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.
When people dream of becoming an author, one of the images that springs to mind is that lauded book signing. Imagine the scene: you’re greeted by a bookshop manager who leads you to a table beautifully laid out with your books and some promotional literature. As you take your seat, the manager gushes about your novel. As soon as you sit down, a queue of readers will form and you’ll barely notice when people you know pop by, beaming in pride at how very popular and authorly their friend is.
Then comes the book talk at your local library. They think you’re so ace, they’re even going to charge for tickets and put some nibbles on! Naturally, those tickets sell out within just a few days of being advertised on the library noticeboard and when the day itself arrives, you’re greeted by a room of readers eager to hear all about your road to literary success.
Yes, this exactly how it happens… right?
Hate to burst the bubble but na, sorry. Unless you’ve just won Love Island or your initials consist of a J and a K, then chances are, the main emotions you’ll feel as you look back to a book signing or library talk will be complete humiliation.
Sure, there are exceptions but for most authors, not just debut authors but established authors too, events like these are usually a humiliating and lonely experience. I hear this again and again. It’s the norm, a rite of passage in a way. A little hint of the anti-climactic moments that will sometimes dominate your writing career.
Like one author who had a minus one attendance at their library talk as the librarian couldn’t even make it. Or another author who had a delivery of random books plonked in front of their signing desk so hardly anyone could see them over it.
The truth is, most authors will be lucky if more than a couple of people turn up. Often the book staff aren’t prepared for your arrival. In fact, your books may not have even arrived! As for selling actual books to anyone but friends and family? You’re having a laugh, right?
Talks at libraries can be worse. Even publicising it for weeks in advance or including wine and nibbles don’t shift many tickets.
My advice? Don’t bother with events like these. They’re not worth the preparation time, the nerves in the lead-up and the dent to your fragile literary ego.
But if you must do an event like this, here’s some advice…
1. Have the right mindset
I always bang on about mindset, don’t I? But what I mean in this case is don’t see your signing as a chance to sell lots of books or introduce your ‘author brand’ to a bunch of new readers. Instead, see it as an opportunity to get some great pictures for social media. Even better, bribe family and friends to come along to create the illusion of a crowd around you for said pictures. This is what I did! Thank god for large families. I also invited a friend and my mum to take it in turns to sit with me so I wasn’t there alone.
2. Join forces with other authors
Contact other authors who have a book out the same month as you and do it as a joint event. I’m not saying this will attract more people but what it’ll definitely do is help you connect with other authors and have a laugh with them in the process (addition of wine always helps with this too). Plus you have the advantage of appearing on your author pal's social media timelines and therefore, get the attention of their followers too.
3. Create a live event from it
If you’re doing a talk, then have someone film it so you can live stream it or make a recording of it for future use on social media… making sure you don’t show the empty seats! This way, it doesn’t feel it’s a waste of time and you’re actually creating some content from it, like with the photos of your signing.
4. Find a ready-made audience
If you’re desperate to hold an event, I find that reading groups and clubs like the Women’s Institute can be better as you won’t be the whole event, you’ll be part of a bigger meeting so people will be there already. Again, as long as you don’t see it as a book selling exercise, simply sitting in a room drinking wine and talking about books can be reason enough to do something like this. Same goes for appearing at literary festivals. Many people will have already brought a day ticket so will be more likely to pop into your talk. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend doing an event on your own at a festival though unless you're running a workshop for authors, and instead, ask to be part of a panel.
5. Charge fees
This is a tricky one, I know. Bookshops won’t pay you in most cases, and it’s tough with libraries as they’re not making much money. But you should definitely charge for your time at a literary festival (fee plus travel expenses). Going rate is about £175. A token fee for groups like the WI doesn’t harm either, so around £50? At least this means if you don’t sell many books or get much of an audience from an event, you’re being paid for your humiliation.
I hope this helps! If anything, it’ll make you realise you’re not alone in attracting nothing but tumbleweed to events. In fact, there’s a whole book dedicated to other authors’ awful event experiences featuring a collection of stories from some of the world’s greatest writers about their public humiliations! So take heart!
Got your own stories of mortification? Share them in the comments or come join the Savvy Authors’ Snug on Facebook.
Tumbleweed pic by schnoogg
In my first blog post about Facebook groups, I shared the basics of how to set a Facebook group up using my learnings from creating The Reading Snug group with the fabulous Kerry Fisher and Kelly Rummer. Now I'm sharing what to do once you set your group up to engage members and attract more.
Good luck and if you have any questions, just let me know!
I have a super busy year ahead with two novels to hand in (I know, I know, I must be crazy but I love the adrenaline rush!). This doesn't mean I step away from social media though. It just takes a little more planning. So once a month, I'll dedicate a morning (usually in the last week of the month) to plan my social media for the following month.
