The world is full of clichés about never giving up your dreams, of try-try-try again. It’s what fuels reality shows like The X Factor. It’s a story that athletes and celebrities use to fill the pages of their autobiographies, between the early chapters on their childhood and their big break. For writers, who dream of having a book in the shops, a publishing deal, perseverance is as vital as a love of reading and the ability to string two sentences together. Stories of bestsellers that got rejected by scores of publishers – from Harry Potter to Day of the Jackal – are as common as pigeons on London streets.
On January 5th 2012 my novel <em>Catch Your Death</em>, co-written with Louise Voss, was published by HarperCollins. I haven’t actually been into a bookshop yet to see it on the shelves, but apparently it’s out there. I’ve seen photos! It’s an incredible feeling. Holding your own book in your hands is not quite up there with holding your newborn child, but for a writer it’s not that far off. And, for me at least, the gestation period was a lot longer than nine months.
I wrote my first novel when I was 23, fresh out of university. I wrote it in longhand, between the pages of a hardback notepad. It was rubbish. But then I wrote another, actually typing this one up – on a contraption called a Sharp Fontwriter, which displayed 3 lines of a text at a time and had to be fed one sheet of paper at a time – and then sent it off to some agents, as advised by <em>The Writer’s Handbook</em>. Almost immediately, I got interest from a big agent. This is easy, I thought, then waited two months for them to decide it wasn’t quite what they were looking for. I also got some ‘positive’ rejections from a few other agents and publishers.
Perhaps if I hadn’t received that early encouragement I might have given up straight away. But encouraged I was, so I wrote another book, called <em>The Liberators</em>. Again, I got some sniffs of interest, but no one took me on – not for about a year, by which time I’d sent it to nearly every agent in the UK. Back then, you had to send off the synopsis and the first three chapters along with a stamped addressed envelope. Every day on the way home from work I would wonder if the postman had brought me anything, but all I ever got were my tatty pages returned with either standard rejection slips or, occasionally, more notes of encouragement.
Then I got that call that every writer dreams of. An agent wanted to take me on. She loved the book, was sure it would sell, that I would be a big success. I was over the moon, convinced that this was it, that the gates of the literary world were finally opening… I told everyone I knew and then sat back and waited for the offers to come rolling in.
They didn’t. Just lots more rejections. I had some short stories published – more encouragement! – but the novel was dead. So I wrote another. Same thing again, even though my agent thought this one was better. A year passed and I decided to rewrite <em>The Liberators</em>, making it much better.
At this point I was doing my second awful job since leaving university: answering complaints for a rail company. It was miserable. All I wanted was to be a writer. It was going to be my escape route. Then my agent called to tell me the BBC was looking for a writer to feature on a documentary about novelists. They chose me to be featured – I was the writer with an agent trying to get a deal. They filmed my agent calling editors, filmed me anxiously waiting for news. I was foolishly convinced I was going to get a deal, even though it felt like I was constantly tossing a coin in the air that always came down tails when I wanted it to be heads.
The book got rejected again and again. The TV programme went out and led to nothing, apart from getting recognised in the street a couple of times. Except for one good thing: I got an email, via my agent, from someone called Louise Voss. She was in exactly the same situation as me. We started to email each other, chatting about our books, reading each other’s work.
I wrote another novel – which my agent didn’t like – then another, called <em>The Magpies</em>, a psychological thriller about neighbours from hell. While I was writing it, Louise got a huge deal with Transworld for her brilliant novel <em>To Be Someone</em>. I was thrilled for her – she deserved it – but also felt gutted that I was being left behind, especially when <em>The Magpies</em>, which was easily the best thing I’d written, got rejected by everyone again. Then my agent dumped me, with a terse letter. It was seven years since I’d started writing. I felt like giving up. But didn’t.
Instead, I wrote yet another novel, but was unable to find another agent. The pile of manuscripts in my desk drawer was huge. Hundreds of thousands of words. So many hours of writing. I was beginning to lose confidence, was once more on the verge of quitting.
Then Louise and I hit upon the idea of writing a novel together. This was back in 2002. The novel would be a stalker thriller told from the point of view of the male and female protagonists. We called it <em>Killing Cupid</em>. Just after we started writing it, I moved to Tokyo, but we continued working on it via email.
Then something really cool happened: Louise met a BBC producer and gave her our work in progress. She loved it and immediately decided to option it to turn it into a BBC drama. This was amazing. Surely we would be able to find a publisher! Especially as we were both convinced it was a fantastic book. But Louise’s agent was lukewarm about it, and her existing publisher didn’t want her writing in a different genre to her normal contemporary women’s fiction. Yet again, the rejection letters came pouring in.
I moved back to England and wrote yet another solo novel, this one about Japan. I was unable to get any agents interested. That was the last solo book I wrote.
Then, after a slightly drunken night out in London, we came up with another idea for a joint novel. Louise wanted to write something set at the Common Cold Research Unit, a place near her hometown of Salisbury where people used to be able to go to help with research into the common cold. I immediately saw it as a potential conspiracy thriller and we decided to write it together. We worked on it over the next year, finishing it in the summer of 2006. We called it <em>Catch Your Death</em>.
