“Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.”
For the past few years, I’ve been following the writing (and real estate) career of Peggy Blair, both on Twitter/X and on her very useful and generous blog Getting Published). There, she shares the wisdom she has accumulated by publishing the award-winning (and fantastic) Inspector Ramirez series.
Peggy’s debut, THE BEGGAR’S OPERA won the Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice contest. Crimespree Magazine described the sequel, THE POISONED PAWN as a “twisty, turny, confounding mystery,” and the Ottawa Citizen called it “one of the best mysteries to come out of Ottawa this or any year.”(Full disclosure: I am a fan.)
Despite this track record, however, Peggy had trouble finding a publisher in 2023. Undeterred, she decided to take her fast-paced political mystery-thriller SHADOW PLAY to the world via her own Rebound Press. I caught up with her to ask her a little bit more about this decision, her writing process, and her advice for people like me.
Q. What made you decide to go the self-pub route for this book?
A. My four previous books had been published by two Big Five publishers after a rather torturous search for representation. I think I was rejected 156 times before I finally gave up on trying to find an agent (the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same result).
I was ready to give up on THE BEGGAR’S OPERA altogether but submitted it to the Debut Dagger competition in the U.K. and it was shortlisted.
While in Harrogate for the festivities (spoiler: I lost), I had a brief chat with Ian Rankin at the hotel bar on the last night of the festival. He didn’t even know my name, but when he found out I’d been rejected 156 times (“well, that’s not too bad,” he said), he suggested I contact his publisher. I did that, and she referred to Ian’s agent, Peter Robinson, who decided my manuscript was “the most compelling thing he’d read in years” and immediately offered to represent me. The book ended up on the Frankfurt Book Fair hot list and was sold internationally as well as being published in the UK and the US, to critical acclaim.
Many years later, I was the host of an Ottawa International Writers Festival event with Ian and got to speak to him again. He told me he would not be able to get published, or stay published, if he was entering the business now because his first six books were remaindered (that’s when they don’t sell well, and the bookstores toss them out because it’s too expensive to return them to the publisher for a full refund). It was his seventh book that was the breakout novel that launched him into being arguably the most famous and successful crime author in the world.
My books didn’t sell well either, although they won awards and had great reviews.
When I wrote SHADOW PLAY, I discovered that because of that track record of sales, I couldn’t get an agent (Peter Robinson of RCW, my English agent, had retired by then, and I’d parted ways with my Canadian agent some ten years earlier.). I started querying again, but agents and publishers don’t want to take on an author if their previous sales haven’t been up to their expectations.
My last publisher said they thought SHADOW PLAY was a “really good book” and sent me a long letter with all the things they really enjoyed in it but reached the same conclusion – they said they only publish bestsellers.
At that point, I knew there was no point in continuing to try to find an agent or a publisher since my track record in sales was going to be an obstacle with all of them. That said, I thought the book was good enough that the public should decide what they thought about it. That’s why I created ReBound Press and went the self-publishing route with this one.
Ironically, I sold enough pre-launch copies in the first nine days that I hit the same sales volume I had when HUNGRY GHOSTS hit #7 on the Globe and Mail bestseller list. So I think SHADOW PLAY would have been a bestseller, in that sense, although hitting a bestseller list doesn’t guarantee the kind of profits a publisher needs to keep an author on their list.
Q. Please tell me a little bit about your writing process, e.g. do you write every day, have a ritual, edit as you go, use an outline, etc.?
A. There are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsers. The latter write by the seat of their pants; the former are disciplined enough to plot an outline first and I’m sure they’re the type who are also disciplined enough to write every day. I don’t do that.
I’m a classic pantser. I start with an idea (sometimes one chapter, or an ending) and write that first, then write around it. I don’t outline at all. And I don’t have a regular enough schedule to write every day. I usually lay in bed at night thinking about where the story might go, and when I’m at that point, I try to find enough time to write when I can. So I’m the type who might write 1,000 words a day, or 16,000 words in a weekend, when things are going well, or nothing for a couple of weeks while I try to figure out if I have something to say. And I never know for sure where the story will go – the characters have a way of deciding that for me.
Q. Do you have any advice for someone like me, with a first completed MS they want to publish? How about for people just starting out?
A. Someone who hasn’t been previously published is in a better position than someone who has been and whose books haven’t sold well, because they don’t have that track record to hinder them. But the system really demands that you have an agent, and that’s a tough slog for the reasons I’ve described above. A chance meeting in the U.K. finally achieved what a year of querying couldn’t, but that was a stroke of luck that would be hard to replicate.
In the mystery world, there are competitions for unpublished manuscripts – if I hadn’t been shortlisted for the Debut Dagger, I wouldn’t have been in England, met Ian, and ended up with representation. Many of those who were shortlisted when I was, or before (like Louise Penny in Canada and Alan Carter in Australia) have gone on to have incredibly successful careers. So that may be something to consider – there is a small entrance fee, but it’s well worth it, and Canadians have done very well in past years. Good luck!
SHADOW PLAY launches on September 26. Don’t forget to get your copy!