Five years after she began writing it, Laura Powell finally got a book deal for her debut novel, The Unforgotten. But weeks before publication, it all went wrong. Here she explains what happened next.
Writing The Unforgotten was the easy bit. I spewed out my first draft in six impatient months during a Faber Academy course. I edited it countless times, went on two writing retreats, edited it some more, got offers of representation from three literary agents, did two more rewrites, another edit. Then came those six glorious words from Norah, my wonderful agent at Curtis Brown: ‘It’s ready to send to publishers.’
It was spring 2014. I waited. And waited. At first there was some interest from a big publishing house, then it fizzled out. This, I’m told, is normal. Summer approached, dead time in the publishing industry. Rejections kept coming; each with kind accompanying notes, but rejections nonetheless. I braced myself that The Unforgotten would sit in my bottom drawer forever. Then, Hesperus, a four-woman band behind a clutch of respected novels, including Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, stepped forward. They offered a modest advance and we toasted the deal with cocktails at The Society Club in Soho.
Norah and I continued the celebrations into the early hours; afterwards I lurched into Burger King in Leicester Square on my own and woke with my face in a cheeseburger. I will always look back fondly on that naïve, thrilling night. Because shortly after, the hard work began – then it all went wrong.
First editing: There was a redraft. An edit. Another edit. A line edit. I was used to editing it by now and loved transforming woolly, flawed passages into something tight with editor, Martha. Next we brainstormed titles (as Hesperus didn’t like my working title, Dear Mister Gallagher) and settled on The Unforgotten, a happy compromise. We discussed blurbs, press release wording, I drew up lists of journalist contacts for publicity, drafted feature ideas to help market it.
Cover design was a sticking point. I hated Hesperus’ traditional idea of a painted scene of a loving couple on a beach. And I imagine them balking when they received my four-page moodboard of covers that better reflected the plot and better fitted, I felt, with the way Hesperus wanted to market the book (as a book club-type read). Weeks later they sent me the cover mock up – I could have cried with joy. It was better than anything I could have imagined.
Yet five months before the scheduled publication, the head of Hesperus resigned suddenly. A week later Norah called to say Martha had also left. I was confused she hadn’t told me herself. I reassured myself that the editing process was over and that Ruby, the wonderfully-friendly publicist, was still there. But days later Ruby emailed gently explaining that she was leaving too – at the end of next week. And the fourth employee had also resigned. No replacements had been found. None, as far as Ruby knew, were being sought.
I have never spoken to the owners of Hesperus but I understand they were businessmen based in Jordan who bought Hesperus as an investment years earlier, and had no background in publishing. I’m told they treated their staff poorly, left writers unpaid. I certainly never saw a penny from Hesperus. Jonas Jonasson was, I read, owed thousands of pounds in royalties. I wasn’t angry; I empathised with the team, was sad for them and for The Unforgotten. But I still thought it would be okay.
That night Norah and I brainstormed how to bring out a book without the backing of a publishing house. This was different to self-publishing. The wholesalers were lined up to sell it to shops (though they hadn’t been paid or lined anything up yet). We had the cover design (though the designer was also unpaid). The stamp of Hesperus was on the cover. We just didn’t have Hesperus.
Norah and I tasks divided between us. There were roughly 80 in total. I wrote them on A4 sheets of paper, stuck them to my bedroom wall and planned to work through methodically. This sounds simpler than it was. Some required copious effort, contacts and weeks of work for an experienced publishing team, never mind someone with a full-time job and no experience. Task number one, for example, was: ‘get a review quote from a novelist to put on the cover of The Unforgotten.’
I handwrote individual letters to 50 novelists asking for a cover quote. I wrote them on scented parchment. This, I thought, was a personal touch. On reflection it smacked of desperation and unprofessionalism. No one replied. Next I tried novelists I could approach directly; I called on my colleague who was a neighbour of Julian Barnes, my friend whose boss had a very distant connection with Sebastian Faulks. Again, no joy.
I had no personal contacts in the book world so I turned to friendly novelists I indirectly knew; Orange Prize winner Joanne Kavenna, whom I had once previously interviewed at her home and found marvelously warm and welcoming; wildly successful novelist Katie Fforde who was a good friend of a colleague’s mum; and Maggie Gee, who I respect enormously, whom Norah knew. All three agreed to read it – fortunately they enjoyed it and kindly offered quotes.
I was thrilled. On to task two. Only 78 to go…
I built my own website (which took weeks); listed local bookshops to approach; tracked down names of managers at my local branches of Waterstones and WHSmith; emailed book bloggers; sought out review editors at newspapers for book reviews; pitched articles to magazine features editors for further publicity; contacted local press; listed festivals to approach; radio stations to contact; awards to submit myself for. I even tracked down the right people at Amazon to send the blurb to. Meanwhile Norah was dealing with stockists, wholesalers, cover designer, contracts that are still all way beyond me, and brilliantly trying to keep it all jolly and merry – something I will always be so grateful for.
I also cold-called the publicity directors at several huge publishing houses to ask for help. They were generous in their sympathy and advice but no one gave me what I really, subconsciously wanted – someone to snap up the book and take away the burden. If it weren’t for Norah who shouldered the weight, I would have crumbled.
But eventually came the conversation neither of us wanted: it was too great a task for us to do alone without the backing, resources, few contacts and without the money needed. After all, who would pay the wholesalers? I agreed. It was April 2015. Publication was scheduled for July. By the end of the week, the lawyers at Curtis Brown had negotiated me out of the Hesperus contract. There was a sense of relief that the burden was taken away; but also crushing disappointment. Most of all I felt stupid for having prematurely celebrated, for thinking my book was ever good enough to be published.
Norah sent it out to publishers again. More rejections poured in. I gave up hope. I went to work. I ripped my to-do list off my bedroom walls. I cried a lot. Weeks passed. Then one Friday, as I was on a tight deadline in work, Norah called. ‘They want it,’ she squealed. ‘I’ve found you a publisher.’ The publishers were Freight Books, a tiny but brilliant and fiercely loyal team based in Glasgow. It was, on reflection, an even better fit than Hesperus.
Publication was delayed eight months – Norah, I could tell, was nervous telling me this but I didn’t care. I’d have waited three years if I had to. Finally I had a publisher. And finally, after even more hard work (another article in itself), The Unforgotten was released in March 2016.
I threw a huge launch party; usually I hate being the centre of attention but after so many obstacles, I (bizarrely) felt I owed it to the book. I would like to say that it hit me then, but I was numb. And I stayed numb, even when the kind reviews came out in The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, when I saw it for the first time on the table in Waterstones (on the table rubbing shoulders with Kazuo Ishirugo, my idol). I’d like to say I was delighted – my grandmothers both squealed and Mum bought all the copies, then made me sign them – but I was still in a blurry haze. Hopefully one of these days, it will sink in.
So what of the Hesperus experience? Someone once said it must have been valuable. ‘You learnt the real mechanics of publishing,’ they said. I should probably agree – but quite honestly I don’t. Anyone who has written a book knows it is emotionally draining and damned hard. To go through that, to be on the brink of birth, only to have it snatched back from you, is crushing. What it did make me is doubly grateful for my super agent, Norah, thankful that Freight believed in it, glad of my brilliantly supportive family… and in need of a long lie down – before I begin my next.
Laura is a Features Commissioning Editor at the Daily Telegraph. She completed the six-month Writing a Novel course at the Faber Academy, tutored by Richard Skinner. Her debut novel, The Unforgotten, is out now (Freight Books, £8.99). Buy it here.