Penelope Farmer is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including the classic and loved children's novel Charlotte Sometimes, so famous and loved that it was turned into a hit song by the pop group The Cure. One might have assumed that someone with such a track record would never end up without a publisher, yet this is the situation in which Penelope found herself, much to the frustration of her agent who had a new novel by Penelope that she loved and was dying to sell. Here Penelope talks about the present-day forces that led to such a situation, and the solution that her agent found in helping to bring her sweeping new novel, Goodnight Ophelia, to public attention. The thoughts and memories of a woman dying from a disease that could have been prevented had she known her true parentage, it's both a fascinating study of a complex character and an impressive survey of the history of a whole generation brought up with the unacknowledged tragic effects of war. And in spite of its subject matter, it's sprightly and uplifting - in a way that the marketing folk of traditional publishing were apparently unable to see.
Old writers may not die; they may even keep on writing. What they don’t get is published any more unless their names come with big sales figures attached.
This old writer – me – has published more than thirty books over the years, for adults and children, most of them commissioned. One – Charlotte Sometimes – has been in print since it was published in 1969, helped by being turned into a song by the Cure: an accolade that led around 1996, to my standing in Earls Court Arena waving back at a vast audience of cheering Cure fans. Maybe I should have foreseen that this would be my high spot as writer, before the downhill slide caused by the ditching of the Net Book Agreement. Everyone said its demise would do for mid-list writers like me. And they were right.
I compounded the problem, of course, by never writing the same book twice. I can’t blame either publishers or readers for liking familiarity; I gulp up successive books about the same detectives myself. But that’s boring for the writer – me. I compounded problems still further by failing even to produce a novel after 1993. My life having fallen apart, I assembled three autobiographical anthologies instead, all published, but hardly best sellers, and then, as foolishly, turned down a commission to write another children’s book, opting instead to produce a book about several weeks spent as a writer in residence at a hostel for people with mental problems. The ruling on this book by the marketing men - against the wishes of an eager would-be editor – was ‘who wants to read about the nitty-gritty of mental illness’: this my first encounter with the very different publishing world from the one I’d hitherto enjoyed of being nurtured by fond editors; a world in which sales and marketing rules.
I think I realised that publishing the new novel I did at last get round to would be troublesome. But I’m a writer, I write; when the name ‘Ophelia’ swam into my head, in 2008, I scribbled down endless notes and set to work. The first line ‘There can’t be many people, especially of my age, who find out who they are via Wikipedia’ came into my head about six months later. And there I was with a book about a woman whose conception out of the chaos caused by Hitler even before his war broke out led to her being brought up by a stepfather without any real idea of the whereabouts of her parents – and in the case of her father even who he was. A kind of genealogical whodunit, you could say. I suppose that in publication terms I did not make it easy for myself by setting the story of her life around her dying – from an illness which she might have survived had she known her parentage: But it did not turn out a gloomy book, surprisingly, and I was pleased with it. And so were my agents: to the extent of employing an editor to help me polish it and to the extent, in due course, of going into self-publishing and producing it themselves, after the normal publishers returned a series of rave rejections - ‘ I love this book’ – ‘a lovely, lovely novel’ – ‘a wonderful read’ etc - followed by almost certainly sales generated doubts. ‘It’s not clear how we could re-establish this author’ (translation: too old: too low sales). Or ‘The book is ‘too reflective’ – ‘too quiet’ – the translation here, I daresay, ‘no dramatic ‘hook’ - the considerable drama in my book evidently too local to count.
A very usual story, alas. Agents are constantly failing to sell books that they love, that publishers would have jumped on a few years back, because of assessments made on non-literary grounds, by young men who are making mere guesses at future trends – often forgetting, seemingly, that a large proportion of novel readers are women over fifty. Who might well enjoy such ‘page-turning’ novels as mine: if they were offered them.
Hence my agents’ venture into the world of ebooks and self-publication, via a specialist packager who does the business far more professionally than authors ever could, not least in finding professional artists to design a cover: and thence via Amazon’s services to self-publishing writers. The advantage for the agent is that they get their authors out there without it costing them much, their costs probably recovered by a percentage on sales – provided the author works hard on her own account. For this is the author’s disadvantage. Though the agent’s input relieves her of the stigma of vanity publishing the rest is up to her. She has to pay for the design not least, an essential cost for print on demand copies. And thereafter she has to do her own publicity: chasing up editors for reviews – writing round book websites to get them to review it, so on and so forth. Some authors are good at self-promotion. More like me are not. Drafting the endless emails necessary is like shouting in a soundproofed room. I did manage to get interest from one excellent website, Vulpes Libres, which not only gave me a very good review but also an interview. And that seems subsequently to have persuaded Amazon to do a special promotion – offering the book at a much reduced price; of course. (What that will or won’t bring in terms of sales has yet to be seen – they reserve the right but to do no promotion at all but still reduce the price. That’s Amazon for you.)
The irony of course is that Amazon, with its brutal discounts, was my nemesis in the first place. Nor do I care for its failure to pay tax and still less for its treatments of its workers. And here I am dismounted from the moral high horse onto a less than dignified – and certain less moral - donkey – gratefully – sort of – accepting its services. But what else can a poor author do? Stay unpublished?
The main problem remains as ever: visibility: something publishers provide. Their salesmen tout the books round booksellers. They send copies for review to the media, they offer authors as speakers at literary festivals; they put them in for literary prizes. Authors have none of these advantages. Self-published books may of course be taken up by orthodox publishers, if they see money in it (I did apologise to my agent for having presented her with Goodnight Ophelia rather than 50 Shades of (bloody) Grey. ‘I would have rejected it if you had,’ she said which was comfort of sorts, I suppose.) But the chances of such ennoblement are vanishingly small. My agent’s suggestion of offering myself to book blogs was one way out of this impasse - some of them do appear to have very large readerships. Though this may not look much like visibility, someone of my generation may well underestimate the power of the Internet compared to more conventional media: and at the very least such exposure may sell a few more copies – the review in Vulpes Libris seems to have had some effect. Facebook and Twitter are other options – but so far tweeting and updating my Facebook status has not got me very far. (17 followers anyone? Pathetic.)
I suppose I could review myself on Amazon; some authors do – some even rubbish their competitor meantime. But no I can’t bring myself to do that. Yet.
Goodnight Ophelia by Penelope Farmer is published on CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1496111968. 264pp. Also available as an ebook, published by C&W.