The Final Straw; How I Came to Indie Publishing: Catherine Czerkawska

Astonishing 100 year old colour picture of the Ukraine by Prokudin-Gorskii
It was May 2011.  I still have the email. My epic Polish historical novel, The Amber Heart, had finally been sent out by my agent, and he forwarded the first rejection. It went like this: 'With real reluctance, I am going to have to pass on this. I loved it, while thinking some editorial work needed to be done. But the one other person who did read it just didn't really love it - infuriating. I am sorry, but you can't fly solo in publishing.'
It was, as rejections go, quite heartening, although it was followed by a deafening silence on all fronts. But it was also - as it turned out - the straw that broke this particular camel's back.
The email came soon after a BIG birthday. One of those birthdays that make you sit up and take stock. I duly took stock.
Firstly, I was sitting on a huge inventory - lots of finished or almost finished but unpublished work, in the shape of novels and stories. Secondly, I couldn't afford to sit on it any longer. Thirdly, I didn't have to.

Over the years, I had worked diligently and had met with a certain amount of publishing success. I had - moreover - managed to juggle my fiction writing with a respectably large number of professionally produced plays for radio and the stage, some of which were also published and are still in print. But I still found myself in the frustrating position of having several completed pieces of fiction sitting in files on my PC and in my desk drawers. These were not the usual unsatisfactory bottom-drawer manuscripts. (I have quite a lot of those and they can stay where they are!) No. They were good, polished pieces of work. Plenty of people, professionals rather than friends and family, had told me so.

The story of the Amber Heart is a good illustration of what has happened to so many of us - or what used to happen, before the advent of eBook publishing. It may help to explain why so many of us disagree with Jonathan Franzen's recent diatribe against the digital world and why we have become so sceptical about the traditional gatekeepers.

Way back in the 1980s, I had forged a successful career as a radio dramatist. I had even done a little television. But I had hankerings to write fiction. I had written a novel based on my young adult television series, Shadow of the Stone. (You can still watch the original on YouTube, here!) and it had been nicely published by a small Scottish publisher.

Shadow of the Stone
A very young Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming in Shadow of the Stone

Around that time, while accompanying my professional yacht skipper husband on a trip to the Canaries, I sat on deck in the sunshine (one of the best times of my life) and wrote a new novel called The Golden Apple, set largely on the Canarian Island of La Gomera. The agent who was representing me for drama passed it on to the late great Pat Kavanagh at the same agency and she sold the novel to The Bodley Head.

In all my innocence, I thought I was on my way. Fat chance.

Between acquisition and publication, The Bodley Head was sold to Century and The Golden Apple was  published and marketed as something it wasn't - a piece of genre fiction in a glossy but somewhat misleading cover. Not that it was heavily or experimentally literary either. It was, if you can remember that far back, a typical Bodley Head book. A mid-list book. Much later, my editor wrote to me to apologise. 'I now think we published the Golden Apple in quite the wrong way,' she told me. They had even persuaded me to change the spelling of my name to Cherkavska.

Meanwhile, I had been busy working on my next novel, a big, unashamedly romantic historical novel, set in mid nineteenth century Eastern Poland, a sort of Polish 'Gone With The Wind', loosely based on my own family history. I had been researching it on and off for years with my father's help. Even without the internet, we had managed to discover an astonishing amount of fascinating material. I had also become aware of just what a huge diaspora of Poles there was, and how interested they were in reading about this time and place. Many of them were taking the trouble to tell me so.  I worked diligently and finished Noon Ghosts, which Pat said that she loved. Since she didn't ever say this lightly, I was hopeful of a breakthrough, all over again.

Poles were always very fond of their horses!
She sent it out, through the early 1990s, and back it came. Again and again and again. I remember one of those rave rejection letters in particular. 'I stayed up all night reading this. I loved it. I wept buckets. I couldn't put it down. But historical fiction is out of fashion and nobody is interested in anything set in Poland.' Pat herself - a hard headed mega agent - confessed herself deeply frustrated.

Time passed, and because my plays were doing rather well, I filed Noon Ghosts away and - after much heart searching - changed agencies for one that specialised in theatre.

Early in the new millennium, and for reasons too complicated to go into here, I went back to fiction and eventually back to a younger agent at my old agency. While working on other novels, not least the Curiosity Cabinet, I rewrote Noon Ghosts pretty comprehensively in the light of experience and changed the title to The Amber Heart. Poland was more popular than it had once been, and historical fiction was definitely 'in' but my new agent wouldn't even read the rewritten version, let alone send it out again. 'Not the done thing,' she said. I sent sample chapters out myself, to languish on various slush piles. Nobody so much as replied.

