By Kerstin Hall
So you want to get published? Not Amazon-ebook-oblivion-published, but like, a real book. With pages. That may potentially get read by people.
Here are two questions before we get started:
- Have you written a whole, complete manuscript?
- Where do you live?
If the answer to the first question is ‘no’, then go fix that problem. If the answer to the second question is ‘South Africa’ (or the surrounding African countries), you are in luck.
Already, would-be SA authors are snorting in derision. “Luck? Here?”
“But my friend Albertina van Zyl de Merwe wrote a beautiful memoir on her life in Bloemfontein and they rejected her!”
“The industry is tiny.”
“I can’t write Africanist fiction.”
“They don’t want me”.
Question: Have you tried?
Seriously. Have you gone through the submission process?
I spent two weeks as an intern at Penguin Random House Struik. (The cumbersome name is a result of three mergers. Who knows, it might be NB Penguin Random House Fox&Raven Struik next.) During this time, I tried to learn as much as possible about how the industry functions. What works in submissions, what doesn’t, and who decides.
I was at the Umuzi imprint. Let me share some insights with you.
First of all, the SA publishing industry is nice. Really nice. And not only to their somewhat befuddled interns. The first chapters of every single manuscript sent to Umuzi are read. When they come through via email, the author gets an acknowledgement of receipt. Basically a “hang on for a while, it’s okay, we’re reading your stuff”. Then each author also receives a second email, either accepting (yay!) or rejecting the manuscript. The accepted manuscripts are sent to the next stage in production, where they are checked by readers to see if they are worthwhile. Let’s not worry about that for now.
All the emails are personalised and written by human beings. In the case of rejections, they often provide suggested changes or alternatives to the author. Considering that Umuzi can receive three submissions per day, this is an impressive practice. I highly doubt that many international publishers uphold that kind of a standard. They treat you like a person, not Submission 30215.
“But what does it matter if they are sweet?” The long-suffering and much maligned author throws up their hands in the air. “I’ve still been rejected!”
Yes, you have been. But (and this is not going to make you happy), it is probably not the publisher’s fault.
You must understand that publishers want to produce books that will sell. They are not out to get you. And even though dear Albertina’s story of her white girlhood in Bloem may appear to be a masterpiece in the eyes of her mother, the larger book-buying market probably won’t care.
If you get rejected, it will probably be because of one of two reasons. The first is that your content is unsuitable for the imprint. The second is that you aren’t very good.
“BLASPHEMY!” Screams the author.
No. At least concede to the possibility that you are not quite the special snowflake your Grade 6 English teacher claimed. It’s okay. You can improve, but you need to let go of the ego. It will be painful because writing is personal and you can’t understand why, after splaying your soul out in this story, people don’t want to read what you have to say. Of course that hurts. But you can pick yourself up and try again. Be brave.
Your content may be unsuitable on a number of counts. Let’s start with the basics. Is your text in English or Afrikaans? Is it fiction? A memoir, for example, is not a good fit for Umuzi, which deals with “accessible literary fiction”. All that really means is they don’t like texts so postmodern they would confuse Faulkner or Joyce.
Is your story too long or too short? A 20 000 word manuscript is not going to cut it and a 200 000 will require cutting. This lowly intern suspects hovering in the region of 60 000 to 120 000 is your best bet.
Are you offensive? Being deliberately and shockingly offensive might work, but having your personal prejudices creep quietly and insidiously into your story is dangerous and liable to get you rejected quickly. Watch the –isms. They don’t make you likeable as a person or an author.
Umuzi, as an imprint, likes some kind of South African connection. It’s not mandatory (see Lauren Beukes), but it will definitely swing the odds in your favour and can be the difference between an approval or a rejection. It’s not that hard to set your work in this country and you can probably write more believably about what you are familiar with. So if it makes no difference whether the story is set in Alabama or Benoni, go with the latter.
Decrease the adjectives and adverbs. Purple prose does not a good writer make. It also seems to plague first chapters like a persistent rash. Don’t overwrite your opening paragraphs till the sentences span ten lines.
