Richard Pierce-Saunderson's first published novel, Dead Men, which charts the last days of 'Scott of the Antarctic' is being published by Duckworth. As I'm doing a panel session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature focusing on how authors found their route to publication, I thought it would be interesting to explore Richard's story and look at how he took 'Dead Men' all the way to the hallowed shelves of your local bookshop.
So, you’re off on a blog tour of the world. Why stop over in the Middle East?
You’ve got a different circle of readers to me. I want to extend my reach, so to speak. And then you sent me an article about the UK Ambassador to Lebanon hosting a dinner to commemorate the centenary of Scott getting to the South Pole, which contained a reference to Maxime Chaya from Lebanon, who’s retraced Scott’s footsteps to the Pole, or some of them anyway. And given Dead Men is about Scott’s last days, I found the connection too much to pass by!
What do you mean some of them?
No-one’s ever completed that journey from Scott’s base at Cape Evans to the South Pole and back on foot. That’s about 1,800 miles.
So. First fictions. Let's start where we met, on the Authonomy writers’ web site back in late 2007. Tell me why you ended up there in the first place.
My wife found it for me, actually. The Guardian reported in September that it had come out of beta, and that it was open to the public. It was pitched as a chance to get your work in front of Harper Collins editors, and a place where writers might expect to improve their skills. So I joined, with a book I’d written some years before, called Bee Bones. I didn’t really expect much, to be honest. And for someone who’d been banging on the locked doors of the publishing industry for years it seemed like a last throw of the dice, before chucking in the writing lark and focusing on day job and family for the last years of my life.
Did it teach you anything?
It did, actually, and not just about writing.
You know, writers are odd people. They’re desperate to share their words, to get them printed on someone else’s paper at someone else’s expense (and for their gain), but when it comes to marketing themselves, they’re actually clueless. What I learned then, in 2008, is that if we want something, we have to go for it.
What we called shameless plugging, back on Authonomy...
Exactly that. The community there was fairly light-hearted, as I recall it, and you and Simon Forward and I used to play these silly games where we’d try to plug our books in a subversive sort of way, rather than spamming people to come and read them. It meant we devised all sorts of subtle (and mostly humourous) strategies which might drive readers to our books. The thinking needed for those stratagems has stood me in good stead, I think. And it stopped me from packing in writing, stopped me from giving up, because it made me feel like I did have somethinig to say. I don’t know if you feel the same way.
Well, Olives has been published.
There you are then. Part of not giving up was also to grow a thick skin, and to be able to deal with criticism.
Just ignore it, you mean?
No, no, the opposite, in fact. It’s when we’ve not yet developed thick skins as writers that we tend to ignore any criticism of our writing, and skim over advice that could actually make us better writers. Personally, I tend to find that it’s the writers who deflect criticism or call it invalid who are those who are producing sub-standard work. Developing a thick skin means taking all criticism seriously, but learning not to take it personally, and to understand that writing is very subjective.
You’d not learned that before then?
No, I hadn't! Anyway, within the first couple of weeks of being on there, I’d asked for, and got, a long review from an American guy, which basically recommended that I scrap Bee Bones because the plot was faulty, and because it was totally unbelievable.
That must have been a bit of a blow.
In one way, yes. In another, no. He made some valid points about how the book might have been differently structured, which I think I used when I rewrote it. But after about half a day’s grieving, I decided that his core criticism was just his opinion, that the book could stand, and so I left it up there. I’ve still got a copy of that review somewhere.
Do you think it informed your subsequent writing? Because Bee Bones hasn’t been published, has it?
It did inform what I’ve done since. And no, Bee Bones hasn’t been published – yet. There are two versions of it now. But, and this is perhaps the most important point, that book was actually the key to Dead Men getting published.
I sent Bee Bones to Peter Buckman, the guy who agented Slumdog Millionaire, after Harper Collins had reviewed the book on Authonomy and turned it down (it got to Number one at the end of October 2008, as you know).
I know, I was in the Top Five with you the same month.
I thought I’d let you get that one in. But not with Olives.
No, it was a funny book called Space. Still unpublished, too. Anyway, we digress.
Right, Peter read the first three chapters of Bee Bones and an extended synopsis, but didn’t take it on. He said it was a good book, but too midlist (ie no chance of selling really, really well). I asked him if I could send him my next book when I finished it and he said yes. I had, in the meantime, started Dead Men after coming back from the Antarctic, and after getting lots of encouragement to write another book from my friends on Authonomy. So, when I’d finished the book after 6 months (and some helpful comments from people), I sent it to Peter. Two 3-hour phone calls, five weeks, and a massive edit (from 113k words down to 85k) later, he asked me if I’d sign for him.
It’s taken four years to get it published?
That’s the thing, though. Everyone thinks you’ve made it as soon as you get an agent, because that part is ball-breakingly difficult, but I had to wake up and smell the coffee, because getting an agent’s only the start. Peter made a massive effort to sell the book to mainstream publishers, but nearly all of them, without exception, quoted the market place as being too difficult to try to sell a new author into with such a complex book. Some of the feedback we had included “A few years ago I may well have offered, but it’s so inhospitable out there in the markeplace”, and “It’s an impressive and really quite brave novel; an ambitious and complex novel.” But still nothing, until the lovely independent Duckworth came along and took it on at the end of summer last year. To an extent that extended selling process was more depressing and discouraging than being constantly knocked back by agents, and one that led me, on more than one occasion, talking to Peter about self-publishing.
But you didn’t go that route?
Peter persuaded me to be patient. Also, I have self-published poetry, and in all honesty I’m just too lazy to do all the marketing gruntwork self-publishing involves.
So Duckworth are doing all the hard work for you?
They have arranged some events for me, and I’ve arranged others. But my mind-set’s different now. I just hate doing admin stuff, and to have someone who points me in the right direction is really helpful, because I’m one of the most disorganised blokes in the world. Now that we’ve got events set up, I’m desperate to do more, and not too lazy to catch trains from one end of the country to another. In fact, if any airline wants to sponsor me to tour the US and Australia and New Zealand, I’d gladly do that, too.
You’re obviously bonkers, and still on that shameless plugging trip.
Now that a third party’s put time and money into editing, typesetting and printing my book (and converting it into Kindle and Kobo format), I suppose I am.
So, what next?
The Kindle version of Dead Men is already available, although I am trying to encourage people to use their local bookshops instead. The physical book comes out on 15th March, although there’s a rumour that the Natural History Museum in London might be putting it on their shelves in the week starting 5th March. I just hope it sells lots of copies.
So, many congratulations are in order. Have you bought your celebratory copy of Olives yet?
Here's a link to 'First Fictions' at the LitFest, which you can still buy tickets for at the amazing, knock-down price of Dhs65 and which even includes a seat!
And this here is your very own link to Richard's debut novel, Dead Men, which you can pre-order from Amazon or snap up on Kindle.
And here, last but by no means least, is a link for Richard to buy Olives ... >;0)