Whirlwind signing tours spanning the globe and glittering events where the literary conversation flows and sparkles like the endless supply of free champagne. Savage bidding wars between slavering, bug-eyed commissioning editors who would stab a rival in the eye with a fountain pen to snap up the next bestseller. Dozens of invitations to write incisive social commentary for newspapers that just happen to repeatedly mention the author’s recently published novel, in which these themes are covered in a witty and thrilling manner (RRP £7.99 in all good bookstores).
These, my friends, are among the many writer perks I have emphatically not experienced in the 18 months since the first publication of Apocalypse Cow and my last diary entry.
It has been a rough year for my fledgling writing career, which has plunged from the nest and is currently describing frantic arcs in the grass with stubby, useless wings, hoping the sweet middle-aged lady in the bungalow at the top of the garden will find and nurture it before the neighbour’s vicious little moggy chances upon it with unsheathed claws. However, before I get into the circumstances that have left my career in this predicament, I should start with the positives.
Firstly-and this is a big one-Apocalypse Cow came out in the US this May. The critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, with great reviews appearing in the right places. The novel even topped Booklist’s Top Ten Horror Fiction 2013 list, and I was lucky enough to have Christopher Moore read, enjoy and blurb the book.
The UK paperback hit the shelves around the same time, and I have built up a small fan base that has provided me with dozens of sweet and encouraging interactions on Facebook and Twitter that I wouldn’t trade for all the cheese in Switzerland (and believe me, I am obsessed with cheese: I once tried to mainline fondue, but couldn’t get the sticky gloop in the syringe).
I also made my first literary festival appearance at a satellite event of the Hay Festival in Nairobi, where the guests were serious authors of African heritage discussing identity, race and growing up different in white nations. Plus me talking about zombie cows. I did my best to link violent, sex-crazed livestock to issues of racial equality, but I felt the crowd wasn’t operating at my intellectual level. Still, it did at least lead to me getting a short story in The Telegraph.
‘So what have you got to whine about then, Michael?’ I hear you ask. ‘That all sounds rather jolly. Aren’t you just being a typically negative Glaswegian who can’t celebrate his own success? Shouldn’t you just drink a nice hot cup of shut-the-fuck-up and be grateful?’
Well, yes. You are completely right. And now that I have written these positives down, I do understand I have many things to be grateful for. Still, I promised you a litany of woes only a few paragraphs above, and I do so hate to be a tease, so I suppose I had better get on with moaning.
Despite the many good reviews and having the endorsement of two big-name authors in Moore and Pratchett, sales have been as lame as the dad jokes my wife says I started telling the instant my first child was born. I doubt I even qualify for mid-list status. If my publishers have a secret shit list, I’m pretty sure my name is scratched at the top in red ink, underlined twice with a few exclamation marks for emphasis.
This missing link between quality and quantity of reviews and lack of sales is not confined to my book. Another author friend, who had an even wider range of even better reviews in even bigger publications for his first novel, is also finding that his sales have not gone the way we all expected. So, one thing I have definitely learned is that good reviews do not equal good sales-which is no surprise given the massive amount of books released each year, a large chunk of which get good reviews. Aside from word of mouth, which nobody can really predict or understand, what really makes the difference is how much a publisher is prepared to push a book. Shelf space is increasingly limited as physical book stores struggle and there are a gazillion books available online, so sales and marketing is all important. The vast majority of authors just don’t get this backing, which is an understandable reality of the current business and nothing to bitch about.
What I do find inexplicable, though, is the model of keeping a year between hardcover and paperback releases. What I saw was that all of my good UK reviews arrived within three months of the hardcover coming out, which then left nine months for everybody who had taken note and resolved to buy the paperback to forget all about it. When the paperback was released, nobody had any clue it was out as there was no effort to let the public know. Again, this is relatively standard practice and a situation most novelists face.
There is also the question of e-book pricing. While a hardcover is out, the e-book price remains high for the full year, making it unlikely for e-book readers to take a chance on a new author. The second the paperback comes out, the price drops, but by that point-as mentioned above-everybody has forgotten about the book.
I believe if the publishing industry wants to flourish, it has to overhaul these models. Not only is a year between hardcover and paperback too long (for new authors, at least; big name authors will still sell reams of hardcovers in that year because their fans can’t wait), the e-book and hardcover markets are very different. Why not start with a reasonable e-book price from the beginning? After all, the e-book is the same product all along. Charging nine quid for an e-book one day and then five quid the next because a separate product has been released makes no sense to me.
Anyway, as I said these are all standard problems facing new authors. My situation is a little more complex. At the start of the year, I signed up with an agent on the strength of my second novel, which is completely unrelated to Apocalypse Cow. It’s a darker and more serious work, and in my view far superior. Unfortunately, my publisher said ‘no thanks’ because it was too different from the daftness of Apocalypse Cow and didn’t fit comfortably into one genre. They wanted ‘the same, but different’.
This was my own fault. I made the rookie error of assuming that if I was going to shift to a style I felt was more in line with my long-term vision, it was better to do it earlier. What my editor (and later agent) told me was that this work would be better as a third or fourth book-a shift that would be better accepted once I had built up a significant fan base. So, this is the second thing I learned. Publishers want to create an author brand they can sell, not have some loose cannon jumping around from style to style unless he has the sales to back it up.
