Wednesday, 19 January 2011


I'm always telling people that I know loads of great writers who haven't got books out yet or whose books have sunk. I get sceptical looks. But it's true. I have met stonkingly talented writers who for many reasons cannot get a book deal: it's hard to get an agent; publishers only want to publish 'safe-money-bets', i.e. celebrity memoirs/novels, or highly commercial books - you know the ones you see acres of dumped in charity shops and for sale at airports. Meanwhile exceptionally talented writers are overlooked.

Some writers are just unlucky from the start - they get deals that fall through; a poor agent; verbal contracts that are reneged on; or they end up with undynamic publishers who don't do PR so the books sink. All that can be extremely disheartening over the course of a few years and many writers will just give up.

Stephen Price talked a bit about the celebrity book aspect of this in the Sunday Times. His piece is mainly about the fact that  books are not selling well at all in Ireland, that publishers are scared and that e-readers have yet to catch on in this country. But Price also writes: "Many authors say that publishing has only itself to blame, paying huge advances to celebrities who lend their names to preening, usually ghostwritten tomes that lose buckets of money and end up in bargain baskets."

"...authors who did not score an instant success with their first outing usually found themselves dumped."

This brings me to writer Aiden O'Reilly who is one of those talented writers who is finding it hard to get a book deal. He wrote an open letter to the MD of the publisher Transworld Ireland on his blog and it has been picked up by NewsBlaze in the USA. A quote or two from his letter:

"I am looking for a publisher for a novel I have written. I looked through your website and list of authors, and noticed that your new fiction writers are exclusively TV producers, actors, columnists, and other such people with a high media profile.
I decided not to bother sending my manuscript to you. I cannot have any trust that it would get serious attention. I would not fit in among the authors on your list. Even if you decided to publish me, I would not feel comfortable with your publishing house."

"If the Transworld parent company pulled out of Ireland tomorrow, it would leave a lasting legacy in the hopes which have been kindled and those which have been quietly extinguished. Will you be proud of the direction you have given to Irish writing?"

There is NO shortage of excellent writers in this country. There is a lack of publishers willing to publish hard-hitting literary writing. We need a Women's Press. We need good publishers willing and able to publish good books, from women and men who are not famous or obviously 'fabulous' or media-savvy, but who are devoted to the craft of writing.

You can read Aiden's letter in its entirety here. It's a sobering and brave read. I hope he gets the publisher he deserves.


Jane Holland said...

I've just recently signed with Transworld (not Ireland) and am not a celebrity. Though it's true that my novel is a commercial one. But commercial doesn't have to mean entirely devoid of literary merit. Though it could seem like that to some, I guess, whose work is not 'commercial' - in the sense of being 'popular fiction'.

Behind my recent book deal though, lies over a decade of struggling as a poet and writer, and barely getting by. Good news can happen. I'm beginning to think, though, that luck plays a greater part in publishing than many of us would care to admit. A greater part even than talent, I fear. Though perhaps not greater than hard work and perseverance.

And on that note, I wish everyone looking to get published the very best of luck in making that happen.


Anonymous said...

Fair play to aiden for making those arguments and I hope he finds a publisher soon.
I went to an agent with a novel and was told to come back with a biography of Christy Ring!
The market imposes rigid forms and contents on many literary genres, which leads to a kind of slow asphyxiation. I think this is as evident in the short story and poetry, as well as fiction. I wonder if authors co-operatives are a way that could be developed to sustain quality, risk taking writing. I feel its always better to do things ourselves than to beg the commercial publishers to be nice to us.
dave lordan

Group 8 said...

Thanks Jane! I was delighted for you when you got your deal but Transworld Ireland seem to exclusively be picking up 'celebs', if their website is anything to by.
And I know commercial and literary worth are not mutually exclusive but it's often hard to get something of literary worth published with no publishing history.
Ireland is a tiny market and most Irish writers look to the UK eventually to make a career.

As for luck, I think we make our own through the hard work and preseverance you mentioned, but a bit of fairydust never went astray :)
N x

Group 8 said...

Thanks Dave - hard to believe that agent said that (I do believe!) - so disappointing.
I would hate our generation's literary legacy to be poor in literary merit purely because publishers can't be bothered to take a chance on writers who may not turn out to be bestsellers.

Anonymous said...

Frankly this is a pretty childish letter and more than a little disheartening,

If Transworld Ireland want to commission books by celebrities or books by dogs, or books by snowmen, what is it to anyone? They spends their money and they gets what they gets.

If on the other hand they were supported by state funds then there might be an issue, but they aint.

To make it worse, there is an assumption in Aiden's letter that he is somehow entitled to something from Transworld that he simply isn't, and something from the world that he simply isn't.

The life of an author is hard, but so is the life of a labourer or a retail assistant, or a nurse, or indeed a garbage man or women.

Deciding to pursue writing as a career doesn't entitle you to succeed or for culture to shape itself to you image of what is right.

The frustration is keenly felt I know and I have sympathy with Aiden in his frustration, but Transworld Ireland is neither the cause of Aiden's predicament nor a legitimate target for his ire!


Group 8 said...

