“Keeping Up,” by Rebecca Tope
After forty-something years in the business, it’s hardly surprising that there have been substantial changes since the early days – but I never anticipated quite such massive alterations to so much that we all took for granted. The advent of the digital age clearly brings new opportunities with it: new readers who never quite managed to be comfortable with a book will now cheerfully read stories on an electronic gadget of some sort. So as an author, I feel I owe it to myself to stay abreast of the times.
I have always worked with books and the printed word. In 1969 I had a job on a monthly magazine consisting largely of dense columns of figures, checking minute lines of text for mistakes and ‘pasting up’ for the printer. From there I moved to freelance proofreading and compiling indexes to a vast range of works from economics textbooks to royal biographies, via cookery and travel.
In 1992 I established my own small press, primarily intended as a vehicle for reissuing forgotten Victorian fiction. I keyed in whole books from scratch, designed covers and handled the distribution single-handedly.
In 1999 my first novel was published. A Dirty Death is a rural crime story, set in Devon on a farm almost identical to the one I grew up on. I had a London publisher, with a fully functioning copy editor, and mainstream distribution. Since then, over twenty more crime novels have flowed from my keyboard, first published by Piatkus Books, and subsequently by Allison & Busby – both small independent businesses, running with a limited staff and increasingly using electronic methods of production.
The process is seen by many as highly efficient. It goes like this: I write the book, and send it by email to the editor. I also post a paper copy, as requested, although I suspect this will not be so for much longer. The editor reads it, and responds. The past two or three titles have had virtually no changes made at this stage. I get half the advance on royalties on signature of a contract, and everything goes quiet for several months. Eventually the copy editor (who works as a freelance) gets to work on it, and I receive – electronically – the file with her queries highlighted. There are usually about 70 or 80 of them, mostly very minor. Inconsistencies are identified, along with repetitions and omissions. I try to straighten them out, and send the whole thing back, with my changes also highlighted.
Very few weeks later, I receive the page proofs – again electronically, unless I make a strong demand for them on paper. I continue to be convinced that I do a much better job of finding mistakes when it’s on paper. But that is going to have to change, it seems. Soon after I return the proofs, often with about 30 corrections, the book is finally printed and bound.
My main series features a house-sitter and her spaniel, working in the Cotswolds region of England. I set the stories in real villages, mentioning the local pubs and other public buildings. They sell well in the English-speaking world, with Australia a big market. The publisher is known for highly effective marketing. My books are in shops on every High Street and Amazon sells them in good numbers. I do signings and talks, perhaps eight or ten events a year.
And then, in 2012, after a fabulous trans-America driving holiday, I conceived a plan to write a trilogy set in the western states in the 1840s. I wrote The Indifference of Tumbleweed early in 2013, and tried to persuade my publisher to take it. But the abrupt change of genre worried her, and she declined.
So I decided to do it myself as an eBook. I approached a company called ebook Partnership, which advertised in the UK Society of Authors magazine and asked them a great many questions. The answers were prompt, clear and entirely satisfactory, so I decided to avail myself of their services. I spent a few weeks revising the book, and then completed the comprehensive questionnaires necessary for cover design and promotion of the book. I received an invoice for £348, which was the entire fee for formatting the text and designing the book cover. Both were done quickly and professionally and within three weeks the work was readily obtainable on Amazon, Kobo, Apple and a few other outlets at a price (set by me) of £3.99. I receive 70% of that.
I do not possess an e-reader myself, so was unable to check the formatted version without downloading software which my computer apparently found objectionable. So a friend cast her eye over it for me, and deemed it good. I emailed about 60 friends and colleagues to inform them of the book’s existence, and Tweeted briefly. Within two days, the Amazon ranking had soared and the whole exercise was under way. Time will tell whether it will realise any significant income, of course.
