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“Please Never Submit Again.” – Bestselling Author Gareth Crocker Shares His Experience of the Publishing World in Ka-Boom

 
Ka-BoomKa-Boom, the latest book by Gareth Crocker, is the perfect Christmas gift: fast-paced, punchy and funny.

In the book, Crocker describes his early years as a promising soccer player and poet, his first job – in the criminal underworld – the time he decided to run the Comrades, the time he decided to try out for the Olympics, and, ultimately, how he became the bestselling author of five books, having sold more than three million copies worldwide.

Two of Crocker’s novels, Finding Jack and Never Let Go, are being adapted for films in Hollywood.

In this excerpt from Ka-Boom, Crocker shares his experience of trying to find a publisher, during which time he amassed a chest full of rejection letters along the lines of: “Please never submit again.”

Gareth Crocker

Read the extract:

* * * * *

 

‘The only horror here … is your writing.’

 
So here, in brief, is my view of the modern book-publishing world.

To begin with, let’s look at the money (he writes, with a straight face). The reality is that if you plan to live on something even vaguely more substantial than tree bark and urine, you pretty much have to land an international publishing deal. Even then 99 out of 100 authors still can’t make a decent living out of their books. Those who claim they can are, in fact, often retired, boosted by a plump inheritance, lying their pants off or supported by a kind and hard-working spouse. Either that or they rob banks in their spare time. Part of the problem is that the buying public’s attention span has dwindled alarmingly over the past decade. This is further exacerbated by the increasing competition for people’s leisure time which, itself, is shrinking. The other difficulty is that, unlike at the cinema, say, where a moviegoer has maybe a dozen films to choose from, a large bookstore presents a buyer with 78-quadrillion titles. I maintain that it is an absolute miracle for a stranger to emerge from a bookstore clutching your novel in his or her mitts. It’s a wonder of such proportions that it feels almost biblical. There are very few industries where one has to compete not only against a sea of current competitors but against an ocean of rivals from around the world … many of whom have been dead for decades. It’s like running a race against every professional athlete in the history of the sport. And let’s not even get into the current e-book ‘pirating’ culture that is bayoneting the already gravely wounded and malnourished writer (feel free to cue the violins at any point).

After that cheery start it’s important to note that the South African book market is about as big as a postage stamp on a rhinoceros’s arse. Which may tempt you to try and land an international publisher. However this, as you now know, is far easier said than done. Here are several … shall we euphemistically say ‘hurdles’ … that need to be overcome. For the sake of brevity, I shall list only a handful of the key ones:

    1. Large international publishers (based mainly in London and New York) receive *47.356-trillion zillion (*audited figure) book submissions a day.

 

    2. Large international publishers already have full lists of their own authors and, in many cases, don’t have the capacity or the desire to take on new writers.

 

    3. Large international publishers have to invest heavily in new writers, given that it takes many years to build a writer’s name and reputation. So they have to be absolutely blown away by an unpublished author just to consider him or her.

 

    4. Large international publishers often take a dim view of authors living in the colonies and, subconsciously or not, prejudge writing that does not come out of the more cosmopolitan cities.

 

    5. Large international publishers do not accept ‘unsolicited manuscripts’. Which means that any manuscripts you send them … will never be opened at all.

 
Ah, right. So that’s quite a challenge then. After all, it’s unlikely that one of these publishing behemoths will offer you a multibook publishing deal if they have not, in fact, read your work.

So how then does one get published in this mystical world of closed doors and near-impossible odds?

Well, unfortunately, you need to find a reputable agent to represent you.

Agents are the publishing world’s ‘filtering system’. Simply put, they sort the wheat from the chaff. It’s actually rather brilliant. Given that the vast majority of reputable agents operate purely on a commission basis, this means that they will only take on writers who they feel have an actual shot of being published. In other words, their livelihood depends on their ability to spot and nurture talent.

The publishers then sit back and wait for these agents to find the next Patterson, Grisham and Crocker (ahem).

Which means that you, as the lowly writer, have no choice but to delve into the often slimy back alleys of literary agents. That sounds rather gross and sordid, which is quite right (more on this subject, anon).

Of course, I didn’t know this when I submitted Malevolence to every publisher on the planet at great financial and emotional cost. When I found out that I needed an agent to get my foot in the door, I was forced to delve even deeper into my already hefty student loan to print out and dispatch more copies. (These days, of course, most agents are content to receive email submissions. Hmph.)

You can’t imagine how ruinously expensive it was. Especially if you were as young and poor as I happened to be. Paper is very heavy. Posting or couriering off a 500-page, double-spaced manuscript is a little like sending a chair halfway around the world. You get charged a small fortune for it.

