How (Not) to Publish a Book – Toastmasters Speech

I’m not going to share all my speeches, but this one was really fun to deliver, partly because of the audience interaction and my own actions, which I’ve added in square brackets. And if, like me and so many other people, you dream of publishing a book, I hope you’ll find it informative.

Speech No. 6 (Theme: Vocal Variation) – delivered at Bloomsbury Speakers, 24 April 2017

Hands up who would like to publish a book one day?

[Most of the audience raises their hands]

You’re not alone. I did some Googling and apparently, 200 million Americans want to get published – that’s 80% of them. I bet it’s a similar proportion in other countries.

I belong to this tribe too. I’ve wanted to be a published since I was 11. I wrote my first novel and had it rejected by agents when I was 14. And I’m still writing novels now, and I’m still not published.

But in the meantime, I think I’ve learned a lot about the process of publishing a novel. How it actually happens, and what you can do to improve your chances of being published. And I’d like to share something of those two facets with you tonight.

Getting published is like going through a series of really, really hard bosses in a video game.

You have your beautiful polished manuscript. Now, very few publishers will consider you if you haven’t got an agent, so first you’ll typically submit a sample of your book to agents. If an agent likes the sample, they’ll ask for the whole manuscript. And if they love the whole thing and if think they call sell it, they’ll take you on. But to give you an idea of how tough this first hurdle is, one agent I heard speak said that she got 200 submissions a week… and took on about 2 new authors a year.

Step two. You have an agent. Now they’ll start submitting your book to publishers, similar to how you submitted it to them.

If an editor decides they want the book, they have to go through internal channels and do the number-crunching to decide if they can take it on. In rare cases, several editors will want the book and there’ll be a bidding war for it. There was a massive bidding war for Game of Thrones in the 90s, for example.

And if you get an agent, and if an editor wants your book, and if their publishing house signs-off on it, you’ve done it. Add on about another two years for editing and marketing and distribution and voila, you’re signing printed editions of your book.

OK, now you’ve got an idea of the nuts and bolts of publishing a book. But how do you write a book that people will want to publish, I hear you all silently ask.

I’m not going to tell you. That’s a never-ending subject, and a very subjective one, and I’m not even published. What do I know?

But I can tell you about one thing that will phenomenally improve your chances of getting published.

Learning not to give up in the face of rejection.

I want everyone here to think of an author who’s triumphed over rejection.

Is anyone here thinking of JK Rowling?

[Several people nod; I shake my head]

Oh, my sweet summer children.

The brilliant JK Rowling only got rejected by one agent, and Harry Potter only got rejected by twelve publishers.

I use the word ‘only’, because the vast majority of authors, alive and dead, had to go far more rejection than this before they succeeded.

Stephen King was rejected 30 times for his book Carrie.

Kathryn Stockett was rejected 60 times for her book The Help.

For Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig was rejected 121 times.

And those are only single books. Many authors write several books which are rejected and never see the light of day, before they write their breakout.

I’ve so far got four unpublished novels under my belt. I don’t know the exact total of rejections I’ve received for them because when I was younger I didn’t keep count, but I reckon it’s around the 100 mark. And, being the masochist I am, I thought I’d share some examples of the rejections I’ve received, both bad and good.

Letter 1: No thanks

[I scrunch the letter up and toss it off-stage]

That was literally it – they sent back my original cover letter with ‘no thanks’ scrawled on it.

Letter 2: Hello, I’ve enjoyed the sample that you sent through and was wondering if there’s a full manuscript you could send my way?

That was the most bittersweet rejection I’ve received to date – it’s the one and only time an agent has asked for my manuscript on the strength of my sample, and I had to wait half a year for him to reply simply with ‘I’ve decided not to take your project any further’.

[I toss the letter off-stage]

Letter 3: Thank you so much for sending us TIMES OF AMBER for consideration. Your submission caught my eye so I read it straight away. It had an interesting premise and your writing was strong. However, I’m afraid I didn’t quite love this enough to take it further. Obviously this is a very subjective view, as we all know reading is a subjective business and another agent may well feel differently. I’m sorry to write with disappointing news, Chantal. I do wish you all the best for the future.

[I place the letter on the nearby lectern]

That was for my last novel. By the time I received this rejection, I’d already put my dreams for that particular book aside. But that rejection made me happy, because the agent had taken the time to give me a considered reply, something that’s actually really rare among rejections, and she’d felt that the writing was strong. And it’s things like that which drive me to keep writing.

As painful as it is to be rejected over and over again, for something you’ve poured your soul into, this is how striving to be published is meant to be. Occasionally you get an amazingly talented or amazingly lucky author who gets a book published on the first go. But they’re the exception. Most authors are built of rejection. Maybe I’ll never be able to call myself a published author. But who knows?

Now at the age of 26, with four complete but unpublished novels in my past, and a fifth one on the way, I am battle-scarred. But I am undefeated.



[Obligatory image to make the post look more interesting when it goes on Facebook – but who would ever get tired of this work of art?]


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