The Unexpectedly Long Life of an eBook by Catherine Czerkawska

The Curiosity Cabinet started out as a trilogy for Radio 4 back in the 1990s. I then rewrote it, with significant changes, as a novel. It took a very long time to find a publisher. It was some time in the late 90s, when I was looking for a new agent, that one of them called it ‘a library novel fit only for housewives.’ I wasn’t a newcomer in any sense. I had a long and occasionally award winning career as a playwright and poet, and two published novels behind me so I could laugh it off. But it still stung a bit.

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.


Lydia Bennet said…
A saga in itself, the story of the book! and a wonderful book it is, no wonder people are still buying it - Barbara Pym was also 'quiet' and a midlister, suffering the same wilderness for years,but is now recognised as the brilliant novelist she was/is. The whole 'new books are all that counts' attitude of publishers and agents (and some festivals) is daft. Books should have a long life. Very pleased to hear TCC is doing so well on amazon!
Dennis Hamley said…
Catherine, your career and mine seem to have similarities, although I did have thirty years if not exactly in the sun than at least out of the shade. I did have, post being dropped but pre-Kindle, a pleasant half-life having uploads of old books put on Print on Demand by Back-to-Front, the junior arm of the much lamented Solidus Press. But now the old process once so familiar of book accepted, contract signed, cheque for advance plopping through the letterbox seems a custom of a foreign country where they do things differently. But, do you know? - against all the odds I feel happier.
Chris Longmuir said…
My experience is similar as well. I did win the Dundee International Book Prize in 2009, and like you, Catherine, the publisher wasn't interested in anything else (same publisher). I think it might have had something to do with the fact that publication of the Dundee Prize was part funded by Dundee University! Ian Rankin once said to me that the Dundee Book Prize was the 'kiss of death', but both you and I have proved him wrong. All power to us!
Chris, I know you had the same experience - and for many people, I think it was the kiss of death, but we have proved him wrong, so good for us! Ian was one of the judges the year I was shortlisted so he knew what he was talking about and I think it made him sad. Another writer, also a previous judge, said much the same thing to me. The experience has left me with a deep suspicion of competitions and a strong desire to control my own destiny! I think if I hadn't had a parallel and reasonably flourishing career as a playwright, the disappointment would have been even greater. Part of the problem, as an agent told me, was that back then if you had been dropped by a publisher it was seen as a black mark against you when it came to submitting elsewhere. Can that have been such a short time ago? How submissive and anxious we all were! As it is, every time I see sales of TCC spiking again it gives me a lot of satisfaction and the admittedly childish desire to make rude gestures in a certain direction!
glitter noir said…
I'm sure this post resonates with scores of other writers. If Amazon had been around all those many years ago, when my trad pubbing career took a dive, I'd have passed on Amazon...and, of course, lived to regret it. My journey to Direct Publishing--the term that I prefer--needed time and mental adjustment. About 4 years ago, when Brad Strickland, suggested I try Amazon, I still resisted--after 20-plus years in The Desert! But I came around. And, like you, I'm open to the right trad pubbing opportunity--but I relish the freedom of being able to write what I want and need to write...without being told by some buttoned-down brain that it will never sell.
I've had a similar experience in children's fiction. With younger books, however, readers grow up and so there isn't the same fan base waiting for the next book - you need to start all over again with a new generation. But I am anticipating a rush of sales in about ten years time, when the young readers who loved my books ten years ago have become parents themselves and their children are the right age...
Jenny Alexander said…
Oh I so relate to that experience of being 'too quiet' and concluding that I'm born to be a mid-lister! I've just self-published for the first time and I'm going straight to self-publishing for my current wip. Loving the freedom of it.
I always used to wonder what 'too quiet' meant - none of my agents ever seemed able to explain it satisfactorily. Then a writer friend said 'they're looking for a stonking great story.' I could see what she meant - and could understand why that was what publishers wanted since they are always on the hunt for the next blockbuster, even though they have no idea what that might be - but it struck me that I don't always want to read a stonking great story. Sometimes - quite often really - I want some Barbara Pym or similar. Or a quiet great story! The freedom is wonderful, isn't it Jenny?

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