After discussions between my agent and editor, I unhappily set aside a book I thought was my best work so far and wrote Cruel Britannia, the sequel to Apocalypse Cow. I submitted this work to the publisher five weeks ago. Even if the editor does like it, he has to go through the acquisition committee, which will look at my previous sales record, not the critical acclaim, as the fundamental basis for the decision on whether to offer a deal. So, I’m not too hopeful on that front.
On top of all this, I terminated my agreement with my agent, which I suppose many would consider career suicide. He is a very reputable agent who has done great work for other authors, but I felt that our interpersonal relationship wasn’t working and that he didn’t have enough time to represent me given his extensive client list. So, if my publisher doesn’t want Cruel Britannia, I am back to square one of trying navigate my way through the maze of agents and publishers.
I tell you this not to complain, but to make a point: there seems to be an assumption (one I also shared) that once you have one book published, life gets much easier. In my experience, it doesn’t. I am having to fight even harder now to keep my career alive, and I am questioning whether I am good enough to make it-so much so, in fact, that at the moment I can barely write a word (which you may find hard to believe given the length of this diary entry).
Still, out of adversity comes opportunity or hope or some other such clichéd positive thingy, and I have learned a lot from this year’s unfortunate events. I expect I’ll pull myself out of this funk soon enough, and after all I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t get all angst-ridden from time to time.
Thanks for reading my bleat (I hesitate to use the word blog) post. For a more focused and less whiny account of what I have learned, which may be of use to burgeoning writers, you can see the Seven Things I've Learned So Far blog I wrote for Writer’s Digest, and this blog post about agents and whatnot.
Good luck with all your writing endeavours, and I wish everybody (myself included) a successful 2014.
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Part 6- June 2012
(Read Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 )
Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the final entry of my diary. It’s been a pleasure sharing my experiences as I lurched unwittingly from impoverished, unknown and unpublished author to impoverished, unknown and published author. Thank you for staying with me, and to the team at Multi-Story for giving me the chance to fill up the pages of the site with my journey thus far.
This, the sixth entry, is a good point to end, as I feel I am starting to repeat myself. This is due in equal parts to my advancing years; the exhaustion of parenthood, a demanding job and a second novel in progress; and the fact that I’ve shared pretty much everything I have to share about the publishing process - highly secret contract details aside.
The book has now been out for a month, and what comes next is likely to be spectacularly dull for those who have no vested interest in this novel - which is pretty much everyone apart from me, my wife and my children, whose prospects of receiving pocket money depend on the buying public shaking off the recession blues and investing in some zombie cows. So, if you haven’t bought a copy yet, just be aware that the next time my cute little daughter asks for a lollipop, I’m going to blame you when she doesn’t get one. Her tears of woe splash upon your conscience, not mine.
Now that the initial excitement and splurge of publicity from the publisher has passed, it is time to hunker down for the long game. The sad fact is that hardcovers from new authors generally don’t sell terribly well. Sure, the eBook is out there and trade paperbacks (the large-format paperback) are being shipped for the airport and export market, but I suspect the RRPs for those products are just as discouraging to buyers in the current economic climate. I must admit that I rarely buy hardcovers and have an upper limit for an eBook that sits below the current asking price of my novel. Yes, I know I’m saying I wouldn’t buy my own book at current prices, which at least goes to show I am honest, if rather crap at marketing.
I do expect the eBook price to gradually drop, but unless I gratuitously insert lots of sadomasochistic sex in the next edition a la Fifty Shades of Shagging, I expect sales to remain muted until the mass-market paperback hits the shelves next May (although, since the publisher only issues a statement twice a year, I have no real idea how the hardcover is selling in stores other than Amazon). It’s a long time to wait, but nine months to a year is standard for paperback to follow hardcover, although publishers do adjust schedules depending on how sales are going - if strong, they’ll hold out for the year; if weak, they will bring the paperback release forward.
As I mentioned in a previous entry, however, this is pretty much as expected. Transworld told me the function of the hardcover is to build profile and interest through reviews and nice quotes to stick on the back of later editions. Over the last month, I have watched this process unfold. Reviews continue to come in, from very nice write-ups by The Sunday Express and Press Association to a steady stream of four and five stars from book bloggers and Amazon and Goodreads reviewers. However, good reviews do not necessarily mean instant sales, particularly on Amazon, where readers actually have to find the book before they can see it is highly rated. Many of us will read a review and then make a mental note to get a copy later when the price comes down/we are less skint/Amazon accidentally gives it away in a freebie.
At least chatter is slowly building up on Facebook and Twitter, with tweeps increasingly posting links to my book and spreading the word to friends. One branch of Waterstones has recommended it as a Father’s Day gift, while others have been giving it a plug here and there. The book is still far from reaching the critical mass that will propel it into widespread public awareness, but it is both encouraging and fascinating to see how a buzz builds from nothing.
Oddly, as the book grows in the public consciousness, it is receding in mine. When I read a review or see it popping up somewhere online, I find it hard to remember that I invested so much time, energy and emotion in writing it. This process is, I suspect, natural. A parent can’t worry about every single detail of a child’s life when it leaves the nest, and so I can’t constantly fret as my baby tries to find its place in the big, bad world out there. To remain deeply invested would only cause extreme frustration, and I am glad of the increasing distance - although this may change if anybody wants to interview me about the book and I can’t even remember the names of the characters (this is also linked to the ageing process, as my neurons curl up at the edges like decaying leaves and leave me even more gormless than usual).
