Commentary: Small Presses. North meets South on the M1

Nicholas Royle on how his first novel was rescued from oblivion after years of rejection

It must be nice to sell your first novel to one of the big houses and have them pay the sort of money for it that requires a small fortune to be spent on marketing and promotion. But I wouldn't go back and swap my experience for anybody's. I'll never forget the thrill of seeing a finished copy of Counterparts for the first time, in the car park at Woodall Services on the M1 on 11 September 1993. I was on my way north to a football match, my publisher was heading south to a wedding.

My publisher was Barrington Books, a one-man operation run by Christopher Kenworthy from his parents' house in Preston. Kenworthy had first contacted me two years earlier to ask if I would contribute a short story to an anthology, The Sun Rises Red, to appear under his own imprint. Since I'd collected five years' worth of rejection letters for Counterparts, and was impressed by The Sun Rises Red when it appeared in 1992, I asked Kenworthy if he'd consider my novel for publication. He said he'd love to read it, even though he wasn't in a position to publish it - Barrington might stretch to one more anthology (Sugar Sleep, 1993), but nothing more.

He read Counterparts and liked it, but his hands were tied. Time passed. In 1993 he wrote again: some money had turned up and he wanted to publish the novel. I waited until 20 March, my 30th birthday, to accept his offer (profit share, no advance), since Iain Banks had told me that was precisely his age when he'd accepted the offer for The Wasp Factory.

The novel was launched in London in October of that year, Kenworthy having distributed the book himself. He did everything he had promised to do and didn't cock up once, making him unusual among publishers. He had sent Counterparts to all the broadsheet literary editors and to a list of reviewers who we thought might not instantly dismiss it because it was written and published by people they had never heard of. The reason why Jonathan Coe decided to review it in the Guardian, we found out later, was because on the day he received his copy, he also received an invitation from another Nicholas Royle, author of Telepathy and Literature (1990, Blackwell), to contribute to a journal of Elizabeth Bowen studies. Half suspecting a wind-up and wondering whether he would hear from a third Nicholas Royle the following day, Coe reviewed the book anyway, very generously as it happened.

Luck was clearly on our side. I believe it was his review - and Roz Kaveney's in the TLS - that prompted Penguin (which had twice rejected it) to buy the rights to Counterparts and to my second novel, Saxophone Dreams (1996). That both these novels are now out of print is no reflection on the performance of Barrington Books, whose handsome, limited-edition paperback original of Counterparts had sold out quickly, netting a small profit.

Kenworthy edited a final anthology, The Science of Sadness (1994), before closing the imprint to concentrate on his own writing. He is now an accomplished author of fiction, as anyone who has read his collection of stories Will You Hold Me? (The Do-Not Press) or his superb story "The Wish-bone Bag" in The Time Out Book of Paris Short Stories (Penguin) may know. Watch out, too, for his forthcoming debut novel, Summer in Mordor (Serpent's Tail).

Nicholas Royle's latest novel, "The Matter of the Heart", is published by Abacus (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world