I was about to stuff a bundle of correspondence through the shredder when I thought these ancient yellowing letters might make an interesting blog post. I know they’re hopelessly out of date but fellow authors might find them amusing, enlightening, or in some aspects still relevant and relatable. Reading through them for a final time, I see nothing much has changed in the world of traditional publishing. It’s still frustrating and mostly baffling!
My journey started way back in 1986, 30 years ago. I was pregnant and bored, so I thought I’d write a book. I called it Summer in October and it happily consumed me for many months. When I thought it was finished, I sent it to the first agent I saw in the Writers & Artists Yearbook: Andrew Mann. Well, no point starting at the bottom was there? I had no idea how large and influential Andrew Mann were but when I received an offer within a couple of weeks I actually thought this was all I needed to do!
The offer wasn’t exactly from Andrew Mann, but from Anne Dewe, who wore two distinct hats. A senior editor for Mann, Dewe was also trying to operate as an independent publisher under the name of Love Stories. She wanted the kind of romance which consistently fell through the commercial net. In 1986 there was plenty of chick-lit and formulaic light fiction, but anything outside of that parameter had no clear label. Sound familiar?
15th September 1986: ‘I like your style and the way you tell the story very much, but it would need a lot of editing in minor matters, occasional misuse of words, spelling and so on, but that is usual and nothing much. I have a few more major criticisms… (listed) do they seem outrageous to you or might you agree that the book would be improved by some changes? If you felt prepared to revise, I would be prepared to take an option. The advance would be £650 against a 10% royalty…’
I applied the changes Dewe suggested – newborn on one arm – but several months later, she didn’t feel the revision was extensive enough. So my son had his first taste of a play-pen and I reworked the entire manuscript over the course of six months on yet another secondhand typewriter.
16th November 1987: ‘Congratulations! You’ve done the most fantastic job on the book. It’s really good, develops well, is hilariously funny in places and most convincing. Now, here comes the embarrassing part… I would very much like it for Love Stories but unless something comes from my selling efforts at Frankfurt book fair, we may have to stop publishing next year, but my main career is as a literary agent and I would very much like to take you on as a writer for this and other books. You clearly have talent and most important of all, determination…’
Sadly, Love Stories never really got off the ground and as a result my manuscript was taken on for Andrew Mann, with Dewe wearing her agents’ hat. The rejections from established publishers were disappointing but given her initial reservations about genre restrictions, not entirely unexpected.
Piatkus: Very readable. I’d be interested to see anything this author writes in the future. Michael Joseph: This isn’t quite suited to our current list. I think this is more suited to paperback publication? Headline: She writes with charm but I’m afraid that despite the background, the animals and the humour, this just wasn’t for us. Malvern: We regret we cannot offer to publish this as it is too similar to Applehurst Displayed, which we published two years ago. Severn House: I don’t think this is for us. I can’t see where we would have any luck in selling subsidiary rights.
So it all ground to a halt and the process was, for me, relegated to the back-burner as family life took over – including divorce – and my third typewriter fell to pieces. Dewe even tried – unsuccessfully – to place the manuscript as a young adult read as she thought this market was going to be big. She was right, but it wasn’t to be for Summer in October. It wasn’t until 2001, during my second marriage, and after a house move to North Wales, that I began to write again, this time using a modern word-processor. I hadn’t forgotten all the points Dewe had raised and the comments from some of the publishers. I’d since enjoyed a career in property, and the result was a novel called Under Offer. I did find it interesting that Dewe didn’t like this book at all and wasn’t interested but she was honest: It’s lively and very readable, but this one’s not for us. I am afraid you’ll just have to trawl the book. This business is so subjective one can’t really suggest other agents…
The result of this was that I stuck a pin in the Writers & Artists Yearbook again and sent the manuscript to Jane Judd. Once again, I received an offer to be represented. I knew what was coming this time, and braced myself for a re-write but Judd suggested I send the MS to an editorial company called Cornerstones.
This was a real turning point for me where I learnt about structure, plotting, and characterisation in specific detail and how it related to my work. The entire MS was line edited by a professional so I could see where and why she’d made changes and suggestions, including the title. So… I rewrote sections of the novel and Wild Water was born as a huge printed document which cost a fortune to send through the post! Fortunately, Judd was very happy with the result, and I signed a contract with her in January of the following year.
Pan Macmillan: A good combination of humour and poignancy. The author delves shrewdly into her characters, gradually allowing their traits to become evident and appreciated. However, I regret I can’t see a place on our lists for Wild Water. Headline: Read with interest, but no.Piatkus: I do like this author’s writing and it was interesting to read this kind of story from a male perspective. However, I didn’t feel any of the characters were sympathetic enough and I didn’t warm to Jack as the hero of the story. Simon & Schuster: She does write well but this is a tough, competitive and crowded area of the market. Selina Walker: I really like this. It’s well written and it has an unusual twist in that you very much sympathise with the wronged husband but in the end I thought it lacked Trollope’s take on personal relationships. Hodder & Stoughton: I’m going to say no. Time Warner Books: I very much enjoyed reading this. I was absorbed immediately. However, we’ve brought a number of authors writing in this area with two-book contracts and I can’t see a slot in our schedule for this one. It’s a shame and I do hope that you can find a good home for this promising author…
I can’t say my agents didn’t try and I appreciate the faith they had in the material, and the editors I worked with at Cornerstones were nothing short of revolutionary to a new writer. And none of it put me off – I did write another novel and in keeping with the suggested branding by Cornerstones titled it Midnight Sky. (In fact the characters of James and Laura in this story were pinched from the first book, Summer in October. The plot line from Summer in October went into Silver Rain… but that’s another story). I even sent Midnight Sky to Judd at her request, but she disliked it. Over the course of 2004 I consulted the Writers & Artists yearbook many times and sent out both Wild Water and Midnight Sky to several small publishers, thinking that a two-book deal with tentative branding was a stronger pitch; but with no success.
I think this final letter from Amanda Stewart of Severn House is a perfect summing-up of the years I’d tried to break in to publishing both with the backing of two prominent agents, and as a solo effort: Whilst I know Jane Judd well and respect her editorial judgement, I’m afraid we would not be able to publish these books. Severn House only takes on authors with a long-standing track record. We almost never publish ‘new’ writers simply because we do not have the funds to take risks on untried authors…
What didn’t fail was the knowledge I’d gained from the constant rejection. And the rest, as they say, is history. When Amazon introduced Kindle I found myself scanning in those huge typewritten manuscripts of both Wild Water and Midnight Sky to a laptop to produce an electronic file. Createspace allowed even more freedom and my books made it into libraries and a single independent bookshop by my own efforts. Wild Water won Cornerstones ‘most popular book’ in 2011. Both Wild Water and Silver Rain made the finalist list on The Wishing Shelf Awards and six of my titles were subsequently signed with another publisher in 2014/15. But wait… there’s a sting in the tail because the irony of this particular story is that I eventually ditched the publisher and returned to independent publishing…
Now… please excuse me as I have some shredding to do!