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On getting published


The long and winding road

Colin MurrayColin MurrayColin joined Penguin Books after university. He has over the years worked for a number of the major publishing houses in senior editorial positions. His particular interests, apart from sailing, are science fiction, fantasy, crime and thrillers., WritersServices freelance editor, reflects on the tortuous path to publication of his first novel

 Of course I should have known better. I’m a grown man who has spent a large part of his adult life in publishing watching the excitement and enthusiasm bleed from the young and talented as disappointments and rejections follow hard upon each other. I have even added to those rejections and disappointments, and watched the bright-eyed and smiling become morose and world weary.

Which is to say that I’ve been an editor in various publishing houses, acquiring - or not acquiring (one luminary of the publishing world often used to remark that he’d ‘never lost money on a book he hadn’t published’) - the rights in books. And, yes, in spite of everything, I had written a novel. I knew that it was only rarely the road to fame and fortune, I knew that better books than mine had sunk without trace, but I had gone ahead. I imagine that every novelist’s journey into print is very different but this is mine.

It came about because I moved to Scotland and became a freelance. One of the mysteries of the freelance life is that work is never evenly distributed; it’s either feast or famine and, although one prefers feast, one complains about both. I found myself in a period of famine because of a combination of summer vacations (for others) and a new chief executive at a company where I had had a longish and mutually beneficial gig. (It gave me a small but regular income and the company a vastly experienced editor at a cut-rate.) As the old Jerome Kern song has it ‘Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly/ chief executive officers gotta behave badly till they die’ and this ceo consulted his pie-charts, and studied the entrails on his clipboard and concluded that what the company needed was a bookseller, which meant I could no longer be afforded. (I pointed out that it wasn’t me they couldn’t afford and that booksellers rarely made good editors and this one would be gone in six months. As it turned out, he didn’t last that long. But the decision was made.)

So, finding myself with time on my hands and hearing that another company was looking to find some new crime writers, I gave it a try.

An idea, a setting and a character came to me quite quickly and I wrote a hundred pages and mailed them to an editor.

About six months passed and a letter appeared from one of the assistant editors saying she was sorry not have got back to me sooner but she liked what she’d seen and could she see the rest. I had just about completed a draft and sent it off. I also made a tentative enquiry to an agent and he responded positively. I told him of the publisher’s interest and I thought things just might happen.

I suppose I should have been a bit more wary because in the publishing world, as elsewhere, things are not often simple and straightforward. When my often elusive agent finally came down from the Olympian heights long enough to reply to one of my phone calls and said, ‘Nothing would please me more than selling this for a hundred thousand, but I don’t think I’m going to,’ I understood him to be making a sensible 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 the revisions that I knew were necessary and, after a couple of further drafts, my agent did arrange a meeting with an editor from the publishing house who told me that my book was one of the most accomplished first novels he’d ever come across. 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. 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. And kept on failing. 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. I received a gracious reply, admitting that he had not served me well. No, and he’d cost me a lot of time…

Which is when the long story becomes a short one. I decided to represent myself. I looked at lists that I liked and sent the book off to Constable & Robinson. To my delight, I received a very favourable reaction in weeks, an offer soon after and then a contract. I didn’t get £100,000 but at least things were starting to work as they should. I was consulted on the cover and the blurb, copy-edited brilliantly, everyone seemed enthusiastic and the rights people even placed the book in America.

And, no matter how jaded and cynical one pretends to be, there is nothing like holding a copy of your first book. It’s a thing that you’ve created and that a company has shown enough confidence in to have spent real money. One is, I think, entitled to a feeling of achievement.

But, of course, that isn’t the end. In some respects, it’s just the beginning. Will anyone like it? Will anyone buy it?

The early reviews in America were better than I could have hoped for and I started to feel optimistic. However, I needn’t have worried that I was about to become an overnight success: the British reviewers took care of that. They were kind enough to ensure that my feet stayed firmly on the ground by the simple expedient of completely ignoring the book.

(It’s a double-whammy. Not only do they not read the book, they sell their free copies - which, of course, the author doesn’t get a royalty on - to second-hand bookshops who then sell them as used books - which the author doesn’t get a royalty on - on Amazon marketplace, which cuts back on the new sales that the author does get a royalty on. Thanks, guys.) I don’t know if reviews actually sell books but I think it’s safe to assume that a lack of reviews doesn’t help. I’m not unsympathetic to reviewers. It’s a question of too many books and too little time and space. But when my book and my livelihood are involved, my sympathy only extends so far…

So, what have I learned? Not a lot that I didn’t know already. Agents and publishers can be very dilatory and can’t always be relied upon, but there are some good guys out there.

Oh, and I now know that we first-time novelists have long memories and bear grudges. There’s one agent who won’t be getting any referrals from me and it’d probably be just as well if no British crime reviewer looks to me for a favour in the next couple of decades.

But there are things that make it worthwhile. Discovering that Library Journal called it ‘riveting and suspenseful’ and then exclaimed ‘What a terrific first novel!’ and that Publishers WeeklyInternational news website of book publishing and bookselling including business news, reviews, bestseller lists, commentaries talked about it as ‘delivering pounding suspense’, or that someone in Seattle liked it well enough to write a review on describing it as ‘brilliant’ brings a feeling warm enough to sustain you through another few pages of the novel you’re working on. This one may not turn out to be a bestseller but some people have read it and they weren’t disappointed! What more can you realistically hope for?

no matter how jaded and cynical one pretends to be, there is nothing like holding a copy of your first book.


Colin Murray has over the years worked for a number of the major publishing houses in senior editorial positions. His particular interests are science fiction, fantasy, crime and thrillers.

His first novel, the crime thriller After a Dead Dog, has just been published by Constable & Robinson in paperback at £6.99.

© Colin Murray 2007