On making the most…of a ghost. Heartfelt thoughts on ghosting in publishing & ideas for helping each other

There is something I have wanted to write about for a while now: here it is. I am going to discuss ghosting, what it is in the context of trying to get your work published – and also in the context of staying published. Nothing here is about blame, but about what we could do to help one another.

Every week, there are a lot of messages in my inbox. I do not know if this is the same for other writers after a book or two, but that’s how it is for me. My fifth and sixth books are out in the next few months and, while some would say I am prolific (I have not been doing this very long), I retain a very modest profile bearing in mind how much I have published. I try to use it, however modest it is, or remains. The industry is a tough old nut, but you see I love the writing and I have made so many pals and that’s why I am still here. Also, I decided, after one book, that in writing, as in the rest of my life, my modus operandi would be to look after other people if they needed me. Partly because, with a complex background, I know the long-term effects of not being looked after and partly because it is clear that writing a book is a dream for many people; for some – those who are disenfranchised and face barriers for whatever reason and sometimes for a multiplicity of reasons – it may be the place where they feel their voice will be heard.

The book is important, vital: a dream; a voice.

So what do the most upset of the messages say to me? That they don’t know what to do. Yes, rejection is difficult but as I have said repeatedly, it is absolutely part of the writing process. Rejection comes with the territory. Failure (argue with the term, but bear with the way I use it here for me) is central to creative endeavour. Most things you do will fail. I say this quite cheerily and accept it as part of my own adventure too.

There is something worse. Ghosting.

When you never hear back from a query as you start out. NOT from those who say quite clearly that if you have not heard back from us in three months, six months, or whatever, that is a no, but from those who don’t say that. From those who promise they will read things, or give no indication that they will not. This is about agents, but also about those publishers – independents of whatever size – who accept manuscripts without an agent. This is about when a reply is anticipated. So, first of all, I truly think it would be helpful if it were industry standard that everyone gave a fairly accurate figure of reply time…and after that it is a no…on their submissions/query details. There may be good reasons why this cannot happen and I could be wrong, but based on conversations and messages I have had and data shared with me, it seems that between 50 and 90% of queries will not elicit a reply, frequently after chasing.

That’s tough and, because this is not about blame but about looking after everyone, it suggests to me that rethinking might happen somewhere about what is possible and plausible and, frankly, whether everyone is okay. Because you see my dms are not only full of writers but of others in the industry who need an ear, too; the ear of this ridiculous self-styled Mother Bear. Of course I am talking about mental health and how people are feeling and coping.

My personal ghost rate with first and second books is about 50%.

The ghosting still has notches to go up, though. Here’s the next notch. A particularly difficult situation is when you have no reply after a request for a full. This will always be ghastly, it has happened to me twice, and it is awful when it happens to a new writer who is understandably really excited to receive a request for a full. We need to remember that a new writer may be the person I mentioned above – trying to push through barriers and challenges; trying to be heard – and may have been querying their manuscript for years. Again, my thought would be that there is a statement somewhere about response time for fulls. Could this work? Something which says that if you have not heard back from me/us three months after we received your full manuscript, please assume this is a no. As I said, this is not about blame, but about seeing what we might implement. If people are really too busy to read what is sent to them and it is just not possible, can something be implemented there? Something to do with submissions periods and volume. I just don’t know, so please understand that I am throwing this out and posing questions. I am a writer. A writer who talks to writers.

But we are not done. After two rounds involving ghosts, it may be that your book goes out on agency submission and does not get read. This also happens and it is hard on everyone, because people will have worked on this manuscript together and to the best of their ability. I always emphasise that we must look after each other and this final round can be brutal. Do I have experience of this? Of course. So do lots of people. My question is, what can we do about it? I would also like to mention the document linked below – readily obtainable from The Society of Authors – which is about professional conduct. Why? Because I also know of people who have been ghosted by their own publishers; that is, where a first book has been published, the contracted second book has been offered but not read or a period of some years elapses before it is read and this can do terrible things to someone’s self-esteem or motivation. In some cases, I would argue that it is an abuse of power – and that power balance is one element of the industry commitment document here. What do you think? I am sure this is a rare thing, but I have mopped up tears and I will do it again in a heartbeat.

https://www.societyofauthors.org/SOA/MediaLibrary/SOAWebsite/SOA/Industry-Commitment_FINAL.pdf

So, I am a writer and while I am throwing these issues out there, I want to suggest some things that we do to look after ourselves and one another.

  1. I feel a bit sad saying this, but sending work into a void is eviscerating. It is not, from what I am able to see, something which happens most of the time but it goes on a lot. So my first point is that writers, at all stages, need to be prepared, at the present time at least, to be ghosted as well as rejected. Truly, it is best if it doesn’t come as a total shock. That’s partly the point of this blog post. There is a problem. As we strive to fix it, best also to be forewarned. Hopefully it won’t happen though! It’s just, if it does, I want you to know you are not alone.
  2. Following on from that last sentence, do not suffer in silence. Talk about it. Cultivate a little tribe, in person or online (or both) if you can; a group of folk who are involved in some way in the industry. Isolation breeds bad feeling and depression when you are nursing a problem. I go back to what I said about dreams and having a voice. If you need guidance or ideas about forming that little tribe, please do message me. I know it can be tricky and that you might feel shy or intimidated. I really do.
  3. If you are ghosted and feeling ghastly, scream and shout, but be working on something else and keep – I know it is hard – sending things out if you feel strong enough. Most of all, though, keep writing. This might be a good time to try some different writing – different genre or form; different markets or routes to explore, too. Importantly, don’t let bad experience put you off the actual writing. You love the writing. It is a joy. Okay, a tangled, messy joy, but nonetheless, isn’t it a beauty? Reading, too. Keep reading: solace, excitement, new worlds, ideas, ways of seeing.
  4. Stay off social media if you need to. Remember that you are only seeing some of the book news, but that’s not much help when you are bruised. It’s helpful, nonetheless, to put a limit on what you look at. Remember that the ghosting is also not personal. Actually, even if it were, you cannot legislate for everyone’s reactions to you because human beings are strange and complex things! Best to understand that there are some people in any industry who behave badly. I’ve met some absolute bangers in staffrooms, too! It’s better to be you, my darling. Generally, though, move past any thoughts of it being you and see the issue as systemic; that can take a little sting out of it.
  5. Finally, yes I have been hurt by ghosting too. It is good to find the positive and take it forward. What’s the positive? That you use your experience of something upsetting as knowledge with which to forewarn or arm someone else and can keep an eye out for those who are struggling. That’s partly what this blog post is about. Love and strength and let’s ALL make this better, Anna x

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