When a Best-seller Becomes a Disaster - Kathleen Jones on becoming a publishing pariah.

I have known what it was like to be on the front pages of newspapers, or the subject of a double-page spread inside the Independent.  Television interviews, radio shows – my 15 minutes of fame.  It was fantastic being chauffeur driven across London, with a huge bouquet of lilies and roses on my lap, to a champagne reception. The reviews were glowing and I’ll never forget the experience of walking into WH Smith and seeing my book, in hardback, at number 8 in the best-seller lists.  The six figure sums of money being bandied about were head-turning. ‘You’ll never have to worry about money again in your life,’ my agent said.  I should have known!
The doomed hardback
It was a story of luck and also of danger. I was commissioned to write a biography of Catherine Cookson just after she died, for a very modest sum. The estate wanted a northern author and, as a respected literary biographer, they thought I was eminently suitable.  But I’m also a natural detective, inquisitive and unstoppable when on the trail of a good story.  There were things in the official account of Cookson’s life that just didn’t add up.  But I wrote the biography anyway, finding that her published work was a lot better than the literary snobs would admit.

And then I met John Smith, the agent who ‘discovered’ Catherine and who directed her career for most of her life.  He had, at one point, been commissioned to write Catherine’s biography himself, but it had never been published and I was intrigued.  He told me that Catherine had given him a series of taped interviews that were very frank, but when he put the completed manuscript in front of her she had reacted with horror and agreement was reached that it would never be published.  He had kept the tapes and - a few weeks later - returning from a research trip, I found them in a big jiffy bag, just inside the outer door where the postman had left them.

Catherine Cookson's birth certificate, which names her father
The tapes were explosive.  They revealed a Catherine Cookson whose life story differed considerably from the official version.  There was a woman she had shared her life (and her bed) with for several years who turned up on her wedding day and threatened to shoot Catherine if she went through with her marriage to Tom. There were accusations of serious abuse directed against her mother, and there was a pregnancy she had quite blatantly tried to end by the use of powerful emetics prescribed by a naval surgeon.  She had serious mental health problems that required residential care and the use of shock therapy.  There was also a mysterious father whose identity she was never going to disclose. It quickly became apparent that he was not the aristocrat of her childhood fantasies, but a gambler, a con-man and a bigamist.

Catherine Cookson's father with his first wife?
The Cookson estate was horrified, so were her agents and publishers. It didn't matter that this was the truth. This was not the image of Catherine Cookson they wanted to market. Attempts were made to halt publication, but the same QC who adjudicated on the Charles and Diana tapes gave the opinion that they were mine to use.  More subtle approaches followed.  The BBC were persuaded to drop serialisation on ‘book of the week’. They badly wanted to keep their Cookson film contract. Then permission was withdrawn for all quoted material in the biography, which meant that the book could never be reprinted and the publisher who had paid a huge sum for the paperback, could never recoup that money.  From Cookson fans I had hate mail and threats were made against me.  To make matters worse, I was caught up in a legal battle between publishers and agents over who actually owned the rights to Catherine Cookson's literary estate.
Catherine Cookson pic-nicking on Alston Moor. Copyright Neil Ferber
My publisher went bankrupt under the weight of a best-seller.  This probably sounds strange  - many people don’t understand that because of the ‘sale or return’ culture and the long invoicing interval for books, publishers need good lines of credit to fund big print runs and their distribution.  According to my agent, I bust my publisher single-handed.  A contact told me that my ‘Mail on Sunday’ serialisation cheque had paid the staff’s wages.  Fortunately, the firm were bought out by another publisher and some money was salvaged - if they had not, I would have lost everything.

The suppressed paperback

Authors who bankrupt their publishers and who have huge unpaid advances are not popular.  I became a pariah in the publishing industry.  No one wanted to know me. I became depressed and unhappy and unable to write.  It was 7 years before I published another book, this time with a new agent and a new publisher.  But those years have left deep scars.

The biography has languished in cardboard boxes, but I have recently had the courage to return to it and experienced a flush of anger.  Why should I let these people get away with it?  I was telling the truth, straight from the horse’s mouth (apologies Catherine!), so why should it be suppressed?  Now, I have begun to re-write the biography, deleting and ‘writing round’ material that was previously quoted.  I have used more of the tapes to illustrate points, because I have an undisputed legal right to the words they contain.  We have a saying in the north, which Catherine Cookson knew perfectly well and which became one of her mantras: ‘Don’t let the b****s keep you down’!  No way.  Watch this space!

