Becoming a first-time novelist – my progress so far

I had already published fifteen nonfiction books of biography and social history, so I didn’t have anything else to prove in that regard. Before putting down my pen, however, I wanted to do one more book, this one derived from my own family history. I knew it would have to be fiction because I didn’t have the letters, diaries or other archival materials needed to properly tell the story of my chosen subject. She was a locally famous ancestor of mine, a farmer’s wife who made her mark as an Irish-language folk poet in rural West Cork during the first half of the nineteenth century. Her songs are still sung there to this day.

I had included a short biographical profile of my ancestor in my nonfiction book Songs of an Irish Poet: The Mary O’Leary Story. But it focussed primarily on her poetic legacy and gave short shrift to Mary O’Leary’s personal story. She had been a famine survivor, what was it like for her to be living in West Cork during that lamentable period in Irish history? How did she feel when two of her sons told her they planned to emigrate to North America? What was it like to travel across the ocean on one of those famine ships? I couldn’t find the answers in my family history files so I did some research and drew from my imagination to tell the story.

I worked on the novel for thirty years. I titled it The Love of One’s Country because it deals with the way immigrants can become conflicted when they trade one country for another. When I finally felt ready to share it with the world, I looked around for a literary agent to represent it. Here’s what happened next.

I contacted eight of the top agents in Canada. I suggested to them that The Love of One’s Country should be published simultaneously in Ireland and Canada because the story unfolds in both countries. Four of the eight agents didn’t bother to reply. Two declined to represent it. One of those two read just a four-page sample of the 292-page manuscript and then rejected it, without explanation. The other said major fiction publishers nowadays are interested only in young diverse voices. I’m an old guy (now 76), white and straight. Not much I can do about any of that. The remaining two agents expressed some initial interest but then stopped answering my e-mails.

After a year, with no offers from agents forthcoming, I looked around for a publisher to take it on. The major publishers were now out of reach because they don’t accept unagented submissions, so I contacted ten of the smaller presses. Seven were in Canada, two in Ireland, and one in London. Three of the seven Canadian publishers and one of the two Irish publishers failed to reply. Three of the remaining four Canadian publishers and the other Irish publisher rejected the manuscript. Paradoxically, two of these four rejectors said they actually liked the book but it wasn’t a “good fit” for their lists. The fourth Canadian publisher expressed interest in doing the book at some point, but not this year and maybe not next. I wasn’t about to wait around – I’m an old guy, after all – so that left the London-based publisher as my final option.

The London-based publisher, Austin Macauley, writing from a virtual office address in New York’s Trump Building, offered me what it called a “contributory” contract. This meant that if I paid Macauley $3,300 US, it would edit, design and print the book. Marketing and distribution would cost extra. I asked why Macauley couldn’t give me a traditional mainstream publishing contract, where the publisher would cover all the costs and give the author an advance against royalties. Macauley replied that because it “couldn’t ascertain the success” of my previous publications, I represented “somewhat of a risk” for it. Macauley clearly wasn’t interested in looking at my royalty statements, or at the newspaper clippings showing that my previous titles were Canadian bestsellers.

I didn’t bother to respond to Macauley. Instead, I went with, an independent publisher programmed with British Arts Council funding. It looked appealing to me because it paid royalties higher than the industry average and listed among its satisfied authors a former film critic for London’s Sunday Times who co-wrote the movie Fierce Creatures with John Cleese.

FeedARead charged me nothing for setting up The Love of One’s Country for printing and distribution and – at minimal cost to me – made the book available for ordering from such major international booksellers as Waterstones, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

The novel entered the market this fall and has done very well so far. It earned several five-star reviews on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites, achieved generous print, radio and online media coverage, and hit the number one spot on the Calgary Herald’s local bestsellers list. In the midst of all this, I received another e-mail from Austin Macauley, again offering to publish the book for $3,300 US.

But the book is already out there, I told Macauley, and doing better than expected. Did Macauley now want to waive its publication fee and give me the traditional publishing contract it offers to some of its authors? Oh no, said Macauley, “you are still a less established author and will require extensive marketing and promotions efforts to ensure you and your book are marketed to the right people.”

To which I can only say this. If I were a more “established” author – unlike, say, the professional wrestler or the retired boxer Macauley listed as two of its marquee writers – why would I need a hybrid publisher like Macauley to market my book to the “right” people? By Macauley’s standards, I guess I should have made my career in the ring before deciding to become a novelist.