(THE STORY OF) THE SURVIVAL OF THOMAS FORD by John A. A. Logan
… or … How e-publishing ended the bizarre never-say-die rejection saga of an author born to write
[ Post-Gutenberg has never heard a tale of rejection by old-print publishers quite like this one. What stands out is the spectacular succession of near-breakthroughs – one or two of which could have made John Logan seriously rich years ago. We are delighted to accept his invitation to re-publish his account of his extraordinary persistence, episodes of deep discouragement and finally, well-deserved triumph. Earlier posts here recorded our reactions to The Survival of Thomas Ford, and a playful, unforgettable short story, ‘Unicorn One’. ]
I’d written two novels, so I sent them to a literary agent and she told me she wanted to represent both books. She told me a particular editor she knew, and had sold a novel to recently, was certain to buy one of my two books, if not both. She told me the editor’s name, and his publishing house’s name. She had such faith in this editor taking my books that she sent the novels nowhere else for a year. When the year was up, the literary agent told me she was “shocked” that the editor had not wanted to buy either of my books. A few months later, I found myself without an agent, she wrote me a letter telling me she was closing her small Scottish agency.
Having had one literary agent, I thought it would be easy to get a second agent. I began to submit my fiction to literary agents in London.
While I was doing so, I wrote two more novels.
Six years passed while every literary agent I contacted rejected my four novels.
I had been managing to sell my short stories independently during this period, though. Over a dozen of my stories had been published by PICADOR, VINTAGE, EDINBURGH REVIEW, CHAPMAN, NORTHWORDS, NOMAD, SECRETS OF A VIEW, and SCRATCHINGS; with reviews of my work in SCOTTISH STUDIES REVIEW, SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY, THE SPECTATOR, and THE HINDUSTAN TIMES. Some of my stories were published internationally in anthologies edited by A L Kennedy, John Fowles, Ali Smith, Toby Litt; books that were sold as paperbacks from Japan to China, to India and South America, where I shared space with authors including Fay Weldon, Alan Warner, David Mitchell, Muriel Spark, Louis De Bernieres, Alasdair Gray, Rose Tremain. Around that time I was also invited to do a reading of one of my stories at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
So…I obviously hadn’t needed an agent to sell any of that work.
Also, during that period, five famous names…writers, editors, a literary agent…all at various times advised me to apply for support from the Scottish Arts Council, to get a Writer’s Bursary etc…but despite their enthusiastic sponsorship these applications were never successful.
Still, I made £1110 by steadily selling my short stories wherever I could.
But what of my four unpublished novels in the meantime? My search to find a literary agent for them had proven fruitless.
Somehow, though, I dug that little bit deeper down into my guts and wrote a fifth novel, called The Survival of Thomas Ford.
I finished it in the summer of 2008, but a funny thing happened. I could not send it out to literary agents or editors as I had done with my four previous novels. I found I could not even show it to my friends. It seemed that the years of rejection for my other four novels had somehow “frozen” me. All faith had been broken, not so much in myself, but in the process of “submissions”. I still loved the work of doing novels, but not so much what came after…
I watched this strange, fearful internal landscape for two years, keeping the novel to myself, until finally, in the summer of 2010, the spell broke and I got up the nerve and courage to send The Survival of Thomas Ford out to half a dozen literary agents.
I heard back quite quickly from one in London. She liked the book very much, but she said it was terrible timing, as she had to take over a colleague’s maternity leave suddenly. She told me she was passing the book on to another colleague.
A week later I heard from the other literary agent. He phoned me for 45 minutes and told me he wanted to represent my book. He told me he thought the book was “terrific”. I had only been waiting and working for 21 years to get that phone call.
He told me he only took on what he was certain he could sell. Later he told me that he had told all the people at his agency that my book was “a certainty”.
He told me he was more excited about my book than any he had represented for a long time.
Another waiting process began.
In December 2010, the literary agent phoned me for 90 minutes, to tell me he was sure a major publishing house’s editors had wanted to take my book, but then at the meeting with the sales dept the sales folk for this publishing house had said that I “reminded them of someone they had had high hopes for two years earlier but then had lost money on”. And that ended that house’s interest in the book.
A little later, the senior commissioning editor at another major UK publishing house wrote to say “I think John Logan is a hugely talented writer. I love books like this that have the pace and excitement of a thriller but the voice and emotional depth of a literary novel”. But again when it came right down to it, no sale!
