Tuesday, 29 September 2009

How I Got Published (Part I): Daniel Blythe

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.

24 comments:

ChrisH said...

This is a great idea and I found Daniel's story fascinating. I'm still at the 'rave rejections' stage in fiction and I thought that was frustrating enough, so it's good to be forewarned about what may lie ahead. Has it put me off? No, never - I want to know how it feels to see piles of your books 'out there'. The closest I've come is seeing the anthology I contributed to in Tesco - I nearly stopped every shopper who passed to tell them I was in it.

The Voice said...

The idea of being published is like testing the heat of a flame. You know its hot, the idea of putting your hand in is so tantalizing that you will endure the pains just for the experience.

Helen P said...

I love reading real stories about publishing on your blog, Jane, but if I'm honest I much prefer them to have a happy ending. And this was one of the best!

Lydia Sharp said...

I enjoyed this. :) Well done.

Catherine Hughes said...

I'd kind of already assumed that getting published - being published - was more of a beginning to a hard slog at a caereer, rather than an end. Part of me is almost hoping so, given that I thrive on challenge.

The first challenge is to get an agent; then a publisher; then the actual book; then several more; then to be more recognised; and finally to keep succeeding. I suppose that, instead of learning to hurdle, what you actually have to be able to do is fly!

Derek said...

the Katies and the Melissas

LOL

I enjoyed reading your post, Daniel. Looking forward to part two.

Dan Holloway said...

There mus must MUST be some irony there "Doctor Who's brand and Sylvester McCoy's face". That you succeeded despite Mr Oven Chip is true testimony to your talent, Daniel. And now you can reap the reward of the delicious David

Helena Halme said...

A really good post, I enjoyed hearing that the industry is exactly as I imagined it. Just wish I could bloody well stop writing and dreaming.

Donna Gambale said...

Great story... can't wait to hear the rest!

Suzie F. said...

Like a good book, you've got me on the edge of my seat. Can't wait to read Part 2 next week.

Thanks for sharing your story, Daniel.

DanielB said...

Dan H - no irony at all! Sylvester McCoy was the "current" Doctor at the time and his episodes got six million viewers. OK, he's not in David Tennant's league when it comes to being photogenic, but people recognised him as "The Doctor" on the book covers.

Helen P - that's only the mid-point! Wait and see what happens in Part 2...

Mimzy said...

You wrote and still write Dr. Who novels? Considering that I've bought nearly every one written about the Tenth Doctor I have to say that I absolutely adore the people who write those. Also, I'll have to look into buying some of your other works... After I buy Autonomy as I don't have that one yet.

DanielB said...

I should also point this out. Jane is kind enough to say I make my living from writing, and that is true to an extent as it is my main job. But it took me over a decade to get to this point, and I do other things as well, associated with writing - and could not survive without these.

I teach a Writing A Novel class for the WEA, and odd private classes. I do (paid) workshops and author appearances in schools - a increasing number of these. I do some work for Sheffield Arts Education, working "on location" with groups of kids. I've been an online mentor for a young writers' group. And I do critiques of unpublished manuscripts!

I've also had other short-term jobs in the not-for-profit sector, just to tide me over at fallow times.

On top of all that I have a partner with a "proper job" - on my own I doubt I could ever have obtained a mortgage or been approved for credit.

Vivian Swift said...

You are so right, Daniel. I was published for the first time last year (a travel memoir by BloomsburyUSA) and now I'm convinced that the most dreaded words in the entire publishing industry are "First Time Author". Bookstores, book reviewers, the lady in charge of scheduling events at your local library all seem to shudder at the thought of having to talk with a First Time Author. I needed to hear another tale of woe (yes, getting published is only the beginning of a whole new round of hard work) -- thank you for sharing!

Teresa Ashby said...

Brilliant post, Daniel. Can't wait for part 2.

Jane Smith said...

I'm lucky enough to have read part two already, and it's brilliant--if I had lived Daniel's writing life I think I'd be on the Gaviscon for good by now.

Thanks for writing this, Daniel: you were right, it looks like it's going to be a very popular series. I've already had a good few submissions for the series, and have some really interesting writers lined up for future editions.

Rebecca Knight said...

I'm hooked! Thank you for giving us a true picture of what we're striving for and what it's going to be like when we get there ;).

Donna Hosie said...

@Helen - don't stop writing and don't stop dreaming. If Daniel's story shows us anything it is that the dream is possible.

I really enjoyed part one, Daniel. Any chance you could get David Tennant to come in and personally narrate part two?!!

Solvang Sherrie said...

Thanks for posting this story! I love hearing from writers about the ups and downs of publishing, especially from someone who has been at it for a long time.

Jane Smith said...

Daniel wrote, "I do (paid) workshops and author appearances in schools - a increasing number of these."

He's visited the school which my youngest son attends and was, according to the people I talked to afterwards (who didn't know that I knew him) a huge success: he even took his sonic screwdriver with him.

If anyone reading this has children at a UK school, then I'd suggest they approach their head-teacher and request that they book Mr Blythe for a session or two. He's fabulous, works his socks off, and is quite a good writer, too. I think he might even have an information sheet on his website for you to present to the school.

(Dan, you own me at least £2.57 for that.)

Samantha Tonge said...

Oh dear, the bubble's burst, my dream of what it must be like to be published which gets me through the darker moments of rejection...:)

Fascinating, Daniel. Wising up - two very important words for published and unpublished writers.

Borah said...

fascinating!

Tommy Donbavand said...

Fantastic article and a real insight into the writing life. Can't wait for the second part.

Razor_goto said...

Hey,

I actually read Losing Faith and thought that it was good.

I live in Canada and bought your book as a "Hurt Penguin" -- physically damaged books -- in 2002.

The corner was a bit dented, but otherwise, it was in perfect condition. I can still remember the plot and the characters of the story.

I probably still have the book somewhere in storage. I think I will dig it up and give it to a friend. That way, more people can enjoy your work.