A lot of people give advice about how to write a novel, and that’s great. But I’m more and more getting the feeling that all anyone can really tell an aspiring writer is ‘start writing and keep on writing until you’ve finished the story’).
It’s rarer to see advice about what to do once the book has an agent, and a book deal, but actually, I think that this sort of thing would be far more practically useful. I thought it would be simple (and slightly magical), but it turns out that there are lots of surprising pitfalls, and lots of people around you who think you know what you’re doing – whereas in reality you barely know which way is up. So here are some things that I think every new author ought to know.
- That advance? It isn’t all yours. Not only does some of it go to your agent before you’ve even touched it (the standard among authors’ agents is 15-20%), but part of the sum that finally lands in your bank account has to go to the taxman at the end of the financial year. Therefore please, please, don’t spend it all. You have to remember that as an author, you must set yourself up as self-employed – basically, you must declare yourself as a business – and when you do that, HMRC will assume that your turnover for this financial year will be mirrored in the next financial year. So they’ll ask you to pay this year’s tax and half of next year’s projected tax all at once. This, if you are not expecting it, will make you want to cry. So be prepared!
- You’re a business now, as I’ve said above, and that means you ought to start thinking of yourself as a businessperson. Your product is your book or books, and part of your job is to help sell that product. You need an online presence (a website, a Twitter account, a public author Facebook page and so on). If you feel worried about this, your agent or your publishers should be very willing to help you out. Remember, they want your book to sell as well, so this is to their advantage. Don’t be afraid to ask silly questions. Get involved in bookish projects online, like MG Strikes Back or UKYA, chat to other authors and bloggers on twitter (if you don’t know how to dive in, try following chats like #ukyachat or #ukmgchat). Remember, though, that although you are a business, your business is ENTERTAINMENT. You’re not networking in the way you would on Linkdin, you’re making personal connections with potential readers.
- And, following on from point 2, you need to make some real-world connections as well. Even though it will make you a bit like a fraud, do not be afraid to walk into your local bookshop (or bookshops) and introduce yourself as a new author. Booksellers are wonderful people, and they will be the book’s first fans – but you need to give them reason to pick it up and champion it. If they know that you’re in the area and ready to do events with them, they’ll be very likely to be interested, and you’ll stand out in their minds.
If you make friends with a bookshop, they may agree to host your launch. This is very kind of them (staff will have to give up their evenings to work it, they may not sell that many copies of your book)! Once you have a launch venue (and you should imagine this in flashing neon letters) do not expect your publisher to pay for the food and drink. Although there is still the odd exception, in general publishers are specifically not allowed to offer funds. Think of the launch as something for you and your family and friends, and enjoy it in that way!
- ‘I want to be an author because I love event planning and speaking to large rooms of people’ said no one, ever. And yet . . . you will find yourself creating activity packs, ordering bookmarks, baking cakes, organising book deliveries, booking school visits, writing talks and designing workshops. It’s part of the job of being an author – embrace it!
- You will be asked to sign your books. Don’t laugh, because this one SEEMS obvious, and yet when I was presented with my first stack of books to be signed, I panicked. What was writing? What was my name? How was I supposed to do this? You need to remember what I forgot: as an author, you need to have a specific author signature, separate from the one you use to sign official documents. Practice it!
- Manage your sales expectations. All of the sales figures you hear about (Walliams, Zoella, the heavenly J K Rowling) are exactly the ones you must never compare yourself against. Consider this: most of the books in the top ten children’s and YA bestseller chart in any one week sell only a few thousand copies. (I’m saying only because I think that most people expect sales of 20K at least, and I’m here to tell you that I WISH that was the case). Nielsen (the data provider for the UK book industry) gives weekly figures for the top 5,000 books – so extrapolate downwards and you will see that most books are selling in double figures only. The reality is not glamorous. If you, as a debut, sell 300 books in a week you are doing very well. 500 is incredible. 100 is respectable. 50 is OK. Don’t be upset – stay calm and help your book by getting out there and promoting it.
And finally, and this is the most important thing I can say: BE NICE TO EVERYONE. It’s really hard to give this advice without sounding as though I have just been TRICKING you all into being my friend, but I don’t mean it that way. I just think that it’s crucial to remember this about the publishing industry: it is essentially a gift economy. Editors regularly work on their evenings and weekends. Publicists give up huge chunks of time to take authors on school tours and to festivals, and they are often balancing lists far beyond anything one person could manage. Agents might have thirty or forty other clients. Bloggers and reviewers have hundreds of books lined up that they could write about. Booksellers have only a few opportunities to handsell, and so many titles to choose from. They all almost never switch off, and they are all underpaid (or paid nothing at all) and they keep going because they love books. It is a simple truth that, when the norm is to go above and beyond what’s necessary, they are more likely to make you and your book their priority if you are grateful, helpful and sensitive to their sacrifices. These people are the best colleagues and supporters that you will ever have, and they deserved to be treated that way.
At the end of the day though, no advice can be comprehensive. All I can really do is wish you and your book the very best of luck – get out there and be awesome!