Watching the US presidential campaign unfold has made me think a lot about giving up.
Specifically, how do we as authors know when there’s a wrong time and a right time to give up on our writing careers?
Giving up is a topic that’s often brought up in the Savvy Writers’ Snug group that I run on Facebook. Maybe an author hasn’t been re-contracted due to low sales figures, or they can’t get a new contract.
They will post and ask the question: is it time to give up, or should I persevere regardless?
It’s tempting to tell these authors not to give up. And many people do. But it’s more nuanced than that and the two presidential candidates can give us an interesting insight into just how nuanced.
First, take the president-elect, Joe Biden. This isn’t the first time he’s tried to become president. The last two times were in 1988 and 2008, but for various reasons, he didn’t make it. That’s over 30 years riding the political rollercoaster of ups and downs, with personal tragedies in-between too.
Most people would have given up.
But not Biden and now he finally has what he’s been striving for all this time, despite all the obstacles and stumbles along the way.
Now take Donald Trump. He too sought office before becoming president in 2016, just once in 2000 when he created what he called a ‘presidential exploratory committee’. But for the purposes of this article, let’s look at right now and how he’s reacted to losing the presidency. Is he giving up? Hell no! Despite all the facts telling him otherwise, Trump is persevering by constantly insisting he won the election and launching lawsuits too.
You could say that like Biden, Trump refuses to give up.
But the truth is, Trump's form of perseverance is completely different from Biden’s. Apart from the obvious – it’s deluded and not based in fact – it is a blind kind of tenacity which refuses to bend or adapt to reach a goal. He is going down a straight road of litigation and refusing to veer off or adapt his message, which is: voter fraud and I won.
Biden, however, did veer off track, adapting to change when needed. For example, after witnessing the summer’s racial tensions in the US, he made what some deemed a controversial decision by taking on Kamala Harris as his running mate, a key figure in the civil rights movement.
He also adapted his campaign as the horror of the pandemic unfolded, running it entirely online despite all his natural instincts telling him to be out there, hand-shaking and hugging, something he's known for.
This is what makes the difference between the two types of 'not giving up'. On one hand, you have someone who is so stuck in their ways, you can pretty much guarantee they'll have the rug pulled out from beneath them eventually. Then the other version, someone with a flexible realistic approach which ultimately, will offer them the best chance of success.
How does this apply to authors?
There will come a time in most authors’ lives when they will feel a sense of hopelessness. Maybe it’s because of declining sales or they’ve been dropped by their publisher. When authors share their worries and ask their peers whether it's time to give up, the natural instinct of other authors is to always say don’t give up. Sure, take a break but persevere, it’s a long game! All it takes is one breakout book to finally get there, just as all it took was one election victory for Biden.
And I get it! I have my own story of nearly giving up after I received nearly a hundred rejections from agents. In the end, I didn’t and thank God for that! Same with Joe Biden (ha! Look at me comparing my experience with the president-elect!). Imagine if he’d given up, he would have missed out on finally achieving his dream of being president.
But blindly telling an author not to give up can do them a disservice. First, we need to question how they're dealing with any obstacles in their way. Are they just ploughing on with what they’ve always done, despite all the signs telling them it’s not going to work, as Trump is doing? Or are they willing to adapt and change like Biden is?
The truth is, if an author is not selling enough books to keep them in contract, something needs to give. They need to change, to adapt, to experiment. And yes, that can mean switching genre.
But many authors aren’t willing to do this. They argue that they must 'write from the heart' otherwise what’s the point? They tell themselves that their readers, even if there are a small number of them, love their work, after all. Plus they got a publishing deal, didn’t they? Surely, that tells them they have some talent.
Absolutely! All of this shows an author has some kind of talent. But in this business, talent alone isn't enough. It just isn't! Truth is, if an author isn't bothered about having a long-term career in writing – and by career, I mean earning enough money from their writing to focus on it part-time or full-time – then they should crack on. It might work. You hear the stories of it working when a genre suddenly takes off.
But these cases are few and far between. The truth is, a few months down the line, an author in this position will probably find themselves still struggling to keep afloat as they continue to write into the void, telling themselves it’s fine because it’s what their heart desires, when the truth is, despite telling themselves over and over as long as they're writing from the heart, they're happy, in reality they find themselves steeped in misery as their writing career stalls.
What makes me so sad as I watch this happen is they haven’t even tried another way. Not properly anyway. They’ve assumed it just won’t work. They haven’t played and experimented with genre to see if another glove might fit just as beautifully as the first. It doesn’t even have to be a complete change. I was writing women’s fiction but when sales struggled, I decided to make it a little darker That doesn’t mean I still don’t dabble with the lighter women’s fiction I once wrote in the background too.
The key is making tweaks before your refusal to give up just results in you having the choice taken from you, like no doubt Trump will find happens in the coming weeks.
So what if you're reading this and you're at that crossroads now? My advice is, don’t blindly plough on. Instead, become informed enough to twist and turn with the tide of publishing and who knows? You might not be President of the United States, but you sure as hell might be able to save your chances of the successful writing career you dream of.
Netgalley is an online platform which aims to connect publishers and authors with 'readers of influence' such as librarians, booksellers, educators, reviewers and bloggers. Unlike websites like Goodreads, you can only see reviews if you're a member, so Netgalley shouldn't be thought of as review site for ‘normal’ readers to access.
The hope from the publisher and author point of view is that by sending free review copies to these 'readers of influence', their resulting reviews can be used for blurbs, and create word of mouth. Plus they should also appear on platforms outside Netgalley, such as GoodReads and Amazon. Not to mention, it might help publishers when selling a book into retailers. Eg. '2k people requested an ARC, this book is going to be huuuuuuge!’
When it works, it can be quite useful (though as discussed in my previous post about blog tours, there can always be the risk all you’re targeting is the echo chamber).
The problem comes when it doesn't work. Specifically, when people treat Netgalley as a 'free books' website. And many people do. I call these people ‘book blaggers’. They see legitimate book reviewers receiving free books and think ‘yeah, I’ll have a piece of that.’
How do I know these people are blagging?
I’ve seen this myself in book groups on Facebook. Other authors regularly report seeing the same too. I’d love to share screen shots here but I don’t want to cross a line! So here’s how a conversation will usually go:
Blagger A: Does anyone know where I can get free books? I’m off on holiday soon and need some new books.
Blagger B: Netgalley! It’s a great website where you can request FREE books before they’re published in exchange for reviews. Just make sure you give as much info in your bio as possible for publishers.
Blagger A: Ooh, this sounds great, thanks. What sort of info should I include?
Blagger B: Mainly the kind of books you like but also where you will leave your review. It helps if you have a website too.
Blagger A: What do you mean by website?
Blagger B: Like a reviewing blog.
Blagger A: Oh, I don’t have one of those.
Blagger B: No worries, they’re easy to set up for free using a site like Wordpress.
Blagger C: Sorry to butt in, but that’s what I did. It was easy. You don’t even really need to leave a review to be honest, I don’t always leave reviews and still get freebies.
