For aspiring authors, the world of publishing has never seemed so daunting. The replacement of small, approachable "gentlemen" publishers by faceless conglomerates with no time to read unsolicited manuscripts has closed one door, while the retreat of independent high street bookshops in the face of an onslaught from centrally stocked chains militates against local authors emerging by finding a sympathetic bookshop manager. The gulf between the chosen few who are published, and the rest who labour away out of hours at their computer screens and dream, is apparently growing ever wider.
But then along comes a fairy tale. Clare Morrall, a 51-year-old music teacher from Birmingham who spent 20 years having her novels rejected by agents and publishers, was this year triumphantly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Published by a small press, Astonishing Splashes of Colour was lined up alongside the venerable Margaret Atwood, the new industry darling Monica Ali, and the well-placed media insider Zoe Heller. The novel started getting widespread and favourable reviews and few commentators failed to be touched and pleased by Morrall's sudden rise to fame. Morrall, the woman at the centre of this media storm, has four previous rejected novels in a cupboard at home (alongside two by her two daughters). "I always tried to send one manuscript out while getting on with the next one," she said, "so that I was enjoying writing that when the other was rejected." Her self-belief is inspirational. But she is not alone in getting the better of the system. Nine years ago the Booker shortlist featured Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels. She was an established writer, but publishers were not prepared to back her instinct to write a religious allegory, so Paton Walsh published it herself and was vindicated by that Booker nomination.
Now unsung scribblers have another candidate for patron saint. Matthew Reilly's new novel, Scarecrow, out this month, will confirm his status as a million-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in his native Australia. Yet, as the cherubic 29-year-old thriller writer recalled on a visit to London last week, his career was almost over before it began.
"In my final year at high school, I thought I'd write a screenplay. I'd always loved movies. I used to build miniature movie sets with Star Wars figures. Then I'd film them. I didn't have a camera. I'd just hold a box. So the screenplay was going to be my 18-year-old way of getting into movies, but I got stuck at page 40." Reilly, it is quickly apparent, is a pragmatic rather than a driven, tormented writer. "So I turned to books. So I mapped out the whole story of what became my novel Contest and set off. And very quickly I found that I much preferred the format of the novel."
When it was finished, he did what any sensible 18-year-old would do and showed it to his mum, a high school maths teacher. She told him to rework the first 30 pages. "It's amazing how many first time authors stumble in those first chapters before finding their feet later," he says. "Look at J K Rowling. The start of the first Harry Potter book is all over the place." Criticising Rowling is a risky business, but Reilly is not easily intimidated.
He sent his manuscript to the major publishers in Sydney. They all said no. "One sent me a photocopied rejection slip. Most of the others clearly hadn't even opened the manuscript. The one agent I sent it to lost their copy." At which stage most of us would have given up. Not Matthew Reilly. "Never underestimate the power of being young and naive. If you don't think failure is an option, success can just follow. Mine was a very Forrest Gumpian view of the world." He decided to self-publish - not as vanity or to make money, but, as he puts it, "to get noticed". With a loan from bank and a glossy blockbuster cover cribbed from others in the genre, he set off round the bookstores.
"I put a K on the spine - for Karanadon Entertainment, named after one of the characters. What I'd noticed about self-published books is that they don't have logos." He holds up a copy of Scarecrow and puts his finger over the publisher's logo on the spine to demonstrate. "See, it looks weird. People use visual clues to detect what is a real book and what is not."
Selling yourself was not, he freely admits, much fun. "When people know you have written a book, their first question is always 'who are the publishers?'. When you say 'I've published it myself', every single person says 'oooooh'. You can see them thinking: 'He must really suck. If he was any good he would have got a publisher.' It was a soul-destroying, borderline humiliating experience."
He was placing small quantities here and there, but what he really wanted was to be stocked in the bookshops in the area of downtown Sydney where the major publishers had their offices. "One manager-buyer at the Angus and Robertson chain store was a gruff guy but he liked the jacket so he took a few and asked one of his juniors to read it. He liked it. So when they'd all sold, I went in and asked 'what would it take to get in the front window?' 'About 150 copies,' they told me. So the next day I brought in 150. They put up a window display and my plan worked. Cate Paterson, an editor at Pan Macmillan came in, saw Contest on display, bought a copy, liked it and rang the number on the jacket which was my parents' house."
Two million copies later, Reilly not only has his own telephone line but is busy being courted by Hollywood. His teenage dream has come true, but would he do it the same way again? "I'm not sure if I'd do it at all. I know a lot more about the world and the potential for failure. Back then the idea of failure did not occur to me. If I had my time again, I would hassle agents more. The agents are the entrée into the publishers. If the agent sends a manuscript to a publisher, it gets read."
But how do you get an agent to read your book? "You badger and badger. You go to writers' festivals where there are perfect opportunities to corner them. They've no way of escaping."
In case the prospect of doing a Matthew Reilly sounds too daunting, budding authors might like to take note of the increasing number of well-established names who are opting for self-publishing. Susan Hill, who has topped the best-sellers' lists in her time, has been a pioneer in this field. Her example is currently inspiring the award-winning dramatist, Snoo Wilson. He has had three previous novels published by big imprints, but could find no takers for his latest outing, a fictionalised version of the life of Robert Maxwell entitled The Works of Melmont. "The publishers came back with comments like 'it's wonderful but too weird for us', or 'I don't know how it would fit in with the rest of our list.' It's not that these young, bright people at publishing houses don't love books. It's just that they are all looking for the next macro-seller and so the mid-list today survives if at all by neglect."
Not prepared to give the book up as a bad job, Wilson has set up Barkus Books to publish it by Christmas. "Of course there is a part of me that sees self-publishing as an admission of failure, but then Harry Potter got turned down by lots of publishers. And advances in technology today have made it so easy to organise producing a book. What misgivings I have are mainly about trying to get it into the bookshops, but that's the next hurdle for me."
If he needs something to give him courage, he might like to picture Matthew Reilly as I left him. The young Australian who got used to being kept waiting for hours at the counter of small bookshops in the hope of grabbing just a minute of the manager's time to tell him about Contract is now the fêted author who is being collected by a chauffeur-driven car from his hotel and whisked off to a fancy lunch with the head honchos at Waterstone's. It could, as the National Lottery never fails to remind us, happen to you.
'Scarecrow' by Matthew Reilly is published by Macmillan (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p per order), contact Independent Books Direct on 0870 800 1122Reuse content