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  • Barbara Copperthwaite

‘What initially seemed like a huge setback was actually a stepping stone to success’ Sio

When Siobhan Curham was dropped by her publisher she didn’t know how to carry on – financially or creatively. But she now has over 30 books published and has won three book awards. 

Siobhan, over to you!

I’ll never forget the day I experienced my greatest setback as an author. It truly felt like the end of the world and I sank to my kitchen floor, sobbing. After disappointing sales of my third novel, I had been dropped by my publisher. Overnight, I lost my sole source of income and, as a single mum to a young son, I was plagued by the fear that we would now lose our home.

It was a huge setback on a deeper, more personal level too. As a kid I’d loved reading and writing with a passion and had dreamed of one day becoming a published author. But when I got to uni and became aware of just how middle class the world of publishing and writing was, I suffered a massive crisis of confidence. I’d grown up on a London council estate and I started to believe that I didn’t belong in that world. I ended up dropping out of uni and getting a job in the complaints department for a frozen food company, where the only thing I got to write were grovelling apology letters for the disgusting things customers had found in their frozen peas! It had taken a lot of grit and determination to overcome my self doubt and write my first novel. And when it landed me a three book deal with Hodder & Stoughton I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought my dream of becoming a lifelong author had finally come true. To lose it all just a few years later was a crushing blow.

However, now I have the benefit of hindsight, I see that what initially seemed like a huge setback was actually a crucial stepping stone to success beyond my wildest dreams. 

 Once I’d picked myself up off the floor – literally! – I set to work brainstorming ways I could make a living from writing, in spite of the fact that I was no longer an author. Figuring that having three novels published had to count for something, I began touting my wares as an editor and writing coach. I contacted the Arts Department at my local council in London to offer my services and they gave me the gig of running a weekly writing group for adults in one of their libraries.

I can’t tell you how terrified I was when I turned up to run my very first writing group. All of the self doubts that had plagued me in university came back with a vengeance – especially when I over-heard one of the attendees remark that she didn’t rate Dickens as a writer. What the hell would she think of me?! But during my first few weeks of running the group something wonderful happened – I discovered that I loved helping other writers and that actually, instead of being a hindrance, my background helped me carve out a niche for myself. My writing group became an all-inclusive space, full of laughter and learning and free from any form of literary snobbery. The group grew and grew, and another London borough asked me to run an identical weekly workshop for them. Then I was asked to manage a London wide literature festival and a new theatre writing project, all with the same all-inclusive, diverse attitude. I also got a job working as an editor in children’s publishing and I started going into high schools running writing workshops for teens. 

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

It was at this point that the writing bug bit me again. Working with young adults reminded me of what a tough time the teenage years can be, and how much books had helped me when I was their age. I became filled with the desire to write and self publish a novel for young adults, dealing with some of the issues they face, in the hope that it might help.

The fact that I believed I’d never get another traditional book deal again weirdly worked in my favour, as I was able to write completely from the heart, without having to worry about keeping an agent or publisher happy. I’d been reading all about the advances in self-publishing and I felt excited at the prospect of having full creative control over my book. Because I’d written my novel Dear Dylan with the sole purpose of helping as many young people as possible I decided to give the e-book away for free. Then I sent copies of the paperback to young book bloggers in the hope that someone might review it. The whole experience felt fun and exciting because I had nothing to lose. Slowly but surely the book started being reviewed online and to my delight the reviews were hugely positive.

Then one day at work, I saw an appeal for a national book award in a publishing magazine. The appeal was to publishing houses to submit novels to the award. Buoyed up by the positive reviews my novel had been receiving I had the hare-brained idea to submit my own novel. But they’ll never accept it, it’s self-published, my inner voice of doom cried. But thankfully I managed to ignore it, reasoning that I had nothing to lose, other than the cost of postage. So I mailed a copy of the book off and promptly forgot all about it, until I received an email from the award organisers, telling me that it had been entered. I was surprised and delighted but really didn’t expect it to go any further – especially when I saw that all of the other books were from traditional publishers and well known authors. So imagine my shock when, a few months later, I got an email to say that Dear Dylan had made it to the final longlist of ten. Once again, I truly didn’t think it would get any further, but a few months later, I received an email when I was at work, telling me it had made it on to the shortlist! To get into the final five felt as good as winning and I had to go to the toilet at work and do a little celebratory jig in one of the cubicles!

The award ceremony was held in a London theatre. I’d been allocated two tickets – one for me and one for my publisher. As I was my publisher, I went alone. I was so convinced I wasn’t going to win it didn’t even occur to me to bring a friend! The ceremony was a magical experience and then finally it was time for the winner to be announced. When my name was called I thought I was the runner up. I went up on to the stage and the host handed me a huge bouquet of flowers, then a gold envelope. This is a great runner’s up prize, I remember thinking. Then she handed me a glass award. It was only when I saw Dear Dylan and my name engraved on it above the word ‘winner’ that the penny finally dropped!

I arrived home that night to find my son waiting up for me. ‘Well done, mum!’ he said, grabbing me in a hug. ‘I’m so proud of you. Oh, and by the way, there’s been an accident in my school bag.’ As he disappeared off to bed I cautiously peered into the bag, to discover that he’d put his wet swimming stuff in with his books and homework, which were now sodden.  And so I found myself on the biggest night of my writing career sitting on my living room floor attempting to dry out his books with my hairdryer, my national book award on the carpet beside me. I laughed until I cried tears of joy, remembering that day a few years previously, when I’d sunk sobbing to my kitchen floor, thinking we might lose our home. 

Winning that award changed everything for me. The following day my inbox was full of agents wanting to represent me. Dear Dylan ended up going to auction, with eight publishers bidding for it.

I’ve now had over 30 books published but I’ve never forgotten the vital lessons my biggest setback taught me. I continue to write for the joy of it and I refuse to define success in terms of book deals or sales figures. Now I deem something I’ve written a success if I’ve written it from the heart, and if it helps just one reader to feel better in some way.


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