Orange Prize-nominated author Aifric Campbell explains how the tenacity she learned as a bond trader helped her to break into the world of publishing
The idea for my first novel… started way back. I came across this natural language theorist who had been murdered in 1971. I was absolutely fascinated by the idea that someone so brilliant had been killed and the murder hadn’t been solved. I knew somehow I had to find a way of writing his story. It took years to write The Semantics of Murder. Sometimes you have to put it aside. You can ruin a good idea if it’s not ready.
I knew exactly who the publisher should be… It was an independent publisher, Serpent’s Tail (now part of Profile Books). Having been a reader of theirs for years, I saw the kind of writer they took on – the marginal outlier voice writing difficult material. They published books that the big mainstream publishers wouldn’t bring out. My book was edgy and unusual, had no autobiographical traits and contained some explicit gay sex scenes. They had to be prepared to take risks.
It was very controversial at the time… but it’s so important that you write the book you want. If we all tried to second-guess trends, I think the reading environment would be impoverished. I can’t pull off something I’m not in control of.
I targeted the chief editor… I used to work in banking and I managed a lot of customer relationships, so the idea of going after the right person was not alien. It was all very calculated – I do think people have to do their homework. I wrote to the chief editor Peter Ayrton, who founded Serpent’s Tail in the 1980s, and didn’t hear anything. Then I emailed and didn’t hear back. I thought ‘Ok. I’m just going to call and keep calling. Selling bonds or selling books – it didn’t phase me. A lot of people find that hard but I knew that he would at least listen to the pitch.
After seven calls, I got him on the phone… and I nearly fell off the chair. I gave him the pitch, and he said to send it in. I chased him up with an email after about three weeks. He came back and said, ‘Yes, I’ve read it. I liked it. Come and see us.’
I didn’t go for an agent… until after I had a deal. It’s just as difficult to get an agent as a publisher. Again, you’ve got to do your homework and look at who the agent already represents. I did it the reverse way around, but I would advise people to go for an agent.
As a first-time writer you may have written a good book… but it doesn’t mean it’s going to get published straight away. Look at A Girl is a Half-formed Thing [Eimear McBride’s award-winning novel that took nine years to get published]. Sometimes it’s a question of timing, but often it’s a question of people doing the wrong homework. They don’t know which publishers are right so they opt for the scatter-gun effect.
I never let work go… until I feel I’ve done as much as I possibly can. I like to work solo and have someone read it at the end. I was writing The Semantics of Murder while doing my PhD after years and years of work. I decided I wouldn’t send off the manuscript until it was done. With a first novel you have one shot of somebody reading it, so it’s got to be your best shot. Sometimes people get tired and send out extracts too early. I would advise people to re-draft endlessly.
The fantasy idea that people have about big advances… is not representative. Even if you do get a good advance, you’re only as good as your last book.