AN INTERVIEW WITH KATE TOUGH
Kate Tough‘s novel, Keep Walking Rhona Beech (Abacus, 2019) has had an unconventional publication journey, something she wrote about it in a piece for the Scottish Book Trust that you can find here. In this interview, conducted via email, Tough talks to editor Mark West about the artistic and business side of literary publishing, and how her book has had three publishers in five years.
MW: I guess there are two strands that interest me in the journey of your book – the business side, involving the selling and buying of publishers, the book itself, agents’ roles, etc; and the artistic side, by which I mean the actual style and content of the novel. I’ll start with the latter: the novel’s most recent publication has a slightly different title to its original one – does this signal more substantial changes to the book itself from edition to edition?
KT: To give GRB readers the context, the first edition is called, Head for the Edge, Keep Walking and the recent edition is, Keep Walking, Rhona Beech. Also the main character’s name changed; from Jill to Rhona.
Yes, I can imagine cases where a revised title would coincide with noticeable revisions in a text but here the new title doesn’t signify substantial changes. Interestingly, your question’s making me realise people have assumed that the title change is a signal of something. One reviewer presumed the change in title was an editorial and commercial decision to ‘kilt it up a bit’ and when I read that I thought, ‘Whit? Michty me, och no, hen’ (naturally). Upping the shortbread and heather wasn’t a factor and, if I’d got a whiff that it had been, I’d have lobbied against it. In addition, a couple of family members independently assumed the character’s name changed because someone we know shares the original name – bizarre logic that never occurred to me. After I explained why it changed one of them said, ‘Yeah right, agents don’t change book titles’ as if a) they knew anything about publishing and b) I would actually be lying about it. It was amicable, I hasten to add, and a useful incident to file away for a future character, i.e., a perfect illustration that even when you tell people the truth, they hold onto what they already want to believe.
The change in title was triggered by the agent (Mark Stanton). I never asked him why specifically, but I could take a guess – to both shorten it and position it more for the female market? Given his profession, he understands what will (and won’t) appeal to editors. The agent had read Head for the Edge, plus my fiction collection-in-progress. When he got back in touch he said he really liked a character’s name (Rhona) from the longest short story and it should be used in the novel instead, and that he’d pitch the book to editors with the title, Keep Walking, Rhona Beech.
My inner reaction was, ‘Is it a big enough deal to argue? Nope.’ It’s not perfect but the original title had divided opinion too, so why not embrace the change? His first choice of editor said yes to the book and she favoured its new title. There’s a degree to which you have to trust the people who are skilled in the areas of the industry that you’re not. My skill set is writing. Their skill sets are publishing and taking books to market. It made sense to let them do their jobs. (On hearing the new title a Glasgow writer quipped, ‘It could have been worse, it could have been Keep Shopping, Rhona Beech, which made me giggle).
Recently, I spotted that in Boris Johnson’s 2004 novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, his main character (an unkempt, Latin-spouting Tory MP) is called Roger Barlow. Two syllables in each name, like the author. And I realised Jill Beech had one syllable in each name, like the author… It triggered a wave of relief to know we’d broken that subconscious spell (of authors giving the narrator in a first novel a name similar to their own) by changing to Rhona.
My main concern was whether the two syllable name, Rhona, would interfere with the sentence rhythm and prose flow built around the one syllable name, Jill. There was a poetic sensibility influencing the prose and I didn’t want to mess it up. Thankfully when I tested it during the edits, there was no appreciable effect.
In the only meeting with the editor and agent, I made a passing comment around the title change – that it was a flag advertising it as women’s fiction. I mentioned it because the editor was sure she wanted a new cover that placed it on the literary fiction side of the line (which she achieved, I think), because she felt that’s where it sat. She was clear it was a literary book rather than a ‘lite’ book.
