July 13, 2018 4,000 words, 10 mins
At one point around December, about a month after I had moved to the tiny office run by this black-hearted publishing concern, I had gone for one of my lengthy walks around the pier around midday when I got a call from the Ely office to say that the CEO of the House had turned up unexpectedly at the office in London and wanted to know why I wasn’t there. I made an excuse and made haste back to my post, only to find that Mr CEO had disappeared. I did not know what he looked like, nor he me, so I rang back to the Ely office to find out where he had got to – but at that moment he rounded the corner and quite literally accosted me. He was a tall, young Indian man dressed in an outrageous polyester suit that was so shiny I could see my face in it, iridescent gold trainers, and was wearing shades that shielded his eyes (even indoors and in December) and while he delivered me a package to send direct to the office in Pakistan he talked at a high rate while sniffing and rubbing his nose incessantly. While it isn’t normally safe to jump to conclusions, my appraisal of terrible writing had taught me to read between the lines.
Once the package was safely in my possession, he sat me down behind my own desk and began to declaim in the classical fashion on his ingredients for success.
“You see my gold trainers?” he all but barked at me.
“Yes,” I replied.
“You see this suit?”
“You know how many companies I own?”
“I’ve lost count, man.”
“ – ”
“It’s not important. What’s important is – never give up.”
“You can’t ever give up. Never. If I had given up when I founded my first company at eighteen, I wouldn’t be driving a ‘Rarri now.”
“I can see that.”
“It’s not important. The point is – never give up. Even if the job gets impossible. Just keep going.”
“Anyway – you’ve got the package. Send it. I’m just in the next tower over, so I’ll be popping in over the next few weeks to see how you’re doing. I’ll see you soon. You’ve got the package.” He sniffed.
“See you –” I started to say, but he was already gone, stalking down the hall towards the lifts. I didn’t see him again for four months.
It was evident that the entire outfit had been orchestrated from the outse by someone who didn’t give a single shit about helping struggling artistes find a voice, or providing the world with the next Hemingway – or anything other than cramming the front-loading boot of a ‘Rarri with ill-gotten pension cash. Following my meeting with the CEO came a long period where I simply ceased to care myself. When you are a junior in any department, and you are placed to perform a job in isolation in a position where no one in any power over you either knows or cares how much you do – and where any work that you do with be completely ineffectual or insufficient anyway – it does not do wonders for the motivation. I suppose I resented being placed in a position where I was forced to receive to every piece of published material, act as if it were Ulysses and try and convince others of the same. I have never known longer days than those I spent in a tiny office with no co-workers, staring into space and trying to muster the minimal enthusiasm required to pitch thirty different booksto every branch of WHSmiths in Woking.
Possibly the only upside to this ordeal was the privilege of monitoring the in-house editorial inbox, which would steadily fill throughout the day with submissions from authors all across the world with varying commands of English. I had heard tales of the ‘slush piles’ of mythic proportions mounting on the desks of so many publishing houses and literary agents, but nothing prepared me for the experience of actually being given access to it. I think I had initially taken this as a kind of daunting visualisation of the odds stacked against a pure and ardent artistic voice in the current climate, but I was simply unprepared for how bad most submitted manuscripts are.
I promise I’m not being an asshole – I just think that observation bias has treated people to relatively high expectations for the capabilities of the written word – what is the job of the slush-pile-diver, after all, other than to filter out the chaff? – but with myself having come fresh from a degree in English, I think I must have had an even higher conception of literature, having studied only the most revolutionary and erudite of novels and poetry through the filter of history. Even published works that were well-written, entertaining and popular at the time – but not necessarily brilliant or world-changing – tend mostly to be forgotten now. I imagine Jo Nesbo or EL James will probably mean as much to people in 2100 as Zane Grey or Edgar Rice Burroughs do now. But as for the work that is being written unwitnessed by all the masses toiling in quiet obscurity, the mute, inglorious Mitons lying unrecognised across the world – that is another order of magnitude of mediocrity entirely.
The most common genres seemed to be children’s books and personal memoirs – the genres that would appear easiest to write and, conversely or perhaps consequently, the hardest to do well. Everyone thinks their lives are interesting, I suppose, and they are – just not to anyone else. The unoriginality on display could be staggering. At one point, I was managing three different, unrelated authors with three different children’s books entitled A Cat Called Dog, A Dog Called Cat and A Cat Called Cat, and had a standing promise from Editorial that, if a submission entitled A Dog Called Dog ever crossed the desk, it would be rushed to me immediately so that I could complete the set.
