Many of us are tangentially aware that there is an element of the arbitrary that runs strong in the publishing world, as in any other realm where the choices of individuals are of high importance. Bestselling British author RJ Ellory is aware of this more keenly than many. He has kindly offered this recounting of his struggle to kick start his now award-winning writing career:
I started writing on November 4th 1987, and between then and July 17th 1993 I wrote something every day except for three days when I was going through a divorce. I completed twenty two novels in that time, something in the region of three and a half million words, and at different times I was in discussion with a couple of agents, with one or two publishing companies, but nothing ever really got as far as I would have liked. I wrote first of all in longhand, and then I got a typewriter, and finally ended up with an Amstrad dedicated word-processor that took about half an hour to warm up!
I spent those six years sending the material I was writing out to British publishers, and received about five hundred complimentary, very polite, Thanks, but no thanks letters. I also have two lever arch files with something in the region of three or four hundred straightforward format rejection slips. This is just from companies that didn’t even look at stuff. I understand the sheer volume of work that a handful of people have to wade through in a publishing house. People have given me figures on just how many unsolicited scripts come to the major publishing houses each week, and that figure is astounding.
It wasn’t that British publishers didn’t like my work; they just felt that they couldn’t ‘sell’ an English writer writing US-set novels. They advised me to send my work to the US, and I dutifully complied. I then received many, many letters from the US publishers saying that they liked my work, but they didn’t feel they could sell an English writer writing US-set novels!
Despite this Catch-22 situation, my belief was that if I just kept on going I would eventually find the right person in the right company at the right time. I had this datum from Disraeli who said, Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose. Nevertheless, after six years of doing this I finally thought ‘Enough’s enough’, and I stopped writing. I then studied music, photography, all manner of things, and didn’t go back to writing until the latter part of 2001.
It was then that I wrote ‘Candlemoth’. I sent that to thirty-six publishers, thirty-five of whom sent it back. All except Bloomsbury, and an editor there gave it to a friend who gave it to a friend, and it wound up at Orion with my current editor, and we have now worked together through eight books. Despite his initial enthusiasm for the book, it still took him four moths to convince his colleagues that they should publish the book! Since Orion signed me there have been a couple of comments made by a couple of publishers I have met about how they should perhaps have pursued things with a little more tenacity back in the early days.
The earlier unpublished stuff will probably stay right where it is in the loft. It was a different genre, more supernatural in a way, and I write better now anyway. I think the time away from it between 1993 and 2001 made me more succinct, gave me a greater clarity about what I wanted to say. I have gone back recently and read some of my earlier work and it was a little verbose. But hell, it was good practice!
Now it’s a different game. Now I know the things I write are going to be read, and that makes a lot of difference. It has its own issues, its own obstacles, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. As John Lennon said, Find something you love, and you’ll never work another day.
R. J. Ellory
Ellory's books, which are all available in the United Kingdom, include A Quiet Belief in Angels and The Anniversary Man, which are also available in the United States. (His other books often be found in the Amazon.com marketplace in the US, as well.) His latest release is The Saints of New York.
Ellory writes psychological suspense with a literary touch and human warmth, and a voice that echoes around your imagination until it lands in your heart to stay.