It’s IWSG Day, when writers can talk about their doubts and fears and be encouraged by others who have the same. It’s a safe place for writers to hang out – and like, a really cool club – and is brought to you by Alex Cavanaugh who’s co-hosted this month by Toi Thomas, T. Powell Coltrin, M.J. Fifield and Tara Tyler.
The question this month : What publishing path are you considering, or did you take, and why?
Free associating from this question, I ended up thinking about something that happened to me last year in autumn.
I write graded fiction and non-fiction. This means I write to level for people who are learning English, or for mother tongue speakers with learning difficulties. A well-crafted book that flows effortlessly from chapter to chapter always leaves us with the feeling that it must have been easy to write because it was so easy to read. Right?
We know it’s really difficult to write something that people enjoy reading. And that’s when we have the freedom to use any tense, vocabulary or turn of phrase that comes to mind. But, writing graded fiction makes a difficult job even more difficult. There should be a Pulitzer Prize for writing engaging stories in two tenses with only a handful of limited vocabulary. Well, there is a prize, not Pulitzer, but coveted nonetheless in English Foreign Language Teaching – the Language Learner Literature Award.
This type of specific fiction means that there is only a small list of publishers I can regularly hound. Last year, I had the amazing fortune – which really had little to do with luck and a lot to do with hard work – of being given the nod by one of them who publishes many a beautiful book. I danced a jig. Champagne was had.
And then I received the contract.
I am not Stephen King. I write language literature. There is no way that I will ever have the status of The King and need to sign an exclusivity clause, for heaven’s sake. But here was a contract telling me that I couldn’t write graded fiction or non-fiction for anyone else while I was completing the book for them. Nor could I write for anyone else for a total of five years after the book had been published. I sent the contract off to the Society of Authors and a well-known series editor for graded readers, asking for advice, and was told to get rid of the clause. Pronto.
I tried. They refused. I tried again. They refused again. I sent them the letter from SOA and then backed off and waited for them to come around. They raised the stakes by asking me if I’d like to write a second book for them…but didn’t want to chat about specifics or sign anything else until the first one had been published, locking me into their contract under the “promise” that’d I write for them again, but without the guarantee. I sent them another e-mail explaining that I quite enjoy eating and normally do so more than once every five years. No reaction.
I eventually walked away.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I don’t have to explain that to you. As a writer, you know all about the elusive publishing contract. To have one offered to me under such restrictive conditions, was worse than never having had an offer at all. I must point out that, although my main job is teaching English in France, I also write graded fiction and non-fiction for two language learning magazines and for a French radio in Paris that broadcasts in English. Cutting down on that income and not even being able to continue self-publishing graded readers was just not a viable choice.
But, the good news is that last week I received an e-mail from a different publisher telling me that they’d liked the two ideas I’d sent them and wanted an overview of each chapter for both books.
I danced a jig. Wine was had.
The publishing path I’m going to take is to work with this publisher if they offer me an acceptable contract. And by acceptable, I mean adhering to the age-old work ethic of me doing the job, you paying me for it and then both of us living happily ever after. None of that Grimm (grim) fairy-tale nonsense of you locking me up in a tower and leaving me to die. Just fair, you know?
It’s complicated self-publishing graded fiction. The audience for graded readers is international, but they generally don’t speak English very well making it difficult to target them. What language do I use to write my blog or post on social media? Which keywords do I use for SEO? Bear in mind that this public will probably be googling in their mother tongue, which I don’t speak. And the number of languages out there that I don’t speak is just depressing. So, it goes without saying that if there’s a publisher who wants to offer me a fair contract, I’ll take it.
I’m a firm believer that lightning doesn’t strike twice.
The champagne is on ice.
(Update : this post was written before the ISWG day on the 5th and the good news is that this morning, the 4th, I’ve received an answer from the second publisher telling me they enjoyed both pitches but asking me if I’d be willing to change the focus on the second one, in which case they’d be interested in using it too. I thought about if for….a second, high-fived an imaginary person sitting next to me, then settled down and fired off a quick professional e-mail saying “hell yes”. But not in those words. Obviously.)