To publish unpublishable books, look to your readers

To publish unpublishable books, look to your readers

An author always writes the book she wants to read. So my short story collection, Bad Romance, was intended for women like me. Now, every time I get a letter from a beautiful creature who loved it, I keep her words with me. Because I know I’ll need them to sustain me the next time I try to publish a book. For me, they prove - so deliciously - that my audience does exist when everyone in the publishing industry insists it does not.

I wrote my first tale, Julia’s Baby, when seized by the black urge to pull apart a white wedding. The second story, Goddess Sequence, came to me when I was drunk and wishing to revenge myself against a man who had not so much broken my heart as torn it out and stamped on it. Both stories turned out old fashioned peculiarly English things - like the twisted tales of Dahl, Saki and Waugh. My first reader, my friend Sarah, laughed at them, wanted more… I wrote on...

I did not know short stories did not sell. Above all, I’m aware of a reader and aware of their previous commercial successes. In the 1920s, the most popular writer in the Soviet Union was a short story writer called Mikhail Zoshchenko who described how incredibly shit it was to live in the Soviet Union. Dark but very, very funny...

So here we are, I thought, in the 21st century, with more single people alive than at any point in history, and the last heroine properly poking fun at how we live now - still Bridget Jones (who is married with a baby now…)

To live in a city like London today is to experience daily struggles undelineated and uninterrogated by memoir writers (who by definition write about themselves) and literary novels which - Rose Tremain recently pointed out - prove almost impossible to finish. I try not to sound bitter but sometimes it’s hard. All I’ve had from those in charge are rejection slips which you’re just expected to take - and are as Isaac Asimov once said - ‘like lacerations to the soul.’

Without readers, Bad Romance would still be languishing in a drawer somewhere. But then, after years of failing to get an agent, I was put in touch with an undeniably brilliant one by a friend and this lady arranged for me to meet Katy Guest, projects editor at the crowdfunding publisher Unbound.

I was excited to meet Guest because she was the last ever literary editor of the Independent on Sunday and her opinion mattered to me dearly. She was the first person with any power to tell me she loved my stories and thought if we could just get enough readers to believe in Bad Romance, the critics would love it too.

I had no idea how hard it would be to beg readers to pay upfront for a book that did not exist. But I was lucky that Julia’s Baby had by then been published in The Spectator so I had evidence of what we could achieve together. Thanks to 300 plus book-mad individuals, we managed to raise the cash we needed within 90 days.

Bad Romance finally appeared this February 8th. Julie Burchill read it, loved it, wrote a rave review. Called me ‘the Saki of sex’. Volunteered the tagline: ‘Bad Romance makes Girls look like Little Women.’ In publication week, it was flagged up on the front cover of ES Magazine and Grazia. Press is a hard thing to get for books and I thought all the attention would demonstrate there was a mass market for my work. It didn’t. Now I watch as books launched with equal - or less - aplomb, succeed as Bad Romance sinks into obscurity.  

But then another reader got on her white charger - Alice-Azania Jarvis, features director of ES Magazine, and the master interviewer behind a salon at The Ned whose guests have included everyone from Elizabeth Day to Otegha Uwagba. Those in the know, think hers is the most compelling chat you can get in London and the waiting list to get in is getting about as long as Givenchy’s in the Markle aftermath…

I was so lucky, she had me as a guest, for in the audience, there happened to be another Alice - a Ms. Revel, the book-loving entrepreneur behind Reading In Heels (FutureBook BookTech Company of Year Finalist 2017) which ships out 2000 copies of books she loves to a rapidly expanding horde of readers every month. She asked if we might produce a special paperback edition for her purposes. And as radicals, she and Unbound agreed terms. The book will be shipped out next week.

‘From our point of view, it's a really exciting move,’ Revel explains. ‘Eventually… as our membership increases, we could potentially fund publication of the writers that our customers want to read. Not just the ones available to us thanks to the big publishers and their schedules…’

To me, every reader who loves my work is a hero and I dearly hope the Reading In Heels girls will become my heroines too... If somehow, in spite of everything, they contrive to make Bad Romance a success, it’ll be thanks to readers, readers and readers alone.