Monday, 13 September 2010

Try again, and again, and...

Ali's 'Comment' of 11.9.2010 requesting information about my book sales reminds me that in fact I have had 40 years' experience of the publishing industry, and since the 'blogosphere' seems to be well-provided with J.K. Rowling 'wannabees', a few comments about my books might be of general interest.

My first book, a medical textbook (Aids to Postgraduate Medicine), was published in 1970, and the first year's royalty provided enough cash to buy a Citroen Dyane car, a sort of sewing machine on 4 wheels. Before that I had travelled to work on a bicycle for several years and had then saved up to buy a clapped-out van for £105. Often I was late for work as I'd had to push the van. So the Citroen (£600)was a big improvement and I decided I liked this author lark.

Over the next 30 years or so I wrote 6 successful textbooks, 2 of which each sold about 10,000 copies each year for 20 years, went into 6 editions and were translated into several languages. I also edited 3 editions of a multi-author 4-volume textbook, and for 5 years I edited an international medical journal. I must have sold over half a million copies of my medical books over the years. By the end of my career medical publishers would regularly approach me and ask me if I'd kindly write a textbook for them.

So 10 years after retirement, I thought I'd have no trouble publishing a book on an important general subject. Wrong! You start all over again with a completely different set of publishers who have never heard of you.

So I too became a JK Rowling look-alike, except for my appearance. I refer of course to the mental anguish of being a rejected author. I struggled for a year to write the best book I could and then couldn't find a publisher. You'd think 'God' would be a bigger name than 'Harry Potter', but no dice, even though my book, like hers, deals with miracles and metaphysics as well as theoretical physics and prayers, not to mention aliens, psychology, nuns, priests and altruistic animals (no owls delivering letters though).

And in addition my book had one important new idea, namely that God exists only in the human mind, and the reason that so many hundreds of gods have been invented by so many people in so many different cultures for so many millennia (Prehistoric Bushmen, Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Israelites, Scandinavians, Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, Inuit, West Coast weirdos etc) is because religion has survival value in Darwinian evolutionary terms. The study of the evolution of human behaviour (evolutionary psychology) explains why this is, and shows that apes become altruistic for biological rather than spiritual reasons.

Nobody seemed to care.

If you are an unkown would-be author, the 'Writers and Artists Yearbook' published annually will help you to discover who is likely to care about you the least. It also has very helpful articles from 'failed' authors such as J K Rowling who detail their agonizing route to the summit. And if you still don't believe there's stiff competition, go into Waterstone's and look around.

In my experience, publishers are of three types. The vast majority won't even look at manuscripts unless they are submitted to them by a literary agent. Its worth a trying to get a literary agent, but they are not interested in big ideas about atheism unless your name is Dawkins or Hawking. I suspect that some of them aren't even interested in literature, despite the job-title. They are interested in making money from established best-selling authors, or in finding the next young J.K. Rowling, who will then make them a million a year for the next 10 years. (Could it be YOU????). Elderly people writing about science, even with jokes, don't interest them. They will reply to you, .....eventually. In some cases after 6 months,..... when repeatedly prodded. And the answer will be NO, sometimes gracious, sometimes curt, but still NO.

The second type of publisher will deign to receive a manuscript from A.N. Unknown, but will return it unopened within 48 hours, apologizing that your book doesn't quite fit their list.

The third type keeps your book for 3 to 6 months and then returns it saying that it's very interesting and well-written and they would have been interested last year, but there are rather a lot of books on cosmology and popular science and evolutionary psychology in press at the moment, and what with the recession and all, they couldn't guarantee to make a decent profit, but don't give up, why don't you try another publisher?

Meanwhile science is marching on and if you wait much longer the book will need revising. I don't think either Jane Austen or Barbara Cartland had that trouble. Blushes and bosoms are fairly durable topics, and they either suffuse delicate cheeks or heave, as the case may be, in much the same way from one millennium to the next. Okay, they might tend to sag a bit in individual cases as the years go by, but their influence as movers and shakers is less than that of the Large Hadron Collider when it comes to making the earth move. In some ways.

So after a disappointing year or so, you think "Stuff it, I'll publish it myself". I know several 'niche' writers (medical historians for example) who publish their own books and triple their annual royalties, so they make six peanuts p.a. instead of two. But they get the satisfaction of seeing their book in print rapidly, choosing the cover design and the retail price, there's no agent or publishing house taking his cut, and the taxman considers the profit and loss accounts for a small business in a different way to an author's royalty. Husbands or wives can be employed in various tasks for a reasonable stipend for example, and you will obviously need store-rooms and delivery vehicles and computers and stationery and staff parties and the use of your imagination.

And there's always the possibility that your book on 'A historical survey of methods of administering clysters' will then become an airport best-seller and all the profit will be yours. My own book entitled 'Six Hundred Miseries-the seventeenth century womb' (no kidding, it was published by RCOG, London, 2005, ISBN no.1-904752-13-6) almost made it, and I have high hopes for my planned sequel 'The Wombless of Wimbledon -a D.I.Y. guide to hysterectomy'...OK that was a joke, but there are precedents. Ever heard of Virginia Woolf's 'Womb with a View'? Or Hemingway's 'For Womb the Bell Tolls'?

I'll tell you tomorrow how to self-publish.


  1. John - this made for very interesting reading. I do hope that you know I wasn't trying to 'dis' you - or whatever it is kids say these days - just trying to see whether a different strategy for book signing might produce a more interested audience ;-)

    Looking forward to tomorrow's post ;-)

    Ali x

  2. Hi John. Indeed, I hear of the perils all the time. One of my closest buddies here works for Houghton Mifflin, and even though he is an insider, he couldn't get his book published, so he did the self publish route. Granted, it was about bag piping, but you would have thought they would look after their own. Maybe they haven't evolved far enough yet to be altruistic.