There used to be one way only to become a successful author: first get an agent, then land a publishing deal. That was it. Now, there are numerous routes – which can make it both easier and harder to know what to do. In a short series, authors share their fascinating personal journey to publication with me. Today it’s Sunday Times bestseller Katherine Webb…
KATHERINE WEBB was born in 1977 and grew up in Hampshire before reading History at Durham University. She has since spent time living in London and Venice, and now lives in the countryside near Bath, UK. Having worked as a waitress, au pair, personal assistant, bookbinder, housemaid, library assistant and seller of fairy costumes, she is now a full-time writer. Her debut novel, The Legacy, won the popular vote for the TV Book Club Summer Read 2010 and was shortlisted for Best New Writer at the 2010 Galaxy National Book Awards. Her subsequent novels The Unseen, A Half Forgotten Song and The Misbegotten were all Sunday Times Top Ten Bestsellers, and her seventh novel, The Hiding Places, gets its UK launch in May 2017. Her books have been translated into 26 languages around the world.
A BIT TWISTY
Katherine says: ‘My journey to publication was long, and a bit twisty! I started to write my first novel after graduating from Durham University back in 1998. The novel was a strange bit of magical realism, based on some research I’d done on witchcraft during my History degree, and it took me a long time to finish it — I paused for six months half way through, having hit ‘the wall’. But, once it was done, I bought a copy of Carole Blake’s ‘From Pitch to Publication’, and The Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook, and set about submitting it to suitable agents.
This was back in the days when ebooks were in their infancy; self-publishing was called ‘vanity publishing’, it was costly and known to scupper your chances of ever finding a mainstream publisher, so I didn’t even consider it. I wrote very much in isolation, in the evenings after work and at weekends, and was pretty ignorant about opportunities like Creative Writing post-grad courses. Waiting for agents to respond to submissions was a lengthy waiting game, as it remains today! I got some positive feedback, and even a request to read the full script based on the opening chapters I’d sent in, but ultimately, after it had wracked up about twenty rejections, I put that first novel away in a drawer, for good. Looking back at it now, it was definitely for the best!
By then I’d written another novel, and the process began again. During the subsequent decade I completed seven books, whilst working a selection of random day jobs to pay the bills until I got my ‘big break’. I put all my eggs in the one basket, career-wise — making it as a novelist was it! The madness/bravery of youth… I did actually sign up with an agent on the strength of book four, which felt like a huge breakthrough, but he wasn’t prepared to do any editorial work with me, and we parted company after book six, having still not got to the point where he was happy to submit anything to a publisher.
Around that time I joined a writing group, and it was a revelation — helpful, impartial feedback! A new thing for me. I started book seven with a far greater idea of what had been holding back my previous books — slow starts, flabby plots — and somebody alerted me to the Arts Council’s website, youwriteon.com, a peer review site where, each month, the highest rated chapters went off for an industry critique. In 2008, I posted up the opening of book seven, then called Quietly Shining. It got great reviews and went off for critique from Orion Books, who then signed me up on a two book deal — ten years, almost to the day, after I’d left university and sat down to write my first novel.
Quietly Shining was published in 2010 as The Legacy, and was lucky enough to get picked for the last ever series of The TV Book Club, before it vanished from our screens. It was the best possible launch I could have hoped for, and the book went on to sell in twenty-seven countries around the world. I was also shortlisted for Best New Writer at the British Book Awards — I had no idea at the time how big of a deal that was, and was a bit dazed by it all! I have since published six further books with Orion. My eighth book with them, called The Disappearance, is scheduled for publication in 2019.
I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to build a career from my writing, but it certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing. It really is true that a book deal is the beginning of the hard work, not the end! Traditional publishing is under ever increasing pressure from the wealth of self-published titles available, from our increasingly short attention spans, and from the industry’s love of a big-splash debut. I love my job and I know how very lucky I am to be able to write full time, but I do feel that, these days, it is every bit as hard to sustain a career in writing as it is to launch one in the first place.
*** Thank you so much, Katherine, for this insightful post. You’re so right that getting a publishing deal is only the beginning. It took guts to stick with writing the way that you did, but it’s definitely paid off for you – long may it continue! Congratulations on the publication of your latest book, The Hiding Place, which sounds wonderful. Barbara xx ***
A secret buried so deep, only a liar could uncover it
‘..towards the end, comes a twist in the plot so bold it will leave you blinking…A thoroughly satisfying read.’ WI Life
One hot summer in 1922.
A house at the heart of the village.
A crime that will shock the community.
A man accused and two women with everything to lose.
When Donny Cartwright is accused of murder, his sister Pudding is determined to discover the identity of the real killer.
Together with newcomer, Irene, she begins to uncover the truth – a secret that has been buried for years.
But when they happen upon a strange object, hidden in the past, they realise it will change everything . . .