Friday, 19 December 2008

Publishing Emily V.

This is the last post I shall make on writing The Case of Emily V. Lots of people want to write a novel, and lots of people do so, but by no means all the novels that are written get published. So, I feel very fortunate, and very grateful to those who have helped me get a novel into print and into the bookshops. Here, to the left, is a picture of the original cover of my novel, with a detail, which I chose rather carefully, of a painting by Gustav Klimt in the style of the Viennese succession of the turn of the Century. You can read the final chapters (11 to 13) of Book I of the novel (Confession), by clicking here.

I wrote The case of Emily V., and passed it to my wife Jenny, to her mother Kathy, and to a very small group of friends. They said they enjoyed it, so that was very nice. I tried to get it published, but without success. The manuscript sat in my drawer for two years. What activated me again was that Kathy started writing on my behalf to literary agents in California. I felt acutely embarrassed, as I imagined Kathy's letters: "Dear X, I am writing to recommend a novel by my son-in-law, and I wonder if you would take him as a client." I thought that I really ought to do something. I happened to write at that time to the agent of Penelope Lively, Murray Pollinger, to ask permission to quote something of hers in one of my academic books. The agency gave permission and then—silly as it sounds—when I wrote back to thank them I said: "By the way, I have a novel. I wonder if you would mind having a look at it." The person with whom I corresponded was Celia Catchpole, to whom I am tremendously grateful. She said: "Send it along." She liked it, and showed it to Sara Menguc in the agency, who also liked it. Within a week they had sold it to Dan Franklin of Secker and Warburg. What could be better? What better publishing house could there be? And, as well, I had been taken on by one of Britain's best agents. To top it all, Dan Franklin entered the book for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, in which it won Best First Novel.

Now the less good luck: before the book was published, Dan Franklin left Secker and Warburg for Random House, and the editor who replaced him did not like the novel so it got very little publicity. It got good reviews, but even with the prize, it did not do well in Britain. That is what frequently happens. Each season, publishers bring out a number of books, but promote only a few, and don't put much energy into the others. Many novels that are published don't even get reviewed. Much depends on the amount of buzz a publisher generates.

By that time I was living in Canada, but Emily V. was not available here. I wanted my friends to see that there really was a book, and to enable those who had not read it to do so. The managers of my local bookshop, Book City, were John Schneider and Kim Dawson. I asked Kim if she would take ten books on consignment, and put them in the store. She said: "Fine." The consignment arrived from England, I took the books round to the bookshop, and they went on sale. There they were, in a nice stack on the front table. My friends were sent to buy them. There were only two left when Oliver Salzmann, whom I did not know, who was a publisher at Reed Canada, saw them there. He liked the cover (see the head of this post). He picked one of them up, saw that the publisher was Secker and Warburg, and thought: "This is a publisher we represent in Canada. Why don't I know about this?" He bought the book, read it, liked it, and got in touch with me. He went into rapid motion to publish it in Canada. Oliver could not have better: wonderfully energetic, wonderfully supportive. He got me onto Peter Gzowski's radio show (which in Canada was better than Oprah). He sent me on a book tour to Ottawa, to Calgary, to Vancouver. Talk about buzz. The book took off, made it onto the Canadian best seller lists, and was reprinted several times: all extremely flattering.

So, it IS about luck, but I still don't understand how it works. The book got translated into three languages, but until last year it could not find a publisher in USA. That happened by way of a friend of a friend, who knew someone—Jack Estes—who had started a small literary press in New York, Pleasure Boat Studio. To read the final two parts of the novel (Book II, Investigation, and Book III, Obsession) you can buy it direct from this publisher by clicking here, or you can buy it from Amazon by clicking here.

I don't know what to say in summary. Maybe this: if you write a book, some people may like it but some won't. What a lame conclusion. Alright, here's a better conclusion: if you are going to write fiction, you had better do it for some reason that will sustain you in itself, rather than only in the hope that you will be published. My most recent novel has not been able to find a publisher. But perhaps it isn't good enough yet.

6 comments:

the wordy gecko said...

Thank you for your statement 'if you are going to write fiction, you had better do it for some reason that will sustain you in itself, rather than only in the hope that you will be published'. That is wise and useful!

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Wordy Gecko, for this comment. I am glad you find my statement helpful. But I also feel bad about coming to this conclusion because there is something satisfying in seeing one's book in the bookshop, or one's article or story in a magazine. I think that the satisfaction has to do with connecting with others, that the thought one has put into one's writing can reach other minds. I do think one needs to find engagement in writing-in-itself, but one of the virtues of the internet is that a connection with others can be achieved through this medium too.

Jim H. said...

What an amazing and inspiring post, Keith. It's remarkable how much of a role luck plays in such things. That being said, however, the product has to be worthy. I look forward to reading it.

Those of us with novels out (my manuscript is currently with an agent in NYC and an independent publishing house) can draw some consolation from your story: keep putting it forward, don't get discouraged, eventually the right person(s) will see it.

Best for the Holidays,
Jim H.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Jim, for this comment. I am glad my post was useful. I send my good wishes for the publication of your novel. The story of getting Emily V. published is rather curious but, as you say, it does illustrate that one has to persevere. And, as you also say, there has to be something there. Fortunately, I think, writing is an activity at which we can improve, from reading a lot, from taking on examples of writers we admire, and from keeping at it. The possibility of improvement, both in our ability and in a particular piece we are working on, does help to make writing fascinating in itself.

the wordy gecko said...

I agree, Keith, that publication is immensely satisfying, for a number of reasons. I'm not someone who only writes for themselves, but needs my stories to have a reader. If some dialogue is generated as a result, that's even better. But in the long struggle to get published, it is necessary, as you say, to have that other reason that sustains you, whatever it may be.

An Australian writer who I admire said something similar to what you have written, but from a different angle. Do not be ambitious for publication, but be ambitious for the story (I'm paraphrasing), she said to a class of writing students, and it's something I try to remember when rewriting and rewriting to get the stories as close as possible to what I want to say.

Keith Oatley said...

Yes, Wordy Gecko, I agree. That's a good thought: to be ambitious primarily for the story and then, as you say, you want the story, also, to reach someone else, to complete the partnership.

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