A history of publishing through one author’s books


It’s 2016, in case you didn’t notice. That means I’ve been a so-called published author for 42 years: I’m a walking talking piece of history. My publishing record is a black-and-white snapshot of the industry over the last 40 years. You could draw a graph of international publishing patterns and it would look like a portrait of me. The history of publishing, c’est moi.

Publishing poetry collections: fun or none

From 1975–1988 five poetry books were published by small-press poetry specialists, and my Selected Poems by a mainstream publisher. However, in 1980 I self-published House Poems for the sheer pleasure. Peter Ridder, a marvellous book designer, educated me in the publishing process from editing to marketing. I loved having control of all decisions — page and cover design, layout, binding, paper. I even drew the illustrations, and it’s still one of my favourite books. House Poems became my benchmark for self-publishing: I could make a gorgeous book, I loved the creativity and control, and I could make a profit.

A turning point came in 1993, with Tourist in Kyoto. A mainstream publisher messed me around and I thought, “Why should I wait another 6 months? Why suffer this process all over again?” So I self-published that book too and was thoroughly satisfied.

Publishing fiction: turbulence and change

My first three novels were published by Penguin (NZ) in 1986, 1987, 1990, and Humming by another publisher in 2005. Then in 2010 I self-published a book of short stories, Scarlet Heels. With a professional designer the process was easy and fun and the book looked good. And although my publicity machine was pathetic, Scarlet Heels still made money.

Slowly I’m now republishing the best of my work as ebooks, and have made about $3 (stet: three dollars) so far. I enjoy extending the life of my backlist this way.

My latest novel is Fixing Mrs Philpott (2016). A handsome paperback, it was published by a small Indie press and I will make a small profit.

Non-fiction: the plot thickens

Between 1980 and 1999 I had ten non-fiction books published by mainstream publishers. Since then I’ve personally published four books for the corporate market and one or two for writers. It’s my self-published non-fiction books that brought me a satisfying income over many years.

My publishing history is every author’s publishing history

To summarise: from 1975 to 2005 most of my books were published on paper by conventional publishers, and I also self-published two little books for fun. But since 2005, all my books have been self-published or indie-published.

I see the same pattern the world over: don’t you?

  1. Publishing has never been an easy industry and e-books ate the profits.
  2. Mainstream publishing companies shrivelled or merged until only two medium-sized fiction publishers remain in New Zealand.
  3. New technology increased the cost-effectiveness of small print runs.
  4. Small companies sprang up to enable anyone to self-publish.
  5. E-books came to dominate the market; real book sales reduced and then began to recover.

It’s not the books, it’s the industry

Now you may be thinking, “Apparently Rachel’s writing deteriorated at the turn of the century and she became unpublishable.” Indeed, that’s what publishers often imply. After waiting for months for a response, you will probably be told, “Sorry, your book doesn’t fit with our marketing plan.”

What this really means: “We can only afford to publish a handful of books each year. As for fiction, we only publish guaranteed best-sellers. Anyway, our list is filled for the next 18 months.”

My attitude? Never say never, but I’m happy to carry on self publishing. It’s fun, it’s empowering and it’s profitable. I can live with the occasional sneer from people who don’t realize that these days, almost every New Zealand novel is self published.

Why am I sharing these gory details?

To encourage you, if you’re a writer struggling to find a mainstream publisher. To provide a reality check: times have changed! To reassure you that a rejection slip is not necessarily a reflection on your book. To inspire you, if you are looking for an alternative route to publication. And to remind you that writing is a reward in itself, and you can share it in many other ways.

One more post about face-blindness then I promise to stop

photographyIdentity complications of prosopagnosia

Around 2 per cent of people have a brain abnormality known informally as face blindness, and I’m one of them. Either I was born that way or it happened when I got concussion at the age of seven or eight. You probably won’t spot this (apart from thinking I’m a bit weird or rude sometimes), because most of us can cover up with fancy footwork. We refrain from using your name. We use other cues like your hair, clothes, context, and voice to figure out who you are. (Paying close attention to facial detail is useless, even counterproductive.)

Moderate prosopagnasia is not a life-wrecker. Sure, movies, videos and TV can be confusing because everyone looks the same — like potatoes in a bucket. But only rarely have I failed to recognise a husband or son or sister, and many people do kindly tell me their names. So I can live with it.

