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Four Questions for Amit Gilboa

Amit Gilboa

Amit Gilboa was born in Israel, grew up in the US, and is based in Bangkok. Working as a writer has taken him to such freaky and exotic locations as Phnom Penh, Saigon, Koh Kong, Koh Lipe, San Francisco, and LA. He is most famous (or infamous) for his 1998 book, Off the Rails in Phnom Penh, which explores the sex, drugs and violence of contemporary Phnom Penh. You can visit him at

1. What suggestions do you have for today's authors, in terms of understanding the book market and writing for a wider audience?

Have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish. Do you want to end up with a deep exploration of your inner being or a bestselling action novel? Both are valid, and both are worthwhile. But people probably won't want to read the first one. I definitely encourage everyone to write poetry or reflective writing to represent the depths of their souls, because I think that doing so is a terrific, empowering experience. But they shouldn't expect other people to line up at bookstores to read it. If you're writing for yourself, then go ahead and write for yourself. But if you are writing with the distinct goal of selling books, then it is important to temper one's art with the question of "Am I pretty sure that other people will enjoy reading this as much I enjoy writing it?"

2. At what point do you stop taking suggestions and juggling critique? When do you know you've got the finished product, and it's your best effort?

The first draft of my book was horrendous. Abominable. Utterly worthless. I am so fortunate that I sent this draft to a friend of mine who had the courage to tell me exactly how he felt. Sure, it was harsh to read his review, especially since he didn't try to couch his opinions. But I am forever grateful to him because he gave me the opportunity to completely revise the work and come out with a book that has done quite well. Bottom line: Find people whose opinions you trust and listen to them.

That said, you need to have the confidence to reject people's advice as well. Everyone has different tastes, and no book can be loved by absolutely everybody. The key is to find people who should love your book, and then see if they do. In the end, however, the book is your book and incorporating advice that you don't really agree with is probably just going to dilute its potency — like artistic creation through market research. Accepting and rejecting critiques is a delicate and difficult balance. The simplest rule of thumb to follow is this: Whether you end up accepting or rejecting it, give every critique careful consideration. You should be able to articulate to others and to yourself exactly why you accepted or rejected a piece of constructive criticism.

3. If you believe in your book and you feel there's a market for it — yet the publishers don't — what are your options?

Lots of great stuff goes unpublished. Lots of crap gets published. Talent is certainly important, but I would say that luck is even more so. Getting rejected does not necessarily mean that you are a bad writer. Every aspiring writer should familiarise himself or herself with the list of great books that received numerous rejections: Catch-22 (21 rejections), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (126 rejections), etc. The key is to keep perspective.

On the other hand, the truth is that many of the books that are rejected are rejected for "valid" (I chose not to use the word "good") reasons. Basically, the editor does not believe the book will make money for the publisher. In my quest to find a publisher, I received several letters which essentially said, "I like this book a lot, but it's not commercial enough." Fair enough. The publishing company is a business, and why should they pour a whole lot of money into a book that they are fairly certain will not sell? Of course they may be wrong, but then again, they may be very correct.

Research and persistence are important. Somewhere out there is a publisher or agent who is right for your writing. Find them. I wrote my book with an American publisher in mind, and kept getting rejection letters. I was fortunate enough to be in Thailand when I was getting these letters and so — why not? — I dropped the manuscript off at a Thai publishing house. I am very happy to say that two years later, the book is going into its sixth printing. It is crucial to "think outside the box" and explore every avenue of getting published. If I had just relied on Random House for getting published, I'd still be sitting on a manuscript.

4. Rejection is a reality for every writer, but how do you persevere in the face of it?

It's a tough business. Every aspiring writer is met with indifference and rejections from publishers and agents. And then once the book is published, that indifference continues, only this time from magazines who don't run reviews of it and bookstores who can't be bothered to carry it.

By most people's account, I am a successful author; "world famous in Southeast Asia" is the cheeky way I put it. But I still get rejections, negative feedback still stings, and I am still far from my dream of retiring wealthy. My publisher is too small to cram the book down the throats of Barnes and Noble, and for every person on this planet who has read, or even heard of my book, there are millions who haven't.

And all this can be yours. Sure, one of us may be the next John Grisham or J. K. Rowling. But the odds really are against it.

But none of this is in any way meant to discourage you. It's like the action-movie commando briefing his squad with: "This is a dangerous mission, and many of us won't come back alive." He's not trying to discourage them, but prepare them for the tough fight ahead. You probably have a tough fight ahead. As long as you realise that, as long as you are prepared to deal with it, then... go for it!