Someone asked me last week, what it was like to be a debut author. It’s weird, because to be honest, I don’t feel very debut-like anymore, although as far as the glacial timelines of the publishing industry go, it’s entirely possible I could be considered ‘new’ for another 23 years. But the initial excitement and sense of achievement of publishing a novel is certainly in the past; and while I’m still learning a lot about my role as a published writer, it’s quite an interesting question to answer, six months in, with the benefit of quite a bit of hindsight. Now the euphoria has worn off, what does it really feel like to be a debut author?
Well, firstly, I’m a bit knackered. Every debut author will know (or very quickly find out) that the lion’s share of day in-day out marketing and publicity comes down to you; publishers simply don’t/can’t invest the same amount of time and energy in debuts by unknown authors as they do if you’re, say, Richard Osman or Dawn French. Trying to get noticed or stand out from the crowd is incredibly difficult; longer tail ‘reach’ feels like the holy grail. I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I have spent campaigning to get into bookshops, do signings, appear in the local news or on the occasional radio show in the hope of selling a few more copies; social media is easier, but even so, to get followers up in the thousands could send you mad or die trying. And, after the initial few months, I’m possibly not alone in having the niggling thought that no matter how hard you work, it might not be gaining you any traction at all in terms of book sales. Not that you know one way or the other; there’s no way of knowing how your book is selling for at least six months so you are pretty much working in an informational void, with no idea if anything you are doing is paying off at all. Still, you can’t stop; you have to keep pushing, and hoping, and praying that it does.
But as time passes and people move onto the ‘next big thing’, it’s hard to keep the momentum going. And here’s where it gets tricky, as a debut author, to remain sane and grounded about your work. You have A LOT of other debut authors to compare yourself to and with each passing day you watch more and more of them launch into the world. We’re all making out like we’re so popular and successful and supportive in order to try and convince readers to give us a spin, but deep down in places we don’t like to talk about at parties, we’re all still really wondering if our books are shit in comparison to everyone else’s and that’s why we’ve only got 573 followers on Twitter and no one will answer our emails about appearing at book festivals. I’m not going to sugar coat how difficult that can be sometimes – I think it’s important to be honest with myself and a good thing, to check my ego and say, wow, you did an amazing thing but other people do it better, or got luckier than you, or both. But I recognise that in comparison to a lot of other authors whose books never see the light of day, I’m very lucky too, and I’m not saying I’ve been hard done by – I’m just saying it’s hard.
There’s a lot to celebrate, of course. Reviews, for one thing. Fan mail, too. I’ve had some amazing messages from complete strangers who felt compelled to write and tell me how much they loved the book. That I inspired someone to do that, to actually reach out, is a massive compliment and incredibly meaningful. I’ve been very fortunate to have a stonking set of reviews and actually only a few negative ones (my top three favourite 3* reviews, btw, are: 1. awarded for ‘ an unnecessary sex scene’, 2. ‘it’s not as good as Motherland’, and 3. ‘I’m going back to Ken Follett’). The variety of these comments will tell you that what readers like or want is very subjective so you can’t set too much store by them – and anyway, reviews aren’t really about feeding your ego – they’re more about feeding algorithms; still, it’s comforting to read what people are saying and know you didn’t write a complete load of rubbish. But ultimately, it IS about algorithms… so it’s hard to remain relentlessly upbeat about a product that you believe in and have invested so much of yourself in that almost everyone says is great when they read it, when you’re watching your Amazon sales nosedive because you haven’t hit the number of reviews that would propel you to be ‘noticed’ by a computer. That’s the other thing I’ve learned – don’t be shy about asking people to leave reviews!
Although I might sound a bit jaded I should point out that there’s still a boat load of things that make me buzz, that I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. Seeing my book on the shelves in a book shop. Friends messaging me to tell me they’ve seen my book on the shelves in a book shop. Getting on ‘the table’ in Waterstones. Being asked to talk about my book, the writing process, and yes, about being a debut author. God, I love the talking. I could do it all day long. When I’m not busy writing, of course (just in case my agent is reading this, I am actually writing too, I promise).
As I move from being debut author to an author with a debut novel (and I do think there is a distinction to be made) it’s great to take the time and consider all the stuff I’ve learned so far – which is A LOT. Next time – and there will be a next time, I am determined of that – my expectations will be set. I will know how to do a book launch, who to call, I’ll know what the publisher does and what my agent does and what I have to do and I’ll know a whole bunch of hugely supportive bookshops, radio stations, magazines and social media pals who will help me to get my book out into the world. I will reap the benefits of the hard work I put in this time around and cross my fingers and hope for that tiny little bit of luck that will get me on the shelves of Waterstones without having to go in and ask, appear on the supermarket top 10 or get me an invitation to a book festival where I can share all the things I’ve learned with other new authors too.
What’s it really like to be a debut author? Exhilarating, exhausting, joyous, tough… but most of all, memorable. But I have the sneaky feeling it’s like that every time; and that’s why I’m hoping to do it all over again.