Publishers and agents

This caused quite a bit of interest when I posted it on a writers’ Facebook group, so I thought people might like to see it here as well.

I used to think that finding a proper agent and a proper publisher was the be-all and end-all for a writer. Now I’m not so sure.
Back in the 1980s, I thought I had written a best-selling thriller. My hero among writers was Ken Follett who started as a reporter on the Evening News. Once he was successful, I interviewed him over lunch at his local restaurant and he ordered Dom Perignon champagne and a claret that would have wiped out my entire week’s expense account – but he insisted on paying.
I sent my book to the Laurence Pollinger Agency. They told me to cut it from 108,000 words down to 60,000, said the result was “workman-like”, and started sending it round the publishers. All of them sent it back with modest compliments but declined to take it. One said it was “too good for the general list”, but since they had already chosen their lead titles, regrettably…
Honestly, how ridiculous is that?
So I put the novel away in the attic and forgot about it – until 2014 when the theme became rather topical. I thought it might be fun to self-publish it on Amazon. It sold a few copies, which was rather gratifying but hardly amounted to literary success. Instead, my writing was confined to this blog which by 2020 had 163 followers.
I kept this number rising gradually by writing posts about particular sailing topics and then posting the link as a comment when one of the subjects came up on a sailing Facebook group.
Then, along came Lockdown. But instead of Locking Down at home, I went off sailing. When I got back, I found myself talking about it on the Jeremy Vine Radio2 show – my ten minutes of fame.
By midnight that night, the blog had received 45,000 hits. More to the point, Jeremy Vine’s literary agent called to say that if I could write a book about it, he was sure he could find a publisher.
I wrote the book in double-quick time – a lot of it was on the blog already – and he sent it to his chums. All five of them came back and said they liked it but asked what was my “platform”. In other words, was I a contestant on Big Brother? Was I a pop star or Premier League, footballer? Did I have ten million Twitter followers? Was I Jeremy Vine, for heaven’s sake?
When they heard I was just a bloke who had gone sailing, they all regretted that the book was “not commercially viable”.
But, of course, now I had written it – and having one book on Amazon already – the obvious thing to do was put this on Mr Bezos’ electronic bookshelf too.
And, of course, I put a link on the blog.
A year later, it is still selling between five and fifteen copies a day. In the run-up to Christmas, this was running at 20 and 50 a day – and the other day, I was astonished to discover that it was the Number One bestselling Amazon sailing book in the USA.
Here’s another thing: If one of those publishers had accepted it, I would have been given an advance of – say – £1,500 (of which the agent would have taken 15%). The book, with colour pictures, would have been priced at £16.99 in hardback with a print run of maybe 2,000. My family and friends would have bought maybe 50 copies and, by the following January, it would be remaindered down to £3.99.
There would have been no second printing.
With Amazon, I was able to set my own price: £11.49 for the paperback and £6.99 for the Kindle edition, of which I receive £2.76 and £4.86 respectively. No pictures are included, but there is a link to the gallery here. During the current month, my income is £719 on top of $829US and $95AUS – as well as various smaller amounts from places like Spain and Brazil.
And, of course, I get to keep it all – before tax, of course.
Because the marketing is done entirely through the blog (which now has some 700 subscribers), people leave comments and sometimes mention how much they enjoyed the book. I am able to reply, asking if they would be sure to leave some Amazon stars – stars are so important.
And reviews, of course – one was so good I couldn’t resist re-posted it. Well, wouldn’t you, if someone wrote: “Now and again, something or someone comes along that invokes a shift in the way we think and view the world. Thank you, John, for opening my eyes to a new paradigm and a reality I thought was beyond the reach of a mere humble town planner. I’ve had a few laughs along the way and all for a few quid. I hope to buy you a beer in some far-flung place one day. Keep up the blogging.”
(Oh dear, I seem to have posted it again…)
Meanwhile, if I look carefully, I can see that, in among the sales of the new book are a few for the old one.
Am I despondent that those publishers turned me down? Not a bit – if they had taken me on, the book would have sunk without trace. Instead Yachting Monthly called it “a word-of-mouth bestseller”.
Now, I would advise any new writer to ignore the traditional route entirely.
Do it yourself – you won’t regret it.
And here’s a tip: One of the hallmarks of a self-published book is dozens of typos and mistakes in the text – you just can’t spot them yourself, no matter how many times you read it through. But a professional editor is expensive (and not always effective).
Here’s what I did: I included a line in the foreword asking people to email me any mistakes they found (just send me five words, including the error, so I can search for it). If they were the first to report something, I would refund the cost of the book.
Three people took this to heart and, between them, cleaned up the whole manuscript. Only one of them accepted the refund.
With Amazon, you can go back in and change things as often as you like – not a luxury you have with the traditional publishers.
Of course, I would be happier if Mr Bezos paid his staff a decent wage – and paid his taxes, come to that. But he’s paying me every month, so I can do my bit on his behalf…

5 Responses to Publishers and agents

  • Well we’ve certainly enjoyed reading it John and so has the next generation in the family. Who is tie Mr Bwzos?! Keep on sailing John and may the waters be kind to you Cap’n!

  • John, I hope you don’t mind, but I am adding you to a list. Already on the list is John Noakes (I loved Blue Peter as a kid), James Wharram and Pip Hare plus a few others I can’t remember at the moment. These are people whose lives I have enjoyed or am enjoying viewing from the sidelines and people whose wake I might find myself following. I bought your most recent book on Kindle, I think I might buy the paper version too. Keep doing what you’re doing!

  • Excellent tip for budding writers!

  • We , your community of readers be it the blog or the book appreciate it as much as yourself your lucky strike with Vince ‘s interview and the events that followed which allowed us to discover your book and blog . We also appreciate that apart from the lucky strike there is a story , a writer and a humble enough person to almost convince the rest of us anyone can try it . We reckon though how brave you really needed to be to do what you did and how beautifully , funny and interestingly you put it on paper . We wished we had such a story to tell to start with . Thank you and congratulations for the success story . Keep it coming
    Fernando. Tarifa Spain