My biggest leap in my writing career was self-publishing The Class Ceiling (now The School Gate Survival Guide) in 2012. I’d written three books over five years and all had met with a varying degree of ‘almost but not quite’ responses from agents. My rejections were getting better but the acceptance I longed for was elusive. After one agent kept the manuscript for ages, sending me exciting little teasers of ‘everyone in the office is reading’ then ultimately rejected me, I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm to spend another year writing a book for an uncertain future.
My husband simply couldn’t understand why I didn’t self-publish, endlessly citing Einstein and his theory of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But, I argued, while flinging myself onto the sofa and snivelling into the dog’s fur, I want someone to believe in me, someone to say, ‘We are prepared to pay money for this.’
To which the husband’s response was firm. ‘The person who has to believe in you is you. The rest will come later.’
And once I came round to the idea, I found it liberating. No more nit-picking from agents that they liked the setting but weren’t sure about a working-class heroine and was it too fairytale? Plus countless other elements that I loved but would have binned the lot and stuck in a clockwork donkey and a talking dishwasher if it had meant they would represent me.
Suddenly, I had control. I could present the story any way I wanted without having to appease a crowd of conflicting voices. Within a month, I’d paid for a cover and a proofreader (and would most definitely pay for an edit if I were to do it again). I uploaded my novel to Amazon and waited for the sales to come.
Which they didn’t.
Until – ignoring my husband’s advice this time – I gave the book away for free. That seemed to kickstart sales and seven months later, I sold over 1700 copies in one month, generating an Amazon cheque for about £2500. (I know it’s highly un-British to talk money, but the lack of easily available benchmarks about who earns what makes authors very vulnerable when it comes to getting a fair return for our work.) A fraction of what you’d hope to sell in a month with a traditional publishing house but with no middle-man and a return of £1.39 a book…not so bad.
That leap of self-publishing faith gave me an inroad into Avon, HarperCollins. I’d proved there was a market for my novel, gathered lots of positive reviews and had the confidence to send my first few chapters directly to an editor I’d met at an RNA party. She came back to me within a week and asked for the rest, plus anything else I had. Over the next two months, on a constant retina-burning inbox watch, I sent my novel out to agents: ‘HarperCollins are currently considering my manuscript.’
Long story short: the lovely Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson offered me representation. When I got home from meeting her that evening, I had a two-book deal from Avon in my inbox.
Five years with nothing, then an agent and a book deal in the same day. It’s a lesson in keeping the faith.