Blagger A: Awesome! Going to check it out now.
These people aren’t ‘readers of influence’. They’re purely doing it to get freebies. Even worse, they’re passing on their tips to other aspiring book blaggers! Ergh.
It’s pretty easy for book blaggers to play the system, pretending to be reviewers just so they can get their hands on a free book. As Blagger A said, anyone can set up a blog for free these days and make it seem legit. If we’re ‘lucky’, they’ll post a quick badly written review on Netgalley, maybe even duplicate it on their low traffic blog too. But most of the time, there will be no review at all.
Of course, if vetted properly, the book blaggers shouldn’t get a look in. As Netgalley states, anyone requesting a book to review should ideally have:
‘a history of providing feedback for books they’ve accessed, and can demonstrate their reach as an early influencer or reviewer. Members improve their chances of getting approved for more books by providing meaningful reviews, by connecting their accounts to verified industry organizations (ALA, ABA, Booksellers Association (UK), ALIA (AU), and others.), and linking to their blogs, social and Goodreads accounts.’
I know many publishers work super hard to vet requests via Netgalley and chase up reviewers. And yet somehow, book blaggers still manage to slip through the net. I hear it all the time from other authors who are members of the Savvy Writers’ Snug I run on Facebook. Many notice a lot of their Netgalley reviews do not end up on a website which will actually benefit readers, like Amazon.
Authors also often complain about the fact that some of the reviews on Netgalley offer no constructive or useful feedback either. The review might be less than a paragraph, or a vague plot overview with no insight at all.
I recently did a bit of an exercise on one of my own books to get a sense of how many people getting my books via Netgalley are there for the freebies or there for the love of reviewing books.
My most reviewed book on Netgalley is my sixth novel The Family Secret. This is what I discovered after a bit of research:
So a THIRD of the reviewers who posted some kind of review on Netgalley didn’t do a proper review nor did they seem to place it anywhere useful. That doesn’t include those who requested the novel and then didn’t even leave any kind of review on Netgalley itself!
I'm not alone. Many authors report a disparity between the number of free copies requested (sometimes in the hundreds) and the subsequent number of reviews received on Netgalley itself and elsewhere. Sure, life can get in the way. Plus a reviewer might absolutely hate a book and rather not post a review at all (better to say nothing at all to say something nasty, right?).
But I suspect a lot of the time, the ‘reviewer’ never intended to post a review in the first place.
That, frankly, is unethical. How would they feel if the same happened to them?
Ironically, one of the reviewers who posted a pointless review of The Family Secret on Netgalley and nowhere else actually sells products themselves from what I could gather when Googling them. Imagine me knocking on their door, asking for a free product in exchange for a review and then not publishing that review? How would they react?
The question is, how is this allowed?
The publisher I worked with on The Family Secret are one of the best when it comes to getting reviews. They offer incentives for reviewers, send reminders on publication day to encourage them to transfer their review to Amazon and try their best to vet reviews.
And yet still, blaggers have clearly slipped through the net.
I imagine when super busy, it can be tempting to just approve requests without doing too much digging, especially if it’s a digital copy. Even the cost of sending a physical copy can be negligible when you’re trying to save time.
You might argue what’s the harm in this? Publishers bulk print ARCs anyway, better getting them into the hands of readers, any readers, than have them stay in a warehouse.
But it’s the principle. Freebie grabbers do nothing for authors. They’re the same as the people who download books from piracy sites. They are undervaluing the hard work we put in. This is made even worse when they post about their freebie and encourage others to try and get one.
(And by the way, this is completely different from free books via programmes like Amazon First Reads. This helps drive books up the Amazon ranks and get it noticed.)
To sum up, I think Netgalley can be useful when utilised professionally for all the reasons I listed above. Genuine reviewers and bloggers are skilled writers who offer essential insight for readers and great blurbs.
But I worry many publishers’ focus on this platform don’t justify the benefits. Is a quote from a reviewer who's unlikely to be recognised by your readers going to stand out compared to a quote from a normal genuine reader sourced from Amazon or GoodReads?
If you struggle to get that bulk of reviews on release day on, say, Amazon, then it might be better for you or your publisher to hold their own database of reviewers and bloggers with a focus on quality over quantity.
Regardless of what your publishers do, think about taking it into your own hands. Set up your own street team of readers, create a Facebook group for readers, begin building those relationships yourself so you can ‘own’ them.
Netgalley isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to reviews.
I hope this provides some insight!
PS. Just to add some extra insight, my latest book Wall of Silence received 24 reviews on Netgalley with a 3 star average. The reason for the low number of reviews is that my publisher Lake Union don’t focus on Netgalley reviews. On Amazon UK, it has 1423 reviews with a 4.5 average, and is the most read of all my books. Interesting, hey?
A blog tour is where your book features on a different book blog every day for a week or two. Content will range from a review of your book, to a guest post from you, the author. This content will then be shared on social media.
Some publishers will run a blog tour for you, usually in the lead up to publication day. They will liaise with bloggers, get dates sorted, let you know any content you need to write, send out your book (physically or digitally) and chase bloggers.
Often your publisher's publicity team will sort this. Sometimes, they will pay a blog tour organiser to arrange it all.
If a publisher isn't doing this, authors can choose to pay a blog tour organiser to run one themselves. The cost is usually a one-off fee of under £100. You could just run one yourself but this can be a challenge without the contacts and experience.
(A note: this isn't to be confused with people who charge to do reviews of your book, something that is frowned upon and red flagged by the likes of Amazon.)
The question is, are blog tours worth it for authors? I don't just mean if you pay to have one organised, but also in terms of the time spent writing guest posts and sharing content on social media.
My answer: in terms of actual sales, probably not. In terms of brand development, yes.
Let's delve a little deeper by looking at book bloggers. I think they're great! Their enthusiasm, support, professionalism and dedication for authors is amazing. They can actually be a lifeline for authors. A community to hold onto when an author feels unloved, devalued, alone.
And damn, they work hard! Many bloggers spend a huge amount of time drafting posts, scheduling blog tours, liaising with publishers and authors, and publicising their posts. Most do this in their spare time, while holding down a job. And all for the 'payment' of a free book. Hours of work for less than a tenner, basically.
Thanks to bloggers' enthusiasm and hard work, if a blog tour is done well, it can result in a lovely buzz around your book. But even with all that online excitement, can you guarantee all those blog posts will reach beyond the publishing world bubble?
My first experience of a blog tour was when my debut novel, The Atlas of Us, was published back in 2014. It was organised by my publisher at the time and played a big part in their marketing strategy. I spent hours writing content for book blogs, doing interviews, organising a virtual book launch and more. The resulting 'buzz' on social media was amazing. Such an ego boost. Plus I got to 'e-meet' some amazing book bloggers. It made my debut experience extra special.
I was so pleasantly overwhelmed with the response, I began to dream it might be reflected in lots and lots of sales. So I was confused when it didn't go straight into, say, the Kindle top 100.