The inevitable conclusion, it seems to me, is that unless publishers return to high quality editing, speedy and attentive dealings with authors – and somehow formulate a much better percentage of income for those authors – they really are going to be redundant very soon. I can produce paperbacks of my ebook, in due course, with print on demand, and again retain a good proportion of the proceeds. The market is rapidly filling up with highly professional service providers who understand the latest digital processes and cover every stage of production, including publicity and distribution affordably and without fuss.
This feels like blasphemy, I know. I have always loved everything about the world of publishing, and have an abiding sense that it is a glamorous and romantic business. I love the dust wrapper on a hardback book. I love detailed and witty indexes. I love bookmarks, and the steady physical progression that comes with reading a thick book; the automatic inspection of the top edge at the end of every session, to monitor how far through the bookmark has moved – all that is lost in an ebook. I can’t pass a good ebook on to a friend. I can’t sign it. But there are undoubted gains, as well. Postage costs have made us all think twice before sending books to people. There are simply too many shoddy paperbacks out there, accumulating in unwanted stacks. An awful lot of paper is wasted.
It took me a while. It still feels rather vainglorious to self-publish my own fiction. But it’s also surprisingly exciting, and decidedly stimulating. Apparently I am now a ‘hybrid’, being published in both ways – and I can definitely live with that!
P.S. After about ten days on Amazon, the price of my book was dropped from £3.99 to £2.99. There is nothing I can do about this, other than remove the entire title from them. This came as a shock to me, dramatically changing my sense of being comfortably in control. Evidently, authors have no more autonomy with electronic publishing than the traditional kind. Of course, the same thing happens with high street bookshops, as well as mail order book clubs and discount chains. The message has to be - forget the money and concentrate on the responses from readers. I'm trying to do just that.
THE INDIFFERENCE OF TUMBLEWEED
We watched Grandma shaving her chin, nudging each other and smothering our giggles, like two much younger girls. She thought herself well hidden behind the wagon, a small mirror propped on top of a molasses barrel, pulling a bare razor carefully over dry skin. It looked sore and dangerous, and I knew it wasn’t really funny. We were laughing because our lives had become so intensely exciting and different in recent days. Where only a month before we had been living in a big house, with a well out in the yard and a lamp in every room, now we were nomads, all our belongings in a wagon pulled by four oxen at a pace even the smallest child could match. Everything was bright and thrilling and hopeful. We were part of a great movement into the mysterious West, where we could fashion life as we wished, far from the changing face of the east coast, with the many thousands of drunken illiterate poverty-stricken Irish who had been arriving over the past few years. To be Irish – as we were - carried an increasing stigma, which offended and alarmed my father. He had made his way in business, drank sparingly and was as literate as any fancy Protestant up on the Beacon Hill in Boston. But after a number of years in that fair city, we relocated to Providence, a much more tolerant place. There were Baptists, Quakers, Catholics and others all peaceably rubbing along together. We might never have given a thought to packing up a second time and migrating westwards if it had not been for a government man urging families to seize the opportunity without delay. Land would be freely given, in a fertile valley where crops and livestock would flourish. There would be an urgent need for businessmen of every sort, and my father with his special skills with horses was just the man to avail himself of the chance.
Ahead of us were mountains and a huge ocean, great herds of buffalo and strange solitary men who lived by trapping animals with thick soft fur. We had listened avidly to the tales that never ceased, fitting them to our history lessons in which the French and the British and the Spanish all wrangled over great unexplored tracts of the new country and rights to trade furs and create settlements. Our heads were bursting with the adventure of it.
There had been no question of leaving Grandma behind, despite her age. Born in 1775, in a tiny Irish village, she was accustomed to privation. At the age of five, she had been whipped by a priest for insisting that her best friend was a leprechaun named Seamus. It had achieved nothing but a precocious scorn for the clergy, she said. Seamus had remained faithful until she turned twelve, when he vanished in a green mist in the heart of a clump of bracken, never to be seen again.
