Monday, July 11, 2011

So, you want to be a famous novelist?

by David Williamson. In Winnipeg Free Press, March 14, 1993.

Between the mystique and the reality of novel-writing, a tremendous gap exists. People hear of the great success of someone like Michael Ondattje and they whip their computers into action, with visions of best-seller lists and movie contracts dancing in their heads.

Let’s consider one of these; let’s call her Jackie. She quickly discovers how time-consuming a novel is. Even if she can spend a few hours every day on it, she will need at least two years for organizing, writing and rewriting. By the end of that time, she should have a completed manuscript of about 300 double-spaced pages, assuming she can cope with the social consequences (family members ignored, friends alienated).

Most beginning novelists give up, never finish anything, but Jackie persists. She sends the manuscript away to a major publisher, but she quickly finds out that most major publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. She tries some that do. After several rejections, most people give up, but Jackie persists. In a Creative Writing class she joins mainly to learn how to get published, the instructor tells her that her novel is terrific and, luckily, he knows someone who knows someone who runs a small publishing company as a labor of love.

The small company, Altruistic Press, decides to publish Jackie’s novel, but they can’t afford to print it until a year later. Her novel, His Daughter’s Tutor, comes out. But Altruistic can’t afford either major advertising or a sales force. They send out copies to important newspapers and magazines, hoping the book will be reviews.

Altruistic is affiliated with a sales agent in Toronto, but he won’t push a first novel by an unknown. The only stores to but a few copies – on consignment – are those in Altruistic’s home city. They display the book not under “New Releases”, where all the bestsellers go, but under “Books of Local Interest”, where only the most dedicated browser and a few tourists ever bother to look.

Meanwhile, the major journals have chosen not to review Jackie’s novel because it comes from such an obscure house. There are two periodicals, however, that review nearly everything. One of these loves the book but includes it in a group of five reviewed together under the heading, “Of Many Books”. The editor of the other periodical gives His Daughter’s Tutor to a young man who wishes he could get his novel published and can’t. He hates all first novels. He writes a scathing review, full of sarcasm. Jackie reads the review and considers suicide.

Some of her friends – ones she counted on – don’t buy her book because they expect her to give them free copies. But a few do buy it and like it. They tell others and gradually something wonderful happens. The first run of His Daughter’s Tutor sells out. All 1,000 copies. Jackie has a standard contract – she gets 10 per cent of the list price of $14.95. For her years of hard work and heartache, Jackie gets the grand total of $1,495. Altruistic decides not to risk going to a second print run. Jackie tears her portrait of Michael Ondaatje off the wall. She decides to become a teacher.

David Williamson is the author of three novels, The Bad Life, Shandy and Running Out. His latest book is an anthology of new writing from Minnesota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Dakotas called Beyond Borders, which he co-edited with Mark Vinz.

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