A couple of years ago I entered the manuscript of my unpublished first novel All My Own Work into a competition run by two small UK publishing firms called Publish and be Damned (PABD) and UKA Press. I’d first heard of PABD through an article in the Guardian about publish-on-demand (POD; basically an affordable kind of vanity publishing) a few months before. The prize was several copies of your book “published” by PABD, to be offered for sale on their site as well as Amazon’s and UKA Press’s, and surrounding publicity. I recommended the contest to my mate Chris Bell, whose excellent and equally unpublished first novel Liquidambar had been unaccountably passed over by regular publishers. Both of our novels were shortlisted for the prize, and Chris’s went on to win.
Sadly the prize turned out to be incredibly disappointing, with production errors in the “finished” book, PABD and UKA Press doing very little by way of promotion, the title not turning up on Amazon for months and royalties and sales apparently unaccounted for. Chris is still, nearly two years later, embroiled in a dispute with PABD over all of this; PABD have now incidentally moved to Canada, as you might do if people were chasing you for money.
This would be bad enough, if perhaps predictable for the kind of smalltime, amateur outfits that PABD and UKA Press have sadly turned out to be. However, you might not expect almost as poor treatment at the hands of a national newspaper of the quality of The Guardian. Not long after Chris won the contest and received copies of his book, I offered to send one to the Guardian’s weekly books supplement, Guardian Review, on his behalf – not that I have any special contacts there, but the Review is based (like me) in the UK and Chris in New Zealand, and as mates we’d long agreed to do whatever we could to help promote each other’s books.
While PABD were not (and still aren’t) a regular publisher of the sort that the Review normally reviews, in May last year I’d noticed a new section in the supplement called Footnotes, apparently edited by ex-Bookseller supremo Nicholas Clee, which reviewed a selection of quality books from the small presses. This, combined with Chris’s newsworthy competition win and the Guardian’s own apparent interest in POD from their article that had brought PABD to our attention in the first place, made it seem reasonable to bring Liquidambar to Clee’s attention.
I wrote him a nice letter (in retrospect at two pages it was probably overlong, but I wanted to give him as much relevant information about Chris and the competition win as possible) and sent it with a copy of the book direct to Clee at the Guardian’s Farringdon, London address.
To be honest I’d guessed Clee’s most likely response would be a swift “thanks, but no thanks”, not because Chris’s book isn’t excellent but because he and the rest of the Review would no doubt be inundated with these sorts of author-attempts-at-getting-foot-in-door approaches. What I didn’t expect, though – however naievely – was to not get a response at all. When I’d heard nothing after two months I wrote Clee a much shorter letter reminding him of the book and asking again if he would consider it for the next Footnotes section.
By the end of September I’d still heard nothing from Clee, so as much as I hate going over people’s heads, it seemed a letter to the editor of the Review would be in order. Their name was not published anywhere in the Review or listed in the contacts section of the Guardian’s website, but it was given in my Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (albeit the 2004 edition) and on Wikipedia as Annalena McAfee, a.k.a. Mrs Ian McEwan.
By November I’d still not heard anything at all from Clee, McAfee or anyone at the Review, so by now fuming at their total lack of any form of courtesy whatever – by now even a letter telling me to fuck off would have been better received – I decided to go right over all their heads and ask the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger what was going on.
Funnily enough, this appeared to help.
Finally, just before Christmas, I received a reply, although not from Rusbridger or even McAfee, but the deputy editor of the Review, Georgina Henry, who firstly said McAfee had not been the correct person to write to, as she was not the “literary editor”. The fact that I had deliberately written to the editor-in-chief seemed to escape her, as had the tautology of there being a “literary editor” on the staff of a literary supplement. Nonetheless, she did say (for the record and anyone who cares) that said “literary editor” is Claire Armistead (note the spelling) and that (although she was apologetic) she was unable (or unwilling) to reconsider Liquidambar for review, saying their original decision not to review it should stand.
This letter to me was followed in January this year by another, this time from McAfee herself. I managed to control my excitement at receiving a letter from the wife of Ian McEwan, although this was quelled anyway by her comment “because of the large number of books coming in to the office we are unable to give feedback on individual submissions”. This is exactly what I’d thought would be their reaction in the first place – but how was I to know that if they didn’t tell me? If this is their official position, surely it might be a reasonably bright idea to photocopy it onto a few hundred sheets of Guardian headed paper, or (to be more eco-friendly about it) store it as a standard email, and just send one out to everyone who submits unsolicited books for review? I know the Guardian sends out unsigned, anonymous standard letters, because I’ve received three or four over the years from their “People Department” when I’ve been turned down for jobs at the paper. In fact, if the Guardian employed me to do nothing but send out these letters or emails, that might kill several birds with one stone.
McAfee then went on to say that it had been a further mistake to address the book to Nicholas Clee because “Nicholas writes for the Review on a freelance basis and is not involved in the commissioning of book reviews”. Apart from the fact that Clee had appeared to be “in charge” of the Footnotes section, and I was trying to avoid going round all the houses by sending Liquidambar direct to him, you might have thought that an organisation of the size of the Guardian could manage to get an envelope addressed to an important contributor, even a freelance one, to the man himself without too much trouble.
Finally McAfee said “can I suggest that any future books are submitted to our Literary Editor, Claire Armitstead [sic].”
McAfee obviously could do with someone to proof-read her letters before they go out (something else I could do around the office, perhaps!) as shortly after writing to me she also wrote to Chris, addressing his letter to “Auckland, Australia”.
I reckon all this should be a warning to an
yone wanting to get published: either be Ian McEwan, or be married to him, because everyone else may as well fuck off.
Chris’s own account of the whole sorry farce can be found here