Still, as detached as I am becoming, I still monitor reactions to the book, largely because this is throwing up fascinating insights into the human mind. I had a very clear concept of what I was trying to achieve when I wrote Apocalypse Cow, yet it delights me how people see completely different things in the book, sometimes completely missing elements I inserted, at other times imagining themes I had not conceived of while writing.
Amongst those who liked it, some have seen the social and political satire, others have seen only the violence (even though it makes up only one-tenth of the book), some have seen a touching story of evolving human relationships between well-drawn characters and some have seen a typical zombie tale. One person even said it raised deep philosophical questions. That may be taking it a tad too far, but thanks anyway!
One guy, who liked it, still felt it wasn’t as funny as he wanted it to be, and another thought it would have been funnier given the title and cover. Another said he was surprised it wasn’t funny all the way through and contained moments of real emotional distress. I found this a particularly interesting insight into genre-focused thinking. In the minds of the industry, and many readers, a comedy should be a comedy (or a horror a horror, etc) from start to finish. I took the approach that “it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye”, and the book grows more serious toward the end, before reverting to levity. This, for me, reflects the human experience far better. We can run through the whole range of human emotions in one day, never mind over the course of weeks, months or years.
On the other side of the coin, there have been a few people who just didn’t like it. Criticism has included that it isn’t funny, that the characters are robotic and that it’s nothing new. All of this waffle does have a point, and to make it I want to go into some specifics of one negative review. The reviewer got lots of important details wrong, including missing out the presence of two of the three narrators. This particular reader, seemingly based on negative experiences with other teenage protagonists, assumed many things about Geldof, the only principal character she appeared to notice, which were not mentioned, such as a love of comic books and video games.
I don’t bring this particular reviewer up to have a go, as she is perfectly entitled to hold an opinion and express it, but it is crucial to my final point about writing, which is this: everybody comes to a book with their own worldview and set of preconceptions about where that work may fit in them, and then looks for evidence to suit their ideas, whether it is there or not. This doesn’t hold for books only. It seeps into every aspect of human existence, from making judgements about people we have just met to forming opinions about emotive conflicts or political parties.
Understanding this is, for me, central to building a successful, or at least satisfying, career as an author. The book you create is not necessarily going to be the book people read, so writing with an audience or market in mind is, I feel, pointless. You can’t know the life experiences of every reader, you have no real idea what they are going to like or dislike and you certainly can’t try to please everybody. The story in your head is all that matters. Stay true to your theme, plot and characters, and don’t allow what you feel the market wants to dilute and muddy your vision. If you can do that, then you will create something you can be proud of. In the end, that is all that matters.
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Part 5- May 2012
(Read Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4)
Those paragons of patience who have managed to stay with this rambling diary for the last four months may have noticed something of a theme running throughout my entries. I’ve consistently remarked upon the unreality I felt at my book winning an award and publication deal, and I’ve repeatedly said I suspected it was all a sick joke at my expense. Well, guess what? I’ve finally got it into my thick skull that this is real. I am now officially a debut novelist.
Writing this, a few days after publication, I realise how tense I have been over the last few months. I didn’t experience the sense of anti-climax many authors say they feel when their book finally hits the shelves. More than anything, there was an unclenching of all the muscles, mental and physical, that I didn’t know I had been clenching. My baby is now out there in the world, ready to stand or fall on its own, and this has freed me from the worry that the plug could be pulled at any minute.
So, now I am very relaxed, helped by the fact it looks as though the book is going to be well received. Reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive. Fourteen ratings on Amazon and nine on Goodreads down the line, my star ratings are high. Book bloggers and review websites have been very complimentary (my best review can be found here), although I did get my first bad write-up in a British Sci-Fi magazine. Even then, after all the fretting, my first reaction to getting a stinker was one of relief. It had to come at some point, after all.
I haven’t actually seen the review, as it only appears in the print edition of the magazine in question, and my publicist Lynsey didn’t want to send it to me - apparently the reviewer had an alarmingly negative reaction to the book and gave it a right good pummelling. She did give me the gist of it though: the reviewer thought it was unfunny, and compared it to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which the reviewer thought was equally rotten.
Weirdly, I wasn’t upset, for several reasons. The most important one is that I don’t see this book as Sci-Fi, so I don’t expect the serious Sci-Fi buffs to like it. The science is no doubt ropey, although that does seem compulsory for a zombie book, and everything about the book, from the plot to the characters, is very tongue-in-cheek. Also, the reviewer was a person who admitted it would be funny to shoot a kitten in the face in real life, but didn’t find it funny on the page (this tickled me so much I actually put it in the collated quotes about the book on my website). The scene in question wasn’t meant to be funny, so I suspect that we have very different senses of humour. But hey, that’s ok. I’ve said before I didn’t expect, or even want, everybody to like it. Apocalypse Cow is the book it had to be. Some will love it, some will decide it is better employed squashing flies or propping up wobbly table legs, both of which are perfectly valid uses for a book you have deemed to be execrable.
While sales have been remarkably strong for a debut novelist, prodded upwards by Terry Pratchett’s promos on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, the most satisfying element so far has been that the majority of reviewers are seeing the book as I see it: a social and political satire through the medium of zombie cows. I can almost sense a market re-positioning going on as readers and reviewers realise this is first and foremost a black comedy, with the Sci-Fi and fantasy elements secondary. Quite a few reviewers have compared it to the works of Tom Sharpe, which I believe is a more appropriate section of the market for this book to compete in.
