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