"Everyone does have a book inside them, but in most cases that's where it should stay," is a great quote by author Christopher Hitchens. I ruminated on his remark before making my final decision that mine was a story I felt was worth telling. As someone who has always loved and read books voraciously it is a dream and one that I am sure many share. Seeing your name in print on the side of a glossy cover, a testament to your tale, probably the culmination of years of hard work, is a joy that cannot be overstated.
For many authors though, converting your labour into a published, physical copy is just that: a dream. With a recession on, the publishing industry undergoing a painful digital renaissance and with sales of printed books going down year on year, things look bleak for aspiring authors. The sting of rejection being the order of the day when submitting to publishing houses, the next logical option is to go self-published, to push your manuscript out there yourself.
In the process of creating my autobiography, From Behind the Mask, I have been through many different stages of the publishing world. Due to unexpected circumstances my book has become a hybrid of both the self-publishing and the traditional publishing route. During my journey I have done some extensive research, obtained advice from already published authors, had help from friends, hired outside agencies, bounced back from agents and publisher's feedback and finally submitted something that I am truly proud and excited to call my own.
My book's journey started about five years ago, a decade after the Paddington Train Crash which changed my life. At first, I sat at my office desk and dutifully typed up the events that had occurred since the crash, rather as I type up a proposal for a project I am about to manage, until I had a finished product. Whilst this worked (in a functional, putting words on paper, kind of way), the process was seriously hard work. As a result of this, I was really attached to the final product, so when I asked an author friend of mine to give it a read and he replied with: "It's a bit all over the place at the moment", I had to quickly learn my first lesson: don't be too precious about your drafts.
We went through every page together re-writing whole chunks: weighing up what I was saying, checking for flow and continuity, re-checking dates, facts and background information...it was painstaking.
Once that was all done, I had to think: was it any good? Would people want to read it?
This is where a publishing agent came in. They helped me by reading my manuscript from the viewpoint of an average reader. When their feedback came back though, it was devastating.
The good news? According to the agent, the story itself was fantastic, and inspiring. Exactly what I'd hoped to achieve, I was elated. However, in the same breath, they said that it was too impersonal. For an autobiography, this is a heavy blow.
The real kicker, though, was when they advised that getting a publisher to take on my book would be unlikely. Apparently, from their point of view, I was 'old news' which would make it difficult to sell. "Would you consider about possibly going into the jungle...or how about doing something shocking like taking your top off in public? That would make you relevant again"
Needless to say, I rejected these ideas and we soon parted company. So, now agent-less and with an unprepossessing manuscript it seemed as though it was all over. This is where I lost hope and enthusiasm for the whole thing. I talked to Gareth, my author friend, and he said that it would require a complete re-write. This I couldn't face so with a heavy heart, I put my project away.
Then, in early 2012, I stumbled across my manuscript and gave it a read. With a bit of distance, the feedback on its content suddenly made perfect sense: it was too impersonal because I had written it in the third person. I had not revealed how the events actually made me, as an ordinary person, feel. It was a eureka moment; I rang Gareth and we started again, focusing on the 'feel' of each chapter.
This time though, I really didn't want the process to be as arduous as before, so I went for a different work setting. For me, comfy clothes, my sofa, copious cups of tea and old black & white movies as a backdrop worked wonders to relax me. The informal setting let me open up my emotions and pour my feelings onto the pages. It helped me create something I am very proud of.
Once this rewrite was done, I had a vastly improved book but still no publisher to take it on. This is when I had a look at the self-publishing route. I read around the subject for a while, and one of the things that I found in my research is that a lot of self-published texts fail because the authors rush to print. However good you might think your story is unless you bother with the other processes, such as having it properly edited, your final book is going to appear amateurish. I had invested so much of myself into this version I wanted to give it the best possible chance of success. So I hired a freelance editor with years of experience and handed him my manuscript. While he was busy with it I also had a specialist lawyer check it for libel and, once finished, I then had a professional copy editor improve the style, format and accuracy of the text.
Finally I had a strong manuscript and a very clear vision as to how well my book would come across. I was just about to hire a proof reader to check it for spelling, grammar and inconsistencies when I was struck by another lucky opportunity: I was given a chance to pitch my autobiography to Biteback Publishing face to face.
I know how extremely lucky I was as, rather than my manuscript just being read by an unknown quantity, I was able to physically present my story with passion, conviction and knowledge, and they departed with a copy of my manuscript in hand. A few days later I received a phone-call saying that they really wanted to publish my novel.
By this point, I had already worked enough of the book to have created something I could self publish on my own: but there was still the proof read, the design of the book jacket, working out a complete marketing strategy and approaching distribution channels... and, for me, this is where the experience of an established publishing house might prove invaluable.
I am certain that I could have done it all myself, but to create a truly professional looking product, and to achieve the ambitions I have for the book, it had to be taken to a level I was not sure I could achieve. I took Biteback's offer with alacrity. This didn't stop me, of course, from negotiating certain rights to reflect the work I had already put in. And, generally speaking, I have stuck my sticky little beak into every aspect of the ongoing manuscript processes, asked questions and dug my heels in if I felt they were trying to change my words or sentiments.
Now it's February, and it being a short month, I will be keeping an eye on the final process, booking in all the PR, marketing and social media arrangements and trying to ensure that all work seamlessly together, before From Behind the Mask hits the book shelves on the 4 March. I am so excited I can't tell you!