Placing Never Say Die

The publishing process can often seem confusing. Here the ghost writer, Lynne Barrett-Lee, and agent, Andrew Lownie, for Melanie Davies’s Never Say Die explain their respective involvements in taking on and selling the book.

Lynne Barrett-Lee

August 2007 I am approached, via my husband, by Melanie Davies, who, as well as being one of his breast cancer patients, is a paraplegic who has lived a remarkable life. She reads my novels and also my weekly newspaper column, and wants a biographer who’ll bring humour to her story. Would I consider writing her life? I am reticent – I am a fiction writer – but agree to meet her and her husband (and former surgeon) Mike. This meeting proves pivotal – Melanie is such entertaining company that I instantly know that the project could work. I suggest that we make it first person, rather than a biography, as a)first person narratives are my fictional stock-in-trade and b) I feel the connection with the reader will be stronger, and make the book instantly more saleable.

October 2007 With three chapters finished, I send to trusted people in the industry for comment. I’m still anxious about committing a year of my working life to a project that might ultimately fail. The responses are depressing; the consensus seems to be that, however well written, these books just don’t sell. Neither misery memoir nor celeb kiss-and-tell, our book seems to fall between two stools. Some instinct about the story drives me on, however, and I make the – possibly insane - decision to write the book anyway. I find I have not the least difficulty doing so – Mel and I are so alike I have no trouble whatsoever in ‘inhabiting’ her just as I would a fictional heroine.

September 2008 The book finished, the weight of responsibility sits heavy on my shoulders. Despite my continuing to tell Mel and Mike not to get their hopes up, I know they feel that between us we’ve created something special. I also know they have every faith in my experience and contacts. They don’t doubt for a moment that I’ll find a publisher for it. I begin a bout of frenzied research…

October 14th My virtual travels bring me to Andrew Lownie. His name has come up on more than one occasion, and he seems to have an impressive list of bestselling clients to his name. I decide to call him and see what he thinks. He’s happy to take a look so I send him three chapters, plus a lengthy – a first for me! – proposal. At this point I have made only two other forays; I’ve sent three chapters to Ursula MacKenzie, CEO of Little Brown, who I know from my days with Transworld, and also posted the book on the Authonomy website. I’m not really expecting great things from the latter, but it’s an interesting new concept and even if nothing else, I decide that the feedback might boost our confidence. It does.

14th October Very interesting memoir submission by a ghost, Lynne Barrett-Lee, on behalf of a woman paralysed in a motor bike crash. Ask for a revised proposal in my preferred format rather than the three chapters sent.

16th November Write to Lynne offering to take on the book after a good reader’s report . Suggest a fuller chapter synopsis, probably another chapter taken from later in Melanie’s life, more detail on how Melanie copes with the physical side of her relationships and changing the title from Different. I can see a strong appeal to female reader and marriage to her surgeon gives an upbeat feel to story which could be otherwise be very depressing. The foreword by Tammi Grey Thompson will help.

November 16th Andrew gets in touch and offers to take on the book. I am elated that he shares my belief in the project’s viability, but try to curb my joy de vivre when I call Mel; I have been in the industry long enough to know that having an agent doesn’t necessarily mean getting a publisher; though something about Andrew’s approach fills me with hope. Inside, I’m singing ‘yes! I was right!’

17th November I call Mel and ask her to email me everything she can remember about the first ever time she had sex; we’ve covered the subject, briefly, but not in great detail, and Andrew’s reader feels this is integral. Happily, Mel obliges, and I work in a scene which I’d defy any reader not to feel moved by. We also agree that such emotion might follow a ‘roll on the floor laughing’ kind of moment. My feeling that this book will hit the spot with the public increases further, my enthusiasm only slightly squashed by another email from Andrew. Could I please provide a new 30 page synopsis a.s.a.p.? But, hey, I think, sleep’s overrated.

21st November I send Andrew the newly expanded book proposal, together with a new addition: a change of title. What was ‘Different’ has now become ‘Never Say Die’, following his reader’s comment that the former didn’t really do justice to Mel’s never say die attitude throughout. Spotting those three words feels like destiny to me, and Mel agrees. We’ve never been happy with ‘Different’. Andrew submits to publishers while we wait, hearts in mouths.

