Indie Stories - Will the John Peel of Books Please Step Forward
Updated: May 21
Ten years ago when my marriage, my family and my personal life in general was falling apart, a friend asked me a probing question which I’ve always remembered: ’Would you let the heroine in one of your novels put up with this situation?’ The answer was definitely no.
Now, facing a dilemma in my writing career, I asked myself a similar question. Would I have much sympathy for a heroine who just sat back and took no for an answer? The answer again is no.
When people say they want to be a writer, what they generally actually mean is a traditionally published writer. Same for me. Since I read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca when I was about eight years old, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I left school, went to live in London, spent ten years at the BBC, mostly at Radio 1, having a great time, and then I moved to the Cotswolds, got married, and started writing what became my first novel, Isabella. I struggled to find an agent and then a publisher, collected the usual cache of rejection letters from both. Then Orion offered me a deal and I was ecstatic. Seeing my book on the shelves of a bookshop really was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Isabella was shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award and I had a ball, appearing on Channel 4’s Big Breakfast, being interviewed for The Times, being filmed for Border TV on a boat on Lake Windermere and returning to the BBC to do a load of local radio interviews.
I then wrote two family history mysteries, Pale as the Dead and Bloodline, which were published in several different countries including the USA, where I was thrilled to receive an Edgar award from the Crime Writers of America. Excitingly, the option on the books was snapped up by legendary film producer Leonard Goldberg, producer of Charlie’s Angels and Starsky and Hutch who secured interest from CBS. They commissioned the hottest writer in TV, Carole Mendelsohn, creator of CSI to script a pilot. But the project stalled in development hell and the books stalled too, despite this dream team seeing the potential of an ancestor detective. St Martin’s Press in NYC were keen for me carry on with the series but Orion in the UK said the stories were too ‘cosy’ and ‘gritty’ crime was the order of the day here, in those days. It’s all about what’s on trend and is most marketable.
I didn’t mind too much though, since there was another story I was burning to write, the story that became Lady of the Butterflies. It was bought by Random House, and my editor there, the inimitable Rosie de Courcy, believed it had the potential to be a bestseller. The title, referring to Eleanor Glanville, who gave her name to the Glanville Fritillary butterfly, secured lots of interest and it was great to return to Broadcasting House on the other side of the camera and mic, being interviewed on BBC Woman’s Hour and then travelling with a film crew to the Isle of Wight to record a feature for The One Show.
Then my agent, Broo, called and asked me if I was sitting down.
‘The good news is that the supermarkets want to stock your book, the bad news is they want you to change the book’s title - and your name.’
Fiona was apparently 'too public school’ and Mountain ‘too modern for an historical novelist’. They said ‘Lady of the…’ as a title was too weak. Rosie fought my corner and in the end they let me keep my name, but insisted on changing the name of the book to Rebel Heiress. A misleading title if ever there was one. People who bought a book titled Rebel Heiress would not get the kind of story they were expecting and those who might have liked a book about a pioneering lepidopterist would never in a million years buy a book called Rebel Heiress. Just a few months later Philippa Gregory, leading light of historical fiction, released a book titled Lady of the Rivers which hit the bestseller lists and was stocked in all the supermarkets. Hey-ho!
So taking a cue from Philippa this time, I was advised to write my next historical novel about kings and queens, as was en vogue. I chose Queen Henrietta Maria. My Cavalier Queen didn’t do so well, I think because Henrietta Maria, though a plucky lass, is not a very popular queen! I then embarked on a book with a great elevator pitch - the Gunpowder Plot told through the eyes of the women. Only try as I might, I couldn’t find a way into the story.
I was in a very strange place, it has to be said. Recently divorced, I found myself a single mother with four young children to support. We were living in temporary rental accommodation after being forced to sell our lovely family home. I didn’t feel like the same person who wrote Lady of the Butterflies/Rebel Heiress and after all that had happened to me, I wanted to return to contemporary fiction. I had a story I wanted to tell, set at Chatsworth House. But my publishers wanted another historical romance. I ploughed on, but I didn’t enjoy writing it at all. I felt that I had nothing to say. I was told it ‘lacked sparkle’. Which was fair enough, because it did. My ever-supportive agent, Broo, told me to write the book I wanted to write.
Wandering around on YouTube, wondering how best to shape a contemporary mystery and romance around the intensely mysterious and romantic Derbyshire folk tale of the Runaway Lovers, I discovered Sam Lee’s songs, starting with Lovely Molly, which Sam performed at the Royal Albert Hall, accompanied only by the voices of the Roundhouse Choir. It’s no exaggeration to say that it felt like a life-changing moment. Firstly, because in those old, old songs that Sam has so lovingly collected, preserved and reimagined, there are so many tales of heartbreak and betrayal, and they struck such a powerful chord with me. They made something exquisitely beautiful out of the grief and sorrow that I was suffering and they were, are, so comforting and uplifting and they pulled me out of a hole.