Hi Eoin and welcome,
I wouldn't have thought Aiden's letter was childish, more frustrated and disillusioned, really.
You are a publisher so you have knowledge. From the outside looking in - particulalry for the unpublished writer - the world of publishing is very scary and off-putting.
When it looks like one of the biggest publishers wouldn't publish you no matter what you wrote becasue you don't have a tv programme or radio show, it makes you feel annoyed and frustrated.
As for garbage men, shop assistants etc, they all earn a wage - most writers don't, so I don't take that analogy.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I had a quick peek at Transworld Ireland - and the writers I looked at don't all conform to the celeb definition. Some do, of course - and any publisher needs to have a spread, dont they? Thats why Salt are branching out away from literary work and poetry into erotica, romance, aliens and so forth! And good luck to them

I do wish him the best - but I wonder if this was the best way of going about getting positive publicity? Some of his letter makes little sense to me. He talks about well-known writers saying his work is great. He talks about Transworld asking for some confirmation that he works hard to publicise his own work - media coverage. Well, isnt publication in Stinging Fly et al coverage in the media, loosely speaking? And why on earth not ask these famous writer friends to give a public statement, rather than acting coy?

It adds up to something less than, if you know what I mean.

Mind you - he's now got plenty of media coverage! lets hope it brings positive results. I just hope that other writers don't follow his example, and write wingy-peeve open letters to publishers on their blogs. Not the way to make friends, I'd have thought.

Lory said...

Whatever about transworld - obviously not the right publisher for him if he doesn't fit their list-there is truth in the fact that sometimes talented writers or good books don't get published. I saw this myself as a literary agentin New York in the 1990s. We had some fiercely talented writers with great books, and there were a few for whom we just couldn't find a home.

Group 8 said...

Not sure that he is angling for positive publicity or making friends - he is getting something off his chest.
I am a published writer and I totally get where he is coming from - the world of publishing is daunting and frustrating when door after door seems to close in your face.
Not everyone strikes lucky early on and sometimes it is hard for people to push on.

Group 8 said...

Thanks Lory - it just happens doesn't it? It nearly happened to me but I pushed on and on and eventually found a home for my novel which was then well received by the press.
You need the thickest of necks to be a writer and few material needs, right? :)

Anonymous said...

I think you can look at things from a commercial or an artistic point of view,. If there is a middle ground, and I doubt it, it doesn-t interest me. That doesn't mean good writers can't or shouldn't sell, just that they shouldn-t sell out. Artists should not adapt to the market, in my opinion. I guess that many of the great writers of modernism would find it very hard to get published now.
dave lordan

Anonymous said...

Maybe childish is harsh and perhaps the analogy isn't perfect, but like everyone who decides to set off on a risky venture out of choice, writers have to face the reality that the path ahead is not a normally successful once, populated by risks and dangers too many to enumerate, on top of which the success which does happen tends very often to be random, something we as humans have a tough time accepting to be the case.

I'm more than happy to accept the idea that writing is a frustrating career choice. Indeed, I've sent enough rejection letters to know just what the success vs acceptance rate is for a writer, even good ones.

But lashing Transworld, one of the most clearly commercial publishers in the country, is just a bit of a cheap shot frankly.


Group 8 said...

Dave - any writer who has one eye on the market is bound to come a cropper, IMO. It would be great to write a good book that become a surprise hit but I would never be waitng around for it to happen. I just write what I write and couldn't write to order at all.

Group 8 said...

Eoin - I think most writers would be happy with modest success. Having a book accepted for publication might be part of that.
For myself, I know I won't ever make pots of money because what I write is not commercial in the way that many publishers seem to want. But I am happy with my publishers (New Island, Arlen House, Salmon and Salt) for all the good work they do with accomplished writers. I enjoy their ethos and outlook.
And I get to continue writing the books I love writing.
I hope Aiden will come in here and answer for himself - I can't speak for him.

Colm Keegan said...

I was just talking to Aiden about this last night. I'm delighted the letter is getting attention. I'm fucking sick of Booky wooks!

Anonymous said...

I read the letter, thanks for the link- it made me realise I used to share an assumption with the writer -his problem/frustration seems to lie in the fact that he thinks (as we all have done/do) that publication in literary magazines and a literary award should mean something to a big publishing house...but it doesnt really, and if it would've meant anything to Transworlds he'll never know now anyway, will he?

I have to admit though that there's a sense of entitlement in his letter that I dont understand.
And why write to say I dont like what you do and I dont want to submitt to you?

Group 8 said...

Hi Niamh
Yes, if awards and publishing credits mattered to publishers, the likes of Cecilia Ahern would never have been considered for publication.
BUT I do think they matter to those that publish literary fiction as a matter of course - they want to see that writers have a track record.

Transworld Irl tell me they plan to publish literary writing in the near future, so that is good news for Irish writers.

I think that tone is borne of deep frustration. But I can't speak for Aiden - I am sure he will stop by and speak for himself.

Unknown said...

Jeez Eoin, you sound very bitter.

You say Transworld is one of the “most clearly commercial publishers”. That kind of answers one of the questions I posed in the letter.

I admire publishers who seek out and promote good stuff. I admire companies in general who state their ethos, name their managers etc on their website. It’s not unrealistic, it’s not financial suicide. It’s what companies in the real world do.

In another 10 years we will be blogging about why all the interesting writers are from Eastern Europe or Australia or wherever. But maybe some interesting writers will emerge using the methods Eoin Purcell looks at on his interesting blog?