What if you can’t recognize your own face?

It’s my own face that causes me the most trouble. As a child I would stare in the mirror and struggle to see what made my face any different from all the other faces in my world.

Nowadays I recognise various skin cancer scars and also my jawline from certain angles, which is progress. But in my seventies my face is changing again.

How can I be who I am when I don’t recognize my own face?


Three selfies: three strangers

I took all three of the photos in this post yesterday morning. I haven’t touched anything except the colour.

Although it’s hard to tell other people apart, I know they are not all the same person. I can count, you see. And in a cruel twist, these three selfies look like three different people.  Which one is me?

  1. A half-awake, swollen eyed, lopsided, puffy faced but moderately cheerful old woman?
  2. An intensely wrinkled dried up depressed terrifying old crone with no bones in her face?
  3. A wide awake woman upright and on the move?

I have no idea what other people see when they look at me — and I’m less and less sure it matters.

The aging of identity

I think I’ve spent enough time contemplating who I am (outwardly) and how to be me.

It’s quite difficult enough to do this existential acrobatic trick subjectively. And if I attempted to imagine how other people might see my face, my selfies and my avatars, that would well and truly do my head in.

Please Sergeant Major, may I stop now?

Another view of 70- and 80-somethings


My last post was about the difficulty of getting used to dramatic changes in our appearance in our seventies and eighties. Thank you for your comments, my friends: so it’s not just me who is struggling with identity problems at 76?

I can’t resist posting this photograph of my friend and role model Sunny Amey on the left and the heroine of my novel, Fixing Mrs Philpott, on the right. Sunny is probably about 86 (ages are so forgettable).  She is wise, brilliant, naughty, witty, and always and forever her inimitable self. By contrast, that Mrs Philpott really is stuck in the past. She inhabits a fantasy world where there is no need ever for rudeness, which she abhors.

That’s Sunny splitting her sides with laughter, and Mrs Philpott expressing her prim disapproval of the speech that Sunny made in praise of the author, Rachel McAlpine. She also insists that the novel, which is fiction, and therefore not true, is not rude as in 50 Shades of Grey, but more like 31 Shades of Salmon Pink—much nicer.

If that’s not an identity problem, I don’t know what is. And that’s not the half of it.

Of selfies, avatars, prosopagnosia and identity

In the age of selfies we try to control how the world sees us

bootcamp2015-small 2“Be who you are.”

What on earth does that mean, be who I am? I see this as one of the toughest tasks in my self-imposed boot camp for the bonus years. It looks easy, because who else would you be if not yourself? But aging, like puberty, challenges and changes our sense of self.

In one sense I still feel just like a five-year-old — don’t you? But I look in the mirror and I do not see a five-year-old or even a fifty-year-old. I see a funny old woman and I have to get used to the sight of her.

So for now, let’s think about that person in the mirror, who is, according to logic and science, a reflection of ourselves.

Selfies for the young

Once upon a time it was possible to avoid looking at photos of ourselves. They were small and slurry and sepia. As children we were lined up a few times a year for the Brownie box camera, and it never occurred to us to protest or care.

But once we hit puberty, we all care about how we look. I tried to look pale and interesting whenever a camera appeared, which luckily wasn’t often. I worried about my awful haircut, I primped and patted, and I was fascinated by the cute models in Seventeen.

I presume most of my contemporaries were equally preoccupied with their changing appearance, but how would I know? An unsuspected case of prosopagnosia (face blindness) doubtless exacerbated my own identity puzzle.

Considering the metamorphosis of puberty, even a young woman with a healthy self-respect is forced to adjust her self image at that time. Thanks to self-facing (not self-effacing) phone cameras, photo apps and social media, young people can shape their image instantly, frequently and publicly.

Rachel Syme sees the selfie as an exercise in assertiveness and pride.

Avatars for the old

But never mind the young: how about older people swept up in life changes that are every bit as scary as the dawn of adulthood? We too wonder how we are supposed to look, especially when merely looking old is such a horrible fate, when President Obama takes the very word “old” as an insult. He bats away a student questioner who asks sincerely for his perspective on “aging toward a very senior life.”

“That’s pretty low!” replied Obama and “C’mon, you hurt my feelings.” All right, it was meant as a joke. But what are our options if looking old is not allowed? Dying young? Endless plastic surgery? Amortality?

