How to get a publishing contract: Then and Now - Katherine Roberts

Author launch - Then (take one)
I started publishing book-length fiction in 1999, about ten years before Amazon opened their Kindle Direct Publishing platform and made it possible for authors to publish themselves without first winning the lottery. In other words, there was only one route to market, and it relied on an editor saying "yes". My first book Song Quest did the rounds, agented by me out of necessity, and eventually came out with a small UK publisher in the traditional way: hardcover first with a modest print run of about 1,000 copies (which sold out), and then paperback with a slightly larger print run that probably would have done quite well in the shops, since by then my book had won the Branford Boase Award given to a debut author and their editor for an outstanding book for young readers, on the strength of which I had been taken on by a top London agent keen to develop my career. Unfortunately, though, Element Books went into receivership a few weeks after the ceremony and pulped all the copies, so we never did find out how well.

Song Quest - first edition hardcover
(Element 1999)

Author launch - Then (take two)
After a year or so of contract-wrangling, which I left up to my agent (one of the big publishers HarperCollins was taking over Element's "mind, body and spirit" list, but my book was a fiction title, and my editor at Element had decided to set up his own publishing company The Chicken House and wanted to take on Song Quest himself), I signed a second contract for Song Quest and two sequels with The Chicken House. This turned into a brilliant experience. My editor Barry Cunningham had previously worked at Bloomsbury, where he'd commissioned the first Harry Potter title, so he knew what he was doing. So did my agent. A deal with Scholastic US for the American rights swiftly followed, and what was by now an epic fantasy trilogy for teenagers came out with lovely new covers on both sides of the Atlantic... you can see all the editions on my website.

By this time, because an excited debut author obviously does not sit around twiddling her thumbs while contracts are being wrangled, Chicken House and Scholastic US had already published my second novel Spellfall (an unrelated parallel world fantasy), which they launched in style at the American Library Association conference in San Francisco in 2000. Spellfall became my debut book in America, outselling Song Quest and making my world a bit smaller when I was invited 'over the pond' at Scholastic's expense to stay at the historic St Francis Hotel, in return for doing a five-minute reading at a banquet that I could not eat very much of due to a serious case of jet lag. An author must put up with these things when she goes international.

Spellfall - my debut title in America
(Scholastic 2000)

Author launch - Then (take three)
More contracts quickly followed, including a seven-book historical fantasy series signed with HarperCollins, on the strength of a one-page proposal and winning the Branford Boase Award (told you my agent knew what she was doing). This became the Seven Fabulous Wonders series, which found its way into 12 languages across the world, making me a debut author in places as far flung as Korea, as well as the financially important German market. I got to see my name in strange formats, such as Katerina Robertsova. I couldn't even read my name in Japanese, nor the beautiful Japanese hardcover edition, which had intricate fold-out maps in the front and opened backwards - eat your heart out, Game of Thrones!

The Babylon Game - my debut novel in Japan

The beginning at the back, with fold out maps.

Then my lovely agent died. In the same month, my marriage broke up and I had to move out of my lovely writing room in our 17th century cottage with its spiritual round window, which I'd decorated with glass paint when we moved in, and which looked out across a field of horses. Fortunately, I had just finished writing my epic historical novel for Chicken House about Alexander the Great told from the horse's mouth I am the Great Horse, although this book still had not been published, mainly (I gather) due to lack of support for the proposed hardcover edition by Waterstones. By now it was 2006, and the publishing industry was already changing. My publisher had to do some serious wrangling to agree a suitable format that the shops would stock in quantity, which delayed its publication. However, the book came out in the US in hardcover on schedule, and in paperback here in the UK the following spring with a beautiful colour map by artist Brian Sanders (once destined for a fold-out similar to the Japanese edition of The Babylon Game) printed on the inside of the cover.

I am the Great Horse
(Scholastic US first edition hardcover, 2006)

Meanwhile, because an author without an agent cannot afford to sit around twiddling her thumbs while bookselling deals are being wrangled, I started writing another book - this one about Genghis Khan.

Author launch  - Now (take one)
Ten years later and, despite my best efforts, my book about Genghis Khan still had not found a publisher. By then, I did not have the heart to bother agents with it - or with anything else I was writing at the time, for that matter. My older titles were dropping out of print at the speed of light, I had very little money coming in, and felt as if my publishing career and was over. I contemplated burning all my half-written manuscripts. I recycled a lot of the paper and gave away spare copies of my books to charity shops. But by this time I was writing on a computer, and all those pesky unpublished and unfinished writing projects were still lurking on its hard disk, clamouring at me every time I logged on like attention-starved children: "Write ME - no, write ME, ME, ME!"

An author, even an author who has lost her agent and her favourite writing room, cannot ignore her children. So I took the most commercial (in my opinion) half-written project of that time - a series of books about King Arthur's fictional daughter - and thrashed it mercilessly into shape. Then I sent it, agented once again by me out of necessity, to a publisher I'd heard was looking for fiction for 9-11 year olds. Thankfully, that publisher - Templar Books - took the entire series and paid me an advance I could live off (just) while I finished the books. There were four titles altogether, published as The Pendragon Legacy between 2012 and 2014 with beautiful covers by talented New York artist Scott Altmann.