But looking back, the people who shared any blog tour content online were doing so to a follower base mainly made up of other book bloggers, publishing staff and authors… not necessarily the people who would actually end up buying my book.
Before I became a full-time author, I worked in PR and social media for many years. I learnt one of the biggest challenges publicists face is getting messages ‘outside the bubble’.
So a social media campaign can appear to be hugely successful because it gets lots of engagement and shares on, say, Twitter. Mentions of your book bounce back and forth between people, generating an exciting cycle of retweets and likes, creating a real ‘buzz’ in the air.
But the truth is, that message might never quite penetrate the walls of the echo chamber to reach the people that count… the ones who might actually buy the product you’re trying to promote.
The book world is a great example of an echo chamber. This is for the loveliest of reasons: the community is truly one of the most supportive I know on social media. But the evidence the buzz created from a blog tour converts into actual sales isn't easy to come by.
This can be because it's hard to drill down into the specifics when looking at web stats. Authors can ask bloggers to use trackable links, like bit.ly or Amazon affiliate links, to see how many people have actually visited their book product page from a blog page. Affiliate links will even show you if that visit converted into a sale. You can keep an eye on Amazon rankings and see if there's an obvious jump after a blog post is publicised. You can check your own website stats to see how many unique users were referred to you by a blog post.
Simply asking readers can be useful too. I did a poll in The Reading Snug group I run on Facebook to find out. A tiny proportion said they read book blogs but that might be because I don't engage with book blogs as much as I used to. But the authors I run the group with do so who knows?
Of course, it can depend on genre too. I think if I wrote, say, fantasy, book blog tours would be more likely to feature.
What's telling is that authors and publishers are running less blog tours. Bloggers simply don't have the time any more. Publishers aren't always seeing the sale benefits. If a publisher does run them, it's usually more an author relationship exercise to show they’re fulfilling the publicity side of the deal.
So while blog tours aren't always the best sales generating tool, book blogs themselves can be excellent for building content and connections in the community which in turn can help build brand recognition.
Remember I mentioned word of mouth as one of the main ways of drawing attention to your book? Book bloggers can play a big role on this. If a blogger loves your book, they can be your best advocate, talking about your book at reader events and to any influencers they meet. I know one author who got a film deal after a book blogger gushed about her book to a film producer she met.
Blogger reviews are a great source for blurbs too, those lovely sentences of praise that appear on your book’s product description and inside the front cover. Not to mention the fact the professional bloggers will make sure they add their reviews to platforms like Amazon and Goodreads.
Then there's that buzz of reading a great review of your book and seeing it mentioned on social media. It’s a fab ego boost!
Finally, you should never underestimate the value of content. It can be used as an asset on social media for years to come (if it’s not too dated) and the more content you as an author have online, the more likely you are to appear in searches.
They key is to weigh up the benefits against the time or money spent. I'm aware of several authors who have spent a considerable amount of time writing content for a blog tour to then feel disappointed when they don't see a notable uptick in sales as a result. If you're busy or you just don't enjoy writing anything other than novels, it's important to know you shouldn't feel you have to take part in a blog tour. There are many ways to connect with book bloggers, whether that be through offering your book for review or simply connecting on social media, ways which take up less of your writing time but still mean you can support the community and they in turn can support you.
It's all about weighing things up, asking the right questions and not saying yes to everything.
Next time, I’ll be discussing whether sending out hundreds of free books via platforms like Netgalley is worth the effort...
Today, my seventh and latest novel Wall of Silence reached the milestone of 50,000 units sold in the first two months of publication. That doesn’t include the huge number of Amazon Prime members who had the opportunity to download it for free before it was published. Overall, the number of people who have Wall of Silence on their Kindles, whether paid or downloaded for free, blows me away and is highlighted every day by the many many messages I receive from readers.
I don’t share this to boast (okay, maybe a little bit). Fact is, many will have seen much better figures than this. Many will have seen less.
I share this milestone with you because honestly, I have been on one hell of a rollercoaster the past few years and I want other authors to understand this milestone in its context, rather than just throwing it out there... and maybe you'll learn a little something along the way too.
So some background. My debut novel The Atlas of Us came out back in 2014. It got some lovely reviews and sold OK. A year later my second novel, My Sister's Secret, rocketed to the top of the overall Kindle charts and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since with foreign deals around the world. Similar for my third novel, No Turning Back.
But then my fourth novel, Her Last Breath, came out in 2017 and sales floundered. Since then, until now, sales for my books haven't been much to write home about even though I think the two books that followed Her Last Breath - The Lost Sister and The Family Secret - are the best books I've written.
Fact was, I was in book sales free fall. Many other authors who had great sales in the 2013/14 boom have also seen a slump as the bubble began to burst a little (for those who don't know, the 'boom' was when ebook sales really came in their own as some more savvy authors and publishers began to understand the value of ebook price promotions before everyone caught on). But I felt it was more than just that and was worried the decline would just continue.
But it didn't, thanks to Wall of Silence bucking that trend.
So what helped? Three things:
1. A hook
2. Changing publishers
3. Promotions that actually work
Let’s tackle these one by one.
When Her Last Breath didn’t sell as well as the last two, I thought long and hard about it until I came up with what I thought was the reason: my writing had gone too dark (I blogged about it here).
So I thought if I returned to the character and emotionally driven approach of my first two novels, I could see great sales again. But while I did see an improvement in sales for my next two novels and great reviews too, sales were still so-so. I won’t go into detail but basically, they’re the sort of sales which don’t invite an exciting milestone email from your publisher. The kind that lead to those regular sales update from your editor (if you get them) dwindling after a month.
That’s fine, it happens. But three books in a row with no clear upward trend in sales? Alarm bells went off for me. When you write commercial fiction like I do, it can mean book deals (home and overseas) are harder to come by... or not at all.
(Side note: sorry if you’re an author who's in that position now. I feel for you, I've been there, but it’s the hard truth. Read on for tips.).
So I realised something needed to change. What was selling well? I did some research and I realised what connected bestselling novels in dark women’s fiction was a strong hook.
Take the hook of Sunday Times bestseller Our House by Louise Candlish:
When Fi Lawson arrives home to find strangers moving into her house, she is plunged into terror and confusion.
Or big seller The Rumour by Lesley Kara:
When single mum Joanna hears a rumour at the school gates, she never intends to pass it on. But one casual comment leads to another and now there’s no going back...
So easy to sum up in a sentence. I realised my next novel absolutely had to do the same. It had to be summed up in a sentence that was so enticing, so thrilling, that perspective readers would just have to read it.
So that’s how I came up with the idea for Wall of Silence:
A mother comes home from work to discover her husband stabbed, their three children standing around him. Which one did it?
This didn’t mean compromising my value or ‘writing to numbers’. Great characterisation and the best writing you can muster are always just as important. But it all needs to start with the hook… the promise of a story.
What else helped?
A new publisher
Now onto publishers. My previous publishers are wonderful. I will always recommend them. They are a savvy caring professional bunch who helped me create two bestsellers and took a chance on me with my debut. They have done wonders for so many authors.