If you’re on social media or in business or otherwise in the public eye, you’re obliged to display some photographs of your head and shoulders. As I get older, updating avatars and publicity photos has become somewhat intimidating.

Selfie-haters may righteously distinguish between avatars and selfies. But even if we just grab part of a casual shot for our avatar, we are still consciously manipulating the way we look, deliberately choosing the way we wish to be perceived. Who are we, now, at our age? Are we still carefree adolescents under the skin? And is that what others see? Doubt it!

Image from “The Book of Photography, Practical, Theoretical and Applied” (1905) Paul Hasluck and Arthur Hands. No known copyright restrictions.

Touchy about hearing loss?

It’s funny how people tend to be much more sensitive about damage to hearing than about impaired eyesight.

I certainly include myself in this over-sensitive group. Cheerfully I admit to hearing loss. Proudly I wear my cunning little Phonax hearing aids. But poke me the wrong way and I’ll still bristle with indignation.

Partly, I’m reacting to another funny thing about human nature: I’ve noticed that the more defensive people are about their own hearing, the more they are likely to comment on other people’s hearing.

So when a person with poor hearing comments on my poor hearing, logic flees. These two people are incapable of having a sensible conversation on the topic of hearing, because rumbling under the spoken words are other powerful silent messages, such as…

“Your hearing is worse than my hearing.”
“You need hearing aids.”
“Pot calling the kettle black.”

And our listening gets worse and worse. Neither of us can bear to hear certain truths.

During one such exchange recently, a sister had to step in and tell us two deafish persons to drop the subject. Our conversation was going nowhere. Hearing sensitivity had rolled us right into social ineptness. Stupidity. Craziness. Rudeness.

This is kind of weird, don’t you think? I never pick up on similar vibes about eyesight. Maybe that’s just me. I love glasses. If you’ve got it (poor eyesight), flaunt it—like Dame Edna Everage.

Day 2 of the new earthquake era

Wet roof over a wet city and one bare foot raised in a tai chi kick.
Doing tai chi as rain sets in. Good morning world!

Well, it’s about 60 hours since the big earthquake and my short exercise in expressive writing has already done its magic. In my last blog post I vented my secret thoughts and feelings, no matter how embarrassing.

3 meditation apps

Last night I slept brilliantly for nearly six hours and dozed nicely for two more, aided by a passive meditation with the little blue man (Andrew Johnson’s meditation phone app).

Then the morning routine begins. Meditate, ah, breathe slowly—nice. Then tai chi on the deck as rain set in—nice. I finish like this, hoping the neighbours don’t hear me:

“Good morning, world! What can I do for you today?”

Quick as a flash, the world replies: “Stop whinging.”

“OK. Got it!”

Yet again,  writing has done one of its magic tricks. Ruled a line under self pity—because I did my whinging well and truly, out loud, on this blog. And because the world (meaning you, dear readers) heard me with compassion, and validated me in my weakness.

So now I can stop whinging. I like to think I have turned my angst into energy.

Right. Time to get back to work. I love that…

What to do in an earthquake: write

Geonet earthquake app

You freeze until you register what’s happening: a long, strong earthquake shaking the bed east-west-east. And shaking. During that everlasting two minutes, you stop, drop and cover under a table or doorway.

The shaking stops and you put on random clothes and locate the bug-off bag in case you have to leave.

Immediately a series of aftershocks begins.

Earthquake routine: texting

Ever since the first Christchurch earthquake in October 2010 you keep your cellphone by the bed, fully charged. (To hell with the screen-free bedroom.) You text your children. You text your sisters. You text other apartment owners. You text friends. You answer text after text. Nearly everyone is OK.

You don’t call because you know that the cellphone system will be overloaded—you just send a short curt signal of love: xxx.

But some family have hurried to high ground, and others are stranded in Kaikoura with its broken roads and rivers and communications. Where are they? What are they doing?

Sucking up news

You consult geonet.org.com:

NZ Daylight Time, Mon, Nov 14 2016, 12:02:56 am. Depth, 15 km. Magnitude, 7.5 . Location, 15 km north-east of Culverden.

You download the Geonet app. Now it pops out information about every aftershock. Poppity-popp! Poppity-popp! They are almost continuous.

