From publishing to published

So as I wait for my debut One Silver Summer (Scholastic Inc) to come out, I thought I would write about how it feels to be a publisher – and be published.

Publishing came first. I wrote as a child, but the YA in me thought I’d be better at talking about books than writing one. And it was a job that paid me to read.

For 15 years (BC), I promoted children’s books at Puffin, then at Harper Collins. I met Dahl, I met Mog, I met just the best. At Chicken House, I’m still paid to talk about books – succinctly or very loudly, sometimes both, but my job is now more like rolling messages in beautiful bottles and dropping them in the wide blue sea. So many thousands of books, all of them good, some of them special and a few that will make it ashore in exotic places, and change lives.

Choosing what to publish and how to publish is about experience and instinct. Nobody knows. Is it good, do we feel it, does it stand out, will it float? Fairly loose creative judgements. Fortunately, there are so many books to choose from that there’s always something to catch our eye and if we publish it well by which the author, the many editors, the designer, the illustrator, the sales team, the publicist, the printer and the warehouse deliver, it might just make money. Occasionally quite a lot. It’s a blurry, lovely business where the fat years pay for the lean and we talk a lot on Twitter.

Contrast this with the writer so focussed on getting published. Years of writing, rejection and rewriting. Family put on hold because you’ve promised them it will be worth it when what you really mean is you’re worth it: ‘You’re writing a book!’ The Holy Snail. You find an agent, try not to confuse them with God, or your very own writing counsellor, you even forget you’re paying them (friendship comes later with success). If by some miracle of patience, a publisher wants you, then surely, surely you’ve arrived – you’ve crossed the wide blue yonder to discover...you’re still in the shallows. 

So I got really lucky, I know this. I wrote and wrote, sweated for five whole minutes about ‘what the market wants’ which is usually long-gone by the time a manuscript is written, and wrote instead what I hoped the market wanted – a delicious feelgood Daphne Du Maurier with Cornwall, and horses, and royalty for romantically minded young teens in need of a good escapist read. I knew my writing had to be good – embarrassing otherwise – but plotting and pacing, and characterisation were much harder than I imagined. While most writers struggle with too many words, my training was in blurbs. Getting to 65,000 was a marathon, even if I rewrote it fifty times. I went down to a four-day week so I could write at 5am most days and every Friday. My friend and boss became my agent. I had clever, talented editor friends whose opinion I trusted. I had all my years in publishing to tell me the difference between 10% published price and 15% net receipts, although in truth I’d have sold my soul for the chance of publication.

The funny thing is I found a publisher over the ocean. Literally. My book might never make it back to where it’s set. I’m setting out from the States where in publishing, I know nobody, or very few. So much for the promotional years, my book – like every other – is on its own which is how it should be. Yes, I had advantages: more considered rejections, but no special treatment.

The ‘being published’ I’ve truly loved. Telling people about it for the last two years. I love my editor, the romantically named Mallory, who liked what she read, stripped it back and helped me make it better. Being edited is like someone tidying your brain and turning on the lamps. Like having a baby: the fun bit at the beginning before you get fat, or when the baby starts turning in ways you can’t comprehend... And now there’s just childbirth to come and the handing it over for adoption. I’m in the 39th trimester. The peculiarly scary reviews have begun on Goodreads where anyone with an opinion loves it with stars, or hates it for random reasons. And I sit and I wait which is a lie because I’m that small blonde Irishman in high waisted trousers dancing with my arms clamped to my sides. And even if it kills me, I’m going to swim to New York, find my message in its bottle and show it to the world, or at least sign a small pile of stock in Books for Wonder if they’ll have me.

I’ve been so lucky to know people, my agent knew Harry Potter from the inside and I have the best job in the world, but I still had to write it, obsess over each word, show-not-tell; live and breathe my characters, and all before the day job began.

And even for net receipts, which is very little money, I’m ready to do it all again.

Rachel Hickman is deputy m.d. of Chicken House and the author of One Silver Summer, released in the US by Scholastic Inc on 26th April. Hickman is on Twitter @hickman_rachel.