In so many ways The Keeper of Songs is a return to my roots. I began my career in the music industry, my heroine and inspiration has always been Kate Bush, and I’d love to have been a singer, or rock star, save for the fact that I can’t sing or play a note!
The Keeper of Songs is a story about two singers, one from the1960s and one from 2002, connected by a folk song which tells of an infamous murder. Though a joy to research and write it has taken me ages to complete because I was supporting four children on my own - financially, emotionally, practically - so I was fitting writing around other work, as well as driving kids to ballet lessons, college, Saturday jobs, parties, plus cooking, cleaning, and moving house another two times. Not to mention a disastrous rebound relationship which sapped my soul. Through it all, I kept writing, because I love writing and it keeps me sane. And I believed in the story I was telling.
The message Broo sent to me to say that this ‘marathon’ journey’ as she called it, had been so worthwhile because I had written what she described as a ‘magical’, and ‘stunning story’ will be something I always remember. In many ways it meant more to me than my first deal with Orion.
Fast forward a few months.
* A richly evocative story that fills all the senses.
* So beautifully crafted, with a wonderful main protagonist in Silva. Chatsworth House is a gorgeous backdrop to such a well written novel and became a character in its own right.
* Fiona is a wonderful writer and I found Keeper detailed, romantic and oozing spirit of place. It has a real Downton ring to it and Fiona has that knack of being able to deliver domestic and historical information without it ever feeling too textbook, which is a real skill. * I found myself incredibly charmed by the Chatsworth House setting. Fiona has a fantastic voice and I really loved the compelling plots and twists lined out in both narratives.
* There’s a grandeur to the writing that I found very appealing and it lent itself to the Chatsworth House backdrop in particular.
* The musical thread running throughout added a lovely extra layer.
* There really is so much to love – I thought Silva was a wonderfully developed character and Fiona effortlessly creates a beautiful sense of place. Chatsworth feels like a character in itself.
* The folk songs that were weaved throughout the book were a beautiful addition.
* Fiona has a real gift for creating a magical atmosphere with her writing, and evoking very vivid mental images in her readers.
* I very much enjoyed the different narrative perspectives throughout.
* A perfectly lovely reading experience.
Sadly, bizarrely, these are not reviews. They are from rejection letters.
The reasons for rejection vary, but not so much:
* I can’t see quite how I’d publish it in a commercially successful way.
* A feeling that we can’t break this out in a big commercial way.
* I’d worry there would be too much overlap in how we would position and market this.
* I just don't think this is quite the right fit for our list.
* I felt this book was a little too quiet to make the shockwaves that I’d hope it to achieve in the book charts.
Then good news from US.
‘I have absolutely fallen in love with Keeper of Songs. Fiona is supremely talented, and the way she writes about love - between parents and children, men and women, etc. is stunning. I was brought to tears more than once. I completely agree that the Chatsworth setting feels very commercial at this moment and think other U.S readers will be drawn in by that as well. The multiple timelines, the folk songs, the mystery: just so much about this worked beautifully for me.’
But it was too long for their market. So, over Christmas last year, I embarked on a substantial edit and cull, chopping the manuscript by a massive 40,000 words. It was sent back just before the pandemic ravaged NYC. The whole world changed and when things settled in New York, Broo rang me to say that I did not, after all that, have a U.S. publisher.
When you read about rejection letters they’re literally all connected to stories about writers at the start of their careers. And yet.
In July The Bookseller reported: ‘Will Francis of Janklow & Nesbit said there appeared to be a big squeeze on midlist titles, while advances for debuts were ‘very high or very low, and not much in between’. His colleague, Zoe Nelson, said: ‘Editors are more cautious now and need a solid package and potentially additional ammo of a film deal, prize, celebrity connection or bestseller listing.’
At the FutureBook Conference last month, Charlie Redmayne, CEO of Harper Collins, said: 'It’s a crazy market for the acquisition of books but publishers are going after big brands and authors with platforms. Extraordinary money is being thrown at big deals.’ He asked, ‘how do we break new and emerging talent? It’s a challenge.’
I’m sure it is. But what about existing writers?