That morning will consist of brainstorming and writing content tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook posts. I'll then schedule them using Tweetdeck (there are other tools you can use like Hootsuite and Buffer).
But how to do all this quickly? Here are some tips...
1. Repeat engaging content: Nothing wrong with repeating content you’ve posted in the past. Twitter timelines in particular move so fast, it really doesn’t harm re-posting engaging content as long as there’s a decent amount of time between items (eg. a couple of weeks). How to find that content? Just look at your stats to see which content has been the most effective (visit the resources section of This Author Can to find out how).
2. Do an audit of available content: Make a list of all the blog posts and articles you’ve done (simply googling yourself should bring them all up if you have any). Use this list to mine for content and as above, remember you can use it more than once.
3. Find out what is and might be trending: I use Google trends to see exactly what the world is searching for. You can change the location to where your target audience is based and even search by keyword. Buzzumo is also a great tool which can be used to look at trends as well as looking up specific themes/keywords. It allows you to see what is trending by platform such as Facebook engagements and Twitter shares. And Awarenessdays.com is a great website for looking at the weird and wacky national days. OK so maybe International Talk Like a Pirate Day does not exactly fit with your theme or campaign but it can be used to add personality to your social media posts. Remember though, the key with all of these tools is not to use them to shoehorn your latest release into a trend that it actually doesn’t quite fit into (if it does – great!)!
4. Excel is your friend: To maximise my time management, I prepare all my content in Excel first and then just copy and paste into the appropriate scheduling tool. Although this may feel that you are duplicating effort, by focusing on just the content I limit the chances of being distracted by cute puppies riding skateboards when I should be posting a poll on my Facebook reader group. Excel also allows you to set up character counts for things such as Twitter so you can quickly edit your tweet to make it fit the 280 characters. You can also use it to help you to decide what images to source, whether that be images you’ve taken, that you have or which you have sourced from free image websites like www.Pixabay.com Once you’ve written it all in your planner, cast a careful eye over it for any errors or broken links.
5. Now it's time to schedule: There are a plethora of social media management tools out there and it is important to find what works for you. Great tools offering free versions include Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, Social Oomph, and Buffer. These free accounts can be limited in the number of social platforms supported or the number of posts per social platform. For Facebook, I actually quite like the built-in scheduler. It is simple and effective and allows you to edit posts quickly and easily.
So that’s it. In just one morning you can create the content and schedule the majority of your marketing for the month leaving you to focus on your writing. I think that deserves a coffee!
Christmas can be an interesting time for authors, whether writing novels is a full-time job for us or we fit the writing in with another job. It often means the festive break is anything but a break. Either editors send their revision notes in just before the Christmas break to (understandably) clear their desks, or Christmas is an author's only chance to actually get some solid writing done with some offices closing for the festive period. And for those of us who don’t have any deadlines and are looking to take a break, we’re conflicted because while we know we need to rest, our brains won't stop returning to the ideas swirling around them.
For me, I’ve tried to clear the ‘decks’ (like what I did there?!) so I can focus on family and friends for two weeks. Proofs are all signed off for the US and UK release of my next novel, The Family Secret (The Girl on the Beach in the US) and publicity plans are underway. Next on my list is to begin work on a brand new novel. So while officially I’ve cleared the decks, truth is, that novel will be on my mind a lot. So now doubt I’ll use the break as a chance to mull it over during some festive walks and mulled wine musings in front of the fire.
What about other authors? I thought I'd ask authors I know what Christmas means for them this year. Here’s what they said…
Psychological thriller author Charlotte Duckworth: For me it means a massive break from my first draft! For the past three years I've tried to write my first draft between September - December, which has worked really well (got about 6k left for this year - limping towards the finish line!). I love Christmas and so it's really important for me to have a proper break and I usually take at least three weeks off, with NO writing, probably not even any reading, nothing book related at all - and then start my second draft in January, aiming to have a readable MS by Easter. It's especially important to me I think because we are a freelance family so we so rarely have holidays - one week in May when we go away but that's it - the rest of the year we've both always got something going on as home and work life is so blurred. Also, my birthday is on January 3 so I like to have a restful lead up to that too!
Writer of escapist romantic fiction Isabelle Broom: My structural edit has landed with Christmas this year – and it's a beast. Despite this, however, I am allowing myself from 24th-29th off (well, sort of, I'll still be reading heaps of March books to review), because I need it. Hell, the book needs it. I have such a small window between hand-in of first draft and beginning of second these days that I can't help but be thrown into a fit of turmoil. I need a bit of distance in order to do a better edit. That said, I will probably cave and start plotting the next book instead in those few days. If I don't write, it sends me just as bananas as the edit.
