A chronicle of e publishing

I made the decision one of those days when events seem to have a life of their own, and you’re just an on-looker. I’d sat a week in a white hotel room by the sick-bed of my daughter. She was vomiting her antibioics. I’d go down to breakfast every morning, bring hers hopefully up to her on a tray, put it in the fridge in disappointment, and sit on the balcony to read Crime and Punishment, chosen because it was all the bookshop downstairs had in English, besides a travel guide, and a travel guide at that moment gave no comfort.  In my head I was living somewhere between 19th century Russia and Ancient Greece. From our balcony, if I leaned out far enough, I could see its broken fragments .In the orange Athenian night the Acropolis hung above us, lit up like a golden, temple-shaped star. To the left rose the pillars of an agora, the shopping mall of 450 BC. Even the grass growing around the stones seemed to chatter. In the room, my daughter tossed in pain. The hotel doctor didn’t speak much English, the receptionist even less, and my own Greek, fluent before my daughter’s birth, had fallen into disrepair. I had no one to talk to but my computer.

Let me tell you about my day, so far,
I’d just emailed a friend.

I woke A, said hello brightly to her, she murmured, I gave her Amoxil, she replaced the white towel over her eyes and the turquoise plugs in her ears. Yesterday and the day before, she’d vomited within half an hour of taking it. Now, she slept. After an hour, I turned her gently on her side, worried for another few minutes, but at last went down to breakfast. Perhaps, I allowed myself to hope, the virus was losing its grip.

I took the stairs down to breakfast because it would be my only exercise of the day, forgot my book, ran back for it, and allowed myself this time to take the lift. I sat at my favourite table in the breakfast room, but there was no competition for it because I was late and all the other breakfasters had gone, their plates still crossed by greasy cutlery and smeared with egg. I poured tea- the Greeks seem to have no sympathy for tea, and the hot water is off the boil – spread fig jam on crusty bread, chose poached eggs, rejected bacon as I do everyday, chose chunks of feta cheese, vary this from yesterday by one chunk to stave off boredom, decided today on two olives, not three. I fingered the apples while no one’s around to see if they were spongy again. They were but the mandarins were very sweet.

I put A’s matching breakfast on a little tray. The waitress came in, stood to attention, asked my room number as she does every day, and brought me 2 glasses of her hand-squeezed orange juice.  I used to wonder why she made such a ceremony of bringing a glass of juice with a cocktail straw sticking out of it. It took me four days to notice it was real juice – so that’s why the ceremony! I thanked her, careful with my Greek accent, wondered for the thousandth time why the Greeks used such a difficult word to say thank you, opened my book, and put a fork and spoon from a neighbouring place setting on its pages to press them down. I read ten pages, careful not to drip yellow egg yolk on 19th century Russia. I looked up when someone entered, and only then remembered Athens. This seems a hotel for silent couples gloomily consulting maps, or women travelling with other women, chatting vivaciously in expensive English accents. Today one was telling the other she knows how to get into the Sistine chapel without waiting in the queues, but she wasn’t going to tell. Apparently the Italian lady who told her how to do it had said to keep it secret. The Italian for it, she said, is literally to “keep water in the mouth”. Her friend pleaded with her. ”Tell me, tell me”. But no, her friend kept water in the mouth. I wanted to lean over and tell the pleader that I was told how to do it by a kinder friend. But I stayed quiet. There are many moments when you keep quiet, when perhaps you shouldn’t and I hope they’re balanced in a sort of cosmic ledger by the times you tell, when you shouldn’t.

Finally, when the waitress had sighed too many times, because she wanted to end her breakfast shift and get on with her housework, I gave up reading, picked up A’s tray, took it upstairs, allowing myself the lift so the orange juice didn’t slop. A was still asleep so I put the loaded tray in the little bar fridge. I went out on the balcony to look down at the street. It’s winter in Athens, which is why we can afford a hotel with an orange juice ceremony. The streets are black and slicked with rain.

I go inside, reach for Crime and Punishment but it’s nowhere to be seen. I must’ve lost it! I panicked, bolting down the stairs back to the breakfast room, practising in Greek how to ask for a lost book, but the tables gleamed emptily. No one’s there to hear my desperate Greek. I wouldn’t be able to get through the day!  I took the lift back upstairs, rummage through the entire room including the bathroom, dashed out to the balcony, and turned our suitcases upside down. Nothing. I got into my bed and wept for the loss of my book. I told myself to get a grip, picked up a towel from the carpet to wipe my streaming face, and there was the book.

