It all began in May 2009 when I phoned my publisher at Allen & Unwin to say that there was Hollywood film interest in my previous book Breaking the Bank: An Extraordinary Colonial Robbery. Breaking the Bank book tells the story of Australia's largest-ever bank robbery. In 1828 convicts tunnelled through a sewerage drain into the vault of the Bank of Australia – the “gentlemen’s bank” – and stole the equivalent (in today’s terms) of $20 million. In the recent Good Reading Review of Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady, the reviewer referred to the bank robbery as one of “epic proportions in early colonial times” – a just description (by the way, there are only a couple of hundred copies of Breaking the Bank still available so it will soon be out of print; you can ask a bookshop to order it in, or purchase it through my Orders page).
As it turned out, nothing came of the film interest (it rarely does) but during the conversation my publisher asked me what I was thinking about for my next book and suggested that I find a strong female character. I then mentioned something that had piqued my interest. Sometime previously, I had been giving a talk at a historical society and afterwards, as everyone had afternoon tea, I heard a couple of women mention the phrase “female bushranger”. I immediately pricked up ears and asked about her. They became very reserved, wouldn’t tell me the women’s name, and said that someone else was writing about her. I told my publisher the story and concluded: “Pity about that. They have their dibs on that story.” To which she responded, “No one has their dibs on anything and, anyway, they wouldn’t write the story like you do!”
So I put down the phone and googled “female bushranger” (ain’t the internet wunnerful!) and up she came. Mary Ann Bugg. Fiesty, beautiful, intelligent, educated and part Aboriginal – five ticks there! And she was the lover of the “gentleman bushranger” Captain Thunderbolt, Frederick Ward!!! It was one of those goose-bumps all over moment. What a wonderful story. Twenty minutes later I emailed my publisher to say that I had found the perfect story and would pitch it.
So what does “pitching a book” mean?
There are a few different ways that authors can get published. They can write a manuscript, or just an outline, and send it off to a publishing house (that is, “pitch it”) where it gets tossed into the “slush pile” – the pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Of every 500 unsolicited manuscripts that land in a publisher’s slush pile, 499 are essentially binned, with a polite rejection letter sent to the author. I was incredibly lucky with my first book, however. I sent my first manuscript as an unsolicited manuscript to Allen & Unwin alone, figuring that when I received the rejection letter I would work out why they hadn’t liked it, then I would rejig it and approach another publisher, continuing the process until I had exhausted the publishing possibilities. Instead, only two-and-a-half weeks after posting the manuscript, I received a phone call from my now publisher. The manuscript became An Irresistible Temptation: the true story of Jane New and a Colonial Scandal (Allen & Unwin, 2006).
Or the author can find a literary agent and have them “pitch the book” to publishers. As surprising as it might sound, it is harder to acquire the services of a literary agent than it is to get a manuscript published! Why? Because many books have only a small print-run so it is not cost-effective for literary agents to devote time to pitching these books. I was fortunate enough to acquire the services of a literary agent when I was ready to pitch my second book, Breaking the Bank.
With this latest book, I was pitching a story I hadn’t written – very difficult as I had to prepare a synopsis of the story and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown for something that I hadn’t even researched. So I went to my old Macquarie University library and looked for books about bushranging in general and Captain Thunderbolt in particular. As I read through those, I began to work out how I would tackle the story. I prepared the pitch and sent it off to my literary agent, who approached my publisher at Allen & Unwin. She loved the concept and pitched it to her own editorial committee – the publishing gatekeepers – and received the affirmative nod. The contract was signed in August 2009. I then began the huge job of going back to the original primary-source records to determine the truth about Fred Ward and Mary Ann Bugg.