Recent earthquakes in New Zealand: every minute

You turn on Radio New Zealand. Two calm, competent, familiar women reporters are giving updates, humanising experiences, urging commonsense, calming fears, and giving a tsunami warning. (Oh Radio New Zealand, we need you! And the government wants to cut your funding!)

Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp. You feel useless and confused.  You escape into sleep for a couple of hours.

Return of Responsible Rachel

After the big earthquake Wellington looks OK to me… but …

You wake up, text some more, do Facebook, shower (we have water! we have sewers!), make breakfast (we have gas! electricity! food!)  Ferries are stopped—wharves and a rail bridge damaged.

You visit a few key people in your street and all is well. You do other Responsible Things.

Hey, we’re OK! For decades Wellington people have feared The Big One, knowing that our city squats on a major earthquake fault. We have just had a big one, and it was OK.

Every earthquake is different, and feels different in different places. 7.5 on the Richter scale is a very big earthquake, bigger than the first one that devastated Christchurch, but it’s different. Our 76-year-old reinforced concrete building stood firm and so far has survived without a scratch.

Not so fast…

You can’t settle. Everything you planned to do today is off. Gym closed, schools closed, city centre forbidden as buildings are inspected. There’s liquefaction near the harbour. Tsunami warnings go off and on. But the rubbish truck arrives on schedule, lovely lovely man making everything seem normal.

Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp.

Damage to road and rail near Kaikoura. Photo: NZTA

Then the extent of the damage starts to emerge. Two people have died. The main highway from Blenheim to Christchurch will take months to rebuild. Friend’s house is trashed. Railways closed. Stories. More stories.

Waiting, waiting, waiting

Text: Dad and Robyn are ok...yay! Kaikoura earthquake news

Thank you God. Our two precious people are still with us.

They have a story. I don’t have a story. I am just a blob in a building.

Wow! We just had 4 entire minutes between aftershocks! Then poppity-popp, here we go again.

I am fine fine fine. My family is fine fine fine.My house is fine fine fine. My city will be fine again — even if this is a beginning of an era, not an episode. This is a mere hiccup compared with the Kobe earthquake (which did traumatise me a bit) or the endlessly recycled torture inflicted on the people of Canterbury for the last six years.

Wellington had been New Zealand’s designated Earthquake City. Everyone knew we were sitting on a major fault line and were due to be shattered any time soon. We felt shocked and guilty when Canterbury was hit by apocalyptic quakes instead. Hey, wrong address!

I’ve completed certain mindless tasks. Erased markings on the score of Donizetti’s Requiem that our choir sang yesterday. Did a load of laundry. Played solitaire.

Feeling another quake as we speak

Oh god that’s the tsunami hooter! I’m OK, I’m on a hill — but what’s happening on the beaches, in the harbour? Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp. And again. My heart speeds up in time with the shakes.

When in doubt, write

There’s nothing I can do for anyone else right now. Even talking on the phone is self-indulgent today. I want to stay close to home. I want to visit my daughters but I don’t trust the city to sit still long enough for me to walk to them. Anyway it’s pouring and gales are forecast. So I’m doing what comes naturally: writing.

In the process I have discovered various feelings and thoughts.

  • I feel like a fraud, an imposter
  • I’ve got survivor guilt because my city, Earthquake City, is sort of probably OK
  • I feel selfish and narcissistic and petty and unimportant because I’m writing my own boring story (which is not a story) for no good reason
  • I feel useless and unworthy and again guilty because I’m not out there helping
  • I feel a tiny shudder of PTSD, remembering Kobe
  • I feel stupid because I can’t think of anything better to do than write
  • I feel lonely, even though I could go and have a cup of tea with my friends next door.

Do not feel sorry for me—that was not my point!

As a writing teacher I know that this is a good thing to do: to write about your troubles. Not venting over and over again. Just purging those queer irrational thoughts and feelings once or twice. It is OK, it is normal to have abnormal thoughts and feelings in difficult times. And writing about them makes it easier to move on.

Except in this case, the earth will do the moving.

There! See! I made a joke! Told you writing was a good thing!

I would delete this blog post, except that it is an example about what you might write (for yourself alone) in a time of earthquakes. Write anything, however boring, however strange. It’s for you, not for other people. Writing helps.