Claptrap 4: How to get a book published

(This is the fourth in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voicesand the televising of Claptrap, which you can watch HERE.

Part 2: EUREKA! is HERE
Part 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre is HERE).

For academics in the 1970s, getting your work into print was never much of a problem. Publisher’s reps used to tour the universities with two simple missions.

One was to try to persuade you to put some of their books on your reading lists and get the university bookshop to order a few copies. The other was to ask if you had any books in the pipeline – and, if you had, they’d more or less sign you up there and then.

As the first lecture I’d given on the clapping research had revealed wider interest in the subject than I’d expected (Claptrap 3), I assumed that it would be just as easy to get it published as had been the case with my previous ‘academic’ books.

I could not have got much further from the truth: by the time I finally signed a contract for the publication of Our Masters’ Voices, I’d collected a grand total of twenty- two (yes, 22) rejection slips.

It was probably a mistake to write the whole manuscript before sending it to any publishers. After all, my other academic books had been accepted on the basis of a few notes, an occasional paper or two and a good deal of waffle on my part.

So, unlike these unfortunate publishers on whose desks there dropped a complete draft of Our Masters’ Voices , the previous ones never had to wade through hundreds of pages of tedious prose before reaching a decision.

Twenty years later, when I was writing Lend Me Your Ears, I learnt from my agent that it was much more effective (and much less time-consuming) to send a proposal out to likely publishers – and, though he 'd be too modest to say it, having a reputable agent is half the battle.

Initially, things looked quite promising. Desmond Morris, zoologist and best-selling author ofThe Naked Ape and Manwatching was a fellow of the same Oxford college as me. He loved the book enough to fix me up with an introduction to his own publisher, the legendary Tom Maschler (and eventually wrote some nice glowing words on the back cover of the book).

Mr Maschler was friendly enough, but said that he thought the book would be much better if he recruited what he called a ‘co-author’, which I took to be a polite word for ghost-writer.

“I’m a bit surprised by that,” I said, “ because one of the few kind things reviewers have said about my other books is that they found them very readable.”

“But” he came back decisively “that merely reflects the abysmally low standard of writing in the academic world.”

I’ve no doubt in retrospect that I should have taken his advice. I was trying something that was completely new to me – to write in a way that would be accessible to any average reader of a serious Sunday newspaper, a book with plenty of pictures, no extensive bibliography and no footnotes citing every last chapter and verse.

Looking at Our Masters’ Voices now, I realise that I never got anywhere near the style I was aiming for until the third chapter – which also happened to be the most important one in the book. If the publishers I’d inflicted it on had never got as far as that, it was hardly surprising that they rejected it.

Many of them also had backing for their decision from learned assessors, from whom they’d sought an expert opinion.

Quite a lot of these reflected the vested interests of hostile camps within sociology, psychology, and linguistics, the main disciplines in which the (then) new field of conversation analysis was already having a significant, if controversial impact after little more than ten years in business.

Others were more straightforward in their dislike of the book, and I’ll never forget the one that said ‘people are already cynical enough about politicians without publishing this kind of stuff.’

By the time the twenty-second rejection came in, we were on family holiday on the Makarska riviera, where I met a British school teacher who was grappling with the problem of how to get another new subject (media studies) across to her pupils.

She was complaining about something I knew all too well from my background in sociology, namely that most of the available literature was relentlessly Marxist in approach, and she was having trouble finding anything that took a took a different line.

When I told her about the clapping research and Our Masters’ Voices, she was extremely encouraging and said that it sounded just the kind of thing they needed.

She also had a practical suggestion. Methuen were just starting a new series of books on communication studies, had I tried them and, if not, why not send them a copy of the manuscript when I got back to Oxford?

Without either of us realising it at the time, she had handed me the key to the door that had so far refused to open.

I thought no more about it until about a week later. I was back in college having lunch for the first time since getting home. In the common room afterwards, I sat down for coffee with a colleague from the Psychology Department who had a guest with him.

She was an editor with a firm of publishers, and not just any old publishers, but one that was very fresh in my mind: Methuen!

“Don't disappear until I get back” I blurted out as I sprinted back to my office. Five minutes later, the manuscript was in her brief case.

No, she wasn’t in charge of the new series on communication studies, but knew who was and would make sure it landed on the right desk as soon as she got back to London.

A few weeks later, I signed the contract with Methuen – 23rd time lucky.

My only regret is that I didn't exchange names and addresses with the teacher on the beach in Croatia, so I've never been able to thank her for mentioning Methuen and their interest in communication studies.

If she hadn't, it might never have occurred to me to thrust the manuscript into the hands of my colleague's lunch-time visitor.



Anonymous said...

Pssst - quick note from eagle-eyed spotter of everybody else's mistakes (never my own): 5th line of opening para of intro to your company site - 'Henley Management CollAge' ...
Do it myself all the time, so this comment will self-destruct as soon as you've completed the requisite edit. Cheers!
Oh, and I've really enjoyed reading your posts - thank you.
Word verif is 'sentrubl' ... hm.

domnul said...

This reads like a thriller. And it's comforting for all writers who seek to be published.