"So, what you're saying is that a publisher won't accept manuscript submissions unless they come through a literary agent, but literary agents are really only interested in established authors?"
And, with that, it appeared my career as an author was over before it had even begun. The agent's ice-maiden secretary was to be the rock upon which it foundered.
I stewed for a few months. Then I interviewed Waiheke Island husband and wife indie publishing team Mark and Rowan Sommerset, who asked me why I didn't just publish my children's books myself. I bought a copy of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch. I checked: self-published. These crafty opportunists are milking the multitude of rejected authors desperate to get their scribblings in print. And they're selling thousands of copies.
I found an illustrator. I contacted a printer. I called the bookstores. I was in business. In a blur of varying emotions, late nights and tireless promotion, between late 2012 and now I've managed to sell more than 6000 books.
Self-publishing. Indie publishing. Artisanal publishing. Unkindly, vanity publishing. Whatever you call it, it's on the rise. Recently, it was revealed that self-published e-books account for 25 per cent of Kindle sales in the United States. Here in New Zealand, it also appears to be in rude health; last month more than 90 indie publishers turned up to show off their wares at Devonport's St Paul's for the inaugural Auckland Independent Book Festival.
But self-publishing has a perception problem. Unlike the pioneering and daring indie film-makers, or cool bands making obscure albums in garages, self-publishers are viewed with some scepticism by publishing editors, bookstore owners and readers alike. It's as though the only way to success is through endless rejection and refinement.
James Russell self-published his first book in 2012. Photo / APN
There are a number of New Zealanders merrily ignoring convention - the undisputed heavyweight champ of them is Annabel Langbein, with sales to date of more than two million of her 21 titles.
Her initial foray into self-publishing, with the 1987 release of Annabel Langbein's Cookbook was, by her own admission, "incredibly naive." The book was a collection of Listener columns, and featured Langbein's photo on a pink cover. "The hair! Oh my God, the hair!" laughs Langbein of her 80s style.
"I ordered 10,000 copies, and suddenly they arrived at my flat. It was at that moment I realised I didn't have a clue how I was going to sell them." Despite the inclusion of a "truly heinous" tofu recipe, sell them she did. These days they sell for up to $350 on Trade Me.
By 1995, Langbein figured she was ready to take on the world, so took a stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Once again, she was a tiny fish in a huge pond.
"When you go to Frankfurt it's so huge that I promptly had an anxiety attack and locked myself in the toilet for two hours. Normally when you go you make appointments to present your work to publishers. Of course I didn't know any of this and I hadn't made any appointments.
"I gave myself a really good talking to, saying 'you haven't come all this way to be pathetic. Go and be a proper New Zealander and get out there'."
In desperation, she rang the German and Swedish nannies she had in the past employed to look after her small children. "I said to them 'I've got this bizarre thing to ask you. I need you to go to your local bookshop and tell me the publisher's names on the spines of the cookbooks'." The name that kept on coming back was Koenemann. Previously the financial director for Taschen books, Ludwig Koenemann had left to start his own imprint.
Langbein marched off to the Koenemann stall - an extravagant, wood-panelled affair with beautiful lighting and a bar. Elegant people stood around talking.
"Is Ludwig Koenemann here?" asked Langbein.
"What time is your appointment?" replied the staff.
"I don't have an appointment, but I've got an idea that's going to make him lots of money."
Koenemann, overhearing, came over. Tall, and wearing a suit, he was smoking a cigar and drinking champagne at 10am. Langbein handed him her book - a basic manuscript that had not even been properly bound. "I was determined not to do the New Zealand thing and start apologising," he says.
Annabel Langbein has notched up more than two million sales of her 21 self-published books.
Koenemann called over two of his staff to look at the book. "They flicked through incredibly quickly, and then he looked at me and said 'I'll take half a million copies - world rights'. And I looked at him and said 'Oh, I don't really want to sell world rights'. Langbein peals with laughter at the memory. "He said 'that's the deal' and turned back to his friends. I had to go back to my little stand and be intravenously fed vodka." The upshot was that suddenly Langbein was published in nine languages around the world. It was her one and only meeting at the entire Frankfurt Fair.
The deal with Koeneman wasn't to last. Within a few years he was broke, and Langbein had to wait to get copyright returned to her for the books that were pending. It was her first and last foray into traditional publishing. Since then Langbein has never had a publisher, or even a literary agent representing her overseas, but instead prefers to go it alone.
"I'd never say it's an easy journey, and it requires 150 per cent commitment. You have to be relevant. You can't just go into it because you have an ego - your books have to be useful, or fun for people. "
Langbein has never had any doubts about her work, and has never felt the need for validation through another publisher. "Someone said to me 'what would you do if you could never fail?' and I thought 'well, I've already done it'. That's not meant from an arrogant point of view. I've always believed in myself."
Doris Mousdale, owner of Arcadia Bookstore in Newmarket (and former national book market manager for Whitcoulls and retail manager for Dymocks), was also in Frankfurt with Langbein for that fortuitous meeting, only she remembers it being schnapps they drank afterwards.
"It was amazing, but you can't take away from the fact that Annabel has always been incredibly hardworking and driven."
Over the past 25 years in the book trade, Mousdale has noticed a gradual increase in self-published books, with a peak a few years ago when internet book sales took off. "But just because a book is online doesn't mean people are going to read it. How are people going to know it's there?