So, what now? After the initial surge that saw the book reach number 500 in the amazon.co.uk charts, sales are falling away. I’m no Hilary Mantel, whose highly anticipated follow-up to Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, was released on the same day and shot to the top of the charts (although oddly I do have more reviews on Amazon than the great woman). For us mere mortals, fresh impetus must be applied to reinvigorate sales. The next spark should be a review in The Sunday Express this week, which I’ve been told is going to be positive. With luck, that will then prompt other national newspapers to pick up and review the book. That aside, I am relying on those who read and enjoyed it to tell their friends, and those who hated it to keep shtum.
Audiobook rights were sold on Friday, so I’m looking forward to hearing the unabridged reading of the work, although I’m not sure I’ll have the patience to sit all the way through it. I do know how it ends, after all. Transworld’s rights team are working away trying to sell foreign rights, and for all those reviewers who said that it would make a good movie, discussions began late last year with one large company. The chances are it will come to nothing, but it’s good to know that there is at least some interest, which should hopefully grow if the book does well.
In terms of my writing, the shackles are off. The tension of waiting for my first book to hit the shelves had a draining effect on my creativity, and progress on the next novel has been spotty, to say the least. Now I feel that I can put Apocalypse Cow behind me, at least until such times as I have to do more publicity, and concentrate on doing something more constructive than obsessively Googling for new reviews. I’ve set myself a deadline of September for finishing the work in progress, which is currently about halfway through the first draft. I’m hoping my children cooperate by sleeping 14 hours a day. Failing that, I may have to encourage them with healthy doses of Calpol. Don’t tell child services.
Quite frankly, I have no idea what I will be talking about next time, as I am now entering completely unknown territory. But don’t worry: I’ll just make some stuff up if the developments are too boring.
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Part 4- April 2012
(Read Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3)
First, the excuses. I am typing the first line of this diary entry at 9.20pm on Saturday night, one day before deadline, and I have imbibed several glasses of stress-relieving wine after a hectic month during which I buzzed around town like the proverbial blue-arsed fly sorting out various disasters. So, since I am exhausted and a little tipsy, you may find my waffle more incoherent than usual.
If you are still reading after that marvellous sales pitch, I am going to write about possibly the most-positive aspect of being signed to a big publishing company: access to a publicity department so powerful that a prospective employee must crack a walnut with his or her bicep as part of the interview process (click here for a 100%-genuine picture of my publicist Lynsey Dalladay, who takes a lot of steroids to keep up with the industry standard). With just over three weeks until the book is on the shelves, I’m starting to understand just how important it is to have these bulging specimens of public relations on my side.
Aside from the standard publicity tools at the publisher’s command, which I’ll get into shortly, I have the good fortune of having Terry Pratchett’s name attached to my novel. Any time the book has been featured on his Facebook page, which has over 500,000 likes, I see a spike in pre-sales and many have commented, “If it’s good enough for Sir Terry, it’s good enough for me”. Sir Terry and his right-hand man Rob Wilkins have also been kind enough to plug the book on their Twitter account. They even posted a picture of Rob reading the book as he floated down a river in Borneo during a visit to raise awareness of the plight of the country’s orangutans. In fact, it has just occurred to me that maybe I’m getting this support from Sir Terry, who is a trustee of the Orangutan Foundation UK, because I’m also ginger and thus remind him of his favourite animal. Given the book has large decal on the front cover proclaiming it the winner of the Pratchett prize, as well as a foreword and great quote from Sir Terry on the back, I would expect this effect to continue in the book stores - essentially giving the book a head start before people even know if it is any good.
This effect was no doubt a large factor in the publisher agreeing to run the award in the first place, but the publicity department isn’t relying on Sir Terry’s sprawling influence alone. Two weeks ago, 50 uncorrected proofs (bound, typo-filled early versions of the novel) went out to magazines, national newspaper literary editors and bloggers. A bunch of these uncorrected proofs were also given to the editorial department, which sends them out to authors and celebrities to solicit the quotes you see on the backs of novels and booksellers’ websites. Sales also receive some copies to share with bookstores, and the author gets a couple to show off to their family and friends. I should mention here that when I got my copies in the post, you would not have been able to wipe the grin off my face with an industrial sander.
The fact that these books are coming from a respected publisher increases the chances of reviews in the national press, although massive competition means they are far from guaranteed. The world of book bloggers appears slightly easier to penetrate, provided the publisher actually reads their review policies and sends appropriate material, although they too appear swamped by submissions. These reviewers have become increasingly important, as while they may not have the same reach as national newspapers and magazines, they have a loyal following of book fanatics, who in turn will spread the word. The target here is to build up a buzz through word-of-mouth, which, although often derided as being publishing code for ‘no publicity budget’, is often what creates a black swan event.
So far, there has been one review of Apocalypse Cow, fortunately a very good one, from a book blogger and I know of at least several others who are reading it or are about to read it. I was actually surprised to get a review so quickly, as most reviewers have TBR piles so tall and precarious they are forced to tiptoe through their flats and offices for fear of creating a literary avalanche. This could be a sign that my book’s outlandish subject matter and striking cover will, as Lynsey believes, attract attention, or it could just be that this particular reviewer has a thing for zombie cows. If I don’t get another review, we’ll know it was the latter.
