Agents couldn't tell his manuscript apart from a washing machine manual, but school power helped aspiring author John Howard to get his book on the shelves
When I wrote my children's novel The Key to Chintak, the first in an adventure trilogy called The Zamorian Chronicles, I wanted to be sure it would work with my target audience of nine to 13-year-olds before approaching a publisher.
So, in early 2004, I tested it on Years 5 to 8 in two schools near my home in Sussex. They all loved reading the story and wrote bundles of letters saying so. I sent copies of these letters with my manuscript to a small group of literary agents that I had selected from the Writers' Artists'
Yearbook - I had heard that publishers would only consider books that came via an agent.
A few months later the rejections started coming in. I was curious as to how carefully my work was being read, so I scanned in my washing machine user guide and sent it to three agents as a manuscript for a book called The Tin Drum.
Two of them eventually sent me the same standard replies as before: "We have read and enjoyed your manuscript, but it is not for us."
Meanwhile, the children I had met in schools started to ask where they could buy The Key to Chintak so, in March last year, with the help of a local print-on-demand printer, I decided to self-publish.
This is not an enterprise for the fainthearted. I was able to give up work as an IT consultant and devote myself to it, but whether or not you give up the day job, money is only one of the ingredients for success. You also need an iron will, outstanding marketing and presentation skills and a good website (I designed mine myself). Most importantly, you must be able to deal with anyone or anything that blocks your way.
As my first encouragement had come from schools, I decided that would be the best route for marketing my book. I started with eight primary and secondary schools in Sussex and offered to visit for free. They all accepted.
At each I would spend an hour or two with an enthusiastic audience, talk about my struggle to get published, read from my book and ask children to act out a scene or two. The sessions always finished with a lively QA.
My reputation spread and, between March 2004 and February this year, I visited 40 schools and received more than 1,000 glowing emails from readers. Also during that time I sold around 2,500 copies of The Key to Chintak direct to schools. But nobody outside of Sussex had heard of me, nor had the general book-buying public. I needed a major high street bookshop to back me.
My big break came in March when I sent a cheeky email to Scott Pack, then the head buyer for Waterstone's. To my surprise I got a reply saying that, if The Key to Chintak was good enough, Waterstone's would stock it. The store ordered 3,000 copies and, by the end of the month, had included it in a "3 for 2" promotion.
Oh, how lovely it was to see that order. Airport branches of WH Smith placed an order soon after, as did the Sussex schools library service the following month. By early June, The Key to Chintak was outselling a lot of children's books from mainstream publishers in the same Waterstone's promotion as mine.
Meanwhile, I had expanded my self-funded tour, visiting 60 schools and meeting 6,500 children throughout the UK. To date, I have sold around 10,500 copies of my book (a quarter of them direct into schools) and made it into Waterstone's children's top 10. I have had interest in the trilogy from several film companies and numerous overseas publishers, and I'm writing the second book.
I am now starting to show a small profit, but not yet enough to stop my bank manager crying over my decision to leave a well-paid job and sink my savings into my dream. I have still got a long way to go. But I will get there. And I will get there a lot quicker if everyone reading this article buys my book.
The Key to Chintak: The Zamorian Chronicles by John Howard is pound;6.99.
Mr Howard's account of publishing his book will appear in the 2007 Children's Writers' Artists' Yearbook. Details of school visits and signed and discounted copies at www.zamorian.com