It is always a good day on the Literary Sofa when I get to feature a book and author whose path to publication I have followed for some time. It’s inspiring to see new writers succeed and increasingly apparent that there’s more than one way to get a story into the hands of readers, as several recent posts have shown (and there will be more!)
Today’s guest, debut novelist, short story writer and clinical psychologist Anne Goodwin, is a loyal Literary Sofa follower who frequently makes interesting contributions to the debate of the moment and I’m sure her experience of getting debut novel Sugar and Snails published through small independent Inspired Quill will prove informative to many battling the established system. It is difficult to discuss Anne’s novel without revealing what it is about – I note that she doesn’t specifically say so in her post, so I won’t either. But fundmentally it is a brave and complex story of personal identity; challenging and at times profoundly uncomfortable to read but written with insight and compassion. It opened my eyes to issues I have not previously considered and I certainly felt for the protagonist.
On hearing the breathless message on my answerphone from an agent’s assistant requesting my full manuscript, I thought I was well on the way to a decent advance from one of the Big Five. When she emailed a couple of weeks later to say that, while she loved it, the agent to whom she was responsible didn’t, I still believed she’d be able to persuade one of his colleagues in the sizeable agency to take it on.
When that fell through, I held out hope that one of the other agents who had eagerly asked for the whole novel might rescue me from the slush pile. What I didn’t imagine – naive soul that I was – was that, two years on, some of those agents still wouldn’t have given me their verdicts, but I’d be blissfully anticipating my publication debut with a very small press that nobody’s heard of.
I’ll admit I was a little wary of Inspired Quill initially. Accustomed to agency and publisher websites designed to deter all but the most determined, IQ’s appeared to be too welcoming to new authors, too nice. Quickly reassured they were a genuine publisher paying royalties, I emailed my submission and had an offer within a month. Oh joy! I duly enrolled with the Society of Authors, forwarding my contract to be scrutinised by their advisers, not completely convinced it was worth the hefty fee for what was presumably a formality. Surely the only difference between contracts was the size of the advance?
Wrong again! Despite the environmental credentials of the method, the Society of Authors advises against signing up with a print-on-demand outfit. In their view, such publishers aren’t taking a sufficient financial risk. Let’s face it, with ebooks and print-on-demand technology, anyone can set themselves up as a publisher. Why hand over a percentage of your earnings when you can publish a novel yourself?
Glumly, I asked if the contract were open to negotiation. Apart from the print-on-demand technology, it was. With advice on the bottom line from the Society of Authors, I got to grips with the small print. Back and forth went the emails. As my vision blurred over each new paragraph of legalese, I fizzed with resentment at not having an agent to manage this on my behalf. Yet, when I finally penned the squiggle that passes for my signature, I felt immensely satisfied. Not just because a tedious process was over. Not just because I’d managed to secure more favourable terms. But most of all because, in the process, we’d built the foundations of a publishing relationship that works.
My publisher’s willingness to negotiate convinced me of their genuine commitment to my novel. Their acceptance of various amendments to the contract spoke more of their flexibility than reassuring words could ever do. On their part, I think they welcomed my attention to the fine detail, paving the way for the true partnership working that has been my experience every step of the way. I doubt I’d receive such a personalised service with any of the Big Five.
Of course there are disadvantages. No advance. No hardback. No Waterstones window display. Like most independent publishers, mine is low on resources for publicity and kudos in the book world. But they more than make up for this in enthusiasm and passion for what they do. I trust their judgement and, if and when I don’t, we can easily Skype or email our way to a resolution.
To quote another small press publisher, Teika Bellamy, It’s all about the relationship! A writer I greatly admire, Alison Moore, shortlisted for the Booker prize with her debut novel, The Lighthouse, has been sufficiently happy with her independent publisher, Salt, to remain with them for her two subsequent books. The more human scale of a small press offers a greater sense of security than perhaps afforded to authors with a large commercial conglomerate which, as Jane Rogers discovered a couple of years ago, can blithely drop even prize-winning mid-list novelists from their lists.
Independent publishers are also vital to readers, producing, as former bookseller and blogger Susan Osborne says, books that are little out of the mainstream rather than staying on the bandwagon for rather too long. Perhaps, like debut novelist and creative writing tutor, Sarah Armstrong, I should have realised my novel might be problematic for agents and targeted a small press right from the start. With the variety of routes to publication, it behoves authors to make the best of wherever we pitch up. All writers need to contribute to publicity; those of us with little-known publishers need to work a little harder than most. And while, in our dreams, we might wish we weren’t obliged to dirty our hands this way, there are rewards in what we learn in the process.
Thanks to Anne for her willingness to ‘dirty her hands’ on my Sofa (nobody’s put it quite like that before!) and for her generosity in sharing her experience with other writers.
Anne’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, is published on 23 July 2015. Inspired Quill will be open to submissions during the month of August.
*POSTSCRIPT* Next week Virginia Baily will be joining me with a Writers on Location post on Rome, setting for her beautiful novel Early One Morning, one of my Summer Reads 2015.