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?
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.
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.
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.
Well it doesn’t hurt, does it?
Being a teenage author (preferably female) will improve your chances at being on the telly.
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.
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