Apart from sending out copies for review, Lynsey has also set up an interview with SFX magazine, which will go out in the next edition. Giveaways are being arranged to drum up interest, interviews with local radio stations and newspapers are being pursued and of course social media is being employed to build up further chatter about the book.
My personal efforts to publicise the book were half-hearted, and largely fizzled out a while ago. This diary, I suppose, falls into the category of self-publicity, but even this was brokered by the lovely author Pam Howes, who could teach us all a thing or two about marketing. However, chance has also played a part in giving me an opportunity to plug the book myself. After a random conversation with somebody’s mum in Nairobi, I have been invited to appear as a guest at this year’s Storymoja Hay Festival. This will be good exposure and will also force me to find a way to appear intelligent and learned in public. I have no idea how I’m going to pull that one off.
All of the above is very positive, and is largely what most of us would expect from a publisher. What came as a bit of surprise to a rookie like me, and to a lot of my friends, was the list of things that won’t be happening, although after a bit of thought the omissions makes perfect sense.
One of the most-frequent questions asked of me is when the launch will be. There won’t be one - at least not an official event. I had assumed every book was given a launch party, where the wine flows freely and the author’s back is slapped red-raw. Perhaps that was the case back in the day, but in today’s financial climate, only high-profile books and authors can command such an event. I can understand this, as the launch isn’t going to boost sales and appears to exist for the benefit of the author’s ego and to the detriment of the guests' livers. However, due to popular request, if you count seven people as ‘popular’, I will be having my own casual launch party in Nairobi. It will be very low-rent: I’ll read a passage - if bullied into it - before hastily tossing books into friends’ hands, turning on the music and passing round bottles of Tusker lager.
Also, there won’t be any signing tours, or talks at libraries, or advice handed out to young writers at workshops and conventions (Storymoja apart, which came by chance). Why? Because nobody has a clue who I am. If a signing were to take place just after publication, I could imagine myself sitting in a quiet corner of a store, staring forlornly at pile of unsold books as Lynsey pleads with me to kick her ass a la the hapless Arty Fufkin from Spinal Tap. Lynsey likes her ass un-kicked, and is too savvy to put herself in this situation, hence no signings. She tells me that in most cases, the first novel is about building up a fan base and raising an author’s profile. Perhaps in a year or so, if the book does well, I will be more in demand. I would certainly hope any second novel would prompt such events.
Until then, I am relieved not to have carry out such duties. I have two young children, two jobs, a steady stream of visitors to Kenya who need shown around and the second novel, still only half-completed, to write. I’m already struggling to fit it all in, and I have no idea how I would cope with having to travel as well, although if it came to it I’m sure I would find a way to make it work.
So, that’s it. Next time I will finally be a published author, so my diary entry is likely to involve me squealing excitedly about this and sharing any further developments.
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Part 3- March 2012
(Read Part 1 / Part 2)
This month, I am drifting in the still waters between completion of my editing duties on Apocalypse Cow and publication, one beady eye fixed on the horizon for a sight of land. The problem is that the land I am searching for is teeming with the most terrifying of all beasts: the literary critic.
Before I get into the horrors that await me, here is brief update on what has happened since the last diary entry: absolutely nothing. The proofs have been back with Transworld for a few weeks, and presumably the novel will be heading to the printers shortly. While I am glad to be finished writing, re-reading and endlessly editing Apocalypse Cow, this is undoubtedly the toughest period so far. Publication is tantalisingly close, but time is crawling past due to my idleness on this particular project.
I would probably feel better if I weren’t still in the dark about so many aspects of the publication process: for example, the status of foreign rights’ negotiations, the eBook release, even how many copies are being printed. I am thousands of miles away from London, and can’t pop in for a chat or try to prise a boozy lunch out of the publisher. I suspect an agent, whose job it is to deal with all this nitty-gritty, would come in handy at this point. But I don’t have one, which at least will have the benefit of making me 15% richer when royalties start coming in. I’m not too stressed about my ignorance, however. All will become clear with time, and I suspect pestering Transworld with my novice queries would fast become trying for them. So, instead I am working on the next novel and trying, with little success, not to spend too much time fretting over how Apocalypse Cow is going to be received.
The moment is fast approaching when reviewers will get their razor-sharp claws on the text (I understand critics are born with these talons, which they employ first to rip their way out of their mothers’ wombs and then disembowel authors later in life). The cover and title have been well received so far - a positive development that has only served to make me more nervous. Expectations are rising based largely on the work of Transworld’s excellent art department, and I only hope that readers find the story lives up to the packaging.
Bad reviews are inevitable. Critics have been with us ever since the first paintings went up on the cave wall, prompting Ug to stroke his straggly beard and deconstruct the weak characterization of the hunter. Even the best-received novels have their detractors, and I suspect my book is likely to split critics and the public. This is no bad thing, as I would rather my work provoked a love/hate dynamic than ambivalence, and such debates often actually boost sales as readers decide to get their hands on the book and make up their own minds.