Part of what was appalling was not just how bad many of the works were, but also how genuine writing talent and thought had clearly gone into more than few of them. You must also trust me when I say I genuinely enjoyed reading them, too – even the truly terrible ones. Just because something is not suitable for publication, or contains objectionable views, or is just outrageously bad, does not mean that is not enjoyable to read, and for every few trite and uninventive crime thrillers or series of re-sequenced generic platitudes there was something truly special. I kept a whiteboard list of my favourite single sentences I found and which made me chuckle. As I recall, the top 3, in no particular order, came down to:
1. ‘Wolves are like Marmite – you either love them or you hate them.’
2. ‘And then we feast on venusian slugs delicious delicious venusian slugs.’
3. ‘When the fighting is done, Trump and Putin embrace naked over the bodies of the slain.’
We received many submissions from mental patients and had even published a few, with minimal editing. I once spent a week pitching a divine revelation one Australian woman had received from the Prophet Abraham to every hospice in the Melbourne area. My very favourite of all was a submission entitled This is Not a Masterpiece (In case you are wondering, this is the submission which boasts both no. 2 & 3 of my ‘favourite sentences’ list). Though it was too batshit even for the House, I found it has since been published online and I earnestly urge you to seek it out – it is wonderful. I can best summarise it as a flash-fiction cross-genre sci-fantasy paranoid fantasia written by a confessedly schizophrenic writer. I found it somehow stimulating how unbelievably bad it was – how no two sentences seemed to flow together, how none of the stories seemed to have a meaningful purpose or grasp of punctuation and how much obscene and grotesque imagery was employed even in descriptions of mundane activities – but one thing that is absolutely certain is that no book published by a reputable house could possibly be quite so bonkers or bizarre.
If you are thinking of submitting a manuscript to an agent or publishing house and are feeling deterred, at least take solace in the fact that you cannot possibly be the worst submission that that first rung of assessment will have seen – probably not even in that day. Oneself is not necessarily the best judge of one’s own work, nor are the necessarily biased friends and family with whom you first share it, who have a vested interest in persuading both you and themselves that your outpourings have merit – so it can be difficult to gauge whether it really is any good at all. Some people are just looking for feedback, but most genuinely approach this stage of publication with a hope of standing out and achieving acceptance. In this case, the absolute worst thing you could do would be to submit a format which is unimaginative and samey, to which end I have included below a copy of the drinking game I devised from many hundreds such submissions. If you avoid the following tropes, you will probably stand out from four-fifths of everything that has ever been written:
1. Free Indirect Discourse (“what an oddly-carved bench, she thought”)
2. Gratuitous sex
3. Reference to tactile sensation in the opening sentence. (“the evening air in the Salinas Valley carried with it the smell of honeysuckle …” etc.)
4. Italicised text / quotations at the beginning
5. In Medias Res
6. Naming specific airports (“As he descended into Indira Gandhi International Airport, Prong Studman reclined his seat and lit a cherute …” etc.)
7. Clunky exposition (“As you know, your father, the king …”)
8. Remains being found
9. Descriptions of music (“the rough-and-ready poetry of the Genius in Jeans Bruce Springsteen always brought him back to that summer of ’71 …”)
10. ‘Johnny’, ‘Jack’, ‘Florence’
I understand that a certain amount of observation bias at play here, but it did seem that we received more submissions than we ever sold copies. I used to think it was an exaggeration when David Foster Wallace said that more people write poetry than read it, but now I think it might almost be true of writing generally – or that it soon will be. The instinct to create goes beyond connecting with an audience, communication or reception – it is just feeding the human need to be expressive and structure abstract thought into something that seems sensible and justified. I think it is rather wonderful living in an age where widespread literacy, education, the internet and word processors have enabled so many people to translate their creative instincts straight into real prose – but I was also reminded of Truman Capote’s sniffy axiom that there is a difference between writing and typing.
Our era might have given banality a radiance that is hitherto unprecedented. Banality isn’t necessarily more common or pronounced now – but more visible, louder and more important. There were thousands and thousands of pages in the House vault with dozens of submissions on each page, each one unexceptional, unequivocal and utterly authentic. With so much creative writing at one’s instant disposal (literally speaking), venturing into the great slush pile could be a little like dipping in society’s collective subconscious to view just how much misery we might all have in common. You start to see all the major arcana of angry solitude – the sexually-confused girl who was bullied in secondary school, the lifelong accountant dying for his friends to see his sensitive side, the middle-aged woman with time on her hands and a mysterious ennui – typified over and over, whether subconsciously or through self-reference, in the characters and situations of their novels. All that writing was a kind of natural secretion of lonesomeness and time, like a great scream from hundreds and thousands of individuals all crying out at once.
‘I’M SAD,’ they all seemed to say.
‘So am I,’ I wanted to say. ‘So is everyone.’
