Sterkarm! - by Susan Price

     Frances Thomas, writer and reader, said:  "No! You must publish! Ebook if you have to. You have two readers waiting in this house for starters, and I'm sure there are many many more. A bas les publishers! We want Sterkarms!!!"
           Jenny Alexander, writer and reader, said: I feel the market is really pushing us to self-publish by being so 'narrow and risk-averse.' Feedback for the dream-book I've been working on for two decades has been entirely positive about the book but the killer-strike is that it's 'too niche' for the market. I'm so sorry to hear you've taken the same hit, Sue. At least if you self-publish you should sell to everyone who's loved the first two Sterkarms, as well as new readers. And having been doing it for a while now, I personally don't think anything's wasted in the writer's life xx."
          Mary Hoffman, writer and reader, said: "That is so ridiculous! Yes, an ebook please and maybe print on demand. I'd demand it."

         They are all responding to the FaceBook post I sent out a few days ago. I said:
     I haven't posted anything here for a while - but I finally heard from my agent! (One agent having retired and another taken over since last I wrote here.)
      No dice. Nobody wants to touch the Sterkarms with a barge-pole. The market is 'narrow and risk averse'. The verdict is that, relaunching such an old brand would be too hard.
      Something new is wanted from me. But not Sterkarms. So that's three years wasted on unpaid work. The writer's life, eh?
          I expected a couple of replies from friends, maybe. Saying, Hard luck, best wishes, that sort of thing.
          I was amazed by the response and sympathy. Thank you to everyone who took the time. It was very encouraging - in the old sense of 'providing courage.'
          Penny Dolan, writer and reader, said: "Waly, waly indeed! (I posted a link to a recording of the lament, 'Waly Waly' along with the news.) This kind of "market thinking" is so short-sighted and niggardly. Sound points being made here!"
          Jennifer Sullivan, writer and reader, said: "Oh, tell me about it. I've almost decided self-pub is the way to go. I've done that with the first two parts of my Welsh historical series (that got me a PhD incidentally, and which no Welsh publisher would touch) and it's going well."
          Joss O'Kelly, reader and librarian, said: "Grr! We want Sterkarms!"
          Catherine Johnson, reader and writer, said: "Subscription. I'd pay."
          Mary Hoffman responded: "Yes! Crowd-sourcing."
          Annie Dalton, reader and writer, said: "I'd pay too."
          Lynn Huggins-Cooper, writer, reader and crafter, said: "I am *desperate* to read this! I'd pay x"
          Katherine Langrish, writer and reader, said: "FFS!!!! I'm DYING to read this story! Strewth! You are one of the BEST writers in England today! (Excuse me while I go and explode.)"

         While Kath explodes, and I blush, we'll take a break to explain a little more. I published The Sterkarm Handshake as long ago as 1997, but it is probably my best known book, and certainly my best seller. It has been translated and sold world-wide: Germany, Japan, all the Scandinavian countries, America, France, Italy, Poland... I lost track a while ago.
          It's an every-day tale of murderous 16th Century Border
Reiving folk, who, via a Time Tube, 'declare war on the 21st Century.' Or, at least, they raid it, and gallop back through the Time Tube with stolen tea-trollies and curtains. There are 16th century characters, and 21st century characters. The reivers believe the 21st Century people to be Elves - although, being reivers and Sterkarms, they remain just as difficult as if they thought they were dealing with mere humans.
        There is a lot of galloping about, fighting and bloodshed. There is cross-dimensional, cross-time romance.
        A lot of people liked it. Although originally published for Young Adults, it always seems to have been read as much, if not more, by adults. I was once a speaker at the re-opening of a Waterstones children's department. There were several rugby-shirt wearing men in the audience, who I took for attendant dads - until it came my turn to speak, when the 'dads' charged forward, barging children out from underfoot. Each of them held out his copy of Handshake to be signed.
          I followed Handshake by A Sterkarm Kiss, which ends on a cliff-hanger. My readers were stroppy about this from the outset. (They accost me at talks and by e-mail. I remember Celia Rees striding up to me at one event, and the first words out of her mouth, before even, 'Hello', were: "How dare you do that? How dare you?")
         My readers have been hanging off that cliff for 16 years.
         It was partly because I had set myself a very difficult third book to write: - three dimensions, and two sets of Sterkarms, who are the same individuals, but with differing life experiences. And I was somewhat daunted by my readers' expectations. - And then my agent and I couldn't agree with my publishers on payment. So the writing of the book was put aside.
         Until three years ago, when it was so hard to crowbar any kind of contract out of publishers, due to the rise of e-publishing colliding with a recession. I put it to my agent that perhaps now was the time to tackle Sterkarm 3. She agreed.
         Employment as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow - thank gods for the RLF, the writers' Guardian Angel - gave me a breathing space to tackle the book. Still, it was three hard years of difficult writing and rewriting, research, more rewriting, more research and research trips... And, at the end of it, no payment. (And let's be clear, the RLF weren't paying me to write. They were paying me to be a writing consultant at a University, working with students.)
          This is why I am so entirely opposed to the idea that all living writers' work should be 'freely available for free download on the internet.' If you believe that, then I hope you're consistent enough to also walk out of every shop and supermarket without paying, to drive away from every petrol station without paying, to heat your house without paying, to watch films at cinemas without paying...