But I began to wonder when my sales started dwindling: maybe it was time for a change? Maybe getting a new publisher would be that nudge I needed.
I’d had my eye on Amazon Publishing for a while. Yep, Amazon has its own publishing arm offering many of the advantages of a trad publisher – an advance, an editorial team. More info here: https://amazonpublishing.amazon.com/
I’d seen what they’d done for authors like Imogen Clark and Teresa Driscoll, and the unparalleled success of programmes like their First Reads programme. And which other publisher could have the kind of insight they have into what makes a book sell?
I told my agent I only wanted to chat to them, plus my current UK and US publishers, about my next book.
You might wonder why I didn’t look at other publishing imprints, especially those that would give me a much better chance of being placed in supermarkets and bookstores like Waterstones. My answer? Honey, once you’ve done one shelf, you’ve done them all.
In other words, I got the whole ‘ooooohhh, there’s my book on the shelf!’ vanity trip out of my system yonks ago. Truth is though, no matter how lovely that all was, those supermarkets and physical bookstore sales hardly make me money. Whereas even before I was published by them, Amazon as a retailer was where I found the bulk of my readers. So why not be published with them and get the advantage of their insider knowledge?
I've also learnt since setting up the Savvy Writers' Snug for published authors on Facebook that the big glitzy imprints don't always treat their authors the best.
So I was delighted when the Lake Union imprint of A-Pub offered me a two-book deal... and now I’m even more delighted with how it’s gone. It’s not just the fact they’ve helped me get to 50k sales (though it does help), it’s also the fact they have…
1.Great vision for my novel (they knew exactly where and how to target my novel)
2.Encourage author collaboration with detailed pre-publication questionnaires and involvement with front covers and titles
3.They have a dedicated author relations team for any niggly questions
4.Each book goes through intense and detailed editorial round with a dedicated structural editor alongside your main editor (and this shows as my reviews have been fab)
5.Awesome programmes for promotions (First Reads is the nuts)
6.Access to live sales figures
7.Monthly royalties statements with money paid quickly (NB. I've already paid my 'very nice' advance off and learnt from my most recent April statement that I earned five figures in royalties)
8.They don’t faff about with pointless publicity
Promotion that actually works
On that last point…
I learnt the hard way that cover reveals, blog tours, hours of social media and more don’t really make a difference to the bottom line: sales. In the past, I’ve spent far too much time writing guest blog posts and getting het up about cover reveals. Sure, it doesn’t harm. You get a nice buzz off these things, other authors see your name, you accumulate content you can use for future posts. But is the time spent on it all worth the sales you get as a result?
Sorry but I don't think so.
Often with these things, you’re talking into a bubble of the same people, not your readers. Unless you get a piece in a national magazine or newspaper, or a really high traffic website, I don’t think blog tours and cover reveals sell books. Publishers seem to be cluing up on this too with less and less of these promotions around nowadays.
So now, rather than focusing my time and energy on launch publicity, I concentrate on building a long-term rapport with my readers. I guess in marketing terms, this is about creating ‘brand loyalty’. How do I do this? I run a Facebook group with two other authors and post regular engaging content on my Facebook author page. I’ve found my publicity focus – Facebook – and I stick to it.
The main thrust of my launch publicity comes from my publisher. In Amazon's case, it's using all the tools at its disposal to bring my latest novel to the attention of its vast customer base. Those tools are promotions like First Reads, Kindle Daily Deals and more.
These are things that make a real difference which you can see in actual book sales (literally... when I check in on my live data, I can see what a difference it makes when I'm on promotion and not).
Some might argue why the hell I’d want to ‘devalue’ my work by giving it away for free (First Reads) or at a reduced price (Kindle Daily and Monthly deals)?
My answer? Exposure. Huge exposure.
Let's take the First Reads programme as an example. This programme gives Prime Readers the chance to download Kindle books for free in the month before they're due out, or get the paperback at a reduced price. New novels by A-Pub authors can be put forward for this (at this stage, this isn't open to other publishers). If an author is lucky enough to be chosen, it means their ebook will be free to Prime Readers for a whole month. All readers signed up to the programme receive an email alerting them to the new deals that month. There are no figures about how many subscribe to the programme but it must be in the hundreds of thousands, maybe more, judging by the downloads I got for Wall of Silence that month.
Maybe some authors reading this feel it might devalue their work, giving their books away for free. But the truth is, as someone who's been on the programme, it has exposed me to a whole host of readers who may never have heard of me before. These readers downloaded my book, most left great reviews, many sought me out on social media and should now be hooked enough (I hope) to pay for my next novel which they will quickly learn about as they now follow my social media accounts and have signed up to my enewsletter.
It also gave me more exposure on Amazon. First Read books can appear on the main rankings so usually shoot up the charts as Wall of Silence did, hitting the overall number one spot in the UK and number 2 in the US, meaning when Wall of Silence officially published on 1 April, it remained in the top 10 for a while (you can see how consistent sales have been from the graph at the end of this article) and garnered lots of paid downloads as you can see from this 50k milestone I'm celebrating today.
It will be interesting to see what happens with my next novel, Circle of Doubt, which is due out in Jan 2021. Will these healthy sales continue? Or will this be a one hit wonder? I’m hoping the new exposure will create a sense of momentum for future books as well. Only time will tell.
But what I do know is that I’m going to make the most of this 50k milestone in a career that has been a rollercoaster of emotions so far. After all, when the good times come, as we've all learnt the hard way lately, it's important to revel in them, right?
Last week, I wrote about the worries published authors face when it comes to the impact of lockdown on sales of their books.
Another big concern for us is how this might affect book contracts, including advances.
We authors know it’s never a certainty we’ll get a new contract… and that’s in the best of times! Now we’re in the midst of one of the worst of times, the worry that hangs over our heads is compounded.
So let's address specific concerns and see what agents and editors are saying about it all:
Will editors be more cautious when offering new contracts?
All the editors I’ve spoken to have told me they absolutely want to continue seeing new book submissions from their current authors and new ones too.
As literary agent Joanna Swainson of Hardman & Swainson pointed out: “No publishers will want to be left with publishing gaps and empty lists when things return to ‘normal’ (or the new normal).”
Editors I spoke to confirmed it's business as usual too. Sammia Hamer, my editor at Amazon Publishing imprint Lake Union, told me: "We’re still offering deals on new books and continuing to receive new submissions."
Isobel Akenhead, Associate Publisher at Bookouture said the same: 'We’re continuing to publish as normal, as well as to enthusiastically read (and indeed acquire!) submissions both via our direct submissions portal and from literary agents."
But this is an ever-changing situation. Each day seems to present a new statistic, a new challenge. While editors seem enthusiastic now, adjusting to a new world and a new economy will mean decisions made now might not be made in the coming months.
So my advice: if you're on the verge of pitching a new idea, do it as soon as possible. If you have an idea you were thinking about pitching in a few weeks, bring that forward. Do it now. Things could be very different in a few weeks.
