Wednesday 28 June 2017

Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World

Caitlin Davies in Victorian bathing costume
during the Dickens festival at Broadstairs
Caitlin Davies is a novelist, non-fiction writer, journalist, and teacher. She’s also an outdoor swimmer, whether in the Hampstead ponds, the mighty River Thames or the glorious sea in Margate, and all three settings feature prominently in Daisy Belle.

Caitlin was born in London in 1964, and after training as an English teacher she moved to Botswana where she became a journalist for the country’s first tabloid newspaper, the Voice. While working as editor of the Okavango Observer she was arrested for ‘causing fear and alarm’, and also received a Journalist of the Year award. Many of her books are set in the Okavango Delta, where she lived for 12 years, including the critically acclaimed memoir Place of Reeds.

After returning to England she became a regular feature writer for The Independent, and for the past three years she’s worked as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Westminster, Harrow.

Caitlin’s main interest lies in the buried lives of women from the past, and her five novels include The Ghost of Lily Painter, based on a true case of Edwardian baby farming.

She is the author of six non-fiction books, including Bad Girls: A Century of Women and Crime at Holloway Prison, to be published by John Murray in March 2018.

Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World, is a novel about love, betrayal and swimming, inspired by the career of Agnes Beckwith, a champion Victorian swimmer who was once world famous but is now largely forgotten.

The novel opens in Margate in 1864, where two-year-old Daisy first learns to swim. When her father Jeffrey is appointed Swimmer Professor at the Lambeth Baths, the family move to London where Daisy makes her debut in Professor Belle’s Family of Frogs.

At the age of 14 she becomes the first female to swim the Thames, her father capitalizes on her fame and she begins to perform in a whale tank at the Royal Aquarium, a palace of amusement in Westminster. But after a near death experience and the realization that her father is not the man she thought he was, Daisy escapes his swimming kingdom and flees back to Margate.

Here she saves Dob McGee, a celebrated sports journalist who almost drowns during a boating trip. Dob becomes her husband and manager, and together they set off to America where Daisy will attempt to make history by swimming across New York harbour.

But Dob has his own motives for the tour, and he persuades her to perform ever more dangerous feats. Daisy Belle will have to fight for her right to the title of Lady Swimmer of the World, aided by her brother Billy, her love for American long distance swimmer Johnnie Heaven, and her heartbreaking battle to keep her baby daughter, Hettie.

Daisy Belle is a story of courage and survival and a tribute to the swimmers of yesteryear. The book is due to be published by
Unbound if Caitlin can get enough pledges by the end of August.

Can you tell us how this new publishing venture came about?

I’ve been reading about Unbound since they launched five years ago and wanted to try this new publishing route. I like the idea that you go direct to potential readers.

What is the difference between traditional publishing and Unbound?

Unbound is traditional in some ways, the subscription model of publishing goes back hundreds of years, so this is a 21st version. It means readers decide what books they want to see published by ‘pledging’ in advance – in other words, placing a pre order. The pledges are used to publish the book, and they then receive a beautiful copy of the final product as well as their name printed in every edition as a patron.

As with traditional publishing, you have to pitch your idea first, with a full synopsis and the first few chapters. I’ve been told that Unbound accepts around a third of proposals, and that only two thirds of the ones they do accept then get funded, so it’s by no means an easy route to take.

You don’t get an advance up front, instead you raise pledges via their website and then split the future sales of the book 50/50. With a traditional publisher, an author gets nearer 10%. You also don’t need an agent to publish with Unbound, and you can join a community of Unbound authors on a Facebook page where people share their joys and frustrations.

What made you choose this route?

I’ve been published by several publishers – big and small – and this is a new way of doing things. Unbound authors appear to be closely involved in the whole publication process, they choose whether they want a hardback or paperback, and discuss what amount they need to raise to make the project work. There is a lot of marketing involved, but authors are expected to do this with traditional publishers too.

The book is called Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World. Can you tell us about the book including the history of how you came to write it?

It’s a novel based on the real-life stories of female swimming champions from Victorian times. It was inspired by a non-fiction book I wrote in 2015, Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames, which was when I first came across a girl called Agnes Beckwith, a teenage champion of the 1870s. I was so amazed by her story that I wrote Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World based on Agnes’ life. It opens in Margate in 1862 and follows Daisy Belle as she becomes, against all the odds, champion lady swimmer of the world.

Why do you think authors are beginning to choose more untraditional routes to get their books published?

Because they’re fed up! Getting an agent is hard (and without an agent you can’t approach most publishers, even small independent presses), getting access to publishers is hard, and getting published and earning a living as a writer is the hardest it’s been for at least a decade. Often writers are told there is ‘no market’ for their book, so with Unbound they decide to find the market and the readers themselves. It also provides an opportunity for writers who may be ignored by traditional publishers, or who have an idea that the sales and marketing department say won’t make money.

What is the process and the next steps for Daisy Belle?

First I need to raise enough pledges – in 19 days I’ve reached 65% of the target, which is brilliant but there is still a way to go. Then the novel will go through the normal process – a structural edit, copyediting, design etc. – which takes around 6-9 months. Unbound is a publishing company, and distributes its books through Random House, so your novel gets into bookshops.

What advice would you give writers who are thinking of going down the route of self-publishing?

Unbound is not self-publishing so I can’t really give any advice on that! But for writers thinking about Unbound I would say plan things carefully, you will need to find enough people who are able and willing to pre order your book – a book that they won’t actually see in their hands for at least 6 months. This may be a downside with Unbound; if a writer is isolated then I don’t know how easy it would be to raise the right amount, if you didn’t have family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues, plus the ability to reach people through social media. Having said that, some Unbound writers have raised the full amount in a matter of weeks with no social media presence at all, while others with millions of followers on twitter have given up.

Publishing with Unbound is a LOT of work, you need to pitch your project, work out your pledge levels, write your own synopsis and biography, put together an extract, and then be prepared to spend several hours a day every day getting the word out there. I’ve been told by others who have crowdfunded that the main thing is to be ‘shameless’! You are basically marketing and promoting your own (unpublished) book, so clearly you need to believe in it and be prepared for the highs and lows.

To learn more about Daisy Belle, to watch a short video trailer and to read more about the pledges click

Unbound on Twitter: @unbounders

Follow Caitlin on Twitter: @CaitlinDavies2

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