Do the title and the cover give mixed messages? Who knows. If smart, experienced professionals who know their industry are making a suggestion, in the context of being kind enough to give your pulped book a wider release – that doesn’t strike me as the moment to argue, unless you deeply care about the point under discussion.
It’s always been a tricky book to describe and market because it’s about a bunch of women and the concerns of their 30s lives, so the shorthand label becomes chick lit, but it isn’t written that way. The contents are more substantial and the prose more crafted. It’s the sort of book folk just have to read and then they ‘get it’. The first edition has as many 5 star reviews on Amazon from men as from women.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, the short story character who had her name nicked is now called… Shona.
MW: Did the editor of the most recent publication suggest changes to the manuscript? If so, could you talk a little bit about that process – given the book had been published before, did you feel it was ‘completed’ already, or were there changes you felt happy making? I’m interested in how your relationship with the editor worked given the novel’s unusual history.
KT: Lots of thought routes in response to that question, such as, perhaps there’s a limit to how much you could change a fiction book before it became too different to be considered the same book. Could you change the ending, for example? Or the setting? I don’t know.
Also, I imagine an editor wouldn’t choose to republish a book that still needed a lot of work done – why bother? They’d rather put that energy into perfecting a first release, I suspect. And if a book did need much fixing, that could suggest it hadn’t been fit to be published the first time round… Why would something catch an editor’s eye as worthy of a second release, if it hadn’t been working well enough already?
Those meandering thoughts aside, yes, the editor suggested minor changes and it’s testament to her talent and insight that she identified the precise tweaks which would redress the weaknesses in the first edition. In brief, she wanted a couple of scenes shortened; also a more convincing back story and slightly strengthened present for Rhona’s friend, Tania; plus a couple of lines to tell readers how Rhona had met another friend, Lizzie.
Straightforward enough, but I had a month to do it in and, given the chance to revise a novel five years after publication, who in their right mind wouldn’t start at page one and go right through to the end, tightening sentences and paragraphs? So I tidied and edited the whole book in a month. Unexpected things arose: changing Jill’s name to Rhona meant I had to change the name of her ex, Angus, because Rhona and Angus sounded ridiculously ‘kilted up’. And the name of her boyfriend, Roy, had to change because Rhona and Roy sounded too R-ish. Mulling over new names took ages. Also it was notable that technology had changed in five years, so updates were needed to the devices people use to communicate, and the idea of ‘an internet café’, and how much things cost, and popular culture references etc. In that light, there was no way to avoid reviewing the entire manuscript.
Another horribly time-consuming feature of that month was that the only complete manuscript I had to work with was the final, formatted, publication-ready Word document Cargo had sent me in 2013. Advice to anyone in a similar position – never edit a document already formatted into finalised book pages. It became horrible and ugly getting it to accept the text changes I was making, but the problems really kicked in when I was too far along to convert the document to something more basic and start again. There’s a shiver just remembering it.
I can’t speak for other authors but I had no issue being asked to make revisions by an editor as sharp as Clare Smith. She knew what was needed, she knew the timescale she expected it in, she earmarked an release slot nine months away (it usually takes longer), she trusted me to get the job done, and she inspired me to crack on. As an aside, she also noticed an angle for a novel in one of my short stories (different from the angle most other folk had noticed, in another story), and it’s an idea that’s been percolating ever since. If life hadn’t been so busy in the last year, that second novel would have been started.
The other great boon of the editorial process between editions was having the full staff of a large publishing house – the attention to copy editing, line editing and proofing was substantial and we identified and corrected multiple misspellings, inaccuracies and unintentional (as opposed to intentional) examples of dodgy grammar.
Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to improve their work, and polish it one more time? Everything that goes into print strikes you as improve-able after it’s too late to get your hands back on it, and I got the chance to refresh it.
MW: Following on from that, how do you think of the novel’s various publications (iterations?) artistically? Is it the same novel, or do you think of it differently?
KT: Given how minor the changes were, it’s the same book – but the author has changed and the world the book has entered has changed.
