What I’m really thinking: the failed novelist – A Response

I was saddened, humbled, and moved to respond to this week’s column in The Guardian’s ‘What I’m really thinking’ column this week, written by ‘the failed novelist‘.  It’s such an emotive word, ‘failed’, isn’t it?

I could have written that column myself. At least a good part of it. Feeling that writing was ‘my destiny’. Having a reputable and confident agent. The flurry of initial interest from publishers. Writing a second novel that was better than the first.

And in particular, I lived every word of this paragraph:

But, over several months, my manuscript was rejected for reasons that bewildered me: often because all the slots for debut literary fiction that year were taken; once because I was a woman; but mostly because editors “just didn’t love it enough”. When I took the call from my agent saying we had no deal, I cried like a little girl.

I also understand the feeling of being scarred. There is something very perilous about putting your novel, that very personal part of yourself out there for public scrutiny, even in a world of social media heart-on-your-sleeve exposure where there are seemingly no boundaries of the personal any more. It feels like trolling, when an editor says they just didn’t love it enough.

The emotional, intellectual, psychological and professional investment that goes into writing a novel and asking others to judge it is perhaps unlike the production of any other art form. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about what self-publishing and KDP has done for levelling the playing field a bit, and that was a solution that helped me. But it would be trite of me to advise the author of that Guardian column to self-publish and be damned. It might be seen as patronising to suggest that writers are people who write, rather than only being those who are read by others.

We are watching a bereavement here, the passing and grieved-over loss of an aspiration. I have seen it many times before across many other professional lives outside writing. The inability to look with anything other than pain on the success of others, the incomprehension at the changing landscape, the feeling of neglect by ‘managers’ who should know better. These feelings are not unique to writers who have not been swept up by a publisher.

But when I look at those tables of books by new writers and new books by old writers and manufactured books by celebrities and those with talents in other fields that splurge into the literary realm, I don’t feel “pity and scorn for people with dreams”. I am just glad that I actually can write. Plenty of those I work with in all my other jobs struggle to communicate the things they want to say, in written or verbal form. The pleasure for me of writing is exactly that. The ability to say exactly what I want to say in the way I want to say it. How lucky I am. I would love for others to share in what I write under my other name, but it’s still a talent of its own that has brought me much joy, whether I am read widely or narrowly, whether I am praised or pitied.

And that joy, for all I have lost and mourned my once dearly-held aspiration, is still something I want to hold onto.


Cover Design for Equilibrium by Evie Woolmore Evie Woolmore is the author of magical realist historical fiction. Her novel Equilibirum was likewise signed by an agent and not quite loved enough by editors. But she loves it still.

“Biblical fiction is potentially divisive”: Eleanor de Jong talks to Evie Woolmore

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore talks to Eleanor de Jong, author of Delilah and Jezebel (published by Avon/HarperCollins) about the challenges of writing fiction whose characters are known from one key source.

Evie Woolmore: We met at the London Book Fair last year, Eleanor, and I was surprised to see you at the Author Lounge, hanging out with the indie authors. You’d already had a two book deal with Avon/HarperCollins to publish Delilah and Jezebel, after all. What did you learn from the event?

Eleanor de Jong: What I learned was how much fun indie authors have! There’s a sort of collective spirit about gatherings like this that I think can sometimes be missing among print published authors. I wondered when KDP first took off how the latent sense of competition in traditional publishing – to pick up an agent, to get a great deal, to get good reviews, to sell well – would translate to the indie market. But what I think no one really anticipated was how mutually supportive most indie authors are of each other, how willing people are to share their experiences and expertise, and how much the book buying market has been blown open by e-books and the sort of pricing that indie authors are using.

EW: I remember talking with you about pricing in particular. At one time, I think you said, both your books were priced at 99p by Avon for Kindle at Amazon – that’s normal pricing, not a Daily Deal.

EDJ: That’s right. I was really interested by that. The paperbacks retail for £7.99 and although the Kindle edition came out a few months later for Delilah, my first book, they put it on at 99p immediately, I think. When Jezebel was published, the e-book came on immediately at that lower price. They both went up to £1.99 eventually and have now settled at £1.49. The effect of the 99p pricing though was really fascinating. Sales shot up very quickly and for a while both books showed the effect of that in the rankings. Given how much flack print publishers get for their e-book pricing, I thought it was interesting that someone somewhere had worked out that this was the way to sell this particular type of book.


EW: You’re smiling as you say that. Go on, what do you mean?!

