In a couple of weeks, I'm going to reach a depressing milestone. On 18th May, it will have been a full two years since I signed what I naively thought could be a life-changing contract. I won the 2010 Chapter One Promotions International Short Story Prize. I haven't scooped many first places, but this one was a biggie. I don't really like to say how much cash was involved, although I'm sure people can Google it and find out. Suffice to say it's a prize well worth winning. The mistake I made was to assume the big prize fund equated to slick organisation and a professional approach to the writers who'd be published in the anthology.
To say I was excited to have won is an understatement. The whole thing was quite surreal - the day I got the call to tell me the result I was on my own, slogging away at renovating my house. It was mid-March and freezing cold. After the call I sat down on the bare floorboards and wondered whether I was the victim of an unnecessarily elaborate and cruel hoax.
But, no, eight weeks or so later the contract came through as promised and I gleefully signed it and sent it back, along with a hard copy of my story and a biography. And then I waited. And waited. Out of the blue, in late August I think, I got a call from Chapter One. There was a problem with the payments, they said. It was going to take a while to get the money to me, and it would come in instalments. Okay, I thought, I'd prefer a big wedge of cash, but instalments are better than nothing.
The first chunk came through quite quickly. It was still a decent amount of money, but knowing it was a fraction of the whole took the shine off a little. I put it in a savings account and felt underwhelmed about it. After that, a pattern formed. The due date for the next instalment would come around and I'd wait a couple of days, check my PayPal account, then send a polite reminder to Chapter One. I'd get an apologetic reply, usually, and then the money would transfer over. Bit by bit, my prize dribbled in, and my enthusiasm for it waned with every passing month. I did get all the money in the end.
In the intervening months I'd done some basic research, and I'd found this entry on Sally Quilford's blog and the Absolute Write forum that triggered it. I took some comfort from the fact that people had received their prize, eventually, but it alarmed me that most were saying there was no sign of the promised anthology, in some cases years after the results had been announced.
It might just be me, but this seems worse than them dragging their heels over the payment of prizes. After all, the shortlisted writers will have their stories published, but their only reward will be a copy of the anthology. Plus, we're all writers, we all strive to share our work, to get it out into the world. Yet agreeing to have your work featured in a Chapter One anthology seems to be much the same as locking it up in a box and burying it in the garden.
I contacted them at the end of last year, to let them know my new email address. I also asked about progress on the anthology. I was told they were still waiting for bios from some of the authors. Really? I don't know a single writer who would be offered a chance of publication and think, "Yeah, I'll give that eighteen months or so. You can't rush a good bio." I remain unconvinced. Nevertheless, Chapter One said they were hoping to send out proof copies of the book at the end of January or early February, this year. I'm glad I decided against holding my breath.
If you were to take a look at Chapter One's website (you'll have to manage without a link from here - I don't feel I owe them any web traffic), you'd see the most recent anthology they're promoting contains the winning stories from 2006. Yes, you read that right: six years ago. And I'm using the word 'promoting' in a very generous way there. There's a low resolution image of the cover and a brief sentence about the book, above an 'Add to Cart' button. And that's it.
Still, if you decided you wanted to check out what was "inspiring and fresh" six years ago, bear in mind that you can't buy the anthology anywhere else. It doesn't have an ISBN; you won't find it on Amazon or in your local indie bookstore or Waterstones. There's no eBook version. Compare this to Bridport or Brighton or the Willesden Herald - competitions where the anthologies are put together in time for the awards ceremony. They're out into the world while the results still matter, they're well promoted, and readers can get hold of them easily.
After two years, I am entitled to demand that they publish my story or return my first publication rights. As the contract also states that I will have 30 days to review the proof copy and I haven't received one yet, I know they're going to miss the deadline. So I will be writing to them to request my rights back. Part of me is pleased by this. The story is one of the best things I've ever written and it has been a constant bugbear of mine that my biggest success is something nobody can read. But mainly I feel disappointed. I so wanted to be proved wrong about Chapter One, to find that my year was the year they got their act together, and delivered a beautifully designed anthology that me and the rest of the writers on the shortlist could be proud of.
Instead, it seems like the 18th will just mark the start of the endgame, where they have 90 days to respond to my request and the whole thing drags on for another three months. Perhaps, despite everything, by the middle of August I will be clutching a copy of the anthology and be so blown away by it, all of this grumbling will seem churlish and ridiculous.
I really hope so, but the odds don't seem that great.