Inspiring stories? You’re joking, right?

Photo by Grace Fell.

Writers, like everyone else, love reading those inspiring stories about persevering and never giving up. As a consequence, you tend to find a lot of those stories in writers’ magazines, revealing that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was rejected by almost everyone in the publishing industry before someone finally bought it, and Stieg Larsson waited so long to make his millions from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that he was already dead, so if we’re lucky, the same thing might happen to us.

I was reading yet another article full of inspiring stories in an American writers’ journal the other day, written by a woman who has been a freelance writer for the past 50 years (so she obviously knows about perseverance). This had some great stories, of course. I was especially pleased to hear that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was turned down by 119 publishers (did you even know that 119 publishers existed?) before it became a bestseller. But then this woman lost the plot by talking about Stephanie Meyer, whose manuscript of the first Twilight novel was turned down by nine publishers, ignored by five others and accepted by only one (which, for the record, is enough). This publisher gave her a $750,000 advance for three books. Of course, the franchise is now worth zillions.

Wait a second. Was she using Stephanie Meyer as an example of perseverance and the gutsy refusal to ever give up? Meyer was a completely unknown author, who had never published a word, then sent a novel to publishers without even having an agent (and as most writers in America will tell you, it’s hard to get publishers to notice you without an agent). What’s more, she did it only a few years ago (rather than, say, the 19th century, when more publishers were churning out more books), she sold it quickly, and was paid enough money to buy a house. Piece of cake.

You call this “inspiring”? Thousands of aspiring authors would be inspired by that article, only to become disheartened when they find out that Meyer was remarkably lucky. What next? A story about Justin Bieber’s long road to the top? The moving tale of Laura Bingle’s years of struggle before her talents were finally recognised?

(DISCLOSURE 1: I’m not doubting that Stephanie Meyer is talented as well… though Bella is possibly the dumbest heroine in the history of blockbuster fiction. She makes Scarlett O’Hara look wise and even-tempered.)

Most authors are rejected a lot more frequently than that lucky-duck Stephanie Meyer. In fact, even if they are trying to write non-fiction, they are now expected to be famous in advance. So The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire might not be published nowadays unless Edward Gibbon had a blog with thousands of regular readers, or perhaps if it was written by Lara Bingle.

(DISCLOSURE 2: I’m an established writer with a reputable, New York-based agent. Though he’s a fine agent, he hasn’t had any luck selling my latest non-fiction book as yet, which has so far been rejected by more publishers than ever rejected Stephanie Meyer. Am I disheartened? No. Because I’m tough? No. Because that’s NORMAL.)

Of course, at the risk of discouraging the writers out there, publishers aren’t doing as many books as they used to. Right now, they can’t afford to do dozens of low-selling books. The pressure’s on to make the next big thing, which seems to preclude them from taking gambles. Instead, we can expect another thousand low-fat recipe books and kids’ picture books starring TV characters. Almost all of the great books were gambles, and very few publishers gamble right now.

If you want the next groundbreaking book, you might have to find a self-published e-book. One problem: most of them are awful. Publishers turn down “difficult” books, but they also turn down terrible ones.

(DISCLOSURE 3: While I’m making disclosures, I should confess that I adore Zooey Deschanel. There, I’ve said it. Naturally, it’s irrelevant.)

Then, once we get published, authors are expected to play a greater role in selling their books than they did in the days when Emily Dickinson could contentedly hide away in her cottage without talking to anyone. Nowadays, we’re expected to be webmasters, public speakers, promoters, advertisers and video filmmakers. Exactly how we get time for actual writing, I’m not so sure.­

A shame, because I know how to spice up my next book about early 20th-century history: I’ll include vampires. That one should sell easily.

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