         Kath Langrish again: "Sue, I will buy a Kindle expressly to read Sterkarm Three."
         Lyn Huggins Cooper: Me too.
         Joan Lennon, reader and writer: "That is the pits. Apply whisky immediately." (Joan, I always apply whisky to every set-back and emergency.)
         Polly Shearlaw said: "We've been WAITING three years for the next Sterkarm tell them. Don't these publishers realise that you've got people checking progress regularly on Facebook ? Yes, we'd buy the third however you publish it."

         I don't think we should be too hard on conventional publishers, though. In following up suggestions about crowd-sourcing and subscription, I came across Unbound - a new kind of
Unbound Books - publish by crowd-sourcing
publishers, run by writers. If you want Unbound to publish your book, you pitch for subscribers via their site. One of the founders of Unbound, Justin Pollard, writes in The Author, Summer 2013:

          'When we looked into the problems in publishing, we found a number of surprises. First, it wasn't the publisher's fault. Authors often like to blame publishers for not selling their books into shops better. I certainly used to. But modern publishers are caught in a profound quandary. They pay non-returnable advances up front to authors. This is only fair, as we all have to live, but most of these books don't earn their advances back. What keeps publishers afloat is that breakout book which does make money, and so covers or at least cushions them from the other losses...
          'But the situation is actually much worse than this. There was a time when the Net Book Agreement meant that retailers - who are the publishers' customers - had to sell titles close to the printed price on the book. In return they got the security of a guaranteed refund from the publisher on any books they didn't sell. Now there is no price regulation, yet the returns policy remains... The risk is heaped up on the publisher. The result is smaller revenues for the publishers (and hence authors) and a greater need for huge genre successes... The result is a less diverse range of books, less choice for the reader, fewer professional authors and diminishing incomes for the few who survive who are not household names...'
          And let's remember who got rid of the Net Book Agreement. It was John Major's government, folks, in March 1997. That's right, it was the last real, destructive Tory government before this one - you know, the destructive Tory government before the Tory-Lite one. The Market always knows best, remember.  Taking away regulations and letting the Market do as it likes always improves matters. Just look at how an unregulated Banking system improved the economy. Just look at how improved our transport system is, now the one we owned has been sold from under us to competing concerns.

          Madwippet, writer and reader, says: "This is total bollocks. Excuse the Scottish ... it is a rotten thing to deprive readers who have been waiting years to read it. S3 is brilliant - I know, I have read it and I wouldn't lie if I thought it was pants! It needs a bit of tweaking but it's not far from being done. Ebook it..."
          Catherine Czerkawska, reader and writer, said, "Publish it yourself, Susan. As an eBook and then POD. Don't waste any more time thinking about it. (Writing time is NEVER wasted!) You could shelve this and spend another year or two on the 'something new' they're after only to have them tell you that it isn't what they want either. You can get this work out there and earning money - AND work on something new at the same time if you want to - and even go the traditional route with that as well if that's what you want to do. But you have options. "
          Valerie Laws is a reader, writer and reiver descendant. The blood is so strong that, even now, she can't go for a night out without driving off the neighbour's cows on the way home. She said, "Absolutely Susan, Catherine is right. you are in a great position to self-pub - you already have an established readership, masses of kudos and awards etc. you will do better and make more money that way anyway. Rotten for you I know...but now you can move on and take control of your darlings! x"
          And Catherine again: "I haven't read these, I confess, but have just spent a little while reading ABOUT them and now I want to. But only second hand copies are available. They sound like my kind of books. But not only that, they sound like the kind of book which is selling in large numbers in the US right now. Since the paperbacks are well out of print, and there are no eBook editions, can't you get the rights back? Then you could relaunch the whole series. It might be hard for them to 'relaunch an old brand' but it's exactly the kind of thing that a lot of fine novelists are doing all the time."

