In the words of Blackadder’s matchless Lord Melchett, my route to signing a book deal was as twisty-turny as… well… a twisty-turny thing. During that time, I experienced every side to the Hydra-face of publishing… The querying, the anxiety, the agents, the rejection (oh, the rejection!) the near misses and the sanctimonious put-downs. From the highs of international auctions and rights sales, to the lows of publishers wafting away my idea as “precious”, “disappointing” and – worst of all – “not that funny” and it’s fair to say I am battle-hardened.
But I got there. Or, more importantly, we got there – my partner Ellie and I – without whose support I’d probably have sacked it all off, and continued to write my PhD, eschewing the grand idea that a bit of cutesy writing could ever find a commercial, wide-reaching audience.
It was a day in September 2015 when I finally signed the contract with Library Cat‘s publisher, Black & White. I remember walking out of their offices in Edinburgh, gazing shell-shocked out over Leith harbour where tankers sidled moodily along the Albert Dock basin; helicopters buzzing under the granite sky.
But the journey to that moment had started much earlier. Almost a year earlier, in fact.
It was late 2014, and I had just returned to my PhD after a period of ill health. I was sitting in Nero, Princes Street and, feeling emboldened on my second cup of coffee, had pinged out a couple of emails out to local publishers.
“There’s this local cat,” I had said 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, a response: a small, local publisher I’d never heard of wanted to talk. I was utterly ecstatic and danced around the room, fantasising about buying a De’Longhi Coffee Machine and model trains (both, my principal obsessions in life). I arranged a time to meet with the 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 on the coffee table as if it were a venomous insect as the clock ticked ever nearer to 1pm.
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 slightly 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 balked, 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 doesn’t sound great, I thought to myself. Something didn’t feel right. I felt the editor was overbearing and pompous – speaking down to me when, in fact, we should’ve been starting out from a position of mutual respect. A shared, professional ambition.
That night, I was volunteering at a local crisis line phone service. 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,” 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…”
Thinking little of 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, before adding “I luuuurve Library Cat!”
Three days later, I was on Charing Cross Road with my Dad, the lights of London’s West End sparkling all around in yellows and reds. As we rounded the corner onto West Street and the Ivy’s iconic Art Deco windows, I could tell Dad was proud. “Good luck,” he said, “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. I voice buzzed me in and I took a glass lift to the top floor. 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 was being courted. In the corner, Sandi Totsvig was having a meeting about hosting a new series of QI, the smart-casual telly execs around her throwing back their heads in sycophantic laughter. 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!
Not yay. Within a month, we had parted ways. After sending out Library Cat to 7 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 Levi jeans for that bloody Ivy meeting, having been told by a friend that my holed, charity shop denims simply wouldn’t cut it in the salubrious stained-glass environs of the Ivy. 65 bloody quid, those bloody 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 came close to tabling a deal, London publishing had issued a big fat no-no. A massive, steaming cat-turd of unequivocal rejection.
“What a waste of time,” I said indulgently to Ellie, as the final ‘no’ dropped into my inbox. “I should’ve known… you can’t make an internet blog into a book. No one wants content which is available online for free.”
“It’s not the idea, it’s how it’s presented,” Ellie added sagely, bringing 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.
Several months passed as I confronted a much-neglected PhD chapter and navigated a block of box office shifts at a local theatre where I work part-time. I felt demoralised, deflated and tired with it all.
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, shower 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 their sand of churned up shellfish, and 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 are 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.
“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, 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. Even a documentary film is on the way.
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 desire. It’ll take you on the long road.
Twitter is beleaguered by articles, boasting of major six-figure advances. These authors – you tend to read – are 19 and started writing their magnum opus last summer. Their film rights have just been optioned to Universal and the author – who is beautiful and lives in Whitechapel – has an artisan baking business on the side. It’s envy inducing stuff, but that is not the norm.
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. 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 become…
Library Cat: The Observations of A Thinking Cat by Alex Howard can be purchased here