In the months and years that followed, whole forests would be stripped and laid bare so that rejection slips could be printed and posted to me (at my own cost, no less, as agents insist that you include a fully paid-for self-addressed return envelope with your manuscript so that you can also bear the financial burden of being stabbed in the heart). In the beginning I kept a file of my failure. But then, when the file got too heavy and threatened to collapse my writing desk, I upgraded to a large chest. The sort that you would find in the land of Narnia. This was better because I could close the lid and try not to think about how awful I was. And then, one day, the chest lid would no longer close.

A smarter person would have given up at this point. But not me. Oh no. I was going to ride the wheels off this train. Fortunately, the rejection notes themselves were often quite kind and supportive which would lift my spirits to no end. Here are extracts from some of the more memorable ones (I actually have them framed in my writing studio):


    – ‘Please never submit again.’
     
    – ‘I can’t work out if this is a horror novel or a parody of one. Either way, it’s woeful.’
     
    – ‘I’ve never seen so many clichés assembled together in one story. Reading your manuscript was indeed a dark and stormy night.’
     
    – ‘The only horror here is your writing.’
     
    – ‘No. God no.’

 
And then you would pick up a writer’s magazine where some famous author would relate his or her story of how they first became published.

‘So I decided to write my first book in 2004. I was convinced nobody would like it and so I very nearly never submitted it. But thankfully I did and immediately found an agent. He loved the book so much he set up a publishing auction and I was offered $43-billion by a dozen international publishers that very week. I really am so blessed.’

Let’s see how blessed you are when I ram my laptop down your throat.

The reality, of course, is that very few writers have an overnight ‘rags to riches’ story. It almost never happens.

Anyway, after every agent and his dog had tossed me out, I finally had to concede that all was perhaps not perfect with Malevolence. And so, I wrote another horror de force – The Pumpkin Hour. No, it wasn’t a book for children. It was a very serious and very scary adult novel. And another 17 834 rejection slips came flapping into my mailbox, not unlike that scene with the envelopes and the owls in Harry Potter.

Then came another literary weapon of mass destruction, In the Eyes of a Child.

Surely this was the one? I had grown so much as a writer. I couldn’t imagine this gem not being accepted. Well, whether I could imagine it or not, the rejection slips kept flooding in.

At this point I was considering opening up a recycling plant. Lord knows I could pulp myself into some real money.

And then, at my lowest ebb, the PR company I was working for (my day job) was kind enough to send me to an international PR Convention in Chicago. If I’m honest I only went to about three presentations and spent the rest of my time at Andy’s Jazz Club sipping Apple Martinis with my mate, Mitch Ramsay. Afterwards, however, I had a few days to spare so I decided to do the touristy thing and head out to Washington.

Top of my list was a visit to the Vietnam Wall.

While I was standing there, my eyes skimming over the names of the 60 000 or so US soldiers who perished in the Vietnam War, a man pulled up beside me. He was dressed in full military regalia. He remained perfectly still for a while before reaching into his jacket and pulling out a dog harness which he placed against the wall.

And then he started to cry.

I waited a few minutes until he had regained a measure of composure before turning to him. ‘I’m so sorry to intrude,’ I began (clearly not sorry at all), ‘but I have to ask you … why’ve you placed a dog harness against the wall?’

The former soldier then told me the heartbreaking story of the Vietnam war dogs and how some 4000 canine soldiers were sent over to help American soldiers in the war (by locating enemy patrols, finding bombs, sniffing out booby traps and so on). His eyes moistened again as he explained that, at the end of the war and due to the cost of the withdrawal, the US government declared the dogs ‘Surplus Military Equipment’ and they were ordered to be left behind together with the old tents and prefab buildings.

‘Our dogs saved the lives of at least 10 000 US soldiers, and dog handlers like myself were forced to abandon them. I had a gun pointed at me on the day I was bundled into a helicopter for the long trip home. It’s been over 30 years and I’ve never stopped thinking of my dog, Shadow. He saved my life – and the lives of my platoon – on at least three occasions. If it weren’t for him, my name would be on this wall.’

And in that moment, I knew what my next novel would be about. No more cheesy horrors for me. I would write a book that would a shine a light on this horrific injustice. It would tell the story of one brave soldier who refuses to abandon his dog and what he does to try and save him. Fiction told against a nonfiction backdrop.

I started writing the book that night in my hotel room. A year and a half later, Leaving Jack was completed. And this time when Kerry emerged with the manuscript in her arms, she was crying.

‘It’s beautiful, Ga,’ she whispered. ‘Absolutely beautiful.’

And just like that I knew my days of being rejected were numbered. My long apprenticeship would soon be over.

Or so I dared to believe.

* * * * *

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