EDJ: Well, I wondered at the time – and I still think about it now – whether there was a bit of a van Gogh factor involved. By that I mean the idea that the price of the book indicates the implied level of worth of the art. Print publishers are generally reluctant to price the e-book versions of novels by their ‘big name writers’ at lower levels, while they accept that the print versions will be discounted. At some level, I’ve always suspected that there’s a cachet/worth thing going on there, that while one might promotionally discount a hard copy book to get it started by catching people’s eye in a bookstore, the e-book price has come to represent the latent value  to the publisher of the work, in other words a sort of benchmark value below which the book will never drop. Like the way that we accept that gold will always have a minimum certain value, like van Gogh will always sell for a certain kind of figure at auction.

EW: While your books sold at 99p…

EDJ: And your books too! Cheap at half the price! Seriously though, I want to be really clear that I don’t think this strategy applies to indie authors: I mean, how could it? Indie authors are each doing their own thing. There’s no capacity for conspiracy in the market, implied or otherwise, no potential for price-fixing as such. It may be – and I’ve seen certain indie published books that bear this out – that there’s an issue around ‘worth’ that is a factor for indie authors. They want to price their book at a certain level because they feel that is what it’s worth. But like buying a house, something is only worth what people are prepared to pay. And if you make it easier for them to pay less, they will. But the point you were heading towards is that if the new Jack Reacher is over £8 for Kindle and my books are £1.49, I am considerably less valuable to my publisher than Lee Child is to his.

EW: And that is what you mean by worth.

EDJ: Exactly. The worth to the publisher, not the absolute artistic worth. Now, I would caveat that by saying that Avon and HarperCollins have, as they put it, made a deliberate decision to ’embrace the digital revolution’ by pricing their e-books relatively low. But the wider point is that Avon understand that there is a market for a certain kind of book at a certain kind of price. And actually I have benefitted from that in sales. Which is all the more surprising when you read some of my reviews!

EW: I wanted to ask you about that. You’ve had some brutal responses. To Jezebel, for example: “Inaccuracy about significant elements of the biblical account- is simply useless & unworthy. Should be discredited.”  And: “…a book that glorifies a queen who was not someone to glorify and which directly contradicts the truth in the Bible. It was not only poorly written but it was actually offensive.” How do you respond to that?

EDJ: I don’t think any writer likes to disappoint their reader, but I’ve always known that a book which might be described as ‘Biblical fiction’ is potentially divisive. However, I think there are two elements to think about here. One is the issue around historical authenticity and how readers of historical fiction respond to that. Delilah got picked up by a historical fiction book club in London last year, and one of the comments which came back to me after they met to discuss it was that the novel wasn’t really historical fiction at all, not in what is the currently accepted convention of meaning historically factual, factually driven, precise and authentic. There’s huge debate around that, at least for me, to do with scales of ‘accuracy’ if you like. Where do writers who set their novels in the past place themselves on the scale between Hilary Mantel-esque moment-by-moment authenticity and a reasonable stab at a plausible setting?


EWAnd with that, the question of how much the history controls the story or the story controls the history.

EDJ: Yes, and I know you’ve thought about that with your own novels. But secondly, and I think more problematically for some readers, there is the genuine challenge of writing stories using characters not only from another book – because the Bible is nothing if not that – but a book which has varying degrees of authenticity to different people. If you are a reader of the Bible who comes to it as truth, then you are likely to feel that the people of its pages should not be taken out of context. If that is your  starting premise, I wonder why you would pick up a book about one of those people which is clearly a work of fiction. Fiction is about invention, imagination and artifice. My books are also very clearly Romance, as indicated by the cover and the blurb, and Romance is a genre which drives story over context every time. I think therefore that if as a reader you want to protect one particular source of a person’s story, you are always going to find it a challenge to read another telling or another interpretation.

EW: So you’re not at the Hilary Mantel end of the scale?

EDJ: Absolutely not! I don’t think I’d call myself a historical novelist either, at least not in the sense that other historical novelists would want to be seen sitting at the same table with me!  But that was not the point of writing these novels. I wrote them because I like romantic fiction, and I was interested in seeing how the lives of these two women might be envisaged as romance in a time when alliance and allegiance were much more important in relationships. I also enjoyed the chance – as all imaginative writers do – to invent and imagine some historical details that aren’t really available to us, such as some of the more insignificant domestic rituals that are a key part of the colour of this genre. There are very few other purely historical sources to go on – Lesley Hazleton‘s very readable research on the untold story of Jezebel is excellent – but I am a romantic novelist. I am not claiming to have written a factual historical novel. The readers who have enjoyed my books have taken them, I suspect, for what they are. That is not to say that I like to offend a reader any more than I like to disappoint them, because I don’t. But I don’t think the novels hide what they are. And in the age of downloading digital samples instead of flicking through the first few pages in the store, it’s still more than obvious from the outset what the novels are like.

