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!

Mad (wo)men

With just under two months left to go until publication day, I thought I’d reflect on the journey so far. It hardly seems real, still, that my book will be in the actual shops in eight weeks’ time. The creative process has been relatively smooth sailing, if I’m honest. The hard stuff is all the rest of it!

Being published for the first time is a strange situation: you go from lolling about in your writing bubble bath to being thrown into the publishing equivalent of a lazy river, constantly wondering whether you should kick your legs a bit to influence the outcome or just go with the flow. Throughout the past six months I have been constantly second guessing whether I should be more or less assertive with my publisher, or more or less proactive; not wanting to appear a control freak or tread on any toes, and at the same time trying to prove myself a competent, commercially savvy and enthusiastic individual who wants to work hard to sell my books. As an author, you have to be calm, patient and understanding that while your book matters to your publisher, they have a million things to juggle; and accept the fact that you’re a long way from the top of the pile, and that to get that vital airspace with bookshops and bloggers and influencers to propel you a little further up the food chain means pitching yourself against authors who are better, faster, more experienced, more known, with bigger budgets and better relationships with which to gain traction. It’s not easy. And I’ve found negotiating the choppy waters is all the more difficult because, like a lot of writers out there with their first book deal, I have absolutely no idea who does what.

Google ‘how to get an agent’ or ‘how to get a book deal’ and you’ll get a million articles. Try searching ‘who does what when you publish a book’ and the answers are less consistent. It’s quite a minefield, and from conversations with other authors, appears to vary from publisher to publisher, agent to agent, and author to author. Thankfully, I have an amazing, hands on agent who’s willing to steer a rather green debut author through the confusion of their first publication. But I’m sure it’s not the same for everyone.

One thing that’s very consistent though, is that authors need to market their own books. Although I was expecting to take on a lot of the responsibility to sell mine – I’ve read a million articles telling me as much – nothing really prepared me for how much there would be to learn and to do in order to make even the tiniest dent on the consciousness of the nation. Plus, I massively underestimated the sheer quantity of time it would take. Before this month, I thought doing social media was just a case of chucking a few tweets out a couple of times a week. Now I seem to be in a constant battle between being a writer who writes actual books and a marketeer promoting the one I’ve already written.

In truth, keeping up with the demands of social media admin in order to grow my online presence, generating book signings and organising launch events has become an almost full time job. To help me get some new ideas to help with promoting the book, I went on a marketing course for authors, which was great in terms of really focusing on my brand, but also made me aware of just how much there was to do. Today, I have a spangly website and several promises of book signings, and I’m feeling rather chuffed to have increased from 300 to a massive 434 Twitter followers (please do follow me, by the way, @Writerfaye – I’d quite like to make it 500 by the end of the week). But the amount of work that’s gone into it in the past four weeks or so feels faintly ridiculous and I have begun to wonder how anyone has the time to do this and write.

There’s a rumour that publishing a book in the good old days was vastly different. Allegedly, there was a time when the publisher did all of your marketing while you quaffed champagne and signed the occasional book. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. But I do know, that as a 21st Century debut author it’s very definitely not like that – and while confusing and fairly exhausting on occasions, that doesn’t always make it a bad thing. If I wasn’t before, I am super, super invested in my book now. I am not afraid to walk into a bookshop anymore and talk to them about stocking my book, or asking about an event. It’s yielded far better results than emailing, although taken about ten times the amount of time and effort. The @womenwritersnet and @debutsuk2021 groups on Twitter have really changed how I interact and I’ve learned a lot from other writers promoting their work too.

Whether it really makes a difference or not is quite impossibly to say, at this stage. But I keep telling myself it will! And honestly, after the last year and a half, I’m so excited to talk to strangers again I don’t really care. In talking to people and putting myself out there, on social media and in real life, I feel like I’ve tapped into a new community who really cares about books and writers.

Publishing a book is long, and crazy. I’m sure I’ll look back on this post in a few months and there will have been a whole other set of learning too. But to anyone reading this and wondering, is it really worth it, I would say yes. With bells on. Writers learn for a living: every edit is a lesson in how to be better. As I see it, the end part of the process is just an extension of this. So I embrace the next few months, and cross my fingers that it all pays off. If nothing else… WHAT a ride!

That difficult second album

It’s been a funny six months since I got my literary agent. Time seems to have slowed down, or is passing in larger chunks, I’m not sure which. I no longer speak about the process of writing in weeks, but in months, or years even. At a micro-level, things are happening. My first novel has been edited once more (with feeling!) and safely delivered to my agent. She loves it. I love it. It’s gone, out of the door, on submission to publishers; all I can do now is wait, anywhere between four weeks and four years, to find someone else who enjoys it enough to put it into print.