In 1826 she had sailed to the New World with her single surviving son – my father. ‘I was already too old then to learn new ways,’ she reported; a starkly obvious untruth. Even her Irish brogue had changed and expanded to embrace the variety of language heard on the streets of Providence. But she clung to many of her earlier ways, including disdaining the American habit of frequent washing, which she regarded as Puritanical and unhealthy. Her hair affirmed her opinion – iron grey, thick and vigorous, despite seldom experiencing water or lye. The hair on her chin and neck was almost as luxuriant – hence the shaving. My youngest sister had been heard to mention Grandma’s beard, not so long ago, leading to an uncharacteristic embarrassment on the old lady’s face.
During his twenty years on the east coast, my father had acquired five children and a restless zeal to see the great expanse of the continent to the west that had been readily sparked into action by the urgings of the government men. So here we all were, assembled with many hundreds of others, preparing to embark on the long-awaited adventure.
The mass of people was beyond anything I had seen in my life, the sense of all being crowded together with a common purpose utterly different from the disparate lives of city dwellers. Children became lost, dogs skirmished and livestock bellowed from hunger. Horses and oxen jostled for every last blade of spring grass on the flat plains around us. The air was thick with the smells of food and fresh-cut timber and the secretions of so many thousands of bodies – human and animal. Wagons were steadily filled with the necessities of life, the packing a science for which advisors came in useful. Not everybody understood that it was essential to place items not required until the end of the trail in the centre, with food stocks and clothes where they could readily be reached. Not only that, but the positioning of objects according to their shape could make a great difference to the quantity the wagon could be persuaded to contain. Fragile or awkward items should be secured to the hoops over which the cover would be drawn, to avoid being crushed. There should not be an imbalance between the two sides, since there would be times when the whole equipage might tip drunkenly one way or another, and undue weight might cause it to twist and fall, with terrible consequences.
My mother was initially unprepared for any of this work. Certainly she had no intention of laying her own hands on the boxes, barrels, trunks and crates that were to be loaded onto our wagon. She looked to the bands of working men, most of them black, who roamed around the camp offering their services as porters and packers. But when they named their fees, she thought again. ‘That is extortion,’ she said flatly. ‘My husband and son will manage, thank you very much.’
She was right, it seemed to me. All our personal possessions were already accumulated under a large leather tarpaulin, having been unloaded from a cart several days earlier. Once we had acquired our wagon and oxen, Reuben and my father positioned them close to the stack, and began to argue as to precisely what should go in first, and how the weight must be distributed. My mother and I both had ideas of our own on the subject, so that very soon all four of us were shifting heavy objects back and forth until we could agree that all eventualities had been considered. My three younger sisters came and went, showing a sporadic interest that only strengthened when one of their own boxes was involved. The thought of instructing hired packers and porters in this complex task was not appealing.
In the previous months, countless other details had been debated between my parents and Reuben and now and then myself. How many horses should we take with us? Would we need mules? How much meat were we likely to consume, and was it best transported alive or dead? Would we need spare rifles and a great quantity of cartridges, to shoot wild animals and perhaps Indians? How would we manage for water? What was the most sensible footwear for many months of steady walking? Advice was sought, but was not always easy to find. Our project was not wholly original, but a trek of two thousand miles over a massive mountain range, in the company of hundreds of other migrants, was not a common experience.
The words two thousand miles were heard every day, spoken with wonderment or pride, as well as plain disbelief. The distance was a known fact, to be beaten into familiarity by repetition. It would take half a year of travelling, give or take. We had all done the calculations, based on averaging seventy-five miles each week, making it out to be a full six months. I would turn twenty on 25th September, and the hope was that we would have crossed the worst of the mountains by then.
None of us would ever forget the crazy scenes that unfolded when we began to move out of town. Wagons jostled for a more forward position, so as to find easier pasturing for their stock, jamming together and upsetting their puzzled oxen, who had yet to learn exactly what was required of them. It took three chaotic days for the last of the long train of wagons to leave the great assembly area outside Westport. We finally took our first steps on the morning of the third day, delayed by the refusal of an ox in the party ahead of us to be yoked. The poor animal was beaten cruelly by a man who my father said had only himself to blame. ‘He got the beast cheap, and never thought to train it to the yoke,’ he told me with a bitter look. Our own oxen had been with us for ten days already, meekly accepting the heavy wooden bar across their necks, and extremely tame after hours of attention from the children.
