Lessons from a debut author: things I wish I’d known a year ago

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Lessons from a debut author: things I wish I’d known a year ago

Knowledge and ignorance
Sales aren't all about how good your novel is. Marketing is a huge part of success and a lot of that falls on the author's shoulders.

Lessons from a debut author: things I wish I’d known a year ago

My debut novel was published 6 months ago now, so I thought it was worth rounding up some of my thoughts about the process, in particular, some of the misconceptions I had and what I’ve learnt in the hope it might help others starting out.

I’m in a pretty good space at the moment and just found out Beat The Rain was my publisher’s best selling title of 2016 – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had a fair few ‘long dark teatimes of the soul’ over the past year. Far from it.

Here’s my top 5 learnings:

1. Your publisher/publicist is not going to do everything for you

It’s rare that you’ll be lucky enough to finish your book, find an agent / publisher, hand it over and that’s that. Job done.

It’s a cruel twist of fate that as a writer, promoting yourself, putting a public face forward, is the last thing you want to do. Yet you must.

Even with a big publisher, only 2 in 10 novels published may get the ‘big push’ – if you’re one of the other 8, you’ll be shocked and surprised how much falls on your own shoulders.

If you’re with a small publisher, like me, their business model can’t sustain putting a huge resource into each title they publish. It’s a tougher and tougher market, both for authors and for publishers.

In short, you have to be able to market yourself. And today, that also means being social media savvy. If you aren’t, you won’t succeed. (I discuss this at more length in ‘Things I’ve learnt since landing a publishing contract‘).

2. Independent bookstores are your friend

My experience with independent bookstores in both the UK and US has been great. You can speak to someone in person (in store or on the phone) and in my experience, most have agreed to stock Beat The Rain. They may only take one copy to start with, but if it sells, they will restock.

There are a lot of independent bookstores – a lot. Don’t think Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, WH Smiths etc are the only physical stores that matter – spent time courting the independents, it makes a difference.

They are personal and you can build a relationship with them that will bear fruit. They thrive on discovering novels the big players don’t necessarily find first time around.

(A quick note: Waterstones are incredibly supportive also, especially your local stores. Barnes and Noble has also been great).

3. You don’t need an agent, but it helps

I currently don’t have an agent. I approached 8 when I first started trying to get Beat The Rain published and all rejected me. But 3 smaller publishers wanted the book, so I signed with one of them and put idea of an agent on the back burner.

Things are going well without an agent – but I’d like one. Aside from the fact my publisher has suggested I find an one to explore film and TV rights for Beat The Rain, I’ve just finished my second novel and would like someone to represent it.

My point is, when you’re starting out, it’s perhaps harder to get an agent than a publisher. They are picky. They have a list, and an idea of the type of author/novel they want to represent. They have to look at the business side of things – will your title sell? Is it reflecting the current zeitgeist in some way? Coupled with the fact they only make money if your novel does and you see why they have to be choosy. So don’t be scared to go it alone with a publisher at first.

On a personal note, I’m not looking forward to approaching agents again and getting the inevitable rejections… but I’m gritting my teeth and preparing for it 🙂

4. It’s not all about how good your book is

It’s worth elaborating on the point above – publishers and agents don’t only take on books they love. They have gaps they need to fill in the market. Rejection doesn’t mean your novel is worthless, just that it’s not right for them or their lists at the time.

The same goes for sales once you are published. I’ve seen many amazing books that don’t make it onto the bestsellers lists, that aren’t touted in every newspaper in the land and hailed as ‘the next [insert whatever author is de rigour at the time here]’.

The unfortunate reality is that marketing is the missing ingredient for these novels and authors. A lot of authors may think the job is done when their book is finished. I’ll be honest, I wish it was – I find promoting my book/my ‘author’ self about as pleasurable as sandpapering my eyeballs. But if you want to succeed, there isn’t another option.

5. Not all bookstores work like Amazon

Amazon is currently the most important space for your novel. That doesn’t mean your author ego doesn’t want to see it in other bookstores.

When Amazon stocks your novel, they restock based on sales. If it sells out, they order more. They decide how many to order by how many you sell. If you’re like me, you’ll assume other bookstores work the same. Not all do, so be careful where you put your marketing energy (Note: the safest place to push people for online sales is Amazon).

As an example, I had to work quite hard to get WH Smiths in the UK to consider stocking my novel, even in my local stores. At the time, I was a man possessed: if Beat The Rain was going to be taken seriously, it had to be stocked by WH Smiths. Eventually, they stocked in online, but not in store, even locally.

I then spent a lot of time and effort on social media promoting my novel and pushing people to WH Smith online to buy it. They sold out in a week and I assumed they would stock more copies, like Amazon does. They didn’t. The moral – you’ve only got limited time and energy, put it into Amazon.


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