In the last five years, since my first novel has been published, I have written approx 300,000 words, comprising three novels. All these words are currently unpublished.
About 120,000 of them deserve this fate; the particular work they live in needs a severe rewrite and a change-of-person narration. The other 180,000 are two novels, one of which has been rejected, but which my agent likes very much and has plans for.
The other is Lucia’s story.
Readers of White Feathers will know who Lucia is; those who have not read the book will be introduced to a young Jamaican woman in early 20th century London attempting to find her fortune as a musician – and restore something precious that was lost to her during the war the year before. No, not lost – taken. With Lucia’s history, necessarily, the basso continuo is always about appropriation and theft.
I struggled very hard to finish this work, frantic not to lose my writing career, battling tough time constraints and obligations to get it done. And I lost my career anyway. Because after sending it for consideration and receiving professional feedback, I realised I spent all that time writing the wrong book, or the right book too late.
The manuscript is fine in many ways, but from a commercial point of view, it is over-reliant on its predecessor, being in the same universe with many of the same characters. I suppose that is because White Feathers invoked such turmoil, certain aspects of the story called out for some sort of resolution. But it invoked it five years ago. That makes an accompanying/related novel a hard sell. I see the logic in that.
(Is it a good read? Decent prose? Would you care about the characters? Would the story stay with you? Hell, yes!)
The problem is, lining up the timing to sell the right book at the right time is difficult in such a volatile environment. You need to build up some credit in the industry, and move quickly. That’s why I believe a two-book deal can be more beneficial for an author in the long run. But fundamentally, the publisher is taking such a risk with any book that they become risk-averse. This is not by way of finding fault. They are running a business. They depend on the whims of a small coterie of influencers, and loads of non-fiction, to keep going. The risk ends up being so great that the industry gets broken, since nobody can earn enough money from it. And that is a pity, because personally I could not have asked for a better experience than I had with my publisher. They are fine professionals.
Sometimes I feel like that cranky pope, who argued with the King, got chucked out of the Vatican and sighed “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, and therefore I write in exile.” Though he said “die” instead of “write”. That’s a bit dramatic. I have an intellectually interesting line of work that pays me well. I enjoy it, and I enjoy my income. It would take wild success to ever replicate that prosperity as a writer, and that success has been denied me. So I give up. From here on in, I will treat writing as my beautiful hobby. Like a rich man who spends ridiculous sums on his yacht.
Just a while ago, I did a thing.
I got myself some formatting software and contacted a book-cover-designing company and two printing companies, and taught myself how to work with professionals to put together a book with my manuscript. This was not an attempt to publish; there was no ISBN, no sales. It was for a gift for someone I am fond of, but also for me personally. Working with the designer has been very enjoyable – there is something about bringing a cover to life that makes the story *real*. And when it’s only me, I don’t have to worry about what will be commercially appealing or what the marketing department will make of it. And I learned about bleed and trim – sounds like an Emilie Pine essay! – and PostScript points.
And I had more fun than I’d had in a long time.
Which made me think; when did all this stop being fun? And if it’s not fun anymore, what, exactly, is the point? Lucia’s story, in spite of all the obstacles, was meaningful to write and research. It was important for me to get it finished, and for it to be artistically coherent. And making it manifest was fun, even if it was not done in the traditional way.
There is a good article by Richard Bradburn in the Irish Times which makes the point that to self-publish is merely to transfer the risk from the publisher’s shoulders to the authors. Which, if they can afford to do it properly, can be a relief for the author. If you generate a manuscript that is good quality, get a brilliant cover designer, a professional editor (in my case, the same editor who worked on my published novel!) and proper printing and marketing – is that not merely a precise emulation of the traditional publishing process? Except much faster?
That said, after the manuscript is edited (this summer), traditional publishing might be as good an option as going it alone. One could argue it is less stigmatised than self/indie pub, but I don’t give a rat’s hole about stigma at this stage. I care more about being productive and writing good books. And knowing that I can produce – that I am not entirely dependent on other timetables – is immensely psychologically freeing.
My yacht is a big indulgence, but once she is on the water with her sails out, I might appreciate her more. Yachts were not meant to be kept in a shed – and (some) books were not designed to be kept on hard drives, but to be shared with the world.
I want to share Lucia’s story with the world. And I’m not sure how much longer I can stand to wait.