Publishing a book – a cautionary tale

I have one book out there which was published by a commercial publisher, back in 2000. I won’t name the book or the publisher although those of you who are able to make the connections, you may do so.

I’d like to share my story of how this book, a collection of poetry, was first started, developed, and ended up in bookshops and on the likes of Amazon.

I was interviewed for and accepted on a writers’ project run by Yorkshire Arts Circus (RIP), which was called ‘The Opening Line’. As part of this project we attended regular workshops and were mentored, in groups, by a professional writer who would guide us towards putting together a full-length manuscript ready for publication. And so it was with my book, which I worked hard on, and developed with care over a two year period, through many workshops, shared conversations, one to ones with my mentor. There was a linear storyline to which the poems would cling as you progressed through the book. The finished manuscript would have been a volume of over 100 pages, and over many drafts I came to care about my book and to feel it was very much ‘the finished article’, as did my mentor.

Things started to decline when we were allocated publishers. My publisher was Yorkshire-based and yet was not interested in the aims of the YAC project, or in the views of my mentor and the manuscript we had worked on together. The editor – I pause here rather than calling him ‘my’ editor – jettisoned half of my book and butchered some of the other poems in the volume (now a third of the size) to such a degree that now, with a distance of thirteen years, I would not accept them as my creations or allow them to be reproduced in any other volume. I was told in no uncertain terms that unless I accepted all his changes there would be no book.

So my mutiliated opus made its way into the world, with a fairly small print run. It has turned up in places as far flung as Hawaii, Greece, and Sydney. It was remaindered in Borders Books and Video when they were still active in the UK (I bought one of the remainder copies). It has reached the dizzy heights of ten times its price on ABE Books. We launched it with a reading and book signing at the end of 2000 – the only time I have been bothered by any level of attention for my creative writing; and eighteen months later I was invited to the Poetry Cafe to promote it and my second book-in-planning, by doing a reading. After this, and positive reviews in Poetry London, Orbis, and Stride Magazine, it all went quiet. I think one reviewer suggested I was a name to watch in the future and that readers should ‘write my name on a bus ticket’ in case they come across it in future years. Come to think of it, he’s the one who made the invitation to the Poetry Cafe, and then offered to mentor me through the next book. Strangely, he didn’t deliver on that after we met, perhaps because I was not a willowy fragile blonde who could be manipulated!

My second book was taken up by a publisher who later went bankrupt – I eventually published it myself via Amazon Kindle, where it hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. But – this second book is all my work, and all my editing. I’m not saying you should never take suggestions or criticism, but the heavy-handed and mean-spirited attitude of my first book’s publisher has rankled so much in the intervening decade that – one or two pieces apart – I am actually ashamed of the way the book turned out, of the dismissive attitude of the editor, and the lack of discussion of the meaning of the book in the first place.

One major theme which was completely removed on the grounds that it was ‘rubbish’ was the theme of angels watching over us. This had a special resonance because the book of poems was written for a friend who had died ten years before, someone who I had promised a book to many years prior to writing it. I even dedicated it to her – to ‘Corky’ – but even that dedication was not allowed by my publisher, perhaps because he thought I was addressing my words to a cat or a dog?

So my words of advice at the end of this. By all means, as a writer, murder your own darlings. But DO NOT allow anyone else to do so. If it means you miss out on an opportunity, so be it. I never made money from my book, and I would rather have kept my artistic integrity.

Oh, and my mentor disappeared as soon as all this happened. It seemed that his interest only lasted as long as YAC’s pay cheques. I have never bought a volume of his poems since.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

2 responses to “Publishing a book – a cautionary tale

  • Pauline Baird Jones

    Back then, publishers had so much more power over our creations than they do now. I’ve had some good publishers and some not so good. I still remember the moment when I decided not to take it on the chin and walked away. It was before self pub got really big. I went with small presses until this year and now indie publish all the way.

  • The Snail of Happiness

    I love the current opportunities to self-publish and the fact that it’s now referred to as Indie Publishing rather than the old term Vanity Publishing. I co-authored a non-fiction book a few years back and we were delighted to have it taken on by a large, well-known publisher… but they priced it far too high and have done virtually no marketing, so it languishes mostly unread. On reflection, we could have done a much better job ourselves and sorted out that Chinese translation that we wanted to do and had so much interest in at the time. Like you, I have lived and learned.

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