Holding your debut book for the first time is something that will lodge itself in your mind forever more. But to get there is a game in three acts; writing the damn thing – I hope obviously – comes first, finding a publisher is the middle act, and the climax, if you will, is the final stage before you rinse, repeat, and begin again. Getting the book actually published requires a lot of effort; if you’re self-publishing, you’ll shoulder a lot of the burden yourself, but even with a publishing house involved, it’s still a process both of you have to buy into.
I’ve been fortunate to have had entries in anthologies three times, by Pill Hill Press, May December Publications, and Thanet Writers. Inspired Quill has been my only experience of being published as a novel writer; my three full-length novels have all been well-treated and well-cared-for by the publisher.
Both myself and IQ have learned so much with each subsequent publication and, as a result, it’s gone far more smoothly each time. They’ve got a significant number of titles under their belt now, and it’s a privilege to see the evolution of their publishing style. When I signed with them, I was only the second author on their … aha, books, and the first to the published due to a quirk with the dates.
But the moment you sign on the contract’s dotted line, the hard work is just beginning. Whether it’s your first or twentieth book, you should be equally as engaged in the process, and so should your publisher. If either of those things ceases to be true – or is not even true from the beginning – then alarm bells should ring.
Oh, and while I think about it, don’t pay money to a publisher up front unless you already know they’re a self-publisher and you’re okay with that. If they’re a vanity press, then I beg of you; do not sign anything and do not associate with them. Some self-publishers are absolutely fine, but some are not, and all vanity presses are interested in nothing more than your money. Save yourself the pain and stay well away.
An authentic “traditional” publisher shoulders the financial risk whilst getting ready to launch – and yes, takes back a decent share of the cover price, to cover their costs. But that allows the author to focus on the actual book and not have to worry about finding income for the launch.
How much input and involvement you have in each step of publication depends on the agency and its philosophy, as well as its ability to invest in different areas – after all, its budget defines how much it can afford to spend on everything to do with the book, and how many people are able to be involved with it. All I can talk about in that sense is what I’ve experienced with IQ.
When the contract is signed, a useful first step is to develop a timeline of events between now and the publication date. You might not religiously stick to it, so flexibility is key, but also understand the priorities. Is there a particular date you want to aim for because your book marks an anniversary? Speak up and listen; that way, you understand the publisher’s reasoning, and they understand yours.
I didn’t always get that memo; I was annoyed on just one particular occasion – I forget which book it was over, and what particular part of the process we were in – but I do remember that a Sunday morning chat became fraught because I wanted to express my opinions in no uncertain terms. Sara was very patient with me, and let me vent my spleen, and then I deflated somewhat when I realised that I was spiraling round and round on the same treadmill.
The Big Cheese showed an eloquence and calmness that helped me regain my composure, and we reviewed the situation together as we continued to focus on the central point – that the book was the important thing. I like to think that our relationship, already very solid, has become better with every conversation due to our openness.
This is important; not merely establishing a relationship with your publisher that allows for honest communication, but also what the expectations are for everyone. What will you and your publisher do to make the book a success? Bigger publishers have entire marketing, publicity, communications, and editing divisions that carve up much of the work between themselves; in those situations, the writer just has to answer a few preliminary questions, turn up at a few interviews (if they’re considered to have enough potential), and go where they’re directed in order to publicise it.
Smaller agencies rely more on the writer being actively involved, as much as they want to be or can be. It’s often difficult to get tied down too much as most writers have work commitments; it’s rare to find writers who can entirely support themselves off their proceeds.
The first thing you will encounter after that contract is signed is a discussion on the editing process. The best advice I can give is; embrace the editor as an old friend who wants to make the book as top-quality as possible. Editors worth their weight in gold are the ones who encourage, support, believe in the book almost as much as you, and ask questions that make you think. Do consider the questions the editor has put to you; they will help you learn. On each occasion I’ve had the good fortunate to work with an editor, they have been wonderful. When Fall From Grace, my very first book, was reprinted and reissued in 2015, I worked with an editor to look at the story again. I received nine pages of notes. She’d read my book, understood it, and wanted to make it the best it could possibly be. That kind of editor is so important; when you find them, keep them for as long as you can; they’re fighting for you and your book.
