Publishing and Consultancy
The Human Script and author Johnny Rich have been on a blog tour this week and it seems only fitting that the last stop should be back home on our own blog here at Red Button.
Now, to round things off − here’s Johnny!
FIVE QUESTIONS FROM RED BUTTON FOR JOHNNY RICH
Q: What were your expectations of being published and how do they compare to the reality?
The Human Script took a long time to get published. Everyone had told me getting a literary agent was the really tough part, but for me that happened very easily. Three top agencies were vying to represent me within months of finishing the manuscript, so I was pumped up with hubris about how straight and smooth the gold-paved road would be.
I thoroughly deserved the crash when the novel hit a road-block almost immediately. It was turned down by every major publisher. Apparently, it just wasn’t sufficiently commercial. Any delusions I may have held about being fêted and flattered were dashed.
With hindsight, this wasn’t a bad thing. It made me focus on the real reasons I’d written the novel, what I actually wanted. It wasn’t that I wanted adulation (although, let’s face it, we all hope to get it). It was that I had something to say. I wanted it to be read. Everything else was just gloss.
Finally, along came Red Button. By then I’d long since parted ways with my agent and submitting my manuscript was as simple as attaching it to an email. Contract negotiations were straightforward because, at the heart of it, we wanted the same thing: to get my book out to a wider audience and see if they liked it.
At first, the novel was available only as an ebook. I’ve had non-fiction books published before and I must admit, walking into a bookshop and seeing your work on the shelf never gets boring. Without that, it did feel like something was missing.
Now the paperback is out, however, I have at last been able to stoke that primal pride of brandishing this flapping wad of words, knowing it is mine.
Because this didn’t come easily, I believe I value the experience more. I know that each reader is investing their time (and money) and cannot be taken for granted. Every kind review – and, so far, they all have been – makes me grin like an idiot. Even when someone sees the book in a different way from how I had consciously intended it, it gives me great pleasure. That’s because now, it isn’t mine any more. It belongs to readers.
Q: Debut novels like The Human Script are notoriously difficult to market. Have you learned any lessons from the experience so far?
The word ‘lessons’ suggests there are things I might change in future. I guess I have learnt that a good book is not the same as a successful one.
I worked hard to create an engaging and emotionally charged story around fascinating themes and ideas. When I first wrote it, I thought I’d done a good job. However, my experience with mainstream publishers made me question whether the novel was any good at all. I became bitter towards the book. So, when Red Button wanted to publish it and I needed after nearly a decade to reread it, it was like discovering someone you’ve secretly loved has felt the same all along. The time that had passed meant that I could rediscover the book as a more objective reader. I was delighted to find the problem really was not the book.
Publishers are businesses and I don’t blame them for that. If they didn’t make money by publishing books, there wouldn’t be any books. However, it also means that they’re cautious when it comes to books that try to push the boundaries: books that take the word ‘novel’ at face value. The best, most experimental literature may never reach the printed page.
So the lesson I should have learned is that I should write for a market. It certainly doesn’t have to mean a compromise in quality. I should be able to do popular quality, right?
The problem is, when it comes to fiction, I don’t think that’s how it works for me. It’s a lot of work to write a novel. (Or it is the way I do it: lots of research, intricate plotting, careful crafting of sentences.) To be motivated to write a novel, I need to be unable not to write. It needs to be a story I have to tell, an idea I have to convey.
So, my lesson? If there isn’t a market for what I want to write, fine. I’ll be a market of one.
Q: What are the advantages for a writer of being published by a small independent press?
As I said, mainstream publishers are in it for commercial reasons. That’s not a criticism, just a fact. Many of the people working for them love books (which is why they’ve chosen publishing over, say, banking), but if the spreadsheets don’t have positive numbers at the bottom, no one gets paid and so no one takes the risk.
Indie publishers have to be different to make their mark and get noticed. They have to take risks. And new technologies like digital publishing and short-run presses have meant that those risks tend to be more artistic than financial.
That’s great news for a writer who wants a publisher that buys into their artistic vision. I’m sure Red Button has listened to my opinions on everything from cover designs to marketing far more than a big publisher would have.
Of course, there’s no money for big advances or for poster campaigns on the tube. But even when a big publisher does splash out, all that does is focus too much expectation on the commercial potential of what is, in the end, an artwork. If it doesn’t make a financial return in a short time-frame, it’s regarded as a failure.
That approach wouldn’t have worked for The Human Script. The slow steady burn of readers and reviewers spreading the word has made it, according to one website recently, ‘a whisper hit’. Being an indie publisher who’s in the business because of no more than a devotion to good books, Red Button was able to keep the faith and help to make success happen.
Q: Man Booker winner Marlon James revealed that his debut novel was rejected 78 times. It was over a decade before The Human Script got published. Can writers take hope from these stories?
Yes and no.
On the one hand, as I said, a good book is not the same as a successful one. I do not doubt that great works of literature are turned down by publishers all the time. Many will never see the light of day. Even among those that do find their way into print, they still have to get noticed and there’s only one Man Booker Prize a year.
A writer can always take comfort from the fact that rejection does not mean they are wasting their time.
On the other hand, they might be. Rejection is no badge of honour. Saying that ‘a good book is not the same as a successful one’ does not mean that a lack of success is any mark of quality.
An unpublished writer should doubt themselves. They should constantly wonder whether what they’re creating has merit. And then, having doubted, they should take up their pen and see if they can’t make it better.
Good writing is more about graft and craft than inspiration and aspiration. Work on your writing and, maybe, just maybe, your book will be both good and successful.
Q: Do you think the audience for challenging books is growing?
We’re back to the lessons I’ve failed to learn about the market. I do know that the market for challenging books is smaller than the market for – how shall I put it? – fifty shades of light entertainment.
I worry though when people say a book is ‘challenging’. Is it challenging because it’s tough to comprehend, like, say, Finnegan’s Wake? Or is it challenging because it makes us question our understanding of the world like, say … well, Finnegan’s Wake again?
I’d like to think that The Human Script isn’t remotely challenging in the first way, but utterly so in the second. If you want to challenge people’s way of thinking, you need to get into their heads and, ever since we huddled round fires in the cave, gripping stories were the best way of doing that.
A friend of mine – an Oxbridge graduate in a high-powered and intellectual job – recently asked me about The Human Script. He said he’d like to read it, but was worried it might be ‘over his head’. I was horrified. ‘You know, all the science,’ he said. I pointed out that I’m not a scientist, so I wouldn’t want to write boringly about it any more than he’d want to read that. I pointed out that we understand new things through having them explained, often by books. I pointed out that our human curiosity has unlocked mysteries in the natural and philosophical worlds and spurred us on to ever greater achievements and ever greater curiosities.
Nothing is over our heads if we hold them high enough.
And I promised that there was a good story too. As Maya Angelou said, ‘People won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.’
Books are only a challenge to read if they lack emotional impact. And emotional impact is the best way to challenge minds. When readers tell me that The Human Script moved them – as they often do – that’s when I feel proud, knowing that I challenged them in all the right ways.
The Human Script is available to buy in paperback and digital formats. Click here for links to buy from major retailers.
To celebrate the launch of the paperback Johnny Rich will be reading extracts from The Human Script followed by a Q&A on 17 November 2015 at the Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3BL. Find out more and book tickets here.