Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Pilot Light

I wrote The Pilot Light (Figure 9.1) in 2002. It took about six months, which equates to fewer than 140 words per day – slow progress by anyone’s standards. After having the final draft read, and checked for typos, by a couple of very capable friends, I set about hunting for a suitable, not to mention reputable, publisher.

Figure 9.1: Front cover

Copyright 2004 Pegasus Publishing Ltd.

The Writer’s Handbook (Figure 9.2) is, arguably, the best place to begin. As thick as a King James Bible, it is revised every year, as publishers come and go, but it provides a wealth of information regarding who deals with what. I noted the most relevant organizations and set about contacting them one by one. (It is considered unprofessional to approach two or more simultaneously.)

Figure 9.2: The WH: an excellent place to begin publication research

Copyright 2003 The Writer's Handbook

I was prepared for the inevitable stream of rejection letters. In his classic 1952 novel Matador, fellow hispanophile Barnaby Conrad (1922-) tells the story of a man who takes up bullfighting because of the unpredictability of being a writer. He preferred to face the bull’s horns than receive yet another rejection slip. His rationale was that at least he could run away from the bull!

My first instalment of bad news came from Transworld who claimed, simply, that their lists were ‘extremely full’. Hodder & Stoughton were even more blunt: they did not accept novellas, full stop. Apparently, hardly any British publishers did. I was slightly incredulous. Novellas are extremely popular in, for example, the United States; and, in today’s fast-moving world, surely shorter works would be ideal for readers with limited spare time?

To be fair, H & S did affirm their interest, but only if I were to increase the existing length (24,000 words) to that of a standard novel (120,000). I declined straight away. I felt that the story would ‘work’ only as a novella. It does, after all, focus on the events of a single weekend. Increasing its length fivefold, purely to conform to transient publishing conventions, seemed absurd. It made me wonder how many potential literary gems had fallen by the wayside as a result of short-sighted men in suits who knew everything about short-term marketing but little of the Arts themselves.

Orion were more positive. After sending them a synopsis, I was asked to submit three sample chapters. This amused me somewhat, as the story has only eight in total. In other words, they wanted to read a sample 37½%! Three weeks later, though, they confirmed their lack of interest.

Pipers’ Ash, who specialize in short books, described it as: ‘Beautifully written, as expected. We would not suggest that you compromise your style in any way.’ The stumbling block was the supposed lack of ‘crash-bang-wallop’ excitement, which today’s readers are deemed to demand. Back to the Handbook I went.

Further encouragement came from Tindal Street Press, who described the plot as ‘well thought-out’ and the writing ‘effective’. They, too, however, returned the typescript, along with the lament: ‘It is always hard to publish and successfully market a novella.’ To this day, I cannot understand why.

I have heard a number of authors state that their novels were accepted by the very last publisher they approached. (That much is surely self-evident: once accepted, why continue submitting the wretched thing elsewhere?) My own ‘very last publisher’ was Wordsmill & Tate, based in central London. Good news arrived in November 2003, by which time, however, the firm had been bought out by Pegasus. The editor’s appraisal still rings in my ears:

‘The text is very well written, with awareness of character and plot construction. Suspense is well created and achieved, with occasional clues for the observant reader. There is a strong sense of narrative voice, maintained throughout. The setting in Norfolk is well developed and visually created. The ending is crafted, giving the reader pause to consider the narrator’s dilemma. What a joy to read a text with so few errors and a real sense of style and pace.’

He also coined the phrase, ‘A 21st-century tragedy’, which I liked immediately, along with the poignant advertisement slogan, ‘A reminder that the most hideous tragedies are the preventable ones’ (Figure 9.3).

Figure 9.3: Promotional poster

Copyright 2004 Pegasus Publishing Ltd.

As well as enjoying witnessing the publication process unfolding, it was fun being asked to give interviews (Figure 9.4) and contribute to short press articles (Figure 9.5).

Figure 9.4: Press article

Copyright 2004 Mary Griffin

One such piece, which I wrote for the Home Office’s quarterly magazine All Points North, cemented a couple of solid friendships. Editor Anthony Stone wrote: ‘This 38-year-old has a realistic take on where writers sit in the social hierarchy.’

This was in response to an article which I began:

‘Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis once said that only in America was the successful writer indistinguishable from any other decent businessman. In other countries, art and literature are left to shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti. In most cases, he is right. Worse still is that trying to impress a major publisher is a bit like skiing uphill. In this country, the only things most authors ever see in print are their own fingers. I am one of the fortunate few. Prior to publication, I was an unknown. After the release of The Pilot Light, I moved up to obscurity.’

Figure 9.5: Magazine article

Copyright 2005 Home Office

Publication of the book has since been discontinued. To my amusement, the final royalty statement began: ‘Dear Mr Steel ...’ (?) Few copies remain commercially available. Amazon, for example, now lists it as ‘out of print’. At present, I have no plans for a second edition, but am nonetheless extremely happy with the overall response. Since 2004, The Pilot Light has sold more than 10,000 copies worldwide. Not bad for a novella!

A limited number of copies are still available on application by email to (£6.99). Additional information can be found at the following web addresses:

The Writer’s Handbook (2010) can be accessed online at:

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

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