For many budding authors it seems as if the greatest hurdle they must overcome is finishing their first book, and after that it’s all smooth sailing. Once they reach that point however, they come realize that they only got past the first obstacle, and in front of them awaits a whole different beast: getting published. The road to putting your book out on the shelves under a publisher’s name is paved with tricks and traps, and few authors had to brave through them like Bob Van Laerhoven. For our second interview with him (first interview) we discuss the book publishing gauntlets he has gone through time and time again as he shares his valuable insight and perspective accrued over decades.
Q: As I’m certain many other authors out there will agree, writing a book is only half the battle… after that, the tumultuous process of getting it out on the shelves begins to take place. How would you characterize the effort that it takes to get a book published versus the amount of energy needed to write it?
For some strange reason – or with the help of the Universe, as they say in “spiritual circles” – for decades, my true battles have been delivered on the writing field, and not in the fancy restaurants where Publishers used to sign contracts between cognacs when I started out in the eighties. But approximately ten years ago – at that time, I was 55 and had been a professional novelist for seventeen years – the publishing scene began to change noticeably.
The type of Publisher I was familiar with – a well-fed male in his forties/fifties in a three-piece-suit with a slightly paternal aura, a thorough cultural background, and an impressive knowledge of fine wines – started to become a rare species and was replaced by a younger generation, this time more female than male, that projected an emanation of overworked nervousness and dwindling sales. Their advances became slim and their sales predictions were accompanied by deep sighs. Their edits were hastier, their durability was a lot less than the previous generation. They didn’t invite me in restaurants any longer, but skyped on curious hours, and their first sentence was inevitably: you know that the industry isn’t faring well, do you, Bob? They lowered their eyes when they talked about print-runs. I pitied that generation but at the same time I couldn’t help but suspecting that, in some ways, they were shortchanging me. Their contracts were even more unreadable and unintelligible than those of their predecessors. Publishing my work was still not a real effort, but it took growing amounts of sangfroid during negotiations, lately so much that I have become a true Zen Monk.
Q: It would almost seem that some publishers pride themselves on rejecting ideas and only accepting the ones they believe will become bestsellers. In your experience, how difficult is it to actually find a publisher who will be willing to take a chance with your work? How exactly do you go about searching for one? What criteria govern your decision?
I knew when I started that my special blend of literature and the suspense genre, mostly projected against the background of broad social upheaval, needed a – pardon my French – “Publisher with Balls”. I have to say that it was relatively easy to find this rare specimen over here in Belgium. And not only once , but three times: in the three decades in which I have been writing I have had three Publishers with whom I published each time more than ten novels. I was lucky, in this sense that I wrote suspense novels that were being liked by readers of literature and I published literary novels that were being liked by readers of suspense and thrillers.
Still, they are not the easiest novels around: I have the reputation of being an exacting author who expects from his readers a lot more attention and focus than your average bestseller “swimming pool-author”. My novels want to say something meaningful about the Human Condition, and it has been my task, given to me by my Muse, to explore and analyse our self-destructive and violent urges. As a result, my novels are very “noir”. Nevertheless, they sold enough copies in Holland and Belgium to become a full time author when I was 38. I have been a professional writer ever since.
The three times that I changed publishers was not due to me not being satisfied with the way sales were going. They were a result of editors with whom I loved to work, changing publishing houses or retiring. I have always liked to work with someone I could trust, and, in hindsight, I can say that I have been privileged to work with editors who were able to transform – or at least to eradicate – my weak points in their editing. They have learned me a lot. And yes, they had Big Balls, all of them…
Q: What exactly does the process of pitching your concept to a publisher look like? How do you choose which ideas to display and which ones to withhold? In all your years of experience, have you learned any unspoken rules or tricks in this department?
You know, everyone nowadays seems to be talking about “tricks of the trade.” I receive a lot of newsletters with “Nine ways to pitch your story” “six ways to promote your book”, and the like. I find this trend amusing, but also a bit depressing: it makes me feel very old
Which ideas to display and which ones to withhold? I never thought in terms like that. When my Muse grabbed me by the ears – oh, she was so fond of twanging my earlobes, the b…tch – I started writing, often only receiving the first sentence and not knowing where and if and how I would end the whole affair. And when, as a result of the wondrous energy of inspiration, suddenly a manuscript was lying in front of me, I contacted a Publisher and whispered: do you want to read my work?
