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Donkin's World: How Not To Get Published

...This is why I struggle so much with publishing. I'm still naive enough to believe, because I want to believe, that it is a relationship business. But it's just a business like anything else. The editors are supposed to make the decisions but invariably it's the marketing people. If they could do their business without ever having to deal with a writer they would love it...

Author and journalist Richard Donkin tells of the tribulations of trying to get a novel published.

February has come and gone. In the last month I put one novel to bed and started another. I should explain what I mean by that. I've reached the stage with a novel I've been writing for about two years now where it is finished, or as finished as I can make it. I'm happy with it. It flows, the story is good and it hangs together well and the three people who have read it now - Gill, son Rob and father-in-law Alan, all say they enjoyed it.

Is it any good? Well I read a lot and and I've written a lot in my life to a high standard and let me tell you it's a damned sight better than a lot of the crap out there on publishers' lists.

So what now? Well that's the hard bit. When I finished the first draft, about a year ago I sent it to a few literary agents and the response was disappointing. Not one of them wanted to put the book forward to a publisher. I understand their reticence now. It wasn't good enough. The story started in the wrong place and in parts it got bogged down in the back story.

The agents didn't tell me this. They don't do that. Their view is entirely commercial and they take that view very quickly. They don't read the whole book, they don't have time. To an agent a new author is an unknown quantity and therefore a risk and just now it's a risk they don't need. I thought, as a published author of two non-fiction books I'd at least get some feedback but it was sparse. I did, however, receive feedback from two friends who know me well enough that they are not afraid to pull their punches. The book didn't work for them and they explained why.

You might deduce from this that my view of literary agents is not a good one. It's not that I haven't come across them before. Many years ago I was approached by an agent to write a book on the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. There was a deal to negotiate with Faber and Faber. Call me old fashioned, but I thought an agent was supposed to represent an author to get the best deal available. I wanted to see some evidence of him taking the book proposal around several publishers.

Perhaps I was naive - yes, I'll go along with that, I'm very naive - but the cosy relationship between the agent and the publisher didn't seem right to me. It was almost as if the writer was a commodity, as if they were saying: "If this one doesn't work lets find another one."

That view was confirmed about three years ago when I was put forward by a publisher to ghost write a book for Sir Steve Redgrave. When you read newspaper columns and books by Sir Steve and other prominent sports people you may wonder, as I would, how they came to be there. Sir Steve is probably Britain's finest Olympian. His five gold medals in consecutive Olympic games are unlikely to be surpassed.

But he is not known for his writing finesse, neither is he the most articulate or approachable of men - although coaching has done a lot to improve that and he's part of the lucrative public speaking circuit now. At heart he's really quite shy and diffident, as I am. But he is a professional and he isn't daft. He knows that even a five-times Olympian needs to secure his financial future and you're soon forgotten in sport, as you are in journalism. I thought we hit it off pretty well but then, as I say, I'm naive.

The meeting with Sir Steve was held at the grand London offices of the sports management company, IMG in Hammersmith. The people at IMG represent him and they only represent big names. The idea was that he was going to write a book about business. His first book after signing up with IMG was one about inspiring people. This had been ghost written by Sue Mott, the former Daily Telegraph sports journalist. Sue is a lovely writer and the book read well.

Next off the production line was to be a business book that would involve the ghost writer or Sir Steve, or both, interviewing prominent people in business to get their insights in to what made their businesses tick. Then Redgrave would add his own insights from his years as a sportsman. This seemed valid to me. I'm sure all of us have wondered what it takes to drive yourself in such an arduous and repetitive sport as rowing when you have reached the pinnacle not once or twice, but on four previous occasions. Surely business needs people who can do that.

I'm not a celebrity groupie. I run a mile from such encounters although I've done plenty of one-to-one interviews with people in business - some fascinating, many not. One of the worst was with Sir Colin Marshall, the former chairman of British Airways, probably the dullest businessman I have ever met. I suspect this is unfair to Sir Colin who has since been ennobled as Baron Marshall of Knightsbridge, possibly the establishment's last gasp attempt to make one of its adopted sons more interesting. Underneath his charmless exterior I'm sure there's a tigerish personality just waiting to be discovered. But I didn't find it. It wasn't that he was awkward or difficult. I can handle awkward and difficult. He had all the appeal of a cold cup of tea. I spent more than an hour with him trying to coax out an anecdote. Sir Colin doesn't do anecdotes.

In contrast I interviewed Sir Howard Davies when he was deputy governor of the bank of England. He gave me half an hour and he filled that half hour with some delicious stories that more than made my piece.

I think it's fair to say that Redgrave is not brimming with charisma - he would say that of himself - but it would be unfair to describe him as dull and he has picked up a lot in his life that is important to the British Olympic movement. He knows his stuff and he is a more than worthy ambassador. I liked him and would have loved to have spent time in deep conversation trying to tease out the source of his motivation. Yes, I think I would have enjoyed writing a book with him although I wouldn't have accepted the lot of some ghost writers to be tucked away in the acknowledgments with thanks for the "help they gave". That makes me angry.

I hadn't known what to expect at IMG. There was a big table with Redgrave at the top of the table, me beside him, one or two people from the publishers, and maybe four people from IMG including an older lady who I will only identify as the harridan.

Maybe I was a bit full of myself. I was in the middle of writing my book, The Future of Work at the time. I should have sat there and listened but I did far too much talking in that meeting. I knew things were not going well when the harridan, who was clearly running the show, interrupted me to say: "Can I just point out this is Steve's book." Oh dear. I'm not sure exactly how the conversation went after that on its way down hill. But I do know from that moment on it was daggers drawn between the woman who was pulling all the strings and a man she had just exposed as a fully-paid up member of the awkward squad. My few diplomatic skills went to the wind and that was that.

The word back from the publisher was that Sir Steve thought that bonding closely with his ghost writer was important and he didn't think he could bond with me. Bollocks. You don't bond with people around a giant board table in the money-focused cavern that is IMG. If bonding was an issue we should have discussed his plan, just the two of us, over a pint in his local pub. That meeting was about who was boss and there was no doubt in my mind - it wasn't the publisher, it wasn't me, and it certainly wasn't Redgrave. The book did appear in time and it was a good enough read. Mine would have been so much better. Steve you missed out on gold that time.

This is why I struggle so much with publishing. I'm still naive enough to believe, because I want to believe, that it is a relationship business. But it's just a business like anything else. The editors are supposed to make the decisions but invariably it's the marketing people. If they could do their business without ever having to deal with a writer they would love it.

So where am I now? Well, a few weeks ago, while judging The Chartered Institute of Management's Business Book of the Year awards, I was discussing my "how to get my novel published" problem with one of the executives at the business book publisher, Kogan Page. He advised me to seek out a literary consultant so that's what I've done. I have paid someone to read my book.

What? You think that doesn't make sense? Well it doesn't make sense to me that an agent should be in to you for 15 per cent simply because they have the direct lines of one or two publishing editors. I know I can self-publish and may do so yet. But I want to go the traditional route, not that I have any great faith in that, I'm just old fashioned and also, as I've said twice already, I'm terribly, terribly naive. Have you ever read a publishing contract? They're designed to sap a writer's will to live. Publishers know this which is why few authors will ever get rich. But that's not why we do it, is it?

I'm doing it because I have something to say and I want to say it my way; that's not in the house style of a newspaper, or as a ghost writer or a conduit for an idea cooked up between an agent and publisher. I'm my own man and I have a voice in this world. Surely that has to count for something.


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