In the Year 2BB: Self-Publishing Before and After Bezos

 

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By Guest Blogger Roger Radford / Please bear with me as I take you way back to the year 2BB (Before Bezos). This was a time when digital books and the Kindle were not even a figment in the imagination of the esteemed founder of Amazon.

You might know the year better as 1992. In that year, the first nicotine patch was introduced to help stop smoking, and DNA fingerprinting was invented. The Balkan war was underway as the Serbs and Coats smashed seven shades of hell out of each other and both pulverized the Bosnians. Euro Disney opened in France, Bill Clinton became president, and Minnesota’s Mall of America was constructed, spanning 78 acres.

It also happened to be the year that yours truly became one of the most successful self-published authors in post-war Britain.

Once again, I should like to remind you that this was way before Amazon made it so simple for us to self-publish for limited amounts of moolah. I’m going to quote you almost verbatim a magazine article of mine that was published at the time. I was then aged 46. Post-Kindle, I am now a veritable ancient 69.

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‘For all of you who dream of your novel appearing in the shops, that which follows is a “diary” based on recollections, backed up by evidence of letters sent and received. In fact, a veritable cornucopia of missives leading to that final apocalyptic epistle – an order from the great WH himself (Smith, that is, the largest bookstore chain in the UK).

My aim (laudable): to offer hope to all budding authors out there, constantly frustrated by the flow of rejection slips or just too damned scared to even start out on the road of the Great Novel.

My credentials (impeccable): former hack on various local and provincial newspapers, the Press Association, the Associated Press, and, finally, Reuters, the great international news institution that spawned the likes of Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth (who, they say, had the Day of the Jackal rejected at least fifteen times), and my former colleague, Tim Sebastian. I also spent almost 10 years in the Middle East, thereby invariably covering a couple of wars. 

Have no doubts, getting published can be a helluva lot tougher. Indeed, in can prove to be a struggle of biblical proportions.

My novel: The Winds of Kedem – the story of a plot to destroy the Holy Land through nuclear Holocaust involving good and bad Arabs, good and bad Jews, and the odd mendacious Christian. In other words, a typical airport thriller with no great literary pretensions.

In the beginning …

Genesis  

June 1986: “Just because you’re a journalist doesn’t mean that you can’t write a novel.” Thus opined my good lady. She’s Israeli and, therefore, the irony of her statement in English may not have been entirely intentional. Still, it wasn’t a bad idea, so I sit down and write a few short stories.

Hmm, not bad, says the good lady. Hmm, not bad say a few friends. You know the first thing you should do is find yourself a literary agent, they counsel.

August 1986: send a few stories off to the literary agent, Abner Stein. Ah, the sweet hope of innocence; or should it be the sweet innocence of hope?

September 1986: reply from Li’l Abner. “They are good … well-constructed, simply, clearly and dramatically written … Although I did like them … I think it would be best if you showed them to another agent … Incidentally, have you made any attempt at writing a novel?”

My first rejection, folks. However, behind every cloud, as they say. What was that he said about writing a novel? I develop an idea from a short story entitled The Well (from whence comes The Winds of Kedem) and on November 11, I send off the first 60 pages to Mr Stein.

Yes, you’ve guessed it. Second rejection. So I delve once more into the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I called David Grossman, a literary agent of some note. Send it in, he says.

March 1987: Bingo! Just listen to this … “Thanks for sending me the synopsis and the first 85pp of your novel The Well … There’s a lot about it that I like – your sense of place, the battle scene, the way the Israeli secret services operate (written very convincingly) and your characterisation seem quite good … The novel falls into an ‘established’ sub-genre, so, however promising (and it is) a publisher would want to see that you could finish it first … I’d urge you to carry on writing, because even what you have done so far is by a long way the most promising material that has come into this office from an unpublished writer for a long time (my italics).

Bless you, David. I shall finish this book and you shall find me a publisher.

Exodus

Almost one year later (a year which included intensive research and a couple of trips to Israel to interview helicopter pilots, brigadier-generals and the like), the rough draft is finished. God knows how many hours of intense, mind-wracking concentration; highs, lows, and in-betweens. Be warned, writing ain’t for the chicken-hearted.

My good friend Barrie Segal, who thinks ecstasy is reading thrillers, telephones: “I read through the night, Rog. Couldn’t put it down.” If it’s good enough for Barrie Segal …

I telephone David Grossman to tell him that he will have the honor of receiving my manuscript personally at his office in Clerkenwell Road. I arrive swiftly and plonk myself down to do some emergency editing. My first big mistake. Grossman looks miffed, and after ten minutes tells me to either leave the manuscript and go or take the manuscript and go. How dare he talk this way to me? After all, I’m Roger Radford, certain to become a bestselling author, and he’ll get 10% of everything I earn. I pick up my manuscript, sweep back my head and storm out of the office cutting a swathe of self-righteousness. My second big mistake – and I mean BIG. No amount of groveling reverses the situation. Sorry, David, I still owe you for giving me the impetus to complete the book. Back to the Writers’ and Artists’. Take a pin and maybe I’ll strike it lucky.