To be strictly fair, the House giving fruition to works that would otherwise never have seen publication – but, emotional grievance aside, I did wonder whether this was overall a good thing. Individually, every person’s work deserved to achieve fruition, but for the effort and care that went into every single book they deserved much more than that. They deserved more than being churned out, crowded onto Amazon and e-book shelves and forced so far down the throats of reputable store managers so far that they and all other House books became blacklisted from the industry. Everyone deserves more than that.
The real pains of the job came, as I have said, from my many inexperienced authors’ reliance on me and the impossibility of attending to them all. It brought one to a strange level of intimacy with some characters whom one might have wished to avoid, but who become attached to you as the only recipient of their most innermost thoughts, and often (in the case of a few elderly authors) the only living person who gave a shit about them. It was almost more depressing to be unable to help authors whom I genuinely liked. I had so many clients constantly filling my inbox that approximately 80% of my working day consisted of telling people why I wasn’t getting anything done, leaving a few hours to actually do everything I was actually supposed to. Generally, if they called in to the office, we would pass them from staff member to staff member until they eventually tired and gave up the hunt. The House stressed that we needed to answer emails, as it was a much more time-effective way of staving off lawsuits than actually looking for palpable success. One time I succeeded at great personal expense in arranging a series of Library appearances by the author of a books on the war dogs in Vietnam, only to have the entire tour cancelled by the managers after belligerent comments made by him circulated during the arrangements. When I called him to ask what had gone wrong, he simply replied “They couldn’t handle the truth.”
By necessity, I had to work on the authors who gave me the most grief – the ones who would send me long email chains demanding immediate and widespread acclaim, or who called me up every day to chat for long periods about nothing in particular – and I came to resent the most entitled and aggressive authors. I understand that without a frame of reference it can be difficult to gauge the relative quality or marketability of your book – but why should that mean you have to grandstand, demand recognition from the Booker Prize Committee (as at least three of my authors did) and tell your agent how to do their job? I have never understood the impulse to think that someone with more information than you will make worse decisions, and I had constantly to fend off accusations that I was intentionally sabotaging an author’s career as a literary superstar just because I had neglected them for too long under a pile of other things. One would have thought that one of the hallmarks of a writer would be the capacity for empathy. Apparently not.
My favourite authors were the ones that I never heard from, although I did develop some relationships with authors, some extremely kind and good-natured, and others of almost unbelievable rudeness and delusion. These were people emotionally invested in their product, who had been lied to and jerked around and then set on us to explain why Sean Penn was outselling them. One particular author became so enraged with the House that he constantly accused me of cowardice, laziness and general indolence and reported me to anyone who would listen. Given the short half-life of his previous coordinators, he had been bounced around from person to person and was understandably confused and aggrieved and when, after much effort, I finally succeeded in arranging a reading event for him at a Peruvian Restaurant, his haranguing only increased. He called every day and rage to me or my manager that we arrange fifty books to be delivered, the distribution of promotional leaflets and posters on the city streets, a slide show to be sequenced for his talk and seating and feeding for at least a hundred attendees. In the event, no one showed up. Not one person.
I left an email programmed for release on the day his contract remainders expressing my condolences for his book’s totally undeserved mass pulping, but noting the silver lining that at least now his readers could have some real toilet paper with which they could actually enjoy wiping their arses. For all I know, it is still waiting, poised for delivery even now.
Part of me felt sorry for the House’s authors for being sold something when they had no conception of what they were getting – but, then again, if I had learned one thing marketing such works to the general public, you can’t sell something that no one wants to buy. Something made them give up their hard-earned dough with no guarantee that they would ever see it again, on the basis of something that they alone believed in. It takes a certain cognitive dissonance to hear that around 250,000 books are published every year in the UK (a figure I suspect very much swollen by the output of the House and others like it) and yet to believe with absolute certainty that yours is the one of the impossibly few to become an instant smash hit in an age when most people would rather be watching Strictly or be scrolling through Instagram. We were running a lottery of sorts – every buyer had to believe that they were the exception, and this belief in themselves was just the quality that we were waiting to exploit. One they had realised they had lost, we were the ones opened to their rage. Clearly, the instinct to transmit outweighs the one to receive. More books are published in a single week than could fit in the largest book shop in the world, more than a single person could read in their lifetime if they did nothing else. This is the reason I don’t think the novel will ever die: because not even the total disappearance of interest will stop someone expressing themselves. Some things need to be said, but they don’t necessarily need to be heard.
