Saturday 21 January 2017

The Hippo Hands Over to - Andrew Smith

Today I'm delighted to welcome Andrew Smith to The Hippo to chat about his journey to being published.

Andrew Smith’s first novel, Edith’s War, won a gold medal at the Independent Publishers’ Book Awards, U.S.A. His short fiction has been included in the Journey Prize Anthology and shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards. His travel writing has garnered a Western Magazine Award. He has published two non-fiction books: Strangers in the Garden, the secret lives of our favorite flowers and Highlights, an illustrated history of cannabis (co-author). Smith’s next novel, The Speech, has been published in October, 2016 by Urbane Publications, U.K.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Smith

                                            MY PUBLISHING VOYAGE

My publishing voyage started with a journey of a completely different nature, on a ramshackle Indian bus rattling its way northward, through the Himalayas from Kashmir to Ladakh. Before I left for India, a friend of mine, who was editor of an adventure travel magazine, exhorted me to "make notes, keep a diary." My copious scribblings, made during that truly awesome bus journey, became the basis for my first published piece of writing. To my complete surprise, my magazine article won an award for travel writing. I was hooked.

Although I took to writing as naturally as a duck to water, I realized I needed direction to navigate the literary shoals that lay between me and my goal to publish short fiction. I enrolled in a creative writing course. I spent the next ten years content to keep my day job as a book designer, but writing short fiction in my spare time. Rejection letters arrived with unwelcome regularity. I'd say that on average I received ten rejection letters for every acceptance. Thick skin is a necessity for an aspiring writer. I'm happy to say that everything I wrote eventually found a home.
(You can read three of my award-winning stories here:

It was a mixed blessing when a literary agent acquaintance blithely said to me one day, "You'll never get anywhere with short fiction, you need to write a novel." Afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about my short story about two middle-aged brothers meeting their ageing mother in Venice and the family dynamics and secrets that emerged during their encounter. I began to wonder what events in childhood shaped the brothers. I pondered on what their mother's experiences might have been. With this in mind, I embarked on a tentative expedition into novel-writing territory. Once I started, I couldn't stop. Especially when I learnt about the little-known hardships of Italians interned in Britain during World War II. It's the ruthless writer talking when I say that, as well as the obvious sympathy that underdog characters evoke, they also make for interesting plot devices. The novel-writing expedition ended four years later in 2008 with a finished manuscript for my first book, 'Edith's War.'

The literary agent who'd suggested I write a novel wasn't interested. It was my first experience of the risk-averse nature of literary agents, which was borne out after I approached several other agents. The few who responded claimed to like the manuscript but were also of the opinion that I was too much of an "unknown." Until then I'd naively believed the job of an agent was to make an author "known" — silly me. 

After a year of frustration, I decided to self-publish. But I wasn't completely self-delusional, I hired an editor. Every manuscript, no matter how accomplished, benefits from a second pair of eyes. It was relatively easy to plonk an e-book onto several e-book sales sites, but distributing the printed book proved to be a monumental hurdle. I eventually found a distributor willing to represent a self publisher. Which is when the excruciatingly hard work of promotion began. Eventually 'Edith's War' did quite well. I covered costs and earned a modest amount.
(You can read more about 'Edith's War' here:

While I'd learnt that agent representation is rarer than a four-leaf clover, I also knew that self-publishing is definitely not for the faint-hearted. So what the hell made me write another full-length fiction? Because by then I was as hooked on novel writing as an addict is to crack cocaine. Some days the prospect of the difficulty of the process, or maybe it's the fear of failure, is just too overwhelming. Excuses are made and another twenty-four hours slip by without a word produced. But sometimes the sentences fly in a delirium of creativity, during which endorphins potent as LSD are released.

My inspiration was the similarity of socio-political events happening at the time with those that occurred when I was an art student in Wolverhampton in the late 1960s. Immigration was a growing 'concern,' ensuing prejudice and racism was rearing its ugly head. I  remembered the ever-fascinating Wolverhampton M.P. Enoch Powell and his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. I was fairly sure I could write a novel about him to include more everyday characters, but which would be relevant to present-day events. Two years later I had a final draft. 

I can't remember where I heard about Curtis Brown Creative, the workshops run by Curtis Brown literary agency. It was hinted that the workshops were a net to 'catch' promising properties for Curtis Brown agents. But it was also made clear there was no guarantee of representation. By the end of three months of workshops, my manuscript had improved considerably, but in the final one-to-one seminar an editorial change was suggested that would involve six months more of intensive work. Although reeling at the idea, I knew in my heart of hearts, the suggested revision would improve the book immensely.
Six months later my revised manuscript was presented to a Curtis Brown agent. It was turned down in the nicest possible way. The second rejection was as complimentary, which made it all the more frustrating. A third agent turned the book down with a similar refrain to the others — "brilliant but impossible to 'place.'" Which meant, I was told, that it didn't fit into any obvious genre, nor was there any 'likely' publisher to sell to.

I firmly believe that any success is a combination of good fortune and talent. I was fairly certain I had the talent, the good fortune came in the person of Matthew Smith of Urbane Publications. I was referred to him by Nick Jones, a man I'd interviewed in the course of researching the book. When I poured out my tale of woe about agents' rejections, Nick suggested I contact Matthew, who'd published Nick's most recent book. What followed was swift and wondrous. I e-mailed Matthew with an outline of the novel. He replied almost immediately asking to see the manuscript. Twenty-four hours later he e-mailed a proposal to publish with a draft of a contract attached. Some months later I held a copy of 'The Speech' in my hand, confident I was published by an experienced and supportive publisher whose principle is one of collaboration. I'd reached an enviable destination in my publishing voyage.

 You can find out more about Andrew and his books and connect with him using the links below:

I'd like to thank Andrew for stopping by today and for taking the time to write such an interesting post. 

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