The Unexpectedly Long Life of an eBook

A beautiful cover image by artist Alison Bell
The Curiosity Cabinet started out as a trilogy of plays for  BBC Radio 4 back in the 1990s. Later, I rewrote it, with significant changes, as a novel but it took a very long time to find a publisher. It was some time in the late 90s, when I was looking for a new agent, that one of them called it ‘a library novel fit only for housewives.’ I wasn’t a newcomer in any sense. I had a long and occasionally award winning career as a playwright, as well as two published novels and plenty of non fiction behind me, so I could laugh it off.

But it still stung a bit.

Eventually, I secured representation at one of the bigger London agencies. My new agent told me that she liked the novel, but she thought it was ‘too quiet’ to sell.  Nevertheless, she sent it out to the big boys. I forget how many there were back then – certainly a few more than the current Big Five, but all the same, amalgamations were rife and the so called mid-list was definitely on the slide. Agents and publishers were already talking about the ‘decline of the mid-list’. One even cheerfully predicted the ‘death of the mid-list’. I knew in my sinking heart that I was a typical mid-lister. It was an invidious position to find yourself in. Back then, anyway. One of the acquisitions editors who responded pointed out that although she liked the book, they had ‘published something similar and it did less well than expected.’ Most of them said that although they liked the novel they 'couldn't carry sales and marketing with them.' Or they 'liked it but didn't love it.'

Nobody wanted it.

Eventually, my agent suggested that while I got on with something a bit less quiet, I should submit the novel to a newish competition: the Dundee Book Prize. It seemed like a good idea. I wasn't doing anything else with it, after all. Some time after the closing date for entries, I got a phone call. My novel had been shortlisted. Would I come to an event aboard The Discovery in Dundee, when an announcement would be made? The reception and dinner aboard Captain Scott's polar exploration ship was very pleasant. We soon realised that the shortlist consisted of only three books, three authors. And at the dinner, we were happy to discover that all three of us would be offered a publishing contract although only one novel would win the big cash prize.

The Curiosity Cabinet didn’t, in fact, win that overall prize but it was published. That was in 2005. I seem to remember that the print run involved only 1000 trade paperback copies, albeit nicely done. There were one or two speaking engagements including the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and a three for two offer in a big chain bookstore. I remember all the excitement of seeing my book in several shop windows. But because the publisher was marketing these completely different novels and their authors as a threesome, we didn't get much publicity. I sent a review copy to a popular Scottish TV presenter who gave me a ringing endorsement for the cover. 'How did you do that?' my publisher asked. The truth was that I had simply asked nicely, but I got the sense that their approval of the publicity was warring just a wee bit with their disapproval of such populism. A Scottish women's magazine serialised it. They made an excellent job of the abridgement and paid handsomely.

The run sold out within the year and ... that was that. There was no sign of a reprint. My agent told me that (to her surprise as well as mine because the relationship to that point had been friendly) the publisher had declined to look at anything else from me. My work didn’t fit in with the way they saw the company progressing. Eventually, I reclaimed my rights – a process which, to give them credit, they made remarkably easy. But I soon found out that in the world of traditional publishing it is far better to be a new discovery than to be a writer who has been rejected by her publisher.

An attractive 'islandman' hero.
I was now damaged goods. My agent became cautious. 'If I submit a novel to one of the big publishers, and they reject it, they might not look at anything else from you again,' she said. We needed a sure fire winner. But who ever knows what that will be? Somebody told me that my fiction was 'too well written to be really popular but not experimental enough to be really literary.' Quite apart from the disrespect for readers implied by that statement, it placed me firmly in the despised mid-list again.

Some time in the new millennium, I found myself minus agent, minus any kind of publishing deal except for a couple of my plays and minus the commissions for radio or the stage that had previously kept the wolf from the door. 'But, Catherine,' said an inspirational Canadian friend to whom I was having a quiet whinge on a transatlantic phone line. 'You have inventory. A lot of inventory.'

She was right. I had been doing plenty of writing. I had several edited, unpublished and far-from-quiet novels in which none of the gatekeepers was remotely interested.  I sent my new novels out to various Scottish and other small publishers where they disappeared without trace, never to be heard of again. Sometimes I amused myself by jettisoning the humble supplicant role in favour of the polite but brisk business enquiry. That didn't go down at all well.  One charming individual told me that if I could come to his office, he ‘might be able to spare me five minutes.’ I declined his kind offer. Most didn't even give me the courtesy of a reply.

I think what really kept me going through that dark time was the response of readers. I was still being invited to give talks and readings, and people were always asking me how they could get hold of my books, where they might find more of my work. The problem was that they couldn’t. It was in computer files and printouts and a handful of out-of-print copies. There was a lot of it. I still remember the mingled pleasure and pain of hearing a friend – an enthusiastic reader – say to me, ‘You know, we don’t understand how this could happen. We love your writing, we want to read more of it and we think you’ve been treated very shabbily.’ Pity is never easy to accept but the emails I got from other readers, complete strangers, said much the same thing. 'Haven't you written any more fiction and why can't we read it?'

