The ‘Unbound’ contract is signed, so what now?

How did this happen, and now that it has, am I up to it?

I started to write relatively late in life: going on a course on ‘How to Write a Novel’ was my 60th birthday present to myself. Four years later I published my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ and four more have followed since then, one each year since 2012. I tried half-heartedly to find an agent or an independent publisher, failed and gave up. Being self-employed for 25 years provided a degree of self-reliance that was useful in the decision to self-publish, and to do so I well as I could, investing my own hard-earned savings where necessary. I did, and it worked, My books have sold thousands of copies, but most of the sales have been within fifty miles of where I live. They’re all set in Cumbria, and this is obviously very attractive both to locals and visitors, but the stories themselves transcend the setting: it’s the people who matter, what they do, how they feel, how they relate to each other and the lives they lead.

Knowing that the stories are wider than the setting, the promotion and distribution problems that all self-published writers face have been frustrating. With few exceptions, the prejudice against self-published books has been obvious: no reviews, no access to mainstream competitions, insufficient ‘celebrity/literary profile’ for acceptance as a speaker at the book festivals, scant regard from buyers for the major booksellers. Fortunately, I enjoy and am good at talking about my work, and do so regularly at libraries, local writers’ groups, and for Women’s Institutes and other organisations. As a result direct sales of my books are a large part of the overall total. The writer in me gets great satisfaction from readers’ appreciation of what I do, but the entrepreneur in me has been frustrated by the book world’s assumption that self-published novels are ‘ipso facto’ second-rate.

In the end, after all my planning, the invitation to move into a wider publishing world came by accident. At the end of one of my library talks a man introduced himself and told me about his daughter who works for a London-based publisher called Unbound. I listened, but people often tell me that they have contacts in the publishing world and almost invariably it comes to nothing. A week later, however, an email arrived from the daughter, a Commissioning Editor with Unbound, who’d been regaled by her parents about my books – which they love – and my talk. We met, we talked, we negotiated, and less than two months later the deal is done: I will publish my next book in 2018 through ‘Unbound’. With a working title of ‘Burning Secret’, it will be a family/police/crime story set in Cumbria in 2001 at the height of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. Next time I’ll explain in detail the stages of writing and publication over the next year or two. For the time being, check on Unbound, and look at ‘How it Works’. In a couple of weeks my project will go live on the Unbound website, video, pitch, pledges, the works. I’ll post regularly about the process here and through the Unbound website. If you want to share the journey, I’d be delighted.

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Here’s to the Society of Authors

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I love the Society of Authors, for all sorts of reasons. For a start, they let me join, which for an independently published author is a real bonus, as most of the writers’ groups won’t let me join regardless of how many real, well-produced and well-written novels I sell. Second, they provide a source of professional information for any writing or publishing query I might have. Third, they organise useful events, and are trying hard to spread these beyond the capital. Fourth, the monthly journal ‘The Author’ always provides ideas, questions and provocations to make me think about both writing and publishing and keeps me in touch with the inside of the book world that is still relatively unfamiliar turf for me.

This month’s edition of ‘The Author’ contains an article by Louise Doughty entitled ‘The Horror of Being Published’. I have tried without success to get ‘traditionally’ published, which was the form Louise was referring to, but reading the piece rang bells for me, even though my form of publication is on a much smaller scale than hers. Almost all writers, except the handful of global names, have to jostle for shelf space with others and are routinely rejected by people browsing for a book to read. When you’ve spent a year with nothing else on your mind except the research, writing and production of a book it’s hard to realise that this effort may be of no interest to others.

Louise is a highly respected writer, who chairs book prize panels: I’m just a humble supplicant in those very few competitions for long form fiction that permit independently-published entries. One of the few is a local Cumbria-based competition of long standing. Every year I send off the required four copies of my previous year’s publication, and every year until now they have received no mention whatsoever. Fair enough, maybe they’re just no good, although their sales and my readers seem to indicate otherwise. This year my novel ‘Cruel Tide’ was ‘shortlisted’. It got a favourable mention from one of the three judges, but as I collected my ‘certificate’ the Chair of the panel told me with a smile that he and the third judge on the panel ‘don’t like novels’. I’d suspected so, but was surprised to hear him say it. Hey ho. It’s my choice whether to bother entering next year.

‘Just keep writing’ says my partner. And I will.

Incidentally, Louise Doughty was one of the first tutors I encountered when I decided at 60 that I wanted to write fiction. She was a very accomplished teacher and I’m grateful for everything I learned from her and Tobias Hill on that Arvon course in 2008.

 

 

 

 

Why do we crave recognition?

For the third time this spring I sent off four copies of my latest book to enter a local literary competition. The first time, three years ago, I was quite sure that the quality of the work, its local roots, deathless prose and professional publication values would shine forth and guarantee at least a place on the shortlist. When it wasn’t on the shortlist, I actually wept. The following year, with another book out, I tried again, but by now I was a little more realistic about how things work and my expectations were lower. Just as well, as there was no mention on the shortlist. This year, my hopes were higher again, as the subject of the book happened to be of interest to one of the judges and I thought this might make a difference. Wrong again. When the shortlist was emailed to me last week, I scoured it again, and again in vain. Disappointment, yes, I admit it, but not as acute as before, and quickly overcome as I settled to polishing the new book. Will I enter this book for the same competition next year? Probably not. Patience is not my strong suit and after a string of rejections I tend to think, ‘Sod it,’ and move on. It was the same when I was looking for an agent, some years ago. Initial high hopes, born of ignorance about how things actually work, were quickly dashed, and after a dozen or so rejection letters I decided to go it alone. I’ve enjoyed doing so, and sales have been remarkably good in both paperback and electronic formats, but I would still have relished the buzz of feeling that someone out there in the book business thought highly enough of my work to offer to represent it and me.

On a day to day basis as I tour the readers’ groups and WIs of West Cumbria I get wonderfully positive feedback from people who read the books and love them, and I know I should be content with that. But, but, I would still love someone who knows about books to tell me that mine are worthwhile, and why they think so. ‘Get over it, Ruth’ I say to myself. Get on with what matters and stop fretting about being ignored. I do, and I have. The second draft of the new book is coming on splendidly, sharper, clearer than before as any second draft should be, and the feedback from my Editor was more positive than any of the others, and she knows about books. But she’s also a friend, so does that count?

Even four years into the self-publishing business, I’m still irritated by the assumption that anything self-published is of poor quality. I joined the Society of Authors partly because they take account of an author’s sales, to distinguish serious self-publishers from others, and membership of the SoA, alongside writers like Philip Pullman whom I revere, means a great deal to me. But I’m still looking, unsuccessfully so far, for someone to review my books and provide one of those pithy quotes you find on book covers, the ones that make you feel it must be worth reading. 

I accept that the need for recognition is linked to ego, and to a competitive urge to prove something to oneself and to others. I still think it’s OK to blow your own trumpet a little if there’s a reason to do so, but I can’t stomach some of the excessive self-promotion that others seem to pursue. And it’s obviously not enough for me to get great feedback from my friends, or my readers. I don’t want a Booker prize, but it would be so comforting to have someone whose work I respect tell me that they’ve read my trilogy and value it, for whatever reasons. While I wait for that I shall ‘bash on rewardless’ and put the pursuit of recognition back in its box, out of sight, and not let it distract me.