"I make a point of looking at all self-published books that come my way, but it's really only around one in every 10 books that I'll end up stocking. Something lets many of them down - it's either the cover, or the production values - so it doesn't look like a professionally published book. It's important to spend a little extra on those things. A printer will print anything you want, so it's up to you to get it right. It's got to look right in your hand, and it's got to feel right when you open the first page."
Mousdale says chances of success are greater when a series of books is produced. "It's like Harry Potter. No one bought the first Harry Potter, or the second Harry Potter. It was only when the third and fourth books came out that people bought them all together."
She says that often indie publishers don't consider their book's place in the market. "You're obviously going to write the book you want to write, but you also have to think 'how big is the market in New Zealand for fiction? How big for self-published fiction? How big for historical fiction? How big for historical fiction based in Cornwall? All of a sudden you've only got 25 people to sell it to and you've printed 2000."
However, she recently showed visiting British literary agent John Wallace a number of self-published titles, which he presented to publishers at the London Book Fair. "He was impressed," says Mousdale. "The quality is there."
She points to the success of Julie Thomas, author of best-selling The Keeper Of Secrets, saying the New Zealand publishers missed the boat on signing her. Thomas had quietly sold 45,000 digital copies of her self-published book before HarperCollins in the US realised her potential.
The same could be said for indie publishing phenomenon Dr Libby who, together with her husband Chris Weaver, has sold in excess of 150,000 copies of her six wellbeing titles.
Libby Weaver has sold more than 150,000 copies of her six wellbeing books, including the latest, real food kitchen. Photo / APN
Chris is the CEO of their company Little Green Frog Publishing, which grew out Libby's extensive speaking circuit. It was after Canvas published a story on Dr Libby that things really took off. "We got home after a weekend away and there were 500 voicemails which took three days to clear," says Chris. "Libby's business was one-to-one. We needed to find a model for her that was one-to-many." At the time Chris was the CEO of the Auckland Racing Club. "I thought to myself 'is this difficult?' I couldn't see what was hard about it." He quit his job and took up the publishing business.
"As I learned more I couldn't understand the old traditional publishing model. My critique of it was how slow it was. Lib can write a book in a week. That's how good she is. I can launch it within a month. A lot of the models we were looking at were at least nine months to get it to market."
Chris says it is vital to have a good story to tell as a publisher. "There's no point in producing a book and then having boxes and boxes of it in your garage and no one to buy it, because that's always the risk. It's an even bigger risk for a traditional publishing company, because they work on the model where 100 books are published in the hope of having five or 10 best-sellers."
Chris says he and Libby were determined to own the copyright. They were approached by mainstream publishers who could see the potential but turned them down." If we had sold copyright to a publisher, we would have had to ask permission every time Libby was giving a speech to reference her own concepts."
Libby's first book, Accidentally Overweight, was launched late in 2012. When the boxes arrived, Chris managed to get Joan McKenzie on the phone. Now head book buyer at Whitcoulls, at the time McKenzie was at Paper Plus.
"I said: 'Joan, I've self-published a book' and she said 'let me stop you there - I don't deal with self-publishers' and I said give me 30 seconds and if you say no I'll never bother you again." Chris told her they had sold 700 copies from Zarbo Delicatessen in Newmarket in the run-up to Christmas. "She said: 'Okay, you've earned a meeting'."
The Weavers are due for the rite of passage: they're going to Frankfurt next year. "We're going with the New Zealand Publishers Association and we're really looking forward to it."
One of New Zealand's best-known writers, Kate de Goldi, has also self-published one of her books. In 2005 she wrote the children's book Clubs: A Lolly Leopold Story. It was offered to her own publishers, who made the mistake of turning it down. "They didn't think the book worked and couldn't see a market for it. It wasn't the kind of book a publisher could easily pigeon-hole," says Foster. It went on to win the 2005 New Zealand Post Award for Best Picture Book and sell 30,000 copies. The book was self-published by de Goldi's husband Bruce Foster - a designer - and his then business partner Jacqui Colley, who illustrated the book.
It was followed by a second in the series - Billy: A Lolly Leopold Story - in 2007, which made the NZ Post shortlist, and another, one-off children's book called Uncle Jack, again illustrated by Colley.
Foster and Colley didn't attempt to distribute or market the books - they were too busy with their own business - but rather employed a company to do it. "However, we were in a position to make the book, and do a good job of it, so we thought 'why not?'"
De Goldi and Foster still work together and tightly control the presentation of De Goldi's work. Foster designed De Goldi's most recent children's book, The ACB With Honora Lee, before it was released to the publisher.
With large publishing houses merging and consolidating as a result of tightening print margins, it's likely it may become even harder to convince a traditional publisher to take a risk on an unknown. Luckily for me, the brutal rejections typical of the traditional publishing industry seem to have spawned an indie alternative, characterised by collaboration and generosity - guidance on my next move has always been just an email or a phone call away.
In that spirit I wrote a guide to self-publishing a children's book in New Zealand, which I give away, free, to anyone who's interested.
James Russell's Dragon Brothers Trilogy ($19.95-$29.95) and Guide to Self-Publishing are out now.
Annabel Langbein's new book, The Free Range Cook: Through the Seasons ($59.95) is out now.