If you'd like to hear more about my bitter experience, I've been talking about it on the Royal Literary Fund website.  

Kathleen Jones has a website at www.kathleenjones.co.uk
She blogs regularly on 'A Writer's Life'
and can be found wasting time on Facebook
She tweets incognito on Twitter as @kathyferber

Her most recent book is a travel journal written on a journey to the islands on Haida Gwaii in British Columbia -  Travelling to the Edge of the World
Amazon Kindle edition £3.99  
Book Depository paperback (colour illustrations) £9.84


madwippitt said…
Blimey ... the 'real' story sounds more exciting than anything you could dream up ... and makes me far more interested in reading it than some anodyne treatment ...
Chris Longmuir said…
Kathleen, I'm fascinated. I have the Piers Dudgeon book on Catherine Cookson on my bookshelf, although it's a book I have still yet to read. However, I'm sure I'd find the 'real' version that you write a much more interesting read. This has all the hallmarks of a mystery, and I do like a good mystery, so you must shout from the hilltops when it comes out because I'll be in the queue to buy it. Good luck with the rewrite.
Susan Price said…
Kathleen, you must write it. I've read some of your other biographies and they're excellent. Your biography of Catherine Cookson would give us an understanding of this obviously troubled woman and the times that made it necessary for her to live her life the way she did. And probably double her books' sales!

Illegitimi non carborundum!
Jan Needle said…
Get it writ, Kathleen! Please.
Rosalie Warren said…
Kathleen, thank you for telling us about this. I would love to read this book, and am fascinated by the story of what happened to you. But how sad that the experience left you so unhappy that you were unable to write and publish for another seven years. So glad you were able eventually to overcome that. Quite right, from another northern lass - don't let the b****s keep you down! I can't wait to see your book.
Bill Kirton said…
What a story, Kathleen. As all the others have said, please write it soon.
julia jones said…
Well done Katherine. I've nipped across to market place to scoop up a pb and would like to place an advance order becuase it'll be so fascinating to see how you deal with the censorship. Will certainly "watch this space"
Kathleen Jones said…
Glad you all like the story! I'm damned if I'm going to let it lie down. I'll let you know when I've finished the re-write and am ready to publish. Thank you all for your encouraging comments!
Debbie Bennett said…
Wow. Sounds to me like the stuff of tv series - and your own biography must be fascinating too! I'd better go buy a copy before they all disappear!
Sounds riveting and I'll definitely buy it. But isn't it a salutary story about writers and others as 'brands' rather than real, living, breathing, flawed people? Hope you finish it soon!
Dennis Hamley said…
Kathleen, this is explosive stuff. You are indeed a superb literary biographer and it would be a near-crime if you, or someone of your standing (hard to find!), does not do this. And now you have Book Mill, so no prospective publisher need fear bankruptcy.
Dennis Hamley said…
PS. Sorry about careless grammatical mistake. But if your cardboard boxes are not yet empty, can I buy one of the originals please?
Umberto Tosi said…
Wow! I commend your perseverance, integrity, and courage, no matter the outcome, and I wish you the best of luck in getting back on that horse now after all the hardships. This goes to the top of my list of publishing horror stories - and I've seen some real debacles, including a reversal of fortune on one of my own top-selling books the 1980s. I'll most surely be watching this space!
Andrew Crofts said…
Brilliant story, Kathleen, don't let any of them stand in your way!
What a fascinating account...can't wait to read the unvarnished book!
Kathleen, it's terrible that you were blamed for simply doing your job (too well) and telling the truth!

But I can sympathise with the feeling of no longer being loved. As far as I know, I never bankrupted a publisher (I write children's fantasy for modest advances), but I too have known a double-page spread in the Daily Mail, the amazement of seeing 100 hardback copies of my debut novel in the foyer of Waterstones Piccadilly, huge bunches of flowers from my publisher and chauffeur-driven limousines over in America... it seems you don't have to do anything particularly wrong for all that to disappear in a puff of purple smoke.

I guess if you continue writing after that, you're a REAL writer, and it's the writing that counts in the end, not the end result.
Kathy said…
Kathleen, WOW! Amazing story, and so grateful you have persisted in climbing out from the depths of despair to the heights of inspired writing. Had my own share of difficulties with publishers, but nothing of this scope.

Bravo and very much looking forward to reading the new version, when it's ready.

As someone else on this list said, if you have boxes of the old one, may I buy a copy??

(The other) Kathleen (B.) Jones

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