How will this affect international deals?
While this is a global epidemic, countries are at different stages of their fight against coronavirus and this is being reflected in offers from overseas.
Rights Director at Hardman & Swainson, Thérèse Coen, confirmed this: ‘As Europe slows down, it seems that the Asian markets are slowly waking up again. We’ve had more contact with and requests for material from our co-agents there, so hopefully they will be catching up on the titles they’ve missed in the last couple of months, meaning things should balance out a little. Several publishers in Spain and Italy have paused publications for a few months, which will cause publication schedules to shift back and/or be fuller for a while, so inevitably publishers will be acquiring a little less or just acquiring for later schedules. So whereas they would now be buying for 2021, they will be buying for 2022 instead.’
Are editors still working to the same schedules and are acquisition meetings still taking place?
At the moment, it seems that publishing staff are doing all they can to keep working at the same rate. But many editors will face their own personal challenges, whether that be the presence of children and other families members at home or just the general stresses of living through these tough times. But the editors I spoke to are keen to let me know they're working hard to keep up.
Phoebe Morgan, Editorial Director at HarperCollins confirmed: "Our acquisitions meetings are held over video conference, and I’m planning to make an offer for a brilliant new novel later this week as it stands." In fact, Phoebe did make that offer, as she shared in a recent tweet:.
Isobel Akenhead agreed but was keen to point out that it goes both ways: authors might not be able to meet demands: "At this stage, we haven’t made many schedule changes, but we are also being mindful and keeping in very regular contact with our authors, to make sure they know we can be wholly flexible, and to ensure we aren’t putting them under any additional pressure at this incredibly challenging time. The publishing industry is fuelled by passion and creativity, and we believe the way to keep those fires burning is to support our authors as best we can."
So this could even mean your book release being changed as other authors struggle to reach deadlines.
Will advances be affected?
This is an area that's a real unknown and I get the impression publishers will be taking a 'wait and see' approach.
As Phoebe Morgan at HarperCollin told me: "We are progressing in exactly the same way, but we are of course having to be mindful of the retail market and the upheaval the industry is facing. For some imprints this will inevitably mean tightening their belts when it comes to advances, and in a sense every book we buy now is a leap of faith as the retailer situation is changing day by day. We very much hope that when all this is over, there will still be bookshops and supermarkets that are able to stock books but obviously there are lots of unknowns around that at this particular point in time."
I personally think authors may well see a drop in advances offered, whether this be because, as Phoebe pointed out, publishers need to tighten their belts or because (let's be honest) this crisis provides a convenient excuse to offer lower advances than usual.
This is where agents can be handy. They will be able to sense if it's just an excuse and push back, citing the fact that books bought now generally won’t be publishing for a year or so and who knows what the situation will be like then?
But brace yourself for the possibility. Just like in a 'normal' job, as we enter an inevitable recession, this will impact on how much we get paid. Get your finances in order. Now is the time to pull in the belt. Unsubscribe to tools you're not even using. Cut down on those Tassimo pods. Write harder. Write faster.
Have a look at what help you can get, from the Government's help for the self-employed to the Society of Authors who are offering emergency funding.
This isn't to scare you. This is the advice I'd give anyone in any industry in these circumstances.
Either way, we're all in this boat together. Just a case of holding on and getting support from one another as we navigate these rocky seas.
I find that when chaos descends, knowledge can help you rise your head above water. In this case, I don't mean the knowledge that comes with checking social media and news channels every chance we get! I mean information specific to our situation as authors. By arming ourselves with knowledge, it can help us wrestle back some control by either putting our minds at ease or highlighting what actions we need to take.
So I've decided to address the specific worries we as authors are grappling with at the moment related to sales, worries which my fellow writers have shared with me in the Savvy Writers' Snug, the Facebook group I run for published authors.
Have people lost their appetite for reading during this crisis?
As with any crisis which has an economical impact, there's always the fear book sales will take a hit. Add this to the fact readers are trying to grapple with their own personal challenges so might not have the headspace to read, many authors have been wondering how this will affect sales.
As one author told me: "At the back of my mind there is the question 'Are people even going to be bothered about books any more?' It's hard enough in normal circumstances to get people's interest and to get noticed."
But the editors and agents I spoke to were very clear in their belief that while people are adjusting to this new way of life at the moment, reading is still the sanctuary they've always relied on.
As Isobel Akenhead, associate publisher at Bookouture, put it: “We feel very strongly that, like never before, people are going to need stories to provide hope, joy, and much-needed escapism.”
I've seen this for myself in the messages I've been getting from readers about my latest novel.
So yes, the appetite is still there. Even if we ourselves don't feel like reading, or the people we know don't, it's clear there are readers out there who are still reading, and reading a lot.
This was demonstrated the week before lockdown (wb 16 March) where book sales shot up as people went shopping in preparation for lockdown. Fiction paperback sales saw a third of an increase. In a recent tweet, literary agent Jonny Geller backed this up, writing: 'Interesting to see that the Fiction market is up by 32% on this week last year and, coincidentally, 32% on just last week. Sales coming from a range of titles. At time like this, we escape into stories.'
So let me say it again: let's feel confident the appetite is still there for many readers.
Will physical book sales drop?
The problem we face though is whether book retailers can feed that appetite. For readers who prefer to read paperbacks and hardbacks, I'm going to be honest: retailers are beginning to really struggle and I'm hearing we might see that reflected in physical book sales over the coming weeks.
It's not just that physical bookstores have had to close. Even retailers which remain open, such as supermarkets and WHSmith, are not prioritising physical book sales.
The same goes for online retailers. Take Amazon, for example. As I write this, buy buttons for paperback and hardback books are disappearing so the retailer can prioritise other items in our fight against Covid-19 (though I hear Amazon hasn't cancelled ordering physical books from publishers so this is a temporary measure). Waterstones is experiencing problems fulfilling orders of physical books and sites like Hive and Gardners are now closed, as reported by The Bookseller. This is due to concerns over worker safety and demands on the postal system.
So as optimistic as we try to be, there's no point denying it: physical book sales probably are going to take a hit, and all the editors and agents I've spoken to have confirmed this fear.
So let's not dwell on that for now. It's out of our control. Let's look at some positives...
Will digital sales be effected?
Yes... and in a good way. Remember, there are no barriers to download. It's an automated system once your book is available for download. No people are needed. No physical deliveries are needed. As my agent Caroline Hardman of Hardman & Swainson told me: "While a decline in physical sales is a safe assumption, hopefully this will be mitigated by digital sales."
The editors I've spoken to clearly anticipate this too, all of them confirming efforts are being made to make the most of ebook and audio sales.
Phoebe Morgan, editorial director at HarperCollins UK, told me: "We are working very hard to optimise our metadata on our key titles – so ensuring readers can find them as easily as possible online whilst the physical bookshops are closed. This means we are putting more work than usual into pricing and analytics, and at HarperCollins we have a dedicated team for this so it’s all working really well. We are putting more work into how we can make ebooks and audiobooks perform well, and how we can support retailers such as Amazon and Waterstones by driving our readers to visit their online stores."