In the meantime, my agent asked me what I was going to do next.
‘The sequel’, I said. Easy. I have an outline of the next book in the series, and in my head, it seemed like the natural next step to start writing it. Just incase I get a two-book deal, my inner voice mutters hopefully. I am more subtle with my out loud voice. ‘That makes, sense, right?’
‘Do you have any other ideas to pitch?’ she replied, indicating it didn’t. I ran through my library of half-started/half-finished novels: a middle grade ghost story, a YA fantasy, a fully blown sci-fi novel that’s been in my head for about five years now. But I knew none of that would be useful to an agent that’s just signed me to write commercial women’s fiction.

‘I have one idea,’ I ventured. ‘But it’s literally a single sentence.’ And I pitched her a thought I’d had in a particularly dark, hormonally driven moment a few months ago that hasn’t gone away. A back of a fag packet idea that I had no notion of how to execute on.

Of course, she loved it. I mean, REALLY loved it. ‘I LOVE that idea,’ she said. ‘You have to write it. Now.’
‘But I don’t have a clue what it’s about. I literally have just that one idea.’
‘You’ll get there. Go away and think about it over summer. I can’t wait to read it.’

16uwxlSummer lasted quite a while as far as I was concerned. July and August were spent reading lots of commercial fiction, because the voice I wanted for this book, I knew, would be in stark contrast to my first novel. Not all women’s commercial fiction is created equal and there’s a startling range of writing styles, some of which I’d really rather never read again. But a few stood out as the sort of book I wanted to give a go; Elinor Oliphant, Three Things About Elsie plus half a back catalogue of Liane Moriaty later, I knew what I wanted my book to feel like, even if I didn’t have a story yet.

I waited, patiently, for inspiration to hit. The one idea played in my head like a broken record and I was sure that I had the rest of it tucked away somewhere, but August became September and still, I had nothing. The terror of putting pen to paper and coming up with anything close to meaningful began to overshadow my ability to write and by October, procrastination and self doubt had crept so far into my head that I’d given them house keys and a drawer. Since July, I’d written approximately 5000 words, with no direction or real sense of what the story was at all.

I don’t know why today was different. I’d been on Twitter, the writer’s equivalent of prozac, and got lost in a series of posts and articles that I could vaguely pass off as research. But then suddenly, an idea popped into my head. And it was so obvious, and so easy, that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. What sweet relief! Suddenly all the other ideas began to arrive and I began the glorious business of putting together a plot. By midday, I had a couple of A4 pages that were starting to look suspiciously like a story.

Writers talk a lot about their process. Articles – indeed, entire books – have been devoted to the subject of how to write. My MA peers, when we meet, represent the entire gamut of book writing methodology, from blow by blow post it note plotting, to 1000 words a day for the whole of November NO MATTER WHAT, to my rather less precise notion that I’ll write when I have time and the mood takes me and the ideas will happen when they happen.

I had begun to doubt my own process, believing, quite wrongly, that I should be ‘better’ second time around, about the structure and methodology of writing a novel. Turns out that I should trust my instincts. It took me 40 years to come up with the idea for the first book, and only six months to come up with second. I’m on a roll.

 

What I learned about pitching at the London Book Fair

Being ready can take a long time
I started writing The PTA Assassin two and a half years ago. When it was done, I followed up with the first edit. Then a second one. Then a massive third edit took place last year when I paid someone professional to look at it. Since then it’s undergone a copy edit too, and after all that I’m confident it’s in a reasonably good state for submission.

I actually started submitting 18 months ago, sometime before the third edit, and I look back now and I’m not surprised I was rejected out of hand by everyone. It was horrible. POV was all over the map, my grammar was inexcusable in places and the climax at the end was about as dangerous as a Blue Peter advent calendar.

After a diligent manuscript review by my wonderful mentor at PWA, however, it was looking in much better shape. I got my synopsis together, brushed up my cover letter and started all over again with new agents. This time, I got some positive responses. Twice now, it’s made it off the slush pile, although not quite converted to a deal yet. Undaunted, I headed to the London Book Fair this week to meet with an agent face to face.

The Elevator Pitch
‘What’s your book about?’
So many other writers have asked me this at the LBF this week, and it’s been a brilliant way of polishing up my elevator pitch. By the time it came to meet an agent for my one-to-one session on Thursday, I could have told my 2-minute version of The PTA Assassin to her in my sleep. So instead of worrying about ‘knowing my subject’, I focused on preparing the other things an agent might be looking for when they met me – knowing around my subject.