First the author – the only bittersweet aspect in the opportunity to revisit the book was the distance between the person who wrote it (2007-10) and the person editing it in 2018. I was a different writer, and a different generation of adult. There was unavoidable reflection triggered about life in the intervening period, which I won’t detail here but again, it could be a topic to take into fiction sometime – why are ‘good things’ that happen in life rarely entirely ‘good’… they come weighted with other tangential and trickier aspects (e.g. the great news and opportunity of a book being resurrected from the ashes causes you to review a twelve year stretch of your life. Heigh ho).
And the world the book re-entered – for example, there’s a storyline around cervical check-ups, cell changes, hospital procedures, avoiding appointments etc. And we’re pretty sure in 2014 that hadn’t been tackled in fiction yet. And by 2019, the low attendance rate for cervical screening was national news, discussed in the media weekly, subject of an awareness campaign, with celebrities speaking out and Theresa May at the despatch box sharing her experiences, a one-woman play promoted by the BBC and the NHS moving from smear tests to HPV testing. No-one could have predicted that shift in public discourse, and at least one reviewer noticed the topical congruence with themes in the novel.
Additionally, the first edition was pretty universally acknowledged as funny. And this time round, at least a couple of mentions have intimated, ‘this is well written, and relevant, but it’s about a woman having a breakdown, and that is not funny’. Well, I understand the point they’re making. And it shows how the climate has changed since 2014, mostly for the better, vis a vis mental health awareness and destigmatisation. And I know where she’s coming from – I’ve often felt that serious human issues are treated too lightly on screen, where no-one’s actually naming what’s being portrayed and the gravity of it.
In this case though, the problem might be that the ‘funny’ descriptor on the jacket was taken too literally. The book is not packaging up mental health as comedy and glossing over it. The book is a balanced, realistic portrayal of a range of justifiable emotional states. It just happens to have some very humorous scenes and lines within the range. And that’s what the publisher is referring to when they label it as funny. Book jackets use shorthand, by necessity.
Most readers appreciate the humorous aspects as a counterbalance to the emotional challenges. It’s too big a topic for here and it’s well documented elsewhere – that humour can co-exist with challenges in our mental, emotional and physical health.
There have been evolutions in female writing, too – female characters and female representation – since 2014. This time around, the book’s had comparisons with Fleabag which is a marker of how much progress we’ve made in embracing the female anti-heroine, replacing the trope of the female ‘aspiring to success’ (a husband, the right body weight, social acceptance) with permission for females to be imperfect and knowingly so. Airing their flaws. Accepting them as inevitable. There have been stunning examples of this in the past (I Love Dick and By Grand Central I Sat Down and Wept etc.) but it’s gone mainstream. Amen to that.
MW: You talk about the context the book has been re-published into, and how that’s quite different from when it was published the first time. In terms of the marketing the book’s received this time – which, I assume, given the greater resources available with Abacus and Little, Brown, is more than the first time? – was the book marketed differently? Did you have conversations about how the book would be marketed and advertised, or was that something the publicists did on their own?
KT: Marketing… I’m not very knowledgeable on the nuts and bolts of that territory. There are definitely ways that the sausage machine works and I’d almost rather not know! I sense it’s easier and preferable to market a book that has a ‘hook’ (e,g. it’s set in a circus, or it’s set against an historical event that’s about to have its 100th anniversary, or it’s about a mother murdering her own child or something). I know it’s harder to market a book which is just a bunch of ordinary folk leading their lives: ‘Hey, read this, nothing much happens but trust me, you’ll like it!’
Given how lacking in a marketable ‘concept’ my novel is, I’m so grateful Clare grabbed it anyway because she liked it so much. I’ve seen bookshops display it everywhere from the ‘new release’ table, to the ‘Scottish’ table to the ‘summer reads’ table next to the covers with deckchairs and soft focus. Proves my point that it’s not an easy book to position. I’ve been told that once a book’s been out for a length of time there are things the publisher does next (like e-book promotions) to help its reach.
