I have nothing against old-fashioned, conventional publishing. Many of my favourite books have been published conventionally – the money divided between the shop, the publisher and the agent, with a few pennies left over for the author.
When I finished my first book, Benny Baker, I duly wrote synopses and letters and printed double-spaced sheets of three chapters or one chapter or five thousand words. And I enclosed stamped-addressed envelopes and waited two months to receive a single-paragraph form-letter expressing general regret and wishing luck.
This book was inspired by a dream (no, really, come back) of people in scuba gear diving into dough to mix a loaf the size of the bakery. I got out of bed to write it down and then spent odd hours over many months trying to convince it into book form. The tricky part was working out why anyone would want so much bread and figuring out how he’d stop the birds from pecking it. I thought it was fresh and original and quirky and fun. The editor I paid to look it over thought it had “strong humour” and “boy and girl appeal”. The agents and publishers kept their views to themselves.
I tried the same approach with my second book, Timestand, with predictably similar results. It’s a boy-with-superhero-powers story but with a hero who doesn’t know what he’s doing, plenty of bickering, some collapsing furniture and a lot of destruction at the climax.
But when I took Timestand to local schools, the children wrote things like “jam packed with lots of action, excitement and crafty surprises” and “I found the book really funny” and “it is one of the best books I read because it is something different: nothing like the typical boys’ book with a teenage spy trying and succeeding in dangerous missions”.
Cynics will say that the kids were just happy to have a different lesson, to have a fresh person to look at rather than the same teacher droning away. I say that those cynics weren’t there. I say that children that age don’t write like that unless they mean it.
I didn’t realise that I wanted to write ten short stories until I saw a banana balanced precariously on a car dashboard. Each story started with a fairly everyday situation and each spiralled out of its protagonist’s control. Right from the start, I didn’t want it to be about the ending, I didn’t want the stories to seem like shaggy-dog tales with a “ta-dah!” punchline. So I gave away all the endings up front. The anthology is called They All Die At The End
The stories are dark without being bleak (mostly) and frequently unexpectedly funny. They are often uncomfortably close to plausible. And one of the stories has Santa Claus.
But, according to the publishing industry, no one buys short stories. Even a publishing house whose publishing director said “the short story form is better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel” could only tell me that “most publishers and agents struggle to make a commercial success of short stories in the UK… wish you all the best…”. And an American agency told me that “the market here isn’t especially favorable [sic] towards [short stories]”.
This is not a rant, it is a brief history of my writing career.
Literary agents and publishers don’t owe me anything – nor should they. Why should they take the time and trouble to write detailed feedback to soothe the battered ego of the rejected writer? I wouldn’t expect them to. I only ever hope that at least a page or two will be read and considered, even if only briefly. And I would rather not have received comments that appeared to apply to someone else’s work.
I know that publishers will take on books that they think will sell in large quantities or books they love so deeply that they will try to conjure a large market through sheer force of character.
I don’t know if there’s a huge market, small market or no market for my books. I like them. People who read them tell me they like them.
I have no particular target for sales and am happy every time one of my books goes to a new home. It’s not about the numbers for me – it’s about feeling that the book is as good as I can make it. It’s about not feeling “that’ll do” about anything in the book – but feeling proud that I wrote what I meant, how I meant it, with my own idiosyncrasies and phrasing quirks.
In fantasy land, Benny Baker should become an Aardman film, Timestand should be directed by Terry Gilliam and They All Die At The End should be a television series in the style of Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected. I won’t be bitterly disappointed if these goals aren’t met but at least one out of three would be nice.
Part of the battle is to even get the attention of a publishing house. I have, once or twice, tried to attract attention by the literary equivalent of jumping up and down and mooning in front of them. The theory is that this may lead to someone looking at the work. The jury is out on that one.
For example… Recently I read that Random House had commissioned a couple of pop stars to write a children’s book about a defecating dinosaur. No, really, they did: See here
So I sent Random House a pitch for the follow-up about (what else?) a vomiting badger. No, really, I did: See here
They haven’t responded. I’m deeply offended…
Amazon, the white knight riding on the back of the internet (too much?)
Lulu may have made it easy and cost-effective to print my books (and they are all available in paperback form – don’t let me stop you but it is Amazon who are leading the charge towards authors selling directly to their readers. But if you’re reading this, you already know that.
Despite selling a few boxes of books to schools, despite the enthusiasm from the children, despite a stampede when I started signing copies, I feel that my career as an author (which I’ll arbitrarily define as a writer with readers) only really started when I converted my books to ebooks and made them available through the Amazon Kindle store.
The ability to set an enticingly low price (while still collecting a greater royalty than if I had charged ten times that amount for a paperback) was genuinely thrilling. The discovery that the whole process took about five minutes (from word-processor file to Amazon listing) was startling. It might only have been about twenty quid but finding the first deposit of royalty payment into my bank account was a euphoric experience.
It’s questionable whether or not I need an agent or a publisher. I certainly need a marketing expert, but one who will work for a percentage. Paying an upfront fee would make me a vanity author and besides, someone working for commission will be someone who believes the work will sell – which surely would be better than getting someone to fake it. Any sensible offer considered. Similarly, any illustrator prepared to work for royalty share should get in touch.
Short stories – perfect ebook material?
Meanwhile, perhaps not all publishers have the same view of short stories. I always felt mine were a perfect length for an average commute (as long as you’re not driving) and perhaps Penguin feels similarly since it has launched a new series of digital-only short books. (Only by authors they already know, of course. I can’t blame them. If I ran a publishing house I’d probably to do the same to dissuade the great unwashed from sending their thought-disordered manuscripts.)
And mine are a bargain in comparison – ten stories for the price of one and a half from Penguin. But then I don’t currently have any middlemen or a corporate structure to support. Just me, my family, the electricity to run the computer and the broadband to provide countless distractions and encourage procrastination.
I’m working on two books at the moment. Well, maybe three if you count the one that’s currently parked. Each day I decide whether I’m in the mood for another chapter of the intrepid explorers finding adventure in their own back garden (children’s book) or the contemporary state-of-the-nation satire (adults’ book).
As of today, the children’s book is nearer completion, and perhaps the other needs to sit on the back-burner a little longer to bubble away. But it might be the tortoise to the other book’s hare, if you’ll excuse the image of a tortoise bubbling away.
And it’s about time that Benny Baker became an ebook. It’s on the list of things to do, together with finishing outstanding books, learning how to sell my work and tidying the desk.
Peter’s books. Timestand and They All Die at the end are reviewed on IEBR (go to virtual bookshelf)
Peter will be hanging around the festival’s Facebook page and Twitter #edebook today from 2.130 to chat with you about his work and the festival (or anything else of mutual interest) and he’s also offering you a FREE short story. Just click HERE for your FREE GIFT which you can download to the ereader of your choice. Or read on computer/smartphone. We couldn’t find a way for Peter to feature in our Short Stories as he has no obvious or oblique Scottish connection so we’re really pleased he’s offering everyone a FREEBIE. Make sure you download it. And if you like it BUY They All Die at the End.
If that’s not enough, Peter has gone all interactive – there’s a selection of excerpts from his work below:
Nocturnal Crème Brulee (excerpt)
Shopping Basket Crown (excerpt)
Timestand Chapter 1 read by the Author
Timestand Chapter 3 read by the Author
They All Die At the End is featured on the final day of the festival as one of Cally’s FAVOURITE 3 EBOOKS.