Say it out loud before you go
I got on well with the agent I met, and she instantly warmed to the idea of the book. I have to say, that helped a lot. She asked me about the genre, the audience it’s aimed at, what books are most like the one I’ve written. Of course, nerves got the better of me at this point. I managed to a) forget Janet Evanovich’s name and then oh! the joy of remembering it, swiftly followed by b) not be able to say it properly the first five times I tried. Still, we got there in the end. I felt a bit of an idiot though. Note to self: Learn how to actually pronounce out loud the name of the person you’ve read books by since you were in your twenties and written repeatedly into your cover letter for the past two years.

Make a connection
The agent asked who my main character was, and what she was like. ‘She’s like Bridget Jones but with a gun,’ I said. ‘But more competent than Bridget.’ ‘So in a film, she’d have Melissa McCarthy playing her?’ the agent said. ‘No, I think she’s more of an Olivia Coleman,’ I replied. We laughed. ‘Got it,’ she said. It was a brilliantly fast way of getting on the same page and giving her a vision to work with. You don’t get that in an email submission.

Know what you want
She asked if there was a sequel and if I intended it to be a trilogy or a series. ‘It’s a series’ I said, although noted that there’s only a finite amount of research one can pick up on the internet about MI5 so there were limitations. We talked about where the PTA Assassin was set, how it ends, and where the next one picks up. ‘Don’t set it too far after the first one,’ said the agent, ‘or she’ll be 107 by the fifth book.’ I like the way she thinks. She asked what else I write, and what I do for a living currently. She asked briefly about another book I was writing but when I couldn’t describe it without stuttering, I asked if I could pitch that another time when I could remember what it was about and she laughed and agreed that might be best. She asked if I would be able/willing to write something at the suggestion of a publisher, rather than it being my own initial idea. We talked for 15 minutes and about half of that wasn’t about my book. It felt comfortable and not at all scary. Dare I say fun?

Please-Like-Me-Meme-Girl-FaceStay positive
She’s asked for my manuscript. Obviously I was totally cool about it and didn’t say ‘Really?’ in a high pitched squeak of excitement (honest). But even if she decides that ultimately it’s not for her, I learned a ton about pitching from that meeting. Getting face to face time was great for me. It wouldn’t suit everyone, I’m sure, but for me it was great to be able to express myself and convey my sense of humour – humour that the book contains, too. You just can’t do that on a cover letter without sounding like a total prat.

I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know yet, if I’ll ever get an agent or end up self publishing. But even if you self publish, you still have to pitch your book to people to get them to buy the damn thing. There will be signings and launches and PR to do and every time, you’ll need to convince people that your book is worth reading. So I would say to anyone out there who’s in the same position, to practice, practice, practice, and get good at telling people about what you wrote. You never know who might want to read it.

 

What I learned about self publishing at the London Book Fair

I decided to brave the London Book Fair for the first time this year.

The LBF isn’t really for authors, but they do have a special little corner for us where talks are given and, if you were quick off the mark when the tickets went on sale, where you can get a 10-minute agent one-to-one to pitch your work. I’ve decided to use the fair to make some informed decisions regarding whether I should keep pursuing the traditional publishing route or self publish, so today I devoted my day to finding out about self publishing and sourcing people to help me do that.

EAC-The-Editors-Weekly-blog-Editors-and-Self-Publishing-Authors-Shipton

Self publishing feels like quite a daunting prospect, I don’t know why. It all seems like a lot of hard work. No, let’s put that another way:  it is a lot of hard work. And investment – of time and money – the returns on which are very unclear. I’ve toyed with the idea for sometime now but I’ve been unconvinced I’ll be very successful for a myriad of reasons: I don’t understand the tech, I’m scared of doing it wrong, I worry about wasting a lot of money on stuff I don’t need, I don’t know how to market my book to make people buy it, I won’t have the security blanket of an agent/publisher to help me make decisions, I will be the one to make all the decisions and they might be bad ones because I don’t know what I’m doing … I could go on. Basically, there’s a lot I don’t know.

Then of course there’s my ego. ‘Getting published’ sends a very clear message to your friends, family, adoring fans, unknown critics, etc etc., that you have been approved and endorsed by at least one other person who isn’t your mum.  Self publishing feels like you might have made it all up, that you are good at writing in any real way, like you paid your way into a world you don’t deserve to live in and it’s just going to be you and your mum buying 300 copies of a book for £2.27 plus postage and packing.

But today I listened to lots of people talking about the self-publishing experience and concluded that there are some very compelling reasons why I should get over myself and seriously think about doing it. In terms of control over your work and your career, it seems like self publishing beats trad hands down. You work at your own speed, have complete control of your end product (no editors changing your book title, ending, etc), retain the ability to flit between genres without upsetting a publisher who wants you to only write a certain kind of book, and stay directly in contact with your readers.