The first two books sold to Hachette, and La Fille du Roi Arthur: L'epee de Lumiere became my debut title in France. Sadly, however, Templar got swallowed up by Bonnier shortly afterwards, who cancelled Templar's fiction list and laid off the entire fiction team, so the series had to fend mostly for itself after that.

French edition of Sword of Light
my debut title in France

By this time, because an author without publishing contracts cannot afford to sit around twiddling her thumbs while her books go out of print, I had rescued and republished most of my previous titles as ebooks. Also, following various comments by editors and other readers, I'd pretty much edited my Genghis Khan story to death over the years. It seemed a small step for an author (if a giant step for the publishing industry) to format the story as three ebook novellas and publish them direct to Amazon for Kindle... my first true indie project! A little embarrassed to be publishing myself, I brought the ebooks out quietly under my middle initial 'Katherine A Roberts', mainly because the story contained elements unsuitable for my nine-year-old fans of the Pendragon Legacy (which was - and is technically - still in print).

The Legend of Genghis Khan, my debut indie project
(these covers were inspired by portraits of Genghis Khan's family).

Author launch - Now (take two)
The Kindle novellas found a few readers and picked up some nice reviews, plus one troll who gave the first book one star for being very similar to Conn Iggulden's series about Genghis Khan (which is actually a back-handed compliment, even though my treatment of the history is quite different). But something made me hold back from publishing the epub and paperback versions, even though I had by then discovered the joys of print on demand with Createspace for my out-of-print titles. I still had a glimmer of ambition to see The Legend of Genghis Khan in the shops, which does not happen with a print on demand title. So I sent the ebooks to a small independent publisher The Greystones Press, who had recently set up to publish historical YA fiction ignored by the bigger publishers, and signed a contract for a new edition of the story combining all three novellas into one volume, which was launched earlier this month under the title Bone Music. Those who were at the Facebook party enjoyed fermented mare's milk and marmot steaks, among other Mongolian delicacies... feasting virtually with Genghis Khan was surprisingly quite fun!

Bone Music
my debut YA title
(Greystones Press 2018)

The paperback edition had a tiny print run, even smaller than the original hardback run of Song Quest by Element Books back in 1999 when I was still an untried debut, but there's always the possibility of reprinting. The lovely part of working with a publisher is that half the work - cover design, formatting, editing, proof-reading, publicity - is done for you, and the paperback will be in some (the best!) UK bookshops... if it's not in your local shop, you should be able to order it from them. Here's the magic number: ISBN 978-1911122210.

And that, my friends, is how an author continues to publish through changes in fame, fortune, and technology. One thing remains constant. Books don't write themselves, and an author these days no longer has any excuse to sit around twiddling her thumbs while publishing deals are being wrangled.

Find out more about Katherine Roberts and her books on her website

And if you've still got 5 minutes, here is Katherine reading part of Borta's story from Bone Music.


Jan Needle said…
Inspirational piece - keep up the good work. Your stoicism about the cynical way publishers treat writers is truly admirable.
Enid Richemont said…
Oh God, how I can relate to this! Nurtured and loved by Walker Books, my first publishers (I thought of them as my second family), and once commisioned by the eminent Wendy Boase (she of the Branford-Boase Prize)to write a MG novel, plot at the time unknown as I hadn't yet written or even proposed it, everything fell to pieces in 2000, when a Y/A novel Walker had turned down was picked up by Simon & Schuster and given massive and expensive publicity - a launch to die for - then put out of print the following year. At the same time as this massive blow, I discovered that all my books with Walker had also been put out of print.Publishing is not a good career for the sensitive and vulnerable, although these are the very people it often attracts.

My husband, David, my invaluable support through all this, began re-publishing my Walker list as ebooks, and I also managed to retain my publishing profile by writing for educational publishers. Then David suddenly died, and I'm left alone with the problems of self-publishing (he was a genius IT guy, and I am a total wuss). I still have an agent, but... Katherine - I think you're amazing!
Not amazing at all! I have actually been rather lazy, because I could have written far more books if I'd just got on with them, and not tried so hard to get publishing deals for half-written projects/ideas that ended up going nowhere when I lost faith in them after a few early rejections.

But whenever I have worked with publishers, I've mostly had good experiences. Don't get me wrong... I LIKE working with publishers! However, I think publishing has definitely changed since the days when authors were treated like part of the family, and we must adapt to those changes if we wish to keep writing and publishing our work.

“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”

― Confucius
Sue Purkiss said…
Sobering. But I'm glad you had the good times early on!
Dennis Hamley said…
There's so much in this that I recognise. We authors must be made of stern stuff to keep going. I was lucky in having twenty-five years with Andre Deutsch and then Scholastic being encouraged and nurtured by one of the great editors, Pam Routs. But when that quietly, though upsettingly, ended in 2001 it's been picking up scraps. Even my one teeny little commercial publisher looks like it's goiing under. TG for indie publishing.
This is truly inspirational! Kudos.
Umberto Tosi said…
I'm in awe, and inspired. Thank you for this, Katherine. I'm followed these paths, but not with your grit, which I admire.

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