Then, sadly, Pat died, my young agent inherited her starry clients and I fell off the end of her list. Did I fall or was I pushed? Let's be honest. I was pushed. More time passed, and I acquired a new agent. Eventually, I let him see The Amber Heart, in which I had now lost all confidence, but his response amazed me. 'This is wonderful!' he said. 'If I can't sell this, I'm in the wrong job.' I did wonder at the time if those words might come back to haunt him, and of course they did. Because the newly revised and edited book was sent out, only to meet with the same old 'I love this, but ...' response.

Which was, dear reader, the final straw.
But even more of a final straw was that 'some editorial work needs to be done' comment.
Hell, this novel had been edited to the point of emaciation. It had almost been edited to destruction. It had been edited so much and by so many different people, with different agendas, that I've had to take a long hard look at it and decide what I want to reinstate in my book. Nobody else but me is getting their hands on it again.

Painting by Juliusz Kossak, one of my forebears, inspiration for The Amber Heart

In the meantime, I had acquired a Kindle, and realised that indie publishing was perfectly do-able. I cut my teeth with a reissue of The Curiosity Cabinet, followed it up with a new novel called Bird of Passage, which is selling very well, and am now almost ready to publish The Amber Heart. Not everyone will like it. Why should they? Not everyone likes Marmite. (I do!) But at least it will be out there. At least anyone with or without Polish connections, who is interested in the history of Eastern Europe, or just interested in a big story of love and loss in an engaging setting, will be able to read it. And now I can move on to work on something new, without the frustration of hitting another landmark birthday, weighed down by work which people are telling me they would like to read, but which doesn't slot neatly into the increasingly narrow and celebrity obsessed constraints of the current publishing industry.

Catherine Czerkawska


Susan Price said…
Hear, hear, Catherine!
julia jones said…
My partner Francis was also one of Pat's clients and was desolated when she died. He stayed with her assistant Carol McArthur but (no disprespect to carol) nothing's been the same siunce. I think we get much more FUN out of indepentently publishing my books than we currently get from the big hard muddled world of corporate publishing. (My favourite term now, ratehr than commercial. Becuase we independednts may also be commercial)
I shall look forward to the Amber Heart
Jan Needle said…
if this doesn't get all authorselectrickers' blood boiling, i'll eat our collective hatses for us. there's a sentence for a saturday morning!

i almost wept tears of blood for you there, catherine, and tears of frustrated rage and hatred for the smug prats who run our industry. i got booted out by my agent of twenty plus years for Killing Time at Catterick, which they spent a long time telling me was wonderful despite its difficulties (it's not a pleasant read; it isn't bloody meant to be!). when they'd failed to sell it to the seventh or eighth publisher they decided it was my fault after all, and that was me out.

but publishers are undoubtedly worse. i was messed and mucked about by harper collins for years, despite making a fair amount of money for them. their particular moronicism was taking a big thriller, telling me it was going to be their lead for the season, then not promoting it in any way because the latest jeffrey archhole was out, and then complaining that my book didn't sell much.

the sad fact is that publishers can only sell by publicising, and most best sellers illustrate this point to infinity. if you want to buy a crap book, then the rule of thumb is to buy a best seller.

then they come out with the stuff catherine suffered from when offered a good book - this is not what peope want.(which means it's not like everything in the best-seller list, which people want because we tell them so by spending millions on advertising it. with the help of the mainstream book reviewers, who are either morons or need the advertising to finance their jobs.)

