Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Sword of Damocles falls...

One of the things a writer has to learn is the courage to submit work to publishers, with the consequent risk of rejection. This is not something that gets any easier; indeed, once you establish a relationship with an editor, if anything it becomes more difficult.

Sadly this remark is made with the weight of experience, as Will emailed me yesterday to tell me that Macmillan were turning down The Last Free City. This was hardly unexpected, but even though I was prepared, the moment of rejection is a grim realisation.

Partly from a desire to explore the issues, and partly to suck up some sympathy (that means you, folks...) I thought it would be useful to look in a bit more detail at why Macmillan aren't taking the book on. Will is very tactful in his feedback, but his comments are always honest ones, so I've no reason to disbelieve him when he says:
The Last Free City is the equal of The Dog of the North in terms of plotting, setting and characterisation
particularly as this echoes my own assessment. Why, then, is such a masterpiece not bounding on to greater heights? Those who know the publishing industry will realise that commercial considerations come into play. The sad truth is that The Dog of the North has not sold very well. The Last Free City would not, therefore, be building on a successful "brand". A publisher will be prepared--indeed must, from time to time--gamble on an unknown writer, but to back a second novel where the first has flopped is playing double or quits: never a good business model.

The implications of this simple truth are nonetheless profound. However good The Last Free City may be (and realistically I'd pitch it about the same level as its predecessor) it was doomed from the start because the first book sold so poorly. There was nothing which could have made the book commercially attractive to Macmillan. I didn't help myself by writing a book with fewer crashes and bangs than The Dog of the North, but it's clear that even a more commercially-savvy offering would still have had to overcome the deadweight of its predecessor's performance.

This isn't a whinge (well, only a bit). Writers have to realise that they are operating in a commercial world, in which any artistic satisfaction they get is between them and their muse. I am taking some time to reflect, and to explore with Will what are the most constructive options for me - but one thing's for sure, that list of options does not include giving up writing.

15 comments:

Aliya Whiteley said...

Tim, how utterly depressing. It's one thing to write a not very good book, and quite another to write a good one that won't make money. I think that must really sting.

Ouchie.

Matt Curran said...

Tim, echoing Aliya's comments, I totally feel for you. For the book to be turned down for commercial reasons must really be frustrating, but like you say, not writing should not be one of the options open to you... Nor should not pursuing another publisher for Last Free City. If there are any positives to take from this, is that there may yet be a market for the Last Free City. I really enjoyed Dog of the North and I'm certain there is a big enough readership out there that would warrant an independent publisher picking this up, perhaps someone like PS Publishing or Pendragon Publishing.
The other advice I can give is that you're not the only one to feel this drawing of breath from publishers. I've already had one chat with an agent and bookseller who's expressed their dismay at how mid-list authors are being axed and not many new authors are being taken on. His suggestion was to persevere until these dark months are behind us and publishing gets back on its feet again.

Frances Garrood said...

Tim, I'm so so sorry. However much one tries to prepare oneself for bad news, it comes as a horrible blow, doesn't it, and it takes time to recover. But you're right. You are a writer, and you will go on writing. Writing's what we all do. It's why we blog and keep in touch and write our books, published or not, and support each other. So - lots of luck with whatever you decide to do next. I'm thinking of you.

Doug Worgul said...

Tim,

Two things:

1. My heartaches for you, brother. I'm sure every writer empathizes with you to one degree or another. But we MNWers much more so. You're among friends.

2. You say Dog of the North didn't sell well. Would you be comfortable sharing with us some of the specifics? How many copies over what time period?

doug

Ann Weisgarber said...

Tim, this is a crushing blow. I wish I could say something to make you feel better, but there aren't any such words. It's a heartbreak.

Like everyone else, I admire your grit. You aren't giving up and you shouldn't. I'm another fan of Dog of the North (my signed copy is on my bookshelf!), and I look forward to reading your next book. I have no doubt that will happen, just not the way we had all envisioned.

However it comes about, you are a MNW author and we all know how tough it is to get published. You did it before and you'll do it again.

