Twenty seven publishers in the U.S. and U.K. turned down my novel. The vast majority of rejections my literary agent received were surprisingly positive, but were knock-backs all the same. Most liked -- even loved -- my novel. As one publisher said: "We've thought about The Life of a Banana for ages, but just can't quite summon the courage to commit to it."
Was it really a lack of courage?
You see, my book did not fit neatly into the "genre" of many Asian books on the market. There were no other mainstream British-born Chinese novelists to benchmark against. Taking on my book would mean stepping into the unknown.
Authors with unconventional voices and ethnic minority authors are clustered together in unofficial genres of "Too Different," "Too Risky," "Black" "Asian" or "Hispanic" literature. In articles and reviews, many ethnic minority authors are often compared to authors of the same race. They are likened to Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan and Toni Morrison but hardly mentioned in the same breath as Hilary Mantel, John Green or Jim Crace.
An editor who read my novel said it was a "shame" they could not take on my novel. They had another Asian author on their books and feared there would be an "overlap." My novel was very different in style and content from the other author, but I was not in a position to argue.
I've heard similar, sad stories from Afro-Caribbean and Indian authors who are turned away because there is not enough "room" for more than one Afro-Caribbean/ Chinese/Indian author. It would unthinkable for an editor to say: "I'm sorry Stephen King, we can't take on your novel because we already have J K Rowling. I know that she writes about wizards and you write about scary things. But her novels have scary parts too, so there may be some overlap (i.e. she is Caucasian too)." Yet, it happens for ethnic minority writers all the time.
Just like thousands of unconventional or ethnic minority writers, I wanted to write a novel that was true to my heart -- a gritty, dark and funny book that told a hard-hitting story. The Life of a Banana tackles racial bullying, mental illness and the hidden lives of British Chinese people living in London.
I did not want to sugar coat the story or write to satisfy the masses. I refused to follow the trend of books by Asian authors that western publishers love to print. I covered this in my article.
If you step outside the umbrella of what the publishing industry deems as "typical" writing for your ethnicity, you will struggle to find a publisher. If your book is "genre-breaking" you could be touted as "genre-less." A "genre-less" book could be so innovative it could either make a publisher millions or lose them thousands. It is a risk that many publishers refuse to take.
But that does not mean you should give up!
I implore you to not allow the setbacks end your writing career. Your novel could be the one that opens the door for young authors after you. It could be THE book or one of the books that helps overturn the small mindedness of many risk-adverse editors. All you need is one editor willing to step out of the boat and swim in the sea of sharks with you. The good news is that fearless, open-minded editors who understand and love your book do exist.
They are very rare but please trust me -- they do exist.
From the first moment I met my editor, she really "got" my novel. She has been voraciously championing it ever since. She put aside any stereotypical preconceptions about what Chinese authors should write about and opened up to see the world through someone else's eyes. Editors like her give hope for new, fresh stories to shine.
Yann Martel, Paulo Coelho, Alex Haley and Marina Lewycka were rejected multiple times for being too "different." These authors ended up selling millions upon millions of books between them, while winning some prizes along the way. In their own way, each of these authors made the publishing industry sit up and take notice.
Your "different" novel could be the one to fracture the stereotypes of what constitutes as "Too Different," "Black," "Chinese" or "Indian" literature. Keep applying and persist until there are no publishers left out there. Apply not just to publishers in the USA but all over the world. Be prepared for the mountain of rejection letters but know that if your writing is good enough, it will find a home. Do not turn your nose up at small publishers because you could be the author to put them on the map. What matters most is having a team or even one or two people who believe in your book and your journey.
So, never give up! As the late Maya Angelou said: "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude."
Keep writing and keep going! If this shy, British-born Chinese underdog can find a brilliant literary agent and a great publisher, so can you.