Writers On Writing / Tiffany Tsao on the realities of the publication process

“Books that push the boundaries of what is marketable can succeed precisely because they do so.” We spoke to author, editor and translator Tiffany Tsao on the process of getting published.

What are some things you wish you had known about the publication process?

I wish I’d known that finding a publisher meant I had to do more than just write a good book. With my first novel, I was so focused on getting the manuscript finished and polished, it came as a shock when I realised that I had to write supplementary materials to convince literary agents and publishers that my book was worth taking on board. I felt more overwhelmed still when I realised that the supplementary materials were, in a very real sense, just as important as the novel manuscript itself: they had to be engaging enough to convince the literary agent or publisher to read the manuscript itself.

I also wish I’d been mentally prepared for the process of trying to get published. Writing a book is a labour of love, and you pour your whole heart into it, so it can be discouraging to receive rejections—or sometimes, no responses at all.

Nowadays, the marketability of a book and its author feels so significant in publishing. How can a writer navigate these demands whilst also staying true to their work?

I don’t think marketability and staying true to one’s work are mutually exclusive, though sometimes they’re portrayed as such. For example, I’m not sure if a writer who doesn’t stay true to their work can be marketable in the long run: if you change features of a work that you as a writer genuinely believe in and think are important, it will affect your ability to be passionate about your writing, and thus, whether writing will be enjoyable or sustainable for you over time. And that will inevitably affect your marketability—if you, as the writer of your stories, don’t believe in your stories anymore. Will you even want to write if you don’t believe in your own work? If you’ve compromised what is important to you?

I also think that trying to guess what is “marketable” may not be a sound strategy because books that push the boundaries of what is marketable can succeed precisely because they do so! For example, I’ve heard publishers say that the success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (My Brilliant Friend, etc.) in the English-speaking market was completely unprecedented because they thought its subject matter wouldn’t be appealing to a non-Italian audience. The same with Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, which diverged immensely from the narratives about Asians that were more widespread up to that point—that is, Asians migrating to Western countries from their poorer, political unstable countries.

In short, the success of these authors came from their ability to provide a breath of fresh air rather than conform to existing expectations of what would sell well. 


Tiffany Tsao is the author of three novels: The Oddfits, The More Known World, and most recently, Under Your Wings, which was longlisted for the 2019 Ned Kelly Award and released in the US and UK as The Majesties. In addition to being a writer, she is a literary translator and editor. Her translated works include the poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, and Paper Boats by Dee Lestari. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from UC-Berkeley.

Join Tiffany Tsao for her online course Preparing for Publication, Wednesday 20 to Tuesday 26 March 2024, online.

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