I never pitched a concept, I just sent him the manuscript. In my view, there are no tricks, or even rules. There is only the Work, and the Work has to speak, to seduce, to induce wonder and surprise in the recipient, the Work must sink its fangs in a publisher’s jugular. If it doesn’t, rewrite it or throw it away. I have four full-scale manuscripts in a drawer of my desk that didn’t make the cut. Why? They were simply not good enough. Would I have been able to sell them profitably when I knew “tricks”? Maybe. Would I have been proud of having done that? Nope.
Q: With the advent of digital books the concept of self-publishing practically exploded, with many new authors preferring to represent themselves on that front. Do you see self-publishing as being a viable alternative for authors who are having trouble getting their works out to the public?
Although being old and, moreover, old-fashioned, I understand this new generation of authors that prefers self-publishing. In author circles, there is a lot of bitterness towards the publishing industry lately. For six years on a row, book sales world-wide have dropped, and more and more authors notice that publishers still want that aura of being the gate-watchers of good taste, with the depressingly long waiting periods after submission of your book that goes along with that reputation, but, in practice don’t have that same leverage with the reader as before. Many are those who publish their work with an esteemed Publisher and seeing their book fall into the oubliettes of neglected fiction. Also, the medieval rates the publishers are offering their authors, create bad blood between the two parties. And if that is not enough, there is the astounding leveling of the market since the beginning of the 21th century.
I myself must admit that I would have had a lot more troubles getting my complex novels “out there” if I had started in let’s say 2005 instead of 1985. Self-publishing may give the book industry the new dynamic it definitely needs, but it can also “smother” the market with substandard work. I think we’ll have to wait some years to see which direction it will go, and ultimately, I suspect that the “two ways” of book publishing will co-exist.
Q: To continue with the topic of self-publishing, what advantages do you feel that you get by having a publisher behind your back? Are these benefits something that you’d be willing to forgo one day and try to publish by yourself?
I am a huge fan of editing. A good editor is worth his weight in gold (my editors reminded me constantly that they were doing “unspeakable efforts” to gain weight J). Before I submit a manuscript, I have rewritten it at least three times, but still, when I receive back the edited ms. from the publisher, even after all these years and with all this experience, I am astounded by the editing corrections that often make me cry – and I mean cry! – out loud: BUT I KNEW THAT, HOW COULD I MAKE SUCH A STUPID MISTAKE?????? A good editor in a publishing house is a priceless advantage.
And when the book is ready, another one is promotion. I’ve noticed that publishers nowadays expect from their authors more and more that they co-promote their work on social media. I understand that. The media landscape has changed so much. But understanding it is different from loving it. I comply to this rule of co-promoting, but I do it my way: I like to use the social media to promote my work with a touch of irony (in general, but also self-irony) and I noticed that this is the only way for me to keep it up. Otherwise, I would’ve turned my back to it without any doubt. Still, the promotion done by a publishing house remains the most important part of getting the attention of the public. And no, I wouldn’t be willing to forgo these benefits. This said, it is true that, lately, and only with short story collections, I have tried out the “self-publish” field. It’s not exactly self-publishing, but it resembles it. A year ago, I put my short story collection “Dangerous Obsessions” on the Babelcube platform where translators can choose your work. If they do, they translate the author’s book without asking a fee. They receive a part of the sales. When the translation is finished, the author uses the Babelcube platform for publishing the translation in e-book and/or paperback format, also without paying a penny.
So, in a way, this is self-publishing, but only of translations, and without having to pay one cent. In a year, “Dangerous Obsessions” has been published in Italian, (Brazilian)Portuguese, and Swedish. A Spanish translation is almost finished. So, you see, even though I’m a grizzled geezer of almost 65 who has been traditionally published all his life, I’m not beyond or above trying something in the self-publishing field. It is an evolution that, in my eyes, merits the benefit of the doubt, and therefore every author should perhaps try it in some way to see, feel, and experience how this new branch of publishing works and what results it brings.
Q: I believe we’ve all heard stories of publishers butchering entire books with their editing before releasing them to the public, and so comes the question: how much creative control do your publishers have over the material you write? Do you often get into disputes with them as artistic and commercial interests clash?
You know, I sometimes think that those stories of “butchering publishers” are in part urban myths. I released via publishers almost 40 books, and only one edit – 1! – irked me…Not because it was the work of a butcher, but the work of someone who was too lax: he didn’t edit enough! And, to be honest, I didn’t see it myself at that time. I was a beginner – it was my third book – and the editor had a good reputation. It was only later, when I had more experience, that I saw that he hadn’t been critical enough of my work.