To be honest, the first edition was a word of mouth winner, with people taking a punt then telling other people to read it. And library lending has always been steady, which echoes the word-of-mouth theory. If the same happened with the second edition I’d be delighted.
From hearing some experiences that other writers have shared, it can be hit-and-miss in terms of how much time and energy a publisher puts into marketing a book. And that’s regardless of who the author is, or how much they paid to acquire the book. A book can suffer from the publicity team not quite being on the ball, or someone being off on holiday; it really can be that arbitrary.
Knowing that, I feel this novel has been very fortunate, twice, and I’m appreciative. Neither time was ‘better’, because they were different. What Cargo managed to achieve on its budget was incredible; the team’s energy, enthusiasm, ideas and good local relationships led to several festival slots, a Waterstones launch and prolonged shelf stock, a double-page weekend extract and Radio Scotland and STV appearances. In Scottish terms at least it had a decent leg-up. And a few other things besides, like blog interviews.
This time round, less has happened in Scotland (e.g. no Waterstones launch and no festival slots – but the festivals most likely to show interest would be the Scottish ones, and why would they schedule it a second time? We did get Radio Scotland again, and a Scottish newspaper review). More Scottish activity has happened a couple of months after its release, due to the fact I live and work here rather than due to the publisher (e.g. The Scottish Book Trust blog, this GRB chat, and lovely events in Inverness Waterstones and Pollokshields Library. Shout out for the ‘shields library. I love that place).
However… the UK-wide leg-up it’s had this time is something, practicably, Cargo couldn’t have achieved. That’s the dull reality of the business of publishing. There’s less review space in mainstream newspapers than there was five years ago. And I assume it’s the London industry people, in closer proximity to each other, who’re more likely to access it.
I’d never be so naïve as to think it was the astounding quality of my book that led to its reviews in The Lady, HELLO!, Sainsbury’s Magazine etc. Yes, I think the book had to be sufficiently good to get a look in, but the publicist at Little, Brown is to thank for her energy, experience, enthusiasm and doing her job superbly well. Also, I’m not naïve enough to think that she’s still focused on my book. The publishing schedule moves on, as it has to.
If I wasn’t watching my word count, I’d tell you about the difference in ‘launch culture’ between mainstream publishers and indies. Another time…
Also, over a beer, there’s a dimension of the publicity machine I’d tell you about but it’s too nuanced to summarise here – there are some publicity routes available which I discussed at length with the publicist and in the end, wasn’t comfortable with. I was worried she’d think I was being unhelpful but she didn’t, and she shared an example of another author who’d bowed out too (for amusing reasons that I can’t share).
Each author has to make their own decisions and participate in what feels right for them. I’d happily have spoken to the media about what I think is outdated and heavy handed in the NHS approach to curing cervical cell changes, and I was actively trying to find the means to do so, however, the media won’t talk to a layperson about NHS policy and procedures around cervical treatment. As the publicist explained, they’ll only talk to a fiction writer about her own life experiences – the author (as opposed to the book) as a commodity…
MW: Do you have any sense of the audience being different for this iteration of the book? Given those contextual changes, the audiences a publisher like Little, Brown can attract, etc…?
KT: The previous answer touched on this a little so, to that, I’ll just add that another change to the world which the second edition has entered is, of course, the increase in audio consumption. What might have been rare in 2014, having a book released in audio format, is becoming more commonplace because the audience for audio books has grown. Incidentally, this is leading to a revision of the weight that audio rights are given in publishing contracts.
Recently, we received news of an audio outing for Rhona Beech, and I sort of wished I could narrate it myself! Maybe because mine was the only voice which had read the character aloud to date. But it’s another part of the process where I was lucky enough to be consulted, and given the final decision between two professionals with lists of audio books on their CVs. I’m very interested what it’ll be like to hear it, when it’s ready.