It can be terribly frustrating, writing a book no one wants to buy.
At the same time, it can be a good indication you’re doing something right.
I wrote a book called Osama. It will be out next year – but only in a limited-edition format, from a specialist press in the UK called PS Publishing. It’s a prestigious publisher – they also publish Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, and they seem to like my stuff. But 20 other publishers have so far rejected Osama for publication.
My favourite rejection said, “What a great book! However, at my previous employer we got bomb threats in the post, and I don’t want that to repeat here, so…” “However” is the one word you don’t want to hear when you send out a book.
A lot of publishers liked the book. But no one wants to buy it.
Osama is the story of Joe, a private detective living in Vientiane, Laos, a place as far from anything as you can get. His world is… different to ours, we find out. Simpler, possibly. Joe just gets by, but then he is hired by a mysterious woman –- who asks him to find a marginal writer, Mike Longshott, the author of a series of pulp novels about one “Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante”…
To find Longshott, Joe has to leave Vientiane, travelling to Paris, London, New York and Kabul on the trail of the elusive writer, who seems to write about mass terrorist attacks, about a war no one seems to understand. And Joe gradually finds out he, too, is in the midst of a secret war, with people after him, and the border between the two worlds blurring… until he has to face who he himself really is.
I can see why publishers are uncomfortable with this book. It is not only the subject matter – the “War on Terror”, or the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – not just Longshott’s detailed, almost-clinical passages about attacks in Nairobi or Ras-al-Shaitan or the London Underground. It is not just the title, Osama, which makes grown publishers run screaming. We never see Osama bin Laden in the book. We only ever see his shadow. What I think the problem – one of the problems – publishers have is that the book takes place in a shadowy place. Is it real? It is fantasy? One editor went over the manuscript line by line, highlighting changes he would like. Everywhere the book whispers, suggests, hints, the editor wanted the book to shout. To point and say, This is what I mean!