USA Today bestseller Janelle Harris: I literally had an email two hours ago detailing my editing schedule. Structural (a monster) and copy all to be complete by Jan 3rd. Oh and I have end of Jan deadline for first draft for different publisher. Along with managing five kids, school runs and xmas shopping that I've barely started. I'm completely panicking 😲
Women’s fiction author Kerry Fisher: Like Charlotte, we're also a freelance family and I take a break. My editor is very organised and we agree a schedule for edits several weeks, if not months, before they arrive so they never just turn up out of the blue.
Mystery author Terry Lynn Thomas: My edits are due on the 2nd and I've got tons to do. Going to try to turn the next book in by June so I don't have to do this over Christmas. This has been my routine for the past three years. Kind of over it.
Debut crime writer Victoria Selman: Excitement that the holidays are here. Dread that I’m not going to get any work done.
I hear ya, Victoria! If you're an author reading this, let me know what your plans are in the comments. In the meantime, have a wonderful break whatever it is you're doing and a fruitful New Year!
Pic by Marco Verch.
Location always plays an integral role in all my novels, whether it be the ravished shores of Thailand during the 2004 tsunami in The Atlas of Us or the eerie underwater world of submerged forests in My Sister’s Secret.
And it’s no different with my latest novel The Family Secret (The Girl on the Beach in the US), which is set in several locations such as a wintry British seaside town, a stunning loch in Scotland and the ice beaches of Iceland.
Location is so crucial for building tension and atmosphere. Here are five ways I do that:
1. Use all the senses
I learnt this one while working as a travel journalist. It’s not just about what you see, but also what you hear, smell, taste and touch.
Take a Scottish lodge that features a lot in The Family Secret, for example. This is how wildlife documentary maker Gwyneth experiences it the first time she walks in:
'I was instantly struck by the contrast between the house’s chilly exterior and warm interior: inviting oak panelling, the smell of an open fire and Christmas spices, the delicious warmth of its air compared to the icy white setting outside. A large patterned rug lay in the middle of the hallway, and two wooden stairways swept up towards a balconied landing. Another Christmas tree stood at the back of the hall, so high the star at the top reached the top of the railing on the balcony. A stag-antler chandelier hung from the ceiling on chains, golden lights glistening. It was just Dylan and I in the hallway, but I could hear talking in the distance, laughter, the faint trace of Christmas music tinkling from speakers. I could also hear people walking around on the floorboards above me.'
As you can see, I used all the senses so the reader feels they themselves have stepped into that lodge.
2. Bad things can happen to beautiful places
I love writing about beautiful places which have something rotten beneath the surface. In The Family Secret, that Scottish lodge looks like the perfect location for a festive gathering, perched on the stunning loch with snow-tipped mountains beyond. But that loch, despite its beauty, can also be a death-trap when iced over, as Gwyneth discovers the first time she's there and falls through the ice. As I write, the loch ‘shone beneath the moonlight, as menacing as it was beautiful’.
3. Don’t worry toooo much about weather clichés
Authors are always warned off using weather in obvious ways when writing, especially when opening up a novel. But when it comes to scaring the bejesus out of readers, clichés – especially weather clichés – can work to a writer’s advantage. In The Family Secret, I use the increasing snowfall to create a mounting sense of tension and claustrophobia. In fact, the whole season of winter is used to enhance the effect of the locations with the potential for cracking ice and stifling snowfall.
4. Treat location like a villainous character
Okay, confession time. I sometimes plan my novels using Excel. And in every Excel worksheet I set up for a novel is a section on characters. And in that section is where I place all my notes about the location of my novel because (and you’ll hear this from a lot of writers) I treat location like a character. In The Family Secret, location becomes the main characters’ friend and their foe. Like Winterton Chine, the pretty festive seaside village where gift shop owner Amber discovers a girl walking barefoot on the icy beach with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Amber loves the place, it’s where she grew up and lives. But equally, the town can be a constant reminder of difficulties in her past. That loch is also a character on its own with the potential to claim lives beneath its hard icy surface.
5. You don’t have to write what you know
Yep, it’s nice to have an excuse to go on a jolly and visit the places I write about... and many times I have. But it’s not essential. I’m a writer after all, I like to use my imagination! I hadn’t visited the submerged forests I described in My Sister’s Secret, for example. I did it from online research and pure imagination. It’s the same for The Family Secret. I haven’t yet been to Iceland, one of the main locations, but I know people who have so picked their brains about it and did lots of online research. The location of Winterton Chine is, however, based on the lovely Alum Chine in Dorset which I visited during the Christmas I started writing the novel. Any excuse for a mulled wine on the beach, I'm pictured here with my daughter during the visit!