My father said it was expected that some people would abandon the idea of migration completely when their oxen baulked, or ran free and were lost. I thought about that for a long time. How terrible to change the plan, to go back to a hotel in Saint Louis or the empty riverside camp to wrangle over when might come next. We had a family who had belatedly joined our own party, of which the mother was utterly against the whole emigration plan. We heard her shouting in the night, then pleading that her health was too poor for such a lengthy trek. Fanny and I were in a tent close to theirs and heard her lower her voice, telling her husband that she was with child again and would be terrified to give birth on the trail. ‘I told you already how close to death I came with the last one,’ she hissed.
‘Surely he knows that already?’ whispered Fanny in my ear. For all she was younger than I, Fanny seemed to have a much better knowledge of such matters. I merely shrugged.
The man, it seemed, was implacable. ‘There’s nothing for us here,’ he told her angrily. ‘The die is cast. In Oregon we can make a fine life. Would you hold your children back with such selfishness?’ He had a deep musical voice, which carried great conviction – at least for me.
‘Poor woman!’ My sister sighed, plainly taking a different view from mine. ‘She sounds so afraid.’
I hoped the man would make allowance for his wife’s fears, but more than that I hoped she would find courage from somewhere and join the migration. What alternative did she have? Returning east, against the tide, settling in Kentucky or Tennessee where all the best land was already under firm ownership? The sense of failure would be with her forever. And was she not culpable in permitting the family to reach this final stage of preparation, and still remaining reluctant?
This family had approached us only the previous day, after our party had formed itself. Since we were a smaller group than many of the others, and it was evident that there was space for more, we made no objection, despite some glances flying around at the man’s apparent origins. He was far from being one of us – that is, of Catholic Irish roots, our accents and crucifixes plain evidence to that effect. The father of the new family had walked up to Mr Tennant, as the most senior man in our party, and humbly begged permission to join us.
‘How many are you?’
‘Five, sir. Myself, wife Jane and three youngsters. We have provisions, sir. Our wagon is lightly loaded, and drawn by just two oxen.’
‘Two?’ Mr Tennant was shocked. He had six fine beasts to each of his two wagons. ‘You can never keep up the pace with two.’
‘We will, sir. All the little ones will walk every step of the way, and we have brought no furniture with us.’
Mr Tennant pulled a face. His vehicles were massively loaded with all kinds of furniture, china, carpets and large quantities of best bacon, dried fruit and the more luxurious foodstuffs. His vehicles were both prairie schooners, newly made. The newcomer had indicated an old farm wagon with added hoops to support the canvas covering.
Democracy and equality were working in the supplicant’s favour, and Mr Tennant was a decent man. But it was clear that he did not like or trust this newcomer, in his humility and poverty. ‘It would not be in the interest of your wife and children to make the journey with insufficient provisions and an inferior wagon,’ he warned. ‘What stock will you bring?’
‘Three bullocks, a cow and a pony, sir.’
I heard no more of their deliberations, but it was manifestly clear that our party had been augmented, next morning, as the smaller wagon sat close by and the children shyly watched the turbulent preparations of loading wagons and training oxen to the yoke.
Rebecca Tope writes UK-based crime fiction, set in small villages in the Cotswolds, and small towns in the Lake District. There are 21 novels currently in print, and also available as ebooks. Before becoming published, Tope worked in a variety of jobs, from antenatal teacher to undertaker's assistant. She also maintained a sporadic career as a freelance to the publishing industry. She now lives on the English-Welsh border, with a variety of animals. Her main interests other than books involve wool, travel and cinema. She has four children and four grandchildren.