Saturday, 10 October 2009

How I Got Published (Part II): Daniel Blythe

A little later than planned, here's the second part of Daniel Blythe's account of how he became a professional, published writer (you can read the first part here). Read and it and boggle.


No publisher, no new book on the horizon and a dearth of new ideas and enthusiasm – that's where I was when we left my publishing career in 2000, with a new baby taking up a lot of the spare time anyway. I was down, but didn't really have time to think about it.

During this time my agent tried, and failed, to sell my novel for 8-to-12-year-olds to every children's publisher in town. They just didn't want to know. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. It felt like when you get on a losing streak at Scrabble and just can't get back into that winning groove. I wanted to scream from the rooftops "I am PUBLISHED, for God's sake. Four novels! Count 'em! Do you think I am some newbie wannabe?" At one point (such was the state of my confidence) I remember saying to my agent, "You are *telling* them about my previous books, aren't you...?"

However. One of the publishers with whom my agent had made connections was David Shelley at Allison and Busby, and I started to talk to him about an 80s film book – which turned in to an 80s music book. Despite David being a few years younger than me we shared similar musical tastes and the book, a 500-page whopper, slowly took shape during 2001 and was published, first in hardback and then in paperback. It got extensively reviewed in regional papers up and down the country, got me lots of radio interest and even, thanks to an enterprising chap at BBC Leeds called John Ryan (who is now running BBC Radio Manchester) a co-presenting slot on an Eighties radio show. Suddenly, I was not only a non-fiction writer but also a DJ too!

Thanks to The Encyclopaedia of Classic 80's Pop, I had re-invented myself. More non-fiction followed – Dadlands: The Alternative Handbook for New Fathers for Wiley, about my experiences of fatherhood, and I Hate Christmas: A Manifesto for the Modern-day Scrooge for Allison and Busby. Both still get a bit of media interest to this day. My agent was doing a great job – putting me out there, matching me up with editors who liked my ideas. And now, a new novel finally came to fruition, in the form of a manuscript called Cruel Summer which I had been working on since 2003. Another 500-page whopper, it ended up being called This Is The Day (my agent suggested Cruel Summer was "a bit too Bananarama") and it was sold to Allison & Busby in 2006, appearing as a trade paperback in 2007 and – hooray! – this time, finally, a paperback a year later. A wine-and-nibbles launch at Blackwells helped shift a few copies, as did some more radio slots. Although the half-promised Richard and Judy appearance for I Hate Christmas hadn't materialized, I had good reason to be thankful to my new publishers.

Diversity, survival, eclecticism – these were my new watchwords. I started up a novel class for the Workers' Educational Association, still running to this day. A chance encounter with some Writers In Schools and a conference workshop by the inspirational Two Steves got me inspired to go into primary schools, delivering workshops and doing author "appearances". The paying gigs began to pile up. More non-fiction commissions came along – the latest being two books for Pen & Sword. My agent sold my idea for X Marks the Box: How to Make Politics Work for You, a political book for non-political people, to Icon Books – a small publisher in the Faber distribution network. That was written with the support of the Authors' Foundation, and will be out soon. And I successfully applied for an Arts Council award in 2008 to write my new children's book – which my agent still believes in, and is still trying to find a home for.

I also returned to the Doctor Who fold when the BBC's Creative Consultant, Justin Richards (himself a writer of hugely popular books for young people) invited me to write one of the Autumn 2009 books featuring David Tennant – last chance to write for the Tenth Doctor before he stands down! I jumped at the chance, and wrote Doctor Who: Autonomy in an intense 7-month period. The "Doctor Who" books are a very different proposition now – they are written by invitation, rather than the editors accepting unsolicited ideas. They are shorter and punchier than the chunky 90s novels and aimed at a younger readership. They have, of course, a huge publicity machine behind them, "Doctor Who" now being a massive, populist, multi-media success story (rather than the slightly embarrassing anachronism it was seen as in the early 1990s). And – somewhat less in the authors' favour – they now pay on the basis of a fixed fee, rather than an advance and royalties. So, not much wiggle-room for my agent to negotiate on. But it is a good fixed fee, and there is a bonus built in once the title sells over a certain number of copies. And, for goodness' sake, I needed the work, and I know I can write "Doctor Who" – I have been a fan since I first cowered behind a cushion at Davros in 1975.