Right, I think that’s it, I’m off to lie on my chaise lounge (yes, I really have one!) and imagine the world of my next novel…
To pre-order The Family Secret, click here.
When I meet aspiring authors who haven’t yet dipped their toes into the publishing world, or have but it was yonks ago, a question I often get asked is: how does a writer get published nowadays?
So this one’s for you, folks! Let’s assume you’ve written a novel (maybe with the help of one of my workshops? Click here for more information), made it as perfect as you can with several rounds of revisions and now it’s ready to be read by more then you, your mum and your writing group. In fact, it’s ready to potentially make you some money. What do you do next?
There are three roads you can go down which I've briefly laid out. I then delve into them in a bit more detail below:
1. The literary agent route: Many of the big publishers will only take submissions via a literary agent. So this means you need to submit your novel first to a literary agent. If one takes you on as a client, they will then send your novel out to several publishers on your behalf. If you get a book deal, your novel will then have a great chance of getting onto the shelves of high street retailers like Waterstones and the supermarkets, and online retailers like Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books and Google Books. Income potential: Most larger publishers will offer an advance, paid in instalments such as signing of contract, submitting of final draft and publication of novel. Debut advances range from the low thousands to the hundreds of thousands (rare!). The average is about £5-10k. Once sales of your books have made your publisher enough to cover your advance, you will receive a percentage of the income your publisher receives for each copy sold of your book (known as royalties). This is usually about 11% on print, 25% on digital. An agent will then take commission, usually about 15%. This is why a lot of writers are poor, ha ha. No, I kid, I'm doing this full-time now making more money I did working my full-time office job, so it can be done and is by many authors.
2. The direct submission route: Some publishers have what is called an ‘open submissions policy’ which means you can submit your novel via their website or email. Your submission will then be read to see if it's the right fit for the publisher. With this route, there is no need for a literary agent. Many of the publishers who accept unagented submissions are digital-first, meaning your novel will first come out as an ebook via websites like Amazon. If it does well, then it might be printed too. Some of the large publishers will have ‘open submission’ periods too, usually lasting a month or more, where you can submit directly to them. Income potential: A lot of open submission publishers won’t pay an advance but you will get a higher percentage in terms of royalties, eg. 40% on digital copies. As you're not using a literary agent, you won’t have to pay any commission on this.
3. The indie publishing route: This is where you are in charge of publishing your novel yourself, forking out for elements ranging from book cover design to editing. But the return in terms of royalty percentage is much higher. Eg. 70%. But you won’t have the backing and support of a publisher.
Right, let’s delve deeper…
The literary agent route
If you want to see your books on shelves at places like Waterstones and WH Smith, then the literary agent route is your best bet as the big publishers (the ‘Big 5’ as they're known, so HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan) will only take submissions via literary agents.
I'd argue the 'Big 5' is now the 'big 6' if you include Amazon, which has its own in-house imprints like Lake Union and Thomas & Mercer, and operate in a similar way to the 'Big 5' when it comes to submissions, usually only accepting submissions from agents. Or they've been known to approach authors, often indie authors, who are setting the Amazon charts alight. While you won't see your books in places like Waterstones, you will get the might of Amazon's epic influence and marketing clout behind you. They also pay advances unlike other digital-first imprints but will also offer competitive royalty percentage.
So, what does getting a literary agent involve? It’s a bit like applying for a job: a short covering letter giving some details about your background, your book and why you think they’d be a good fit for you, then a sample of your work and often a synopsis which is an overview of the novel. If they love the sound of you and your book, and think editors at publishing houses will too, they will offer to represent you. Often, they will then work with you to fine-tune your novel with their expertise and knowledge of the market in mind, then they will submit it to editors at the imprints of various publishing houses. Each publishing house has an ‘imprint’ which focuses on particular types of books. So my UK publisher is HarperCollins, and I am published by one of their imprints, Avon Books, which focuses on commercial women’s fiction and crime. A good agent will know the editors at these imprints and will compile a list to submit to. They won’t necessarily just submit to the big publishers. They may also submit to smaller independent publishers who are often just as great to work with.
Your agent will also be able to negotiate translation deals and more for you. Mine advised me to retain translation and world rights, meaning I've made a really good income from getting book deals in in the US and translation deals around the world. This is more than what I might have done if I'd sold world translation rights to my publisher as publishers will often sit on these rights and not do much with them.
Getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you a book deal straight away. But a good agent is in for the long-term and will advise you what to write next then submit that novel for you too. If you do get a deal, then your agent will then take a cut of any advances and royalties you receive. You should NEVER pay an agent upfront. In my view, a good agent is worth this cut. This is not only because it's the only way to get your novel read by editors at most publishing houses but many agents will edit your novel with you before it goes out out on submission. They can also help you make a lot of money via translation deals. Plus they can offer amazing advice and be a brilliant sounding board. Honestly, my agent Caroline Hardman is a bloody godsend!
Is it hard to get a literary agent? Yes but then it’s not exactly easy to get published. Many authors will get dozens of rejections before they land an agent. Rejection is part of this business.
For more information on the process of querying agents, I think this article is pretty useful.
The direct submission route
There’s not a great deal to add here on top of what I talk about above. The process of submitting your novel direct to a publisher is much the same as querying an agent. Just know that without an agent, you won’t have help deciphering contracts and it will be difficult to make money with translations deals and more. Of course, there are advantages of submitting direct though: one less hurdle to jump over and also, no 15% commission to pay to an agent.
However, it’s worth noting that publishers who take direct submissions will often not pay advances and are digital-first publishers, meaning your book will be out as an ebook first unless is sells brilliantly. But your royalty cut will generally be higher, more like 40% for digital sales instead of 25%.
The same word of warning applies here too: you should NEVER have to pay anything up front for a reputable publisher to publish your work. There are publishers out there who will ask for payment for things like editing and so on, but usually these are vanity presses who you should avoid at all costs. Some authors who can’t get an agent or a publishing deal but hate the idea of doing it all themselves through indie publishing could seek out a reputable business who can help them get their book out there. But I think you're better off publishing it yourself… or writing another book. Sometimes, it takes a few books to hone your craft and finally hit the jackpot.
For a list of publishers who take submissions, see this website. My publishers take submissions for their digital-first imprint, click here for more information. Bookouture, who publish me in the US, also take open submissions. Click here for more information.
The indie publishing route
Hands-up, I used to be a bit of a snob when it comes to indie publishing, or self-publishing as it’s known. But the world has changed and authors are doing some seriously exciting stuff in this area. In fact, JK Rowling is an indie author in many ways. She retained the digital rights of her novels and is publishing them herself via Pottermore, after all.
If this option appeals to you, you need several things: a business mind, a bit of money for the initial outlay (I really wouldn't recommend designing your cover yourself and getting a professional editor is key) and some savvy when it comes to marketing. You also need to accept it’s very unlikely you’ll see your books on the shelves of high street stores. The outlay of getting books printed can be high, and then convincing stores to stock your novels near on impossible. So this route really suits those happy to publish digitally.
Don’t assume your novel will get noticed if you publish it yourself. You need to put a lot of effort in without a publisher helping you with their contacts at the retailers, their knowledge and support. But if you do manage to get heard above the noise, the benefits can be amazing, not least because you get a much higher % of the profit. However, you really need to weigh this up against the fact the trad publishing route gives you a better chance of being heard above the noise. People may argue this isn’t the case but in my experience, I really believe it is.
To start exploring this area, visit the guru of indie publishing Mark Dawson’s website at https://selfpublishingformula.com/spf-resources/ and the Creative Penn is fab too: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/resources/
To sum up, the market can be a tough one to crack, regardless of what route you go down. But talent, grit and perseverance is key and whatever route you choose, the rewards can be wonderful. If you live in the UK then I am running workshops to help with all this. Click here for more information.
I thought I’d dig deep into the dark dark souls of published authors and extract our top 5 fears… and offer some advice on how to deal with them. So go fill your skull goblet up with wine the colour of blood and lock your pet bat away so it doesn’t disturb your reading. We’re delving into the dark side of authors’ top fears…
Your publisher doesn’t offer you a new contract
Let's start with one to ease us all in, ha! In all seriousness, this has to be the biggest fear for traditionally-published authors. Obviously, if you have an offer from another publisher on the plate anyway, the blow is lessened somewhat. But if it comes as a surprise and you have nothing lined up, it can be really tough. So what to do? Don’t give up, that’s what! The fact you got a publishing deal in the first place is fantastic. Brush yourself down, take a break then consider your options. If you have a novel to sub, which other publishers can you or your agent approach? If it’s the novel your previous publisher rejected, don’t write it off. Remember those rejections you’re bound to have had before you struck that first publishing deal? And yet you still eventually ended up with your deal. This shows you responses are so subjective. Use any feedback from your previous publisher to revise the novel then get back on the submission wagon. Another important bit of advice? Don’t be rude to the publisher who has let you go. They will have their reasons. There may be opportunities in the future with them, or one of their staff who moves onto another publisher. Stay professional!