As apprehensive as I am, I will read my reviews, good and bad alike. Many authors claim that they take little notice of the critics, but I don’t believe them. It is human nature to want to know what others are saying about you and your work, just as it is human nature to pass comment. I don’t see how it is possible to resist reading even the most negative of reviews. However, I hope I can take a leaf out of Ben Aaronovitch’s book, and laugh it off instead of getting all snippy. His blog has an entry collating the best and worst things said about his first novel, Rivers of London. Some of them are pretty nasty, so he deserves respect for not just flagging up the flowery reviews.
But professional criticism, which at least usually involves a reasoned argument as to why a novel did not work for a particular reviewer, is only part of the picture. Back in the day, hacked-off readers had to rely on sending scathing letters. Now, the internet has given everyone a voice without the need to head down to the post office for a stamp, and many people have no compunction about putting the boot in with a resounding thud. There are so many ways for a new author’s fragile ego to be bruised: on Good Reads, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, newspaper websites and thousands of forums. This has created a culture of instant disparagement or acclaim, where a thought can become a public opinion with a few keystrokes.
I’ve already had a taste of this. Within a few hours of the Terry Pratchett prize being announced, somebody had already had a pop on The Guardian. One commenter accused me of not being very original for writing a novel about zombie cows, citing the existence of Black Sheep, a movie set on a New Zealand farm. For the record, Black Sheep, which I promptly Googled after reading the comment, is about Were-Sheep. I’m sure you understand my astonishment that two such vastly different genres were conflated. Apart from Black Sheep, which has been mentioned a few times, the spectre of Shaun of the Dead has been raised, presumably because it is a zombie comedy set in the UK. Funnily enough, Simon Pegg comparisons have dogged me for many years, mainly due to my ginger hair and faint whiff of nerdiness. Even Sir Terry made a few Simon Pegg comments at the award ceremony and informed me I had a “Spaced haircut”.
While I can see why these comparisons are made, and are often an essential tool in marketing a creative project, I hesitate to use them myself since my novel shares only the most basic elements with these works. Ultimately, however, everybody is entitled to hold and express an opinion, and when we put our work out there we have to accept that people will have their say. The only issue is how we deal with it.
From my point of view, I am hopeful my years of indentured slavery in writers’ groups will help head off any occurrences of hopeless weeping over the keyboard when unfavourable comments come in. As mentioned in a previous entry, I have never been one of those writers who work in isolation, always seeking out the opinions of friends and other authors. I doubt I would have been published without doing so.
When I joined my first online writers’ group in 1995, I must confess that I made the beginner’s mistake of searching for praise and validation rather than constructive criticism. Every back-slapping message gave me a warm glow. When another writer had the temerity to suggest my work was less than perfect, the toys were instantly out of the pram and I wrote indignant e-mails in response suggesting the critic just didn’t understand my story. Fortunately, this immature attitude faded through repeated exposure to critiques, and by the time I joined The Fiction Workhouse, run by Vanessa Gebbie, I was ready to reap the full benefit of other writers’ wisdom and experience. For those who don’t know Vanessa, she is one of the finest British writers around at the moment, although she still does not have the profile her rich and emotional literary fiction deserves. Vanessa was runner-up in the prestigious Bridport Prize in 2007 and has won and been placed in many other competitions. Her first novel, The Coward’s Tale, was published by Bloomsbury last year, to critical acclaim.
Vanessa wielded an iron fist cunningly cloaked in a velvet glove. Under her leadership, this group improved my skills and, through all kinds of prompts and exercises, helped me develop more of a work ethic. Prior to joining Vanessa’s tribe, my output down the years could be kindly described as sporadic. What I also learned was the importance of finding the right balance when reading critiques. Initially, I hurtled from brooking no criticism whatsoever to the polar opposite stance of making changes based on every single suggestion. This is the fast-track to losing your identity and focus as a writer. Now, as a member of YouWriteOn, in common with many of the writers who frequent this website, I am in the happy place where I consider the pros and cons of every suggestion and ignore those I don’t think work for me.
On the off-chance I become a successful author, I intend to continue this process of seeking out the valuable opinions of writers, readers and critics, even if they do a Dorothy Parker on me and say, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." (For more Parker witticisms and some classic scathing reviews, click here.) Without such painful feedback it is too easy to disappear up one’s own rear end, which may have the advantage of being warm, but doesn’t offer much in the way of illumination.
Next month, with only a few weeks to go until publication, I will be talking about how Transworld is planning to publicize the book, and my own attempts to plug the book with seeming like a self-obsessed bore.
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Part 2- February 2012
(Read Part 1)
The first thing I learned about the publishing industry in the months after winning the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award was that it bore a remarkable resemblance to my early love-life. There were long periods of inactivity, during which I found myself desperately hoping for some action, and then there were intense bursts of activity, usually accompanied by advice on how to improve my performance.
I was aware of the long lead-time between acceptance and publication, but living through it has been difficult - particularly given the excitement I felt at the prospect of being a published author and the constant puzzled queries from friends as to why they couldn’t buy my book yet. I’m convinced some of them believe I made the whole thing up.
I must also admit to unrealistic expectations about the public interest my book would generate. As soon as the award was in the bag, I thought my Twitter account would be swamped by people keen to find out everything about this enigmatic new author, who was blazing new ground with his soul-searching, poignant look at zombie cows. To date, this has yet to happen, and if you listen carefully when my Facebook author page is open, you can hear the virtual wind blowing tumbleweed across it.
