So… Thinking of Writing a Book..?
Wordsmithing is only the beginning when writing a book – marketing and the round robin that goes with any book launch can be far more stressful than writing. With the industry is transitionary flux finding the right publisher who instils confidence is critical
Column by Elizabeth S Moore
Are you thinking of writing a book? I’d been thinking about it for decades before I did it, and the main impediments seemed to me to be getting an agent and a publisher, and finishing it. It’s the long form, as Gillian Slovo used to tell us on our Faber Write a Novel course, and she was right.
It turns out, as I sit a week away from the button being pressed and my publishers sending it off to the printers, that writing it is as nothing compared to the work you have to put in once it’s finished. Well, to be fair, that’s probably inaccurate, you don’t have to put in any work, but if you want to sell any books it’s highly advisable. There are a lot of books out there. Millions of them, being self-published, vanity published, and published by bona fide publishing houses.
When I was doing the rounds of publishers with my manuscript, I was lucky enough to get offers from some really big, instantly recognisable, award winning household names. I sat with people who all their own views on The Man on the Middle Floor, or Dead People as it was called then. Some of them thought it was a love story, some a thriller, some a commentary on dystopian city living and the politically correct world we live in. They all loved the writing and couldn’t put it down which was really cheering. What talking to them all showed me was that reactions to books, even from people who are very powerful in the publishing industry, is completely subjective and no one sees the same thing in the same pages. I was told to make my characters more vanilla in case readers reacted to them negatively, and it was suggested to me politely that my central character Nick, who is on the autistic spectrum, would be less controversial if he was less autistic. Interestingly, the one thing readers seem to have loved universally since people have started reviewing it, is that the characters are memorable, and the story distinct and unusually bold. I think we’ve all had enough of the generic thriller that tries to be Gone Girl, and which you’re not sure whether you read last summer too, but publishers are proscribed by their finances and they think that bland is the way forward, even if readers don’t.
So, writing a novel is a long process in more ways than one. You find a publisher, you get really, really excited that somehow they want to take your book, spend money on it, and get behind it. Bearing in mind that this was all happening in the spring of 2017, I was surprised that all the big houses who wanted it, were intending to put it on their 2020 list. That’s quite a long time when you’re writing your first novel after fifty and have already finished your second. It wasn’t that I didn’t want a big name publisher, I did, but I wanted to be around at the launch and still lively enough to do the promotion.
So, I cast around for an alternative and found RedDoor. A team of clever women, all with backgrounds and careers spent in traditional publishers, they operate a traditional model with a huge pile of submissions that they read their way through and whittle down in the usual way, taking on a tiny number of the submissions they receive. The main difference between them and the big publishing houses is that if they decide to publish you, no easy task, you contribute to the costs of producing your book up front so the risk is shared between you and them – as are the rewards. The reason I loved this model is it means you are involved. Their whole ethos is collaborative and their authors are members of the team. I’m a control freak, and had strong feelings on everything from the cover to the layout and usually those decisions are taken ‘in-house’ and you have no input. I spoke to one very powerful publishing figure who has started writing under a pseudonym and she told me that her covers were all illustrated with women in hats from completely the wrong period of history, but that there was nothing she could do about it as the shoot had been done and paid for by her very well-known publishers. It occurred to me that if she didn’t have enough clout to get it re shot, then I would have no chance.
There is the rub, publishing is in transition from a traditional model which consists of finding two or three bestsellers a year to carry all the books which don’t sell many copies. Money is to put it politely, tight, and everyone is looking for the next big thing. The plot should have a twist at the end, preferably a female protagonist and be a thriller. The problem with this is that books end up all feeling the same after a bit and underestimate readers’ intelligence.
Added to this picture are the really successful self-publishers, or indie authors, who are selling millions of books by publishing their books online, and managing the marketing and PR themselves. There are, in a nutshell, many ways to skin a cat, or publish a book and there is room – and need – for all. It is an odd moment, with authors who are outselling ‘best-selling authors’ online, being shunned by book festivals, book shops and everyone in publishing. The only people not shunning them are the people who buy books.
So, I didn’t self-publish, and on I went with RedDoor, happy to have found them, and the whole experience round the book was lovely. I loved the editor, who sorted out my timeline and gave me a spreadsheet to work to, I loved the putting the book together process, choosing fonts and the cover, seeing the book transform into something tangible, the physical realisation of a lifelong dream. I had a lovely time, and then came marketing and PR.
As I have touched on in previous columns, it is exceedingly difficult to avoid these two symbiotic industries while marketing a book. As my previous business experience has been in property, where the closest involvement you have with a marketer is when a nice chap called Tom or James chats to you and produces a lovely brochure, it was quite a surprise to discover that there was this huge amorphous industry out there for the sole purpose of telling people how marvellous something is. Was this even a thing when I was young? I don’t know if there were launch parties and giveaways and bloggers and vloggers and competitions and advertising campaigns, but perhaps I have just never been in this world so blissfully unaware of it all. Marketing to be fair has ways of being tested and I’ve been amazingly lucky to have a young, motivated wonder of a girl working with me. She lives in Vietnam while doing everything from a hub, has a tried and tested method of promoting authors, and is amazingly efficient. Her talk of buys for clicks and ways of selling books online are a whole new world, and I find it fascinating. This is mainly because I’m all about control, and find it very difficult to relinquish any part of a project to someone else, and so I love to be able to quantify what’s happening.
Thus PR for me has been a tricky undertaking. I don’t understand the model and it makes me very nervous to know that with every passing month there are lots of ideas and possibilities being mooted but you never know if or when they will become real. If I’m not stressing about whether or not the book is going to be in a national before publication, I’m worrying that I haven’t got the right people at the launch. It isn’t what I thought would happen after all the writing, and it takes up loads of time.
Social media, which is another huge part of this picture is also time consuming. So time consuming that now my marketing lady does a lot of it, as you need to post things every day. Then there is the website, newsletters, events and profile. All this when I am trying to edit my second book. It’s been busy, and full on, and I had to be reminded by my publisher the other day that it’s all about my book and that my book is compelling, and wonderful and full of suspense and different, because she is book focused, and I was so obsessed with trying to get my Instagram right that I had forgotten all about it in the sea of things to do every day. That is what a good publisher does, in my limited and humble opinion.
So, at the end of this journey what have I learned? That writing the book is only the beginning, and that you get out of an experience what you put into it. Perhaps this is true of life in general but it is reflective of how the world is changing I think. The model that RedDoor represents seems new but is actually even more traditional than what is usually thought of as a ‘traditional publishing house’…Charles Dickens, George Orwell and many others self-funded part of their books in exactly the same way although even in those days, Faber and the like were very picky, just as RedDoor is. Like in so many industries we are in the midst of a time of change, and we have choices. If you’re thinking of writing a book, do it, it’s been the most fabulous experience, but make your choices carefully.
The Man on the Middle Floor comes out on April 12th published by RedDoor and on Audible simultaneously as well as being available in all good book shops.