Isobel Akenhead of Bookouture added: "The advantage of the digital model is that it can function broadly in exactly the same way as it ever has, so we do not need to implement any change right now to keep getting great books into the hands of the readers who need them."
What about overseas sales?
This depends what stage countries are at in their fight against this pandemic. If they're in lockdown like us with stores closed, we'll see similar issues for those physical sales.
However, Rights Director at Hardman & Swainson, Thérèse Coen, had some interesting positive thoughts on the digital market abroad: "Southern Europe has traditionally not been a big e-book market but that could change, which would be a positive, and would mean they keep buying books in order to publish with an emphasis on the e-market. Audio books are already huge in countries like the Netherlands and Scandinavia, so they are probably going to see a further increase in sales on that front."
So this is another positive to take away from this.
What about the long-term impact on sales?
Nobody really knows. But we're already seeing some promising news from China, which is now beginning to see life return to normal. In a letter to authors, illustrators and translators, Hachette c.e.o. David Shelley wrote: "We have just started receiving increased book orders from China again after several months of very low orders—so it feels hopeful that they are out of the worst of the virus, and that at some point we will be too."
Keep reminding yourself: this is temporary. Of course, the long term ramifications are still to be seen on the economy but as Joanna Penn said in her most recent podcast: this isn't the zombie apocalypse. People recover from Covid-19 and return to work. There will be a peak then a fall. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
So what do I need to do to help my book sales?
I personally think it's simple. 1. Write. 2. Focus on digital sales.
I'll look at finding the focus to write in another post. But let's look at how to make the most of digital sales now.
This doesn't mean feeling pressured to suddenly go all gun-ho when it comes to ebook and audio sales. You have enough on your plate right now and as Caroline Hardman told me: "Ultimately it’s the publishers’ role to deal with this so ask your publishers what they’re doing to shift focus on digital sales and promotions."
So that's a good start: ask your publisher what they're planning to do to make the most of your digital sales. Things they can do include:
Many of these tools will be saved for new releases so definitely worth asking if your book is about to be released. It might also be worth bringing this up in chats with your publisher even if you haven't got a new release. But remember, they too are working from home and juggling demands so be patient and kind. Don't bombard them with demands.
There are some steps you can take personally though. These include:
A final thought on mindset
For some authors, it'll be hard to accept your physical book sales may need to take a backseat for a few weeks. If you usually see strong physical sales, then you will want to hold on tight to that and not let readers who only read physical copies down.
But the fact is, it's getting harder and harder to get hold of physical copies at the moment and I predict we will see this reflected in the charts over the coming weeks. I may be wrong. Either way, there is a whole world of ebook readers out there who are waiting to discover you.
This means wrapping your head around the digital market. So if you've previously had a sniffy attitude to low ebook prices or free books (and by free, I don't mean pirated illegal free books, but books from your backlist carefully chosen to use as 'magnets' to draw readers to buy your other books), it's time to do some learning. These strategies work so well if done properly. They will get your books into readers' hands and money into author pockets to sustain the career we love... something I and many authors I know have learnt.
Also, there's no denying the economy is going to suffer and people are going to lose their jobs. This means our readers will have less money to spend. They will be looking for deals and bargains more than ever before and understanding the ebook market enough to realise a price drop or free book offer isn't going to destroy your career might just be the thing that saves it...
I hope you’re doing ok during this worrying time.
The Savvy Writers’ Fest is in early May. It looks like Covid-19 will still be causing challenges at this time.
I’ve therefore come to the decision to cancel the event.
I may think about turning it into a virtual festival. If I do, I’ll let you all know.
All attendees should have been emailed about this but do get in touch if not.
That revered and wise tome of the 21st century, Wikipedia, defines midlist as:
Books which are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication (and likely, further purchases of future books from the same author)
Oh don't you love how they add 'further purchases of future books' like it's an afterthought and not the sole indicator of whether we can enjoy a long term career or not!
If we look at backlist sales in mean average terms, the majority of authors will fall into the midlist author category. You might think you're lowlist, but if you're still selling books and have a chance of continuing that in the future, I'd put you in the midlist.
Authors can jump from one list to the other. While I have been at the top of the digital bestseller lists, even then I was no JoJo Moyes or Clare Mackintosh (still hope to be!). So for the sake of argument, let's just agree I'm currently a midlist author and while the seas for me are calm at the moment, things feel like they could change any moment.
Setting goals is an interesting one for us passengers on the midlist boat. There are things to celebrate from the previous year. For me, I got three offers on the table from publishers and decided to move over to the Lake Union imprint of Amazon. Not all midlisters are lucky enough to stay in contract during this super competitive time so it was a highlight, for sure, and means I'm currently in a reasonably stable position.
It wasn't an easy decision to make. I was worried by making such a move, I'd be rocking the boat and end up falling into alligator-filled waters.
And yet I couldn't resist taking a peek at Highlist Island. You know the one I mean. Nope, not that one with the botoxed lips and guitar string bikinis. The one with the authors who have parties thrown for them by their publishers and hotel room walls papered with gushing national newspaper reviews as they chill on the beach with their laptops, secure in the knowledge they'll be writing full-time for quite a few years.
As a midlist author, you often find yourself treading that fine line between taking risks to try to get onto that island or just sitting quietly where you are, grateful you're not yet one of the ones struggling to keep afloat.
That makes it difficult sometimes to make goals. But I believe there are three goals you can make:
- one that keeps you secure in your boat
- another that works towards getting you over to Highlist Island
- Then a final one which could allow you to hitch a lift on a completely different boat all together
Here's what I mean...
1. Stay secure in your boat by making the most of that side hustle
Most midlist authors don't make enough money to write full-time, or if we are able to write f/t thanks to reaping the benefits of a bestseller or two in the form of ongoing royalties and foreign deals (like me), you still have to take it year-by-year. Unless you get another bestseller, that money could well run out.
So side hustles are important to keep you afloat. And by side hustles, I mean using those skills you have - usually writing, or PR, or designing websites or teaching others - to top up your coffers. As long as it's creative and enjoyable and NOT your office job, then it's a step towards gaining control of your working life and tilting the balance in favour of being a full-time creative.
Me for example. I've been helping my brother's awesome business out with social media. Just a few hours a week but I've been loving it.
Then there's my Savvy Writers enterprise, this blog and related activities. It was never set up as a side hustle, more pure desire to support my fellow authors. But inevitably, with the Savvy Writers' Fest I'm running in May for published authors (UPDATE: now cancelled due to covid) there is the potential to make a little money (though in truth, that money will all go back into Savvy Writers).
2. Aim high by doing all you can to get a bestseller
It's important to never lose sight of the end goal that benefits all writers: sell a shit load of books, whatever format those books are in.
My latest book Wall of Silence is a milestone for me as it'll be my first book published by the Lake Union imprint of Amazon Publishing after my previous six books were published by HarperCollins.
