Publish and Perish – the Birth of a Book part 1

My new book is coming out shortly and in the meantime here are my entertaining experiences of publishing In Restoration a few years ago.

My brain-child is born and has already departed. Bereft. What will happen? Inevitably thoughts return to the elder sibling and its tortuous path. After years of writing and rewriting and revision after revision, I followed the usual advice: send the first three chapters, synopsis, brief covering letter, and wait. Expect to wait three months for any response.

Agitated self-doubt and questioning follow. Should one only send one submission at a time, in case all publishers and literary agents are in cahoots? Or, to keep to the magic number, send to three at a time to speed up the process and, months later, the sound of large white envelopes with my recognisable address sticker landing on the floor, sometimes with part of the letter-box.

Between sending and rejection lies an uncomfortable time. Statistics tell you that the chance of your full manuscript even being requested is slim indeed. That J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter was refused. The Italian poet Giorgio Bassani, author of the coming-of-age novel and film, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, picked Lampedusa’s great novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) out of the slush pile and convinced Feltrinelli to publish it. The rest is history. I recall reading it in Italy, and the delight in the film version – those curtains billowing in a rare breeze in a sultry Sicilian summer, then Burt Lancaster, unforgettable as the philosophical southern Italian nobleman, Alain Delon, his nephew, and Claudia Cardinale, the mayor’s daughter in an impoverished Sicilian township, a former peasant. This was to be, for southern Italy, the equivalent nation-building masterpiece that Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi was for the north.

A good year later, after numerous returned first chapters, two neat letters came in simple foolscap envelopes requesting – the FULL MANUSCRIPT.

Eureka?

A few of the white envelopes with the three chapters were returned within a month. As they trickled back, each month I sent another three envelopes out to agents or publishers on my list of 33. That was when, I told myself, I would give up. I was able to recycle the scripts; this saved time but did little for my self-esteem. Most came back accompanied by a formulaic letter that varied little in sentiment: good material, sensitive approach but not what we publish, outside our range, too long, too short, too…. or we regret we have a backlog to publish, we do not accept any more unsolicited manuscripts, approaches… I became sick at the sight of another white envelope with my own address label stuck on it.

I didn’t like to think about what I was spending on postage, envelopes, ink and paper and took perverse pleasure in all the recycling I could do when, almost at the end of my tether after my 29th envelope returned, I flipped a white foolscap envelope to the side of my desk for a day or two before opening it. In it was a brief request.

‘We would like to see your full manuscript.’

A few days later a second letter came with the same request.

Ink flowed and the printer jabbered away; sheets were carefully tapped into chapters and the two full manuscripts carried in trepidation to the Post Office.

The swiftest reply was the least satisfactory. ‘We would like to publish your novel but under another imprint. Strange. Then, slowly, I realised that their second imprint was for works paid for by the author. The other, more encouragingly, said that my novel would be assessed by one of their readers.

His appraisal was sent to me. It was sensitive, intelligent and recommended acceptance. A few days later I was clearing out the cellar when a phone call came from the head editor:
‘Welcome to our community of writers,’ said her friendly voice. The cloth dropped out of my hands. I could hardly contain the rush of sheer joy. My novel has been accepted! ‘You’ll be hearing from us.’
And I did.

Treasure the euphoria but wait for the contract. Mine came with an apologetic letter which echoed the publisher whose offer I had rejected. Publishing constraints and costs meant that new writers would be asked to contribute to the costs incurred by the publisher, but the book’s sales should cover this and so on. That was mathematically correct – if all the 2500 copies were sold. There were promises of ‘contacts in all areas to place reviews’ and ‘extensive marketing online’ and ‘contact with all book-selling outlets in the UK’. The price upfront would cover proofreading, cover design, printing, book blurb, reviews, A3 posters and A5 flyers as well as 10 free review copies. All this seemed reasonable, but I was still in shock.

I learn wisdom slowly. Did I spend time looking at the other titles published by this company? I should have done. Books can be judged by the company they keep. Instead, I spent this valuable time working out what options lay before me. An endless path to nowhere spending time and money sending out the three chapters and covering letter to arrive at a high brick wall?

Not one publisher or agent left untried, and my bank account overdrawn.

So I paid in ten instalments and work started. The cover was designed, and the result had no connection with the story. It looked like one for a children’s book, so I provided my own. The blurb on the back switched the names of a child killed and his father, though a list of the key people involved was provided. The review to be sent out was lamentable – had they read the book? No they hadn’t, Cheryl my minder told me. Someone had, and provided a synopsis of the plot. Who? She didn’t know. They just had the synopsis to work from. The results were formulaic and incorrect.

‘We have found such reviews/blurbs/covers work well,’ was her prompt response to every query.

The proofreader only queried two points of punctuation and the use of the word ‘palimpsest’. I wish I had an editor, critical in every sense. ‘We expect our authors to do their own editing.’ So that was that.

My book was finally published. I was quite satisfied with the way it looked and the page layout. Now for the promised promotion and marketing. The Press Release was sent to hundreds of bookshops and outlets in my area, Yorkshire, and the Review was sent to editors of all local newspapers in my area. I was sent the list when I asked. Result? Zero.

I asked Cheryl what my publisher had done about arranging launches. By then Rebecca had replaced Cheryl with similar rapid email responses,

‘In our experience,’ she said, ‘the author is the best person to publicise the book and contact the local papers and radio station’.

‘What does the publisher do?’

‘We’ll send posters, flyers and the copies when you tell me what you have arranged, when and where.’

The format for the posters was the book cover in faint print, with a smaller full-colour illustration of the cover beside the title, a sentence about the book and, in a triangle on the bottom right-hand side, the offer of a 10% discount if ordered through the publisher! Its name and website was there for all to copy. Just the sort of poster a bookshop would be happy to display?

‘Put it in your front window,’ Rebecca suggested, ‘or the back window of your car’.

So much for the promised ’Promotion and Marketing’ on the website and contract, or the publisher’s vaunted contacts.

No choice but to go ahead and try to arrange a launch on my own. I had a contact at Scarborough, so would try there first. Waterstone’s obliged, though I wasn’t impressed by the way the poster I supplied, with the corner offer blocked out, was hardly noticeable on a side wall.

I admit we arrived a bit late because we don’t know Scarborough well and couldn’t find a parking place. My novel was piled strategically on a table where shoppers would see it. I chatted to my husband. Not much happened. A couple of friends came in and two of them bought books. There seemed to be a commotion outside. John went out to see, leaving me to guard the books. He returned to say that a fire engine was right outside the shop and ladders were being hoisted to the top of the Victorian building. A seagull was skewered on an iron shaft put there precisely to prevent gulls perching and shitting on the buildings! A crowd had gathered to witness a brave firefighter rescuing an impaled seagull who should never have been there anyway.

Thus ended my first attempt at a book launch.

 

My latest book, Mastering The Sun, is available from Amazon…