Next comes Sara Fisher, then working at the June Hall Agency. She telephones me enthusiastically. I needed some good news, being laid up with a slipped disc, a recurring nightmare which later proved to be a more serious illness, eventually leading to my medical malpractice thriller Cry of the Needle.

“It’s very topical and a damn good story,” she says. “Don’t worry, we’ll get there in the end.”

Where I get to in the end is nowhere. She rings me a few weeks later to say she’s dropping me and offers no explanation. Suddenly my sciatica feels worse.

Judges

Back to square one. Still, who cares? I decide not to bother with agents. I’ll approach publishers direct. First on the list came Collins and editor, Andy McKillop.

January 1989: “Dear Roger, I am sorry I don’t feel able to make an offer for your novel … I don’t think it works as a thriller … Because it lacks narrative drive and tension …, etc. …

February 1989: from Sue Freestone at William Heinemann: “You clearly know the Middle East extremely well and convey a sense of it strongly in your novel. I enjoyed reading it very much but felt in the end that it was not commercial enough for our list.” A phrase I am to come across all too often.

I won’t bore you with further details of this period. Suffice to say that I felt empathy with those ancient Israelites in the wilderness, or even dear old Frankie Howerd. Nay, and thrice nay… (a great English comedian and one of his catchphrases).

Job

The next three years are spent patiently suffering the sad and painful disillusionment of rejection slip-itis. I wile away the hours editing and re-editing the manuscript. Corgi, Century Hutchinson, Fontana et al are all approached with the same result. The Salman Rushdie affair has them all worried about anything that might upset Muslims (plus ça change…). Lockerbie comes and goes. “Not another thriller about Mideast terrorists. Ho-hum,” the publishers yawn.

I eventually find a literary agent to represent me. However, Vernon Futerman, a Berliner of impeccable manners, also finds the going rocky. “Every time I ring back to find out what’s happening, the editor has either moved on somewhere else or been fired,” he moans. Poor old Vernon. If he ever gets me published, he’ll have earned his ten per cent.

To make matters worse, we are entering the worst recession since the 30s. The reply of Judy Piatkus Books on August 14 just about sums it up: “I think you tell a good story and have created interesting characters. Nevertheless, we are finding thrillers by new writers very difficult to sell at the present time …” Another failure on the rocks of my obscurity.

Revelations

“Just because you can’t get published doesn’t mean you can’t get published.” Ah, the splendid Hebrew logic of my good lady. Met by my blank stare, she adds: “L’azazel! (Damn it!), why not publish it yourself?”

It is as if a rather large black cloud is removed from above my head. The sky suddenly shimmers with that brilliance of light known only to those who have set foot upon the Temple Mount in August. London becomes Jerusalem, a city of peace and tranquillity, in theory, if not in practice.

So it’s down to the local library I go to scour for any and every book on self-publishing. Peter Finch’s How to Publish Yourself, Harry Mulholland’s Guide to Self-Publishing and An Author’s Guide to Publishing by Michael Legat prove invaluable. I read them again and again and again. In fact, I get them constantly reissued for almost a whole year before I make my big move towards independence.

Firstly, I check out a few typesetters. Eventually, I find this sweet little Turkish-Cypriot girl named Ayfer Orhan, proprietor of Artset Graphics in Enfield. We strike up a deal and I’m on my way.

Next on the list is the cover. I search photo agencies and come up with a slide of a nuclear explosion, the flash of its yellow mushroom cloud speaking volumes for my volume. Then a revelation: “why not make the ‘i’ in Winds a crescent for Islam, and make the dot on the ‘i’ a Star of David?” quips my then 19-year-old son. Thanks, son.

Everything starts to take shape, but there’s still something missing. Another self-publisher, Gideon Fraser, provides the answer: “get some reviews.” And therein lies a Catch-22. How does one get reviews on the back of a book that has not yet been published? Normally, the reviews on a hardback edition are reprinted for the paperback. I, however, was aiming to go straight out in paperback.

January 1992 second revelation. I contact an old colleague, Rod Gilchrist, then associate editor of the Daily Mail and now deputy editor of the Mail on Sunday. We both started in local papers together circa 1964. Rod, he of the incredible energy, hands the book to the esteemed critic, Shaun Usher. Two weeks later, Shaun telephones me at home. “Loved your thriller, dear boy. I’m sending you a review for the back and will put it in the paper when the book comes out.”