Why the move to A-Pub?
It was simple: I want another bestseller. Specifically, I want to get the same kind of royalties I enjoyed with my biggest selling novel, My Sister's Secret. In fact, I want to surpass that (dream big, remember).
I came to the logical conclusion The Zon would offer me the best chance of that thanks to their insider knowledge, mammoth marketing machine and the fact I get a better share of royalties (not to mention fluffy reasons like really connecting with my editor and loving their vision for my novel).
Sure, it was a risk. I've stood up on that midlist boat and it's rocking slightly. But it's a risk I need to take if I want to get over to Highlist Island. Or more accurately, it's a risk I had to take to ensure I didn't find myself in shark infested waters.
3. Enjoy a detour on Hybrid Haven
Hybrid Haven is a small cruise ship (have you tired of my shipping metaphors yet? Good, because I haven't!). It's sailing alongside the bloody mammoth Self-Publishing Cruise Ship which is reallllly busy and very confusing. There are lots and lots of authors shouting very loudly around this ship as they flail those shark infested waters. But those on the ship are working diligently and doing good stuff, just like on Hybrid Haven and many of them are over on Highlist Island already, doing their best to help other authors, especially those on the Lowlist paddle boat and Midlist boat too.
I have toyed with the idea of checking Hybrid Haven out. There's a few ideas in totally different genres swirling around my mind which I could self publish. The reason it appeals is it would mean I don't have all my eggs in the traditional publishing basket (or should I say all my ducks in the traditional publishing tanker). Maybe it's something you could look at too?
Okay, enough with the oceanic metaphors! Time to sign out. I have a deadline after all!
Frankfurt Book Fair is taking place this week. It’s one of a handful of fairs, like the London Book Fair, where editors and agents from around world meet up to chat books. And yep, that could include your book too.
The ultimate aim of these fairs is to sow the seeds of a book deal in territories where you haven’t yet sold your rights. This is exciting for us authors as it means there's potential we might see our books published in another country, which in turn means gorgeous new covers and lovely new emails from readers around the world! And, of course, the chance for extra streams of income.
So what are the ins and outs of rights deals? Let’s delve in…
Do I even have rights to sell?
To find out, look at your contract with your publisher. So if you’re a UK author, that could be a UK & Commonwealth deal, World English Language or World All Languages.
If it’s a UK & Commonwealth deal, that means you’ve retained a lot of rights, meaning you or your agent can negotiate deals around the world in different languages, including English in territories like the US.
If your deal is World English Language, while your publisher will have the rights to any English language editions of your novel (eg, US), you will have retained the translation rights so could get translation deals overseas in different languages.
If you have a World All Language deal, you’ve handed all your rights over. Your experience will depend which publisher you're with. Some will have a great dedicated rights team, others will just let your rights sink without a trace.
What kind of advance can I get if my rights are sold overseas?
Advances can range from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands. The smallest deal I got was three figures. The biggest deal I got was a good five figures.
How much will I see of that advance?
If your agent has negotiated a deal, then they will need to take their commission for their work, usually 20% (the standard for US, translation and film rights).
If your publisher sells rights, your share of the advance from those deals will firstly go towards earning out the advance they paid you. Once that’s earned out, your share will be paid to you, with your publisher taking 15%-25%, and your agency taking their commission too.
It's usually recommended you try to retain as many rights as you can because some (maybe most?) publishers just don't do much at all with all the rights they have. It will depend on which publisher you go with. If you have an agent, this is something they can advise on. Sometimes it's hard to turn a worldwide rights deals down though, especially with the larger publishers who will offer World All Language or nothing. So it’s something you need to consider and discuss with your agent if you have one before you accept an offer.
If you don't have an agent, contact the publisher's other authors to learn about their experiences when it comes to world rights. Ask the offering publisher pertinent questions too: do they have a rights team? Will they do all they can to sell your worldwide rights? Will your book be taken to the main book fairs? Can they point you in the direction of one of their authors who did really well when it came to those world rights?
On top of all of this, you have to think about taxes. It’s a complicated beast and there are many considerations to take into account when it comes to overseas tax. But an agent will always do their best to help you navigate all that!
What about royalties if I earn my advance out?
Your share of royalties for print editions will usually be lower than what you are used to. For example, you could get as low as 5% on trade edition royalties. But often, these deals will be negotiated in a way that the more books you sell in that country, the higher that percentage gets.
Ebook royalty share tends to be the same as what you’re used to: 25-35%. Like here in the UK, there are some publishers who follow a low advance / high royalty model, especially in the US (having said that, digital publishers are wanting at least World English rights more and more so you might not have US rights to sell).
I don’t have an agent. Can I sell my rights to overseas territories?
Sure, you can submit to publishers if they take direct submissions. But this becomes difficult when there are other languages involved. Do you speak that language? Do you know the laws of that country so you can expertly glance over the contracts? What about tax issues in those countries? For me, this is one of the many reasons why agents are an essential part of the process, presuming the agent you have has a solid track record in selling translations rights.
If you’ve already got a deal in your home country yourself, then you might find an agent willing to help with translation deals. But it can be tough to find one who will only deal with this side of the business.
What happens if my book is ‘taken’ to a fair?
I asked Thérèse Coen, the rights director at my agency Hardman & Swainson, about this. She said:
'The main focus of fairs like the Frankfurt Book Fair are an opportunity for agents to meet new editors, and to catch up with editors they already share authors with. They’re a great chance for agents in particular to get a sense of a publisher’s plans, plus what is and what isn’t doing well in certain markets. While there is still plenty of pitching going on for existing and future submissions, deals nowadays are rarely made at the actual fair. ‘Hot new debuts’ for example will usually sell before and after the fair.'
If your book is featured in some way, first it will appear in your agent or publisher’s rights guide, a magazine-type guide to all the rights they’re selling. Your representative, whether that be your agent, your agent’s rights director, an agency dedicated to selling translation rights or your publisher, will then attend a series of thirty-minute meetings.
Thérèse gave me a great insight into these meetings:
‘We fill our schedules from Tuesday to Friday with back-to-back meetings. If we’re meeting an editor we’ve not met before, they will talk us through their list, tell us what kind of books they publish, what has been working well for them and what kind of books they are looking to buy. We will then pitch the books to them which we think could be suitable for their lists.
We will meet with editors who publish all sorts of genres so will be pushing the books which we think will work for them. There’s no point pushing a successful romcom to an editor who focuses on crime. So really, our job is to tailor our meetings to make sure we pitch the right books to the right editors.
If we know the editor we are meeting already, then we might catch up on publication plans for existing shared authors, talk about books we’ve already submitted to them and get their feedback on those. They will also tell us which books or genres have or haven’t been working in their country, and what they have been buying.’
How long after a fair will I hear if I’ve got a deal?
