How to publish a novel: a writer’s guide

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London novelist’s journey from manuscript to book. But before we go anyway I must caveat in your general direction: I haven’t had a book published yet. I have only my own, limited, experience to draw on via the medium of a single publisher. Your experience will be/will have been different.

The broad sweep is likely to be similar, though, hence the ‘this might be of interest’-ness of this post. I also suspect that many of the stages will be applicable to all you self-publishers out there.

And, without further ado:

Step the First: Write a novel and make it good

A novel by

Yes, it is possible to sell a novel on the basis of a pitch: Gareth Powell did that with his Ack-Ack Macaque stories (and very good they are too). But he did that on the back of a lot of previous highly-regarded writings. If you don’t have a track-record, or if you’re not already famous, you’re going to have to go the long way round.

Step the Second: Find a publisher willing to take you on

W and A 1948

Yes, I know I’m skipping a helluva lot of steps here. But to detail every single rise and fall, every stumble and trip, in here would make this article three times as long. Besides, most of this blog is taken up with these gaps.

Step the Third: Sign a contract

publishing contract childress

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about agents here. That’s mostly because I don’t have one, though I’ve spent more time trying to get one than I have trying to get a publisher. Again, please refer to the rest of my blog ever for my agonies over a lack of agent: suffice to say that I’d really rather like one and this is where they come into their own.

A contract is a potential minefield and it’s here you can be shafted by an unscrupulous organisation. For that reason I recommend that as soon as you get a contract offer you join the Society of Authors. They’ll read through your contract and – very promptly – tell you if the contract’s exploitative and suggest amendments in your interests.

A few short notes:

  • Money goes to you. It’s not a great sign if you’re asked to pay costs
  • Keep your rights. Don’t sign away the rights to adaptations or the right to be respected as the author
  • Make sure that, if something goes wrong (if, for example, the publisher goes bust), the rights to your work revert to you. Clauses that state you can publish your work elsewhere if the novel isn’t released within a year or two of manuscript submission, or if less than a number of copies a year are sold, are nice things to have.

Step the Fourth: Tell the publisher all about yourself

iStock_tell-your-storySmall1

This, I suspect, is where people’s experiences will start to differ as different publishers will have different mechanisms for building up their publicity machines. Some may not do anything at all; others will have legions dedicated solely to your novel.

But as soon as I signed I was sent a huge document to complete: I was asked to write long- and short-form author profiles and a long and a short-form novel blurb. I was asked to give any useful contacts, any bookshops I lurked in, any podcasts I recommended. I was also asked to give ten questions and answers to provide to the media.

I was also invited to share any ideas I had for the cover, which I believe is, if not unusual, then at least a long way from standard.

This took a long time. I’m still not entirely sure what of it has been used, what will be used, and what has been forever dispatched into the netherhells.

The good thing about this is that, once done, it can be recycled: like the perfect submission letter you may tinker and rewrite but once the facts are down you’ll only need periodic updates. This work isn’t wasted.

Step the Fifth: Write something else

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This process is full of gaps: of feverish activity followed by lean, fallow months. Don’t sit back and sweat: make your next book sing.

Step the Sixth: The cover

book cover 3

A few months pass quietly. Then I receive a proposed cover and for the first time see your name in, as it were, lights.

I was, at this stage, invited to comment and feed back on the mock-up. Not all publishers do this.

Step the Seventh: A long period of quiet with occasional stabs of publicity

quiet hawkings

This is where I needed an agent and possibly made my errors. Or at least the errors I’m aware of; I’m sure more are to come.

My publishers were hugely busy with a great number of books and I didn’t want to hassle them so I retreated to Step The Fifth – I got on with other things. I was also contacted by Unnerving magazine and asked to do an (email) interview, which was both good for my ego and helped me feel like I was helping.

But I feel this was where I should have been doing more to organise publicity for the release. Could I have tagged myself onto any festival lists? Should I have contacting bookshops or libraries, or at least haranguing my publisher into so doing? I’m really not sure.

Step the Eighth: Copy-edits

Proofmarks

Aha! As if from nowhere, a task appears! To be honest this was a bit of a relief; doing something, even if it’s a difficult, angst-wrencher of a task, is better than waiting. It’s also a sign that the publisher knows what they’re doing (not that I doubted it, but still) and things are progressing. Huzzah!

Step the Ninth: Proofs

minor edits

…and hot on the heels of the copy-edits come the proofs. The turnover was so quick as to be almost the same task; here the difference is really that I was working in a PDF (and thus was visible the pagination, the preliminary pages and so forth).Also the urge to skim was stronger as there wasn’t any handy marginal notes to draw my attention to Bad Writing.

