From Submission To Acceptance | The Memory of Trees

Sending a manuscript out on submission to publishers for the first time is a little like sending your child to school for the first time. You feel you have done all you can do to prepare ‘the child’ for what lies ahead, but schooling is like publishing – subject to intense scrutiny, assessment and judgement. The brave and talented ‘pupil’ may rise to the top of the class, but it does not come with a guarantee. The feckless, careless and average ‘pupil’ will often struggle in an intense and competitive environment.
Many are called, but few are chosen.
If you are going to attract the attention of a commercial publisher, then the previous statement holds true its message no more brutally and honestly than in today’s publishing climate. When I first began writing in the 1980’s, large publishing houses did have substantial unsolicited submission piles. Back then, publishers were still prepared to invest a great deal of time and energy sifting through those piles to unearth something exceptional or original that would fit their lists. Now, the economics of publishing and increased submission volume has consigned this approach by authors to achieve publication as something of a bygone age. The vast majority of accepted and commissioned work reaching publication through a large publisher occurs via a literary agent, or under certain circumstances, by way of recommendation of a publishing house’s established author.
The present economics of publishing mean an author must ensure a manuscript is highly marketable and as close to going straight to production and print as possible. In other words, the days of publishers seeing themselves as promoters and nurtures of literary talent have long passed. Even literary agents, once tasked with finding and promoting the next generation of authors for publishers, are steadily declining. Agents, like publishers, have pushed that expectation back to the author. Publishers and agents may dispute the current realities; that they are much more fair-minded and welcoming a literary bunch than now depicted, but the experience of authors today is that the olive branch has long withered.
This was why fundamentally after the first eight or so submissions of The Memory of Trees, I gave up with large publishing houses. I felt I was wasting their time as much as I was wasting my own.  At that time, even the large independent publishing houses like Canongate, never replied or even acknowledged my submission. Most of the first eight submissions were snail-mail submissions. I found it utterly prehistoric that modern publishers were still insisting on this form of submission and contact with them.  Sometime around then—2009—An Post, the national post office service in Ireland, withdrew the IRC service (International Reply Coupons).
After about six months, I took to travelling to Belfast and buying postage stamps up there so I could affix them to return envelopes I was sending with my submission or query letters. In the end, I thought, ‘fuck this, it’s not worth it for the time it takes anyway.’ Initially, I thought, ‘how can publishers stay in business communicating this way?’ That’s when the penny dropped – they don’t, because this isn’t how they do business now – dealing directly with authors. Their business is 99.9% with agents, and if publishers expected literary agents to do business this way – well, then they certainly wouldn’t be in business very long. Agents are important in the industry for their connections – that’s their strength – knowing who the editors are and what specifically each editor likes and is open to. It was a bit like wishing you could win the lottery without ever bothering to buy a ticket.
By mid 2009, I redrew my submission map. I focussed entirely on independent publishers and small presses, and switched to batches of multiple submissions, with a priority on those publishers that had climbed out of the dark ages and embraced email submission. It was like a breath of fresh air. The publishing world I had begun to grow steadily despondent with started to emit a light of hope. I discovered publishers like Melville House, Graywolf Press, Dalkey Archive Press, and even publishers like Sparkling Books and Milkweed that had tailored online submission forms ‘forcing’ an author to present a submission as it should be – asking questions on genre, length of manuscript and how the author felt the manuscript was different than other books; requiring author bio’s, competition and marketing information. I wondered why larger publishers could not employ similar efficient online filters to deal with their perceived ‘slush piles’, and I could conclude only one real answer to that – they wanted nothing to do with direct communication with authors. In other words, publishers had reached a point where they saw the author as nothing more than a catalyst for the sales of a book, rather than the writer and originator of an idea. The publisher’s primary customer was the bookseller – certainly not the reader. Perhaps I am a romantic literary fool – but I remember a time when publishing actually worked the way it should work, and publishers like Bodley Head, Penguin, John Calder, Grove, Olympia, City Lights, Faber and Hogarth; all understood that publisher and author branding went hand in hand with creating a community of readers. In the new digital world of publishing – forget that – and you’re dead in the water.