By this time, Louise’s publishing deal had ended and she no longer had an agent. She was back in the wilderness with me. We sent <em>Catch Your Death</em> to numerous agents, some of whom liked it but not enough. So we gave up. I had a good job by this point, one I enjoyed and where I was valued. What was the point in constantly banging your head against a brick wall? I had long ago stopped telling people about my aspirations to be a writer, tired of the pitying looks. This was it. I stopped writing. It wasn’t worth the pain and the effort. I had given it my best shot. Louise kept going for a while but eventually gave up too. She stopped saying ‘writer’ when anyone asked what she did for a living.
Then, in late 2010, I heard about Amazon’s new Kindle publishing platform. Anyone could upload a book and sell it on Amazon. It sounded great – here was an opportunity to get our books directly to readers. I persuaded Louise, who thought we would probably sell an embarrassing two copies, that it was worth the effort and we set about rewriting and updating the books. We got some covers designed, using stock images, and in February 2011 uploaded <em>Killing Cupid</em> onto Amazon.
On the first day we sold 2 copies, one to my mother-in-law and the other to my boss. For a while, we sold about 5 copies a day – on good days. But we started to get great feedback and reviews. I was convinced we could get into the higher reaches of the chart and we started to spend all out spare time blogging, tweeting and networking, slowly pushing <em>Killing Cupi</em>d further up the charts until, after three months of persistent effort and obsessive stat-counting, we entered the top 100.
At that same point, in May, we self-published <em>Catch Your Death</em>. This was, we felt, always the more commercial of the two books. What happened over the next few weeks still astonishes me. As <em>Killing Cupid</em> continued to creep slowly up the rankings, <em>Catch Your Death</em> raced up behind it, with barely any promotional effort – we believe that what happened was that lots of people who had read and enjoyed <em>Cupid </em>went and downloaded <em>Catch </em>at the same time – until one glorious Saturday in early June both books were in the top twenty. A few days after that, <em>Catch</em> was No.1.
It felt like winning a gold medal at the Olympics, like years of training and an intense period of effort had paid off. We stayed at No.1 for a month, twice achieving the double-whammy of having books at No.1 and 2. We were all over the media: BBC Breakfast, Reuters TV, the Evening Standard, Sky News, Radio 2… Life had gone brilliantly insane. And we were even making some money – even at the pitiful royalty we were earning, selling over 40,000 books in a month brought in such much-needed cash.
While all this was going on, we were contacted by a few agents, included Sam Copeland at RCW. Sam was fast-moving, reading the books straight away and getting them straight out to publishers.
So here we were again. Even though we were doing well on our own, we still wanted a traditional deal. We wanted our books to be available in shops. We wanted to be able to hold our book in our hands – while paper books still exist. We wanted an editor and a copy-editor. And someone to help us do the PR and marketing, which is all-consuming when you’re self-published. We wanted the chance of selling foreign rights and getting the books translated.
A week after Sam had submitted the books, we got a pre-emptive offer from HarperCollins. I had just got home after a live interview on Sky TV – life really had become very exciting – when I got the call. The offer was for six figures and for four books. The commissioning editor there, Kate Bradley, was bursting with enthusiasm. This was it: the phone call I’d dreamt about for so long. I stood in my kitchen and shed a few happy tears.
Since then, it’s all seemed like a dream. Louise and I both have day jobs, along with book deadlines, and we have to squeeze in writing whenever we can (luckily, we write fast!). There are all sorts of new things to worry about: which shops will stock the book, will anyone buy it, will we end up in the bargain bin? But some of the moments I’ve had over the past few months have been just as I imagined them, or even better: seeing the mock-ups of the cover; visiting the publisher’s office and being greeted with a champagne reception and loads of people gushing about the books; holding the paperback in my hand for the first time; seeing it on a shelf in a shop… Well, like I said, the last one hasn’t happened yet but I’ve seen the evidence.
It could all go horribly wrong now. Having a book deal is not a great panacea. It does not cure all your ills. When you’re unpublished, you fantasise about getting a deal so much that you barely think beyond that. You don’t realise that you are simply shifting up to the next level of things to worry about (or is that just me?). But I do feel different today. I feel like I can finally say ‘I’m a writer.’ I feel quietly vindicated. All those years of effort, the endless hours sat on my own writing, the pain of all those rejections… It was worth it.
I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren that I had a book published.
Even if they do look up from their screen and say, ‘What’s a book?’
About the Author (Author Profile)Mark Edwards is the co-author of Catch Your Death and Killing Cupid, which hit No.1 and 2 on Amazon when self-published. They were subsequently published by HarperCollins. He is keeping a toe in the self-publishing waters with his scary short story, Kissing Games, available on Amazon now. Mark offers consultation and book description services through IndieIQ, along with lots of free advice for authors. The mission of IndieIQ is to help writers find readers.
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