Then my agent passed the book to a film consultant who worked with him. She told him my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, was the best book she had read in that literary agency in the last 4 years. This was taken very seriously, as this film consultant had discovered Slumdog Millionaire as an unpublished manuscript and was responsible for it getting developed into a film. From March 2011 to May 2011, the film consultant called me and spoke to me about the book on the phone for 13 hours total (I counted!). This all seemed very promising, if nerve-wracking.
But also around this time the film consultant told me that, although she was certain my book would have sold in London in 2008, by 2010/2011 she felt some serious changes had happened in publishing…my novel was being sent out, and editors were saying how much they loved, or enjoyed, or admired it, or how powerful it was…and the film consultant told me my novel was getting the best and most respectful rejections of any literary novel the agency was then sending out…yet still my book was not selling.
This all went on for more than a year, until I discovered that I perhaps didn’t have the nerves of steel required to live with that constant background, thrumming tension that seems to come when you hand over all the power over your own progress and happiness to other people.
Especially when that process is not working!
By this time my book had been rejected by just about every editor in the UK my agent could think of to send it to…my book that had been the “certainty”…and the best book that the film consultant who had discovered Slumdog Millionaire had read in the last 4 years… my agent told me that “with any other book he would have thrown up his hands and quit with it long ago, but that he did so much believe in this book”…
I suggested at that point to my agent that I relieve us all from this living Hell and perhaps I should go looking for an alternative way forward.
I then started looking around to see if there was any alternative…I immediately found J A Konrath’s blog….Dean Wesley Smith’s website… I heard about Amanda Hocking and John Locke….I looked closer to home and saw the success Linda Gillard, a fellow Scottish writer, had had with selling her work on Kindle.
Then a chance visit from a London friend who had a Kindle with him made me think a little harder about it all….until I went ahead on Christmas Day 2011 and published The Survival of Thomas Ford as a Kindle ebook.
My agent had told me that the option of epublishing novels was being much-discussed at his agency, for books that had “not managed to find a good home”.
As part of my Christmas Day experiment I signed up for Kindle Select.
I’d hardly sold any work since Picador had bought a story from me for £400 some time earlier.
I’d been stuck in a limbo of literary agents and film consultants saying they loved my novel, but with no actual reader ever seeing a page of it!
So I set the price of my book to zero, just to see if I could get any readers again and restore my soul a little.
892 copies of The Survival of Thomas Ford were downloaded in 5 days.
The book went to number 13 in the UK bestselling chart of free literary fiction…and to number 24 in same USA chart. It got to number 63 as a thriller also, in UK.
After I set a price of 77p on the book in January, things went a bit more slowly.
I had been expecting this. I had read Ewan Morrison’s article in THE GUARDIAN, stating that the usual result for a self-published 99cent/77p ebook was 100 sales in 12 months and no sales thereafter.
My novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, sold 239 copies in its first 8 weeks though, and by 24 February 2012 it had a surge of 80 sales over one weekend and reached number 13 in the Top 100 bestselling list of paid literary fiction ebooks on Amazon.
It also reached number 18 in the Top 100 bestselling list of all paid literary fiction on Amazon, including the paperbacks and hardbacks published by the major London publishers who had rejected The Survival of Thomas Ford (Ford went higher in the ranking than titles with recent tv or film exposure like The Woman in Black and The Slap; higher than Martin Amis and Maeve Binchy, or Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; higher than Booker Prize winning novels like The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, or masterpieces like the great Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
The Survival of Thomas Ford also went to number 80 in the Top 100 Bestselling list of UK thrillers on Kindle.
To my surprise, some local newspapers took an interest in what had happened, publishing 3 feature articles on my book in a 7 day period, with some snappy titles (“The Literary Survival of Author John Logan” – THE NORTHERN TIMES; “Positive New Chapter for Thriller Man” – THE HIGHLAND NEWS; “City Author’s Ebook Breaks into Top 100”- THE INVERNESS COURIER)
Reviews started to come in on Goodreads, and on Amazon, until there were 15 five-star reviews (and 1 four-star) on the book’s Amazon page.
Ah well, I thought as I scratched my head looking at the computer screen…it only took me 22 years work, 5 novels and 85 short stories completed, to get there!