Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Pitching Confidential: How Not To Get A Food Book Published
No-one likes hearing about other people’s successes, so you may enjoy reading the following. After what looked like a very promising start, my book about training to be a chef and doing stages at the Fat Duck and other places, with a few other scribblings not from this blog, has hit a brick wall. The sort of wall marathon runners are supposed to hit at 22 miles or so, but in my case probably far less than that.
At the beginning of this year I got some interest in the book and found an agent, and holed myself up in cheap hotel rooms in SE Asia as I set about finishing off the manuscript, rewriting sections and padding out other areas, and generally redrafting each chapter over and over again until I could no longer bear the sight of it.
Day after day I spent in hotel rooms in Bangkok listening to the noise of the street outside and wondering what people who didn’t spend 16 hours a day bathing in the bluish warmth of the computer screen did with their lives. The fact they had lives in the first place said everything.
But I knew if I stopped it was over, so I just carried on month after month like a crazed hermit until I thought I couldn’t get the book any better. But saying that, by that point, I’d lost all judgement. I had no idea whether the book was any better than when I’d first started. Was it even any better than the blog posts, or the initial scribbles in my beer-stained Moleskins? How could I possibly know? Then the readers appeared. Real readers, not friends with kind words. Chums of my ‘lit ag’, and a few ex BBC Radio 4 types.
The feedback was surprisingly good. There were a few suggestions, and one or two legal concerns about overpaid grocers or perpetually absent celebrity chefs, and I made tweaks to the copy. Then it was printed out, weighing in at about 1lb 2oz, or 70,000 words. It certainly wasn’t War and Peace, but it was as good as I could get it, and it’d been through a few eyes, and then my agent sent it off to a couple of publishers. And then after a month or so of not hearing anything, about eight more.
The first of the “regretful turn-downs” as my agent began to describe them came from Penguin’s quirky, fun books department, Particular Books. They said they had trouble with the narrative arc. I have to confess I had to Google it. I read all about the plot to chapter graphs and ratios, and wondered where Nicholas Nickleby or American Psycho fitted into that.
I think it might have had something to do with the ending. It was too abrupt. I’d known that all along. Or was it the bit when it started going into detail about the food? Would the reader just skip those bits and press on with the story if there was one at all, which I was beginning to doubt. What actually happens in the book anyway? And what about the pressure for a happy ending?
If I’d had my way, the character would have ended up swigging from a vodka bottle in an Asian hotel room - like at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, but madder. Who said misery lit was over? The whole book was about the plight of the modern day slave.
I asked the agent to ask Penguin/Particular Books if they could elaborate, but she said it was against “publishing protocol”, and she didn’t know them well enough to ask as a personal favour. So I just waited for the next reply, which was from Profile Books, and turned out to be very promising, and even went to the committee stage.
I don’t write the following as any kind of boast. Just as a journal of the feedback I received in trying to get the book published. It might help you if you’re in a similar position, or are planning to write a book. And if nothing else, it gives an insight into the current state of the UK publishing industry, its obsession with celebrity, and why more and more writers these days are turning to eBooks, spoken ink, and other self-publishing methods rather than more archaic avenues.
The first reader at Profile was very enthusiastic, describing it as “funny, thought-provoking, well-written, a very easy read and compulsive page turner. An easy turn-around too, I imagine, if you get a lawyer across it.”
But he added: “It'll sell; just not convinced it's a snug fit with Profile. A little light-weight perhaps...”
But even though the head of publishing was also enthusiastic, he said the rest “just didn’t get it”. Perhaps there was nothing to get? I knew I shouldn’t have changed the ending. He said they could only do things if they all agreed, and so regretfully declined.
Here’s what he said: “I love this book. I sympathise greatly with Lennie: not one of the most successful people in England but certainly one of the most appealing. He’s frank about his shortcomings, there’s something appealingly forlorn about him and he’s very funny indeed.
“He’s also clearly a rather good cook and fits in well with tricky people. There were bits in the book that were genuinely laugh out loud (lol) and other bits that were more poignant...
“...So I presented the book very enthusiastically to my colleagues and asked them to take it seriously. And here’s why I’m gutted: they didn’t get it. My colleagues refused to share my sense of humour, my confidence in the author or to see its potential...
“...I’m greatly saddened by this. It’s a real pity and I thought it was brilliant. I’m sorry it won’t be us and I know that another publisher will take it on enthusiastically and make a great success of it.”
The next – from Transworld - was even more depressing. They said they “couldn’t just publish it because it’s good”. They said these days you need to be a celebrity, or have your own newspaper column or something, which rather begged the question of why you’d need to approach a publisher in the first place. It also made you wonder where the next Catcher In The Rye would come from. But who needs JD Salinger when you’ve got My Booky Wook?
Here’s what they wrote: “It’s really funny and rather horrifying all at the same time – what an eye-opener. But it would be a hard one for us to do in this day and age when it is soooo difficult to publish a book successfully just because it is ‘good’.
“Unless there is something else going for it (i.e. his own TV series, or radio, or regular column in a paper – anything to give him a public platform) then it is truly hard to get any take-up from what retailers remain out there...”
It was described by my agent as “another very near miss”. She pointed out that every reader had liked it, and we just needed someone to take a punt on it.
Time went by and I didn’t hear anything, and my monthly prods to the agent were answered with a just sit tight or hold your nerve message, and occasional reminders that everyone was on holiday (publishers seem to have about nine a year), or it was the Hay Festival and then four months later the Frankfurt Book Fair. I realised the book publishing world moved at a far more sedate pace than either the journalism or cheffing world I was used to.
More weeks passed, and we still hadn’t heard anything from the remaining publishers, and after a lot of umming and arring and anticipated regret, I wrote to my agent saying I’d try to find another avenue for the book and thanked her for her efforts and wished her all the best for the future.
She’d urged me not to fiddle with the book, but I knew they were right about the ending – if that’s indeed what they meant about the narrative arc, and I knew in my gut it was – and I decided I’d have another tinker with it. A last one for the road, so to speak. A final, cider-fuelled fondle in the bus stop before our separate buses come.
She wrote back with the list of rejections and yet to replies. She’d been kind enough not to tell me that four others (Quercus, Constable/Robinson, Little Brown, Pan/Macmillan) had also given the thumbs down. But there were four more undecideds, or at least yet-to-decides, or noes-but-couldn’t-be-bothered-to-reply. But as they’ve had the book for over half a year now, I’m not overly hopeful.
So here I am back in the hotel room, hitting the 16-hour days until I can’t get it any better again, and looking at new fangled routes like eBooks and so on.
I know none of it’s important. I only have to look away from my screen, and if it’s day time see the streets of Phnom Penh, and the terrible plight of the limbless beggars and street children and prostitutes feeding their yabba addiction until they’re left a walking skeleton in a dress collecting plastic bottles for a few hundred riel to know that my book means absolutely nothing, and that me and it are completely unimportant in this huge, vast world, and what right do I have feeding my ego when there are people out here barely feeding their stomachs?
But I’d like to get it out there all the same. I’ve put too much work into it to do a Gordon Comstock and chuck it in the river. Even if I have to print it myself at one of these presses they’ve got out here churning out fake Lonely Planets for a couple of dollars.
I could give them away to the homeless street hawkers to sell. Even if they flog them for half a dollar, it’s still money in their pockets. I’m joking, or at least I think I am. But seriously, if you’ve got any ideas, I’d love to hear from you. Time to get on with the book...