Daniel Blythe is one of those rare creatures: a writer who makes his living from his writing work. He’s also a regular contributor to this blog, and can be found in the comments-streams on many of my posts. His latest book is Autonomy, and is a Doctor Who novelisation. Here’s the story of his route into publication: I hope that it will be the first of many to appear here.
I’ve learned a few lessons from my years of being published – not all of them pleasant. They are:
1) Philip Pullman was absolutely right when he said that the three things you need are talent, luck and hard work, and that the only one you have any control over is the hard work.
2) You probably aren’t ready to be published when you think you are.
3) Even after you have become published, most people in publishing will treat you like an annoyance, a lackey or an irrelevance. The fact that there would be no “publishing industry” without you and thousands like you is totally lost on them.
My breakthrough – after a couple of years of unpaid short stories in the small press and so on – came in 1992 when Peter Darvill-Evans of Virgin Books invited submissions for his range of original Doctor Who fiction, a new idea at the time. My proposal for The Dimension Riders was accepted in 1992 and the book came out in November 1993 in time for the 30th anniversary of Doctor Who. It was hugely exciting to see stacks (yes, really, stacks) of my books in bookshops – on shelves, on tables and even on the floor. And it was very satisfying to keep sneaking into these bookshops and moving them to even more prominent positions.
After that, I did a second book for Peter’s successor at Virgin, Rebecca Levene, called Infinite Requiem, which sold pretty much the same – both books received a small advance (under £2k, as I recall) but did very well in royalties. Virgin knew what they were doing. They could afford to take on new, unknown writers and pay them peanuts, because it was the Doctor Who brand and Sylvester McCoy’s face doing the selling. One more short story in a Virgin anthology and I moved on – very amicably. I tried them with a couple more ideas, I think, but nothing really gelled.
I was trying my “proper novels” with editors, and receiving often quite patronising responses. The fact that I was published – *published*! – and my books had sold tens of thousands of copies was met with an indifferent shrug from the Katies and the Melissas. But I’d been writing what became The Cut, and this helped me to get an agent. I queried ten, but the one I eventually found was young, keen, clever and seemed on my wavelength. We met up in London for a chat, and clicked. She took me on, read the first half of The Cut and seemed very enthusiastic about selling it. Over the course of the next few months, she tried several publishers and got the frustration of the “rave rejections” – i.e. “we love it, but…” Eventually it ended up on the desk of Tony Lacey at Penguin and it happened to be the sort of thing he was looking for. It was published as a Penguin paperback in 1998, and got decent bookshop exposure and went to a reprint. The advance was a mid-range four figures, but I was just happy to have anything. I had an agent, who had sold my novel to a big publisher. Things were up and running, and I was still only twenty-eight.
I’d like to say this started off a productive and long-running association with Penguin, but I’d be lying. They bought my next novel, Losing Faith – for about double the advance paid on The Cut – and then sneaked it out into the bookshops under cover of darkness, with about as much publicity as the Much Binding In The Marsh Fete gets. In fact, I’m sure the Much Binding Fete gets a lot more, as it would have a notice in the parish newsletter and a mention in the Binding Gazette. To everyone’s feigned astonishment but mine, Losing Faith didn’t do terribly well in trade paperback and Penguin declined a) the option on my next book and b) to do the B-format paperback of Losing Faith.
I am normally a mild-mannered person. But this is the only time I can recall actually screaming and swearing (most unprofessionally) down the phone at my agent. I literally could not understand how this had happened. It was in the contract that they would do the paperback. It was IN. THE. CONTRACT. So that was my lesson for 1999 – a publishing contract, when they want it to be, is not worth the paper it’s written on. I’d been pinning a lot of hopes on the paperback – being told I was not having one really felt like being kicked while I was down.
I kept my agent. It wasn’t her fault. (And where, after all, was I going to find another one? It would be like dumping a nice girlfriend just because she hadn’t helped you not to lose your job.)
But it was my lowest point as a professional writer. I had assumed – naively – that once you were published, it opened doors. That you would no longer be ignored and treated like the least important cog in the machine. That the advances gradually crept up, sneaking towards “proper salary” level, until the big breakthrough novel on Book Five or Six, when it would all go mad. To say I’d had a major reality-check would be an understatement.
So there I was at the age of twenty-nine, feeling as if I was right back at the start again. Where did it all go wrong? Where would it go from here?
Luckily, an opportunity was just around the corner – one which would change my writing life for ever…
And no, it wasn’t meeting me, as Daniel and I didn’t become acquainted until much later on. You can read the second part of his story next Tuesday, and if you have your own story of publication which you’d like to see featured here, email it to me at “HPRW at tesco dot net”. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.