This, of course, is the natural order of things. A new author is generally anonymous until the critics and public get a hold of the book and judge for themselves whether it’s worth getting worked up about. Equally, until you prove yourself to a publishing company, you are very much plankton. Accepting this doesn’t ease the frustration and impatience I feel as the early May publication creeps closer.
That isn’t to say there hasn’t been excitement along the learning curve.
My first duty as a new author was to send in a photograph that would be used on the cover. We’ve all seen countless author pictures, from the “chin-stroking-in-front-of-a-bookcase” shot to the “I’m-a-wacky-comedy-author-and-therefore-pull-funny-faces” pose. I had a go at pretty much every variation, much to the vexation of my friend Ian Vale, who had kindly agreed to take the picture in return for alcoholic beverages. He took over 200 shots before we managed to get one in which I did not look like a pompous buffoon, an airhead or somebody who thinks he’s far funnier than he actually is. What this ratio says about my face, I’ll leave for you to decide.
Selecting the right picture is an onerous process for one simple reason: when you become an author, you essentially become a brand. You wouldn’t see Julian Barnes mugging it up for the camera, as he needs to present himself as the Booker Prize-winner he is. I ended up with the “gazing-into-the-distance-thoughtfully-pretending-you-aren’t-aware-of-the-camera” shot, which I must admit was just a way of hedging my bets. If I decide to write a serious book in the future, I won’t be saddled with a picture of me pretending to be attacked by a zombie cow while pulling a face of mock fear.
While this was all rather fun, the most exciting moment came when I saw the cover for the first time, five months after signing the deal. I had been feeling nervous about the cover, since it was something I had no control over - unlike the blurb and biography. I had good reason for feeling this way, given that I had read an article about Polly Courtney, who picked up a three-book deal with HarperCollins after self-publishing two books. At the launch of the last book in her deal, she announced she would return to self-publishing. The covers the publisher foisted upon her played a large part in this decision. She felt they were misrepresenting her work as chick lit, and as we all know most people do indeed judge a book by its cover.
This loss of control, along with the standard royalty rates and rights, is something any new author signing a deal with a major publisher must take on the chin. Only top authors, the ones a publishing executive has nightmares about losing, could throw an effective strop if they were unhappy over the cover art. The rest of us just have to hope for the best. I was fortunate in that the cover, when I got it, represented my book exactly. I believe that only holding a copy in my hands for the first time will surpass that ‘wow’ factor of seeing a physical representation of how the book is going to look.
After the cover came the editing process. Once again, I must admit to some trepidation. I’d never worked with editing professionals before, and I had visions of receiving a manuscript with so much red ink scrawled on it I could barely read the original text. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. The initial phase involves the first editor coming back with suggestions. This editor focuses on the broad strokes such as the plot and character development. My editor made it very clear that this was my book and I could elect not to make the changes, which was a relief given I was expecting the equivalent of literary handcuffs. I accommodated all the publisher’s suggestions for the simple fact they hit the mark.
Next up came the copy editing phase, which looks specifically at typos, in-house style, discontinuities and all the other nuts-and-bolts. Now, I am a compulsive editor. I had been through this book at least 20 times, fiddling, tinkering and proof-reading. Yet still the editor found a startling array of typos and issues caused by edits such as name changes, moving scenes around, etc.
Typos are determined, slippery little gremlins, and I am sure there will still be a few in the first edition, but what astonished me was that it took until the proofs, the final stage before the book hits the printers, for me to realise how ridiculously over-the-top I had gone with said-bookisms. My characters were muttering, bawling, shouting, yelling, murmuring and muttering their way through the story. By the time I got to page 200, I felt like I was immersed in a Mexican soap opera.
For me, this really emphasises the importance to authors of getting as many people to look at their book as possible. I had a dozen friends look at my novel - writers and readers alike - before it got to the publisher, and after every phase there were still things that needed changing. When it is your work, it is so easy on the tenth edit and fifteenth read-through to barely read the sentences and miss these things. In particular, I would advise indie authors, who do not have the professional back-up layers to help them out, to hire a top-notch editor and/or proof reader to go through their work.
Unrelated to all this back-and-forth with the publisher, I also found it remarkable to discover the lingering belief that authors are essentially set for life. Once my friends found out I was to be published, everybody started banging on about the mountain of cash that would engulf me, and several started making plans to take it off me at poker. I have to keep explaining that the vast majority of authors make a living wage, and I certainly haven’t been able to stop working. Even if my book sells well, I won’t start seeing any income until the end of the year - provided I have earned out my advance. Hardcovers are seen as a way of getting a new author’s work out there rather than a money-making exercise, and publishers don’t expect any significant sales from a first author until the release of the mass-market paperback down the line.
And this, I guess, is my key point. I assumed my life would change dramatically when I won the award. It hasn’t. The E-book is changing how quickly an author can achieve strong sales, but, for the moment, I am still juggling journalism with work on the next novel, which unfortunately means I have to accept there will be times when I have to ignore the urge to write fiction and knuckle down to a day’s work. I hope this will change one day, but until then I am in the same position as every other aspiring and fledgling writer out there.
Next month, I will talk about the dreaded reviews and how peer feedback can prepare you for such public maulings, as well as anything else that crops up in my crowded mind over the next four weeks.
