LIBRARY CAT: The twisty journey to signing a book deal

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A very, very early edition of Library Cat

You sign with a stellar agent. She wants your manuscript as it is. She thinks it’s perfect.

She puts it on submission and the bids come in: Macmillan, Random House, Hodder & Stoughton. You’re flown down to the Hachette campus to sign the contract and “meet the team”. It feels wonderful. You are walking on air.

Right…? WRONG! The truth is, the above is incredibly rare.  Most books, remember, struggle to earn out their advance, let alone hit the dizzying heights of a bestseller list. More still are destined to wilt in drawers, gathering dust, never to get published at all. The Bookseller headlines that bounce around Twitter about 8-way auctions do not come attached with the author’s backstory detailing the slew of rejections, failed books, breakdowns broken marriages and ditched agents that led to that one golden moment. In fact, sometimes I feel those Bookseller headlines should come with an emergency “excess sugar” health warning like those epic, triple-fried doughnuts you get at fairgrounds.

The more I speak to authors, the more I have come to realise that the journey to publication is twisty; an emotional rollercoaster which must be endured before it pays off. The golden book-deal ingot that is dropped in your palm by the kiosk man at the end of the Nemesis Inferno is earned only if you manage to keep your head, and stomach, and nerve above water before the loop-de-loop is out. 

In many ways, Library Cat looks a bit like one of those special, hallowed cases that got through. I was wined and dined by an agent in the Ivy, the book sold at auction abroad, it won the People’s Book Prize. Sure it’s no Conversations with Friends, but for the outsider, it may well appear to have trodden a reasonably charmed path into existence.

But trust me, that path is not all it seems. There were hidden pot-holes and spike-infested crannies aplenty. In fact, Library Cat‘s route to publication was – to quote Blackadder’s matchless Lord Melchett – about as twisty-turny as, well, a twisty-turny thing! Over the course of the year Library Cat worked its way towards a deal, I stared down at every one of the publishing industry’s Hydra faces: the querying, the anxiety, the agents, the rejection (oh, the rejection!) the near misses and the sanctimonious put-downs. From agents saying “it’ll never work”, to editors saying my idea was “precious”, “disappointing” and (worst of all) “not that funny” and it’s fair to say I am pretty battle-hardened.

But I got there. Or, more importantly, we got there – my now-wife Ellie and me – without whose support I’d probably have sacked it all off and continued to quietly write my PhD, eschewing the grand idea that my silly cat/philosophy blog would ever find a commercial, meaningful audience beyond a few devoted university click-bait surfers.

It was a chilly afternoon in September 2015 when I finally signed the contract with Library Cat‘s UK publisher, Black & White. I remember walking out of their offices in Leith, gazing shell-shocked out across the harbour where tankers sidled moodily along the Albert Dock basin. But the journey to that moment had started much earlier. Almost a year earlier, in fact…

Turn now to late 2014 – a pretty damn frightful year in the life of Alex: I had just returned to my PhD after a period of ill health (details to follow in another blog post. Suffice it to say I had been very ill). I was in Nero on Princes Street, Edinburgh. Suddenly, owing to either the coffee or biscotti (or perhaps both), I felt emboldened. “I’m going to send out my Library Cat Facebook blog to a few publishers,” I thought. “Why not? What’s to lose? It has 14,000 followers… there’s a small chance someone somewhere might think it could be a book. Then I can gift Library Cat‘s stories to my parents for Christmas who continue to lament not being able to read the blog because they refuse outright to get Facebook…”

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Blackadder’s Lord Melchett – my mascot for this story

I picked up my iPhone. “There’s this local cat,” I tapped out clumsily. “He lives in Edinburgh University library, and I have this blog where I write his thoughts. He has a French cousin, called Biblio Cat, and he likes to read Nietzsche…”

Nothing. A tumbleweed blew through my inbox.

But then unexpectedly, four days later, a response: a small, local publisher I’d never heard of wanted to talk. I was utterly ecstatic and danced around my living room, drunk on the dream of buying a state-of-the-art De’Longhi Coffee Machine from the cascade of royalty money that was no-doubt journeying its way towards me that very second. I might even treat myself to a new model train. And a carriage, per chance. Omg WHAT JOY! I arranged a time to meet with the interested editor and, when the day came, I unplugged the intercom, plucked the batteries out the house phone, and silenced the stereo. I even wrenched the lead out the back of the telly, just in case it sprung into life and jeopardised what was sure to be the most important, life-changing and pivotal phone conversation of my life. I eyed my mobile suspiciously on the table as if it were a venomous insect as the clock ticked ever nearer to 1 pm.