1st December The three of us make the trip to London to meet Andrew, but unfortunately no publishers are free to see us. Still, lunch is lovely, as is Andrew, and we don’t for a minute feel he will not ultimately get us into print. Rejections have come in, but some are encouraging, even so, and though the continuing economic downturn is clearly a factor, I still privately think that the tide will soon turn – that an inspiring memoir will soon be a sought after thing.

1st December As fixed weeks ago, Melanie, her husband Mike and Lynne come from Wales and we have a jolly lunch together. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to persuade any editors to see us which is a pity as meeting the three would help in selling the story. The rejections have started to come in and are largely to do with perceptions of the market. One rejects because they don’t feel books about disability sell, another can’t gather support from sales as the feeling is the market has peaked whilst another says it’s too similar to another book on their list. Ditto the Orion editor, though he writes in glowing terms “ I think the proposal is fantastic – the very premise is such a strong, gripping one that it would lend itself to a 10-second sell very easily, and the writing looks like it would be superb. Frustratingly, I think I can’t move on this one as we have another book on the horizon which is startlingly similar, believe it or not.”

4th December Carole Tonkinson at Harper Collins e mails I am really interested in Melanie’s story and am thinking about it for HarperTrue. This is great news as this new imprint is perfect and I admire the way Carole publishes books- she already publishes the bestselling series of memoirs by my author and foster mother Cathy Glass. Lynne points out the book is doing well on Collins’s Authonomy website which should help .

4th December Andrew emails ‘it’s looking encouraging at Harper Collins’, and I do a frantic bit of Googling to find out more about their imprints. My results make it clear that we really couldn’t do better than be here. I tell Mel and Mike not to get their hopes up (again) but, despite myself, I can’t seem to help it. I remind Andrew that the book is still posted on Authonomy and email the link so he can forward it to Harper Collins. The comments are so positive, and the vibe so encouraging, we’re sure it can only help our case.

16th December The deadline for responses to come in has arrived and Andrew tells me he’s ‘still waiting on Harper Collins’. Another (again, positive) publisher has already suggested Harper True as the perfect place for us, so I can’t help but feel hopeful. However, Christmas is fast approaching and I begin to feel certain that nothing will happen now till the New Year.

And then comes the email from Andrew with an offer from Harper Collins, and - atypically - I can’t get hold of Mel and Mike. But they call in the end and we are all of us elated; them because this is a dream for both them and their charity, and me because I know Mel’s astonishing story will be told, and that my – and Andrew’s – initial gut instinct was right. I think, but don’t say to anyone, ‘I knew it!’.

16th December Deadline for responses and I do a chase. One editor writes “It’s a moving story and an inspirational one and well told…while we know this would get great publicity, we worry a little about the mass-market sales slots for it…and this may not sit straight in the ‘misery’ section where one would need it to sell.” Another responds “ Melanie’s is an extraordinary story and wonderfully told by Lynne. However, after discussing this with the team here, I fear we wouldn’t have space on our nonfiction list to give this the attention it deserves.” A near miss with another “But…but…if we weren’t about to go headlong into a deep recession, it might have been possible to make a success of her book… I just can’t see how it would sell more than a very small number of copies. I may be wrong, and perhaps Element with their new inspirational list could make a go of it –“

Their instincts are right. An e mail from Carole at Element/Collins. “I would like to offer on NEVER SAY DIE. I think it would be a brilliant addition to our Harper True imprint. and it would benefit from inclusion in the list. It was great to see the authonomy angle as well!”

What a lovely Christmas present. We don’t bother with anyone else and I start discussing terms with Harper Collins.

Postscript - November 2009 Almost a whole year has passed – as is usual in publishing ¬– when the finished copy of Never Say Die finally lands on my doormat. All these novels down the line and I still find the action of holding a finished book in my hands as thrilling as I did the first time. This time, however, there’s an extra dimension to my excitement. The characters in this book haven’t been packed away in a dusty corner of my subconscious until such time as I might resurrect them for bit parts in someone else’s story, but are living, breathing and, not forty miles away, probably holding this same book in their own hands as well. I have a wholly different sense of pride in this project, both because I know it marks the achievement of a new career departure for me personally, and also because I know it means so much for Mel and Mike and the ambitions they have for their charity, TREAT. Job done. Now it’s down to the readers…