There are many roads to becoming a published author. This was mine.
A few years ago, I found myself with some time on my hands. This happens quite often when you’re freelance: it seems that it’s either feast or famine. You complain about both but you much prefer feast. On this occasion, I was feeling just a little bruised as a new number-crunching, pie-chart-eating CEO decided that the publishing company where I had been successfully running an imprint for about eight years could no longer afford me and had ended what had been a mutually beneficial arrangement. (They had a vastly experienced editor at a cut-rate and I had some element of stability in my income. For what it’s worth, I had the last laugh: the bookseller who replaced me lasted just five months. I’d told the CEO that it would be six, but I didn’t mind being wrong.) So, while I was looking for replacement work (which came in surprisingly quickly), I, for no good reason, sat down and started to write a novel.
Of course, I should have known better.
I’d worked in publishing for long enough to know that it was rarely the path to fame and fortune, and that, far more often, it ended in tears and recrimination. But I had an idea and time on my hands and I’d also heard that a major publishing house was actively looking for new crime writers.
The writing went surprisingly well but, by the time I’d written the first hundred pages, I had a living to make and work to do and so I sent that chunk of the book off to one of the editors at the publisher and got on with my life, while continuing to write whenever I could.
Some six months passed before I received a very pleasant letter from an assistant editor, apologizing for taking so long and asking if there was any more to be seen as she thought the novel was pretty good and was planning to talk to her boss about it. Which sounded promising. As I had, in fact, more or less finished the book. I duly sent it off.
At that stage, having set things in motion, I thought it might not be a bad idea to contact an agent. I made a tentative enquiry and received a very positive response so I told him of the publisher’s interest and hoped that things might happen.
I guess I should have been even more wary than I was because in the publishing world, as in most areas of human activity, little is simple and straightforward. When my often elusive agent peered through the cloud cover on Olympus long enough to say, ‘Nothing would please me more than selling this for a hundred thousand pounds but that’s not going to happen,’ I understood him to be making a realistic judgement on the book’s worth. But I was wrong. What I didn’t hear was the suppressed clause, ‘and I don’t bother with anything that sells for less than that.’ My fault, of course, for not being cynical enough.
I knuckled down to some revisions and, after a while, my agent did arrange a meeting with an editor from the publishing house I had sent the novel to. He told me that my book was one of the most accomplished first novels he’d come across and I left the meeting with a warm glow, expecting my agent to hammer out a deal.
However, it turned out that the meeting was the one and only thing he did for me.
I rewrote again, sent the new draft off to him and the editor and then waited. And waited. After five months of hearing nothing, I tried to contact the great man on the phone. I failed. I tried again. And failed again. In fact, I kept on trying for a month. And kept on failing. Eventually, I decided that maybe I wasn’t the client for him and that, ipso facto, made him not the agent for me. I wrote accordingly and, eventually, I received a gracious reply, admitting that he had not served me well.
Meanwhile, times had changed and the publishing house that had been interested in new crime novels was no longer looking for them.
However, this where the long story becomes a short one. I decided to represent myself and looked at lists I liked and sent the book off to Constable & Robinson. I received a very favourable reaction in weeks, an offer soon after and then a contract. Of course, I didn’t get a hundred thousand pounds but I was consulted on the cover and the blurb, the copy-editing was superb, everyone was enthusiastic and the rights people even placed the book with an American publisher.
And, no matter, how jaded and cynical one pretends to be, there is nothing like holding a copy of your first book.
What had I learned, apart from that? Not a lot that I didn’t know already. Agents and publishers can be very dilatory and can’t always be relied on, but there are some good guys out there.
Oh, and I now know that first-time novelists have long memories and nurture and cherish grudges. There’s one agent who won’t be getting any referrals from me, and British crime reviewers (who, for the most part, simply ignored the book) probably shouldn’t look to me for any favours for a decade or two.
But there are things that make it all worthwhile: a reviewer describing my book as ‘riveting and suspenseful’ and then exclaiming ‘What a terrific first novel!’; another saying that it was ‘brilliant’; and another talking about its ‘pounding suspense’. The fame and fortune are probably never going to happen, but I’d made a little money, I was a member of the Crime Writers’ Association, some people had read my novel and they hadn’t been disappointed. What more could I realistically have hoped for?
Colin Murray’s first novel, After a Dead Dog, a contemporary crime novel set in rural Scotland, was published in 2007. No Hearts, No Roses (‘quirky, engaging, Chandleresque’ Booklist), appeared in 2011, and September Song in 2012. Both are set in London in 1955 and feature the same main character.
No Hearts, No Roses:
After a Dead Dog: