Friday, 30 March 2012

Sorry, your name’s too chubby for chicklit!

Written by Sarah Dodgson
This year had got off to a pretty good start. I did a stint as PA to the CEO of News International and not been arrested (yet). And better still, I'd received a pair of thank-you letters in the first week of January from my seven- and 10-year-old nephews. They weren't even franked from my sister's office so I knew her PA hadn't written them.

But the icing on the cake was an email from a stranger saying, 'So savouring every page; love the story line. Can you post me four more copies for my friends?' I was curious. Had the author of the email picked up a copy of my so-far unpublished first book on the London Underground or in Starbucks?

Was this finally the start of some interest in my manuscript? Writing a novel had been a long journey filled with more emotional ups and downs than the stock market. I'd spent a year in a variety of mindnumbing temp jobs while I wrote in the evenings with a bottle of Rioja by my side (I'd soon found out that alcohol provided the courage to write those all-important racy sex scenes).

Boozy Sunday lunches with girlfriends and weekend lie-ins, however, were sacrificial lambs to my laptop, from which I only took occasional breaks to launder my dull office outfits. But finally, with a confident 100,000 words of 'chicklit' under my belt, I had bravely got in touch with some literary agents. Not that I held out too much hope. Scarily, literary agents here are currently receiving around 200 manuscripts a week – that's about 10,000 a year – of which they are likely to select only one or two new authors to represent. My first rejection letter was short, to the point and not unexpected.

Thanks to a random comment from Katie Price's publicist, however, I ended up being signed by a brilliant literary agent called Cheshire Cat.

But a hard reality check swiftly followed. I did three rounds of editing with tight deadlines to make it presentable for potential publishers, who took their time to come back with heartbreaking rejections. Then, to top it all, I was told that my real name was considered 'too fat for chicklit' and to prepare alternatives.

Hang on a minute – I was proud to be Sarah Dodgson. This was ridiculous! After all, I had a famous literary ancestor: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote Alice's Adventures In Wonderland. Although he, too, had to change his name (to Lewis Carroll) before he was published. Hmm. Maybe there was something to this name malarkey after all.

I took a closer look at mine. Apparently, my surname had too many big, round Os for a start, then more lardy Ds. Sarah was also the most common girl's first name of 1968. My name wasn't set to be a winner. Instead, I needed a name that came across as flirty, light-hearted and, it seems, 'skinny'. Where to begin?

Casting my eyes wistfully along the bestseller shelves of Waterstones, I started to draw up a mental checklist  of how to improve the chances of my manuscript achieving success. For a start, I wasn't Scandinavian or a celeb. Shame. That would have pushed me up the list. But changing my name to Sårah Dødgssen didn't feel right.

I even started looking at men in a different way. Their surnames became as important as their ability to cook and appreciate fine wine. But, having had my bottom pinched during dinner with a highly unsuitable Italian – who could have made me the über-publishable Contessa di San Marzano – made me realise the marriage route to a new name would take too long. Besides, it was really tough out there and I needed to not just push, but forcibly shove my way on to the bestseller lists.

In the hope of gaining miraculous new insight, I dipped into my savings and paid to attend a British Society of Magazine Editors event entitled 'How To Get Your Book Published'. I'd once heard a shaggy dog story about an author who had deliberately left copies of their book on London's Circle Line as a marketing gimmick. So I put the question to the BSME panel to see if they thought this was worthwhile.

There was unanimous agreement but at £39 a copy to print my book in A4 on the high street, I'd be living on beans on toast for a while.

But then discussion turned to online publishing: £6 a copy? That was more like it. Surely I could print a few, slip in a front page with my contact details and sit back, leaving the book to work its magic on the Tube.

A Google search revealed that this was a burgeoning market, fuelled by authors whose fruitless attempts to be signed by agents had driven them online. Writers now have an inexpensive way to self-publish multiple copies of their manuscripts – which look like real books, by the way, with an ISDN barcode for added authenticity.

I thought I'd discovered the Holy Grail of publishing. There's no commission to be swallowed up by literary agents, you can print on demand from one to thousands of copies, you get access to a downloadable online version, and it's backed up by testimonials from other 'successful' authors. So when my box of books arrived, it was better than Christmas.

I ripped it open in a heartbeat, and picked up the top copy. It looked like a book. It smelt like a book. It felt like a book. This was seriously addictive author catnip. Prouder than a mother with a Pears Soap baby, I set about handing copies to strangers in elevators and leaving copies in Starbucks and on the Circle Line. I'd half-expected my first correspondence to be a small-minded missive from Transport for London asking me to refrain from littering the carriages, but my overall expectation was huge. Surely thousands of people would soon be downloading my book online. Random House would be knocking at my door by the following Tuesday.

Two months on and the substantial MasterCard bill for my foray into selfpublishing has been paid. But to date, not a single person has downloaded my book and I have received three emails from my efforts. One told me about the typos on pages 16 and 263; another informed me that no-one would buy such a large quantity of cocaine for personal use (chapter 3); and the third was that one I mentioned earlier, asking for more free copies (at least they were enjoying the book). Not time to crack open the Krug yet.

Over a commiseratory glass of Prosecco with my agent, it dawned on us that this is the reality of the way contemporary publishing is heading. The powerhouses can choose to take on only well-known names and wait for the minnows to emerge from the selfpublishing world as and when the public lets them know what to buy. This saves them from taking a chance on an unpublished author and paying advances that might not be recouped. Far safer to let the newbie author pay their bills up front and snap them up when the downloading starts.

Looking on the bright side, my agent now has reader feedback and an improved manuscript to take to the publishing houses. The jury's still out on the author name but Kitty Carroll's in with a chance. It's a tenuous celebrity link, but that surname worked once before for a Dodgson and at least Kitty is my real middle name.

One thing is for sure, however: I'll be steering clear of the 'drink me' selfpublishing bottle in future.

Sarah Dodgson's book, Liberating Izzy, under the pseudonym Kitty Cooper, is out as an eBook, £3.99, at or for £9.99 (plus p&p) for the paperback.

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