Bless you, Shaun. Bless you, Rod.

Full of self-importance, I now believe I possess the necessary armament to persuade the big boys to publish my novel. Proof positive of a great book: a great story, a great cover and a great review. Following an orgy of further submissions and rejections, I lie, totally spent, by the great injustice of it all.

March 1992: UPPER – a phone call from Tricia Jackson, the submissions editor at Pan. “It was great,” she enthused. I’ll be passing it on to the editor.”

DOWNER – Sorry, no go.” I don’t know who is closer to tears, me or her.

The same month, I receive a ready-printed Dear John card from Headline, while Mandarin say something to the effect that they deal only with name authors. Dammit, I am a name!. My name is Roger Radford!

In May, I read an article in the Sunday Times in which Julian Rivers, marketing director of Dillons, is quoted. I write him about my plight.

May 20, 1992: “Dear Roger Radford … I am so sorry that you are having difficulty in finding a publisher, but I can confirm that Dillons will take stock of the book … You can, therefore, feel free to entice an independent publisher with this information.”

Kings

I flirt briefly with a subsidy publisher but realize quickly that while I might get the kudos, he would get the cash. Besides, I managed to strike a pretty good deal with Cox and Wyman, the biggest paperback printers in the country. Then a couple of investors show some interest, until that is, they have to dip their hands in their pockets.

August 1992: following a suggestion by well-known book rep John Wilson, I contact Martin Lee, product group manager at WH Smith in Swindon. “We are committed to encouraging new blood,” he says. His voice carries genuine conviction. “Send me the cover and write a good letter.”

The next thing I know I get a telephone call from Fiona Kennedy, head of the paperback buying department. “Love the cover,” she says. “We’re going to order.” WH Smith compounds the good news. “We take in only five percent of the 4,800 new titles – that’s about one in 20 – we’re shown every year, and you’re IN!” Says Graham Edmunds, the firm’s buyer. “By the way,” he adds, “considering you did it yourself, the cover is brilliant.”

Yeah, and thrice yeah! I’m suddenly engulfed by Handel’s Coronation extravaganza, a cacophony of tubular bells drowning any lingering self-doubt. I cartwheel out of the house to inform the world. True, Smiths may drive a hard bargain on discounts, but their willingness to help unknowns break into the market is highly laudable. What’s that you say, about never judge a book by its cover? Forget it. After all, everyone then knew paperback were an impulse buy, so there is perhaps no need to get too disheartened by pontificating publishers’ editors.

Take my advice, all you would-be authors: if you don’t commit hara-kiri after the first fifteen rejections, you may be able to make it on your own.

Thackeray, Balzac, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence and many others did. However, kindly be aware that self-belief and lots of sales do not necessarily go hand in hand. It can prove to be a costly enterprise.

And thus, suitably anointed by the great WH, I now beseech you, dear book buyer, to rush into the bookstores to purchase The Winds of Kedem by Roger Radford.

Should you fail to do so, the next and hitherto unwritten chapter of my story shall be entitled:

Lamentations!

So there you have it. My first thriller was published, went through a second edition, and all the profits were mine. For an outlay of 5k, I made scores of thousands of pounds, although not hundreds of thousands.

Still national radio and TV interviews made me something of an oddity. No one could remember if any post-war author, with zero marketing budget, had succeeded as much as I did. But did that cause major publishers to take on my second thriller, Schreiber’s Secret? Not a bit of it. So I self-published that one, too. It also sold out its first run, and the movie rights were optioned (unfortunately, it’s not been made – yet!). Did a second success entice a major publisher? Forget it. I self-published my third novel, now called Cry of the Needle. Still no joy.

Fast forward twenty years, and I brought all three thrillers back to life, thanks to Amazon. The audiobook of Schreiber’s Secret reached number one in the UK on Audible and won an AudioFile Magazine Earphones award. My books have hundreds of five-star reviews. We’re not talking about megabucks here, but I’m not unhappy. I also own the rights to my material and I can do whatever I damn-well please.

That, at least, is worth something.


Brought up in the East End of London, Roger left school at the age of seventeen and was indentured into a local newspaper. By the age of twenty-six, he was working as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East.

There are some things in life that are highly predictable. One of them is that it will be hot and sunny in Tel Aviv, Israel, in early August. The other being that life is never predictable. A botched medical procedure involving an epidural left Roger disabled with a form of spinal meningitis. He went on Reuters’ Prolonged Disability Scheme and later turned his uniquely painful symptoms into inspiration for Cry of the Needle. Roger also suffers from thoracic outlet syndrome, forcing him to write standing up and using speech recognition software. He has written books based on his past experiences as a war correspondent and life in the Middle East.

You can connect with Roger on his Amazon author pagewebsite, Facebook, Twitter or his newsletter.

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