How to Survive Beyond Your Debut

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For whatever reason, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how lucky I have been in the first five years of my career. I left my previous career in 2011 and haven’t stopped since. Now, perhaps for the first time since then, I feel like I belong in the publishing world. It seems like the frenetic pedalling and plate-spinning has paid off. I’m being offered some lovely opportunities: World Book Day; festivals; magazine columns; judging panels. All lovely things.

The thing is: these things took five years to achieve. I wasn’t offered nearly so many lovely things as a debut. My best-selling novel (to date) is my third, SAY HER NAME – released a whole two years after my debut. And yet, it’s with great sadness I note a number of 2012 debuts have since vanished from release schedules. Those authors were never offered a third novel, never had the chance I had.

You know how it goes: Big debut deal, big announcement in the Bookseller or Publisher’s Weekly, big advance, big launch and then…well. Some debuts do flourish, most don’t.

Even way back with HOLLOW PIKE, the authors I looked up to were those who went beyond a single hit novel. I’m always very wary of writing advice because everyone does it differently, but I think I’m learning how to turn a book into a career in writing. So how do you achieve the holy grail of longevity?

WRITE GOOD

It might sound fundamental, but you’re only as good as your last book. I’m sure we can all think of five authors who never quite lived up to the promise of their debut. As authors, and I say this a lot, we have ONE JOB, and that is to write awesome books. When I start to feel out of control of my career I find refocusing on writing the best remedy. I want every book to be in some way better than the last.

Look at me and my dear friends Amy Alward, Laura Lam and Laure Eve. We all wrote killer third novels, secured new deals and entered ‘phase two’ of our careers. The books were so irresistible, our sales records weren’t taken into consideration.

BE GOBBY

You don’t have to be a total dickhead, but you have a voice and it deserves to be heard. Only you could have written your book.  It’s all a bit ‘Lean In’ but if you don’t speak up on a panel, you can bet your ass some other thirsty author will. It’s part of the job. Never be intimidated by other, more seasoned authors – you have just as much right to be on a panel as they do.

Being gobby is also helpful with your publisher. When I was a debut I was very shy when speaking to my editor and agent, almost like they were doing me a favour by publishing my book. I suppose I was worried I’d scare away the book deal. Rot! Every book is a collaboration and if you don’t speak your mind, who’s going to speak it for you? Again, you don’t have to be an asshole about it – but if you really hate the cover they’re suggesting, speak or forever hold your peace.

KNOW STUFF

There are lots of debut authors. Every year there’s like a million. What’s going to mark you out from the crowd? Doing zany shit never hurts, but play that card too often and you might as well be Timmy Mallet. Children’s authors, unfortunately, do have to ask ‘am I willing to be a party clown?’ quite early into their career.

Instead I think it’s better to set yourself up as an expert and the best way to do this is to know your stuff. I read a LOT of YA. The best authors I know have a healthy knowledge of what’s new and now and they are able to discuss the market on panels and in the press. Festivals appearances and media presence are GOLD when it comes to negotiating that second book deal.

KNOW OTHER STUFF

You know all those other authors? Of course they know a lot about YA fiction, they’ve been trying to get published for however many years. They can ALL talk until the cows come home about YA, so what’s going to make you different? Again, a sassy haircut will only get you so far unfortunately.

If we look at John Green or Zoella – their audience is a cross-over of people who came for books and stayed for the chat OR people who came for the chat and stayed for the books. What’s your expertise? Talk and blog about those things too. See how eloquently Louise O’Neill or Holly Bourne talk about feminism! See how David Owens talks about mental health issues.

Now. Did I ‘play the diversity card’? I dunno. I know a lot about sexuality and gender stuff so I was always happy to talk about it. Duh. In my Attitude column I talk about movies, music, theatre and fashion because I know a lot about them too.

Don’t be a single issue writer. Sounds awful, but what’s your brand? Sarah McIntyre, Alex T Smith, Michael Rosen, Alan Gibbons and Melinda Salisbury are just a few authors – off the top of my head – who have a strong brand identity.

BE SEXY

Well it doesn’t hurt, does it?

BE YOUNG

Being a teenage author (preferably female) will improve your chances at being on the telly.

BE AUTHENTIC

After the explosion of John Green (not literally), everyone and their hamster started talking fast to a camera and posting the results on YouTube. Everyone was very confused when they didn’t have a million followers five days later.

Everyone will tell you you NEED social media channels, but what if you don’t? Suzanne Collins is invisible on social media because it’s simply not HER.

YouTube is hugely time consuming. It’s not for everyone. I like Twitter and Instagram. I care not for YouTube and Facebook. That’s just me.

GET OUT THERE

I say this as a full-time author. Not everyone (including me if we’re honest) can afford to write full-time. But if you are able to do so, getting out there and meeting readers is hugely valuable. You might not sell many books, you might not make a lot of money doing it – but showing willing goes a long way. It’s about people simply learning your name and building brand loyalty. Yes, again, you are a brand. Deal with it.

Children’s writers (especially those willing to dress as a dog/cowboy/farting poop) can do very well indeed and make a good living at schools and events.

For authors writing for adults, it’s less obvious but don’t rely on your publicist to provide all opportunities. Make connections via social media – festival organisers, librarians, book shop managers – and politely reach out. Offer your services. If all else fails, arrange your own event a la Alexia Casale with YAShot.

