I was published by Penguin in the 1970’s. I wrote six stories for children, to see if I could, sent them to Penguin and they published them! Things were a lot simpler in those days. The irony is that I didn’t know what I was doing, I had a very busy career in teaching (I was about to go on to be a deputy head and then a head of large High Schools in a very stressful social services area of London): so I promised myself I would try to write something seriously good when I eventually had time (which meant post-retirement).
That time didn’t arrive – for a host of reasons – until the beginning of 2011; I was 69 that year, and of course by then the digital revolution had happened. Self-publishing had become a real possibility, a number of previously mainstream published authors were getting themselves out of their contracts with agents and publishers and going it on their own, and I was uncertain what the right thing was to do…
However, once I was satisfied with Book 1 in my Myrddin’s Heir series: A Wizard of Dreams, I wrote to Penguin and said “You published me in the 70s, when I first tried writing for children. I’m much better at it now. I have just finished writing Book 1 of an exciting new series, and do you think the opening chapters might be worth 15 minutes of a junior editor’s time?”
I got no reply, and thought they had simply tossed the letter into a bin. However, six months later I got a short letter from them which said “Dear Robin, thank you for thinking of us. We don’t work like that anymore. We never accept unsolicited manuscripts and advise you to find an agent.” What sloppy terminology – who submits “manuscripts” anymore?! They surely meant typescripts; but I was in no position to split hairs…
So I sent the opening chapters (pp1-50) to my first agent. I heard nothing from her in 3 months! I then decided to send the same section to another agent, and thought it polite to email the first one to tell her that’s what I was doing. Within 48 hours I got an email from her saying: “Very sorry – I’ve been ill, and very busy, but I have just read your submission and I loved it. I was laughing with tears in my eyes. I’d love to read the rest of the book, but not if you’re in negotiation with another agent because I don’t want to waste my time.” I emailed back to say I’d only just submitted the opening to the other agent, whose website said their minimum response time was 9 weeks; so I’d be delighted to send her the rest of the book…
She wouldn’t accept a PDF or docfile, insisting instead on a printed copy: so I printed pages 51-385, parcelled it up and sent it recorded delivery. I heard nothing for another 3 months… Then I had an email saying “I’ve just got round to opening your parcel and the first 50 pages of the book are missing.” I said “You already had them” to which she replied: “I routinely shred everything after reading it, so please send them again.”
Are you getting a picture here? This was by all accounts a reputable agent. I had found her in the Writers and Artists Yearbook! I sent her the first 50 pages again, then heard nothing for another 6 months. We were then over a year since first contact, and I had no faith in her being prepared or able to represent me in any way whatsoever.
The second agent I had sent to (again recorded delivery), hadn’t replied after nine weeks. I let it go to twelve, then emailed them to ask whether I was anywhere near the top of their pile. I got an immediate response saying that I must be, but that they were very busy, and doubtless I would hear soon. I never heard from them again.
All of which confirmed me in my growing belief that agents are not interested in quality fiction or risk-taking of any sort. They are interested only in commercial viability: guaranteed sales putting bread on their table. A quality author starting out again with something original and in some ways unlike anything else out there stands no chance with any of them.
Then there was my desire that as many children as possible should be able to afford my books. That was why I fixed my price at 99p or 99c – less than half the price of a cup of coffee on the High Street. Add to that my growing conviction that printed books make no sense anymore. No one needs pay the high price of a conventionally printed book. Millions of trees do not need to be cut down to make paper. We’re in the midst of a digital printing revolution more sweeping and far reaching than the invention of the printing press. There is simply no contest.
In the last year I have downloaded hundreds of well-written books worth reading. They cost me nothing at all. My library goes with me at all times – Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen; philosophers, historians, modern novelists… I use my Kindle to highlight and annotate when preparing reviews. I alter the print size to suit myself. Schools will save a fortune by putting their curricula on e-readers. Printed books during the 21st century will go the way of monkish manuscripts. They simply don’t make sense anymore, and publishers of them will go out of business.
Of course we’re not there quite yet: we’re still ‘in transition’; but I have no doubt that self-publishing is the way forward (+ print-on-demand to satisfy that transitory need). I love the look and feel of my books in paperback, but at eight times the price of the e-version, are they really worth the paper they’re printed on?