This is, I’m led to believe, the last time you can amend your text without seriously annoying your editor. I also inserted thanks and dedications here.

Step the Tenth: Final (final) changes

Another email arrives and causes me to immediately cease all other activity: another PDF and a last list of editorial queries. This are all little things – the difference between a settee and a couch, for example, or whether something should be in a personal or a personnel file.

Step the Eleventh: Serious publicity

shamelessselfpromotion

This is where I now sit.

Except I’m not really sure what I’m doing, other than querying my publisher’s plans and, upon invitation, sending them some ideas. It’s two months until the damn thing’s out there and I’m not sure how best to go about promoting myself and my work.

Except for going on about it here and the occasional humblebrag on Twitter, of course.
But I’m hoping things will come together. There’s still time; I have to trust my publisher – they want my novel to succeed as much as I do. In the meantime it’s time for me to return to Step the Fifth.

Step the Twelfth: The great release

thatnewbooksmell-32786

So… what happens here? Will we go out with a whimper or a bang?

I’m still hoping there’ll be some sort of event to accompany the release. Even if it’s in my own house, in my own head, having one’s book actually living and breathing is a rare thing. It should be celebrated.

And if I do actually do anything, if there are any events to make the moment, be sure I’ll be letting you know, lovely folks.

Step the Thirteenth: The inevitable comedown

post party

Things don’t stop when the book is unleashed on the public. There may well be continuing publicity. What there will doubtless be is more work. A debut is a beginning, not an ending.

A pause is worthwhile. A glass of reflection is earned. But then the work resumes.
Nothing sells a book like another book.

Back behind the keyboard, young ‘un. There’s more words to be mined.

*    *   *

Night Shift is due out November 6th courtesy of Flame Tree Press. Available in all good bookshops and libraries, and possibly some rather dodgy ones too.

Night-Shift-ISBN-9781787580374.0

The kindness of strangers

Hug

Whether you’re looking to publish traditionally or do-it-yourself, you’re going to have to do-it-yourself.

Unless you have the massive good fortune to land a top agent or publishing house who have ‘people’ to do these things for you – and I suspect that streamlining (another horrible phrase, like downsizing, which means ‘we’re no longer going to pay people to do important jobs’) means that there are fewer and fewer bodies that so do – you’re going to have to write your own publicity and provide your own copy.

A few weeks ago I wrote about having to give journalists your own Q&As, but it’s more than that. You also have to write your own book description: not merely the blurb but the longer document which is used to sell the book to wholesalers. You have to write your own biography. You have to provide your own author photograph.

This maybe isn’t such a surprise. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. At least you keep control – perhaps it’s best to do these things oneself rather than let somehow who knows neither you nor the deep themes and undercurrents of your work.

But there you are, having only just mastered synopses, cover letters and a new year of neologisms, and here’s something new to learn. Can’t they see that all you want to do is write?

Well suck it up, laughing boy. You’re an author now. Ain’t no-one to blame but yourself, and no-one else will do it if you don’t.

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about the way we’re no longer simple creators but fully-fledged business-twonks. It’s still true. But don’t get too discouraged because there is help out there. You have to do the work, it’s true, but you’re not alone.

First and foremost, you have friends. If you’re reading this then you’ve already stretched out a little and have a greater awareness than just that of your own four walls. You’ll have connected with authors and editors and – whilst they may be strangers to you – most people are willing to give advice, even if it’s only  280 characters long. People like to help. They’re nice like that.

Secondly, other people want you to do well. If you’re working with a publisher or agent they have a vested interest in your success. Got a problem? Ask them. They may not have all the answers but they’ll point you in the right direction. And any self-publishers who’ve used any outside services – editorial, cover design and so on – have people to ask too.

Then there’s the internet. This – as you know – can be a double-edged sword: not only may you be receiving bad advice but you can spend as long hunting down information as the original task should take. And – to my surprise – the internet doesn’t have all the answers. I haven’t been able to track down any information on what’s wanted in a long-form book description. But the internet is a resource. It’s there for you to use.

For my money the best option has always been to rely on the kindness of strangers. There’s always someone willing to help. Just remember, when your turn comes, to pay your debts.

Helping others isn’t such a hard thing, is it?

 

On being interesting

Interesting
Part of writing is selling yourself and part of selling yourself is being interesting. This is not easy. Not for me, at least.

Should you have the great fortune to be picked up by an agent or somehow manage to inveigle a publishing contract you become a commodity. The publishing industry needs a package, an angle, a way to attract attention to your work. That might just be you.

