Friday, 14 November 2014

Indulging oneself? And why not? By Dennis Hamley

I suppose you could say that what I'm going to write about is vanity publishing gone mad. But there is reason behind it. Two issues set this latest crazed ambition going. The first is the ubiquity of artists' limited edition prints. The urge to possess a lovely giclee print not far off original with a number to prove it and so certainly pretty exclusive, especially if it's signed just for you, makes the limited edition print a worthwhile proposition for painters.


Giclee prints on sale!

The second is something I first heard about when the publishing director of a major but noticeably enterprising (in a good way) publisher spoke to Writers in Oxford about three years ago now and said what they were doing to come to terms with ebooks.

First, to test the market, they took some of their genre novels and put them up as ebooks for silly prices. They were amazed at the take up so they put the prices up and were still amazed. Eventually they decided that the traditional mass-market paperback was, in the long run, doomed. But they also found that sales of hardbacks by the same authors suddenly increased. It seemed that if the punters really liked the ebook, they often wanted to possess it as a real, proper artefact they could show to people and say, 'Look at this. Isn't it beautiful? And it's a great book as well. You've got to read it.' Everybody wins. The Book Beautiful. It sounded good to me. Besides, a self-published author once told me he'd sold 1000 copies of a newly-published and 'beautiful' book overnight to the collectors' market. 'Hmmm,' I replied.

Why not, I thought, try out this Book Beautiful idea for myself? Sadly, I couldn't say that any ebook of mine had sales indicating mass appreciation so I had to find other criteria. I've had a great time these last forty-odd years writing children's and young adult books. But now, in phase 3 of my writing life, to be known purely for kids' and YA work can be a disadvantage, which is why I'm trying to re-market my YA books as adult novels. I've ebooked four stand-alone YA novels so far, Spirit of the Place, Out of the Mouths of Babes, Ellen's People and Divided Loyalties. They were originally written for specialist children's publishers, Scholastic and Walker. There are huge marketing implications here. Bookshops stick YA novels down in the children's section where none of the intended readership would be seen dead, Nowadays publishers might have seen mine as 'crossover' books, which could have given them a better chance.

I think Pam Royds, my editor, suspected the same. In Spirit of the Place the two main modern characters were, in the first draft, sixth-formers. Pam firmly said this wouldn't do. They had to be older. I think she wanted them at least research fellows because they were involving themselves in some fairly advanced ideas. At the time, still in full YA writer mode, I was worried about this. Surely it defeated the purpose of writing a young adult book. We compromised on making them undergraduates on the basis that the young tend to identify with people slightly older. I didn't stop to consider how unattractive and boring a character Nicholas Fowler, 18th century poet and the centre of the story, might be to the majority of present-day teenagers. I was too interested in trying to understand him.


Cover of first edition, Scholastic 1995

The first reviews were good enough. But one started with, 'One for the sixth-form' and a teacher told me she'd bought the book for her English A level students as background to their eighteenth century set books. All the signs of a very niche market indeed. The reviewer in the TES said, 'It reads like a starter pack for Possession.' Was this meant as a put-down? Well, even if it was, she'd got it in one. AS Byatt's Booker-winning novel is, of all books ever written, the one I most wish I'd written myself. How many authors, when they think that,  can resist the internal siren call, 'then write it' ?

So, in a sort of way, I did. Like Byatt, I wanted to invent my own poet from a different century and write his poetry for him. Unlike Byatt, I wanted an excuse to put Scott's incredible Grotto in Ware at the centre of a story. Like Byatt, I wanted our generation to see both similarity and difference in theirs.

The first edition's respectably undisastrous career progressed until it was put out of print four years later, not having earned out its really quite reasonable advance, not given mass paperbacking, not even granted a reprint. Also, unlike most books I'd written for Scholastic, significantly given no help by their usually very active publicity department. So that, it seemed, was that and for some years I forgot about it.

I didn't pick it up again until I was casting round for books to resurrect for Kindle. At first I thought reissuing Spirit was impossible. The part set in the 90s would have to be updated for a new edition to take account of new technology. I'm probably one of the four worst-equipped people in the world for that. But then I realised that there were strange correspondences and parallels between 1773 and 1993 which, first time round, I hadn't consciously taken in because 1993 was then still contemporary. It's now history and we can evaluate it, therefore the book had to remain as it was. I was aware even as I was first writing, that one of the story's most important images didn't work properly, but I couldn't see what to do about it and let it pass hoping that nobody would notice. Now I could rewrite a large part of the central section because, after all this time, I suddenly saw what was wrong and how I could put it right. Then of course, over twenty years had passed since 1993 and those events have had consequences. I had to find out what they were and how the lives of my two main modern characters had panned out. I wrote a long postscript, deliberately finishing both story and its composition on my birthday in 2012, which means that the last page is a running commentary on events as they are happening. By the time I put Spirit on Kindle it was almost a new book.