I was in fact travelling with another book, but it was my own, my newly finished manuscript, on my e mail system. I had been dithering for days about writing to publishers, offering to send it to them. I felt very lucky, always Bbeing well=treated by mainstream publishers. But something was stopping me – something about the white hotel sheets wrapped around my vulnerable, sick daughter.  Something about my helplessness in front of her raging virus. It was reminding me of other times of helplessness; the publisher, for example, who insisting on putting a cover on my first novel of a woman ripping her own bodice to expose her breasts. It was to me like porn gone wrong. The novel was a shy, modest book, written when I almost didn’t dare speak. Because of that cover, readers would come up to me at festivals with the book in a plain brown paper bag, furtively slide it out for me to sign, then slide it away again. We’d both be red-faced.  I was rescued by another publisher, who put a glorious cover on it. I thought of other times of helplessness – a publisher who rejected me after reading my manuscript for only a few minutes,objecting to the first=person narration. I spent useless days afterward mounting in my head a preposterous lecture that no one would ever hear that in fact first-person narration could well be considered the only authentic 21st century voice. What’s more, although my novels sell well, although they’re in print – the oldest has been in print for the length of my daughter’s life – there’s not much to be earned when I lose 90% of my possible income to publishers and bookshops. How rich would Bill Gates be, I feverishly wondered, if he lost 90% of his income? In that white hotel room I stopped living in ancient Greece or in 19th century Russia and became instead an impoverished serf in medieval times, begging my turnips to grow despite the poor, worn-out soil and the icy rain and the frost and the snow, knowing that my paltry crop wouldn’t feed my family, that I’d lose most of them not only to the vagaries of nature but also to the castle on the hill. 

On the other hand, I’ve always been thrilled when a publisher accepts my work, deeply moved with gratitude, I feel acknowledged. It’s like falling in love. But in a year, I’m on back-lists, code for: no longer of interest. All my novels have stayed in print-so I’m lucky about that- so it’s like that joke about being old- at least it’s better than the alternative.

So I turned on the computer and wrote that evening, not to publishers, but to a novelist friend who has a successful blog.
“Dear James,

I hope you don’t mind me popping up out of the blue like this, but I’m considering something which is very new for me, and it came to me that you might’ve considered exactly the same option, since you have a very successful presence on the internet.

I’ve just completed a new fiction manuscript. I’m very tempted by the thought of digitally publishing it, going the whole way, and setting up some credit card facility like a shop-keeper  so that people had to pay me to download it. I could beg my favourite editor to work on the manuscript, and pay her myself, and prevail on a photographer friend for a cover image, but further than that. I don’t know what to do. I’m not very practical and not wired. I’m the sort of reader who believes it’s necessary to read “Madame Bovary” in a musty, spotted, worn19th century edition, preferably with a painting on the frontispiece. To go “e” is would be for me like inventing the wheel.

Could you tell me your thoughts on this? Am I being totally silly?”

The reply came before breakfast the next morning, before my daily decision about how many chunks of feta.

“I absolutely don’t think you’re crazy: I’ve thought about it myself. But I’d sound a couple of notes of caution.

The first is about whether you really want to become a publisher. It’s a complex process and involves a lot of skills many of us don’t have. The other is about whether you really want to go e-only. The bulk of sales are still physical books, so you might want to do both at once.

But neither of those are insurmountable problems.”

My friend suggested writing to publishers and asking if they’d consider being a partner with me. He ended:

“I’m very impressed and quite excited to hear you talking about this. But I do think it’s a path that will involve a fair bit of the wheel-invention you describe. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing!”

Sometime before the music of “Zorba the Greek” sounded from the restaurant below to entice customers to lunch, before and the waiters stood outside in the street to puff their cigarettes in their meal break, I found on my email system a list of Australian publishers I’d invited to a university event. One by one, I wrote, telling them of my new manuscript. Would they be interested, I asked cheekily, in going into a partnership with me?

I trembled as I opened my emails the next morning.

One of the publishers had written back asking to see the new manuscript – but what did I mean by “partnership”? I sent the manuscript, but not the answer. I didn’t know the answer.

In the next few days, hovering over A’s bed, taking a breath out on the balcony, eekeing out the pages of  Crime and Punishment, I exchanged many emails with another friend, a very successful, kind, patient woman. Together we tried to work out the answer. We’re still working it out.