Even before the pandemic, Society of Authors Chair, Joanne Harris, spoke out against an ‘absurd’ focus on debuts in the publishing world. The Chocolat author urged publishers to support existing writers in their careers rather than pursuing one debut after another. Joanne went on to note that desperate authors are writing under noms de plumes in an attempt to recreate their breakthrough successes. She said: 'I’ve had a number of proofs recently that purport to be debuts but they are not debuts. They are an established author writing under a new name in the hope of riding the wave of this love affair with debuts which seems to me both misleading and a bit absurd. Although it’s great for us to be seeing debuts supported and praised, it’s also important for publishers to continue to sustain and support their existing authors rather than just flitting from one exciting debut to the next and just hoping that people will be able to look after themselves because that doesn’t always happen.’
No, it does not. And I know of several other traditionally published, award-winning authors, who are now in the same boat as me.
As mentioned, I’ve always been inspired by music, and listening to a ‘90s playlist while pounding out my frustration on my cross trainer, I wondered: why do ‘indie’ writers not have the same kudos as indie bands? Broo’s husband, Tom, says it’s because indie music had a champion in the awesome John Peel. Indie films have their own champion in Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute which sets out to ‘actively advance the work of independent storytellers in film and theatre.’
I read a book called How Soon is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks who Made Independent Music and it got me thinking. The blurb on the back reads: ‘One of the most tangible aftershocks of punk was its prompt to individuals: do it yourself.’ The reviews for the book talk of the ‘rebellion and anti-corporate idealism of indie culture.’ I like that idea very much.
The dictionary definition of independent is free from outside control; not subject to another's authority. I like that idea very much too.
The definition of insanity is to keep repeating the same behaviour and expect a different outcome. I like this idea, not so much.
I joined the Alliance of Independent Authors and it’s all so positive. What do traditional publishers give you? Editing. Well, you can hire an editor. Jacket design. There are wonderful freelancers out there. Marketing. My background is in marketing so I can do that, and midlist authors have always had to do a lot of their own marketing anyway. Distribution. Thanks to bookshop.org and KDP there are so many routes to market now. So basically, it seems to all come down to kudos. Indie bands have kudos in bucket loads. Indie films have massive kudos too. It’s just indie books that perhaps lack this kudos. At the moment.
If ever there was a time when things need to be shaken up, it’s now. The world has been turned upside down and everyone is saying that changes that were happening slowly have been fast-tracked. It is a time to be bold, if ever there was one.
All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer, but what does that mean nowadays anyway? According to the Society of Authors, ’author' can refer to anyone who is the creator of a published work.’ If you are a self-published or print-on-demand writer you can join as a full member if you’ve sold over 300 print copies or 500 ebooks in 12 months. Fair enough. If readers are reading and liking a book, then that’s all you can ask for, surely.
When I was researching The Keeper of Songs I read the biography of wonderful folk singer Shirley Collins. One night her husband, Ashley Hutchings, told her he was ‘consumed with love’ for an actress and was leaving. Shirley was literally shocked into silence. Looking back, she says she wishes she had become angry. Instead, she ‘got heartbroken.’ Oh, I so understand! Shirley says she let that act of betrayal take away her voice, her confidence and her career. I understand this too. For Shirley, the trauma brought on a condition called dysphonia. It was 38 years before she was persuaded to record again. She writes that music had been her passion and her life; she had loved traditional English music ‘more than anything.’ In those years away, 'I just felt I wasn’t myself at all. I was somebody else but not me.’
I love writing stories just as much as Shirley loves traditional music. And over this past year, while Broo has been valiantly trying to find me a publisher, I have felt that I have been effectively silenced. But I don’t have to be silent. I have a choice. I can let Keeper of Songs languish on my Mac.
Or - not.
I choose not.
I owe it to all the amazing people who have inspired this book and helped me research and write it: Christine Robinson at Chatsworth House, blacksmiths, Bex Simon and Beth Forrester, Sam Lee, my agent Broo who still believes in this book. My friends and family.
All four of my adult and young adult ‘children’ are aged between 16 and 24. All four of them are therefore in the age-group that the media is labelling the ‘Covid Generation’ whose futures they say may have been stolen by this horrid virus.
One of my favourite stories is about Winston Churchill, invited to give an inspiring speech to the pupils of his former school. He stood up, said, ‘never ever give up’ and then sat down again.
I want to show my children never to give up. I can’t let them down and I can’t let myself down either.
So I am going to be embrace the ethos of indie bands and do it myself. Keeper of Songs will be published next year under the Chrysalis Books label. Rosie de Courcy offered to edit the manuscript for me and it’s been a joy to work with her once again, and to work with designer Julie Russell who has created the logo. It’s exciting and liberating to take control and I’m interested to see where this road leads. Please sign up for my newsletter if you’d like to come along for the ride.
Meantime, will the John Peel of books please step forward.