A long night’s journey to success: getting published

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

People often illustrate, with a view to encouraging, the difficulties of getting published by citing JK Rowling’s fourteen or so attempts to interest agents/publishers in what was later to be the first of the Harry Potter series. What people don’t realise: if most unpublished writers succeeded in getting published on the strength of sending out their manuscript fourteen times, they would think they had no cause for complaint.

To go on being unpublished for the length of a doctor’s training is, perhaps, not as uncommon as some people think.

Then there is the celebrated story of Mary Wesley (The Camomile Lawn 1984). On a number of occasions, I have read that Mary wrote this novel by hand at the age of seventy and sent it off to be published. The agent/publisher was not put off by the handwriting and accepted the manuscript without changing a word. But the fuller story is that Mary Wesley had been interested in writing for many decades and had, I believe, novels published in 1960s which sank without trace. Success came, but success came very late and after much ‘failure’. Would we prefer to read of an elderly woman who pens a novel and secures a publishing contract on her first attempt or of an elderly woman who succeeds in having a book published, and acclaimed, after thirty-five years of trying?

People do write for many years without success. And the ‘failure’ is not easy to explain or understand. Writers might accept slowness in success, but doesn’t the prospect of no success at all loom large in their fears?

The following letter was sent by email to the magazine Mslexia:

I first found an agent 40 years ago, but after she failed to place my novel, she was not interested in anything else I wrote. My second agent was enthusiastic, but retired soon after. My third only liked my nonfiction. My fourth persuaded me to rewrite and rewrite until he hated the result. My fifth ‘loved’ my writing but couldn’t see how to sell in the current market. My last repeated what I have heard so often: ‘Beautiful writing, but we can’t sell these quiet physiological novels’. No surprise, then, that I have given up submitting. I am now 78.



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