Halloween Hero: One bestselling author told me about a very difficult experience she had with a famous publishing house. Editorial changes were forced upon her which she disagreed with and because of this, the novel didn’t sell well, readers pointing out the very same issues the author had expressed concerns about to her editor. Her confidence was destroyed and she gave up writing for months but then one day, she was inspired to start a new novel. This novel attracted several offers from publishers and hit several bestseller lists. She’s now with a great publisher and is happier than she’s ever been.
Your sales suck
Very common horror story. It’s a tough market out there. To make matters worse, publishers aren't hugely transparent about what they mean by 'good sales'. Sure, it's hard to say as so many variants come into play but we all know there must be some indication according to genre and more.
So, what if your sales clearly suck? First, make sure your publisher is doing all they can to pick up those sales. Price reductions. Promotions like Bookbub and Kindle deals. There may be something that can be done. As I always say, don’t be afraid to ask your publisher what they’re doing to increase sales… or ask your agent to get on the case with them. Some publishers are willing to go the extra mile too, changing the covers and even titles of books (this is obviously easier with digital books). There are countless times when authors I know have done this and ended up getting a sudden lift in sales. If this doesn’t work, write the next novel. Often, there is no rhyme or reason to why one book won’t sell well. The more books your write, the more of a chance you have that one or more of them will hit the zeitgeist.
Case study: Me! Oh come on, surely I'm allowed to make myself a hero considering this is my article ;-) My first novel The Atlas of Us sold a decent amount but not quite enough to have it deemed a debut success. I was disappointed and started to wonder if the writing career I'd dreamed of would really last that long. I thought about giving up but instead, I focused all my energy on my next novel, My Sister's Secret. That went on to become my best-selling novel to date, even hitting the Kindle and Kobo number one spots!
Your sales are on a downward trajectory
The market is pretty naff at the moment so a lot of authors are seeing a year-on-year reduction in sales anyway. But if you’re just not seeing any improvement at all and your publishers and agent are scratching their heads about what’s going on, it might be time to try a different approach, whether that be a different genre and / or pen name... or, dare I say it, a new publisher. This is difficult to stomach for someone who just can’t see themselves writing any other genre in particular, but don’t dismiss the idea straight away. Take a break, spend some time ‘playing’ with genres. You might find it’s easier and more exciting than your thought.
Case study: A great example of someone changing genre with huge success is the lovely Carol Wyer, author of current Kindle top 10 bestseller The Birthday. After her comedies didn't sell so well, she came up with the idea for a thriller, something totally different to what she usually wrote. It paid off: her series went on to sell hundreds of thousands and she's inked up a new deal. However, she would always advise authors to stay flexible. Should the tide turn again and romantic comedies become more popular, she will be penning a few more!
You’re getting terrible reviews
I always tell people, the more books you sell, the worse your reviews will be. However, it still evens itself out and you’re not stupid, you can tell when readers just aren’t vibing with your novel, especially if its average rating is a lot less then your others. So what to do? If you're brave enough, then dive into those reviews and see what you can learn. I don’t mean the silly one and two stars. You’ll usually find a better indication in your three star reviews. If you have an agent, ask for their honest opinion. Ask your editor too. Tell them not to sugarcoat it. We all see things different with hindsight and they should be no different themselves. Read the novel back yourself if you have time. Can you see where it could have been improved? Use that knowledge to inform your next novel. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade… don’t squirt that bitter lemon into your eye for the sake of your ego.
Case study: I spoke to an author at an event recently who told me after publishing three books with great reviews, her fourth got terrible reviews across the board. When she read the reviews, she realised the main reason was that readers felt they'd been missold... the cover and blurb suggested the novel was a thriller when really, it was more literary fiction. This information allowed the author to ensure her novel was packaged properly next time and her latest novel is getting fabulous reviews.
You have severe writer’s block
We all get writer's block, especially after we're experienced any of the scenarios above. I recommend taking a break to inspire yourself. Don’t just read other books but binge some Netflix, go to the cinema, visit some interesting places. No point staring at a blank screen. Then read some books about plotting and fine-tuning your craft. I find this often ignites some ideas in me. Obviously, you can’t then spend a year doing this especially if you have a deadline. There will come a point where you’ll need to get back to the desk. When this point comes, take a different approach. Do you usually just write organically (a ‘pantser’?) Have a go at planning. Usually a planner? Then write from the hip.
Case study: An author I know had the triple whammy of below average sales and reviews, then being dropped by their publisher. A very common occurrence, sadly. It completely knocked him for six and when he tried to write a new novel, it was impossible. He decided to put his laptop aside for a month and spent that month doing all the things I mentioned above. In the process, he came up with a completely new idea. That idea landed him a new deal with a great publisher.
