Wednesday, 10 June 2009

A Long Tail needn't make a Big Splash

Last week an agent sent me the most lovely rejection letter. What’s strangest about that sentence? That I should consider a rejection letter lovely (hardly – it was, I won’t quote at length out of courtesy to the agent concerned, but it was), or that I should have written to an agent (I am a firm advocate of the benefits of self-publishing, and I am committed to the self-publishing collective, Year Zero Writers, of which I am part, but whilst the agenting system is part of a machine I don’t really like, there are individual agents I’d give my eye teeth to work with – this is one)?

Digression over. The gist of the rejection letter was that my novel had a super, original voice (which is the nicest thing a writer can hear – maybe my voice is something other than simply loud after all!), and a wonderful atmosphere, and that the agent would love to see my future work, but Songs from the Other Side of the Wall was, alas, just not the kind of book capable of making a “big splash”, and as a result not right for the current climate.

Now it’s not news to me that Songs isn’t an “event” book. If I could pick a perfect review phrase for it, I would pick “achingly beautiful.” It’s the dreamlike story of a teenage girl growing up gay in post-communist Hungary, the imminent death of whose father forces her to choose between past and present; East and West; the family-owned vineyard, or art college with her lover. It is, in other words, the kind of book to sit alongside Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, Alessandro Baricci’s Silk, Marie Darieussecq’s Mal de Mer, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen – it’s a beautiful “translation table” book that students and the odd middle-aged melancholic would love. Because it’s about the fall of the Berlin Wall and that’s topical (I’m speaking about the book at a conference commemorating the anniversary this week) I figure it would happily sell 5,000 copies rather than the 3,000 it would sell in other years.

No publisher in their right mind would sign an author whose books will (consistently, probably – I like writing dreamy, quirky, pop-culture-heavy, character-based books about Eastern Europe [as anyone who’s got further than chapter one of Agnieszka’s shoes will attest] and have no intention [more to the point no capability] of changing) achieve these figures. There’s a chance – an outside one – that one day I might scoop a minor award for one of these books, and increase its sales tenfold (to a very mediocre 30,000).

In other words, no publisher working on the system of advances and big marketing budgets would be able to sign me without being sectioned by their shareholders. And, as a result, any agent of moderate sanity is equally unlikely to want to chance their arm.

It is this kind of book for which self-publishing could have been made. I need to pay for my ISBN – but that’s it on the essential outlay front. I have the most exquisite cover to hook in readers – designed by the super-talented Sarah E Melville. And I know exactly who my 5,000 readers are – they’re students, people interested in Eastern Europe, and fans of Murakami. So marketing consists of finding those people. And because it’s a genre I will stick to, I’m happy to give stuff away to get fans – if people like this book, they’ll like anything else I write. So marketing consists largely of finding these people and giving away pdfs of my novel. It’s slightly more complicated than that, of course (and my marketing series of posts will look at exact details), but not much.

Once I’ve uploaded the pdf to Lulu’s Print on Demand service, it can sit there indefinitely. And I can do the same for Kindle format. It doesn’t matter that I have a very small market. No one’s lost out by having to pay a big advance, and there’s no big marketing budget (the advantage of a small-market book is that we writers tend to know our market fairly exactly, and once we know them, it’s easy to reach them at little or no cost because there are no fishing expeditions).

So my advice would be – have a little self-knowledge. If your book’s not the next Twilight, Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code then admit it to yourself. Having one of those hard to sell hard to place books needn’t be the end of the road for you, just because an agent won’t (rightly) take you on.

Yes, it’s hard going it alone. But over the next few weeks, I’m going to run a column on my experiences of setting up and getting running a writers’ collective – one great way to help you on your way – not just because you’ll have greater marketing support, but because you should never underestimate the importance of company and not being alone. I hope that’ll help you. That will take my regular Tuesday column slot – 10 Commandments will become Year Zero in a rather Pol-Potian manoeuvre – I’ll also be running posts on marketing for self-publishers that I hope will help anyone thinking of that route. Together, let’s see where we can get in 2009.

And if anyone would like the pdf of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, just send me an e-mail ( You won’t find yourself on an e-mail list that bombards you with spam – I’ll send you a note when I launch the paper book, with an invite to the party, but that’s it.


  1. Count me in Dan.

    As a writer of books with er abstruse appeal.

    Pol-Pot marketing, my kind of approach ...


  2. I feel that I face the same problems with my work -- I know, in fact, I'm extremely certain, that my books aren't going to be 'big splash' books. No one's going to run around with my characters on shirts or do fan fiction (although the latter is actually a godsend! fan fiction makes me shudder), but for me getting my work published isn't about how much I sell or if I get in any magazines. If I can give just a handful of people something inspiring and meaningful, then I'll be happy. I want to do for others what authors have done for me.
    I do wonder, though, if there will ever be a 'right time' for any of my books to do well. People aren't much on thinking these days.

  3. Sulci, how did I know Pol-Pot references would be up your alley?

    Sarah - perhaps you should join a collective specialising in high quality literary fiction :-) Seriously, I think there are thousands of people who would love to read quality serious intelligent stuff - sadly for us not tens of thousands - but we don't need that many if we do it right - and like you say, what really matters is finding the people who'll get something from our work.

  4. If I ever go back to playwriting, I want to do a piece on Cambodia.

    The French name for it is Cambodge. As far as foreign intervention and ideologies go, never a truer second syllable.

  5. The Blue Peter reports from Cambodia are some of the most striking memories I have from childhood