The Curiosity Cabinet started out as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4 back in the 1990s. Later, I rewrote it, with significant changes, as a novel but it took a very long time to find a publisher. It was some time in the late 90s, when I was looking for a new agent, that one of them called it ‘a library novel fit only for housewives.’ I wasn’t a newcomer in any sense. I had a long and occasionally award winning career as a playwright, as well as two published novels and plenty of non fiction behind me, so I could laugh it off.
But it still stung a bit.
Eventually, I secured representation at one of the bigger London agencies. My new agent told me that she liked the novel, but she thought it was ‘too quiet’ to sell. Nevertheless, she sent it out to the big boys. I forget how many there were back then – certainly a few more than the current Big Five, but all the same, amalgamations were rife and the so called mid-list was definitely on the slide. Agents and publishers were already talking about the ‘decline of the mid-list’. One even cheerfully predicted the ‘death of the mid-list’. I knew in my sinking heart that I was a typical mid-lister. It was an invidious position to find yourself in. Back then, anyway. One of the acquisitions editors who responded pointed out that although she liked the book, they had ‘published something similar and it did less well than expected.’ Most of them said that although they liked the novel they ‘couldn’t carry sales and marketing with them.’ Or they ‘liked it but didn’t love it.’
Nobody wanted it.
Eventually, my agent suggested that while I got on with something a bit less quiet, I should submit the novel to a newish competition: the Dundee Book Prize. It seemed like a good idea. I wasn’t doing anything else with it, after all. Some time after the closing date for entries, I got a phone call. My novel had been shortlisted. Would I come to an event aboard The Discovery in Dundee, when an announcement would be made? The reception and dinner aboard Captain Scott’s polar exploration ship was very pleasant. We soon realised that the shortlist consisted of only three books, three authors. And at the dinner, we were happy to discover that all three of us would be offered a publishing contract although only one novel would win the big cash prize.
The Curiosity Cabinet didn’t, in fact, win that overall prize but it was published. That was in 2005. I seem to remember that the print run involved only 1000 trade paperback copies, albeit nicely done. There were one or two speaking engagements including the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and a three for two offer in a big chain bookstore. I remember all the excitement of seeing my book in several shop windows. But because the publisher was marketing these completely different novels and their authors as a threesome, we didn’t get much publicity. I sent a review copy to a popular Scottish TV presenter who gave me a ringing endorsement for the cover. ‘How did you do that?’ my publisher asked. The truth was that I had simply asked nicely, but I got the sense that their approval of the publicity was warring just a wee bit with their disapproval of such populism. A Scottish women’s magazine serialised it. They made an excellent job of the abridgement and paid handsomely.
The run sold out within the year and … that was that. There was no sign of a reprint. My agent told me that (to her surprise as well as mine because the relationship to that point had been friendly) the publisher had declined to look at anything else from me. My work didn’t fit in with the way they saw the company progressing. Eventually, I reclaimed my rights – a process which, to give them credit, they made remarkably easy. But I soon found out that in the world of traditional publishing it is far better to be a new discovery than to be a writer who has been rejected by her publisher.
. . . .
I think what really kept me going through that dark time was the response of readers. I was still being invited to give talks and readings, and people were always asking me how they could get hold of my books, where they might find more of my work. The problem was that they couldn’t. It was in computer files and printouts and a handful of out-of-print copies. There was a lot of it. I still remember the mingled pleasure and pain of hearing a friend – an enthusiastic reader – say to me, ‘You know, we don’t understand how this could happen. We love your writing, we want to read more of it and we think you’ve been treated very shabbily.’ Pity is never easy to accept but the emails I got from other readers, complete strangers, said much the same thing. ‘Haven’t you written any more fiction and why can’t we read it?’
. . . .
And then, along came Jeff Bezos and Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing.
It wasn’t at all hard to decide to take my career into my own hands. In fact it seemed ridiculously easy. I had nothing at all to lose. My only regret was that it hadn’t happened sooner. I had been searching for something like this for years and had never been able to find it: a business partner who would facilitate distribution and let me get on with it, leaving the control of it in my own hands.
. . . .
So what happened after I began my self publishing venture? Well, since 2011 when I published it as an eBook, The Curiosity Cabinet has sold more copies than I would have believed possible. And it just keeps rolling along. I’m not making any fortunes from this and my other books – yet. But they add a small but healthy sum to my income every month. As I write this, the Curiosity Cabinet has undergone another spike in sales and in its category on Amazon here in the UK is sitting at #9.
. . . .
Most of all, for me, the Curiosity Cabinet illustrates the potential long life of an eBook. For my publisher at the time, it was over and done within the year (as was the writer!) It seems they must always be moving on to the next project and their next project didn’t involve my kind of novel at all. I’m forced to the conclusion that it was, for them, a sound business decision. But it wasn’t my decision and as it turns out, it wasn’t right for me or for this book either.
The fact remains that there are readers out there who still seem to want to read it. Lots of them.