How it started… how it’s going…

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.

Six things I’ve learned from publishing a book

It’s six weeks since I woke up a published author. SIX weeks! I can barely believe it, still – and yet I don’t rightly remember what it was like before I painted my nails to match my book cover (oft-commented on during signings, although looking a little off-season as winter looms) or wondered if anyone would even buy the book never mind like it (they have – mostly!). I can honestly say it’s been a blast, and also incredibly hard work. I’m not sure any of it has really sunk in properly but I’m hoping by sitting down with a cuppa and writing it all down, it might.

Truth is, I’ve been thinking about this post for a while and wondering what to write that hasn’t already been said a million times before by every slightly deer-caught-in-headlights debut author. I’m not sure I’ve come up with much that’s new, but as it’s my six-week anniversary, here’s six things I’ve learned – or am still learning – about being a published author:

  1. Getting your book noticed is hard. Unless you happen to strike it really lucky or know someone who can get you on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine, after any initial buzz around launch, you’ll realise that your circle of influence really is very small. Being surrounded by supportive, like minded people on social media is great, and makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but it doesn’t necessarily convert to sales. Writers support other writers, and they share and like your stuff on social media – but they don’t necessarily buy your book. Some do – but a lot don’t. And they follow/are followed by a lot of other writers. The snake eating its own tail, so to speak. The group of people you really want to get noticed by – readers – are a lot harder to engage, and I think it’s important to recognise that you will probably need to be a little more inventive than relying on your Twitter following to get the word out. Interestingly, though, Insta has been the relative social media front runner for me in terms of new follows and likes/shares. I was quite surprised by this and am trying to keep up momentum, although I do find it more time consuming to generate content than, say, tweeting.
  2. Reviews are important. One obvious way of getting noticed is to get good reviews. At first I thought reviews were about my ego but actually it’s nothing to do with that and everything to do with ALGORITHMS. I was on a blog tour which was great (thank you to ALL the bloggers – amazing people!) – I almost certainly sold books because of this, and combined with being part of the September Kindle Book Deal, it was a very positive first month. On Amazon I was in the top 20 for my genre (Women’s Action and Adventure) for the entire four weeks and I even got to number 1 in Audiobooks for a day! But now the blog tour is over and it’s not September anymore, I’m reliant on algorithms. The more reviews I get, the more the algorithms will love me and plonk me in someone’s ‘If you like this, you’ll love this’ suggestions box. I’ve spent a lot of time asking the people who bought my book to review my book – because it’s actually their recommendation which will make the difference, not the fact they bought the book in the first place. So if you’re reading this and haven’t left a review yet, please do!
  3. Bookshops are brilliant places. Well obviously they are. But I hadn’t truly appreciated the support they could offer, when they are really behind a product and its author. A book signing might seem like a bit of an ego trip, but actually, you have to remember that for everyone involved, it’s also good business. If you can create buzz for the bookshop, they will create it for you. I’ve met some amazing people the past month who have really made the experience magical – both independent bookshops and Waterstones. These people love books and they know their audiences and if you can just get up the courage to walk in and talk to them and sell yourself and your book, for the most part, you’ll find they are willing to listen. Ditto bookshop customers. Talk to them! They are wary at first – the look in their eye says ‘you’re trying to sell me something, so I’ll actively avoid you’ but then they remember you are trying to sell them a book and they are in a bookshop, so it’s actually okay to stop and chat. Sometimes they buy, sometimes they don’t. There’s no point in taking it personally – if it’s not their thing, it’s not their thing – but whatever the result, it is helpful to talk about your work in any capacity – and it’s also lots of fun getting to know readers at a grass roots level.
  4. Publicising your book can be a full time job. If you aren’t careful, all this ‘getting noticed’ can consume you. Between visiting bookshops, being active on social media and writing guest blogs, articles and so on, I’ve barely had time for anything else in my life this past month. I don’t know how you would do it if you had another full time job. I suppose you wouldn’t – or you’d be much better organised than me. The hard work did pay off – I have at least one event booked for every week from now until December, and so I feel like I can relax a bit now, and start again after Christmas to build momentum back up for spring/summer. How this reflects in my book sales I have no idea… and won’t for another few months yet. If indeed, I can ever measure the effectiveness of the things I’ve been doing vs. organic sales. I’m not sure how I ever would, to be honest. Blind faith it is, then…
  5. Find time to write again. Gosh, the second book is hard. Your brain is so busy congratulating itself on the first one (as it rightly should – it’s an amazing achievement!) that it tends to forget what got you there in the first place. Actual writing. I’ve realised/been told repeatedly that the best way to sell Tinker, Tailor, Schoolmum, Spy would be to get a second book published. But in order to do that I have to sit down and write again, with the same commitment and energy as I did for the first one. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point; I’ll admit at one point last year during the lockdown/homeschooling horror I wondered if I’d ever be able to do it again. But getting back in the habit of writing is half the battle, and now the first book is out there, I feel I have the time to devote to creating something again, the courage to put words down and the confidence that they are going to work out just as well as the last lot did.
  6. Finally… Have a launch party. Big and brash or small and intimate, do celebrate and make some memories with the people who love you. You just published a book!!!