So now, here I am – a working and teaching writer, an educator, an Author In Schools, a sometime radio presenter, and still a would-be children's writer. What have I learned from all this? That you need to diversify to survive, and never take anything for granted. That you just keep plugging away. And that if you have a good agent, hang on to them through thick and thin – this spring, I mark thirteen years with mine, and I'm hoping neither of us is going anywhere else in the foreseeable future.


My thanks to Dan for suggesting this series to me, and for kicking it off so very well. If any publishers are reading, Dan's two excellent children's books (both with good series potential) remain unpublished; and if any writers reading this have a good publication story to tell, I'd be very pleased to hear about it.

23 comments:

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you, Daniel and thank you, Jane. I am duly boggling.

Daniel's well-written account reveals the two hugely important ingredients in his success he modestly didn't mention. One, talent. And two, hard graft. (And a distinct lack of self-pity.)

Jill Edmondson said...

Wow! What a post, what a story, what a ride!

Getting published does take a lot of work and resilience, as well as networking and a bit of luck...

Common denominators like music sure can help get the conversation going. In my case, the common ground was trivia games - whatever... my book will be released next month!

Cheers, Jill
www.jilledmondson.blogspot.com

DanielB said...

Sally - oh, I have self-pity all right, I just try not to let it show to fellow professionals! You should hear the way I bemoan my lot to my poor, endlessly supportive wife.

I think I've had three "breaks" if you can call them that - the first call from Virgin in '92, the Penguin contract in '98 and the switch to non-fiction in '02. And now, arguably, the return to Who with the BBC has been a fourth. I don't think I capitalised on any of these in quite the way in which I expected to.

I'm well aware that some people are lucky if they even get one such "break", and so I shouldn't really have anything to moan about. I suppose I am egotistical enough to be convinced that I "should" be doing well (even though I am the world's worst critic of my own writing) and so I have, up to a point, a rather dangerous sense of entitlement.

Being published is like drugs really. It gets worse once you've had a taste and feel you need more!...

Nicola Morgan said...

Really interesting, D - but you never told me you knew the Two Steves! Wonderful people and, like you, examples of how hard graft+talent+dynamism+persistence+reinvention+beingnice are so important.

And now I'm supposed to be writing my "how i got published" thing for Jane but mine's not half as interesting as yours.

Derek said...

Welcome back, Jane. And thanks to Daniel for this informative and instructive write-up of your experiences.

Jane Smith said...

I've edited the post slightly now to make it more readable: the problem with Dan is that he's written too many books, and I didn't want to leave any of his covers out!

Daniel's story is a good one, but I don't think it's atypical: most of the real, working writers I know cover a lot of different genres and grab at opportunities almost before they arise, just as Dan has, and that's why they're successful. I've had a good few submissions for this series in already and that tenacity and flexibility is apparent in every single story. Talent is important for a writer: but so is working hard and taking advantage of situations as they arise.

Oh, and it's good to be back. Thanks, all, for your patience.

Donna Hosie said...

You pre-empted my question, Jane, because I was going to ask how typical is Daniel's story? I had always laboured under the impression that few writers diversify between fiction and non.

I really enjoyed reading your two-parter, Dan. You've clearly worked your butt off to succeed. It was also good to see what a supportive agent you have.

Jane Smith said...

If I were less professional than I am, I would now make a comment about Daniel Blythe's butt. It's a good job I take both my blog and Mr Blythe seriously. That is all.

Tara said...

Lack of self pity is a big item on the list. Thanks for the account.

catdownunder said...

Thankyou Dan. Thankyou Jane. Nicola I note you put graft before talent!

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

Another writer who supported himself with non-fiction. I love it. You guys give me hope. I write non-fiction and it's been so good that I quit my job in 2008. Never looked back.

This story just helps solidify my feelings that I made the right choice.

Noel Griese said...

Are you sure y'all know what you're talking about? Blythe Daniel is a lady, not a man named Daniel Blythe. Blythe, from Georgia, worked as an editor at Thomas Nelson in Tennessee, and is now an agent in Colorado (she followed her husband there) handling mostly Christian titles aimed mostly at Thomas Nelson.

