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Educated at Boston University and the University of St. Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider; and regularly performs the music of the period as a pianist and accompanist. Bennetts has been a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor.
The author is married and lives in England.
I first signed with an agent for May 1812 back in February 2000.
I had been submitting to agencies since the previous summer, and despite some initial misgivings about this particular agent, I was so chuffed to have an agent that I signed on the dotted line. However, over the next six or seven months it became clear that as a writer-agent duo, we were wholly incompatable. She had never read any other works of historical fiction, she didn't know the historical fiction market, nor the literary fiction market either, and although she kept promising to read this or that and really get to know the market, this didn't happen. Meanwhile, she was issuing various decrees about historical fiction--based on no evidence whatsoever--and making promises, none of which she ever kept. Whether it was things that she'd do, people she'd talk to, what of the novel she would have read and have comments on--none of it happened. And her phonecalls became increasingly abusive. So, eventually, I sacked her. Cue further abuse. But then, blessedly, she went away and I never heard from her again.
However, after this experience, I was feeling rather bruised and not that eager to seek agencies' representation again. An in then opened for me to send the novel to one of the top history editors in the country, who read the book, loved it, found my research and understanding of the period awe-inspiring--but, her firm did not publish fiction. She did however, give me entrees to three fiction editors whom she felt would be interested.
So I submitted to them. And got three brush-offs.
I then decided to brave the agencies again. And this time, I gained the attention of a fine agent at one of the older agencies in London. I met with her one hot summer afternoon, and already she had three pages of notes and suggestions for May 1812. She was in every way quite superb and was also very interested in my most recent work, Of Honest Fame, which by then I had started. I went home with her notes and set to work revising, extending, clarifying and rewriting. And I will say this--a good agent, as she proved, is worth their weight in gold. Everything she said was spot on, 100% right and went to making the book so much stronger--and for that I shall always thank her. However, by late autumn, she had had to resign her position due to ill-health. So there I was unagented again.
Once again, I began the rounds of agent submissions. By this time, I felt that the agencies had become quite arrogant and it's truthful to say that for every three submissions I made which included an SAE, I would only receive two back. The others just didn't bother.
One agency did request a full and their reader loved the book, even burnt her children's dinner because she was so engrossed, but the agent himself would only represent me if I agreed to cut out at least 3/4 of the history and certainly the centrepiece of the Prime Minister's assassination, and rewrite the thing as a romance. I refused.
During all this time too, I continued to research both the period of the early 19th century and the assassination of the Prime Minister on 11 May 1812, and therefore continued to rethink, edit and rewrite.
I then met a commissioning editor from one of the big UK publishers at a writing conference. I pitched, she listened, then said she wanted the whole sequence of four novels I was proposing. I was elated. There was an exchange of emails. But by the end of the summer, she'd reneged on the whole.
Several months later, I heard about Authonomy. And when eventually it did go live, I uploaded May 1812. That was late August 2008. This was, I felt, the opportunity to put my theory to the test. For I'd been convinced that I had written a book for readers to love, to read, to reread--a book that wasn't just a book, but a lifelong friend. The response was far greater than I had ever anticipated. Much to my surprise, and not a little hesitation on my part, it was on the Editor's Desk in January 2009. (This was all before any of the spamming or the Star-whatsit invasion.)
With my Gold Star thus in hand, I again began submitting to agencies--though now the return rate for submissions was even worse--one out of every two didn't bother to return material or reply.
However, by this time, I also had Of Honest Fame up on Authonomy and this novel was also doing well there.
The agency which I'd refused to sign with earlier again came calling and wanted to talk. A meeting in early summer was arranged. I will say all I can of that meeting by describing it as surreal. It's always gratifying to hear oneself described as one of the best writers of the decade, but there seemed to be no connection with that and other comments made. Their proposal? They had read all I'd written of Of Honest Fame and they wanted to see it turned into a "historical Spooks", with Jesuadon as a Regency James Bond and fresh totty in every book. And the title would have to be changed, of course, they said; this startled me too--it's Byron...
About the length of May 1812, they kept telling me that it had to be cut down to 120K and that the only author who could get away with more than that was Penny Vincenzi who had just written one at 140K, but she was Penny Vincenzi.
The thing is, this was all a bit lost on me as I'd never heard of her and had no idea what the woman wrote.