Are you a published author going through one of these horror stories right now? Then join the Savvy Authors’ Snug on Facebook so you don’t feel so alone. We share plenty of horror stories there, but also the wonderful outcomes too.
If you’re a traditionally-published author, you might be assigned a publicist. The job of that person is to help get your name out there. By ‘out there’, I mean articles and reviews in newspapers and magazines (both print and digital) and blogs too. If there isn't a dedicated social media person available, then they might cover social media too. To be clear, a publicist is often different from the marketing team who will usually be in charge of retail placement and ads. A publicist, or PR, will be the person trying to get 'free' publicity for you.
The contact you have with your publicist will vary depending on which publisher you’re with. At the beginning of your relationship, there will often be a long questionnaire to fill out to give them an idea of any ‘newsworthy’ potential you have. You might be lucky enough to get a phone call, Skype call or face-to-face meeting with them too.
In my view, a publicist can be just as important a person to an author as their agent and editor. You can write the best book in the world but how will people know if word doesn’t get out there about it?
So how do you make the most of that important relationship… and how can you troubleshoot any problems? Here are my top 5 tips:
1. Preparation is key
If physically possible, then I recommend meeting your publicist face-to-face as soon as you can then again 2-3 months before each book is published. If you’re popping in to see you editor, for example, try to get some time with your publicist too. Or ask to arrange a phone chat or Skype.
I know for some authors, this first chat with their publicist can be a daunting prospect. This is why I advocate as much prep as possible. You'll have a head-start if you’ve written the thoughts document I recommend in this article as it will help you understand how you want them to pitch you: so what media and angles do you think will work for your readers? Of course, your publicist will often know best, but at least you'll go in armed with knowledge. Also prepare some ideas of your own and a list of questions.
In an ideal world, you will have had a publicity plan when you got your deal or soon after which you can discuss with them. If there is no plan, then ask them to email you their plan after the meeting (or even better, ask if they can bring one in when you arrange the meeting). This will usually make sure they do! As the weeks and months go on, you can refer back to their plan to check all is in order.
If you're not getting any requests to write articles or posts in the lead-up to publication, and it's only a month before publication then a quick polite email to your publicist checking in doesn't harm. Then the week of publication, I recommend popping them another email to confirm where they're at with their plans for publication day itself, especially if they handle social media (and if they haven't sent their publication day plans already, of course!).
2. Don’t be scared to chase up
One of the biggest issues I hear from authors is a lack of publicity support, despite initial promises. Some authors have even told me that, despite getting a big advance and a beautifully-presented publicity plan as a way to win them over, all they got on publication day was one tweet. One tweet!!! The advice above will help, but if you've done all this and still nothing, don’t just sit there and cry into your vanilla latte. Contact your publicist, or ask your agent to, and ask what's going on.
As Sabah Khan, my brilliant publicist at Avon says: ‘I think the relationship between an author and their publicist is so important and part of what makes it strong is being able to be honest with each other. If I felt an author needed feedback on a piece or felt they needed some media training, I would hope I could tell them quite simply and honestly. I’d also hope they could be honest with me and so if they felt that they weren’t getting enough publicity, they need to be honest and tell me what they would like to see.’
But please be polite and understanding... and do NOT email every single day, one polite email will suffice. I used to work in PR and it is so difficult drumming up publicity. Journalists make promises of interest then don’t follow up. You even get told a piece will be published only to discover it’s been bumped off by a bigger news story. Understand it's a challenging job and your obnoxious email isn't going to help. Yes, it's important to get the best 'service' you can. But it's also about a happy medium between asserting yourself as an author, but not being rude.
3. Be realistic
I’ve said it countless times: publishers have lots of authors on their rota and the simple fact is, some will naturally get more publicity then others, so don’t get too precious about it. But you absolutely should expect promises to be kept and decent publicity support too considering the percentage publishers take off your royalties (and even if you got a huge advance, even more reason a publicist should be working hard to make sure they make that advance worth while, right?)
But be realistic. As I say so many times, only you can dedicate 100% of your time to YOU. Don’t expect your publicist to be able to dedicate 100% of his or her time to you. There is nothing worse then authors who harass their publicists for updates as though they are the sole author on their rota. As Sabah says: 'I’m very lucky to do the job that I do, and I really love that my authors trust me with their secrets and the precious gift that is their novel – so I need them to have every faith in me when I say I’m on the case!'
So while you should expect your publicist to do work for you, you should also use your contacts and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities as well (just make sure you let them know anything you’ve committed to so you avoid avoid duplication). As Sabah says: 'A publicist would love to spend hours and hours on each author but we have to be realistic about how much support any one author can have so anything an author can do themselves is a huge bonus.'
