Back in 2012, after a number of years in the writing waste land, I found the grail again and became a signed and published author once more. Writers who have been dropped by one publisher and somehow manage to get re-signed by another will know the level of industry fortune needed to make it happen: if the sales figures on Nielsen don’t make happy reading, chances are a new publisher won’t take a punt on you, no matter how good your manuscript is. So, it was with considerable excitement (and apprehension) when my agent rang to tell me children’s publisher, Chicken House, were interested in my book, Killing Sound (then called Walkers). The advance wasn’t great but the company was run by Barry Cunningham, the man who struck publishing gold when he signed J.K. Rowling to Bloomsbury, so it didn’t really seem to matter. Surely, this was a man who could get the book out to market and deliver success? Killing Sound was an adult book, a supernatural horror set on the London Underground, with teen leads, grownup themes, strong language, a spattering of sex, and considerable violence. After a few months of alleviating their editorial concerns about this, which I took as a kind of test to see how far I would go to change the manuscript for them, all was set fair. I travelled down to meet Barry and the editorial staff in Frome.
Then something curious happened. The editor I had been assigned to work with took out her laptop and showed me a BookMap, a document for novice writers to keep track of events in their novel, something most (seasoned) writers do naturally. It included a scene by scene breakdown of every characters’ feelings and motivations, as if you were writing a Brodie’s notes to your novel, and lots of tick boxes to make sure you’d followed the template. It was also, I retrospectively felt, a document for lazy editors who hadn’t read the manuscript properly, to keep tabs on what was going on. I smiled when I saw it, never imagining she was really going to foist in on me. It was a big mistake.
It’s true what they say, a bad editor can kill a book. It’s also true that they can destroy a writer’s career. I politely refused to fill her BookMap in when she sent it to me. It was another bad mistake (a woman scorned and all that). Cue the sound of her nose being put out of joint. Cue nearly three years of hell, which would have tested Vladimir and Estragon’s resolve. It went something like this.
After I signed the contract, there were ten months of waiting before a hastily thrown together (and incomplete) structural edit arrived, including changes we hadn’t agreed beforehand. I returned the manuscript three weeks later with the changes done or, if not, offered a reasoned argument why they didn’t work. There were two bones of contention: firstly, the editor wanted the big reveal at the end not to be a big reveal; she wanted everything explicit early on, so the ‘teen reader’ could guess what would happen and wouldn’t get lost. To me, that was just anathema. You don’t reveal the identity of a killer in a whodunit till the end, otherwise what’s the point of it all? The second bone of contention was Jodie’s relationship with Luca and her jealousy of Laura. The editor wanted all this cut out, deeming it extraneous to the plot. She didn’t understand (or want to understand) that the motives for the killings on the Underground (in the hellish final scene) were predicated upon them. Without Luca’s infidelity, there is no fight with Trent, no contrition from Luca, and no going after Laura (leaving the earthly explanation of the supernatural things that were happening to Jodie in tatters). There were weeks of waiting and silence from the editor. She had referred my ‘non-compliance’ upwards. Barry Cunningham got in touch, asking if I could accommodate them. They couldn’t publish without these important changes being made. My heart sank. I made the changes…and the book started to unravel.
Five months of waiting. The manuscript (a structural / line edit) came back in three parts this time. I returned it a week later with the changes made or, if not, offered a reasoned argument why they didn’t work. More weeks of waiting. More silence from the editor. She referred it upwards. Barry got in touch, asking if I could accommodate the important changes. They couldn’t publish without them being made. My heart sank further. I made the changes. The book unravelled some more.
Four months of waiting. The editor decided they need a specialist writer called ‘Matt’ for the line / copy edit, to add in some lines so the (young) reader didn’t get lost. At this stage, a book that was written for 15+ and adults, containing sex and swearing, was being made palatable for ten-year-olds. The manuscript arrived with some lines added that could well have been written by a ten-year-old, certainly someone no older. I was asked to rewrite these lines so that it was consistent with my style, but not to change the substance of them (so that the readers would still understand them). To encourage me to go along with these important changes, Barry sent out the following email:
‘Excellent news – I really think this has addressed our (and more importantly all our readers’) concerns and helps make sense of what Paul and I discussed – that is what the young reader reacts to as opposed to what may have been intended. I think with these revisions we have a very strong book, reading it all again has re-enforced that for me.’
I wrote a strong email back. They had completely fucked up my book. The editor replied, inviting me on a course she was running about dramatic tension so that I could see where I was going wrong. I wrote an even stronger email back. My agent got involved to diffuse tensions. I returned the manuscript a week later with the changes made. There were a few lines that were so utterly risible that I couldn’t do anything with them, and I put a note on the manuscript recommending they not be included and we stick to the original text. I was ignored. My mum had been taken very poorly while all this was going on and I didn’t have the heart to fight anymore. Sadly, it didn’t get any better for her or the book. Barry rang me on the day she died to say they were now going to publish. He rubbed salt in the wound by asking if they could now remove all the swear words he had previously allowed to stay in, just in case foreign markets and librarians objected. I don’t remember what I said. It must have been some kind of affirmative because they removed them, anyway. My great idea, my great book, had been butchered.
Having got the book they wanted out of me, and after taking so long, it was down to Chicken House to get the book sold. I had protested about their Letraset cover and blurb from the outset (it looked so cheap and horrible) but they were determined to keep it. I managed to get them to remove the ghastly orange type and change the blurb, but that awful cover was going to stay. So I waited and waited till release in September 2014. Goodreads is a good indicator of how well a book is doing. Sadly, no one on there seemed to be aware of it. Waterstones didn’t stock it in over half the country and, other than a blog tour and a review in The Guardian, the PR they hired to do the publicity drew a blank. To date, I think it’s their lowest selling book. I was incandescent at what they’d done (remember what I said at the start, about trying to get republished – it’s even harder when you’ve failed again). The editor didn’t give a shit if the book flopped – she still had a job – neither did the freelance PR they hired. It’s the writer that gets the blame and their career that suffers.
The brutal irony of all this (and a tacit admission that they made a massive mistake) can be seen on the current Killing Sound page of the Chicken House website. It is now being advertised as a book for 15+, as it was intended, only, as you know, they’ve removed everything that would put it in that bracket.