Deals can happen any time of the year, regardless of book fairs. But Thérèse did give some insight into what happens after the fair: ‘We submit books to editors in the form of pdfs (or occasionally hard copies) along with any other useful information, such as reviews, sales figures, author bio, prize wins and so on. The hope is that all this work will then lead to an offer from the publisher. It can take days, weeks, months or even years to hear back from editors proving book fairs are really just the sowing of the seeds.’
It's true! My second novel My Sister’s Secret was taken to fairs before it published, some nearlys but no bites. Then it hit the number one spot on Kindle, and sold really well, giving my agent a selling point at FBF that October. A few days later, I got an offer from Germany and then one from Italy, with even more since including a Portuguese deal over two years later.
Is there any way I can improve my chances of getting a deal?
The same as any deal really: write a bloody good book and don’t put editors off with any nasty skeletons in the Google closet (by that, I mean no politically incorrect blog posts and so on). Good sales figures, endorsements, positive reviews, and winning prizes all help.
But even these can’t guarantee deals overseas. In fact, I know some amazing novels which haven’t had much luck getting deals abroad, even ones that have attracted big advances and sales in their home territories. Some of my novels haven't had any overseas deals! It’ a strange old business.
It doesn’t harm to be proactive with your agent though, if you have one. If your novel sells really well or you’ve won a prize, for example, it’s certainly worth asking your agent if they’re going to use that fact to chase editors or pitch your novel to overseas editors.
Thérèse has some advice on this: ‘It’s important to see it in this way: translation rights is a bonus, it’s a wonderful thing to have and a lovely surprise when it comes through, but given the slightly random nature of it, it’s not worth beating yourself up if you don’t get a translation deal.’
This is so true. It’s always a lovely surprise when I get an email from Thérèse, not just because she’s a lovely person but it might mean news of a new deal I never expected. So the seeds may be sown at the fairs, but it could be a while before you see them grow into beautiful fragrant deals!
The publishing industry goes through so many ebbs and flows, and the role of the literary agent is the same. There was a time when you could submit directly to publishers, but then as more and more aspiring authors worked up the gumption to submit, the flood became too much and submissions closed to all but those with agents.
I’m starting to see another sea-change (how many coastal metaphors can I fit into a blog post?!). Publishers are beginning to offer more and more open submissions, especially digital publishers. As a result, some authors question the need for an agent.
Well here I am to say to you: WE NEED AGENTS!
An agent’s role isn’t just about getting you deals. It’s also all that comes after too: the advice, the hand-holding, the potential for foreign deals. My agent Caroline Hardman is dynamite and I wouldn’t dream of not having her on my side. She’s a vital cog in the messy publishing machine, and always has my back.
So now I've convinced any authors reading this that they need an agent, what happens when you have problems with your agent? Here are five common problems and how to solve them.
1. Your agent doesn’t like your idea
This is SO tough and can be for a variety of reasons. Good agents will have their fingers on the pulse when it comes to what editors are looking for so it could be a decision based on solid commercial reasoning. Maybe they simply don’t warm to the idea. After all, they are the ones who’ll have to sell it to editors. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a novel you don’t gel with. Or maybe they feel it’s too far from your current style of writing, in which case you need to ask: have they considered subbing you under a pseudonym?
Either way, as long as you've chosen your agent based on the right reasons then as hard as it is to take when they're just not into your idea, maybe you need to consider if they're right. You can have two pots on the stove at once, so why not work on something new while keeping your other book bubbling away in the background?
Of course, if your agent is making a habit of not liking your novels then you need to ask if they’re the right agent for you. You clearly don’t have the same taste any more.
Tip: A way to get around this is to send your agent your ideas first. I don't mean long outlines with a paragraph or two summing them up.
2. Your agent takes an age to get back to you
This is a regular occurrence for authors. We come across it enough with editors but to have the double whammy of our agent not responding to emails or reading manuscripts quickly enough can be so frustrating.
If you’re finding this is a problem, the next time you send a manuscript, ask your agent in the same email when you can expect them to read it by. You can then make a note to chase some time after that ‘deadline’ has passed. Be honest and tell them you’d prefer them to read your MS sooner. If they can’t, or say they will but don’t, then you need to consider if they’re the right agent for you. Yes, publishing can be slooooooooow but at the same time, trends come and go and opportunities pass. You need someone who can read your books quickly.
Tip: As a guide, I’d say you really should expect a response to emails within 24 hours, 48 at a push. On manuscripts, my agent is super fast and will often read a manuscript within a month or two (within a week in a couple of cases!). I’ve heard of some agents taking a year which is just ridiculous! A couple of months seems average.
3. Your agent fails to sell your book
Even with an agent, there’s no guarantee of a book deal. The reason a book won’t get through the submission process can come down to a multitude of reasons, and often, it won’t be because of your agent or you! So don’t take it out on them. Instead, use your agent to get as much information as you can about why editors ultimately said no to your book, and use that to work on your next book.
However, if you agent fails to sell your next book too, then it might be time to wonder if they’re part of the problem. Do they have good relationships with editors? How long do editors take to get back to them when they submit? Are they professional and courteous? Do they have their finger on the pulse when it comes to what’s selling in the market? How are their other authors doing? In the end, this is about your career so if the time comes to look elsewhere for agent, then be brave and do it.
Tip: Ask your agent to forward the responses you got from editors. You have every right to see them.
4. Your agent leaves their agency
This is super common. Ambitious agents will leave an agency to set up a new agency, like my agent did, or will move onto another agency. Some may leave the agenting world all together, which means you’ll need to find another agent.
If you agent leaves to set up their own agency, it can be scary. I remember getting the email from my agent that she was doing that and shot off a number of questions just to assuage my fears. She answered them well and in the end, I was delighted to have moved on with her.
If your agent moves to another agency and wants you to go with her, check whether her rota of authors will change in any way. If she's going to be taking on additional authors then you might see a downturn in attention. Does the agency’s ethos make you feel comfortable? Check its website out and ask any questions.
Tip: Is your agent going on maternity leave or having a sabbatical. Make sure you’re going to be covered by someone else when they leave and arrange to meet with that person.
5. When you want to leave your agent
Authors move on from agents for a variety of reasons. I did it myself many years back. If you begin to feel this might be an option, I’d always recommend sleeping on it and giving it a few days of thought, then send a polite email voicing your concerns so it doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of nowhere. If you’re still sure you want to leave them, then make sure you tell them before you start talking to other agents. It might be tempting to sound out other agents first out of fear you might end up with no agent at all but a) no agent is better than a bad agent and b) publishing is a small world with lots of boozy parties where agents share information.
Instead, write an email so you have it writing that you wish to part ways. Be polite. Be gracious. Who knows when you might need their help in the future? Of course, if they’ve been a complete arsehole then don’t worry about the gracious bit! Treat it like a resignation letter stating the date.
Most agencies have a three month notice period but agents are often willing to waiver this when it comes to the crunch. Keep in mind though they if they brokered a deal while you were with them, and even within the three months’ notice, they continue to get their commission.
Tip: If you do end up looking for a new agent, be sure to ask any current editors and fellow authors for their recommendations.