My Writing Life: Catherine Ryan Hyde

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Catherine Ryan Hyde is famous for writing Pay it Forward, the touching novel about a chain-reaction of kindness that was made into one of the most inspiring (and cry-inspiring) films in recent memory. She is the author of numerous other acclaimed novels, as well as the recent, KWL-published The Long, Steep Path: Everyday Inspiration from the Author of Pay it Forward. She talked to us about the creative and business challenges she’s faced in her career, and about why she decided to try self-publishing.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

Years ago, I was waiting for my first novel, Funerals for Horses, to hopefully be picked up by a publisher. This was in 1996, long before ebooks, and before indie publishing was the viable option it is today. Authors needed publishers back then.

The book had been at Grove Atlantic for over a year. There was one editor there who just loved it, but was having trouble getting enough in-house support. But she kept stringing us along, thinking she could still make something happen.

Then my very small agent found a very small start-up press who wanted to bring it out the following spring. But what if I could still have sold it to the venerable Grove Atlantic?

I called my mentor and asked him what I should do. He said my agent should write to Grove Atlantic and tell them Funerals for Horses was no longer on the market, but that she hoped we could work together in the future on a project they could meet with more enthusiasm. Of course, this was not the advice I expected, or wanted. So I asked why. Well, it was whinier than that. I asked, “Whhhyyyy?”

He said, “Because the way they’re treating you now is the way they’re going to treat you after signing.”

That was the best piece of advice I ever got, and not a bad advertisement for indie publishing.

Do you believe in Writer’s Block?

Yes and no. I think to call it writer’s block gives it far too much power. I think it’s undeniable that the work sometimes stalls. But I have found there’s always a reason why it stalls. I’ve taken a wrong turn, or the work just is not working at some level. When I unlock that mistaken direction, the work moves forward again. So I’ve come to see it as a useful tool that keeps me from going miles in the wrong direction.

In fact, in Anne R Allen’s and my “How to be a Writer in the E-Age…And Keep Your E-Sanity,” (which is available on Kobo) I have a whole chapter entitled, “Is Writer’s Block Trying to Tell You Something?”

What made you decide to self-publish?

I had a string of novels that were being traditionally published in the UK. In fact, one of them, Love in the Present Tense, broke the top ten, spent five weeks on the national bestseller list, was reviewed on a major TV book club, and shortlisted for a Best Read of the Year Award at the British Book Awards. And yet I couldn’t find a new publisher here. Doubleday had dropped me because the book didn’t do as well in the U.S., and didn’t justify the big advances they had paid. The industry was contracting and going through its shake-up. Novel after novel was coming out to good reception in the U.K., yet my US readers couldn’t get them.

My agency offered to help shepherd me through the indie publishing process, and we’ve enjoyed amazing success. So much so that it’s made me wonder why publishers couldn’t sell as many copies of these books as I can on my own.

5 comments

  • “Because the way they’re treating you now is the way they’re going to treat you after signing.”

    Those are awesome words of advice. Your mentor was a wise man.

    I’m in the same position as you are – as a hybrid writer – only nobody has made a movie out of my work (yet). I’ve worked with quite a few publishers. The folks I’m with for my regional work – Nimbus Publishing – have always treated me well.

    Some of the other small press outfits – have been less kind. But at that point in time a writer is a little desperate. I know I was. You want to hang on to any sort of chance you believe you’ve got.

    These days I’ve learned the hard way. If a publisher is late in their payments, late on their replies to your questions, slow to fan the promotional fires for your work – then I sort of cross them off of my list and move forward.

    Welcome to the world of indie-publishing Catherine and welcome to Kobo. I’m new here myself – but the Kobo-gods have treated me very kindly.

    • Thanks for your input, Steve, and best of luck to you with your writing projects. The movie adaptation is not the magic bullet we think it will be. I’m not complaining, believe me. But it’s quite easy to watch your career tank post-adaptation. I’ve done it a couple of times. Still, it’s better than no movie, and I hope a big-screen adaptation finds your work.

  • “To call it writer’s block gives it far too much power.”

    A very astute observation & one I completely agree with. The “stall” means I’ve made a mistake somewhere: I’ve told too much. Or not enough. Or not in the right order. Or a character isn’t working. Unless the answer comes to mind quickly, I go back to Page One and read until the dilemma is clear. It’s a slow and painstaking process—just like writing—but the problem does get solved with patience and persistence.

    I’m delighted to see you on Kobo! I find publishing here a simple and even elegant process.

    • Hi Ruth, and thanks. Yes, that’s similar to the process I described in Anne’s and my book, How to be a Writer in the E-Age. Going back to the start and seeing if I can locate the wrong turn. And thanks for the welcome to Kobo. Nice to be here!

  • Ester Benjamin Shifren

    I have self published and find myself amazed at the success I’ve been having. I’m a public speaker and am getting many calls, some international, to speak on my subject. I’ve been speaking for years and decided I couldn’t do the agent-publisher-waiting game-rejection cycle, so, after polishing my work I went ahead and self published. Now when speaking I have a printed book and keynote presentation. I’ve recently uploaded to kindle, and will soon upload to Kobo and other e-readers.

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