It’s 1987, in retrospect, a publishing era as stylish and nostalgic as an old movie. I’ve sent my first book proposal in a manilla envelope to Ediburgh’s Oliver & Boyd. After three years supervising MEd students in the Education Department at Keele University, I want to put my rebellious ideas into a series of books for pupils. There’s nothing on the market that treats children as very young, budding authors and encourages them to write in many forms and styles. My proposal is accepted and I’m summoned to a discussion with the senior editor which ends in a contract. I walk out of the elegant building at the top of Leith Walk and float down to Princes Street on several clouds hung with the number 9. There follow three wonderful years of long, relaxed discussions over real coffee in thin china cups, meetings with illustrators and designers, and lovely lunches with wine in local restaurants or in the entertaining room at Oliver & Boyd. So this is publishing! The books sell well over five years, but behind the scenes things aren’t as rosy as we authors are led to believe, Shortly after finishing the final book, the company is absorbed by Longman, selected staff move to London, and my hospitable, capable editor is sacked.
On to the next project, with memories of Oliver & Boyd as my lode star. I walked unannounced into the offices of Edinburgh ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) and proposed a book about the impact of passive smoking on children. The director, Alison Hillhouse, was taken aback at my audacity but warmed to the idea. My concern had peaked while standing in an airport, watching the heads of children vanish in a fug of tobacco smoke as their parents puffed their way to the check-in desk. And smoked their way to their destination. I was asthmatic and couldn’t go near a cigarette so my motivation verged on revenge. We secured funding from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and I was welcomed into schools where children wrote, talked and drew their experiences of living in smoke. It was the first book about children as passive smokers, long before public opinion swung to permit laws that banned smoking in public places. My book proposal was accepted quickly by Pluto Press and published in 1990. This time, the collaboration, comaraderie and support was all with ASH. My one meeting with the editor at Pluto Press to sign the contract was over fast food in a very smoky pub. Had they read my book? I was consulted about the colour of the jacket but otherwise the ball was entirely in my court. I sent the complete ms and they published it.
Then came a golden time in my writer-publisher collaborations. I’d written a fictionalised memoir about being the mother of a difficult adolescent son. My agent refused to touch it because no mother should place such a personal, painful book in the public domain. But that book had been simmering for ten years and I was reluctant to let it go. I sent an outline to The Women’s Press and back came an envelope bearing a first class stamp. Yes, they were interested. MD Kathy Gale invited me to London to discuss the project. Remembering Oliver & Boyd, I went with expectations of a company housed in style with a sizeable staff. After all, they published Alice Walker, Stevie Smith, May Sarton and Joan Barfoot, and those striped spines were in all the book stores. After a long tube journey, I had trouble finding the street. I had trouble finding the entrance. I had trouble climbing the four flights of steep, dirty steps to the plain door with its modest label. Inside was an open plan space where every surface and floor space was piled with books, manuscripts, submissions, boxes and the photocopier. A secretary answered the phone in the midst of the organised chaos while Kathy Gale and her financial director worked from two tiny rooms. On a shelf in Kathy’s room, where we talked, were all their recent publications. ‘I’m so proud of them,’ she said, before accepting my project. Over two months Kathy worked with me, chapter by chapter, her sharp editing in tiny pencil notes in the margins, together with neat little ticks. We exchanged chunks by mail. Kathy Scissorhands cut so much. So very much. As we approached our deadline, I froze, partly because the real life story still rolled without an ending. Kathy summoned me again and sat me in her office with a piece of corregated cardboard and a pencil. Clean paper was too expensive and wasteful. There I stayed until I managed to write the last lines. Letters To My Semi-Detached Son brought foreign rights, a savaging by Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour, and an appearance on the Crystal Gale show where the presenter burst into tears on camera because her daughter was also impossible. Kathy commissioned a second book, an anthology of mothers’ stories, loving, troubled and hilarious, A Stranger At My Table. Then a a third book about women who had made major life transitions, but Kathy left and the new MD didn’t like it. I remember those seven years with fondness and admiration. The Women’s Press is my role model as I run Linen Press, now in its tenth year, and the only independent women’s press in the UK.
The next book took longer. I became very ill with ME together with my two sons and several people in my husband’s academic department. We all caught a virus and didn’t get better. It took us between three and thirty years to recover. As I surfaced, and with my chilling, heart-breaking experiences of the attitudes of medics and teachers who labelled my desperately ill younger son anorexic, school phobic and neurotic, I had to write our story and that of others. With my battery low, I interviewed thirty people, young and old, ill and extremely ill, and then donned my sociologist’s hat to write Shattered; Life with ME, an account of the illness that went beyond anecdote and unsubstantiated hypothesis. It took five years and was accepted quickly by Wanda Whitely at Thorsons. We talked twice on the phone, she was encouraging, but her input was slight. She did let me choose the beautiful cover out of a choice of three.