Peter Stewart, Antonica Jones, and Sara Slack (yes, indeed, I was recently edited by the Big Cheese herself) have worked as editors on my titles, and I am a better writer for each of them; they picked up on my writing foibles well before I ever appreciated that I’d got them, and I was able to improve as a result. Open yourself up to learning from people who know what they’re talking about, and never – never – be precious.
On the other hand, do stand up for things you feel passionate about, and can defend for good reason. I don’t often disagree with the Trinity – as I shall now call Peter, Antonica, and the Big Cheese – but I did robustly defend the ending to one of my books; I particularly wanted the last pair of lines to remain exactly as they were, as they really mattered to the integrity of the characters. I was able to articulate my reasons as well as stand firm on that, and the lines remain exactly as they appeared in the draft.
The cover design of any book is so important in luring a casual – well, any – reader in. The first edition of Fall From Grace was a stylish photograph of a gothic cathedral taken by IQ’s art director at the time, all the way from America.
When its follow on – Leap of Faith – came out, and when Fall From Grace was then reprinted, we were fortunate to have a friend of mine, Lucy Lindsell, create the covers. This was a brilliant coup for us, as it meant two things; we had Lucy’s talent brought to bear on the covers, and it gave the duology a consistent, fresh look that united the two books.
Artwork is incredibly important. The art director will have a grip on what’s current, what’s appealing, and how the sector you’re writing in works. You will have views as well; consider half a dozen titles in the genre, and try to remember what first attracted you to them. Was it written by an author you already know and love? Or was it the fact that the cover was visually appealing, making you pick it up and turn over to the synopsis?
So, you’ve edited the book, helped design the cover, worked on your acknowledgements and dedication along the way (do remember to mention your parents, your editor, and your best friends somewhere), and are getting close to publication date. What’s next?
There are two important areas to consider; the marketing and reviews of the book, and then the day of launch itself. Without effective marketing, your book will disappear, and without solid relationships formed with effective book reviewers, then your book will languish in a quiet, dusty corner of your publisher’s website or in a far-flung corner of Waterstone’s.
I subscribe to the policy of “any publicity …”. I know of writers who can’t bear the thought of standing up in front of a room full of people to talk about themselves, their book, or anything even vaguely related to life. I’m in favour of sharing my voice as far and wide as I possibly can. I’ve had the opportunity to speak in front of library audiences, bookshop buyers, school children (probably the best talks I’ve ever done have been to students), and a lot of other places as well.
As the author, the book’s marketing does rely on your ability to be a significant part of it. The agency can – should – do a significant amount of marketing; organising the reviewers, getting out press releases, and so on, but don’t be passive as the author. If there’s something local to you which could tie in to your book, then connect with that; a poster in a shop, a talk to a potentially interested group of people, a book signing, whatever it might be. I’ve attended human library events across Kent, where I’ve been interviewed by members of the public, taken part in podcasts, and handed out books in the middle of Dover high street – all in the name of publicity.
Let me say a quick word on book reviewers as well; I utterly love and adore most reviewers. They are powerful advocates for fiction, whatever genre they prefer, and can talk intelligently about such a range of titles within their field. Those book reviewers, thankfully, are in the majority, and are well-read, well-thought of, and well-respected by their audiences.
There are others, however. You can tell the type I’m thinking of by the quality of their reviews, their websites, and their grammar. Oftentimes all three. It’s awfully depressing to see these sites, where reviewers will regurgitate the blurb and storyline but not much else; they certainly won’t give any opinions on the book beyond “it woz good” or some such ephemera. When I’m reviewed, I want to see an honest, constructive review; if someone doesn’t like part of the book, or even the entirety of the book, that’s fine – just say so in a constructive way and tell me why; I’ll like you for it because you’re being constructive and thoughtful.
What you do on the day of the launch is often up to you, although if you’re with a larger agency, you’ll usually find that they will have some ideas. Personally, I prefer to keep things low-key; having a meal out with friends following a book signing is entirely within my comfort zone.
I like book signings; I meet people who might be willing to buy my book, and are usually willing to discuss the details of what makes up a good book; if you’re listening closely enough, you can pick up a nugget or two of gold from another reader’s perspective.
The process is hard work, but it’s entirely worth it when you hold that book in your hand for the first time.