As for getting published - it's worth reading Malcolm Gladwell's "The Outliers." He makes a pretty good case for what it takes to pay your dues as a professional at anything - playing the violin, writing books. It takes 10,000 hours of practice, as a rule of thumb, to become a proficient professional.

Noel Griese, editor, Southern Review of Books- http://www.anvilpub.net

Jane Smith said...

Noel, I know that Blythe Daniel is an American literary agent: but this article was written by Daniel Blythe, a British writer who is unquestionably a man (if he's not, then he did a very good impersonation of being one when I met him). If you would like to check some of the many links that I provided to his books, you'll find that I'm right.

But yes, the two names are potentially confusing: luckily Daniel and Blythe work in different countries, in completely different areas of publishing. And I doubt that Ms Daniel even has a sonic screwdriver, let alone is able to use it as effectively as Mr Blythe can use his.

Sally Zigmond said...

Jane. You are a genius. What every writer needs to achieve publishing success is a sonic screwdriver. I want one and I want one now--especially one with David Tennant at the other end.

Noel Griese said...

My apologies Jane. You're right. Initially looked like a prank to me, but I've since tracked down the real Daniel Blythe.

Speaking ofBritish writers - Roger Ellory is at the Nashville Book Festival today, and will appear for a signing in Atlanta tomorrow before returning to the UK. His "A Quiet Belief in Angels" is a U.S. best-seller. It's about a serial killer in Georgia and the attempts of a young man to catch him.

Jane Smith said...

Sally, I can tell you here and now that sonic screwdrivers are pretty good when they've got Mr Blythe on the end of them.

And Noel, thanks for that. I know how confusing some names can be--especially my own!

DanielB said...

I have once before been confused with Blythe Daniel, but have never before been accused of being a prank!

I have, for the record, never been confused with Gwyneth Paltrow's mum, Blythe Danner.

And what I can do with my sonic screwdriver is for me and Sarah Harding to know and you to all guess about.

Margaret Adams said...

A very interesting account.

It demonstrates that writing skills need to be supplemented with all sorts of other skills.

The message comes across loud and clear to me. You need to be more than a good writer to succeed.

Daniel clearly has a lot more going for him than "just" his writing skills.

Bostonia Magazine said...

Why you don't need publishers/agents anymore (or, how the web can help your career):

http://www.bu.edu/bostonia/fall09/kirsner/

Jane Smith said...

Bostonia Magazine: if you want to join in with the discussions here, you're welcome. And you're right that the internet can be a useful and effective marketing tool. But by leaving comment-spam on my blog, you're showing yourself to be a different sort of tool entirely.

Please don't do it again.

Bostonia Magazine said...

Hi Jane, Apologies. Not meant to be spam -- I thought that article might be relevant to the discourse. It counters your experience with an alternative means to getting writers to not just market themselves, but publish themselves. In doing so, you can minimize luck, cost, and all sorts of roadblocks for new talent unable to breakthrough in a trying economy.

Surely that expands on the discussion at hand.

Jane Smith said...

Bostonia, the way you commented didn't add to the conversation at all: it just tried to syphon my readers off towards your site. It was akin to marching into my sitting room, grabbing the TV remote out of my hand and switching to the sports channel without asking if that was ok. Which, by the way, it isn't.

You're right that self-publishing provides an alterative route into print for writers who want to go that way. But there are plenty of other places on this blog where its many and great disadvantages have already been discussed, and this isn't the place to do it. If you want to talk about self-publishing with my readers then by all means do so: go to any of the discussions we've already had on the subject and pull up a chair. But don't try to steamroller us into moving over to your site by commenting on a post which has nothing to do with self-publishing.

Stroppy Author said...

Daniel, this is all so familiar! I, too, write in lots of different genres (children's fiction, children's non-ficiton, lisencsed characters, adult non-fiction) - it's the only way to earn enough to live on. It's encouraging to hear that you have a good agent who can cope with all the strands. I have not been as fortunate in that regard. An agent who can handle all types of things equally well is worth their weight in gold :-)