Last week I attended the Society of Authors AGM in London. (As with all these events, it was a great way to meet up with writing friends as well!) After Philip Pullman welcomed us all, the Society presented its plans for a new updated more user-friendly website, before holding a panel discussion. Publishing expert Alison Baverstock chaired it and the panel members were Ian Skillicorn of Corazon Books, who also runs the National Short Story Week in the UK, Gordon Wise of the Curtis Brown agency and Nigel Wilcockson, a publishing director of Penguin Random House. They each presented very lucid and entertaining insights into the publishing industry and the author’s role within it, so I thought I’d share some of those insights – and leave it to you to decide whether you agree or disagree!
Authors are constantly challenged to find the time to write – and to absorb potential material to inspire their writing. Alison Baverstock said that ‘reading is the engine of being able to write.’ So true. Nigel Wilcockson referred us to the nothing-new-under-the-sun aspect of this writing malarkey. How can we maintain creative integrity and still respond to the commercial terms of our industry? He quoted George Gissing in New Grub Street, in 1891: ‘You have to be true to yourself. You cannot write something you do not believe in.’ Well, you can, really. People do it all the time.
Writers are constantly adjured to write the book that’s true to them, the story they believe in, heart and soul. So, they go ahead and write that book. Publishers then encourage them to understand the market, and may well turn their work down because of market concerns – Nigel said, rather quellingly, ‘Never assume that quality will out.’ Cue many audience members wincing.
If we understand our market, we pitch our work to better effect. If that work is then bought and published, we still need to pitch it to the wider public. This has to be done properly: Alison said ‘There is a massive difference between getting attention and getting approval.’ There’s no point in using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other social media, if all you do is holler ‘Buy my book, buy my book!’ We need to establish conversations and relationships – but doing this takes up more of the precious time and psychic energy the creation of further work demands.
How to strike the balance? How can we get people to listen to us? ‘In a very noisy universe, you have to make your own noise as well,’ Nigel says. Gordon talks of social media usage as ‘drops into the pond’ – ripples go out from that drop. He says that author and publisher are ‘business partners’, that ‘it’s pushing water uphill to get any exposure’ and that if your genre is in trouble, you should have a serious conversation with your agent and maybe consider changing your name.
I’ve talked about this in the past, this industry obsession with the new and untried. Untried means hasn’t failed. Yet. So, if you’re the kind of writer who needs to be nurtured over the course of several books, or if you want to switch genre, you may be in trouble. The pressure is on to hit the ground running and stay running on the same track. If not, change your identity. I find this such a depressing, defeatist way to go about things. Even the great J.K. Rowling has to write as another person, even after we know it’s really her – and as another male personage, at that. The shelves are full of thrillers with initials rather than first names …. Well, that’s a whole other blogpost.
Ian Skillicorn sensibly pointed out that authors don’t just need to compete for attention with other writers but with all the ways potential readers now spend their free time, in this always-on digital age.
Practical advice? Have a web presence, definitely. If you’re using social media, perhaps concentrate on one or two rather than the scattergun effect of trying to use all. I concentrate on Facebook, but have a Twitter presence and a Pinterest account. I’m not yet on Instagram though it seems to be becoming more popular.
Be clear with your publisher when it comes to the terms of your contract. This includes knowing which rights they will exploit. Bring your book to the publisher in as ‘edited’ a state as possible. Know your market. Fill out your author questionnaire with useful information including possible publicity opportunities.
Publicity needs to come early and be properly planned. No good approaching a magazine in the month before your book comes out when its lead time is more like six months.
Be focussed. Know where your book would sit in the bookstore. Know who your potential readers are: ‘It’s not always about having the biggest splash, it’s about being targeted,’ says Ian Skillicorn.
Timely reminder: ‘It’s a business, writing.’ (Nigel Wilcockson)
Uplifting thought: ‘There are more creators than ever, more opportunities than ever. You can find a niche for your books that you couldn’t have had before.’ (Ian Skillicorn)
Two-edged thought of the day: Alison Baverstock reminded us that we don’t necessarily need validation by publishing – ‘Some of the happiest writers I’ve met haven’t published.’
I’ll leave you to mull over that one!
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