or a residency, step down from full-time non-writing work. Maybe, eventually, I’d win an award that would get me that Guardian review.
I would decouple writing from money, from the validation of the people who wouldn’t let me into the world of successful writers, whatever that meant now. Here, I went a bit Buddhist. Let it go. Let go expectations, let go ego.
(A writer’s ego is a terrible and burdensome thing, but without the presumption that your words are worth reading, how can anyone keep going?)
But even indie presses, the ones that take risks and produce the ‘surprise’ bestsellers and award-winners, often still require agent representation or are such tiny operations that your chances of acceptance are proportionally microscopic. Two indie presses that accepted direct submissions took a year to get back to me, in the negative. Others didn’t get back to me at all.
Why don’t you self-publish? I was hearing this more and more often, usually from people who knew very little about publishing. I’d been aware of self-publishing since the 2010s, and I’d visited Joanna Penn’s website, but I’m not a genre writer and my artistic soul recoiled from the massive (and necessary) emphasis on marketing and self-promotion. The prejudice against ‘vanity publishing’ remained strong, certainly for ‘literary’ authors. I kept half an eye on developments, but I didn’t think, back then, that it was for me.
And then, out of the blue, I won a first-chapter competition, one of the very few for which I was eligible as a once-published writer. I received a full-manuscript assessment and did my utter best to follow the advice without completely gutting my novel, which refused to fit into any market niche. After a year, the consultancy that organised the competition decided they’d spent enough resources helping me. Fair enough. My novel was simply not ‘commercially viable’. Kindly and regretfully, they cut me loose without an agent introduction.
I spent another year querying agents, this time with an officially ‘award-winning’ novel. I did not receive a single full-read request. There was nothing more I could do to the novel other than rewrite it completely, as something that agents and publishers would instantly recognise: a historical saga, a Cold War spy thriller, a family saga, a wartime romance. It absolutely could not be some hybrid that crossed categories and was its own, original thing. Don’t kid yourself, no mainstream publisher is looking for anything remotely original.
An Mslexia survey in 2021–22 on the experience of submission quoted one writer as saying, ‘With some exceptions, my impression is that writers are held in contempt, treated as supplicants rather than the people on whom the whole industry actually depends.’ My words. Published again, at last. I was taken aback by the blistering fury and bitterness contained in them.
I’ve decided to self-publish, at last, because I’m frustrated and, yes, angry. I’m fed up with having no control over being published (and therefore read). I have followed all the rules, done all the work, had sufficient validation (including prior publication, several times) to know that I’m good enough.
I’m realistic. In the early twenty-first century, the world is full of books, far more than anyone could speed-read in thousands of years. My novels may drop like lonely stones into the bottomless well of eternity. But so the hell what? If three people read them, that’s three more than if I’d submitted them to an agent’s slush pile.
And there’s the possibility that more than three readers will find me. I don’t want to write ‘for the drawer’, like a dissident writer in the former Soviet Union, holding out for posterity. I want to reach readers now, to make the connection and complete the circle. An unread book is an unfinished book. I want to fire my words (edited, proofed, well-presented) out in the universe, where at least, in the vast tracts of space (=the internet), they have some chance, however small, of being read.
Here we go.