Settling for second best? Or not?

gone-with-the-windMarilyn Cohen de Villiers

As the sixth (or was it the seventh?) rejection email landed in my inbox, I realised that it was time to make a decision: To self-publish, or to give up.

I’d heard the warnings from people who understand how the publishing industry works. They’d said that I’d have more chance of winning the Lotto or growing healthy, new cartilage for my crocked knees than getting my novel accepted by a “recognised” publisher.

Now if it was non-fiction, they said; or in Afrikaans … if I had already had a book published or had produced the novel in part fulfilment of a Masters or PhD degree; if it had been strongly recommended by someone with the right credentials in local literary circles; if it had been a ‘literary’ novel with prize-winning potential; if it … then maybe, perhaps, possibly one of the tiny handful of South African publishers who publish South African English fiction would consider taking a chance on my book.

I trawled Exclusive Books and Readers Warehouse, I searched the websites of said publishers, desperate for the smallest shred of evidence that these fonts of publishing wisdom were wrong. I couldn’t find it.

Still, I launched myself into an optimistic twilight zone where a magical, mystical maverick at one of South Africa’s handful of conventional publishers would immediately see the incredible commercial potential of my work.

But, deep in my pragmatic heart, I knew that knee cartilage does not regenerate. Nevertheless, I went through the motions because, well – I’m an author (unpublished, certainly – but it still sounds so good to refer to “my” novel). And I really wanted (needed?) the affirmation of the “experts”.

I sent off the required first three chapters, sparklingly witty cover letter and synopsis as requested. I printed out the entire manuscript and couriered it (at no small cost) to those publishers who still demand the entire manuscript in hard copy.

And one by one, the rejections arrived. “This does not fit with our publishing plans,” said one. Another used the identical let-down, but added – rather kindly, I thought – that they nevertheless recognised that “your book deals with an important subject”.

“We only publish Afrikaans fiction” said two more, despite their websites clearly stating that they publish both English and Afrikaans fiction.

Then there were the less tactful rebuffs: “We don’t think it is commercially viable,” said one Another baldly stated that my writing was simply not up to their required standard, and it would cost far too much (time? effort? money? all of the above?) to bring it up to scratch. That rankled.

One respected, conventional publisher, after acknowledging receipt of my electronic submission and asking how much I was prepared to contribute towards the publication of my book (which sounded a little like self-publishing to me), didn’t bother to come back to me again, despite my subsequent follow up queries.

I consoled myself with the thought that JK Rowlings was rejected by 12 experts before a publisher took the advice of an eight-year-old child and published Harry Potter. I also found out – googling the term “literary rejections” in my search for verification that I wasn’t alone – that publishers can (and do) get it wrong. French-born, American-raised author and journalist Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key was rejected by no fewer than 20 publishers back in 2002. She actually gave up and put the haunting novel away for six years. Then a small French publisher recognised its potential and Sarah’s Key went on to sell more than five million copies in 38 countries.

In fact, publisher’s mistakes are legendary: Jonathan Livingstone Segal (18 rejections); Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (121 rejections – that’s perseverance!); Stephen King’s Carrie (30 rejections); Gone with the Wind; Joseph Conrad’s The Dubliners; the list goes on, and on.

But my novel, A Beautiful Family, isn’t in the same league as these books. And more to the point: there are only so many fiction publishers in South Africa – and they’ve all already said “no”. Should I just give up?

Fortunately, unlike de Rosnay, Conrad, Margaret Mitchell et al I have an alternative – self-publishing – thanks to the digital publishing revolution and the e-book phenomenon. In the past couple of years, this alternative has acquired mantel of respectability by – would you believe? – Fifty Shades of Grey. (An aside: at the other end of the publishing spectrum, Beatrix Potter initially self-published 250 copies of her much rejected book, The Tales of Peter Rabbit).

Fifty Shades started out as online fan fiction and became the fastest-selling paperback ever (90 million copies, 92 languages), after being made available initially as an e-book and on-demand print paperback.

BFS (Before Fifty Shades), many in the traditional publishing community and their acolytes dismissed this form of publishing as “vanity” publishing. Their unspoken mantra appeared to be: “we are the arbiters of what people should read/want to read/have to read. Unless we (often a single, possibly overworked, harried, bored gatekeeper/reader) are not absolutely enthralled by the first page of two (or possibly the first three chapters) – or if you or your novel have not already received a stamp of approval from another in the inner circle – we won’t touch it. And if you ignore us and go it alone, you are vain/ arrogant/ ignorant”.

I can (sort of) understand why publishers are so “selective”: publishing is expensive; mistakes costly. In today’s economic climate, publishers can’t risk taking a chance. Yet mistakes continue to be made. Many, many novels that have been rescued by the experts from the maelstrom of manuscript hopefuls, crash and burn. Of course, many self-published books (the vast majority, probably) don’t make even the faintest blip on the literary (and non-literary) scene.

So. I have decided to self-publish.

A Beautiful Family may be launched into dismal obscurity, and disappear with barely a whimper. It may crash and burn. Perhaps I am being vain, arrogant and/or ignorant to believe (hope?) that there are a few people out there who may enjoy reading it.

There’s only one way to find out.

A Beautiful Family is currently in its final editing stages before being type-set. It is going to be released as an e-book and as an on-demand print paperback in about April or May this year. And I may even, like Beatrix Potter, print a few hard copies too.

10 thoughts on “Settling for second best? Or not?

  1. Marilyn, definitely try it. Companies such as Amazon simply the process. There are times that self-publishing is the only route to go. A colleague and I self-published two non-fiction books. The demand would be low, which made it a sensible choice. The one is now a prescribed text-book at Onderstepoort. We have printed on demand and it has worked well.


  2. Loved the spirit of honesty, humour and underlying defiance of your blog. I look forward to reading more about your personal saga of self-publishing. And I eagerly await the time when YOU present us with your novel A Beautiful Family and I’ll be able to order a copy.


  3. Good luck! As far as I’m concerned it is in publishers’ interests for us to believe self-publishing is vanity publishing. Provided it has had a good edit (and I’m sure you’ve got editing friends), it must have as good a chance – if not more – than making it through a commercial publisher. Most books published by commercial publishers don’t have much marketing put behind them – they expect writers to do it themselves.


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