On 25th September 2015, five years ago today, my first novel The Wreck of the Argyll was released. I thought I’d take the opportunity of the book’s birthday to look over its lifespan, which is far more complicated than I would have thought possible, involving three different publishers over the years…
I wrote the manuscript for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize in the summer of 2014, and when, to my immense surprise, it was announced as the winner in March 2015, the most exciting part (even more than the cash prize) was publication with Glasgow independent publisher Cargo. This was what I’d been working towards for several years – to see a book with my name on it in a bookshop. Over the summer I worked with editor Helen Sedgwick to get the book into shape, and with all edits completed, proofs reviewed, and cover designed, we were cruising towards the September release date.
There were some signs that not everything was going exactly to plan. For a start, the Cargo website hadn’t been updated since before the shortlist was announced, which was slightly troubling.
Then, at the start of August, a month and a half before release, one of the guys in the office told me that his pre-ordered copy of my book had turned up. I hadn’t even seen my author copies by that point! I hurriedly placed a next-day order with Wordery and held my book in my hands for the first time… My box of author copies turned up a week or so later with an apology from the publisher for the mix-up. My suspicion (never confirmed) was that a publisher in financial difficulties might not leave books sitting in a warehouse where they couldn’t invoice for them.
A couple of weeks after that, at the start of September, just a few short weeks from publication date, I heard again from Helen. Cargo were merging with another Glasgow independent publisher, Freight Books. As it turned out, “merging” was a bit euphemistic – Cargo Publishing (UK) Ltd was dissolved, the staff went in various directions, and effectively Freight just bought up Cargo’s backlist.
Fortunately for me, this meant that the publication and launch still went ahead. I was told at the time that Freight would be a great new home for my book and that it would flourish there – Freight even had a social media marketing person! – but that was over-optimistic to the point of delusion.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m extremely grateful that they gave my book a home. But the experience of having a book published didn’t quite live up to my expectations. On launch day in Dundee, where the book was set, there wasn’t a single copy to be found in Waterstones, and that set the tone for the book’s short life with Cargo/Freight.
My book didn’t seem to fit into Freight’s catalogue; they didn’t publish children’s books. I had to ask them to list the book on their website, and getting any response from them on any subject was tricky. When I asked them to enter my book for a couple of children’s book prizes (foolishly, of course) I had to prompt them so many times that I felt like a bit of a nuisance; when, not surprisingly, nothing came of the competitions I felt like a proper charlie for wasting their time.
They forgot to send me the accounts for the book when they were due in March 2016; I eventually received them, after some badgering, in June. The statements didn’t make for very encouraging reading – I’d sold 191 copies in nine months. A third of those were export sales where I earned 18p per copy in royalties. Promotion, other than a handful of tweets, was non-existent.
Then in August I noticed that most online retailers were showing the book as out of stock. I fired off a query to Freight, but didn’t get a reply. After an event in Newcastle in September, where I’d discovered that Seven Stories had been unable to get their hands on any copies, I chased Freight up again, pointing out that if the book was out of print it was probably time to talk about reversion of rights.
They couldn’t agree fast enough! The quickest response I ever got from them was from the MD saying “I don’t think it’d work for us to reprint” and getting a letter confirming that they’d reverted the rights to me. So long, farewell, don’t let the door hit your bum on the way out, John.
So that was The Wreck of the Argyll dead in the water on 19th September 2016, less than a year after publication, with lifetime sales of 212 copies and royalties of about £75. I saw it on the shelves in a grand total of two bookshops – one copy in Dundee, and one copy in London Piccadilly. I still can’t believe that I wrote a sequel, Murder at Eaglecrest, in that optimistic period between winning the competition and the actual publication.
But cutting loose from Freight was actually a blessing in disguise. The company went under in dramatic fashion not all that long after, with authors losing their royalties and being badgered into buying up the remaining stock of their books at exorbitant prices.
In the meantime, I’d moved on to the significantly more ethical (in fact downright lovely) publisher Cranachan with my next book, The Beast on the Broch. And in October 2017, Anne Glennie of Cranachan asked to see my manuscript of The Wreck of the Argyll, which was available for republication since rights had reverted to me from Freight, and seemed to fit quite well in their Scottish historical children’s fiction catalogue. I was slightly dubious – after the poor first run, I didn’t want to waste Anne’s time. Especially since part of the Great War Dundee competition involved several hundred copies being provided free to Dundee schools and libraries, which made sales in Dundee (its target market) unlikely. The window of interest in the Great War with the centenary commemorations was closing, too. But Anne seemed to think it was worthwhile, so she produced a cracking new cover, we fixed the one typo that had evaded me and Helen the first time round (yet hadn’t evaded anyone else, many of whom pointed it out to me with great glee – including my own mother!) and in February 2018, the Argyll resurfaced.
The second life of the book (with its third publisher) has been far less dramatic, but still a bit underwhelming. Since it was published, it has sold slowly and sporadically. This is significantly down to me – the global pandemic hasn’t affected my school visits at all, because I don’t do them (partly down to location, partly due to temperament) and I retired completely from writing children’s novels at the start of 2019, so there are no new titles that might give my backlist a bit of a bump. What’s perhaps most personally disappointing is that I’ve never seen a copy of the new edition in a bookshop, and as far as I can tell there’s never been a branch of Waterstones in the country that’s ever had a single copy. But then, it’s a reprint of a book that didn’t sell the first time around, so I’m not sure I can blame the bookshops for that.
But it’s still in print. And for all its troubled journey, I still think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.