It gets worse from here on. By crossing into fiction, was I entering a more competitive market place? Was I writing less commercial books? Were publishers less willing to take risks? It is 2010 and my memories of delightful lunches and meticulous editing are fading.
I sent my debut novel, White Lies, to Quartet Books. Two days later, a heavily-accented voice on my answer machine said, ‘I love your book. I want to publish it.’ Obviously someone playing an un-funny joke. To check, I rang the phone number. Not a joke. A contract followed, then a slew of gorgeous glossy covers, and presents sent by post of books written by director, Naim Attallah. I’d been promised an editor, but the next file in my inbox (we’ve now entered the digital age) was a set of proofs.
‘What about the editing?’I asked.
‘No need. The book is perfect.’
It wasn’t. It was a debut novel. Was it cost-cutting that made them jump to the finishing line? Things turned nasty at this point with the upshot of me paying a large sum to extract myself from the contract. White Lies went into a drawer for a year until l I felt able to re-write it myself. By that point, I had established Linen Press and we published it.
As the director of Linen Press, I’m experiencing first hand the stranglehold of Amazon with its cost-slashing strategies. I’m barred from Waterstones because they ask for 55% discount . I watch beloved independent bookshops close their doors for the last time. I hear from established authors that their publishers no longer offer editing because it’s too expensive. Maureen Freely sends her seventh novel to Linen Press saying that her mainstream publisher is anti-literary and anti-intellectual and that she is talking to ‘a bunch of Tesco boys’. I joyfully take her and it on.
No surprise then that my second novel, Run, Alice, Run, is not snatched up. My emails go unanswered. Or I get standard rejections. A top London agent tells me many publshers and agents no longer read their slush piles. What hope then for an author who jumps genre and doesn’t produce a set of lookalike novels in which the same characters roam round similar plots. This is what readers want. Or this is what publshers give their readers. Which? I talk to another agent who tells me I might as well bin my novel because my heroine is middle-aged. ‘Youth is exciting. Old age is interesting. Middle-aged men are powerful and sexy or going through an existential crisis. Middle-aged women are boring and bland. They’re simply not sexy.’ This is a red rag moment and I respond with more emails pitching Alice.
I’m grateful when Sara-Jayne Slack of Inspired Quill, the youngest publisher on the block, accepts middle-aged Alice. But our first Skype discussion leaves me puzzled. Before I take on a new author, I talk to her at length about her prose – structure and voice, style and characters. I ask if and where she is willing to make changes. I give her my vision of the book to see if it chimes with her own. Sara-Jayne talks at length about software and technology and social media and google. She does edit Alice, pointing out time and plot inconsistencies and grammatical errors, and for that I’m grateful, but more Skype chats barely touch on my writing. It may be a generational thing. Sara is very young. Most of her authors are young. She deals mainly in genre fiction – fantasy and sci-fi. Mu novel feels somehow at odds with their zeitgeist,
My third novel, The Red Beach Hut, is perhaps my best and I desperately want an editor who can see it’s shape and its layers, its surface of friendship and its political underbelly. Two small presses offer publication but on conditions I can’t meet, like an immediate trip to London to meet the director. So I go with IQ Press again. The Red Beach Hut is complete and needs only a week or two of intense editing. But first and second and final edits are spread over two years with long silences in between because it’s queued with half a dozen other books. Several times I have to plunge deep into my novel to engage again with my characters. It’s emotionally and intellectually draining. When I work with an author, I put aside three months so that we both stay inside the book and there is continuity. Each chapter is batted back and forth until we are both happy. How else can we hold on to the scaffolding? The Red Beach Hut was finally published in October 2017 but the stop-start process had so upset me that there was no celebration and I resented the marketing work I’d put in and the cost of sending out books for review. I asked for my novels back. The response from IQ was gracious and we settled on the transfer sum. From 1st January 2018, Run, Alice, Run and The Red Beach Hut are published by Linen Press.
Despite travelling the publishing land for thirty years, I’m feeling adrift in its much changed landscape dominated by the monopolies who decide what we read. Where do I pitch my next book? I’m working on a commissioned biography, with Joyce Goodman of Winchester University, of the prolific, extraordinary painter, Rosa Branson, but since all three of us are unknown, our chances of finding a space on the shelves of Waterstones look forlorn. At which point I pull back my shoulders and tell myself it doesn’t matter. At the moment, the challenge is in the interviewing and the writing, and in doing justice to the life and art of a truly remarkable woman. Any offers, anyone?