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks for your support, guys. Only other writers can understand exactly what this is like - not just the misery of rejection but also that vein of sheer bloodymindedness which not only gets you this far, but gets you through it as well. You don't get to be a published writer without ego, so sooner or later you bounce back and decide it's the bookbuying public that's wrong and not you...

Doug, on your specific questions: I've been canned on the basis of paperback sales, for which I don't have figures (it's only been out 6 weeks, which makes things even more baffling). Hardback sales were around 1,000 in the first six months,a figure characterised as "respectable".

Matt, on your points, I will certainly be looking for another market for the book. I know that I can always self-publish but there are other commercial avenues to explore before I return there.

Aliya, looks like we might end up talking writerly rubbish on the 30th after all...

Len Tyler said...

Tim - like the others, I'm very sorry to hear that The Last Free City won't be published - or at least not by Macmillan. You really deserve success, not only because Dog of the North is such an excellent book, but also because you have been so supportive of the rest of us. The recession has a lot to answer for and impacts on us all one way or the other. I'm sure you're right that the thing to do is to talk to Will about what will sell and then come back fighting (a bit like Beauceron in that respect). Looking forward to seeing you on the 30th.

Tim Stretton said...

I like the Beauceron analogy, Len - although taken to its logical conclusion it may imply that I'll end up burning down Macmillan Towers...

Ellie said...

Tim, I am so sorry to hear this, I wonder if the credit cruch is a factor in this?

I certainly know that you will come through this. You're a writer--that's what you do.


Eliza

David Isaak said...

Well, that rather casts a gloom over my day.

I guess the paperback figures they are basing their decision on probably have more to do with preorders from booksellers than with sales of books on the shelves, so, weirdly, the public hasn't really made a decision on the subject. (Nor will they have the opportunity, I guess.)

I know nothing I say will alleviate the sting much, but I know a number of readers (myself included) were looking forward to revisiting your world. I hope you'll find another publisher for the book--and that there will be many more to follow.

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks Eliza. The relationship between being a writer and being in print is tangential at best, and of course we keep plugging away regardless of external validation (although I was delighted to see Restition in Waitrose of all places on Saturday!).

David, Will was very clear that, although bookshops had been keen to stock the book, it hadn't then been selling off the shelves. My attempts at turning the stock face-out in Chichester Waterstones obviously didn't do the trick...

Ellie said...

Tim--I see from the Waterstones website that the book is actually available in loads of Waterstones. Would it be worth doing a blitz on them--offering to sign whatever stock they've got?

I've found the branches of Waterstones and Borders vary in their enthusiasm for this, but one or two have been quite categorical that signed books are more likely to sell. Or at least get moved to a more prominent position.

It may be stable doors and horses now, but worth a thought? Or perhaps you've now moved on from this psychologically (quite understandably)...

suroopa said...

It is always depressing to get a market evaluation of your book, and know that it is the basis of judging your next work. I guess it boils down to external factors. In India writing in English is such a niche market with limited readership that anyone selling more than a 1000 books is comfortably placed. It's also an elite circle here and much depends on the kind of networking you can do. So book launches, reviews and media attention is often propped up by aggressive publishers and critic friends. But with the best of hype many simply fade. I have seen books come with fanfare and sink. The few names that circulate are ones that are controversial or have true merit. But normally publishers will never tell you that I cannot publish your next because you did not sell. Its couched in language less commercial and perhaps less flattering. Like - the Indian underdog is the flavour of the day...so...! Most often you get the feeling that it might just be worth the wait. I guess that is what it means for most of us. As for me, once I complete a book the characters have ceased to exist for me and the creative landscape has simply faded. My mind is brimming with new people and new plots and the writing cannot pause. Publishers are forgotten as well.

Tim Stretton said...

Eliza - I have a pretty good relationship with my local Waterstones (who hosted my launch) but other branches aren't terribly interested. I think "moving on psychologically" sums up pretty neatly where I am. I will do all I can to place The Last Free City somewhere else, but my head is already into other ideas...

Suroopa, your last two sentences should be graven on a brass plaque above every writer's desk!

Brian McGilloway said...

Tim

Like everyone else here, I'm very sorry to hear your news. No doubt another home awaits the book.

Best wishes