I started publishing book-length fiction in 1999, about ten years before Amazon opened their Kindle Direct Publishing platform and made it possible for UK authors to publish themselves without first winning the lottery. In other words, there was only one route to market, and it relied on an editor saying "yes". My first book Song Quest did the rounds - agented by me out of necessity - and eventually came out with a small UK publisher in the traditional way: hardcover first with a modest print run of about 1,000 copies, and then paperback with a larger print run that probably would have done quite well in the shops, since by then my book had won the Branford Boase Award given to a debut author and their editor for an outstanding book for young readers, on the strength of which I had been taken on by a top London agent keen to develop my career. Unfortunately, though, Element Books went into receivership a few weeks after the ceremony, and pulped all the copies, so we never did find out how well.
|Song Quest - first edition|
Author launch - Then (take two)
After a year or so of contract-wrangling, which I sensibly left up to my agent (one of the big publishers HarperCollins was taking over Element's "mind, body and spirit" list, but my book was a fiction title, and my editor at Element had decided to set up his own publishing company The Chicken House and wanted to take on Song Quest himself) - I signed a second contract for Song Quest and its two sequels with The Chicken House. This turned out to be a brilliant experience. My editor Barry Cunningham had previously worked at Bloomsbury, where he'd commissioned the first Harry Potter title, so he knew what he was doing. So did my agent. A deal with Scholastic US for the American rights swiftly followed, and what was by now a full-blown fantasy trilogy for teenagers came out with lovely new covers on both sides of the Atlantic... you can see all the covers and editions on my website.
By this time, because an excited debut author does not sit around twiddling her thumbs while contracts are being wrangled, Chicken House and Scholastic US had published my second novel Spellfall, an unrelated parallel world fantasy, which they launched in style at the American Library Association conference in San Francisco in 2000. Spellfall became my debut book in America, swiftly outselling Song Quest, and making my world a bit smaller when I was invited over the pond at Scholastic's expense to stay at the historic St Francis Hotel, in return for doing a five-minute reading at a banquet that I could not eat very much of due to a serious case of jet lag. An author must put up with these things when she goes international.
|Spellfall - my debut title in America|
Author launch - Then (take three)
More contracts followed, including a seven-book historical fantasy series signed with HarperCollins on the strength of winning the Branford Boase Award and a one-page proposal (told you my agent knew what she was doing). This became the Seven Fabulous Wonders series, which found its way into 12 languages across the world, making me a debut author in places as far flung as Korea, as well as the important German market. I got to see my name in some strange formats. I couldn't even read my name in Japanese, or read the beautiful Japanese hardcover editions which had intricate fold-out maps in the front and opened backwards - eat your heart out, Game of Thrones!
|The Babylon Game - my debut in Japan|
|The beginning at the back, with fold out maps.|
Then my lovely agent died.
In the same month, my marriage broke up, and I had to move out of my writing room in our 17th century cottage with its spiritual round window, which I'd had decorated with glass paint when we moved in and which looked out across a field of horses. Fortunately, I had just finished writing my epic historical novel for Chicken House about Alexander the Great, I am the Great Horse, although the book still had not been published, mainly (I gather) due to lack of support for the proposed hardcover edition by Waterstones. This was 2006, and the publishing industry was already changing. My publisher had to do some serious wrangling to agree a suitable format that bookshops would stock in quantity, which delayed its publication. The book came out in hardcover in the US on schedule, and the next spring in paperback here in the UK with the beautiful colour map by artist Brian Sanders (once destined for an extravagant fold-out similar to the Japanese edition of The Babylon Game) now printed on the inside of the cover.
|I am the Great Horse|
(Scholastic US hardcover 2006)
Meanwhile, because an author without an agent cannot afford to sit around twiddling her thumbs while bookselling deals are being wrangled, I started writing another book - this one about Genghis Khan.
Author launch - Now (take one)
Ten years later, and my book about Genghis Khan still had not found a publisher. By then, I did not have the heart to bother agents with it - or with anything else I was writing, for that matter. My older titles were dropping out of print at the speed of light, I had very little money coming in, and felt as if my publishing career was over. I contemplated burning all my half-written manuscripts and getting a proper job. I recycled a lot of the paper, and gave away copies of my own books to charity shops, but by then I was writing on a computer, and all those pesky unpublished and unfinished writing projects were still lurking on its hard disk, clamouring at me every time I logged on like attention-starved children: "Write ME - no, write ME, ME, ME!"
An author, even an author who has lost her agent and her writing room, cannot ignore her children. So I took the most commercial (in my opinion) half-written project of that time - a series of books about King Arthur's fictional daughter - and thrashed it mercilessly into shape. Then I sent it, agented once again by me out of necessity, to a publisher I'd heard was looking for fiction for 9-11 year olds. Thankfully, that publisher Templar Books took the entire series and paid me an advance I could live off (just) while I finished the books. There were four titles altogether, published as The Pendragon Legacy between 2012 and 2014 with beautiful covers by talented New York artist Scott Altmann.
The first two books sold to Hachette, and La Fille du Roi Arthur: L'epee de Lumiere became my debut title in France. Sadly, however, Templar got swallowed up by Bonnier shortly afterwards, who cancelled their fiction list and laid off the entire Templar fiction team, so the series had to fend mostly for itself after that.
|French edition of Sword of Light|
my debut title in France
By this time, because an author without a publishing contract cannot afford to sit around twiddling her thumbs while her books go out of print, I had rescued and republished most of my out-of-print titles as ebooks. Also, I'd pretty much edited my Genghis Khan story to death over the years following various comments by editors and other readers. It seemed a small step for an author (if a giant step for the publishing industry) to format the story as three ebook novellas and publish them direct to Amazon for Kindle... my first true indie project! A little embarrassed to be seen publishing myself, I brought the ebooks out quietly under my middle initial 'Katherine A Roberts', mainly because the story contained elements unsuitable for my nine-year-old fans of the Pendragon Legacy (which was still in print).
The Legend of Genghis Khan, my debut indie project
(the covers were inspired by portraits of Genghis Khan's family)
Author launch - Now (take two)
Something, perhaps being traditionally published for so long, made me hold back from publishing the epub and paperback versions, even though I had by then discovered the joys of print on demand with Createspace for my out-of-print titles. I still had a glimmer of ambition to see The Legend of Genghis Khan in the shops, while at the same time recognizing that the story was perhaps not obviously commercial enough to tempt one of the big publishers out of some of their shareholder's money. So I sent the story to a small independent publisher The Greystones Press, who publish historical YA fiction, and signed a contract for a new edition of the story combining all three novellas into one volume, which was launched earlier this month under the new title Bone Music. Those who were at the Facebook party enjoyed fermented mare's milk and marmot steaks, among other Mongolian delicacies... feasting virtually with Genghis Khan was surprisingly quite fun!
my debut YA title
(Greystones Press 2018)
The paperback edition had a small print run, even smaller (I think) than the original hardback run of Song Quest by Element Books back in 1999 when I was still an untried debut, but there's always the possibility of reprinting. The lovely part of working with a publisher again is that half the work - such as cover design, formatting and publicity - was done for me, and the paperback will be in some (the best!) UK bookshops... if it's not in your local shop, you should be able to order it from them. Here's the magic number: ISBN 978-1911122210.
And that, my friends, is how an author continues to publish through changes in fame, fortune, and technology. One thing is certain. Books don't write themselves, and an author these days has no excuse to sit around twiddling her thumbs while publishing deals are being wrangled.
Find out more about Katherine Roberts and her books on her website
And if you've still got 5 minutes, hear Katherine read from Bone Music: