Getting it Published #5: Lamentations

Apologies for the delay in resuming this rather lengthy saga. You can reward your patience by visiting the new webpage for More Tea, Jesus? or liking it on Facebook. Or, if you haven’t already read it, you could read it.

It would certainly be a good time to do that, what with the recent women bishops farrago and Church House regularly putting out anonymous statements about gay marriage that don’t represent the views of the average member of the Anglican Church any more than Mike Freer represents the average member of the Conservative party. What with the Anglican Church’s penchant for finding itself misrepresented by the media – willfully or otherwise – even when I was writing More Tea, Jesus? I was rather hoping that it would not only be timely, but also commercial. After all, my book was all about religious and sexual politics, distortion of facts by the media and social injustice, all of which have been selling points for literature for centuries. And I had already had the stamp of approval from one publisher – so they had gone into liquidation, but surely I could find another who would see the book’s potential to reach a wide audience?

It didn’t take long to find a literary agent who agreed with me. Probably that was something I should have done already, but the fact that I’d already had a deal with this book (not to mention all the editorial input it had been given) certainly helped speed things up.

Sadly, that was where my luck ended. After an enthusiastic start and exciting emails about all the publishers the book had gone to, I received a sobering follow-up from my agent saying that nobody was interested, and advising me not to let it get me down, with the not-very-comforting reminder that it took Graham Greene six novels to get published. Frankly the idea of having to write six novels was a pretty depressing idea and I did not have the advantage of being Graham Greene either.

My agent was kind enough to send me the offer sheet she had sent out, enabling me to see not only how many publishers had rejected my novel but the reasons why. That was perhaps the most soul destroying thing of all: it was clear from the comments that I had not written a bad or an unlikeable book – quite the opposite, in fact, with comments like ‘absolutely wonderful’ all over the place – but that nevertheless, not one publisher wanted to risk taking it on because they didn’t think it would sell.

For all the sexual politics, media and social commentary I thought my work communicated, the stifling cloud of the Anglican communion had done its work: what the comments made clear was that publishers couldn’t see past the cosy, parochial exterior of the church. Almost a case of life imitating art, given some of the horrors hidden by the church in the book. Curiously, readers’ reviews of More Tea, Jesus? show that this is still the case – it surprises me how often the word ‘charming’ is used to describe it when I consider some of the genuinely awful things that happen in the story. Perhaps it feels more raw to me because it was my own pain and frustration that went into it, or perhaps my own flippant tongue is more distracting than I imagined. But one friend of mine wrote to me, when he finished an early draft of the final chapter, ‘that’s the most depressing thing I have read in a long time’ – and I think he had it about right.

All that aside, it was still pretty bloody annoying having publishers telling me that religious comedy didn’t sell, given that it was (and is) demonstrably untrue. (Ironically, this all came hot on the heels of several theatre producers telling me that Tony Blair – the Musical was lovely but politics in the theatre meant commercial death so thank you but no thank you. And shortly before Enron transferred to the West End. But new musicals in the West End seem to be flourishing, so what do I know?)

It is worth bearing in mind a couple of things: firstly, this all happened under the shadow of the beginnings of the financial crisis from which the country is still failing to recover, and publishers were, by all accounts, running a mile from anything which didn’t immediately scream commercial success. Secondly, the very nature of publishing had started to change – people had started to buy their books online and read them on strange mechanical devices and most publishers didn’t have the first idea how they were going to carry on making money. Many of them still don’t.

In other words, I had written the wrong book at the wrong time. And short of writing five more of them, I had been offered no useful suggestions as to what I could do about it.

Next episode: Judges – along comes Authonomy.

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