When my son Greg received a letter from Penguin saying that they loved his manuscript and wanted to publish it, I was speechless. Not because I doubted the merit of his work – not at all – but because it had been so darn easy.
He and a friend came up with a good idea, wrote their respective stories, handed a printout to the Penguin person at a book fair and that was that; some months later Take the Gap appeared on the shelves. ‘Cool,’ he said, and moved on to the next project.
I tried to explain to him that this is not how it usually works. Would-be authors spend months – years – knocking on publishers’ doors, gnawing at their fingers while they wait for replies that, if they come at all, plunge them into gloom.
Angst and struggle are the author’s bedfellows. Papering a wall with rejection slips is almost a rite of passage. JK Rowling got turned down, for heaven’s sake (imagine the gnashing of teeth in the publishing houses that said no to Harry Potter!) and Kathryn Stockett, who wrote The Help, a staple of every book club and a Major Motion Picture to boot, was apparently rejected 50 times. I can’t swear to the truth of that, but I’m willing to believe it. When I read it somewhere I was deeply impressed that anyone could keep plugging away in the face of such opposition. If she could hold on to her belief that she would eventually see her work in print, I thought, why can’t I?
It’s not that I haven’t been in print: I have had thousands of magazine articles published in my 25-year career as a writer, but what irks me is that I’ve yet to tick the box marked ‘book’. I’ve edited them and contributed to them; there is even a stylish hard back on my shelf that has my name on the spine, but because it was commissioned I numberswiki.com
don’t feel it really counts.
What I want is for an original manuscript to be recognised, but for that to happen, I have to toughen up and bang on more doors. After all, I have things to offer. There’s Merlin the Cat, a short rhyming book for little children, languishing in a ‘pending’ folder after a single rejection. There’s a much more ambitious project, Quinella’s Pipe, binned after two readers suggested that I replace half the text with pictures and call my squirrels Sibongile and Tandiwe, instead of the ‘Eurocentric’ Firby and Tweed. ‘It’s lovely, dear,’ one said, ‘but there’s really no place for this kind of writing for children in Africa.’ I took her word for it and didn’t finish the story.
I sent my next book, Cottage Pie, about the goings-on in my neighbourhood, to Jacana and Pan Macmillan. Jacana didn’t bother to reply, but I did get a kind letter from a junior publisher at PM, six months later. While she could assure me that ‘our review panel felt that this was a wonderful piece of writing with great humour that ultimately is incredibly enjoyable,’ it is also ‘incredibly similar’ to something they are publishing, and of course that will never do. And then (incredibly) she copied and pasted the standard brush-off paragraph, urging me to submit Meat is Murder elsewhere. I suppose I shouldn’t be offended; both Cottage Pie and Meat is Murder fall into the protein genre, don’t they? Entirely understandable that she would have confused the two titles. I contemplated writing back to thank her for her encouraging words about Confessions of a Carnivore, but then thought better of it. It’s not nice to be snarky, and she did mean well.
‘I have no doubt that your manuscript will be gobbled up by another publisher’ she wrote in closing, so I’m going to serve it up again. And if all else fails, I’ll give it to Greg and ask him to drop it off with someone next time he’s wandering round a book fair.