          Catherine - I already have the rights back to the whole series. It wouldn't have been worth writing the third book if I hadn't. So - do I republish Book 1 first - or do I begin with Book 3? And it needs editing. One of the things I hoped for from going the conventional route was the opportunity to work with a professional editor, since I only trust my own judgement so far. (About three-quarters of the way.) A couple of friends have read it - Madwippet (AKA Karen Bush) was one of them - and their comments were very, very useful and encouraging, and I'm very grateful to them both (Elizabeth Kay was the other.) But you can't expect your friends to be as brutally honest as a pro-editor, or to put in as much work. (They have their own writing and lives to worry about.)

     Lee Weatherly, reader and writer: So sorry to hear this, Sue! I for one would LOVE to read the third Sterkarm book and can't believe that the series wouldn't fit in perfectly with the current market. Still remember how I lost a day's work because I couldn't put the first one down. It's an amazing series, and I hope that it's time will still come someday.
     Fiona Dunbar, reader and writer: Late to this. All together: WE'RE MAD AS HELL AND WE'RE NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE. This sucks. Sterkarms are epic. This is great storytelling, amazing stuff, and publishing is making an ass of itself. Makes no sense. DOES NOT COMPUTE.
     Nicky Mathews-Browne, reader and writer: I love, love, love the Sterkams - please don't give up on them.
     Then Madwippet gets stern: " Do you really need to be reminded that publishing history is littered with bestsellers that were rejected on multiple occasions by publishers who didn't know nowt? Come on, what are you waiting for? Look at these comments! You don't have to rely on a publisher any more, you can do it yourself these days!"

     I'll leave it there.
     But thank you to all those who took the trouble to leave comments. And the Sterkarms will ride again! - As soon as I can complete the projects I have in hand, and get my brain in gear to decide on things like editors, and which book first, and ISBNs and - aaaargh!
          But is great to be facing these problems in company with all the other Authors Electrics, who are always ready to help, advise or lead the way.

          You can read an extract from the first book, The Sterkarm Handshake, here
          You can read the first chapter of the unpublished 'Sterkarm 3' here. 
          There are reviews of the books here.


Nick Green said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Green said…
What I don't understand is, WFT is so RISKY about publishing books that have previously done so well, by someone who has won the goddamn Carnegie Medal? If that's a RISK then I'm going to rig up a saftey net for the next time I climb my own stairs.

The market is groaning under the weight of mega-selling YA books by authors who are merely competent (perhaps they magically get better after page 10, but that's where I always seem to fall asleep), yet Susan Price's books are deemed unpublishable? That proves it. The market has gone actually mad. The ability to differentiate between good, bad and mediocre writing has been lost. *Punches wall*.

Dennis Hamley said…
Sue, what a fantastic post. Many familiar echoes here, especially of uncompleted trilogies. I'm sorry (and slightly surprised: what happened to Scholastic's review finding service for authors? Probably axed just about the time they dropped me!) that you never read my School Librarian review of Handshake. I seem to remember that I forecast awards and at least shortlists for it. I'll see if I've still got it, though my stock of SL back numbers seems to have shrunk over years of moving and clearing things out. Anyway, get 3 out quickly, because the Sterkarms are hugely significant works and publication of 3 will complete a piece of literary history. And I still say that P Pullman got his idea of Lyra and Will communing from parallel universes on a seat in the Botanical Gardens from the haunting final image of Handshake. And then Dr Who pinched it from both of you.
Jan Needle said…
get it out there, lass
Penny Dolan said…
Well said all through, Sue!

