Eventually, I secured representation at one of the bigger London agencies. She told me that she liked the novel, but she thought it was ‘too quiet’ to sell. Nevertheless, she sent it out to the big boys. I forget how many there were back then – certainly a few more than the current Big Five, but all the same, amalgamations had occurred and the so called mid-list was on the slide. Agents and publishers were already talking about the ‘decline of the mid-list’. One even confidently predicted the ‘death of the mid-list’. I knew in my heart that I was a typical mid-lister. It was an invidious position to find yourself in. Back then, anyway. One of the acquisitions editors pointed out that although she liked the book, they had ‘published something similar and it did less well than expected.’
Nobody wanted it.
Eventually, my agent suggested that while I got on with something a bit less quiet, I should submit the novel to the Dundee Book Prize. Some time after the closing date for entries, I got a phonecall. My novel had been shortlisted. Would I come to an event aboard the Discovery, in Dundee, when an announcement would be made? The reception and dinner aboard the Discovery was very pleasant. We soon realised that the shortlist consisted of only three books, three authors. And at the dinner, we were happy to discover that all three of us would be published, although one novel would win the overall prize.
The Curiosity Cabinet didn’t, in fact, win that overall prize but it was published. That was in 2005. I seem to remember that there were 1000 copies, very nicely done. There were one or two speaking engagements and a three for two offer in a big bookstore. It sold out comprehensively and was well reviewed, but there was no sign of a reprint. The publisher had declined to look at anything else from me. My work didn’t fit in with the way they saw the company progressing. Eventually, I reclaimed my rights – a process which, to give them credit, they made remarkably easy.
I found myself, some time in the new millennium, minus agent, minus any kind of publishing deal, but with several edited and unpublished far-from-quiet novels in which none of the gatekeepers was remotely interested. I tried to find another agent. Then I sent my new novels out to Scottish and other small publishers where they disappeared without trace, never to be heard of again. One charming individual told me that if I could come to his office, he ‘might be able to spare me five minutes.’ I declined his kind offer.
I think what really kept me going through that dark time, was the response of my readers. I was still being asked to give talks and readings, and people – especially women - were always asking me how they could get hold of my books, where they might find more of my work. The problem was that they couldn’t. It was in computer files and printouts and a handful of out-of-print copies. A lot of it. I still remember the mingled pleasure and pain of having a friend – an enthusiastic reader – say to me, ‘You know, we don’t understand how this could happen. We love your writing, we want to read more of it and we think you’ve been treated very shabbily indeed.’ Pity is never easy to accept but she wasn’t joking or exaggerating. The emails I got from other readers confirmed that.
I’d looked at self publishing in the past, but all I could find were unscrupulous vanity publishers who still wanted to wrest control from my hands and charge me lots of money for it at the same time.
And then, along came Jeff Bezos and Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing.
It wasn’t at all hard to decide to take my career into my own hands. My only regret was that it hadn’t happened sooner. I had been searching for something like this for years and had never been able to find it: a business partner who would facilitate distribution and let me get on with it, leaving the control of it in my own hands. I started small, with short stories, but eventually decided to take the plunge with The Curiosity Cabinet. An artist friend, Alison Bell, who loved the book, made me a new and very beautiful cover image. This was the first of a number of novels that I’ve published independently in eBook form.
Since then, I’ve also published a novel with one of the newer Scottish publishers, because we seemed a good fit. It was a very good experience and I’m writing another novel with them in mind. But the vital thing, for me, is that I have options. Options I intend to keep. Never again will I sign an exclusive contract with a single publisher. Never will I give up the right to publish something myself as and when I decide to do it.
Meanwhile, The Curiosity Cabinet has sold more copies as an eBook than I would have believed possible. As I write this, it has undergone another spike in sales and in its category on Amazon is sitting at #11. Sales go up and down. Sometimes I run a promotion – not a freebie, but I drop the price for a spell. And the sales spike begins again. I reckon the Outlander books have definitely helped. People who like Outlander seem to like The Curiosity Cabinet as well. I'm told my novel is nothing like Outlander and I haven’t even read this series, although I have heard very good things about it. I suspect what we have most in common is an attractive highland hero or two. Or ‘islandman’ hero in my case. Two books inspired The Curiosity Cabinet: Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and a wonderful old novel by Elizabeth Goudge called the Middle Window. I read it in my teens and never, ever forgot it.
Most of all, the Curiosity Cabinet has, for me, illustrated the potential long life of an eBook. For my publisher at the time, it was over and done within the year. And realistically speaking, that was all they could do. They must always be moving on to the next project and their next big project didn’t involve my kind of novel at all. So they jettisoned me, just when I thought I might be in for a little of that elusive (and in my experience illusory) 'nurturing'. That was, for them, a sound business decision. But it wasn’t my decision and it wasn’t right for me or this book at all. My agent back then would have told me to forget about it and move on.
Now, I don’t need to forget about it. I can blog about it. I can promote it. I can still sell it to readers who seem to want to read it. Lots of them. I’m planning to release it as a POD paperback, early in 2015. And all while working on a couple of new projects at the same time.
eBooks can have an unexpectedly long life. As readers and writers, I think that’s something to celebrate.