EW: Didn’t someone say that to you as a reason for not reading Delilah?

EDJ: (laughing) Yes, my best friend picked up Delilah when it first came out, told me how proud she was of me, and  then said, “But in all honesty, El, why would I buy it when I know how it ends?” She had a point. I don’t know if proper historical novelists think about that too. But being a romantic novelist, it’s all about the journey for me. We all watch agog every time a new film version of Pride and Prejudice is made, even though we know that Mr Darcy is going to get his girl. It’s the twists and turns that make us watch though.

EW: So what’s next for you? Another romance drawn from the Biblical cast list?

EDJ: I don’t think so. Avon offered me a two book deal and they got their two books. They haven’t shown any interest in any more, but that frees me up to write whatever I want without adding my publisher to the list of people I can disappoint! I remember being hardly able to breathe with excitement when I got the deal five years ago. But so much has changed. And for the better, I think.


Eleanor de Jong’s books are available in print from bookshops and on Kindle from Amazon. Evie Woolmore‘s magical realist novels are all available from Amazon, and you can find out more details by visiting her page.


When standing out just isn’t enough

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore shares her latest experience with a literary agent.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am happy to be publishing independently, and have largely enjoyed my experience with publishing direct to Kindle. But when I came across Susanna Kearsley’s novel The Firebird (which I reviewed recently) and realised that there were some elements in common with my own novels, I thought I would approach Kearsley’s literary agent, Felicity Blunt, to see if she thought the same. After the usual seemingly endless waiting period (in fact, a modest 4 weeks, which is short by many standards), I received this week a reply.

The Salt Factory by Evie WoolmoreWe enjoyed reading these sample chapters, which stood out from the many we
receive. Ultimately, though, we didn’t feel strongly enough to take the
project further, and therefore I’m afraid we are not able to offer you
representation. This is of course an entirely subjective response, and I
encourage you to continue with this project, and wish you every success with
your writing.

I wasn’t surprised, nor was I disappointed. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made so plain in my covering letter that I was writing out of curiosity as much as desire for representation. But what struck me was the same question that always arises: what exactly are they looking for? A book they love, or a book that stands out? Everyone wants to feel strongly about books they read: therein lies the pleasure. But doesn’t pleasure belong to the reader? Surely from a commercial point of view, as the seller of books (agent) to another seller of books (publisher), you would rather represent a book that stands out, something original or different, something that isn’t like all the rest. But apparently that still isn’t the case. For if the book market has not moved on then nor has the same reply I have heard so many times before, from agents and editors alike: “I just didn’t feel strongly enough.”

And yet I do. I do feel strongly enough about writing original fiction to publish it myself.

Evie Woolmore’s novels The Salt Factory, Rising Up and Equilibrium are available from all Amazon sites, including UK and US


Digital imprints: the apple falls close to the tree?

Earlier this week, over breakfast with a well-respected American sportswriter and journalist, allonymbooks met someone else who ‘writes fiction in their spare time’. This journalist has been chewing over ideas for a series of mystery novels based on his long and intriguing career in television and newspapers, and asked allonymbooks for their advice on entering the e-book market. A recent article in WiReD by Graeme McMillan sprang to mind, for its reminder that print publishers never stray far from what they know.

In his article, McMillan drew attention to the growing interest print publishers have in certain segments of the e-book market. Random House and HarperCollins have recently launched or announced e-book imprints focussing on very specific generic branding including scifi, mystery, romance and ‘adult’. RH’s VP Alison Dobson suggests that audiences who have made the move to e-readers want different things from their reading experience than those who read print copies, and that ‘difference’ centres around genre fiction in particular. Likewise her opposite number at HC, Liate Stehlik, agrees to some extent, claiming that people who read a lot of genre fiction were quick to pick up the e-book format because they are voracious readers, “reading for entertainment, reading multiple books in a month across multiple genres.” Continue reading

Is the (self-)Editor dead? Not here, she isn’t

“As an aspiring novelist and current student of an MA in creative writing, I dream of working with an editor. Not just any old editor but one assigned to me by a publishing house. For me, this is the holy grail of writing. That’s why I’m against self-publishing a book. I feel it circumvents the real business of writing, which is editing. Any writer worth their salt knows that a book goes through several drafts before it’s fit to be read.” Tasha Smith’s blog ‘Is the Editor dead?’ in the Huffington Post

