The email arrived late afternoon, mid-November. Would I be interested in writing a book?
Usually I wouldn't, but this request was different. It was from one of Britain's largest book publishers. It was from a named editor, rather than a generic spamlist. And the suggested topic was an excellent one, aimed squarely at a decent-sized hole in the market. I'd already written a little about it on my blog, hence their interest. Would I be interested in writing more, shoving a cover on it and then living in perpetuity on the nation's bookshelves? How chuffed was I? It seemed only wise to explore the idea further.
An exchange of emails followed, in which I expressed polite enthusiasm, and my contact told me not to worry about how long the writing might take. And so we agreed to meet up a few days hence, at Publishing HQ, somewhere in London.
I wondered whether I might be ushered past security to some comfy commissioning sofa, but instead I only got as far as the café. Here I met two of the company's editors, both female, both about half my age, both with the power to immortalise me in print. I'd brought stuff, they'd brought stuff, so we had a chat about that and the general publishing concept. It did seem to be a terribly good idea for a book, and one for which I might be ideally suited.
Publication had to be in April, I was told, because that's when the ideal window for this kind of subject matter opens. But not the next April, the April after that, because publishing's a snail's pace kind of a business. I'd have until September to write everything I needed, then they'd spend some time tweaking it into an appropriate form to create the necessary electronic files for production. My book would be bulk-printed in colour in China, apparently, then shipped back on a slowboat for three months to trim costs to a minimum. And then April would be a whirlwind of publicity, plugs and promotions before my volume was launched upon a now-suspecting world. The Aprilness, I quickly learned, was very important.
Knocking out the requisite number of words shouldn't be too hard. The editor's concept wasn't a novel-size paperback, but a smaller tome with plenty of white space. They only wanted a hundred and fifty-something words on a page, for heaven's sake, and every other page was going to have a great big photo on it. Oh yes, that was the other exciting thing, they wanted me to illustrate my own subject matter with 100-or-so photos, and these would pad out half the book. Photography and text, I could do that no problem, I do that every day.
I went home and knocked up a sample chapter based on stuff I already had and sent it in. This only took two weeks of spare time, which could have been worse. And shortly afterwards I heard back that they liked it, which was nice, and they wanted to offer me something proper. They attached an official proposal letter, detailing required length of text and a submission date, plus details of all the relevant royalty payments I might receive. I hadn't previously twigged quite how little authors of non-fiction earn from each sale, so this was a timely nudge not to expect anything life-changing.
A 20-page contract arrived, in the name of 'Diamond Geezer', which I read very carefully. I assumed that all the scary bits in the contract were fairly standard, in that the publishing house has lots of rights whereas the writer has lots of responsibilities. All deadlines must be hit, all content must be appropriate, all advice must be taken - that sort of thing. But I was still very reticent to sign, even though there was a financial advance waiting once I did, because I was nervous that section X paragraph Y sub-section Z might contain something legal I'd later live to regret.
By now I'd recognised that the truly important thing wasn't the book's content, but how well it could be promoted. When the April publishing date finally came round, the company needed to make as big a splash as possible to ensure that copies of my book actually sold. That meant publicity, interviews, feature articles - whatever interest the press office could manage to stir up. They reassured me they'd not force me onto local TV, not if I really didn't want to, but seemed visibly relieved when I had no objection to the occasional radio broadcast. The key marketing opportunity would be a serialisation in the printed media, they hoped, if only they could acquire such a prize. A glossy weekend newspaper magazine was the Holy Grail, however unlikely, but even half a page in Time Out would have had the publicists salivating.
And this obsession with promotion also meant curtains for the way I originally thought I'd get the book written. I thought I'd research and publish each chapter on my blog, bit by bit, post by post, like I normally do. But apparently not. With everything destined for publication, I was nudged in no uncertain terms to keep all the material off the internet. My book must not be a printed copy of content already freely available in pixellated form... not because thousands of potential purchasers might already have read it, but for the specific reason that pre-publication might reduce the opportunity "to negotiate some good serial deals".
Like I said, that Aprilness turned out to be very important. So I did what any budding author would do in these circumstances, I knuckled down and carried on writing...