You won’t immediately be dispatched to do interviews with the great and the good. Journalism is an overstretched industry and most interviews you see are self-written: the tired journo will give it the once-over, maybe cut a few key sentences and shove it in, a way of filling up a column that otherwise she’d have to think about. Here, done and gone.

Occasionally, though, your life will chime into the zeitgeist. Said tired journo will be struggling to fill her pages and something you mentioned as an aside will strike her as worthy of deeper exploration. Maybe you’ll get that elusive personal chat (sometimes in person, sometimes via Skype or telephone) and what you said on the spur of the moment will be unpicked, stretched, your viscera unravelled in front of you.

This is good. This is what you (or at least your backers) want. It’s your job to think of something you’ve done, seen or been that might attract attention – no matter if you wanted to talk about it; no matter if you’re forced to examine some aspect of yourself you wish was left so far in the back of the closet that it might as well be in Narnia.

More likely you – as a newbie writer – will be mining the ‘local interest’ seam. It’s not the Times Literary Supplement you’ll be aiming for, it’ll be the parish magazine. Think about all the places you’ve lived, all the great bookshops you’ve frequented, the library in which you were raised: that’s your target market.

Example: my parents used to take me to Bingley library every week, until I was old enough to go on my own, and until I was old enough to go to Bradford Central Library on my own. Thus I’d be looking to the local Telegraph and Argus for publicity. They’d find me a lot more interesting than the Shetland Advertiser, especially as I just made that up.

Note that people are interested in people, not work. Unless your story is truly fascinating, a hot-button-clickbait-zeitgeist-relevant-to-everyone-world-shaker, it’s you, not your work, that sells.

Everyone is interesting. I’ve never yet met a single person who hasn’t at least one good tale to tell. And if you’re reading this then you’ve got something I’d love to hear about, be it your achievements, your ambitions or your frustrations. Not yet had the moment to do what you really want to do? The story of why you want to do that one thing, or your reasons why you haven’t yet done it – well, the key word there is ‘story’.

Think of it this way: if you were in a novel, what would you accentuate of your own life? What would you hide? What would people want to read about you?

And then forget all that. Because all people really want to know about is where you grew up.

The time-traveller’s strife

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Should you ever get a book published you’re going to have to do a fair bit of promotion. And what you’re going to have to promote isn’t going to be very good.

That’s not actually true. What you’re pushing might actually be brilliant, a masterpiece – but it’s likely that you’ll already be neck-deep in another project by the time the book hits the shelves. And I’m willing to put money on your new work being better. Suddenly you’re dragged back to something you’re already feeling a little embarrassed about. Were you really so naïve as to write that? All those adverbs!

You can’t say that, though. You’re a writer, and writing is a business. You have to show belief in your work or no-one else will. And your publisher won’t be too pleased if the message you’re sending out is half-hearted.

Say, for example, that suddenly a forgotten submission for Chivalry came back with an offer of publication. I wrote the novel nearly a decade ago. There’s a lot I still like about it, but I’m damn sure I’m a better writer now. Suddenly I’m in a moral quandary: can I honestly do a book launch and say how great the work is? ‘Yeah, it’s okay, I suppose’ ain’t gonna shift copies.

And that’s before the questions about inspiration, character development and specific plot motifs are raised. Blimey, I can barely remember last week, let alone an idle piece of speculation nearly a decade gone.

Of course, this is all assuming I’d have a book launch, or that people would be asking me questions. But the same issues arise in more singular surroundings. I want people to read my books. I want people to buy my books. To do that I’d have to muster all my social media resources – this blog also – to promote my work.

I’ve said before that shouting on social media is no way to make friends, or sales, or garner even the most flickering of interests. But telling people I have a (still theoretical) novel on release is basic and acceptable. Which means I might have to adopt a more outgoing face than I would otherwise adopt; a positive pitch with no caveats or “I’m actually more interested in this’s” is the least I could provide.

So this is the tightrope the writer must walk: they must be able to promote a work they no longer see as word-perfect without lying. They must be able to answer questions they’d never considered about a book they may not have seriously contemplated for months.

And, of course, they must be prepared for reviews that make them squirm, whether they’re good or bad.

Writers are time-travellers. They must exist in the present, in the past – and also in the futures of the work they’re currently creating.

And they must do this without losing the essence of who they are. And who they were. And, just possibly, who they’ll be this time next week.

