More publication news! I don’t seem to have stopped to draw breath since the beginning of the year and setting up Shakenoak Press. My latest activity has involved my first historical novel, The Testament of Mariam.
To go back a bit. I had the MS of The Testament of Mariam ready for my literary agent just as we hit the main impact of the economic recession, but before most of us (I think) had really become aware of it. Clearly the money men had.
My agent was terribly excited about Mariam. Within 48 hours of her sending it out to publishers she was receiving eager responses. She phoned me to say that editors at three major publishers were vying with each other and it looked as though we were going to have an auction. You can imagine my own excitement! Although I’d been previously published by Random House, I’d never encountered this level of enthusiasm. Then everything turned sour. The money men at all three publishing houses turned their thumbs down. It wasn’t commercial. It wouldn’t make money. What I only realised later was that everyone was running scared with the onset of the recession. Publishers were only signing up books that seemed to be totally safe bets. It turned out to be a period when many excellent midlist authors were dropped by their publishers.
After this, my agent sent Mariam out to several more, mostly smaller publishers (at my request), but by now everyone was pulling back and commissioning few new novels. Although I was already established, this was my first historical novel, and they weren’t taking any chances. My agent announced that she was not going to make any more attempts to place it.
I knew that the book was worth publishing and that wasn’t just my opinion. I’d had those hugely enthusiastic comments from top editors. So I decided to go with my instincts and told my agent I wasn’t giving up. I published The Testament of Mariam quite modestly through an Arts Council subsidised scheme. It began to garner wonderful reviews, both in feature articles in the press and online from readers, but of course it was not stocked by bookshops, nor was it discussed in the major literary review pages. Perhaps I made a mistake there. I didn’t send them review copies, and I was pretty shy about marketing, anyway.
When I sent my next historical novel to my agent, she didn’t bother even to acknowledge it until I pressed her, three months later, when she said she was no longer interested in historical fiction. That, and one or two other occasions of rudeness from the publishing establishment, finally decided me to go independent.
I have mentioned some of this before, but as far as it affected The Testament of Mariam, it meant that I next produced a Kindle edition of it as part of this mad round of publishing I’ve been pursuing over the past few months. And as an experiment, I did an Amazon ‘Countdown’ deal on the Kindle of Mariam. Over a few days you price the book very low to start with, then the price increases every few days until it is back to its normal price. Mariam sold very well, and I began to get more reviews as well as many direct comments on how much readers were enjoying it. Interestingly, even after the price had returned to normal, it has kept on selling steadily, as word has spread.
Yes, word of mouth. I think that is what finally establishes a book with readers. Not advertising campaigns by big publishers, not paying bungs to bookshops to display a book on the front tables, not even reviews in major newspapers. It is one reader saying to his or her friends, ‘I loved this, you must read it.’ And that is exactly how it should be. The problem for independent authors is reaching the first group of readers.
However, I now felt that The Testament of Mariam deserved a relaunch, and I also wanted to bring all my books together under the Shakenoak Press imprint. (There’s just one more to go, A Running Tide.) I wanted a new cover for the relaunch, so I contacted Jane Dixon-Smith again, whose cover for The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez I love. The Christoval cover needed to be designed in such a way that we can use it as a template for other books in the series. The Testament of Mariam, however, is a standalone. Jane has come up with this wonderful cover, which has earned nothing but praise from everyone who has seen it. I think it is stunning. It is just as I picture Mariam in my head, and the background captures the world-shaking events of her story.
I really believe in The Testament of Mariam. I have done, ever since I first put pen to paper and the story almost wrote itself. The next stage, now, is an audio book, so I am currently negotiating to find the right actor for the narrator. I know who I want! Watch this space!
In the meantime, coming up for air after all this activity as a publisher, I’ve managed at last to find time to finish the first draft of the second book in the Christoval series (title not decided yet). I had written about two-thirds of it before Christmas, but had to lay it aside until I had finished setting up all the other books. Now it is a matter of editing and editing and editing, but that is a process I enjoy. Once the first draft exists, there is nothing left to do but make it better and better with each revision – polishing, honing, improving. I really love the process! I am very careful not to edit while I am writing the first draft, as it inhibits the creative process, but afterwards it has its own rewards.
As usual every spring, we spent about three weeks at our house in Herefordshire and as usual I hoped to get lots of writing done, but never wrote a word. There’s always so much to do and friends and family to visit. The time flies by. We were pleased to see that the damson tree had been smothered in blossom, and the crab apple tree – which has been looking a little sad for the last few years – has revived and was gloriously bedecked with blooms.
While visiting us, our son-in-law cycled all the way to Hay-on-Wye, Hay Bluff and Capel-y-Ffin (and back), and took some great pictures:
Despite all my other activities, I’ve managed some reading. God’s Traitors is background reading for the Christoval series, an account of some of the principal Catholic families in Elizabethan England, and the tightrope they had to walk, between the strictures of the papacy and the demands of the government:
I’m well into Dark Aemilia, a novel based on the theory that Aemilia Bassano was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, something I’ve always found convincing myself. I am, in fact, using Aemilia as a minor character in one of my later Christoval books. I’ll be reviewing Dark Aemilia for the History Girls blog on July 1.
For pure enjoyment, I’ve embarked on rereading Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series, starting with Niccolò Rising:
I was asked whether I had given up my usual crafty works. No, though time there has been limited too. I finally finished this lovely little girl’s cardigan, the front:
And the back:
And I made this short-sleeved ballet wrap for a bigger girl who is an accomplished ballet dancer:
A tunic top and a pair of fair isle socks for myself are still on my needles, and not getting much attention. We’ve had some lovely family visits in the last few weeks – more important than getting on with these!
Till next time, Ann