Writing and #Publishing in #India / #UK / #US
This is a great overview by Sriram Subramanian. Reposted with permission.
This is in response to a post last night, where someone was ranting about the environment abroad for full-time writers being much better than in India. I don’t agree – it is about as tough everywhere, but I think I can help aspiring writers by pointing out certain similarities and differences.
I started writing in June 2011 (almost exactly 5 years ago). Completed the first draft in about 4 months, then spent another 2-3 months editing. I wanted to get my novel published abroad (London / NY) for certain reasons. So along with the editing, I started reading up about agents, publishers, query letters, how it works etc.
Jan 2012 – submitted to 100 plus agents. By March, I had about 60 form rejections (which are the boilerplate 1 line), about 3-4 wrote a bit more saying they kind of liked it, but not enough to request a sample, and another 3-4 asked for a partial (first 3 Chaps). Never heard from them again. The rest were ‘no responses’.
Hmm…sanity check. Clearly, while I thought I could write well, it wasn’t good enough. So I started reading books, learnt about plotting, character building, Pov, voice etc. etc. I also got in touch with a friend who’s a professional book critic / reviewer in the US, who’s published work in Us literary magazines. For a small fee, she went through my entire MS and pointed out things I needed to work on. Devilishly detailed, reflecting actual experience, stuff you can’t look up online…
I also joined a couple of really active forums / communities in the US (like this one) but way more organized…picked up lots of tips out there.
Armed with this new toolkit, I sat and revised the MS in June 2012. Turned it upside down. Changed the plot, the storyline, add / modified / deleted characters and scenes. This took another 3-4 months, then 2 more months for editing.
I was ready to submit again in Sep 2012. 150 agents this time. The hit rate was better – fewer no responses, 10 plus requests for partials, of which 3 agents (2 in NY, 1 in London) asked for Full MSs. Those of you who know how few full MSs top agents request as a %, will realize this was like ‘almost there.’ Any 1 out of 3 took it, and I was home.
In Dec 2012, all 3 agents got back, saying ‘we really, really loved your work, you write well, etc. etc. BUT…’ The ‘But’ was basically – a) tough publishing environment, publishers / editors don’t want to take ANY risk, b) you’re a debut novelist, c) you don’t have a pre-established celebrity platform, d) you’re based in India, so have no direct connect with readers here and e) you’re writing on themes /topics that are highly relevant to an Indian audience, not so much to people here (though I did argue that the themes were universal). If 1 or 2 of these 5 conditions were not in place, we’d sign you up immediately.
Ok. Now what?
I figured in all this, there was only one thing I could control, and that was the quality of my writing. Basically write a novel that would knock their socks off and make all these factors non-issues. Make an agent feel what David Godwin felt when he chanced on Arundhati Roy’s MS, read it and booked a flight to Delhi the same evening – he called it ‘a shot of heroin up the arm.’
So I archived Novel 1 and started Novel 2 in Jan 2013.
This time I had a problem. With the first one, there was an easy confidence in my writing. Now I was second guessing everything I was doing, looking over my shoulder to imagine how an agent would react. I was torn between what I wanted to do and what I believed others would want me to do. I was unclear about my plot, my characters, my storyline – the chaps kept doing stuff on the page that I didn’t expect.
Wrote for 3-4 months, gave up in disgust. Didn’t write at all for 3-4 months, said ‘screw it, it’s not going to happen anyway, why am I killing myself.’ Then got a burst of inspiration, attacked it again, turned it upside down and got much further…then stopped again. No inspiration. Then left it for a while, then picked it up in summer 2014, and in another 3-month burst finished the draft MS. By Dec 2014, I was ready to submit. This one had taken 2 years start to finish.
Jan 2015 – 150 agents. March 2015 – full MS requested and rejected by another 2 agents (One London, One NY).
But I was convinced about one thing. This second novel, the one that I had spilt blood over, was bloody good. I was dead sure about it. It’s my favourite, still.