Now it's even newer. At the very last moment, just before I sent the pdfs for the new version off to the printer, a new ending occurred to me which tied up a loose plot-end I'd hoped nobody would notice but knew that sooner or later somebody would. Oh, the marvellous flexibility and the chance to change things that indie publishing brings!

I love this book now and can even read it for my own pleasure as if someone else wrote it. And who knows, perhaps its niche nature might appeal to adults? It might do well as a book in Oxford, if the punters could be led to it. As a Book Beautiful, could it be sold like an artists' limited print? Well, yes if it was done as a short 100 copy run, production standards were really high, each book was numbered and signed and if I could make people want to buy it. Aye, there's the rub.

Product Details

Anastasia Sichkarenko's extraordinary but entirely fitting new cover.

So I went about getting quotations from printers. I was quite depressed at how high they were. Then Julia Jones, whom I now publicly thank, recommended a firm which she has used. I got in touch with them and was surprised at how reasonable their estimate for a quality hand-sewn hardback seemed, especially as I knew what a high standard they work to. I showed the estimate to a friend who runs a publishing/printing outfit for short-run books (I hadn't approach him, for the same reason that you shouldn't have your dentist and doctor as friends and neighbours in case you have to sue them). He said he couldn't begin to compete with it. So the book is being printed by Berforts Information Press of Stevenage, with an office in Eynsham just down the road so I can keep in touch. Although this will be the first conventional print book to appear under the Blank Page Press imprint it's a purely private venture. Yes, there's a big initial outlay but the returns, at £15.99 each, if I manage to sell them, will be well worth it.

I expect to be correcting the proofs as you read this (just like old times!) and receiving the books early next month. I'm arranging a launch party somewhere nice for a date round about December 18th to which you're all invited. If this doesn't come off then we'll have to wait until March when we come back from NZ.

Anastasia has done a lovely dust jacket. On the back is a comment from Philip Pullman with which I am very, very chuffed:

'It's a marvellous story, put together with great ingenuity. Dennis Hamley seems to have got right inside the eighteenth century (one of my own favourite places to visit), heroic couplets and all. It made me want to go out at once and build a Grotto in the garden.'    

Gosh, how can it possibly fail?                                                          







6 comments:

Jan Needle said...

fascinatin stuff, dennis. you'll keep us informed i'm sure. and by the way - what would we do without julia and her ilk?

Lydia Bennet said...

how fascinating, the way things constantly evolve but in cycles, and great that AE authors are helping each other! Oxford strikes me as a good place to sell these special books, and the Pullman quote is a doozy! Congratulations Dennis.

Reb MacRath said...

Way to go, Dennis. By the way, I hadn't known that Out of the Mouths...was a YA title. Hopefully, your persistence--and the Pullman quote--will help raze the walls between YA and Literature.

Dennis Hamley said...

Reb, yes, OOTMOB was originally a YA, though a friend seeing a whole table of them in Waterstones in York back in 1997 (those were the days!) wrote to me to say he hadn't realised I was writing for adults now. I think the new part 6 strips any YA fig leaf away! Val, yes, the PP quote is great. It took me long enough to flush it out of him. And yes, Jan and Val, what would we do without Julia in so many ways? - and AE is a mutual self-help group or it is nothing.

Kathleen Jones said...

The best of luck with this venture Dennis!!! I will probably be in Italy for the launch, but will be there in spirit!

julia jones said...

Only just caught this one Dennis - I'm so pleased (an reassured) that you like dealing with Berforts as much as I do. Firstly it's a pleasure dealing with a printer IN THE UK -- though every so often I think I ought to beat myself up for being stupid and not investigating the Indian and Chinese firms who do it all (I'm told) at a fraction of the price. Secondly - and much more to the point in our arena - I do honestly think that we can get a much better quality very short run publication from a 'proper' UK printer than from all the Lulu's, Lightening Sources and Createspace alternatives. I just don't like the feel of their books.