Slow publishing is not necessarily bad publishing. Let’s look at how a Russian banker’s murder in 1993 and the Gezi Park protests of 2013 led to successful publication of my international thriller “Palladium” in 2022.
Water glistened on the cormorant’s wings as it plunged into the Bosphorus. Beyond, a Russian warship headed through the strait, followed by a rust-streaked Ukrainian grain carrier. Far off, the Byzantine walls of Istanbul rose around the 6th Century Haghia Sophia and mosques built after the 1453 Ottoman conquest.
I thought: I must write a thriller set here.
Diplomacy: fact or fiction?
When you’re a diplomat, posted to different countries to grapple with international crises, counter-terrorism and hostile espionage environments, it’s tempting to draw on that experience for fiction.
I started writing thrillers from 1992 to 1995 as First Secretary (Economic) at the British embassy in Boris Yeltsin’s corrupt, chaotic Russia. I met dodgy bankers, hard-up scientists and muscular providers of “insurance” services (see my post The Russians for more).
One banker pulled out of the shoulder holster under his jacket the Makarov pistol he carried for his protection; three weeks later he was shot dead. Ruth Dudley Edwards gave me the classic advice to “write what you know”.
I found combining a busy diplomatic career with writing gruelling. Sometimes I got up at 5 a.m. to write before going to work. More often I would stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. But no breakthrough came.
Slow publishing: don’t give up the day job
One key piece of advice for wannabe authors is “don’t give up the day job”. But in 2002, after four years in Bonn and Berlin as Counsellor (EU and Economic) I was privileged to take four years’ parental leave. I wrote for the Weekend FT on sexual politics and travel and crafted a new novel, Sex and the Summit, a political comedy.
No-one bought it. The 23rd literary agent I tried, David Grossman, said I wrote well but the book would be hard to sell. Why didn’t I write a thriller set in Berlin?
I had long been fascinated by the German capital, with its tragic 20th century history of genocide, war-time destruction and cold-war division. When a friend showed me the tunnels under the newly-reconstructed Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament, I thought: ‘that’s my new novel’.
The result was my visceral Berlin thriller Blood Summit – about political leaders taken hostage by terrorists in the Reichstag.
But despite David’s best efforts, we couldn’t sell “Blood Summit” either.
I eventually decided to publish “Blood Summit” independently under a pseudonym in 2017. I republished it under my own name in 2022, after I retired. It got some great reviews, including from well-known writers, and is one of my top-selling works.
Did I mention slow publishing? Who said it was easy getting a book in front of readers?
Slow publishing: a thriller set in Ukraine
In 2008 I travelled to Kyiv as British Ambassador to Ukraine. The huge country lodged between Russia and the EU felt febrile and vulnerable; its relationship with Russia, the UK and other nations, existential. Some Ukrainian friends didn’t like my 2012 novel A Killing in Sevastopol, based on a crisis between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea, because it included some well-intentioned Russians. ‘You’re naive,’ they said. ‘No-one working for the Russian government can do anything good. You’ll see.’
They were right. I never sold the book. Russia invaded Crimea and the east of Ukraine in 2014. Does “never” count as slow publishing? But then, who knows – perhaps “A Killing in Sevastopol” will appear one day.
“The Hotel Stories”
In Kyiv I met my partner Gözde, a hotel general manager. She told me tales of what men get up to in hotels. As her birthday approached, stumped for a worthy gift, I decided to write her a story – about Ms N, a petite hotelier who won’t put up with men behaving badly in her hotels. Gözde loved The Two Rooms, and encouraged me to repeat the exercise. So far there are twelve tales, the first seven collected in my book Seven Hotel Stories.
Amazon burst onto the scene
Meanwhile, Amazon burst onto the scene, killing bookshops but also easing the way to authors publishing their own books online. Social media proliferated. I began blogging as ambassador in 2009. In 2013 I self-published The Two Rooms as an e-book on Amazon. In 2014 I began this blog. I used a pseudonym, Robert Pimm, to avoid any suggestion I was misusing my diplomatic position to promote my books.
