All my life, like so many of you, I wanted to be a writer. A writer of novels, those loose jointed free wheeling tales of… ah, there was my problem. I believed I had no tales to tell. I was under no illusion that the story of my life would interest anyone. (How wrong I turned out to be… and one day I will write, not all, but choice selections from it, and I will call the book The Last Showboat. At this very moment, this story becomes a film, but I digress. I am a first rate digresser.) I also suffered the idea that I lacked imagination. I did not have stories telling themselves in my head. I did not sit in open air cafes with a leather-bound notebook and look arty as I scribbled away with an unusual pen. In fact, an idea never entered my head until I faced the empty page on a typewriter and then I began to type. I forced myself to type. Anything. Everything. And out came stories. Stories I had no idea were there.
So to publish my first novel, to have it accepted by a real publisher, was astounding.
My first book was called China Blues. A confession. At the time, I was thrilled to be in print but rather hesitant about the book’s merit. Besides English via Harper Collins in England and Doubleday in the U.S., it went into eight other languages and I still felt slightly uncomfortable about it.
Years passed, a whole slew of them, and my little publishing house Eio Books insisted on reissuing it. To reissue meant I had to read it again. I went unwilling into those pages. What a complete turnaround. All these years and all these varied books later, I’ve reread it as if I had never read it before. And my hesitancy vanished. So much so, I felt I would write about it here since it’s so much as if I were reading the work of someone else. We forget what we’ve said and how we’ve said it. Our perceptions change. Our tastes. Our experiences. And with all that, I found it a wonderful read, full of color and pace and character. I wrote it, and yet I wanted to know what happened. It made me laugh again. It worried me. I cared about the people trapped on those pages, people who could only live again if someone read the words written about them. And the story made me cry. Eventually, as it did the first time round, it broke my heart.
Turns out it’s also topical. The dangerous (even now) mingling of races, in this case a lily white woman of privilege and a Chinese man of true grit, all set against the background of San Francisco in the 1920s.
It was optioned in Hollywood by the famous production team of Zanuck and Brown. It was expected to go places. But like all stories, it suffered a twist in its own tail that shunted it off its high rolling track onto a spur. It’s waited all these years to be read again. The people at Eio Books believe that. Now I believe it too.
When it was first offered by my agents for sale, it went into auction… meaning more than one publisher wanted it. I’ll never forget what one editor said. She said it was a modern day EMMA. And it is. I find myself quite proud of it, so proud I hope it finds a new audience in this new world.
Here’s another chance for Lizzie and Li and Kit and Fearless O’Flooty. Show ’em what you’re made of, my lovelies.
Publisher’s weekly said: “”Offbeat, unruly characters and vibrant atmosphere spill over the pages of this promising first novel set in San Francisco during Prohibition… Bootlegging, the Tong Wars, smoky speakeasies, inept mobsters, and the Teapot Dome scandal zigzag through these pages like streaks of lightning. The Jazz Era leaps to life.”
I didn’t believe it then, but I believe it now.
I AM, therefore I write.
Over the last few years things have changed radically in the world of the writer. For a hundred years or so, the publisher has been mightier than the pen. A tremendous industry grew up around us. They told us what we could write and how to write it. They designed our covers. They pushed us into bookstores. Or out. If we would not or could not comply, we simply weren’t published. That is, unless we dared to publish ourselves. And oh, what an outcry from the “industry”. Vanity press, they called it. Conceit and folly! Only worthless writers need publish themselves, said they. Writers like Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, T.S. Eliot, Deepak Chopra, Margaret Atwood…and other such worthless ilk. They sneered, they laughed. And we bought it. Everyone bought it.
They broke our hearts.
And for those they “allowed” to join them, those they considered “real” writers? For those, they cooked the books.
Wee sidebar: I’ll never forget being shunted into a rather shabby, rather useless little room at the London offices of Harper Collins (my first publisher) and being told by the receptionist, oh so secretly: “They think you writers are nuisances. We’re told to keep you in here so you won’t wander about and bother people.”
But ah, the internet has changed all that, oh lordy has it. The industry that lived off us for so long is scrambling for its very life. Just as the rapacious music “industry” went down, the publishing industry is going down. One by one, the houses disappear, or get bought by Bertelsmann, the German behemoth. I think there are seven majors left. As I write this, we could be down to six. We writers are supposed to mourn this. We’re supposed to feel we are bobbing like small wee boats on a tossing sea with nowhere to land. And I do admit that the cache of standing on the decks of a great and venerable ship like Random House or Doubleday (I’ve stood there; it’s cold) still has its romantic grip on an unpublished writer’s mind. But that will pass. It’s passing now. And all because of the internet which spawned Amazon and those who would be Amazon like Barnes & Noble. It gave birth to the ebook.
A revolution has taken place in the world of publishing, one that’s been stewing for quite some time, one only recently taken seriously by the industry. And for them it might be too late. Amazon has announced it is hiring editors and other publishing professionals to launch its own in-house publishing business. They now are not only selling more books than anyone else, they may soon be publishing more.
What does this mean to writers? Without fear of snide remarks, we can publish ourselves. We can promote ourselves. Bedad, we can design our own covers! In the day of the Big Publisher, we weren’t allowed a single word about how our book would look. I always thought that how my books looked meant that the door in a big publishing house with a sign that read: Art Department opened into a broom closet.
If our work is worthy, we will sell. Maybe not quickly, maybe not to the masses, but it will pass into the hands of that truly beloved person out there waiting, a reader. And maybe it will sell quickly and to the masses. You never know. If it’s not worthy, we can still look at our work, bound or kindled or nooked, and know that we wrote it. It’s ours. No one can send us those horrid form letters writers used to paper their walls with. “We’re sorry, but your book isn’t suitable for us at this time.”
I’ve been lucky. I have an agent and it’s your agent who sees such things and doesn’t tell you. I’ve also known what it’s like to be published by the big names, quite a few of them. A moment’s heady rush and then the frustrating truth. If your book doesn’t sell well enough in its allotted time span (a matter of weeks), it’s literally trashed. Every unsold copy is destroyed.
But that too has changed. If you publish yourself you will never go out of print. Your books will never wind up on a tacky remand table for a buck a copy. My latest book, my one and only (so far) tale of supernatural horror, Houdini Heart, will live as long as I do. And hopefully a lot longer.
As I said, the industry built on our hopes and our dreams and our talent once had the power to break our hearts. Only our writing, published or not, read or not, could mend it. But now their power is waning. Publish and be damned. Publish and be blessed. But bloody hell, publish. They can’t stop you. And they can’t trash you.