A social and economic barometer: 30 years of change in the rejection letter Yorkshire Post 25 March 2010
Published in the Yorkshire Post 25 March 2010
You can tell the state of any industry by the way in which it rejects an unsolicited good idea.
Yes, I said “rejects.” Acceptance is so rare and random, like an asteroid impact, that you cannot make any inference from it. Organizations are always frightened by good ideas from outsiders because they are a commentary on their second-tier managers. Their boss may well ask: why didn’t you think of that?
Unsolicited good ideas are therefore rejected almost invariably, but the manner of rejection is a tell-tale sign. An expanding industry will actually read and study a new idea. Its regrets at rejection will be sincere, as will its wish to hear from the originator again. A contracting industry regards a new idea as a frivolous interruption to the routine of day-to-day survival. The originator will be fobbed off with a form letter and filed away with the constant complainers and cranks.
Using this measure, and judging by the rejection letters I receive from it, Britain’s fiction book industry is dead in the water.
When I wrote my first novel thirty years ago, it acquired a distinguished literary agent who acquired a distinguished crop of rejections. These were warm and individually written by senior executives. This undoubtedly was more due to my agent than to the quality of my novel, but the letters all showed that the novel had been read and analysed and they gave evidence of real feeling. One letter appeared to be tear-stained. It praised my novel extravagantly and the director concerned seemed heartbroken to decline it “because it does not fit with our publishing strategy at this moment in time.” (And what was that strategy? To publish only bad novels instead of good ones?)
All expressed eagerness to see my next novel. Unfortunately it took me fifteen years to write it. By that time many of the publishers concerned had been extinguished or devoured by giant corporate houses. Their successors were more interested in their bottom line than my opening line. My agent had moved on and no one wanted to replace him. Into a far less welcoming literary market, I had to submit my new novel on my own. It collected a pile of short, impersonal rejections, barely softened by polite, formulaic expressions of thanks for offering it. I learnt then that the most terrifying sight for any author is a second-class letter addressed to him in his own handwriting. Eventually my novel was accepted by the only publisher prepared to believe in me. Myself. With the help of long-suffering friends it actually sold pretty well. Some copies were even bought by total strangers in bookshops.
Fifteen years on, my public demanded a sequel. So I wrote it and prepared to submit it to a new set of agents and publishers. But the market had changed again. Almost none would even look at a new manuscript. They expected me to submit a request for permission to submit to them (submission squared). I complied. I knocked out an appealing synopsis with a selection of the most sparkling passages.
It left them cold. You could have stored meat in them. The rejections were mostly automated emails. Laconic. Unemotional. No polite expressions, no ritual thanks, and no encouragement whatever to offer anything again. The responses were far worse than thirty years ago, even though I am a better writer (my fan thinks so) and I am no longer completely unknown (hordes of people have asked if I am related to Joseph or Zoe). Eventually, through the good offices of a Yorkshire-based e-publisher, I managed to bring the thing out as an online serial story.
Many analysts believe that the Internet is now the only realistic hope for new writers to get published. But the Internet still has serious disadvantages for any author. It manages to be both intensely crowded with competitors and intensely empty of readers and supporters. Internet writers tend to be even more obsessive and lonely than traditional writers (in hyperspace, no one can hear you scream). Above all, the markets for e-books are still undeveloped. They enjoy no dedicated physical space, they have few specialist reviews or listings, and online authors have no physical product to offer to shops or plant on their hapless friends. Worst of all, most of their online competitors are free.
Being accepted and marketed by a conventional publisher is still the only realistic hope for a new fiction writer of making anything worthwhile from his or her work. I believe that this will remain true for many years, and if conventional publishers continually and automatically reject new writers this will be a serious threat to the future of English fiction. It will be represented only by a dwindling pool of established writers creating formula novels – like Jeffrey Archer, earning silly money for a new version of the Forsyte Saga.
At that point, the only truly creative fiction produced in Britain will be in the accounts of Britain’s banks.