With three commercially successful novels published in her native Australia, Fiona Higgins is known for her page-turning stories of contemporary life. Her 2012 debut The Mothers’ Group was a bestseller, as were her follow-ups Wife on the Run and Fearless. They’ve been published in France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Fiona hoped that with An Unusual Boy, her fourth novel, she’d achieve the goal of publication in the United States and the UK. As her friend and former literary agent (when I lived in Australia), I’ve been Fiona’s developmental editor since her first book. She asked me to send the manuscript to Allen & Unwin, the publishing house that had supported her previous novels with the sort of marketing campaigns most authors only dream of.
Because I knew it was her best book yet, I agreed. We sent her book off and waited, hoping for a positive response.
Instead, she was soundly rejected. Why?
Here’s the story premise of An Unusual Boy
The protagonist is 11-year-old Jackson Curtis. While his life is normal from the outside—with loving but harried parents, two sisters, and a hectic school schedule—Jackson is different from everyone else. Jackson’s brain functions differently from other people’s—health professionals have described it as ‘neuro-diverse’—which leads to misunderstandings and challenges in everything from daily routines to learning and, most significantly, human relationships.
Jackson is present during a disturbing event in an elementary school restroom. His lack of understanding of what takes place there lands him in serious trouble with the police, which has a cascading effect on the world in which he and his family live. The story is advanced through the perspective of Jackson, whose endearing qualities only make his predicament more poignant, and that of his dedicated mother, Julia, who does everything she can to defend her unusual boy from a world set up for ‘normal’.
The first unexpected rejection was followed by a slew of others. The rejection notes never alluded to quality. Each and every one stated that the novel was a wonderfully written, page-turning read—Fiona’s best work to date, even—but invariably referenced marketing. A child protagonist who is neuro-atypical did not constitute an ‘easy sell’, the notes suggested. Did parents really want to read about vulnerability and difference, despite its sensitive depiction?
The most polite variation on the theme was the refrain: We wouldn’t know how to position the book in the market.
So Fiona turned to the slush pile
Frustrated but determined, Fiona came across the website of London-based Boldwood Books. Established by publishing industry veteran Amanda Ridout, Boldwood is an independent publisher of commercial fiction, focusing on social media to drive word of mouth, and word of mouth to drive sales online. Since publishing their first books in August 2019, sales are approaching 2 million books, with 20 top-ten sellers in countries around the world from authors such as Shari Low and Giselle Green. Boldwood won Independent Newcomer Publisher of the Year 2020 at the IPG Independent Publishing Awards.
Fiona submitted An Unusual Boy to Boldwood through the publisher’s website. She believed that Boldwood’s electronic slush pile was a worthwhile bet given that all publishing doors in her home territory had closed to her.
“I fell in love with Jackson from the moment I met him,” says Sarah Ritherdon, Higgins’s editor at Boldwood. “Jackson is engaging, funny, endearing and maddening all at the same time, and I found his voice instantly compelling. As the mother of two boys myself, I also found Julia [Jackson’s mother] instantly relatable—I could imagine being her friend, and I wanted the best for her family.
“When it came to my judgment as a publisher, I never had a moment of pause. Fiona Higgins is a masterful storyteller, who leads us along relatively serenely until the dramatic moment she puts her characters in a truly terrible situation, a mother’s worst nightmare in fact. From that page on we are breathless and captivated all the way to the last page. Now I can tell you, as an editor, that kind of storytelling talent is rare. I knew I had to publish it.”
Boldwood had no reservations about the storyline or positioning the book in a much larger global market, and made Fiona an offer to publish An Unusual Boy.
Taking the publishing path less travelled
While thrilled to finally receive an offer from a reputable publisher, Fiona had to weigh the pros and cons of their model. She knew and had benefited from elements of the traditional book deal: the advance against sales, the sale or return method of ordering and replenishing books from the publisher’s warehouse, the publicity and marketing plan customized to the author’s home territory. With each book she had been paid an advance upfront as a show of the publisher’s confidence in the book’s ability to generate sales and thereby earn back the sum advanced to her.
But Boldwood offers its authors a much higher proportion of royalties in place of a traditional advance. It also publishes in nine formats simultaneously—from physical copies in some locations, to print on demand, ebook and audio editions—which they believe “offer[s] authors opportunities across the board,” according to Sarah Ritherdon. Their focus is on leveraging social media internationally for sales wherever the book piques reader interest.
Fiona had to take on faith Boldwood’s ability to generate sales—and royalty income—for months after a global launch.
After careful consideration, Fiona accepted Boldwood’s offer, and they published An Unusual Boy in October 2020. In her home territory of Australia, Boldwood also took the additional step of partnering with Australia’s largest online bookseller, Booktopia, to produce a trade paper format of the novel to cater to those readers still committed to traditional print copies.
Takeaways for other authors
The experience continues to unfold for Fiona, who is relishing the experiment with Boldwood in such uncertain times.
“Publishing is changing and during this pandemic, people are seeking solace in books,” Fiona says. “Now more than ever, we read to know we’re not alone. There’s a place for all kinds of storytelling, in all manner of formats, all around the world. Traditional publishing remains strong, but alternatives are flourishing too. That’s good for everyone—for publishers, for writers, and especially for readers. I’m glad this story finally found its place in the world, because it’s an important story—about difference, social inclusion and deconstructing the idea of ‘normal’. Any parent will tell you, when it comes to family life, there’s simply no such thing as normal.”
The irony of this ‘unusual’ path to publication for her latest novel isn’t lost on Fiona, either. “The fact that it was a struggle to get An Unusual Boy published is actually quite apt. It’s almost a grand metaphor for what it’s like parenting a neuro-atypical child—families like Jackson’s are living the road less travelled every single day. It’s inspiring and challenging and vulnerable and wonderous all at once.”
It’s early days, but An Unusual Boy is getting traction with five-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and raves from popular authors such as Sally Hepworth, suggesting that Boldwood editor Sarah Ritherdon’s instincts about the novel were sound.
Irrespective of traditional or innovative publishing models, the path to publication remains a long and winding one, with serious questions for aspiring authors to consider at every step. The unusual publication story of An Unusual Boy demonstrates that no matter the publishing road taken, stamina, determination and resilience remain the essential qualities for any author aspiring to see their work published by a third party.