The phone conversation went smoothly. A few days later, the editor and I were on George Street on a blustery bank of seats outside a café. I twisted a bottle of Evian in my hands as I listen intently to what she had to say. Things were going… so-so. There was a scratchy feeling in the air. Before heading out, I’d researched the publisher assiduously: they were kosher, but very small… so small, in fact, that the Society of Authors had cautioned me against signing with them unless they allowed me to retain a portion of the rights. When I put this to the publisher politely, she baulked, rolled her eyes, and barked in a rather Miss-Jean-Brodie manner:

You are like all young authors. You think your book will be a runaway success. It won’t.”

Hmm… that didn’t feel great, I thought to myself. Something didn’t smell right. The editor seemed overbearing and a little pompous; I felt decidedly spoken-down to. Surely, I thought, we should be approaching this from a point of mutual respect? A shared, professional ambition?

That night, I was volunteering at a local mental health crisis phone line. The office – in a hidden location in central Edinburgh – was the perfect location in which to confide my predicament with someone trusting. We ordered takeaway, made tea, and had a chat in the hour before the phones went on-line.

“It’s down to your gut, you must trust it,” said H. “All the people in my year know Library Cat – he’s the University’s biggest name on campus. Even my auntie in Canada follows him. Say what you like, but I reckon this editor person needs you as much as you need her…”

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My own cat Tabitha; awaiting her cue to commence proofreading

I thought of what H said. It made sense, I figured; but then, on the other hand, I knew how difficult a book deal, any book deal, was to come by. I had, until that point, been trying to get a poetry pamphlet off the ground and the responses had been far from positive. Nevertheless, thinking about what H said, I sent my pitch round to a handful of literary agents the next morning. By midday, two had got back. One, on hearing about the presence of the other, rose to the competition by inviting immediately to the Ivy Club in London. He said the idea was brilliant – original, funny, fresh. “I assume you’ve been offered four figures?” he ventured with what must’ve been faux nativity. “Umm… no?” I responded. “Oh, Alex, this is going to be BIG,” he replied, his excitement evident down the phone. “I just luuuurve Library Cat, Alex. I think we could make this a real success.”

Fast forward three days later and I was on Charing Cross Road with my Dad, the lights of London’s West End sparkling all around in yellows and reds. I could tell he was proud: I was in London, the London where he had worked and which he believed, as many Dads do, was synonymous with professional success. As we rounded the corner onto Litchfield Street and the Ivy’s iconic Art Deco windows, I heard Dad say: “Good luck. Take some deep breaths before you go in. And smile!”

The entrance to the Ivy Club masquerades as a florist – a neat piece of subterfuge to allow the rich and famous to slip into their opulent quarters unnoticed. A voice buzzed me in and I took a glass lift to the top floor. I saw my agent on a discrete corner table; Sandi Toksvig casually talking with some producer in the adjacent booth. I’d researched the agent copiously before-hand: he was one of the big, famous London agents, used to brokering six figure deals for celebrity memoirs. We got speaking and things seemed to flow. The agent was almost obsessively enthusiastic, just like on the phone. He asked me what I’d like to drink. “A cappuccino, please,” I said. When it arrived, I made an awkwardly offer to pay, but he waved me away with a jokey frown. This was the big league, I thought. I was being courted. From the adjacent booth, I heard the smart-casual TV execs roaring in mildly sycophantic laughter at one of Sandi’s jokes. The agent produced some paperwork which I signed. That was it. I had an agent! He would sell my book at auction! He would champion me and mentor me for the rest of my writing career! Yay!

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The Ivy Club, London. Slightly too much suspended glass for my liking. 

Not yay. Within a month, we had parted ways. After sending out Library Cat to seven Big London publishers, we received a barrage of rejections after which he, very quickly, severed the contract. I was gutted. Not only had my expectations been projected dizzyingly high, but I had splashed out on a new pair of CK jeans for that bloody Ivy meeting, having been told by a friend that my frayed, charity shop denims simply wouldn’t cut it in the salubrious stained-glass environs of the Ivy. Eighty-five bloody quid, those jeans were. Jeez.

And the rejections had been bad. Very bad. Editors had described the pitch variously as ‘disappointing . . . precious . . . cloying… [and] unfunny.’ Apart from Faber, who seemed to come within a hair’s breadth of tabling a deal, the London publishing leviathan had issued a big emphatic no-no. A massive, steaming cat turd of unequivocal no-ness.

“What a waste of time,” I said indulgently to Ellie as the final ‘no’ dropped into my inbox. “What a bloody waste of time. I should’ve known. You can’t make an internet blog into a book. No one wants content which is available online for free. How stupid, stupid, stuuupid of me.”