Though I think some publishers were quite keen on getting rid of the Net Agreement too, which helped with the collapse.
Nick Green said…
This sorry publishing saga will henceforth be known as The Sterkarm "F*** it!"
Lee said…
Nick, I feel we need to be honest here, as much as it may be painful: a lot of older YA books simply do not appeal to most of today's teens; taste has changed, and not all the 'senior writer-citizens' are able to adapt Some wines age well; others do not. Hence a related question: do writers have a natural limit to their writing lifespan? Some obviously don't -- take Alice Munro or Philip Roth. But others ...?

That said, Susan Price does NOT fall into this so-called retiree category, and I can't wait to read Sterkarm 3!

Nick Green said…
Lee, 'taste has changed' - I don't agree. I don't buy that as a concept. Taste isn't an abstract thing, out there, it rests in the individual. Taste cannot change, per se. Only people's perception of what is out there, and what it is seen as acceptable to like.

Serve people only Turkey Twizzlers and they will say they like Turkey Twizzlers. But give them the chance to try some real food cooked by a chef (Jamie Oliver has proved this many times) and they won't go back to their junk.

You can pick up any forgotten classic published by Persephone and be blown away, quite blown away, by the quality of the writing - but little of it would get picked up by a mainstream publisher today. That's just tragic.

People have forgotten what good looks like. It's that simple.
Lee said…
Nick, there's certainly much in what you say, but I'm not entirely convinced. We can still speak about general trends (knowing full well that there's an element of, well, generalisation), and the way our kids live now, and the way reading - and tastes - have been affected by electronic & social media.

Of course trends can be influenced by better exposure to good quality. The thing is, I'm not sure that quality is in fact such a stable concept as your JAmie Oliver example would suggest. Don't you think that criteria of quality change?
madwippitt said…
Glad to hear that the Sterkarm boulder is rolling again at last! I was getting quite wearied barking at you about it ... I'd suggest getting S1 and S2 out again first otherwise you will confuse new readers - and at the same time those who are still waiting to read S3 will have had their memories refreshed about what happened beforehand. And it will help build up momentum for S3. If you bring them out at 6 month intervals that will give you a year in the meantime to finish tweaking S3 and deciding at what point to end it so you can then begin on S4 and tie up all those loose ends! Yeah, a quadrilogy!
Give me a shout if I can do anything else other than bark and crack a whip at you!
Nick Green said…
What no-one has yet mentioned (so I will) is how frankly scary this is for any writer with a less impressive CV than Susan Price (and I believe that's most of us). There's always been this vague faith, hasn't there, that if only you get get good enough, write well enough, work hard enough and try long enough, then you could break down any obstacle and get any publishing deal that you deserved. I have believed in the natural justice principle that hard work and talent will eventually pay off. (And of course it still can, through self-publishing). But apparently it's not enough to defy these mysterious Market Forces, which are clearly the work of Sauron.
Lee said…
Now there I couldn't agree with you more, Nick. Only thing is, I'm not sure it's wise to expect too much from self-publishing - at least not in terms of conventional measures of success like sales, a large following, etc. I'm obviously not Susan, but if I were in her place, I'd simply be happy to complete the job I set myself to the best of my ability. There's got to be a wonderful sense of accomplishment in bringing such a trilogy to a long-desired and satisfactory conclusion.
Juliet said…
So sorry to read about this. I LOVE the Sterkarm books, bought them for my sister and friend, and have raved about them to my students.
Please publish Sterkarm 3.
Lydia Bennet said…
ok, I'm with Madwippet here, get one and two out asap, to catch up new readers and refresh older ones, and then hit em with 3. Do it or my alter ego Valerie Laws will come and steal your cows.
glitter noir said…
Great post indeed, Sue. And, Nick Green: well said.
julia jones said…
I've just bought Sterkarm Handshake to catch up on what I've been missing. How have I missed this? Stupid me. Can add nothing except encouragement to all that has been said above.
Efrogwraig said…
How can you leave me on a cliffhanger again? You had me from the first Eyesobel.We have to get your book published. Crowdfunding maybe? Please, please get your book to us. xxxxxxxx
Anonymous said…
I would definitely buy no.3 - I've been dying to find out what happens next for years!

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