Do you have a plot? The question may seem facile, but think about it. You might want to explore the relationship between a mother and son in a number of amusing scenarios from everyday life. This is all very nice, but if nothing really happens in your story, well… boring. Don’t be boring. Even if your writing is beautiful, the absence of action will kill your submission dead.
There are obviously a ton of other things you can do wrong. But much of this is simply common sense and good writing practice. You want to create a good impression. If the person you email takes a dislike to you because of something silly and avoidable, they might not fight for your work as hard at The Meeting.
Here are some tips:
- Read the submission policies (found on any publishing website). And stick to them. Umuzi is actually extremely chilled in terms of formatting, but following their rules makes you look more professional. For Umuzi, you need to send in the first three chapters of your novel, a synopsis of the story and a short passage about yourself.
- Check your spelling and grammar. Proofread until your eyes bleed. It makes a massive difference.
- Have someone else read your submission. All of it, including your synopsis and bio. Make sure the person you ask is willing to be completely and painfully honest. Take their suggestions to heart, but remember that you are the author and can choose which changes to implement.
- Do not repeatedly call the publishers. Even if they sound nice on the phone, trust me, after the sixth call you are annoying them. The same applies to emails. It is understandable that you want to know what’s going on with your baby, but you need to trust these people to do their jobs.
- Be at all times friendly, gracious and polite. Even if you get a rejection letter. If you resubmit, you want them to remember you for the right reasons. Not for throwing your toys out of the crib.
Let’s look at the three things you need to submit in turn.
First Three Chapters
Don’t shove sixteen thousand quotes and dedications in the front. Umuzi prints the manuscripts and you are wasting paper. At this stage, the publisher does not need to know you are dedicating the book to your deceased gerbil.
Please also ensure that they are the first three chapters. Not chapter 6, 12 and 35, because you think those are the good bits.
Use a default font like Calibri in either 11 or 12pts. If possible, put in a header with the title of the piece and your name, as well as page numbers. Keep it neat and all in black on white.
Short. Make it short. I have witnessed the horror of a 30 page synopsis in my brief stint here. In that instance, I may as well have read the whole book. The publishers judge your writing by the chapters and your plot by the synopsis. It should be well written, but this is not the space to razzle dazzle them with convoluted metaphors. Just give a clear and concise account of what happens. Don’t go into extreme detail; you’ll probably make your story sound more complicated and disorganised than it is. In the case of Umuzi, you are looking to write a page maximum, preferably shorter.
In addition, avoid vagueness. For example, “It is a triumphant tale that demonstrates how love, patience, resolve, tenacity, beauty, bravery, friendship and more love can overcome any trial.” Great listing skills. I have no cooking clue what you are writing about.
This is tricky and can go very wrong. In a memorable and lengthy instance, an individual wrote about themselves in the third person and then proceeded to quote themselves. This was entertaining (for me anyway), but perhaps not to be recommended.
In my opinion, the strongest bios were the ones that stuck to the concrete. “My name is X, I am Y years old, I come from Z.”
List any impressive writing accolades or experience you might have. If you don’t have any, talk about what you study/ do for a living / do for fun. I would not suggest saying that writing is the sole reason you have for living in this corrupted and foul world. Try not to go full-on demented.
Do not try to talk yourself up in the absence of verifiable proof. Stay away from describing your ravishing good looks or fascinating personality. As a rule, it makes you sound vain and insipid.
The biography is not the be-all-and-end-all. So you don’t have a PhD in novel-writing or any shiny trophies. If what you’ve written is great, it. won’t. matter. I saw two writers with doctorates rejected over the work of a good-natured software developer. Having a qualification might grant you a little more attention, but in the end all that matters is the quality of what you have produced.
If you have created something awesome and appropriate, publishers will not let it pass by. If nothing else, take comfort in the fact that I have read so much bad writing in the past two weeks that I am beginning to think fondly of the Twilight series. In comparison, you stand to be a publishable and shining star.