Looking Back…The First eNovel to be Nominated For The Booker

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By Martin Boylan

1995 was a year of vast change in the publishing industry. Big publishers were eating up small publishers, best sellers ruled the waves, the small independent publishers were vanishing, and there was no time for publishers to cultivate unconventional writers.

The writer and the philosopher met in London. They considered literature too important to be determined solely by the bottom line. Their idea was: cut out the printing and distribution costs, concentrate on the quality of the writing and the editing, and deliver an e book to readers via their computers and laptops. They founded the first online only publisher: Online Originals.

At first, writers were a bit shy. It was unfamiliar territory, would publishing on line void their copyright. Their fears were unfounded. David Gettman, the American writer, composed the first e book title and submitted it for review. In the first year there were 16 titles. Sales climbed and Online Originals received 10 manuscripts per day. They were the first epublisher to introduce ISBN and the PDF file for computers, palm readers and laptops. There were articles, reviews and interviews in The Sunday Times, The Literary Supplement and The New York Times. Then in 1998, the e novel The Angels of Russia (Online Originals) by Patricia Leroy (a Scotish novelist based in Paris) was nominated for the Booker prize.

Interviews followed in all the publications and there were hundreds of news articles. Stephen King gave ebooks a boost in 2000 – giving away free half a million ebooks of one of his titles. Frederick Forsythe followed by publishing one of his novels online. The dot com collapse around 2000 was a setback, but the age of the e book had definitely arrived, and Online Originals started to introduce a “peer review” system of selecting novels for publication.

I first came across Online Originals around 2008 when I was browsing through the Artists and Writers yearbook. Up to then, my main writing credits had been in plays – 4 stage plays(2 at the Abbey), around twenty radio plays for BBC and RTE, and a screenplay for RTE. My one book publication was a stage play, Thompsons, produced at the Abbey. My novel, The Jealous God, had been around a number of conventional publishers and had received a number of “good” rejections but no firm offer of publication. I decided to submit my novel to their”peer review” selection process.

Ten of their novelists offer themselves as reviewers. You pay £40 to the writer who give it a detailed critique – and rates the novel on a scale of 1 to 10. If two writers give your novel a rating of 9 or more, then the book is deemed worthy of publication. My novel, The Jealous God, was set in the Belfast of the fifties, where I grew up, and was inspired by a huge sectarian scandal of those times.

Cover shot for The Jealous God by Martin BoylanThe two writers I picked – Patricia Leroy (the Booker prize nominee) and Rayne Arnaud (a French novelist) – both gave it a rating of 9. Their critiques gave a detailed assessment of the novel and suggestions on how it could be improved. Some of these found their way into the final manuscript.

On acceptance, David Gettman, the Director, sent a letter of congratulations and a contract. The signing of the latter gives Online Originals full electronic rights indefinitely. David hired a cover designer and undertook the editing of the novel himself. There then followed long detailed emails of the Ms over several months and negotiations on editing issues. All these costs were borne by Online Originals and when the novel was ready for publication it just suddenly appeared on their website with information about the author and instructions on how to download the novel – the charge was £6 per download, and the author receives 50% of this, paid every six months.

Since 2008, the publishing scene has changed dramatically. Up until about two years ago, there was a big resistance by the general public to reading e books. Readers, including me, weren’t used to enjoying a novel in front of their computers screens. The arrival and popularity of the kindle/ipad has changed all that. On a recent holiday, about a third of the people around the swimming pool were reading on a kindle. This has hit the bookstores, but they are fighting back and eventually an accommodation will be reached – each playing to their strengths.

The electronic rights of a novel, considered unimportant a few years ago, are now considered to be of primary importance. Indeed, a conventional publisher will often insist on owning these rights before he will publish. Online Originals have started publishing their titles (including The Jealous God) on Amazon kindle/ibookstore sites to avail of the hundreds of millions of potential readers. The ebook revolution and the speed of change has taken a lot of writers unaware. The internet operates best as a social medium – twittering and blogs are the order of the day. Writers, who go into a room to create imaginary worlds, are often the opposite of social. But the challenge is here and will have to be faced. New non-traditional skills will have to be mastered to negotiate the turbulent channels of the vast internet ocean.

(c) Martin Boylan

Martin Boylan was born in Belfast and educated at Queen’s university. He started writing in Canada and had some short stories broadcast on CBC. Four of his stage plays have been produced – “ Mick and Ed” (The Abbey theatre), Thompsons (The Abbey theatre), Georgina (The United Arts club) and The Making of Father Sullivan (Anglo-Irish theatre, Tubingen, Germany). The latter play received the  O Z Whitehead award for playwrighting. Martin has had some twenty radio plays produced by the BBC, RTE and Channel 4 radio – inclusive of comedy series. He also has a screenplay credit, “ Thompson”, for RTE. He lives in Dublin with his wife, Catherine, and his daughters Emily and Yvonne. The Jealous God is his first published novel.

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