One week to go!

And suddenly there’s just a week to go before my book baby hits the shops. The past few weeks have mainly seen me sniffing out PR opportunities like a truffle pig, trying to book in-the-flesh author events in. I’ve got the most amazing blog tour booked (see dates here) but Covid has made planning any kind of in-person gigs pretty difficult. However, I’ve been lucky enough with timing to get some events booked for the autumn, with some wonderful bookshops who really couldn’t have been more enthusiastic – and to top it all, positive reviews coming in that are making me slightly less nervous about the whole thing. At this point, it’s hugely comforting to know that people are enjoying it already, especially as I accepted the amazing Helen Lederer’s offer to come and do an ‘in conversation’ with me at my launch party. A perk of being involved with the CWIP Prize, but slightly terrifying given I’m now standing up in front of 60 people with an bona fide professional comedian who is bound to be funnier than me. Not I’m worried about any of it – honestly… it’s only when I think about it really hard that my stomach lurches at the idea that I made everyone I know buy this book.

But let’s not dwell on that – I’m all about the positive this week! Even if I am also going to be 47 years old (yes, folks, it’s my birthday next week too), I get to have a party bigger than my wedding, sign books, wear a neon pink maxi dress with flying horses on it (true story) and generally feel like a superstar. It feels like an incredible privilege at this point, one that I appreciate enormously. I really, really feel for authors who’ve had to do this during the past 18 months with nowhere open and nothing happening. What a bitter pill to swallow after all that hard work getting to this point. I am very, very lucky.

Publishing a book is hard work. Even in ‘normal’ times, I don’t think anyone appreciates how hard it is to get your name out there as a debut author. I’ve basically become a door-to-door salesman to everyone I meet, which for me, is a bit out of bounds. Although I’m not shy about coming forward, especially when I started, I was cringing every time I told anyone I had a book coming out – you see it in their eyes, I would think, they’ve already decided it’s crap before you’ve even finished the sentence. I have discovered though, that generally, people are very happy for me, rather than eye rolling at the very idea. I still can’t help thinking, though, if only I was a minor celebrity, I would be taken more seriously. Top tip, kids: if you’re thinking you might like to publish a novel in future, my advice would be to get on the telly before you write it – be a news presenter or bit part on Corrie – because it will be a darn sight easier to promote yourself (and get other people to do it for you) if you’ve already done a stint on Strictly or won a BAFTA for best undead zombie in Game of Thrones.

Next week is THE most bonkers of my whole life. Monday is my birthday. Tuesday the e-book is out. Thursday my son starts senior school and the paperback is released. Friday is the launch party. Saturday is my son’s birthday party, with the follow up actual birthday on Monday. Talk about art reflecting life – TTSS is all about the balance between family life and career, and it couldn’t be more apt. And just like my heroine, Vicky, I’m fighting a losing battle with the two things I love the most… I’m sitting here writing this, knowing full well I should be labelling shirts and moulding gum shields for my only-born. God knows how conflicted I’ll feel this time next week! But I wouldn’t change it for the world. So many people have been in touch to say ‘enjoy it’… and I truly am. Deep breaths… and ready, set… GO.

Signing my first books @Barnes Books!