Thursday, 3 May 2012

Writing and waiting


Waiting…the worst part of a writer’s life. It’s been a month now since I sent a revised draft of my novella The Lavender Field to my literary agents, and so far not a word. Not that there’s anything unusual in that – “sooner rather than later” in publishing terms can mean months rather than weeks.

Over the years I’ve come to accept the slow pace though I have to admit that I’ve never been very good at waiting, in any context. When I worked for a national newspaper, sooner rather than later meant “in the next ten minutes, or else”, and I actually feel more comfortable with that. You know where you are with a news editor screaming at you, speed-reading your story and chucking it at a hapless sub-editor. Job done, speedy exit to the pub.

Waiting on reactions to the manuscript of a book requires not only a different timescale but a different mindset altogether, not least because there is so much more emotional investment in a book. I learned this – really learned this - some years ago with a novel I wrote called The Art of Falling.

The road to publication involved five years of waiting. The reason I’m writing this post now is because back then I would have given anything to know just how long it was going to take. How long was reasonable? How long was distinctly discouraging? How long was a disaster, from which there would be no recovery?

I longed to be able to ask someone. Even though I was already a published author (The Art of Falling was my fourth novel; it was a change of direction for me into more literary territory from my first journalistic-commercial efforts) there weren’t too many people I knew in the business I felt I could ask. My then-literary agent wasn’t convinced about this new novel. My personal approaches to my existing publishers were blanked. I hadn’t seen this coming at all, and I was both shocked and hurt.

At the time I had no idea this was a fairly common story for mid-list authors who’d been given a chance by a mainstream publisher but failed to sell well enough to light up the bestseller charts. Although we had the internet (on dial-up which took forever to load pages) there didn’t seem to be the contact and online discussion opportunities there are now with other writers.

So, for the benefit of anyone whose wait is giving way to despair, here’s what happened. I finished the first draft of the manuscript in early summer 2000. Bad news confirmed by September. By November, initial disappointment was tempered by being taken on by another top-notch London literary agent who loved the novel. A year of waiting passed before that agent gave up on it. The stumbling block with publishers seemed to be that it was difficult to market: was it a commercial or a literary novel? Now that made me angry: surely the cross-over appeal was an advantage!

By the beginning of 2002, I was well and truly on my own with it. I had it professionally edited (the editor loved it from the start too, which at the time was the only encouragement that stopped me giving up) and I spent the next eighteen months sending it out to agents and publishers. Not so much as a glimmer of interest.

In the summer of 2003, having asked trusted friends and family to give their honest opinion about the book, I made the momentous decision to publish it myself. This was before e-publishing, and involved a substantial investment in two thousand well-produced large format trade paperbacks. By September 2003 I had a room full of boxes and I worked my socks off to sell them. I used all my journalism and PR skills to market it, and hand-sold it into bookshops. Every morning I would call bookshops and ask to speak to the fiction buyer. Determination overruled natural shyness.

Stamp Publishing, 2003
Little by little, good things happened. A great review appeared in the Daily Mail (yes, I had once worked for the Mail, but they had never reviewed one of my books before). One branch of Ottakers in South London sold so many copies they gave me my own display – free of charge! Pushed by a friend, I sent a copy to the august William Morris Agency and struck super-lucky when the head literary agent Stephanie Cabot took me on.

Stephanie sold The Art of Falling to Random House in June 2004 when Arrow’s publishing director Kate Elton told her she was looking for novels on the commercial/literary cusp that would appeal to mainstream Ottaker’s customers. I had just heard (and passed on the news) that my book had been put on the main Ottaker's order list, across the chain nationwide.

The novel was finally published by Arrow in July 2005, and was a summer bestseller in the UK. Judging from the many personal responses to it I received, it seems to be a book that resonates. I still regularly get messages about it from readers through my website, many saying how it has touched them and chimed with experiences in their family.
Arrow, 2005

So I hope that someone somewhere finds that heartening. The waiting was worth it, even though it lasted far longer than I ever envisaged. But I’m grateful too, because along the way I learned a great deal about the nuts and bolts of bookselling and marketing that I might never have fully appreciated.