I’d looked at self publishing in the past, but all I could find were unscrupulous vanity publishers who still wanted to wrest control from my hands and charge me lots of money for the privilege.

And then, along came Jeff Bezos and Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing.

It wasn’t at all hard to decide to take my career into my own hands. In fact it seemed ridiculously easy. I had nothing at all to lose. My only regret was that it hadn’t happened sooner. I had been searching for something like this for years and had never been able to find it: a business partner who would facilitate distribution and let me get on with it, leaving the control of it in my own hands. I started small, with a couple of mini collections of previously published short stories, but eventually decided to take the plunge with The Curiosity Cabinet. An artist friend, Alison Bell, who loved the book, made me a new and very beautiful cover image. This was only the first of a number of novels that I’ve published independently in eBook form, some historical, some contemporary. If I was asked to define exactly what I write, I'd say 'grown up love stories'. But I've tackled issues as serious as child abuse in Bird of Passage and Ice Dancing, I've written a massive historical saga in The Amber Heart, and I often find myself writing about obsession and betrayal within adult relationships. Not that quiet, then, and they don't all end happily ever after either - although some do. I often work on a couple of projects at the same time, letting one lie fallow while I do something completely different. It's a way of working that suits me, but it also suits indie publishing.

So what happened after I began my self publishing venture? Well, since 2011 when I published it as an eBook, The Curiosity Cabinet has sold more copies than I would have believed possible. And it just keeps rolling along. I'm not making any fortunes from this and my other books - yet. But they add a small but healthy sum to my income every month. As I write this, the Curiosity Cabinet has undergone another spike in sales and in its category on Amazon here in the UK is sitting at #9. Sales go up and down. Sometimes I run a promotion and the sales spike again. I reckon the Outlander books have helped. People who like Outlander seem to like The Curiosity Cabinet as well. I'm told my novel is nothing like Outlander and I haven’t even read the series, although I have heard very good things about it. I suspect the only thing we have in common is an attractive highland hero or two. Or ‘islandman’ hero in my case. Two books inspired The Curiosity Cabinet: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped - I dramatised it for radio years ago and it remains one of my favourite novels of all time - and a wonderful old novel by Elizabeth Goudge called the Middle Window. I read it in my teens and never, ever forgot it.

The landscape of the novel. 
Most of all, for me, the Curiosity Cabinet illustrates the potential long life of an eBook. For my publisher at the time, it was over and done within the year (as was the writer!) It seems they must always be moving on to the next project and their next project didn’t involve my kind of novel at all. I'm forced to the conclusion that it was, for them, a sound business decision. But it wasn't my decision and as it turns out, it wasn’t right for me or for this book either.

The fact remains that there are readers out there who still seem to want to read it. Lots of them. I’m planning to release it as a POD paperback, early in 2015. And all while working on a couple of new projects at the same time, with another one simmering away in the background.

The cheering news is that eBooks can have an unexpectedly long life. You never know what's around the corner, what might influence sales. As writers and readers too,  I think that’s something to celebrate.

Visit my website at www.wordarts.co.uk
And if you're reading this in the US, you can find my novels by clicking on the links to the right of this post. 

Comments

Bridget McKenna said…
What a wonderful and inspiring story, Catherine! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.
Thank-you, Bridget. It was a long trek with this one, but I think it was worth it!
Virginia Llorca said…
Sold me pretty quickly.
Laurean Brooks said…
I appreciate your openenss and honesty, Caherine. Reading this makes me want to claim my rights back from a book everyone tells me is wonderful, and Indie publish it. I can get the rights back, but until now wasn't sure what to do with the book afterward.

Any suggestions? The title "Journey To Forgiveness" is 300 pages.
historywriter said…
I'm across the pond but I share your feelings about indie publishing and ebooks. I tried for years to have an agent pick up my novels, even they finaled or won contests. I finally put my first novel out in 2010 and haven't looked back. Tree Soldier some national awards and has become a popular topic for speaking engagements. I put out a POD at the same time as the ebook. A second novel is out and I'm working on the edits for a third.

Congrats to you, then. I'm going to look yours up. Love the title and I love your journey.
historywriter said…
I'm across the pond but I share your feelings about indie publishing and ebooks. I tried for years to have an agent pick up my novels, even they finaled or won contests. I finally put my first novel out in 2010 and haven't looked back. Tree Soldier some national awards and has become a popular topic for speaking engagements. I put out a POD at the same time as the ebook. A second novel is out and I'm working on the edits for a third. Congrats to you then. I'm going to look yours up. Love the title and I love your journey.
So good to get this positive feedback. Laurean, I think you should read The Passive Voice blog for a little while and see how you feel about self publishing! Also, there's a lot of online help out there - not least on Amazon itself and a heap of other excellent blogs. But I do think most of us have become aware that the more work you have out there, the better it gets. I still see people here in the UK devoting lots of their time to entering competitions, querying agents and publishers, when maybe the time would be better spent doing more writing and getting it out there. I know it isn't for everyone so I always hesitate to tell anyone what he or she 'should' do. I think once you find out a bit about it you'll know whether or not it's the right thing for you.