But in all my, ahem, career of more than thirty years, I never had a dispute because of clashing artistic and commercial interests. Your questions make me aware of how terribly lucky I have been all my life! When this interview is over, I’m going to invite all my publishers – all still alive, thanks God – to a great banquet! We’ll wine and dine and we’ll declaim dinner poems that illustrate how much we love each other. And in the end, of course, I’ll present them the bill as a requital for all the money they have made with my work, while I had to knibble dry bread every day…
Q: What do you believe governs the decision-making process of a publisher as to whether or not they’ll take on someone’ work? Do they look at it subjectively, or simply in terms of whether or not it can make them some money?
I have to answer this one with: I don’t know. Sometimes, my publishers were drunk when they accepted my work. Sometimes, they thought they could earn some money, sometimes, they said: “You know, we’ll lose money on this one, but it’s so unique and we love you so much that we will publish it anyway.” If publishers could predict which novel will make them money and which not, a lot less books would be published. For almost entirely my writing days, I’ve heard that way too many books are being published, that the market is overloaded. Well, that’s because publishers are humans and humans cannot predict the impact that a creative work will have on the audience.
Publishing is wet-finger-work, and it is precisely that guess work that makes publishers so nervous in this day and age. We’re living in fast times: results have to come quickly. In my younger days, a publisher could allow an author to grow steadily. Now, the pressure on publishers and authors is enormous. If your first book doesn’t succeed right away, prepare for bad bad bad news…..If your 40th book fails, you can always say: “I’m retiring!”
Q: A large number of famous and classic books are known to have gone through multiple rejections before finally seeing the light of day. Why do you believe so many publishers pass up on stories that end up becoming cult classics or bestsellers?
Again, there is a degree of urban myth in that notion. Of course, famous and classic books have known multiple rejections before becoming famous and classic. But the opposite is also true: a lot of famous and classic books have been recognized by publishers right away. In the end, in all directions, I guess it’s roughly a fifty-fifty situation…
Q: Though it’s certainly a harsh blow, virtually every single author in the world has to deal with rejection from a publisher at some point or another. Have many of your works been rejected by your publisher? What advice would you give aspiring authors who are facing one rejection after the next?
As I answered before, I have had four rejections, and yes, they hurt. But they also made me see – when I had calmed down and stopped demolishing my furniture – that, indeed, big parts of the manuscript were not good enough. It’s sensible to not dump rejected manuscripts, but to keep them, and to re-read them now and then. Every time, you’ll see the good parts and the bad parts more and more clearly. And you’ll know it when the bad parts exceed the good parts. This, often pain- and shameful – exercise of re-reading rejections is a good training to become a better author.
Q: As an international author, you are always looking to have your books translated into other languages, namely English. How is the translation process handled? Who decides when it gets translated into what language and by which translator? How much of a say do you have in this whole ordeal?
Translations by professional literary translators are not easy to come by and are expensive. But in Flanders, there is a government agency, called Flanders Literature, that subsidizes Flemish novels that
- possess literary quality,
- have a theme that is internationally orientated,
- a foreign, interested publisher, and
- an accredited literary translator.
So, you have to follow quite a procedure, but when everything is okay, Flanders Literature will subsidize up till 60 per cent of the translation costs. “Baudelaire’s Revenge” and “Return to Hiroshima” are two novels of mine that have been subvented that way. The ultimate decision was not in my hands, but, as the author, I was able to pick these two titles out of my oeuvre, and my suggestion was accepted.
Q: There are some traditional complications that come with translating books, the primary one being loss of meaning. Did you find that there were any unexpected problems in having your books translated, as you did with Baudelaire’s Revenge for example?
A good translator is, in my eyes, something of a co-creator. As I have had very fine translators, I didn’t have real unexpected problems and virtually no loss of meaning. There were details, yes, but, on the whole, those were quickly remedied. “Loss of meaning” was thus, ultimately, in my case a minor problem. Style, now, that was another item. Although I carry the label of an “author of mysteries,” I put emphasis on style. The Dutch “mother versions” of “Baudelaire’s Revenge” and “Return to Hiroshima” have a certain flow, a “tune” in the sentences, and in some languages, this flow, this “personal music” of the words, is easier to reproduce than in others.
For instance, it became soon clear to me that the French translations of both novels were closer, style-wise, to the original than the English translations, while both translators did an outstanding job. It’s just that the “soul” of the French language resembles more closely my way of writing than the Anglo-saxon lyrical music. Nevertheless, in many reviews, there was praise for both the French and the English translator.
Q: You have gone through hell and back trying to publish a manuscript titled “Return to Hiroshima”. Can you share with us the story of the publishing gauntlet it has been subjected to and all the ensuing bureaucratic disputes it ignited? Have you acquired some important wisdom from your experience that you would wish to share?