The point of blogging

Blogging for Fiction Writers

I’m curious what fiction writers have found works or doesn’t work in using blogs as part of their platform. It seems far easier for nonfiction writers, especially those who focus on particular subject areas, since they can provide a lot of added value for readers of their books by blogging on their subjects. But what about fiction writers? Thanks in advance for your input!

A question posted on LinkedIn ‘Books & Readers’

 

Kindle

In the best traditions of stealing ideas from other people, the above question got me thinking. And what I was thinking was that the questioner has missed the point.

A lot of you out there are writers. A lot of you are on Twitter, or have blogs of your own, or Facebook pages. How many of you are doing it to raise your profile? To sell books? For some similar purpose?

I’m doing the same myself. No point lying: I started this blog because I was advised that a successful author needs to be on social media, to have a groundswell of interest before publication, whether self- or traditional. To have presence.

Three years in and I can confidently say that hasn’t worked. Not that it’s been a failure either: I have followers, both of this blog (hi!) and on Twitter, that I wouldn’t have had before. But I’ve hardly got the legions of regular contributors that I’d happily dreamt of when I first committed text to internet. By any objective measure it’s been a failure. So why do I keep doing it?

Simple. Because I enjoy it.

And that’s the point. Even though some weeks I struggle to find anything interesting to write about, and some weeks I don’t feel like I’m publishing really quality or insightful posts: sometimes I wish I’d chosen fortnightly updates rather than weekly. But I enjoy it. I like the challenge. I like to have fun with words. I like to think of new angles upon which to focus. It’s one reason I gave myself a broad remit (‘A Writers’ Life’, rather than ‘This Particular Novel’, say).

And I think – although I can give no evidence – that this is truly the answer to the original poster’s question. The best way to ‘build a platform’ is to find something they enjoy and keep at it. I love Twitter. I have nothing to sell or to promote save vague promises for the future, but enough people seem to like my rambly tweets that I’ve a respectable number of followers. I’d like more because ego – and because soon enough I will have something to promote – but at the moment I’m happy with my slow progress.

Similarly this blog. I enjoy doing it. It’s good practice, and when eventually I do self-publish Night Shift and start sending out Oneiromancer to agents I will have that fabled ‘platform’ upon which to fall.

And, in the meantime, I’ve been opened up to other bloggers and writers and artists and I’ve expanded my own tiny perspective into a wider community.

So, Mr Original Poster, my advice to you – should you actually want it – is to relax and have fun. The benefits may come later. But for now, lay back and enjoy the process.

And, if you’re really, really interested, here’s a link to my (considerably longer) post on book promotion.

The case against self-publishing

On Twitter I am the (mostly) welcoming recipient of a lot of puff. There’s always loads of authors looking to claw together sales, and, through tweets and retweets, a fair bit of it ends up at my door. Some of it interests me. Sometimes I might take a punt. Sometimes I look at it and think ‘well, that’s not for me but it’s an interesting idea.’ Some of it I find just totally infuriating.

I can forgive the odd typo (there are enough in traditionally-published works, after all) and the occasional clumsy phrase if the story carries me through. I’m not a massive perfectionist – not in other people’s work, at least. But what I cannot forgive are errors in the promotional material itself.

Now I’m in a bit of a bind here. You want examples, right? Thing is, I don’t think it’s fair on authors – who I’m sure have put a lot of time, maybe a bit of money, into their work – to humiliate them in a public forum. See, there by the grace of Picard go I. Had the e-publishing revolution happened five, maybe ten years ago, I’d have been in this very position myself. You can bet your bottom Florint that one of these would have been available for purchase right now – and it’s likely (probable) that I’d have made the same mistakes in my enthusiasm and idealism. I am not anti-self-publishing. It just angers me to see stupid self-publishing. The sort I’d have produced five years ago.

Some egregiousnesses, all taken from tweets I’ve received in the last week or two:

  • Promotional material containing the phrase ‘Three times in the least.’ I mean, come on. I’m never going to spend money – or waste my valuable reading time – on something that promotes itself with such bad English. ‘At least three times.’ Come on, it’s not hard
  • ‘Tatsier’. On a cover. I know typos happen and I know they’re right buggers to find. But on a cover? No. If you only have half-a-dozen words to proof-read then I expect it to be error-free. ‘Tastier’. Again, not hard
  • The cover looks fine, no typos in the puff, all elements present and correct: so you follow the link to Amazon, click on the ‘more details’ tab… And what’s revealed looks like it was written by a student. Of astrophysics.

And all that’s before we get to this batch of beauties.