The impossibility of the task that had been set for us was reflected in the speedy turnover of staff. After three months, I was the second-most senior person in the entire department, since everyone else gradually quit or were unceremoniously fired for having suggested feasible improvements to the management structure or a raise on their pittance salary. I came back to the Ely office after two months of solitary confinement in London with a list of critiques with which to present the Editor, only to find that she had quit a few weeks before after a stress-induced manic episode while driving home, and there was no immediate management for the present. No one had told me – but then no one told me anything. I was in a tiny bubble filled with nothing but the echoing, misdirected rage of hundreds of aggrieved writers. No wonder she’d quit, I thought.
Even if I had moved heaven and earth to get a single writer one spot in a newspaper, it would not be enough – not for the others, not even for the one author I had helped. For a while I rather gave up doing anything other than replying to emails – a vast task in and of itself, of course. I began to see it as the best thing I could do for the industry as a whole, since I was so aware that I was contributing to the very dilution and disposability that was ruining the industry to which I so wanted to be a belong. During my meetings with authors, I became increasingly ambivalent in my responses as to whether I thought signing on was such a good idea; I was prevented from actively persuading them not to, as word would probably have gotten back to the Ely office. I ceased to pursue my tasks with any great alacrity or care.
I know now that almost every job one gets in one’s twenties consists of more or less the same things. On a given day, I rode the elevator up to the 33rd floor, timing my arrival as close before nine as I could, clocked on to the HR database electronically, put my feet up and answered the same email again and again until it went away, stared at the birdcage pattern of an empty excel spreadsheet for hours on end, went up to the thirty-sixth floor an indecently long time before twelve, went down again, ate at my desk, went up again for the hell of it, rode down to the basement for a long, aimless walk amongst the retail catacombs under Canary Wharf until I bored of this, returned to the desk, typed What’s the Point on the keyboard four hundred times with no programs open and clocked off less than ten seconds after 5:30. For those eight-and-a-half hours, it was just me, the books I accumulated from home through my newfound reading hours, and the little figurines on my desk that I had brought from home to remind me of my childhood and traveling years, and a stale box of air.
I suppose it isn’t surprising that no employee could maintain themselves for long under such circumstances and, inevitably, my turn came. Part-way through a week around six months after being hired, my new manager called me to say that they needed me in Ely to help power through the absurd number of authors who were slated for release at the end of April. I was told to bring my key and swipe card for the office, since they were at last upgrading me to a larger suite with windows. After two days of backbreaking Excel work in Ely and having handed over my key, I was called in to see the manager to be told I was no longer required and sent back to the city that hour. When I tried to collect the personal belongings I had brought to brighten up the lonely London office, I was denied entry and my books and figurines were forfeit as property of the House.
I had wanted a job in the modern publishing scene, and this was it. This was what the book industry consists of, more than Booker Prize ceremonies or six-figure movie deals. This is what market forces and the caution of the large publishing houses have reduced one of the world’s great art forms to. If the next Ulysses were written today, it would languish in the inbox of an indifferent publisher – or, worse, be scooped up by a vanity press, gutted and abandoned. Very likely it will be; possibly it has already.
I suppose my hope for the internet age is to really give people with little hope of legitimate representation a platform to spread their work and contact like-minded people, as we are currently seeing with the music industry and streaming services and websites like Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Whether this model will properly translate to books remains to be seen. It has to be better than keeping a closed industry that only leaves the door open for unsuspecting artists to be exploited, ignored and spat back out. It doesn’t matter if they don’t sell a single copy, it doesn’t matter that no one will read a single word of these authors’ work, it doesn’t matter if they are flooding a market with terrible product. This House always wins.
They had sold them the dream of being a successful author, printed on notarised paper and a small-print word of warning about market unpredictability to cover their ass. I would deeply like to believe that the wave of internet hate and general inefficiency will eventually do for the House and any such cruel and duplicitous industry – but the fact is that this kind of hybrid model is built on much firmer ground than the great traditional publishing houses, whose foundation on the shifting sands of the book market makes them ever more cautious and defeatist. Where McDonald’s makes its money from salt cravings, or the stock markets make their money from greed, the House and its ilk make their money from the vanity and artistic ambition of the working person in selling them, however briefly, a dream of success. Fiction is sold – but it is a fiction that is sold to the author, rather than the reader. The ride goes round and round, and the park stays open, every month of every year. The line is growing past the gate.
But that is just the desperate idealist within me dying a painful death. I am now working at a far superior lit agency, one that does not lie or manipulate its customers or employees. But it still has its own submissions slush pile, and the House is still out there plying its trade. Self-publishing is part of the problem of saturation, but maybe it is also the solution. Peripheral authors do not need the backing of a publisher in this day and age – certainly not one like this – and are probably better off taking things into their own hands. No one will be as powerful an advocate for your work as yourself, and you should never trust your representation to someone who does not believe you can be a success. That is the only way for certain to ensure that you never will be.