How to approach the publishing industry: Advice from the trenches
By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar/ For nearly three years I’ve been working at a publishing company in the Middle East (www.bqfp.com.qa).
Prior to this I was an academic who published scholarly articles, book reviews, and the occasional creative non-fiction essay here or there. I had completed a novel and was fiddling with the third or fourth draft of a second one; an idea for a third was lurking in the back of my mind, waiting for its turn.
Working at the publishing house was a bit like getting a golden ticket into the chocolate factory: all the tips, ideas, and advice gleaned from Writer’s Digest and other sources were now being put to the test. Surprisingly, they were mostly true.
1. Don’t turn up expecting a meeting–Since we were a very small start up, in a context where people expect face to face interaction, many aspiring (and literally sweaty due to the desert temperatures outside) expected to show up and meet with an editor to pitch their story idea. This is the worst thing you can do as a writer because it shows that you do not understand the basics of the industry. If you are serious about publishing make sure you find out how to query. Most houses outside of the Middle East are so inundated; they won’t even look at material that is not represented by an agent.
2. Don’t take a no personally–Perhaps one of the most eye-opening moments was when I traveled to the UK offices of the management and saw how they run their editorial department. Needless to say, all the material on how busy and overworked editors, sub-editors, and assistants are is not only true, I saw firsthand, most of the people at the table were there because they were passionate about books (not their paychecks). The publishing industry is undergoing a major overhaul on the scale that was last seen by the invention of Guttenberg printing press. E-books, print on demand, the decline of newspapers: all of this means everyone is trying to figure out the angle to get to more readers. And your book may or may not have the one the company is currently considering. Take the no and move on. If you really believe in your work, consider self publishing, the tail that is very much trying to wag this dog.
3. Do write, edit, revise–Despite the credit crunch and the limited budgets for new writers, overlooking that many think the habit of pleasure reading has died, and ignoring the pile of rejections you may already have: if you have a story to tell that no one has heard (and you do, since none of us tell stories alike) sit your butt down and write it. Don’t worry about finding the agent or how to decide which publisher when the proposal goes to auction or how you will spend your first million. I’m amazed how many first time writers query without having done the basics of a book proposal or outline. When you’re on your third or fourth title, you may be able to sell on proposal. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is your homework. Join a writers’ group, whether in your community or online; show your work to a trusted reader and offer to give similar feedback. One thing is certain – you won’t get published if you haven’t written anything engaging, authentic, and true.
4. Do give your work time to develop–At the several hundred writing workshops I’ve attended, organized, or led, the Q and A period always involves someone putting up a hand and asking about how to get published. This person usually has not written an entire manuscript, nor gotten past the germ of an idea of a story. Okay – so this is more on point 3, but really, most people (I was guilty once too) start asking about publication way too early to be healthy for their work as you’ve got unfinished chapters, under-developed content, and a host of other problems that will make it easy for people to say no when what you want is to give them 100 reasons to say yes.
5. Ask yourself why you write–This may seem slightly like the horse coming after the cart, but it is the most important question of all. Are you writing to tell a story that only you can tell from your patch of ground that you are standing, sitting, living, crying, celebrating in? Or are you writing for fame and fortune? If it’s the former, carry on. Because no one really wants to read a story about happiness (unless it’s non-fiction then there’s entire manuals on how to find it, make it, share it, pass it on) because after all, not much would happen. If your underlying motivation is the latter, then you need to sit down and have a good long think. Most writers do not make their entire wage from writing; usually there’s teaching, lecturing, or a mix of freelance articles, ordinary assignments keeping in the lights on while the next prize winner is being crafted. For every J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, both authors living very close to the poverty line before their work made them megamillions, there are hundreds, even thousands of the rest of us, quietly typing out the next sentence or chapter. These may sound like harsh facts but the reality is that writing is hard and rewarding work. Just make sure you are honest with yourself what you’re hoping those rewards are.
Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a writer and educator who has lived in Qatar since 2005. A scholar of literature, she has a PhD from the University of Florida with a focus on gender and postcolonial theory. Her work has been published in AudioFile Magazine, Explore Qatar, Woman Today, The Woman, Writers and Artists Yearbook, QatarClick, and Qatar Explorer. She has been a guest on Expat Radio, and was the host for two seasons of the Cover to Cover book show on Qatar Foundation Radio. She is the Associate Editor of Vox, a fashion and lifestyle magazine. Visit her website at www.mohanalakshmi.com