Monday, 24 October 2011


Last night, a digital artist, Matt Zanetti, sent me three draft covers for my next eBook: Bird of Passage. They weren’t quite what I’d expected, but I was enchanted by the images which seem to reflect the contents of the novel in a unique and – for me – very emotional way. I’m finding it hard to choose between them. It’s a novel which somebody once described as ‘Wuthering Heights meets the Bridges of Madison County.’ It certainly started out as a homage to Wuthering Heights, which I’ve been obsessed with since my teens. I was named for its heroine, and my Yorkshire mother, married to a tall, dark, handsome stranger, in the shape of my Polish father, (a much nicer proposition than Heathcliff), trundled me over the moors in my push-chair, to the ruined farmhouse called Top Withens  supposedly the inspiration behind the setting of Emily’s novel.
Bird of Passage is set on a remote Scottish island, rather than in Yorkshire. It certainly deals with the intrusion of a stranger and with obsessive love, but at some point during the many drafts, I found I wanted to explore more of the background of the incomer, a young Irishman called Finn, sent over to Scotland for the potato harvest. He’s a damaged individual, and the more I questioned why, the more his story of a brutal childhood in one of Ireland’s industrial schools began to dominate the novel. It’s a tale of cruelty, passionate love and redemption, in a rural setting, all of which seems to be reflected in the cover image created by the artist.
This is not what normally happens with cover art. Usually, (and probably with good reason) it is treated as any other kind of packaging and the imperatives are all commercial. If he or she is lucky or has a kindly publisher, the writer will be consulted, may even get to see and approve the cover, but it’s rare to have any kind of formal veto. With eBooks it’s different and one of the differences is that you can please yourself about the image you want to use to promote the book on the website. This also means that you have to live with the consequences – but isn’t that what creativity is all about?

This is my second experience of this kind of collaboration within the past six months. My friend, Scottish textile artist Alison Bell  designed an amazing and widely praised cover for my novel, The Curiosity Cabinet, when I reissued it on Kindle, earlier this year. Now, I have two genuine artworks which uniquely reflect so much of what I felt when I was writing these books. It’s just another of the unexpected joys of this form of publishing, one more reason why so many experienced writers are embracing it, even while publishers struggle to find ways of coping with these seismic changes.
Over the past few months, I’ve been considering why the status quo has become so untenable and why I and so many of my colleagues are choosing the eBook option. This is especially noticeable among writers like myself who, a few years ago, suddenly found ourselves in ‘mid-list limbo’ – experienced, well reviewed writers, often middle-aged or older women, who couldn’t find a publishing deal for love nor money. We are not celebrities, we are not stunning debut novelists and although some of us might claim to be ‘literary’ we are not so wildly experimental that the literati will admit us to that exclusive inner circle.
When we or our agents – for many of us have agents – submit work, it will be met with fulsome praise, even from hard-nosed editors. ‘I just love this novel’ an editor will say. ‘But I’m afraid I can’t take my marketing department with me.’  We may have written something beautiful and moving and absorbing but it is never going to sell many thousands of copies in whatever supermarket passes for a bookshop these days. Thirty years ago, it would have been published if an editor truly loved it, and the publication would have been financed by the blockbusters or celebrity bios. Now, your manuscript will come crawling slowly back to you, with editorial regret. Conventional publishing has become a hall of mirrors, a place where people forever admire their own reflections – a place without any obvious entrances or exits.
There are a great many of us mid list writers who – despairing of the way in which we have been relegated to the sidelines – are starting to upload not just our out-of-print back lists to Kindle or other platforms, but also the new work which we and our agents have been struggling to sell. In the olden days, we might have gathered subscriptions from family and friends and patrons, as the poet Robert Burns did, to fund publication. The downside is that there are lots of people who are too inexperienced to know how little they know, and some of the work available online is probably unreadable by all but family and friends. The democratisation of publishing has brought a certain amount of chaos in its wake, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting for those writers who are genuinely prepared to hone their craft.
Most writers these days, however professional, don’t earn enough from their writing to make a living, so you may as well write what you genuinely want to write in the time available to you. Follow your heart. If you are a young, or just starting out, by all means have a go at conventional markets. But if you have a novel or novels which have been well edited and highly praised, but remain unsold, you can at least choose to get them out there yourself and let them take their chances while you get on with the next project. The chances may actually be quite good. Those middle aged and older readers buy lots of books and now they are probably going to be asking for Kindles for Christmas as well.
Catherine Czerkawska

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