What’s so safe about traditional publishing?

It was in the bad old days. You wait all your life to find a way to export your first novel out of your head and onto paper. You think publication will put you into heaven. I found publication, while not exactly hell,  at least a punishment. My “Painted Woman”, first published by Hudson in 1989, had been scorned by many critics, though praised by others.(I have a genius for remembering criticism, and not noticing praise: in my old age I’ll be sitting in the sun in a nursing home reciting sad words like “irrelevant”, “overblown” and “marshmellow”). I’d been repeatedly warned that a new book had six weeks to make it in the bookshops, or it was history. Mine hadn’t made it. My last hope was a  good notice in “The Sydney Morning Herald’s” book pages, but the then head of the literary pages saw it as “just another women’s coming of age story”, and therefore not worth reviewing,  as he told a large audience in the early days of the Sydney Writers’ Festival,  not hearing my heart thumping  in the back row. So the novel seemed to be in its death throes, and me as well,  when, months later, something prompted him to ask Tom Keneally for his opinion of the book.  Keneally’s generous and encouraging review brought it, and me,  back to life.

It was re-published by Allen and Unwin in 1991, but even so, when I was invited three years later to my first writer-in-residence at  Iowa University, I was only too happy to leave it at home, preferring instead to to pack an evening dress in case of glittering evenings,  heavy jumpers and a coat as padded as a sleeping bag because the mid-west seemed like Antartica to a woman from a warm climate,  and even a thick blanket.

I was caught out. One of my hosts asked me to read it in front of scores of students.  I had to explain, in a mixture of embarrassment and relief, that I didn’t bring it. This was in the days before  I used a computer, just one of those old-fashioned, finger- bruising typewriters, so I didn’t even have the manuscript in a floppy disc with me. It was also in the days when Australian books were very difficult to come by overseas, when you had to  achieve publication overseas to be available anywhere but home, and that seemed an impossible obstacle. Allen and Unwin had sent a shipment of the book to London, where it had been well-reviewed and had sold out,  but, lamentably, no one over there had offered to publish it.
“We’ll get a copy from the library,” my host said.
“That’s impossible,” I replied. But I didn’t like to argue, so  I followed her to the library. Within minutes, a copy of “Painted Woman” was put in my hands. But it was not like the book I knew. It  had a clumsy painting on  the  cover,  and it bore the name of a publisher I hadn’t  heard of. More bewildering than anything was the spelling of  my surname. Now every second person accidentally misspells my name, but for a publisher to make a mistake like this seemed a strange accident. While my host stood beside me, puzzled by my sudden silence, I opened the book and found it was a large print edition on coarse paper already yellowing at the edges.
“OK?” she asked. For a moment, I thought  I’d have to disappoint her, and say: “This isn’t’ mine” – like a new mother takingone peek at a baby in a nurse’s arms and saying: “You’ve got the wrong one.”But the book began with the line I’d worked on for so long I could recite it:
“His arm is above me. I’m thinking that he may hit me the way he hits my mother, his face slashed between the red protuberances of nose and chin, his lips purple, his teeth flaring like a saw’s edge…”
I leafed through the yellow pages, dizzyily – had someone stolen my beginning? and my name? and  my scorned book? But I found the familiar,comforting rhythms of my prose. Even the page layout, that Hudson’s had painstakingly set, was familiar.
“OK,” I agreed and  followed her out of the library and did my reading from the book that was mine, but not mine.

Much later, back in Sydney, I asked my agent how this strange edition had come about. He had no idea. His inquiries found that Allen and Unwin and Hudson had no idea either, and the US publisher seemed to have disappeard without a trace. My agent had never warmed to the book, and had initially refused to represent it, saying distressingly that even if he worked every day for four years, he wouldn’t find a publisher for it. (It had taken two weeks, in the end).
Now he laughed.  “Probably gone bankrrupt”, he said, implying that’s the havoc  my book might wreak on any publisher, although he mentioned that to sell into universities probably all over the US was a sizeable market. “Pity about the royalties,” he said.

There’s a happy ending to this story that all new writers should take heart from: “Painted Woman” survived that pirating, and in fact, twenty-one years later, is still in print in Australia. It was bought by Random House in 1997, and given its current, beautiful cover. Random even allowed me to re-write a section of it that had long weighed on me – I’m a fiddly, obsessive person. The book was adapted as a radio play and broadcast on the ABC. Recently it has been translated into French by Marie-Odile Fortier Masek, and published by L’Edition.  As Frank Moorehouse once said to me: “Books have a more interesting life than we do.”

But now when people warn me off e publishing, saying that “e” books aren’t safe from pirating, I reply: what’s so safe about traditional publishing?

3 Responses to What’s so safe about traditional publishing?

  1. Painted Woman had a profound effect on me when I first read it – it is wonderful. So maybe you could try to learn to fall in love with it again? Don’t listen to those critics. Another women’s coming of age book! As if we don’t have enough men’s stories, already.

  2. What a journey “Painted Woman” has been on… what a journey we embark on when we pick up a pen, or when we pick up another author’s book to read. Thanks for all those words and ideas, Sue!

  3. Wow! What a story Sue. So how did the reading go? It must have been so bizarre to read from a pirated edition of your own book. I wonder how it ended up in Iowa’s library. Have you heard any other such stories? Well happy it had such a nice ending! Hope all’s well. I’m having a delightful time in London.

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