This week sees the publication of my first book, Badger Clan. It hasn’t been the most straightforward journey, which is why I’ve decided to write about it here. I hope my experiences will be of use to one or two of my readers.
The material in my memoir is mainly from 2015. Why has it taken so long to get it out there? I finished writing the book in 2016. By spring 2017 I looked for an agent, and quickly signed with Anne Williams of the Kate Hordern Literary Agency. I worked on an edit with Anne, which we were both happy with by July of that year. This isn’t unusual – an agent will be representing many other authors and I had to fit writing around my full teaching schedule. Submissions started during autumn 2017 (holiday time is ‘dead time’). Many publishers then asked to see the book.
Rejections included, ‘I’m deeply jealous of all that badger action and I would have loved to give this a go, but I’m afraid I couldn’t get the kind of consensus we need to take a book on’ and ‘I really enjoyed reading this and thought it was beautiful but I’m afraid I didn’t love it enough in the end to want to take it on. I hope you find the perfect editor for this special book.’
The book, then known as The Year of the Badger, went to one or two acquisitions meetings.
A certain Mr P, editor from another well-respected publishing house said, ‘This is a really deeply lovely book. Gorgeous writing, hugely engaging, exciting and carefully crafted. The village is alive and nuanced and real in the reader’s mind.’ They were about to re-roll Badgerlands (no clues there, then) and felt unable to help due to a conflict of interests.
Finally, my agent phoned one evening to tell me she’d received a ‘yes’. ‘Go and celebrate with your family,’ she said. Something inside me made me hold back from cracking open the champagne; just as well it did. Despite everything progressing nicely over the weeks that followed, information on where the pictures would go, how many books would be printed and how the book would be marketed, I took another, less positive call a few weeks later. I remember it well. It was during my youngest daughter’s birthday tea, February 2018. The publishing house was having a financial crisis and having to pull out on all new writers. They told Anne we could be in touch again towards the end of the summer, when, hopefully, their finances would be back on track.
I fought back the tears, lit the candles on the cake and carried it through to the table as if nothing had happened. My little girl had no idea of the news that felt devastating. Yet I had much to celebrate too, sang out ‘Happy Birthday’ with the rest of them and sat back, very aware of my blessings. Perhaps, with hindsight, it was the best time to have received the news.
There is a whole lot of waiting for publishers, even without the ‘please get back to us’ scenario. It helped me to have other writing projects on the go, and to be taking the long view. We let the summer pass and Anne emailed the publisher in question, then tarried a while but they didn’t respond. She felt this was signal enough that we’d reached closure with them, and gave me permission to do what I’d been longing to: publish as an indie via KDP. I had a busy teaching term and wanted to make my own tweaks now that the book was mine again (I had also been through a PhD viva with it and needed to process advice given there). My goal was to get the book out early in the new year. I contacted Alexi Francis, a name I’d come across through an anthology series we’d both written for, and then Twitter, and asked her to create my cover. I suggested pen and ink, a design different to the known badger narratives’ covers out there, and said ‘I can imagine some blue in it, with perhaps a night sky and some winter trees. I do love your Havergate Hare painting. I think something quite simple with strong, dark colours to make it eye-catching.’ She met the brief and has far exceeded my hopes. Would a publishing house have given me something I like this much? They would have been hard pushed to.
So here we are! Annie, my eldest daughter, is now in her second year at university; she was taking her GCSEs in the book, which gives you some idea of how much time has passed.
The route to publication was nothing like I expected, but I’ve learnt a lot on the way. Enrol on any MA Creative Writing course and you are led to believe that traditional publishing is the most respectable way into print. How many well-written books are in hiding right now, abandoned with a misplaced sense of shame? How many writers have given up their calling? I have been told by many people that my book should be out there, not least my PhD supervisor, Scarlett Thomas, my agent and the publisher who wanted my book, but shall remain nameless: ‘So sorry to excite and deflate like this. But it is a reflection of the life of a small publisher rather than on the book itself, as Caroline writes very well.’ And that is the bottom line – the publishing industry is not in great shape, for publishers, small or large, are not committing to new writers as they did a decade ago. Their bubble may have burst, but as new writers our hopes should not.
I feel my book is as good as any publishing house would have made it. What I do appreciate is that it is now MY book, not tailored to their whims, but my own.
The would-be published author is made to feel small in the 21st century; like they really need a mainstream publishing house behind them. Yet I am now actually feeling very excited about launching out without support. I have been interested to discover, too, that self-publishing has the potential to be more lucrative. A friend told me once she would be receiving ten pence per copy of hardback book sold. This isn’t outlandish. A writer will receive perhaps 10% per sale. This doesn’t sound so bad? It isn’t based on the cover price but rather the price the publisher sells it at. This could be half the cover price. Wholesalers can then demand large discounts etc. etc. The printing cost for my book will be £4.52. If I sell at £9.99 the royalty on each copy will be £1.47. I’m yet to see how this pans out, but so far I’m not complaining.
Despite all this, I’m saving the best bit till last. You see, if I’d like to be known for any writing, it’s my current project. In 2018 I wrote for a Christian anthology that was published at Christmas (Merry Christmas, Everyone, The Association of Christian Writers). This unexpectedly kickstarted a new project in me and it has felt like a tremendous release; not that I didn’t enjoy writing Badger Clan, but my new book has been prompted by my own spiritual journey and not someone (who became my PhD supervisor) inviting me to write a book. My faith grew as I wrote the badger book, and through the rocky road to publication, too. I sometimes wonder that if Christians always have it easy, what use are we to anyone else? I can share from my experiences and hopefully be an encouragement to others to see their projects through to a rightful conclusion.
I still expect to write some nature pieces in the future, but I’m not tied into this because it’s what my publisher expects of me.
How will I seek publication for my latest book? At this stage, I really don’t know. (When it’s finished I may feel clearer). But it’s felt more fulfilling than anything to write, and I hope its outworking will do something quite profound; if it can bring greater understanding of the book that’s the most precious to me in the world, and point to the one who changes lives and transforms, then it will be a job well done. I like the thought of writing something with eternal consequences. Now that would be success in my mind.