A Varied Diet: Publishing the Unexpected

In Medieval Knights, publishing industry, Uncategorised by [email protected]

Recently I was given the opportunity to contribute to a Novel Writing Course run by the immensely talented Lisa Blower (author of newly published novel Sitting Ducks). I was invited to talk about writing The Errant Hours, and especially about my decision to self publish.  There were many very insightful questions from the writers in the audience, all at the beginning of their career, attempting to understand an industry which is in a state of constant flux.

Revisiting my journey to publication has made me think about it with more objectivity and less emotion. It was sobering to see how far I’d travelled from the naïve writer who began Chapter One in 2010. A change similar to that experienced by the heroine in my story, but effected mainly through psychological challenge rather than physical violence.

When I began my novel, I believed that if I could write a good enough story it would inevitably be published. The trick I needed to learn was how to write convincing, well-rounded characters and follow them into their lives. This took a long time. Getting the descriptions to sing rather than scream seemed to require banging my head repeatedly with my fist.  Structuring the story was another hurdle. There was a good deal of trial and error, diagrams, long walks and shouting involved in getting all the elements of the plot to fit together.

Finally, I needed each sentence to flow into the next. It was important to have the right words both rhythmically and meaningfully. Five years of pulling words out of my brain, looking at them, discarding them or hammering them into different sentences, and at last I felt the book was finished. What I did not realise was that I’d left out the most important ingredient as far as the modern publishing industry was concerned.

I wrote a story about a period that interested me: the Plantagenet era, at the time of Edward I and his series of battles with the Welsh. I wanted to write about the effect of endemic violence on the lives of ordinary people. There have not been enough stories about that topic, in my opinion.

I live in Shropshire, which is now seen as a sleepy rural backwater. At the end of the 13th century, Shropshire was a centre of military and political power. It was the family seat of the second most powerful man in the kingdom, Robert Burnell, the Chancellor and Bishop of Bath and Wells, a priest who had many illegitimate children. Robert Burnell was a very interesting contradictory character in my view, and worth exploring.

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Acton Burnell Castle – home of Chancellor Robert Burnell who was given permission by Edward I to crenellate his manor in AD1284

But not interesting enough, I was told. The whole of the Medieval era, according to the expert I consulted at the Author’s Advisory Service, was not popular, and therefore it was totally the wrong period to write about. I should have chosen the Tudors. At a pinch the Romans, Victorians, or Georgians would have been okay. But Medieval was a no-hoper.

There was nothing I could do about that. Ever since I was a young girl, I have been a lover of the medieval aesthetic – its buildings and culture. I was sure that the medieval period was worth writing about. I did some research on-line. Thousands of people seemed to be interested in things medieval. There were tens of thousands of Twitter followers and members of medieval Facebook groups. medievalists.net

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Detail of the margin of the Romance d’Alexandre, Bodleian library MS 264

After all, the medieval period brought us the iconic castles that represent Britain for tourists. It had brought forth the legend of King Arthur and his (sometimes) virtuous knights. And during the 13th century, the first Bill of Rights for individuals had become law.

I did become hopeful in 2015. I thought the 800th anniversary of signing of The Magna Carta might change the prejudice against publishing medieval. But in July of that year, I was still getting polite letters from agents praising my writing but telling me the story was not for them.

Then I received a particular letter, from Anne Williams at the Kate Hordern Agency, which spelled out the problem very clearly. There was nothing wrong with my writing, but “without a more obvious historical hook which a publisher could hang their sales pitch on (eg a particular, relatively well known historical character or conundrum) they would struggle to see a convincing way in which to publish.” And she added “If you should decide to write something more along the lines I’ve outlined I’d be happy to consider it.”

I am very grateful to Anne Williams for taking the time to explain this so clearly. It is rare for agents to reveal their reasons for rejection.

It was clear to me from that moment on that if I wanted this story to be read, I would have to publish it myself.  I did need help along the way and would advise anyone thinking of independent publishing to hire a graphic designer and a copy editor at the very least. But the main work of publishing was mine.

Now The Errant Hours is available widely, as an ebook and paperback. In theory, anyone around the world with access to a computer can order a copy. I am receiving feedback every day from readers who have enjoyed the journey into medieval Shropshire, and who are recommending it to friends.  Over 700 copies have been sold, and I have lost track of the number of people who have said that they didn’t think they liked historical fiction, but they loved The Errant Hours. Also, very importantly, I have maintained the integrity of the story and all my rights to it. I am still a long way from breaking even on my costs, but things are off to a good start.

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‘The Errant Hours’ travelling in Japan

This post is not really about self publishing, however. It is about the current assumption in the publishing industry that we should give people only what they already think they want.

A parent of a young child is encouraged to make sure the child eats a variety of foods, sweet, bitter, salty and sour – different textures and tastes so that their palates develop, and in the future they eat a broad range of dishes and enjoy good health.

Using this analogy, the publishing industry seems to be behaving like a parent who only gives their child chicken nuggets, chips or pizza, because that is all they seem to want to eat.

Before we taste variety, we don’t understand all the different and delicious possibilities of taste. Before we meet people from different countries, we don’t understand how things can be seen from multiple perspectives. Before we read about a new place or time, we do not know whether it will interest us or not.

There is always the possibility that it could fire us up and change our lives.  But if we are only ever provided with the topics and periods that are popular, we will never have the chance to explore the intrigues and treasures of these under-represented periods, the hidden inglorious and surprising moments of history.

So my question is this: Shouldn’t the reading public be treated as rounded people, open to new experiences and hungry to discover new places, people and times?

If not, we writers are operating under a de facto censor, and readers are being deprived of variety in favour of an easy sell.

The novice writers I met in the course last week do want to write books that sell. They would ideally like to make a living by writing. This has become less and less possible. The income of the average writer is at an all-time low. If those new writers don’t take the advice to write something ‘commercial’, it will be very difficult for them to make any money at all.

Self publishing is not the solution for everyone. You have to have a considerable amount of money up-front to invest in your book. And it is an extremely demanding work model, in which the writer must morph into the PR, distribution, logistics, accounts, marketing or press department at any moment.

If a writer must write according to the dictates of the industry in order to make a living, many will not be able to choose to follow their writer’s heart.  And it is the literary health of this country that will suffer.

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‘The Errant Hours’ – touring with a reader in Turkey