the sad, hilarious, fact is that nobody knows what sort of book will be a rogue best seller. the sad, non hilarious fact, is that the publishers insist they do. and probably think they do as well, the poor deluded people, because one of their books suddenly did well. (how many publishers turned down harry potter? why did scott fitzgerald paper his bedroom wall with rejection slips before he sold anything?) long live the indie revolution, say i. time might be coming when they're paid by genuine results.
Wonderful, wonderful rant, Jan! Love it. And you're right, of course. As William Goldman said 'Nobody knows anything.' They just try to predict the next big success based on the last big success but it doesn't work like that. Julia - Pat was definitely one of the good ones (albeit a very scary lady!) One of the things she said to me that has always stuck with me was 'you should only write a novel if you can't bear NOT to write it.'
Susan Price said…
enny wrote: "This is a fantastic post and I've tried to leave a comment - yet again - grrr gnash blogger - but I seem to be a robot, as after nine tries (yes - nine) I still apparently can't read and rewrite the magic words :( :( :( (This is actually why I chose wordpress)"
Bravo, Catherine! I've heard that refrain from publishers too: 'we love it but...' I've also been told it would be okay to do what I do if my name was Iain Banks or Jeanette Winterson, but that they probably wouldn't be published if they were starting now.
Well the funny thing is, literary fashions don't register much with readers. They read what they like, no matter when it was published.
Gosh Catherine, this rings true! I had exactly the same comment regarding my Genghis Khan novel for teenagers (written to follow my Alexander the Great novel "I am the Great Horse", which had brilliant reviews but never even made it into paperback in the US.)

"Historical ficiton is out of fashion" my publisher told me. "We don't want another one like the Great Horse."
"I love this but it'll be tough to market", said an agent I was wooing at the time.
"Historical fiction for teenagers doesn't sell... it needs to be more romantic/magical," said another.

I rewrote the book a few times, trying my best to make it more marketable, but having just passed the significant birthday I think you are talking about, I started to hear all these comments as "you're a rubbish writer, go away." So I did go away... which is how I discovered amazon's KDP.

And even though I now have another publishing deal (NOT for Genghis Khan!), I'm glad I've dipped my toe into these indie waters because I actually think that publishers are right. Books (like my Genghis) that are not obvious best-sellers are much better published independently as ebooks and/or POD - that way they don't have to sell zillions of copies to make the author as much profit as they would need to if sold in a book store, and nobody is out of pocket if they don't sell at all.

Publishers can then concentrate on bringing out the kind of books they are sure of selling in bucketloads... if they can be sure... which is where we came in!
Such interesting comments on this post. Isn't is a sad indictment though, that they are saying that the likes of Winterson and Banks wouldn't be published now? I suspect that list is a very long one. They are quite uninterested in building a writer's career - they seem to want only the 'stunning debut novel' - but what happens then? How many of those can one writer have? I believe Ian Rankin's breakthrough novel came quite a long way down the line, so he probably wouldn't have made it either. Katherine - these are strong points - but that being the case, why won't they admit as much? And I'm not sure that 'big publishing' can even continue to make a living that way - the changes are so huge, so drastic. Big video games, big music, big publishing - they have a lot in common with supertankers. It takes them a very long time to turn round, some of them just can't do it in time - and some of them don't even notice the hazard. The case of Kodak should give all of them pause for thought.
Dan Holloway said…
Wow, what a story! I agree with what everyone's said - it's rather worrying how many people aren't being picked up today. Instead they face the choice - try and bubble up through the indie mass or change how they write. In the former case what we really need are more media editors willing to look at books from first time writers who self-publish. It's the latter that really worries me. How many people are forcing themselves into suits that don't fit in the hope of breaking through, only to find if they probably still don't make it, and even if they do are forced to keep doing what they never really wanted to do. And either way they end up disillusioned with what they started off loving, and we lose their books.
Pauline Fisk said…
I'll keep this short and sweet. Ditto everybody. Thank you Catherine for sharing your story. When it's out I'll buy the book. Glad it's made it at last. I'll look forward to it.
Dan, that worries me too! I'll probably do another blog post when I've thought it through properly. We tend to believe that the gatekeepers all have our best interests at heart - because we want to believe it. (And of course, they tell us so, with so much confidence!) I've gone through my working life believing it and then realising with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that this wasn't always the case. In fact, I've had a mixture of good advice and bad advice, but on the whole, it would probably have been better to make my own mistakes and learn from them. Everyone can benefit from informed help, but there comes a point where you start to question the qualifications of those who are giving it.
CallyPhillips said…
YES,,,,I've been singing this song so long it's become a worn out old tune (or a cult classic?) and finally now we are all out in the open and guess what...all our stories are the same, just with variants. Making one's own judgements IS usually the right thing to do (assuming one has the critical faculties) but for too long we've all been duped into believing someone else (who holds the purse strings) knows better... the streets paved with gold myth is DEAD my friends.
George Fripley said…
It's a question of what makes peopl write...I think I've come to the conclusion that I like how I write and it gives me a great deal of change that is likely to destroy the reason that I do what I do...perhaps it will always be little more than a hobby...but it's a fun one. Que Sera

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