After nearly fifty years of contact with publishers, I could bore for England on the subject…which means that I must make sure I don’t! I will try to keep this short and focussed on the task of finding the right publisher for my biography.
In 1998 I wrote (letters, in those days) to fifteen publishers with a proposal for two biographies of about 80,000 words each: Black Pot, a documentary biography of George, and White Raven, a fictography of Kittie. Looking through the file now, I am amazed that every publisher replied and their responses were so positive. However, of course, they all said they couldn’t sell enough copies of biographies of people ‘not widely famous among general readers’ — 6000 being the minimum usually quoted. One editor whom I particularly respect wrote that ‘even the chapter breakdown suggests the Calderons were an interesting couple’ and recommended ‘combining the two subjects in one volume’.
So what has changed in the intervening nineteen years?
Well, first, so much more material surfaced about George and Kittie that when I actually started writing in 2011 I was able to do exactly what that editor had recommended. When I floated the idea of the two biographies in 1998, I hadn’t, of course, written a word of either. I now have a completed typescript of 180,000 words (about 400 printed pages), honed synopsis, alternative introductions, blog, and so forth. But the publishing world has changed enormously since 1998.
Between 2013 and 2015 I meticulously researched thirty-four possibly appropriate publishers and proposed George Calderon: Edwardian Genius to them, although only about 70% of it was written. I should think this took at least five times longer than my 1998 approaches. In some cases it meant making the proposal through a detailed template on their websites. Most communication was by email.
Less than half of these thirty-four publishers even replied. There is no doubt whatsoever that this reflects the tsunami of proposals crashing down on them these days. On the one hand, note, there are far more publishers in the field and it is cheaper for them to produce a book. On the other, we have become a nation of logo-maniacs, there is a pandemic of cacoethes scribendi, we are all blogging and writing books… We publish more books per head (3000 new titles a week) than any other country in the world.
As a result, some publishers announce ‘no unsolicited submissions’, others will ‘only consider submissions which come via a literary agent’ (my experience of agents other than theatrical ones is dire). Infuriated by this in the case of one very distinguished publishing firm, in 2015 I wrote them a three-line letter:
I know from N’s website that you are too overwhelmed to read submissions, so you will be pleased to hear that I am not approaching you about my full-length biography of a major Edwardian literary and political figure as featured in TLS Blog posts of 9/9/14 and 30/7/15. Thank you for reading this.
Astonishingly, their top commissioning editor emailed me and asked to see some chapters, even though the biography was ‘horribly unlikely for us’. I sent some, and that was the last I heard from him. I have since been warned off by other writers, who say that this old and hugely respected publisher ‘does no marketing’! It was a great pity that my research had not turned that fact up in the first place.
However, there have been some positive developments too. Biography, autobiography and memoir now outsell history. Some publishers, e.g. John Murray, have returned to biography after years away. There has even been some movement towards high-profile houses publishing the life stories of people who aren’t ‘widely famous among general readers’. This has encouraged me to research who is publishing my kind of biography now and produce a shortlist (currently seventeen and largely different from the 1998 and 2015 lists). Despite the fact that in 2015 three publishers expressed an interest in seeing the finished typescript — and I will of course give them that opportunity — each of them has a drawback from my point of view, so I will tackle the whole of the new list from the top downwards, as it were. It is important to aim for your ideal publisher, even if you know that the chances are slim.
And it is vital, in my view, to put yourself through this long campaign rather than jump straight into self-publishing. Five experienced published biographers have advised me not to bother with commercial publishers but bring it out myself, presumably because they believe George Calderon is still too obscure to catch one, but are too polite to say so. They may, of course, be right, but I think one owes it to oneself to strain every muscle to find the best commercial publisher first. One can at least say then that one has tried.
The explicit reason three of these biographers have given for self-publishing is that ‘you get exactly what you want’. Having battled with an editor who wanted to reduce my punctuation to dashes, and another who introduced clever factual errors throughout my text, I know what they mean. This is another unhappy development in modern publishing. In 1982 the oldest and probably most respected commercial publisher I have ever had dealings with, John Murray, took my and Harvey Pitcher’s typescript of Chekhov: The Early Stories 1883-88, their editor read it, and not one iota was changed for publication. Now a vast new class of young, meddling and often uneducated editors (themselves ‘writers’, they always tell you) has arisen.
But it is naive to think you can ever get ‘exactly what you want’ in publishing a book (I once self-published before computers and the printer left the title-page out!). Of course I am prepared to negotiate with a commercial publisher over length, punctuation style, illustrations, the blessed Introduction, end notes etc, up to a point, because I would prefer to be paid for my book, not have all the toil of bringing it out myself, and reap the full benefit of their marketing and distribution. The very first person I shall contact is the ‘editor I particularly respect’, whom I mentioned in my second paragraph and who has given me invaluable advice over the years. The game is afoot.
The plan, then, is to do my darnedest until 30 June to find the best commercial publisher, but not at all costs of compromise. If this has not worked by that deadline, Miles Enterprises will go into overdrive to bring the book out ourselves for Christmas 2017, using my old imprint ‘Sam&Sam’.
To what I have described as the ‘positive’ recent developments in commercial biography publishing, I would add two of my own since 2011: 1) I purposely widened the scope of my biography to appeal to the growing interest in the Edwardians as such, and 2) the blog has not only raised awareness of George Calderon, it has brought me several excellent contacts in the literary and publishing worlds. These developments contribute to firing me up with my customary inextinguishable over-optimism.
Advice and ideas will always be welcome.