I’ve no idea why publishers should take such indignation from the fact that the modern author or agent will submit on a multiple basis. Just as publishers have revised their remit on publishing books – so too have authors and agents. Publishing is no longer the island of monopoly it once was. Agents and authors have now moved in on the process of publishing, and the challenge to large publishers is to redefine why they believe their companies offer something new and original to the process of publishing a book. That calls for reinventions, and publishers are coming from an industry that has changed little in over a hundred years.
When I began to submit to independent and small presses, I suddenly found the response time dramatically reduced – sometimes down to as little as a week or a few days. It no longer mattered what the publisher’s response was. The very fact that the publisher responded courteously meant a great deal.  Soon, constructive criticism started to filter through from interested publishers, enough that I began to address weaknesses and plot fall-out in my novel. A small US publisher made a tentative offer of publication if I considered a complete rewrite and a complete review of my main character, Carlos. I rejected that offer on the basis the publisher had only seen a synopsis and two chapters, whereas, I had spent ten years writing the novel! Publishers, take note: Don’t ask an author to rewrite if you are not prepared to invest the time to read the whole manuscript!! I wouldn’t ask an architect to redesign my house just because I caught sight of his blueprint of my toilet!! But then, some publishers consider most submissions to them as blueprints of the author’s toilet!!
I also experienced something I had not expected from editors at independent publishers. Several, even though they were not interested in my novel for their house or press, suggested another publisher and even provided a direct contact editor. I continued throughout 2010, convinced I had improved The Memory of Trees to a point I might be lucky and land it on the right editor’s desk. I do think a lot of publishing success is down to finding the right editor and at the right time. I also won’t deny that my contacts as a publishing consultant and industry researcher also helped, but only to the degree that I was unearthing publishers and avenues for my novel that many authors would rather rely on an agent to find a home for their book.
In the past two months alone, two authors I advised about where their books might find a publishing home have secured publishing contracts with the publisher I suggested they should try. Maybe I’m in the wrong end of this business!! Further interest came from the US, but I always felt reluctance from them when they knew I was based in Ireland. For an independent publisher or small press, even with global networking, it is a considerable drawback if you are not based in the territory your publisher publishes in. Global publishing can be a great universe, but it remains a hindrance to publishing in print and ebook.
I made the decision in January 2011, that if I didn’t find a home for The Memory of Trees that year, then I would seriously consider self-publishing it in 2012. I wanted to move on with my next work and 2010 had taken up a great deal of time with submissions and researching publishers. I felt I was starting to lose focus on my next book.
I review many publishing services for The Independent Publishing Magazine. I think we are up to over seventy companies, and in 2010, I began to focus on traditional publishers exploring innovative ideas and grasping the changes in the industry. In late 2010, I reviewed one of those innovative publishers, Maverick House Publishing. Unlike any other Irish publisher, Maverick House had quickly intended their reach and profile into Asia, while also maintaining a substantial presence in Ireland and the UK.  This publisher was unusual from its foundation, because it understood the idea that an Irish publisher could dare to become global, and that when times became tough, it would become the core of their business. In late 2010, Maverick House branched from non-fiction to fiction with the launch of Book Republic.
I reviewed Book Republic as a publishing innovator in early 2011. I was impressed with their view seeing the book not as a physical entity, but as print and ebook, and depending on success, could quickly mould their sales and marketing model to reflect this.  Each book was tailored for its market, and if the market changed, they could react to that market. They launched several books in 2010 expecting to sell a few hundred as a boutique publisher, ended up selling several thousand, and been able to quickly shift their model of business, book by book. That shows an extraordinary flexibility few publishers can adapt to. Their core principal is to treat each published book individually, rather than impose a model that may hurt the book’s sales. That includes making the book available through a multiple of hardback, paperback, Kindle ebook or POD, combined with traditional and online marketing.
I thought Book Republic might be a perfect fit for The Memory of Trees and submitted.  My instinct proved right, and in May 2011, I met their editor Karen Hayes and editorial director John Mooney. I discovered two people who live and breathe books in their daily lives and know the business inside out and are prepared to work with an author and not work against or in spite of that author.
Over the coming weeks, before publication, I will update this series on production to marketing.

You can find the previous linked article, From Inkwell to Submission, here.       

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