Rejection – An Author’s Guide by Alexander McNabb

Today, I give the floor to Alexander McNabb, an expat Brit living in Dubai. I met Alexander at Harper Collins’ Authonomy site, and although neither of us are still on the site, we have kept in contact (ain’t the internet grand?). Having worked as journalist in the Middle East for many years, Alexander knows the area intimately, and his novel Olives reflects this knowledge. I asked Alexander for a couple of pictures of the setting, and you will see them in this post. I really enjoyed his book. It is written with the authority of someone who knows what he’s talking about. I would love to see it do well.

Seeing my book Olives – A Violent Romance not only on sale but gathering positive reviews is a rather wonderful thing. Over the years, I’ve picked up over 250 rejections from the British publishing industry and it’s good to finally see the self-belief (or delusion) that has kept me going vindicated.

It’s mostly my fault – for the first few years I pursued my writing goal in secret and flung myself repeatedly against the same wall, the Dunning Kruger Syndrome coursing through my veins. I’d send off batches of manuscripts, four or five at a time, convincing myself that all sorts of things were possible. That it was a numbers game. That agents further up the alphabet would be easier. That this edit was the one that’d make it through.

My first rejection was from an agent at big agency Peters, Fraser and Dunlop (PFD to you), who had made a big noise online about how he loved to help new authors. I remember cursing and shaking my fist at him (from 4,000 miles away) as his form rejection showed me how little he, in fact, cared for us unsung geniuses.

I’ve already said several times that I now consider my first book, Space, was badly written. It was funny, but really lacked the technique to cut the mustard. I realised that in 2007 when I finally ‘came out’ and made contact with other writers. I was still ‘shopping’ Space then, hopeful that whatever quality had got it to the ‘Editor’s Desk’ on Harper Collins’ peer-review site Authonomy would be seen by someone who would take it on and get it a nice editor. It was not to be. I had finished Olives and started submitting it to agents before then, but Olives too had been notching up rejections from agents, some of whom had said odd things like ‘The British public isn’t interested in the Middle East’ and ‘We see enough bombs in the world without wanting to read about them.’ I took these statements seriously at the time, but have since learned not to – literary agents and editors alike will cast around for the nearest glib phrase to decorate a rejection, these aren’t thought-through guidance, but a brush-off. They do an awful lot of rejecting, they reserve their time and effort for the stuff that gets through.

So Olives must have racked up another 100-odd rejections (in batches, in between major editing runs and re-writes) before one request for a ‘full read’ came back with ‘it isn’t dramatic enough’. I stomped off with gritted teeth and the determination to give them dramatic if they wanted dramatic. Beirut, an insane, pumped up international spy thriller on crack, the result of that particular temper tantrum, was certainly dramatic. And it was also rejected time and again before a cheeky correspondence with the very kind agent Andrew Lownie resulted in my getting a professional reader to look at the manuscript. His advice taken, I resubmitted to Robin Wade and it was Robin who signed me up and took Beirut to 12 of London’s Finest.

Who all rejected it.

It’s certainly a remarkable tale – 250 rejections is quite a tally. Many of these are completely my own fault – for going it alone, for thinking this was a numbers game, for sticking with it and for beating my head repeatedly at the same wall. But a good number of them are the fault of an industry in its death throes. Agents are gatekeepers for publishers, filtering out anything they don’t believe is a dead cert winner. Agents get paid 15% of authors’ revenues and like nothing more than a nice, fat advance. If you can land a £100,000 advance once a month alongside some strong residuals, you’re in the moolah, no? So there’s a strong trend to support the well-trodden path, to be mainstream and not take risks. Added to that, the sheer number of hopefuls submitting to agents means manuscripts will be rejected for the most arbitrary reasons – bad formatting, an unconventional beginning, a difficult topic. And then there is the faddishness of safe publishing – if African Memoirs are this year’s Big New Thing, then they’re not going to be too open to a Sweeping Russian Drama. Sorry, Leo.

In the UK today, books are going straight to paperback and straight to discount – 3 for 2s and half price deals stacked up in supermarket bins as publishers try to find new ways to hit the popular pocket for money as they struggle with a public becoming ever more indifferent to full length linear narrative. People today are consuming so many streams of content and entertainment in such easily digestible media – and of course, e-readers are now part of that world, which rather confuses those used to thinking of the dynamics of publishing in terms of percentages of the hugely inefficient wodge of dead tree that is a booky book. E-book sales are going through the roof as the prices asked for by authors are going through the floor – publishing is finding it ever harder to map out its relevance in this scenario. And so only the very safest, most obvious decisions get made.

I’m sure someone in publishing will drop by and say, no, that’s not the case – we just back quality. But I don’t think the protest will carry much conviction these days.

So how can an author today handle rejection? First, remember it’s not personal. Second, take any feedback as a hugely positive thing (remember, they’re focusing on the stuff that gets through, so if they spare you a comment or two, they’ve done you a big favour). Third, don’t let ’em pile up to 250. If you notch up just ten of those nasty little photocopied slips, assume the next ten won’t be any different and get your ass off to http://www.kdp.com and sign up to Kindle Direct Publishing.

Because that, my dears, is where the party is.

When Paul Stokes runs out of choices, his only path is betrayal.

The fragile peace is holding. Behind the scenes, the Israelis are competing for dwindling water resources as Jordan and Palestine face drought. Daoud Dajani has the solution to Jordan’s water problems and is bidding against the British for the privatisation of Jordan’s water network.

When journalist Paul Stokes befriends Dajani’s sister, Aisha, British intelligence agent Gerald Lynch realises Paul offers access to Dajani – the man threatening to drain Israel’s water supply and snatch the bid from the British. Blackmailed by Lynch into spying on Dajani, his movements seemingly linked to a series of bombings, Paul is pitched into a terrifying fight for survival that will force him to betray everyone around him. Even the woman he loves.

Olives explores love in conflict, the pull of home set against the excitement of the new and a people trying to live alongside the conflict we see on television, the human stories behind glib media coverage that reduces the ebb and flow of existence to a few throwaway catchphrases. Forced to spy for his country, Paul finds himself embroiled in a struggle for survival between good and evil where the people he wants to see as the good guys are worse than he could ever have imagined.

Get Olives here

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One comment on “Rejection – An Author’s Guide by Alexander McNabb

  1. Nicely said.

    Quality is by no means the principal filter for agents or editors. They will cheerfully reject MS after MS while at the same time applauding its quality, originality, imagination etc.

    You hand them something new and different, they will tell you “We don’t know how to make it stand out in a competitive market.” Note: they don’t know how to make something different stand out, hence they keep producing a lot of the same.

    The toughest day I faced in my experience with the industry was when I learned that the rejections coming my way were nothing to do with the quality – my post-rejection self-doubts would lead me to believe my work simply ‘wasn’t good enough’ – and time after time it became a case of the work being fine but the industry playing nervous and safe. If your work’s ‘not good enough’ there are steps you can take to remedy that, if it’s “original, imaginative and well-written” but still not making it past the gatekeepers, well there’s not much else you can do. Nowhere else to go.

    Except Kindle.

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