4. Show willing… within reason
Publicists like it when authors show willing. If you put in the effort your side and reach deadlines, then they will do the same for you. So fill in those questionnaires, send them ideas. When a request comes in, do what you can to say yes.
However, I completely understand how busy life is and if you’re sacrificing precious writing or family time to write a 2k article for a blog that has 5 followers, then you are perfectly within your rights to push back. You should also not share anything you feel deeply uncomfortable about. I’m personally quite open about my life, and have numerous articles placed by my publicist Sabah in the national press about my infertility and other issues. As Sabah says, her ideal author is one who ‘shares things about themselves and be vocal (not too vocal!) about what they think, and contribute to topical conversations.’ Of course, not everyone is as open as me. If you’re not, then you have to accept you might not get as much media coverage.
5. Keep YOUR promises
If you have a deadline for an article, stick to it. If you’re going to pull out of something, have a bloody good reason. A big part of a publicist’s job is nurturing relationships with people who are very influential among readers. You let them down without a good reason and it makes your publicist look bad.... and you.
In all the years I’ve been writing novels, there’s one piece of advice that’s stuck with me: find the core of your novel and stick with it. There are other variations of this advice you might have heard: don’t go off on tangents, stick to the main plot, don’t overwrite, do the plank exercise every day (oops, sorry, wrong core!). But let’s delve deeper and learn what this really means and how you can achieve this.
The first time I started getting to grips with this was when reading a blog post by Maggie Stiefvater many years ago. Maggie writes great teen fiction and her Shiver series focusing on werewolves are a huge hit. And yet in her blog post, she said she would rather cut out the actual werewolves then lose the core of the novel, which for her was the mood, specifically a ‘slow, slow build to a bittersweet end’.
I found this a bit vague though. How can a mood be the core of a novel?
When I got my first book deal with HarperCollins, I worked with a brilliant editor called Eli Dryden. When she sent me the revision notes for my second novel My Sister’s Secret, I remembered Maggie Steifvater's blog post again and it suddenly made sense. As my editor Eli wrote:
‘This editorial stage is all about weighting and organising and prioritising then finessing the material. If you could say what this book is in a sentence, what would you say? I feel that you have to decide what you want to be the overarching strand and then prioritise plot lines accordingly – there’s too much noise and too many things happening.’
She was absolutely right. I think it’s fine to write your first drafts in a passion, if that’s what you like to do. But when it comes to revising, that’s when the focus on ‘core’ really comes into its own.
For My Sister’s Secret, the core of the novel was sisters. Simple as that. You might read this and think ‘yep, pretty obvious’. But actually, it wasn’t in the initial drafts. In fact, the novel was first called The Layers of Me and the different strands I’d weaved in meant the true core of it – the relationship between three sisters and the impact of this in future years – was lost.
Once my editor helped me draw that out, including changing the title to match the core, I felt I finally had something to hone in on. Everything became about those sisters and the consequences of the tragedy that befell them. It worked too. My Sister’s Secret went onto become a Kindle and Kobo number one bestseller, and one of the biggest selling ebooks of 2015.
Let's look at some other examples from books, TV and film. Many of these 'cores' are up for discussion, but this is my take on them and the core ranges from a sentence to a mood to one simple word.
Bodyguard (BBC series): Crushed vulnerability of the seemingly strong (breakdowns, wavering, fear)
The Greatest Showman: Expressing what makes us different (a show being the ultimate expression)
Big Little Lies: The ebb and flow of female connection (like the sea, a strong focus of the novel)
So how do you find your core in your writing and then maintain focus as you’re revising your novel?
Sometimes, it’s about the first kernel of feeling that came to you when writing the novel. So I came up with the idea of my latest novel, Her Last Breath, while watching a documentary about landslides. It got me thinking about how that would impact a town, but also, the own internal landslides we experiences. With the help of my current editor, that became my core: a landslide and, as Maggie Stiefvater calls it, the ‘slow slow build’ towards it.
You see, landslides start before we perceive them. Years of subsidence and ruin, all kept hidden beneath a seemingly perfect visage until all falls to pieces. I applied this to the characters too: how a seemingly perfect life on the outside can be falling apart within. And what happens in that last gasp of breath before the landslide happens. Before Estelle, the main character, falls metaphorically to the sea below?
So how did I keep that focus?
My advice? As you toy with ideas for your novel, or tackle revisions for your novel, think about the core that brings it all together
Are you an aspiring writer working on a novel right now, or hoping to write one? I'll be running some workshops so sign up your interest here.