It’s a little pompous to compile a list of top tips when I’ve only been published two weeks, but I’ve been called far worse than pompous, so sod it; here’s my take on the weirdness and wonder of the publishing industry from the perspective of a complete novice.
- Firstly – Manuscripts do get picked from the slush-pile – Reading the statistics it can feel as though there is no route into getting your book published, no entry through the hallowed gates for mere mortals who haven’t been on Love Island or EastEnders, just a series of dead ends and generic rejection emails. But fear not! The slush pile may be vast and ever increasing (currently with additional strata of pandemic-induced manuscripts) but these literary agents, god love ’em, they plough through that slush with the enthusiasm of ice-road truckers. Agents really do read manuscripts from the unsolicited submissions pile, and every so often they take on a new client based on those first three slushy, mushy chapters. I know because it happened to me.
- It doesn’t always take a village – Flick through any acknowledgements page from a debut novelist and you’d be forgiven for assuming that every author who makes it to publication has an elaborate and extensive support network encompassing countless friends and relatives who have selflessly dedicated their lives to ensuring that this book reaches the shelves. This network of villagers seem able to drop everything at a minute’s notice in order to variously provide; wrap-around childcare, hospitality and catering services, regular detailed manuscript assessment, shoulders to cry on, counselling around crises of confidence, and occasional use of their villa in Tuscany for writing retreats. Now, whilst I think it entirely appropriate that authors thank those individuals who have enabled their writing, I would hate for languishing debuts to believe that this level of personal support and tailored attention is an essential pre-requisite for publication. If you have a village then great, excellent news, and please do sing your villagers praises to the rooftops as is quite right and proper. But if you don’t have this vast infrastructure in place, do not despair – sometimes all you need is a laptop and a bit of good luck.
- You don’t need to do a course – Creative writing courses can be interesting, fun, informative, and a good place to network or meet likeminded individuals, but, just like the theoretical village, they are not essential. Writing is a bit like running – you can spend vast quantities of cash on the best quality footwear, high-performance sweat-wicking lycra, a personal trainer, a sports physio, and tailored running apps for your state-of-the-art tech – or, you can just pull on a pair of old sneakers and go for a quick jog around the park. Do whatever works for you and your budget. And don’t use the word ‘sneakers’ unless you are American. I don’t know what I was thinking.
- The most important thing to do is read – This is one bit of traditional writing advice I wholeheartedly agree with, although it’s probably a little redundant – most writers read avidly and love nothing more than being immersed in a story, that’s why they want to write them. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that you will learn more about the technique of writing from reading the work of others than you will from any number of courses.
- You won’t be able to give up the day-job – In fact you might need to take on an additional day-job just to fund the Creative Writing MA you feel obliged to consider (see above). Having your book published is not a get-rich-quick scheme, or indeed a get-rich-ever scheme. The big money in publishing goes into the pockets of a tiny proportion of industry professionals and an even tinier proportion of authors. To illustrate this point I’ll let you know what kind of profit margin I’m anticipating now that my book has hit the shelves – buckle-up because these are eye-watering sums. I was told early on that readers will not pay more than a pound for a debut rom-com in ebook, and although at the time I thought someone was having a joke at my expense (or on my expenses) this does appear to be one of those sad but true facts of life. As a result my book has an initial RRP of 99p (digital – the paperback is normal book price). Once the various cuts have been taken by publisher, agent and HMRC, I will be looking at the princely sum of around nine pence per ebook sold. This means that if I sell a thousand ebooks I’ll make less than £90 profit. I’m not complaining. I just think it’s important people know the facts. Including my accountant – sorry John.
- The writing world is a lovely (if not lucrative) place to be – Both online and in person, people involved in writing and publishing are, in general; cheerful, kind, polite, happy in their work, and endlessly supportive. Yes there’s the occasional Twitter spat or pile-on but in the main you’re dealing with Good Eggs. Really. I promise.
- There’s always more room at the table – Just because one person in your writing group has got a publishing deal does not mean that your own chances of being published are reduced. If anything, it’s the exact opposite. If publishing is thriving, and debuts are being taken on by agents and commissioning editors, this only means good things for your book. The industry keeps on growing, as does access to books in differing formats. The business of telling stories does not appear to be going out of fashion any time soon. Populations increase, and although this isn’t great news for the planet, more people need more books to read whilst they are polluting the rivers and pumping out carbon – Yay!
- Book-bloggers are superstars – These legends seem to prop up the entire publishing industry with very little reward, other than knowing they’re supporting something they love. An organised blog tour around the time of your publication date is well worth the money. I went through Anne Cater https://twitter.com/RandomTTours and felt very well looked after.
- Be careful whose feedback you choose to listen too – I’m not going to say too much about this here (see my next post entitled ‘Why looking on ARC-review sites is an act of deliberate self-harm for a debut author’) but I think it important to stress that you do have a choice. Nobody is forcing you to read shitty stuff that’s been said about your book – you usually have to go looking for it. If you’re an insufferably nosy old parker like me then the temptation is overwhelming, but if you have more self control, I’d suggest you use it. Imagine my voice booming out of your screen as your thumb hovers over the Netgalley search function. NO GOOD CAN COME OF THIS!!! (Actually, my voice isn’t very intimidating – just ask my dog. You might want to imagine instead the patrician headmaster of an old and established public school yelling those words at you – whatever floats your boat.)
- Just because your foot is in the door doesn’t mean the hard work is over – Even if you have a superstar agent, you’ve won prizes and your debut has been a commercial success, there is absolutely no golden ticket to the next level. There are many authors out there with a substantial pedigree who can’t get a new book deal at the moment. So, to use my analogy from earlier; there is plenty of room at the table but you may be waiting a long time for your main course to arrive and you might never get as far as pudding. My advice is to be extremely thankful for your starter and savour every mouthful. (You’ll be pleased to know I’m going to drop this extended metaphor now that I’ve flogged it to death.)
- Being famous definitely helps get you a publishing deal – but it doesn’t make you a good writer (and readers will usually realise this at some point). Rather than wail and gnash your teeth about the injustice of public opinion deeming an appearance on Loose Women to be a mark of literary merit, simply be grateful that the presence of celebrity authors probably increases the appetite for reading overall. And don’t pretend that when Harry Styles releases his debut vampire erotica novel you won’t be handing over fistfuls of hard-earned cash in order to purchase it.
So that’s it. Those are my pearls of wisdom for the day. Get back to me when I unleash the ubiquitous ‘tricky second novel’ post. If that ever happens.