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  1. In the course of a natter with my agent several years ago, the subject of beans came up. Go into your local Waterstones, she said. Go and stand in the novel section. Then she told me why.

    Next time I was in Inverness, I did. There were four bays dedicated to novels, hundreds of titles, almost as many writers. My agent’s words suddenly made sense.  They’re all different writers, she had said. All different books, but at the end of the day they’re all novels. They’re all tins of beans.

    This was a new and arresting thought.  It opened my eyes to the startling realisation that my novel is not a unique work of art written by a unique individual, in which immense reserves of time, obsession and creativity have been invested. It is a shelf-filler!

    Say, for example, that your novel flops its way out of the slush pile to land on a reader’s desk. Suppose that she, not yet insensible from the contents of a gin bottle used to sustain her through the ordeal of reading a stack of unpublished material, finds that she likes it. She puts it to another reader for a second opinion. Now your book has been raised above the slush pile to the next level, one where books have been deemed to have more grit and substance. So let’s say that the promotion has put the book teetering atop the nutty slack heap.

    If it makes it past this, and doesn’t find itself slithering back down to the slurry that separates nutty slack from slush, it may even find itself singing its way to a publisher.

    Let’s skip on a bit. Just suppose that the publisher says yes. And there you are, your baby, your darling, has surfed over all obstacles and is now riding the crest with the gods in print.

    They’re all different writers, all different books, but at the end of the day they’re all novels. They’re all tins of beans.

    That conversation with my agent rubbed most of the sheen off the imagined glory of that moment. As someone who earns a living as a copywriter, I should really have worked that one out for myself. My book, should it ever drag itself from the slush, rise to the nutty slack and make it into mainstream print, after all it’s been through, is destined to become … a canned vegetable.

    Even if I protest that my book is more a tin of asparagus than beans, the analogy holds. It’s fodder, and once it’s been digested, the reader will be back to replenish her larder with another tin.

    I suppose this is something that every published writer learns to live with. Once they have their deal, the illusion of creating art evaporates. Every writer produces their first work without deadlines, and out of passion. I know more than one writer who, having got a book into print, has since struggled to find a taker for a second. One book is no guarantee of continued publishing success.

    Once you are expected to produce work on demand, to timescales, that’s when the dream becomes reality, and passion becomes work, and the pressure to continually produce saleable ideas.  Is that what most writers really want? And if so, is that what we are really cut out for? I wonder sometimes if that is the true point of separation between the published and the unpublished – not the quality of what we’re writing, but the drive to keep doing it. We all think we can handle the transition from amateur to professional, and we all long for the day when the long chain of No letters ends in a phone call that says Yes.

    And we all know that we have to be careful what we wish for.


    After a 13-year hiatus, I am back on the agent trail, looking for representation for a new book.

    To say that things have changed since the first time I started touting books in the 1980s would be an understatement. Back then, there was no affordable alternative to sealing that mainstream deal. It was either vanity publishing, which cost an arm and a leg, or endlessly contemplating a growing pile of dusty paper that had no home to go to.

    But now there is the miracle of self-publishing, and writers do not have to suffer the ignominy of writing an endless stream of letters justifying the existence of our manuscripts, and receiving an endless stream of rejections in response.

    That doesn’t stop us doing it, however.

    Thirty years ago, I played the game assiduously enough, my bashed-up copy of Writers & Artists covered in asterisks marking likely destinations, and savage lines scored through addresses that had failed to deliver. By mail, this was an excruciatingly slow process and I determined not to let it beat me. I was lucky enough to receive early encouragement from my first submission – this book wasn’t good enough, but the next one might be. I sent her the next book. That wasn’t right, either, but she believed that one day, I’d hit the mark. That kept me going for years.

    But where was the mark? Trying to find an agent or publisher might be part science, but there are too many variable factors. Your book has to land on the right desk on the right day, and be opened by a person who is in the right frame of mind to be receptive to your work. How often does that happen? Not very.

    Picture the poor literary agent, or publisher’s equivalent, contemplating a stack of envelopes on the desk, or a trail of email submissions – one agency reckons around 30 new manuscripts arrive a week, expecting proper attention. They have to be looked at, because there might be a gem, as us hopeful unpublished writers are always told, and we never fail to clutch at the dangling carrot.

    Is it a job everyone in the agency eagerly anticipates, or is it the equivalent of the clown taking the custard pie in the face? I guess that it’s the job everyone scrambles to avoid, in the same way a soldier throws himself clear of an approaching bullet. Imagine having to wade through that pile of paper, with its derogatory tag, the slush pile – looking for the shining needle in a stack of shit-stained hay? How motivated is the reader by 11 o’ clock in the morning, much less by Friday afternoon? How soon before we find a despairing drunk behind the stack of paper, swigging at a bottle in a desperate attempt to rise above all the slush?

    Nah. I don’t really think it happens like that. I think they share it around so it’s fair.

    OK. So, we swallow our pride and accept that we are part of a slush pile. We are told to wait anything up to two months. This is our first hint that not even one agency employee dedicates him or herself to the slush pile Monday to Friday, 9-5. It takes, say, around 18 months to two years to produce a book, whatever its quality. We stand in line waiting for the ministrations of an agent who is probably harassed by other concerns and has a short attention span. A really bad book can probably be discarded within five minutes. Even at 30 manuscripts a week, and given that most agents only take on two or three new clients every year, a diligent reader could bash through the lot in a day.

    So, we console ourselves with the thought that George R. R. Martin was once a hopeful envelope squashed somewhere in the slush pile. He made it. And no wonder. I haven’t read any of his earlier stuff, but I think A Song of Ice and Fire is remarkable. A lot of people agree.

    I suspect that a lot of slush pile writers look at a work like that and don’t have to ask the resentful question: How the hell did that get into print? We know how. It got into print because it’s really good. There are two problems facing the brotherhood of slush – we don’t know how good we are, and even if we do, getting into print isn’t always about being good.