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Stewart Dalby

Trials And Tribulations Of Getting A Book Published

Stewart Dalby always wanted to be a published novelist, but writing the book was the easy part. He reveals the trials and tribulations of trying to get his book, The Friends of Rathlin Island, published.

 

A lifeline has just been thrown to unpublished novelists weary of rejection letters. Macmillans has launched a New Writing fiction list, to “give a voice to talented new authors.” But there is a catch – the New Writers won’t receive a penny upfront and they’ll have to pay for the cost of editing their books.

Hari Kunzru (who received £1.25 million for his first novel) has described the Macmillan initiative as “the Ryanair of publishing – it’s like having to pay for your own uniforms”.

As someone who has had his nose pressed against the windowpane for a long time, I disagree. For a writer, to somehow get published is to realise a dream, and I dreamt for more than 20 years about getting a book published. It has been a long haul but now at the age of 60, I have my ISBN (International Standard Book Number.) I am an officially published author. The wonderful New Writing initiative arrived at least a decade too late for me.

I have been lucky in my career. I was a journalist and worked as a correspondent covering Vietnam, Northern Ireland and the Middle East. But I had always wanted to write a book.

I know… everyone wants to write book. But journalists kid themselves they have an advantage, because they can draw on their experience. Gerald Seymour did it, didn’t he? In my fifties, my employers decided I was past my sell by date. I received the little brown envelope making me an offer I could not refuse. I was on the streets, but still had young kids to educate. I would write that book. I was encouraged by the example of Mary Wesley, said to have been 75 before she got into hardback. Newly unemployed, I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Friends of Rathlin Island.

The plot was inspired by my experiences in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some Protestants in both Northern Ireland and Scotland are planning to achieve independence by staging a coup funded by revenue from a secret oil field. When three police divers are murdered in Ballycastle after stepping off a boat from Rathlin Island, Ireland is thrown into political turmoil.

Holding the key to peace or chaos is an apolitical anthropologist, Jackie Wilson, a Protestant aristocrat from Northern Ireland, and his firebrand Dublin-based republican journalist girlfriend, Aideen.

Writing was the easy part. I sent it to five agents. Three quickly said thanks but no thanks and if you write another one don’t send it us. Two others said, not quite, but have another go. I preferred to take comfort from Freddy Forsyth. Didn’t more than a dozen publishers reject The Day of the Jackal before it was published?

Then a friend, Barney Smith, British Ambassador to Nepal, read the manuscript. He liked the story, but it needed editing. He pruned the first chapters and suggested; only half seriously, that we could get the book printed cheaply in Asia.

We looked at Kathmandu but the unreliable post knocked that idea on the head. We looked at Bangkok, and amazingly we got the revised text set by a former Buddhist monk who spoke no English. But the problems of supervising the printing from a distance proved too much. Moreover we realised what a problem distribution to bookshops would be without an ISBN number.

But since we had a decent text, we again tried to woo an agent. Again a deafening round of “Don’t contact us”. One agent did write back. The gist of the response was. “For a first attempt it is impressive, but not exceptional. Frankly you are a bit old. Publishers will only put money into a book if you are young, preferably female, write about magicians, and have five or six other books.”

It was at this point we realised just how incredibly heavy are the odds against getting a book published. Through a mutual friend, Barney contacted Jerry Johns had bought the Polperro Heritage Press. It specialised in local histories and smuggling tales. Jerry didn’t like novels. His last one had sold 62 copies. He read mine and relented. He would publish it if we helped with the marketing. Finally, nearly 10 years after I had first put pen to paper, I was a published novelist.

We sold a few hundred copies by word of mouth. But we also discovered just how difficult it is to go beyond that and sell more. For that you need to get reviewed. It is hard to get reviewed unless you are established. Some 125,000 titles are published in the UK every year, but only around 1 per cent can hope for press coverage or reviews.

End of story? Well, maybe. But you still dream. If we could just get reviewed you never know.

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