To hell and back: at last recognition for all the trouble I went through! And – wink wink – with success: “Return to Hiroshima” will be published end of March by Crime Wave Press in Hong Kong. During the two years that I – and a well-known American literary agent! – tried to sell the novel in the States, it became clear by the rejections how confused and overwhelmed publishers can be nowadays. Near countless are the occasions that I received glowing rejections full of praise… One of the editors even compared me in his analysis of the book with a Noble Prize Winner (drunk? High? Both?, but the conclusion always was that the novel was too complex and too outlandish, or too noir, for the mass paperback market, and could I please write a cozy mystery for the many female readers out there? “Baudelaire’s Revenge” and “Return to Hiroshima” are stylish literary suspense novels, but they can be shocking, especially for an American audience.
The lesson I’ve learned is: American publishers tend to be over-prudent and prudish. I understand that, given the differences in American and European culture. But, in the end, I think it is not a good attitude. American publishers seem to be armed with statistics that “prove” that the biggest chunk of today’s readership is female, and they show a tendency towards thinking that women prefer the “softer” genres.
My novels are not written with cheap “shock-effects” in the back of my mind, far from it, but they relentlessly show us the recesses of our psyche where the Janus face of our lust for power and violence is hiding, created by intricate flaws in our psychological make-up. That is what makes my novels shocking, not some, yawn yawn, violence-for-violence effects, or gratuit sex scenes.
Q: What would you say was the most surprising complaint you’ve ever received from a publisher in regards to your work? Would you say they make a habit of making ridiculous or unreasonable demands?
When my debut novel “Night Game” was published in 1985, my publisher said to me: “This was a nice beginning, but with your flair for colorful suspense stories, you will have to take care that you don’t become a writer of comics for adults in the future.” He was right, and yes, he said it in a fancy restaurant and he paid the tab. I was the one that was making “ridiculous” demands: when my fourth manuscript was finished, my final editor had moved temporarily to Barcelona, and I valued his work so much that I didn’t want his edit to be send by post to me, but asked to fly to Barcelona to receive the edited manuscripts out of his hands so that we could talk about some details, which were very important to me, over a superb paëlla in the beautiful, Catalan city. It was granted… accompanied by some grumblings under-his-breath of the publisher… 🙂
Q: What advice would you give to someone trying to impress a publisher and get their very first piece of work out there? What do you wish you would have known on your first ever visit to a publisher?
Impress the publisher by the quality of your work, or else; be drunk. I was drunk on my first visit to a publisher. He thought I was funny and expected a funny manuscript. He almost got a hear-attack when he read my debut “Night Game”. But he still thought I was funny, which I found funny, because my then spouse was convinced that I was an incarnation of The Grim Reaper himself.
Q: Would you ever consider becoming a publisher yourself, whether for your own books or those of others?
Now you have nearly caused me a heart-attack. I may be slightly insane, but I’m not über-crazy, you know, or do you perhaps think so?
Q: There is a feeling that many authors see publishing houses as somewhat of a necessary evil without which they couldn’t attain the heights that they do. When it becomes a question of the future, do you see publishers retaining the strong grip they have on authors today, or will they start to see their forces sapped as more and more writers opt to represent themselves? Will there perhaps come a day when publishers are nothing but a footnote in history? Where do you stand on this issue?
Okay, it is trendy to see publishing houses as the representatives of Satan, but all these mixed feelings authors have about publishers is just a result of the intricate love/hate relationship an author and a publisher must have. You have to love and hate your publisher. Personally, I tell everyone who wants to hear it that my publisher has cheated enormously with my sales numbers, but do I really believe that? I don’t know. But I find it gives me huge waves of creative energy, and a lot of chuckling, to think that way.
And why should a publisher have such a strong grip on an author? If you’re not satisfied with your publisher, go out and find another, or indeed opt to represent yourself. I don’t think that publishers will ever become a footnote in history, but I do think that the big publishing houses – the large corporations – will tone themselves down in the future and that the fiction industry is better served by smaller publishing houses that have more flexibility in responding to technical changes and a personal relationship with their authors. The POD-craze and the success of online booksellers versus brick-and-mortar bookstores are only two examples of how smaller publishers can take advantage of new trends. Maybe, publishers will become smaller, but the publisher-with-a-true-heart-for-fiction will, in my view, never die…
Bob van Laerhoven
Bob van Laerhoven is a Flemish author whose 30+ novels have been published in Belgium, France, Canada and The Netherlands.
His 2007 novel Baudelaire’s Revenge was the winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for the best crime novel of the year.