“It’s not the idea, it’s how it’s presented,” Ellie added calmly, handing me a consolatory cup of tea. “A load of Facebook posts strung together doesn’t make a book. The idea needs development.” By now, it was November and I’d spent most of the last eight months riding the highs and lows of Library Cat. I was becoming exhausted and jaded. But the highs were like catnip; I had been bitten by the glinting prospect of publishing success, and I was weirdly sadistically, pharmaceutically hooked to the whole thing. The ups and the downs.

Several months passed as I confronted a much-neglected PhD chapter and navigated a series of box office shifts to pay back those ridiculously over-priced jeans. I felt demoralised, deflated and tired.

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Me pretending to read for my PhD chapter

In the worst moments, I thought I’d wasted a load of time and been taken for a ride by the frenetic London publishing machine. In the lighter moments, I felt there might still be hope. But the hope was a mere, tiny glimmer… and it was dwindling.

“Why don’t you try an Edinburgh publisher?”

I was out having lunch with my friend Sinead who worked at a book distribution company. “Library Cat’s an Edinburgh mog after all – he should have an Edinburgh home!” Later, we browsed the books in a few of the gift shops on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. I was amazed at the number of animal books – particularly cat books – on offer. One had a whole section devoted to Edinburgh’s famous animals – Greyfriars Bobby, Morningside Maisie, Wojtek the Bear, Bum the Dog (who knew Edinburgh had a famous dog called “Bum”?)

That afternoon I sent off several emails to independent publishers around Scotland. Within four days, two had got back, one of them being Black & White Publishing in Leith. I was down in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex visiting my parents when the email plopped into my inbox. It was a clear, wintery day, and the sea glittered under a weak sun.

“Eep!” I said to Ellie, showing her my phone.

“Oh, wow fantastic!” she replied. “That meeting’s going to be vital. We need to sort out exactly what you’re going to say. Let’s go for a walk…”

We headed along the beach down into the Leigh Old Town, past the cockle sheds and along the seawall to Two Tree Island – a bleak, Great Expectations-esque promontory of land sitting glumly in the lower reaches of the Thames Estuary. All that walk, Ellie challenged me – Alan Sugar style – about the idea. How would it look? How many chapters? Why would you have that character? What makes you think pictures would make it better? Isn’t that title naff? What’s the arc? What age is the readership?  

And the biggest one; the question it is all too easy for authors of narrative non-fiction to forget to ask themselves: What’s the story?

A few days later, I was on a sofa at the publishers, surrounded by books and Apple Macs. A Golden Retriever nuzzled me affectionately, staring through me with her big doe-eyes. I nervously awaited my meeting with the MD. This time, however, unlike before, I was utterly prepared. I had notes, plot summaries, stapled together samples of illustrations… I even had a dummy book, which Ellie and I had made, with a wee picture of Library Cat on the front, drawn by Ellie herself. It was now or never. If this meeting didn’t succeed, I’d give up.

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Ellie’s sketch for the Library Cat dummy book

“Let’s do it,” said the managing director.

It took a while for it to sink in. But since then, Library Cat has gone from strength to strength. On publication day, after a nerve-wracking live TV interview, an auction was sparked in Italy giving Library Cat his first international home, Garzanti Libri. A year later, rights sold to Woongjin Big Think in Korea where the wonderfully talented Seoul-based illustrator, Grace J, was commissioned to draw a new front cover. The next year it went to French indie press Éditions Bragelonne, where it has recently been reissued in pocket paperback. In 2017, it was judged by Sir Frederick Forsyth as the winning entry in the People’s Book Prize. Even a documentary film is on the way. The success is owed just as much to the great team of publicists, editors and rights managers at Black & White publishing, three of whom are now solid pals — Janne Møller, Megan Duff and Laura Nicol.

So what have I learned? That publishing is tough? sure. That it’s demoralising? indeed. That you need a thick skin, a Teflon heart, and bullet-proof feelings? oh without a doubt. But most of all, I’d say: prepare for the path to be twisty-turny. To quote the great Stephen Fry once again, “As private parts to the gods are we, they play with us for their sport!” And so with publishing. You will vault the highest apogee, and sink beneath the lowest nadir, before publishing has finally had its way with you, and concede what you want. It’ll take you on the long road. And those writers with six-figure book deal headlines? Well, you know what, they’ve probably trodden a long road of their own.

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A photoshoot for an Italian radio website in my flat. They wanted me eating breakfast (I’ve no idea why)

So if you have that book manuscript sitting in the back of a drawer, get it out. Dust it off, and let those words seek new eyes. Tweak them, chop them, agonise over them, and send them out. Learn what makes a good character, a good sentence and a good simile. And when you get rejected, persevere. You never know who is going to say ‘yes’; and when they do, you never know how much bigger the idea will grow…

Library Cat: The Observations of A Thinking Cat by Alex Howard can be purchased here

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