(When it was subsequently explained to me, I still couldn't understand why she was used as a barometer for historical fiction--but there you go, I never understand these sorts of things. But this also explained to me--in a sideways kind of way--that what they meant for Of Honest Fame was to turn it into Asda/Walmart fare. Again, a mis-fire on their part. I've never been to Asda or Walmart, though from what I understand neither May 1812 or Of Honest Fame are the kind of thing that sells well there...)
Nevertheless, I was determined to give it a go and I did try to cut May 1812 down...It had been up on Authonomy at 212K, and although I had dozens of requests for the full read, thus proving that readers didn't find it overlong or over-complex, I wanted to do what I could, although I did feel that if they were asking me to cut it in half, they didn't really want that novel, they didn't want the emotional or character development of that novel, they wanted, well, I don't know what they wanted, but it wasn't May 1812. Still, I did cut about 30K in that first pass.
Meanwhile, Diiarts had approached me with an offer that was looking better and better with each day. There were no attempts to belittle or undercut my intelligence or my experience as a writer or in the publishing business (I'd been a well-known book critic for twenty years...) and there was huge goodwill. Plus, the publisher LOVED my work. And when I mentioned that I was hugely influenced by Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities for example, this wasn't greeted with a look of blank incomprehension.
Finally, a close friend read what I had done to the opening of May 1812 in order to cut so much, and told me frankly that I'd killed it. Which was gutting, to put it mildly. However, this was eventually followed by the advice to put it back. And after weeks of not knowing what to do, that decided it for me. I called Diiarts and said, "It's yours."
Since then, I've been pursued by another publisher and another agency. But I've said "Thank you, I am most flattered, but no."
Diiarts brought out May 1812 in November 2009. And over the past ten months I have written and finished its companion, Of Honest Fame,which was released on 8 October 2010. So it's been an immensely busy year. Mad in some ways, I suppose.
I remain immensely grateful to Authonomy for giving me the opportunity to by-pass the gatekeepers at the agencies. Because I do feel that during that decade they had wholly lost touch with those who buy books and read for pleasure, but also had developed a contempt for authors and authorial intelligence. I believe too that Authonomy changed the world of publishing in ways that we have only begun to glimpse. It put writers in touch with other writers from all over the world, so one discovered that it wasn't just one's own work that was being slighted. Lots and lots of excellent work was being passed over every day, always with the same arrogant dismissal, so it became less wounding, less personal and one could see it had to do with the business, not with oneself.
As for Diiarts, I can only say, "Thank you."
Of Honest Fame
Gambler, gaoler, soldier, sailor, smuggler, spyman, traitor, thief
A battle of wits against the brutal forces of Napoleon’s tyranny over Europe
A battle of wits against the brutal forces of Napoleon’s tyranny over Europe
On a summer night in 1812, a boy sets fire to a house in Paris before escaping over the rooftops. Carrying vital intelligence about Napoleon’s Russian campaign, he heads for England. But landing in Kent, he is beaten almost to death.
The Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, is desperate for the boy’s information. He is even more desperate, however, to track down the boy’s assailant – a sadistic French agent who knows far too much about Castlereagh’s intelligence network.
Captain George Shuster is a veteran of the Peninsula, an aide-de-camp to Wellington, now recalled from the continent and struggling to adjust to civilian life. Thomas Jesuadon is a dissolute, living on the fringes of society, but with an unrivalled knowledge of the seamy underside of the capital. Setting out to trace the boy’s attacker, they journey from the slums of London to the Scottish coast, following a trail of havoc, betrayal, official incompetence and murder. It takes an unlikely encounter with a frightened young woman to give them the breakthrough that will turn the hunter into the hunted.
Meanwhile, the boy travels the breadth of Europe in the wake of the Grande Armée, witnessing at first hand the ruination they leave behind and the awful price of Napoleon’s ambition.
This companion to M.M. Bennetts’s brilliant debut, May 1812, is a gripping account of deception, daring and determination, of intelligence and guile pitted against brutality. Bennetts brings to vivid life the harrowing devastation wrought on the civilian populations of Europe by Napoleon’s men, and the grit, courage and tenacity of those who stood against them.
Of Honest Fame was published in hardback in the UK on 1 October 2010, and worldwide in paperback and e-book formats on 1 December 2010.
Links - use http://www.diiarts.com/bookdetails.php?bookId=26 for the book, use http://www.mmbennetts.com/ for the blog, usehttp://bit.ly/ofhonestfame for online orders (free worldwide delivery), use http://www.diiarts.com/ohf.php for reading the first chapter online. I dare say the publisher might be prepared to put another chapter up online if there's a call for it, but I'll have to discuss it with the boss first.