A decade ago, a bored tweet landed standup comedian and singer Mitch Benn a book deal. What made him lose another isn’t quite so clear.
“I am a big, shambling doofus,” says Benn, a fixture on TV and radio, especially BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show. “It’s quite possible somewhere along the line I said the wrong thing to the wrong person, I don’t bloody know.”
Perhaps nobody actually liked his sci-fi novel Terra, he muses, when it was published in 2013 – to good reviews across the board, it must be said. The Guardian described Terra as “both comic and satirical, earning comparison with Douglas Adams, Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett – yet Benn’s extraterrestrial fable has its own distinct voice.”
“Or maybe sales were just crap?” Benn says now. “At one point I was told they’d all sold out, and they had to print some more. To be honest, I’ve never really found out what happened.”
In the summer of 2011, kicking his heels around London while waiting for his son’s passport to be renewed, Benn tweeted that he was bored and asked for suggestions for what to do. Gollancz, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of publisher Orion, replied that he should write a book for them.
So Benn went straight to Orion’s offices, and asked to speak to the person in charge of Gollancz’s Twitter account. From the meeting that followed came a two-book deal, for Terra and the 2015 sequel Terra’s World, both following a young girl who is accidentally orphaned by a extraterrestrial visiting Earth, who then whisks her away to be brought up on an alien planet.
Benn had always envisaged his series as a trilogy, so when Orion declined to publish the third book, he found it particularly disheartening that he’d only managed to have published two of the three. “I was pretty crushed, to be honest,” he says. “I’d always gazed in envy at the literary world and for a year I’d been a part of it, been to literary festivals and events and done readings, and I absolutely loved it. Then I was kicked out of it.”
Hoping that two published books and a degree of fame would help, Benn signed up with a New York literary agency. It didn’t end well. He pitched a YA fantasy that he had to abandon because a similar sounding movie was then announced – and ultimately never released. His agent urged him to write something “like David Walliams”, though Benn wasn’t quite sure that Americans understood just how famous Walliams was: “You can’t help but suspect that Walliams’ massive public profile helps his sales, in part, and I obviously didn’t have that.”
When he pitched a fantasy novel in the vein of Riddley Walker, written entirely in a form of pidgin English, they threw their hands in the air. But Benn wouldn’t drop the idea, so the agency dropped him instead. A couple of years later, when Liz Hyder’s Bearmouth did the same and won a clutch of awards, Benn felt “like roadkill”.
That could have been it. “Then I said screw it, I’m going to write the third novel,” says Benn. “I had no idea what would happen to it. I half thought some plucky indie might publish all three. But I soon realised nobody would pay to release two already published novels that, for whatever reason, were deemed a failure, just to publish the third.”
Benn is now self-publishing all three Terra novels, with the all-new Terra’s War set to come out in March. He admits initially feeling very resistant to the idea of self-publishing; he prefers “indie publishing”, he says, as it sounds less like a vanity project. “Now I’m reduced to excreting out on Kindle when I was published by a house of great repute!” he says, with Withnail-esque mock outrage. But his self-confessed pomposity was burst when his partner, who works in marketing, sat down and ran the numbers with him.
“She said, look, you want the damn thing out there,” he says. “She said call in favours, and anything you can’t get for free, pay for. It’ll cost you about £2,000.”
Benn had started experimenting with posting paid-for standup content on fan subscription site Patreon before lockdown, and currently writes a column for the New European newspaper, so his income streams did not vanish during the pandemic, like many of his comedy colleagues. Lockdown and the extra time it provided galvanised him to finish Terra, and he’s pleased he kept at it.
“The quality of books you can produce now is almost indistinguishable to the reader to anything put out by a major publisher,” he says. “Terra was republished two-and-a-half months after I had the idea to do it, instead of a year and a half. I have control over everything, even the cover art. If I’d thought the books were crap I’d have never republished them or written the third. But I believed they were good. I was just never really sure why they didn’t succeed.”
He pauses. “Whether this means I will be readmitted to the citadels of literature – that remains to be seen.”