Of course, the little devil on my shoulder still says that self publishing means your book wasn’t ‘good enough’ to get picked up by an agent or publisher. And there is no doubt that for many people, the holy grail of getting one is the most important thing. But a number of authors who spoke today had deliberately chosen self publishing, even though they had been traditionally published before. Yes, there is a lack of reach, due to money and time and the ability to distribute across all the same channels as trad publishers enjoy. But something that really struck a chord for me was the entrepreneurial spirit of these authors: their joy in acquiring knowledge about the industry, the tech, the marketing and distribution; the buzz they clearly had, of being successful and respected, not only as authors but as business people too. It looked like a lot of fun.

The confidence in their product and the way they had got their stories out there was really interesting to observe. All of them had strengths and weaknesses; all of them identified their weaknesses, hired someone to do that bit of the process, and moved on. I thought about the crushing feeling of getting rejection after rejection, of the endless waiting to hear from an agent, of the vague notion that your book (as you wrote it) might never see the light of day. Your self confidence as a fledgling author is being permanently bashed up and it’s hard to stay positive when you’re staring into the abyss of having to do yet another submission to keep the dream alive. I’m finding it hard to be patient and stay positive through that. But then I thought about the motivation and satisfaction I get, from learning what good looks like. Of getting a job done well – and of having something to aim for – of having deadlines and being organised and in charge. I came to the conclusion that self publishing might just be a way to remove all the anxieties about being ‘good enough’ and just get on with achieving something.

One of the authors speaking made the point, that you will only ever be successful if you make your book indistinguishable from published authors of the same genre, which means you have to write a very good book. So either way, you have to write a very good book. How you get it out there and convince people to read it is purely down to luck, personal preference, or because your cousin’s husband works for a literary agent. So, lots to think about. Tomorrow I’m back to the LBF to pitch to an agent and consider the trad route. It will be interesting to compare how I’m feeling about things after that. If my ego is still speaking to me by then, of course. 

Conformity

The brilliant Matt Haig posted on Twitter yesterday. Anyone who follows him will know this is hardly unusual, but this particular tweet stood up, grabbed the microphone and shouted ‘Faye! I’m talking to YOU.’

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Deep, huh? It immediately made me think about the past few years, of moving country and returning to London, and of my determination to ‘fit in’ with people I thought I had things in common with. On paper, fitting in should have made me happy, but instead I managed to accomplish a whole new level of invisible within the environment I’d placed myself, simply by attempting to conform. When Matt wrote ‘The moment you fit right in, you disappear’ I could immediately identify with it, and when I thought about it in the context of writing, I realised the conundrum was also true of books as well.

In fiction there are always trends coming and going – think unreliable narrators, vampires and, if my tween-radar is pointing in the right direction, llamas – and it would be fair to assume that the easiest way to get a publishing deal might be to write to a particular trend. For example, my Twitter feed has been overflowing for a while now with books displaying threatening titles in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS about women with revenge issues. There have been some chillingly great books written in this genre in the past few years. But the original thing we all liked about them was the twist at the end, the unexpected violence, the shocking revelation. Conformity to the genre has rendered invisible many of the books sitting within it. Now we all know what to expect when we pick up one of these books, and we look for it, which makes it less exciting and therefore less attractive to the reader who no longer feels the thrill these books once offered.

I’m not saying it’s not important to write within a genre. If you don’t conform to something then most people are going to struggle to identify what your book is about, whether they will like it, and most importantly, whether they will buy it. If a reader likes books about llamas, chances are they’ll buy more than one of them, too, which is why you generally want your book to sit on a shelf next to lots of other books about llamas. It’s why agents and publishers always look for books they can categorise, preferably one that’s right in the sweet spot of the ‘genre du jour’ so they can ride the wave and max their sales.

As an author, you need to conform to the genre you are writing in so that you can compete. But as soon as you do, you become invisible, so you have to make sure you have something extra to offer. You must write (and write extremely well) in a recognisable genre, whilst maintaining something different about your novel that makes it stand out from the crowd. As a new author in particular, that’s hard, because you’re also sitting in the slush pile – somewhere you definitely don’t want to ‘fit in’.

My novel, The PTA Assassin, sits squarely in the behemoth that is ‘Commercial women’s fiction’. Personally, I think this genre sounds as appealing as cold custard on broccoli, and when I’m submitting to agents, I like to emphasise other qualities of the book that make it different. It’s a spy novel. A middle-aged woman is the protagonist. It’s humorous. Actually, someone told me not to describe it as funny in case it wasn’t – comedy is notoriously hard to pitch – but the rebel in me refused to conform so for better or for worse, I left it in anyway.

Possibly for the better. At the moment my full manuscript is sitting with an agent. Whether the writing is good enough, whether the story holds up, whether the agent believes it will sell, remains to be seen. But it gives me hope that I got off the slush pile, that maybe the book was just different enough to be noticed without being out-and-out weird. Which come to think of it, is exactly how I’d like to be thought of, too.