Publishing is tough – tougher than ever at the moment due to commercial pressures on the big companies – but there’s always a way if you want your work to be read. I’ve been writing here about mainstream publishing, of course, and hardly even mentioned e-books which are a far cheaper and more accessible alternative to self-publishing in print. You can’t give up.    

If your interest has been piqued in The Art of Falling, you can find out more here:

17 comments:

Susan Roebuck said...

Truly heartening story, Deborah, and I just know you'll hear about The Lavender Field soon.

Kelly Hashway said...

Waiting isn't fun. I hate to keep people waiting because I don't like to wait. I hope you hear back on The Lavender Field soon.

Cindy Brown said...

I can't wait to be waiting. Right now, I just wait on people to comment on my blog posts. But I know that someday, there will be much more important things to wait for. Tom Petty did say it well, "The waaaaaiting is the hardest part." Sing it, now, you know you know it!

Stacey Donaldson said...

Lovely post... great lesson! Oh how we grow when we are forced to wait, it's like our entire being expands and contracts (which is sometimes quite painful) until we are ready to move out of that space and into the next. Good things really do come to those who wait :-)

Elizabeth Young said...

Thank you for this timely post Deborah. I've never been very patient either, but am learning that nothing moves quickly in the literary world! Thanks for sharing something of your process with regard to waiting and how you have resolved things.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. The waiting is tough. I'm sure you'll hear good news soon!

Judith Schara Caldwell said...

Deborah, I so admire your candor. Although the timeline is a little disheartening to an unpublisher author, You are a heroine in my book for sharing your self with the great web universe. As a naturally introverted person I find that ability something I will have to work on. In the meantime, again, I so enjoyed your book The Lantern (and purchased my own copy) Sincerely, Judith

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

I am not a patient person, at least that's what my family keeps telling me! Waiting on something in which you pour your heart, soul and mind into is so difficult. I'm sure you will receive good news when the time comes.

Thank you for sharing about your career. It's crazy that all of your work in journalism did not make any difference at all when you wanted to write novels. One would think you had some street cred...

aguja said...

Thank you so much for this post. It really speaks to me and gives me encouragement.
I have read 'The Art of Falling' more then once, because I enjoy reading it.
Your post speaks to me directly; having been accepted by a publisher, I was then let down and began the round of once more sending off manuscripts ... and in the end, did as you did ( self publishing) even to the extent of actually making paperback versions, with the help of my wonderful web designer. I am still hoping to interest a publisher in the future ... and in the meantime I run workshops at schools and libraries (because I enjoy this) to encourage children to write and draw, using my books as a starting point.
Your post has given me renewed hope - so thank you once again! and my very best wishes for this new novel, on its journey.

Sara Louise said...

Thanks for posting your timeline to publishing, I know someone that should read it :)
Keeping my fingers crossed that you'll hear about The Lavender Field soon.

josina said...

great post useful for new authors and authors to be!The publishing industry could do with some honest insight into the workings of it.

bookspersonally said...

What a great story, sounds like so much of publishing is timing... your novel was just waiting for its moment. Hoping good news comes your way soon on your latest!

Cottage Garden said...

I hope you hear good news about The Lavender Field soon. From reading this post it does strike me that timing pays a huge part in publishing. I heard today on Radio 4 that more novels are being published in one year than ever before, not all are successful and it's often down to the booksellers in general as to how they market and push certain books and authors.

Interesting background to your literary career Deborah. My fingers are crossed for you.

Jeanne

Vanessa said...

Sounds like very hard work but it paid off in the end. I am the least patient person on the planet which is probably why I will never finish a novel but focus on the short story form instead, although that is far less satisfying.

MuMuGB said...

Thanks for sharing your story Deborah. It was exactly what I needed right now.

Shelley said...

Thank you for posting this Deborah. I think if someone can read honest blogs like this and still say to themself 'Yeah, I want to do this. It's totally worth the wait.' then they are in it for the long haul. Writing is a part of who you are, published or unpublished. My love for it just keeps on growing. What an exciting journey and who knows where it will end. :)

Jennifer O. said...

Great post...crossing my fingers for you!

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