In April 2015, I had the idea for a third novel, and this one didn’t even have a genre. In fact, if it ever sees the light of day, it will create a new genre. In a flash, I had the start, the middle and the end of the novel clear in my mind, the rest was easy. 3 months start to finish plus 1 month editing. Aug 2015, submitted again (this time to about a 100 agents…
Got a lot of ‘wow, this looks really out-of-the-box, and beautifully written’ but they weren’t going to create a genre for me, were they?
Along with the 3rd novel, I also then started looking at publishing in India (finally)….but that’s a story for another day.
So 5 years, 3 full novels, 400 rejections across India, UK and US – those are my credentials.
Coming to what’s similar and what’s different, just a few points for your consideration:
1. First big difference: Publishers in India accept unsolicited, un-agented MSs; in UK and the US, they won’t even give you the time of day if you don’t come through an agent (this is true for 99%; there are 1% who do accept, good luck finding them)
2. This means the Literary Agents are the gatekeepers, the filters. It also means if you get a (reputed) Agent abroad, you are more than 95% likely to get a deal with a publisher within quick time.
3. The process of querying an Agent is different in the US and UK. In the UK, standard requirement is Query Letter (QL) plus short bio plus sample chapters (1st 3 Chapters, or 1st 50 pages typically, but they vary agent to agent). In the US, most agents want only a 1 pg QL. No attachments, no details. Your QL also has to be much more of a blurb-type pitch in the US. So basically, after you’ve spent a year on an MS, you’ve got exactly 100 words to convince an agent not to trash your mail. If the US agent likes your QL, he / she will request a partial, then after a longish gap, a full MS. If the UK agent likes your QL plus sample chapters, you get asked for a full. You at least have some hope with UK, given you’re sending a sample rightaway.
4. Agents get INUNDATED with QLs from unpublished writers. A top agent gets more than a hundred QLs a day. The task of screening through the ‘slush pile’ is often delegated to unpaid interns, who are given clear algorithmic instructions. Debut novelist – Reject. India – reject. First line contains a grammatical error – Reject. Can’t get a sense of story within 2 lines – Reject. Author makes tall claims about his abilities – Reject. Can’t pronounce Author or Title Name – Reject. Author does not follow submission guidelines to a T (eg. you sent a doc file instead of a pdf) – Reject. Author doesn’t understand Querying Etiquette – eg. Your title is written in quotes or in Caps and not in italics as it should be – Reject. No kidding. I’m not making this up. Some years back, when Borders and Barnes & Noble were still around, they did a survey of Borders customers – apparently 50% of Borders customers either had an MS already, or were going to have one ready within the next 3 months. There are a LOT of aspiring writers out there.
5. All over the world, there are dodgy Agents and Publishers, and the US and UK are no exceptions. The difference is, there are a lot more resources available to newbie writers to help them understand, identify and navigate these traps. Sites like Publisher’s Index, Absolute Write, Writer’s Beware etc. have absolute gurus who write articles, blogs, maintain an index of reputed / shady agents and publishers etc. The literary magazine market is also well developed and in fact that is the path that I would suggest others take, rather than the direct novel route I chose. Publish in small weeklies, newspapers, literary magazines, participate in submission calls and contests, basically build up a list of credentials, before you query your first agent. That 1 page QL – this is one of the things that they look for, and one I never had. It is easier done if you are based abroad, not from India.
6. There are also a lot of courses available to learn Creative Writing, which you can sign up for. Summer camps, writing retreats, events where you can meet a few reputed Agents and pitch to them in person. All of them involve paying out good money and I am not sure they are very useful. No direct experience to go by.
7. There are also Manuscript Doctors available, who will read and edit your MS for a fee and help you make a strong Query etc. Caveat Emptor on this one. Writer’s Beware is loaded with scam examples from this section of the trade.
To sum up, the overall environment is definitely more organized abroad. Easier? I’ll leave you to decide that.
#Publishing #Traditional #SelfPublishing #India #US #UK