The newest member of the family:
It seems almost unbelievable that another year has gone by, yet it has been such an incredible year for me that I haven’t had time to notice the months whizzing past. During the final weeks of 2013 I came to the definite decision to turn my back on my literary agent and traditional publishing, and to go independent, so for me this has been a year of profound change.
After I had published three novels with Random House, my publishing career had been hit by a series of external events. My much-loved original agent retired and the agency was taken over by another far larger one. My editor at Random House went on maternity leave, but never came back. My publisher there took over on a temporary basis as my editor, but then (owing to some sort of palace coup, details unknown to me) she was marched out of the building and became unemployed.
This is the kind of thing that can happen in traditional publishing and an author has no control over it.
Out in the wilderness, I wrote another book, my first historical novel, The Testament of Mariam. My new agent was wildly enthusiastic, constantly ringing me up. Editors were enthusiastic. My agent was convinced we would be going to auction. This was at the height of the recession. The money men stepped in, vetoed the wishes of the commissioning editors, and that was an end to it.
I wasn’t going to give up on Mariam, so I self-published through a scheme sponsored by the Arts Council. The book received great reviews, both in the press and online, but I didn’t think of myself as an indie publishing author, assuming Mariam would be a one-off.
The year 2013 was a rollercoaster. I had already written the original version of the Christoval story (which covered ten years), and was researching the material and writing the first draft of Flood (set in the Fens in the mid seventeenth century), when Rosie de Courcy, senior editor at Head of Zeus, took an interest. She was on leave from work, having a hip operation followed by six weeks of recuperation. As I already knew Rosie, I had gone to her direct, not via my agent, who had not made any contact in months.
Rosie was very keen on Flood and said some wonderful things about it, but felt the Christoval book covered too much ground. It would work much better as a series, she felt. So I rewrote the first year as a full-length book, and gave it the original title, The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez. At this point, in August, Rosie was about to return to work and her plan was that we should first establish the Christoval series, then bring out Flood as a standalone. She felt there would be no problem in getting me a contract.
Unfortunately, while she was away a new CEO had been appointed who declared a moratorium on new commissions and expressed a dislike of historical fiction. Rosie’s advice was to go back to my agent and get her to try to place the books with another publisher. So I sent them off to my agent and started writing the second Christoval book, The Enterprise of England.
Weeks passed and I heard nothing. I sounded out two more agents, both of whom I knew slightly. One was very enthusiastic, asking for the whole MS of the first Christoval and saying he really enjoyed it when he’d read it. Then his agency had a meeting where they decided not to take on any more historical fiction. The other agent said she loved the idea of the series, responding to my email in less than half an hour and asked for the first book. She never acknowledged it or responded again. Then my contracted agent eventually emailed to say she wasn’t interested in publishing historical fiction any more.
So, having been on the brink of a contract in August, I found myself by the end of the year rejected by a publisher and three agents, to a ringing chorus that there was no market for historical fiction (one of the arguments also used by the money-men in rejecting Mariam).
This was the final straw.
I was fed up with all this negativity. I was quite sure there were plenty of readers for historical fiction and I wanted to take control of my own literary career. Therefore, at the beginning of 2014, I made the following decisions:
- To commission a new, more professional-looking website with a blog incorporated instead of separate
- To set up my own imprint, Shakenoak Press
- To purchase my own ISBNs (another case of being in control)
- To reissue my out-of-print Random House books in paperback and Kindle format
- To publish Flood in both formats
- To publish The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez and The Enterprise of England in both formats
- To continue writing the Christoval series
- To try to get to grips with marketing as an indie author-publisher
The reason that 2014 has been so hectic is that I have actually managed to achieve all these goals, except perhaps the last! Not sure I’ll ever be much good at marketing. I have also managed to write two more Christoval books: The Portuguese Affair and Bartholomew Fair.
Something else I’ve managed, which wasn’t in the original plan: I’ve collaborated with the actor Serena Scott Thomas, who has narrated the audiobook of The Testament of Mariam and who has become a good friend. A great bonus! And I’ve found a cover designer, Jane Dixon-Smith, with whom I’ve been able to work out a ‘look’ for my novels. I count Jane as a friend too. A new experience, too, was making a podcast about the background to The Testament of Mariam.
I may not be much of a hand at marketing, but social media, especially Facebook, have brought me new friends and strengthened existing friendships. The community of indie authors is such a warm, supportive group, both informally through direct friendships and through a variety of interest groups, and more formally in the Alliance of Independent Authors, run by Orna Ross and working to get independent authors recognised in the mainstream of the publishing world.
Through Facebook, too, I’ve got to know Mary Hoffman, a writer of historical fiction whose work I’ve long admired. Mary runs History Girls, a group of writers of history and historical fiction who have a widely praised blog spot. Mary invited me to contribute occasional pieces and reviews, and then to become one of the History Girls – a great honour – so I now contribute a piece on the twentieth of each month. To date my contributions in 2014 have been: Saints, Spies and Saboteurs, Betrayed, Forgotten and Reviled, Piers Plowman and the Black Death (a longer version of a blog which appeared here), and Turn Again, Whittington.
Coming to the end of 2014 and looking back over the year, how do I feel about it? My main feeling is one of cheerfulness. I am much, much happier as an indie author-publisher than I ever was as a traditionally published author. Partly this is due to the frustrations and huge delays in traditional publishing, but also to the generally off-hand treatment authors receive from so many in the publishing industry. Above all, it is because I am now in control of my publishing career, what I publish and when, from the content of my writing to cover design and layout of text. I can even track how the books are selling, day by day, instead of receiving confusing royalty statements anything up to a year in arrears.
One of my good friends, fellow writer Prue Batten, had been urging me to ‘go indie’ for some time before my final decision, but I had clung to the security of traditional publishing. Of course it was very pleasant to receive five-figure advances, and this year I am down financially because of large expenses like the new website, but I have established that there certainly is a market for my historical novels, despite the gloom I met with in 2013. Even my early books, now back in print, are finding new readers.
So it is time to look ahead to 2015. I am not planning to publish another nine books!! The backlist is now out there. What will be new? Originally Flood was intended as a standalone, but the characters have stayed with me and must have stayed with readers too, since so many have asked for a sequel. I have the first draft of a novel about one of my husband’s seventeenth-century ancestors, John Swinfen, and his wife, my namesake Anne Swinfen, who were caught up in the Civil War. And I have ideas for the next two Christoval novels. Therefore, on New Year’s Eve, here are the goals for 2015:
- Edit and publish the Swinfen novel
- Write and publish a sequel to Flood
- Write and publish the fifth novel in the Christoval series
- Write and publish the sixth novel in the Christoval series
- Try to grasp the concept of marketing better
- Turn a deficit into a profit
- [Note to self] Get books and research materials better organised!
Well, that’s the plan. I may not manage it, but I’ll give it my best shot. How was your 2014 and what are your own plans for 2015?
HAPPY NEW YEAR!