The quality of editing in contemporary fiction has reportedly been in decline for some years, and a New York Times article as long ago as 1998 bewailed the knock-on effects of the massive increasing commercial pressures on editorial staff in the major publishing houses. Not only were publishing house editors failing to find sufficient time to devote to the activity of scrutinising a manuscript for mistakes, inaccuracies and typographical errors, but they were also unable to devote the time to being what the NY Times described as the author’s “romantic ideal of an editor as a confessor and critic”. Increasingly, the article described, authors were proactively employing their own editors not only to help identify mistakes, but also to shape manuscripts to prevent rejection or cancellation. Now, there may be a confusion here between activities more traditionally associated with proof-reading (typos, poor grammar, accuracy) and more stylistic attention to flow, pacing, unnecessary elaboration and so on, but it is the notion of the editor as critic which stands out.

Two years ago, Salman Rushdie publicly criticised JK Rowling’s editors for not being more ruthless in the fashioning of her longer Harry Potter books, saying “editors let J.K. get away with too much because no one wants to challenge the ‘goose that lays the golden eggs….The long books started to have long passages that any editor would normally have the courage to cut'”. What is being suggested here? That Rowling’s books would somehow have been less commercially appealing had they been ruthlessly edited for length and her detailed descriptive style? That Rowling’s literal Continue reading

James Daunt, are you ready for the indie authors?

The announcement by James Daunt, the Managing Director of the UK’s largest bookshop chain, Waterstone’s (sorry, but I am an apostrophe pedant), that he would be stocking Kindles in his stores from 25 October has already been met with outrage, confusion, acclaim and criticism by the reading, publishing and business communities. Mr Daunt’s decision may seem to sound a deathknell for the printed book – indeed, he is quoted as saying “Do we have an awful lot of books in our shops that don’t frankly sell?…Yes, and they actually shouldn’t be there. I do think the shops will have less books, but they will remain absolutely first and foremost physical bookshops.” – but this blog considers what options are open to Mr Daunt in embracing the world of independent publishers and their novels.

As the arrangement has thus far been described, one of the key additional services that Waterstones will provide is the ability for shop visitors to browse recommendations made by the shop’s staff, just as they do now, but on Kindles as well as in print. As Daunt puts it, “You are in a bookshop, you can pick up any of these books – you haven’t bought them yet – you can browse them. Until you leave the shop you don’t have to pay for them, and that same principle should apply to a physical device as well as a digital e-book.”

What isn’t clear is whether this browsing will be made available via the standard Kindle sampling technique as it stands on Amazon at the moment or whether, as many of us have done, you will be able to flick right through the book, possibly even to the end, engaging in a compact but complete browse-reading experience. Waterstone’s are doing what they can to enhance the experience of the shop as an environment in which to enjoy the experience of reading as well as shopping, by introducing more seats and the cafés, but what will they do to embrace, manage and promote the far greater sphere of published material available on Kindle as opposed to in print?

If Waterstone’s have made a truly open arrangement with Amazon in terms of allowing access to all their stock, then one strategy for independent publishers would seem to be to approach the Marketing Department at Waterstone’s, or indeed individual stores and store managers, just as publishing houses have done for years. There have been myths and tales long told of how much it Continue reading

A matter of point of view: experiencing agent rejection

The dramatic story of the attack on California literary agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg by an author whose manuscript she rejected shone a light once more on the complex relationship between authors and agents, particularly those who are not in business together. While this attack was clearly unacceptable, it is likely that many rejected authors would have understood in some way the frustration that burned inside this rejected author, whose actions took on a violent physical dimension. For it is rarely the response of a single agent turning down our books that brings us to our collective knees, but the cumulative effect of rejection after rejection.

Ms Vlieg was quoted after the incident by the Huffington Post as saying, “It’s hard to be rejected — just as it’s hard for agents to be rejected by publishers on the books we’ve acquired.”  That latter hardship is arguably genuine, but where does it stem from? Is it from sharing the author’s personal disappointment that a book an agent genuinely admired has been rejected? Or is it that they regret that their market judgement was flawed in putting that book forward in the first place? When an agent has worked closely with an author on manuscript development in order to bring their expertise to bear on the content and style in order to make it as sellable as it can be, that ownership is feasible: one can see a grain of truth in the phrase agents often use with new authors, that they “absolutely love” their book, because they have a right to be proud of their part in its creation.

But to read, as many of us have, that an agent “just didn’t love your book enough to represent it” is a curious statement. Isn’t that like saying “Darling, I’m sure you’re terrific, but I just don’t love you Continue reading