HUSSLE

Finally, you are a professional writer now. What else can you write? Can you freelance? My best/worst writing job was writing scripts for talking dolls. The dolls never saw the light of day, but I was paid handsomely for my efforts.

Importantly, do not offer to write for free. You are self-employed. When was the last time a plumber fixed a bog for free? There is no difference.

 

Few of us have sales figures to make ourselves indestructible, so it’s really about doing everything you can to make yourself bulletproof. It’s about identifying your USP and using it as leverage come negotiation time. As Frances Hardinge proved with her seventh novel THE LIE TREE, it might not be your debut that breaks through so it’s about prompting your publisher to invest in YOU  and YOUR TALENT rather that just a book.

Lovely colleagues Non Pratt and Robin Stevens – because they too are building careers are running what is essentially media training for new authors. This will be invaluable advice. Tickets available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/batnon-and-robins-guide-to-author-events-tickets-21381563833

 

Debutantes

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I don’t know why, but I’ve been reminiscing more than usual lately. All of my books are finished – and although I’m pottering away on a couple of secret projects, I won’t have a full-length novel out in 2016. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I’ve had two titles a year since 2012 – last year ALL OF THE ABOVE and UNDER MY SKIN were released eight months apart. I’m happy to let both titles find their audience and my publisher seem to agree. Even without a novel out this year, I’ll certainly be very busy.

But I am reflecting on how lucky I have been in the first five years of my career. I left my previous career in 2011 and haven’t stopped since. Now, perhaps for the first time since then, I feel like I belong in the publishing world. It seems like the frenetic pedalling and plate-spinning has paid off. I’m being offered some lovely opportunities: World Book Day; festivals; magazine columns; judging panels. All lovely things.

The thing is: these things took five years to achieve. I wasn’t offered nearly so many lovely things as a debut. My best-selling novel (to date) is my third, SAY HER NAME – released a whole two years after my debut. And yet, it’s with great sadness I note a number of 2012 debuts have since vanished from release schedules. Those authors were never offered a third novel, never had the chance I had.

The disproportionate emphasis on debut authors – and the subsequent shadow of ‘disappointing sales’ – is the one aspect of publishing I really struggle with. Don’t get me wrong – I know some debuts do cut through the murk and achieve best-seller status: The Miniaturist springs instantly to mind, but most, the vast majority, do not. Nonetheless, the instant-debut-bestseller is still the holy grail, and debuts get the sexiest advances.

Bring me your ‘overnight successes’ and I will read them to filth. Fifty Shades had a good year or so online before it was retooled for the mass market, Harry Potter gathered momentum between 1997 and 2000, John Green mania didn’t truly arrive until his sixth novel.

The music industry seems to better understand the need for what they would call ‘artist development’. Tastemakers, influencers, and, vitally, the market, are given time – months, sometimes years to embed and discover a new artist. No such opportunity is given to authors. It’s not that the industry isn’t trying: proofs go out, announcements are made on Twitter and in the Bookseller, manuscripts are passed around for foreign markets. There are urban legends of thousands of free copies of TWILIGHT being given away in US shopping malls to create buzz.

But in terms of selling the author, rather than the book, as an investment – often little is done. There is no media training. Sometimes, if there’s a marketing spend, there will be a promotional tour, some events, some press coverage if there’s ‘an angle’, but given that a debut doesn’t have a readership, why would anyone care? I suppose my question is this: at acquisition, what is acquired? A book or an author?

It’s disheartening to see promising debuts be swiftly written off when their first book didn’t hit the spot commercially. I remember Francesca Simon telling the great and good of children’s publishing at the Imagine Festival about how some retailers wouldn’t even stock HORRID HENRY until the fourth or fifth title in the series. I remember speaking to JoJo Moyes about how she knew ME BEFORE YOU was her last shot to get it right. I fear now no author would be given four or five chances to get it right. I sometimes wonder if it weren’t for my foreign sales and big-mouth on panels whether I’d have been on the scrapheap years back. I don’t even want to dwell on whether part of my success is a diversity ‘angle’ because that’s shady af.

Zoella doesn’t count. The reason her book did so well was unquestionably because her audience was already built in. But how do you build in an audience for a debut who, by day, works as a nail technician in Purley Oaks? I guess you have to let them organically build one and that takes years. I guess this whole blog is a plea for faith. I don’t think people don’t read books in order. I know readers who started with Say Her Name or This Book Is Gay go back and read my debut.

After Hollow Pike came out, vultures were circling. People were very nice, but I felt like a flop before it even came out. All retailers wanted in 2012 was Hunger Games imitations and Hollow Pike didn’t fit the bill. Bummer. I’m so, so grateful I was granted a little patience. Frances Hardinge’s glorious win at the Costa with THE LIE TREE (her seventh novel) goes to show publishing isn’t always an overnight industry.

Hang on in there, publishers. We’re trying to sell books, we really are. As for authors, we make ourselves professionally bulletproof by making ourselves useful. The days of writing full-time by the lake are over. We can boost our profile and sales by werking. School visits, YouTube channels, social media presence, festivals, book signings…every little helps. My colleagues Non Pratt and Robin Stevens are running what is, essentially, media training for authors in March and I think you could do much worse. Tickets available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/batnon-and-robins-guide-to-author-events-tickets-21381563833