This stuff matters, folks. I will never buy a book if it looks as if the writer can’t be bothered. Right or wrong, if you can’t use good English (not necessarily ‘correct’ or grammatical English, but language true to the book’s contents) in your promotion then I can have no faith in the words beyond the cover.

I get angry about this. I have to work really hard not to fire off sarcastic tweets – I’ve been criticised myself, I know it hurts and I don’t want to inflict this pain on others. Sometimes I think I’d be actually helping the author by pointing out the flaws – but I don’t think I could hold my annoyance out of sight and I don’t want to be that person. Who am I, after all? Hey, at least these people have got work out there in the public eye. I’ve only got this blog, and nobody gives a damn about that.

Why does this annoy me so? Partly because I’m that sort of person: not quite a grammar Nazi, maybe more the Castro of correctness or the Amin of anality. But there are consequences. Every ‘bad’ book that’s self-published makes it harder for the good ones to be seen. And – I’ll say it again – there are some really, really good stories to be found. There is no filter on the industry. We are drowning in a tide of mediocrity and, whilst I really don’t want to squash the unique voices that would never get a trad-pubbed released, we need help to find a way back to the shore. We need an island, a reef where we know these self-pubbed books are of genuine quality.

[Irony alert: after drafting this entry but before posting I received the Great Rejection of Doom. I may well be joining the ranks of the self-published myself, sooner rather than later. You can’t write the same book forever – sometimes you just need to get it out there and move on.]

For what it’s worth, let me finish by promoting the following self-published authors, who I know write good stuff and – I believe – are worthy of your time:

Finally – finally finally – I’m going to be away (on honeymoon, no less) for the next coupla weeks. That means no blogs for a little while. You have fun – and behave yourselves – whilst I’m away, mmmkay?

Ambiversion

I’m currently reading a fascinating book about introversion; about how we live in a time where personality, not character, matters most. Where volume is rewarded above quiet reflection and decisions are evaluated on presentation, not on substance.

You might think that writers are immune to such cultural trends. After all, although not all writers are introverts, it is a field that requires time spent alone, in a comforting environment (which will vary from person to person), with a lot of time spent in one’s own head. It’s no surprise that some of the best-sellers are considered introverts: the Bronte’s; JK Rowling; Virginia Woolf and JD Salinger are just a few examples.

In the past this wasn’t much of an issue. Writers could send manuscripts to their agents or publishers, receive comments back by post and, bar the occasional meeting and maybe a quick book-launch, barely had to leave their homes to produce quality material that would sell.

Things are very different now. The industry has changed dramatically. Writers are now required to actively promote themselves; they’re expected to appear in public, doing lectures and readings and interviews. Although much promotion can be undertaken online, the fact remains: those who shout loudest get the most sales.

This isn’t right, isn’t fair, and risks the best novels slipping between the cracks to be replaced by mediocrity and blah. It’s a consequence of the way the publishing world has retreated, saving money by pushing promotion onto authors. Some, naturally, cope better than others. I consider myself to be an ambivert and personally have no problem speaking in public. But many do.

It’s no different in the world of self-publishing: it may be possible to quietly slip out your masterpiece and to avoid the limelight but no-one’s going to read it if no-one knows it’s there. The best way of promoting yourself remains the personal appearance – at conferences, in shops, or at the car boot-sales where you hope to offload a few of the thousand copies that are currently preventing use of the spare bedroom.

Don’t think the internet’s a way around this. Most bloggers and tweeters (myself included) are locked in a circle of writers reading writers, reaching very few people in the buying world. Even though the internet has been a liberation for introverts everywhere (they can metaphorically dance and sing behind their keyboards, engaging only when and how they want), the fact remains: introverts don’t like to shout. It’s an incredibly slow, incremental journey for those who prefer to pick and choose their interactions with the outside world.

It seems to me that the publishing world is doing a massive disservice to both readers and writers. Books are signed not only on the basis of their quality but by how well the author can push themselves. Some people are good at this, others aren’t – but literary merit does not reflect this difference. Similarly, many readers are introverted. Don’t they deserve to hear the experiences of people like them, as well as the big noises that live in big worlds of parties and friendships and society? We’re not all Gatsby’s and we don’t all want to read about them.

The driving force of publishing is money, not talent. That’s not to say that publishers don’t like quality writing – they most certainly do – but that even the best-written book in the world will be overlooked if it ain’t gonna be a unit-shifter. Bear in mind that many (most) debut novels are bought not on their own merits but on the potential that the industry sees behind its author. It’s a risk-averse world, one in which quiet courage isn’t rated as highly as the ability to stand up and shout – no matter what bollocks is being shouted.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Thoughts?