Rightly or (in my view) wrongly, the Foreign Office remained sensitive about my fiction. They threatened that if a novel brought the FCO into disrepute I would face disciplinary action. I thought my novels were a terrific advert for an FCO staffed by a diverse bunch of characters dealing with tough, real-world issues that make a difference to people’s lives. But the result was to put a brake on my ability to publicise my writing.
Palladium and Istanbul
In 2011, I visited Istanbul ahead of applying for a job there as British Consul-General. The beauty and history of the city knocked my socks off. When I moved there in 2012, I began writing the book that was to become Palladium.
What, I thought, if an archaeologist racing to excavate a site, ahead of the construction of a new skyscraper, dug up an ancient relic that played into contemporary fears? Might the novel flash back to historic events? What if people believed the relic protected the city from harm? What catastrophe might threaten?
With the help of friends in Istanbul, I came up with a horrifying idea for a cataclysmic threat – and got cracking on a white-knuckle ride to save a great city from destruction.
Palladium: a 10-year slow publishing timeline
‘Wait!’ I hear you cry. ‘You mean it took ten years to get “Palladium” out there? That is seriously slow publishing.’
Dear readers: writing and revising a novel can take any amount of time. Here’s a timeline:
– 2011: inspiration strikes on a visit to Istanbul.
– 2012: I explore the city and bookmark websites such as “Palladium: classical antiquity”; “Byzantine Constantinople”; “Hellenism: religion”; “US archaeology student found dead in Turkey”; and “Building frenzy devours Turkish archaeological legacy”.
– 2013: the Gezi Park protests explode in Istanbul. Disturbances, and tear-gas, engulf the area where I live, making my life particularly busy and slowing my writing efforts.
– 2014: a first draft of the novel, entitled “Istanbul Rising”, is complete.
– 2015: I submit “Istanbul Rising” to 20 agents and publishers, without success. As any of you authors out there know who have tried it, this is a dispiriting business when unsuccessful. I devote my efforts to a new political comedy.
– 2016-17: “Istanbul Rising” slumbers.
– 2017: I self-publish Blood Summit as a paperback – my first real book on Amazon. Sales are encouraging, particularly when backed by readings.
– 2018: I attend an Arvon writing course, “Editing Fiction: Turning First Drafts into Publishable Books”. We are asked to bring a manuscript: I take “Istanbul Rising”. I get valuable feedback and make lifelong friends. I change the title to “Palladium”.
– 2019: I self-publish Seven Hotel Stories as a paperback on Amazon. Again it does OK. Having two tangible books for sale boosts interest in my writing. I organise, and enjoy, readings and book-signings and use my blog to promote the books.
– 2020: I submit a new draft of Palladium to twenty more agents and publishers. No-one bites. But a friend tells me about #pitmad, a twitter event for authors to pitch to publishers. I try it. Staci Olson, an acquisition editor for “Immortal Works”, a US publisher, asks to see the first five pages of Palladium.
– 2021: after some valuable editorial input from Immortal Works, I sign a publishing contract for Palladium. Publication is set for 17 May 2022. The welcome letter notes “it’s never too early to start promoting your book”.
Conclusions: how to get published
What conclusions can you draw from all this? Here are a few:
– perseverance is everything. It is tough, sending your work to publishers and agents and having it repeatedly rejected. Keep writing, and keep sending your stuff out;
– the more irons you have in the fire, the likelier it is that one of them will get warm. Something you wrote a while ago may yet come to life;
– writing courses and writing groups are a great way to gain inspiration and meet interesting friends and contacts;
– I’m also a fan of guides to writing and getting published. But keep a balance between the admin and actually writing new material. The latter, ultimately, is what it’s all about!
Where can you find Palladium?
I’m immensely proud of Palladium and hope readers will love it. If you fancy getting hold of a paperback or e-book of Palladiium, here are links to the relevant page at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Amazon Germany. Or you can read the first few chapters here.
Happy reading, and thanks for all your support.
 Currently called the FCDO.