So where do I start?

By Guy

So, where do I start? Perhaps how I got my contract?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I have a website. I have a buoyant garden consultancy. I also write when the opportunity arises in local magazines plus I give talks across the South and East of the UK about my day to day. I could ask I suppose, perhaps I will when the book is published (it is up to the Publisher if they like the book enough to invest in publication.) Suffice to say, it’s not really important to me at the moment; perhaps I was noticed by somebody and that somebody passed my name on. Or perhaps, as with so much of life, it was sheer luck. I will add here, it was mentioned that they were after a writer who could give a new perspective on a traditional craft, which is certainly what I do in my talks – I encourage people to read The Art of War by Sun Tzu, when dealing with pest and disease; I have explored why economists keep failing to foresee crashes by the simple expedient they don’t understand natural growth. (I am currently exploring in a different project – which can be found on Instagram as a graphic novel – the relationship between our interaction with two dimensional art and our interaction with social media. Are they the same?)

That aside, when I was approached, it was via email. Of course I checked the credentials of the business, I also checked it was not from a random email address. Once I was satisfied it wasn’t the usual spam, I talked it over with my wife, who has much more experience of publishing (her father being a moderately successful garden writer in the 1960’s). She gave me some questions to ask, importantly, what’s the offer?

The commissioning editor replied with a friendly outline of what was required and what they were offering. To put it simply, you write us a 45,000 word book on a set subject with 150 images, on time, we give you an ‘advance’. Being under contract, I can simply say it wouldn’t pay a mortgage and you get it in 3 tranches – on signing, on delivery and on publication – so the onus is on it being the best damned gardening book ever written in order to get the 10%ish on each sale and for me to get another commission. But, this is – according to a client writer of theatrical music – standard fayre. (A friend of his was offered £3k for her debut novel, but by happenstance a bidding war erupted around its publication which ended in an 18k offer. It has since gone on to foreign rights and film rights, so she is laughing. That is the dream we all have. But these things are exceedingly rare and to some extent ‘who you know’). The lesson, he says, ‘be nice to everyone you ever meet, they may hold the key to your publishing greatness’. Anyway, the subject I was offered was not suitable to the time of year – it being about pruning espalier fruit and the offer coming in June. The editor gave me a list of what other subjects they were looking for (another stroke of luck I guess), I chose Protective Growing – which to most people’s ears means greenhouses. It doesn’t, but that’s the premise of my book. I have since reached out across the globe to enhance the book further (and hopefully increase markets and sales.)

The contract itself was simple and heavily weighted in favour of the publisher – who it must be said is sticking their neck out on an untested author. It outlined what was expected, what wasn’t allowed and in what timeframe. I was also provided with an example chapter and a set of guidelines for reference. As the book has progressed, the editor has been most helpful, reading it chapter by chapter. I am told, this is unusual. Most writers write the whole piece, confident of their ability, only to find it drastically cut by the editor, so be warned – I have been given a great deal of leeway, but they have a style they like and one must be prepared to adapt and compromise. They know the market. I will also say here, the draft chapter I present, is never the first draft. I will write the bulk of it. Go away and research an idea. Muse on it. Rewrite and re-edit, then present. There has been a lot of waiting for outside contributions and a fair bit of nudging. What most helped the direction of writing in this instance was, after giving the signed contract back, I used Joanne Bartley’s template on her website, including a sample Introduction (this was shot down in flames, so I rewrote and resubmitted within the day) to introduce myself formally. This introduction has been rewritten several times since.

Ultimately, if you want to be a professional writer, what I’d recommend is that you keep writing and take every opportunity that is out there to show your talent, whether it be an article, a blog, a short story competition or reading a poem aloud in a bookshop. This may not lead to the great publishing deal, but it gives you practice and it gives you a formal history. Discipline has been mentioned by some. I think passion is more important. If you really care, you don’t mind getting up at 3am to write for two or three hours, then going to work for 9 hours etc. Having a contract and the promise of a market is a great focus. Seven months in, I thought I had finished the book, but I have just scrapped a chapter entirely. Martin Amis recently stated the days of an author earning his crust purely from writing is over. Was it ever truly thus?