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Part 1- January 2012
Does any writer who enters a competition expect to win? I know I had no such expectation when I entered the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award, particularly given the oddball nature of my novel. Zombies may be back in fashion, but a book about a smelly abattoir worker, inept journalist and persecuted teenage vegan trying to unveil a government conspiracy as sex-crazed zombie animals run amok in the UK didn’t tick any obvious boxes for publication.
This book was born in 2006, when I was living in Budapest and working two jobs as a journalist - for a local newspaper and the German Press Agency - while trying to write literary fiction. I’d done quite well with short fiction, placing stories in magazines and winning Fish Publishing’s 2008 One-Page Fiction Prize. Yet when it came to novel-length fiction, I found I did not have the headspace to work on a novel that would define the human condition, garner critical acclaim and leave the world’s finest literary authors grinding their teeth in jealousy (at least, that’s my excuse).
I decided to choose a project that would be out-and-out fun, something I could come home to after a long day of writing news and enjoy rather than agonise over. I have been a huge zombie movie fan ever since I saw the undead hordes meandering through a mall to catchy muzak in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, so I decided a zombie novel would fit my needs. But I didn’t want to write anything predictable.
At a 2006 meeting of my writers’ group - the kind of group that spends far more time drinking copious amounts of wine and talking nonsense than producing anything - we agreed that a book about zombie animals would be just the ticket. Nobody expected me to actually go off and write the thing. It took me three years, on-and-off due to our move to Kenya and an even more hectic job covering half of Africa for the same news agency, to finish the novel.
So, there I was with a completed novel that I had enjoyed writing immensely, but appeared to have limited commercial appeal. Although I didn’t hold out much hope, I thought I may as well send it to agents.
Here is how I imagine how the conversation in the offices of a typical agent who received my email may have gone:
“We have a new submission.”
“Great! Is it about a moody cop struggling with his inner demons while chasing a deranged killer?”
“Is it the first in a series featuring wizards and supernatural shenanigans, set in a modern urban environment where the average citizen is completely unaware of the magic afoot?”
“Is it a family saga dwelling on middle-class angst that will be a shoo-in for the Booker?”
“Couldn’t be further from that.”
“The fictionalised life story of a historical figure?”
“A celebrity biography? Historical fiction? Romance? Chicklit? Swords and Sorcery?”
“Fine, I give up.”
“It’s a comedy about zombie animals taking over the UK.”
This is probably overstating the amount of time the agents spent on my proposal. I suspect what really happened was that somebody opened my email, had a quick look at the title and the one-line description, and hit ‘send’ on the form rejection. One agent even managed to get back to me with a ‘no thanks’ in less than two hours.
A large part of the blame for this probably lay with me. I was struggling to pitch the novel because I didn’t know into which genre it fit - a problem many budding novelists encounter. We are all advised to try and fit our books into defined genres to ease our route into the publishing world. This is often easier said than done.
I tried various different approaches, none of which got me any further. In desperation, I even wrote to Christopher Moore, the bestselling author of Lamb, Fluke and A Dirty Job, who gave me this tip:
“Find out what's hot and call it that. ‘It's Harry Bloody Potter with Zombies and Loads of Bonking!" You know, something along those lines.”
While sound advice, the right angle still eluded me. After 14 rejections from agents and one from a publisher (if being completely ignored can count as such), I gave up. Of course, this is completely the wrong thing to do, as many published authors with rejection lists twice that length have testified, but I was convinced the novel would never see the light of day.
Then I saw the call for entries to Terry Pratchett’s first novel competition, which offered a prize of a £20,000 advance on a publishing deal with Transworld for the winner.
I almost didn’t enter. I had completely lost faith in the book, and saw little point in getting my hopes up. However, my wife dealt me a firm slap around the earhole and told me to get it in. I sent the book off four months before the deadline expired and promptly forgot all about it.
The shortlist was to be announced on March 31, 2011, and I imagine most authors who had gone to the trouble of entering were obsessively refreshing Sir Terry’s website to see if they had made it. I, on the other hand, was sitting in my office at 18.30, wrapping up work for the day as the sun went down over Nairobi. Then I got an email entitled “Terry Pratchett First Novel Prize.”
My first thought, after I remembered I’d entered the competition, was that it was a bulk mail to all entrants, with a note sending commiserations to those who didn’t make the shortlist. Thirty seconds later, after I had read the contents, my wife popped her head in to see if the high-pitched squeal emanating from the office meant I had managed to kick myself in the balls while crossing my legs (yes, I had done that before).
The email informed me that Apocalypse Cow had been shortlisted with five other books from an entry field of over 500. It took me several email exchanges with Transworld to realise it wasn’t a joke, and another week to accept they hadn’t listed my book by mistake.
For the first time, I really began to fret. Prior to the shortlist, I had written the book off. This time, I had to accept I had a chance, which made the next two months pure torture.
The day of the award on May 31 was very long, stretched out by a sleepless night. After hanging around London, eating fish and chips in Hoxton and practising my author face in case I won, my wife and I turned up early to the party at Waterstones Piccadilly. I sat with Dave Beynon, whose novel The Platinum Ticket was also shortlisted, and together we analysed every eyebrow twitch and glance in our direction from the Transworld people while we waited for the panel of judges, still locked in discussion, to make up their minds.
As most people here are writers who have fought hard to make it, I don’t think I need to explain exactly how I felt while waiting for the judges to decide. You could easily put yourself in that position. I was on the verge of achieving what I had dreamed of my whole life, but it could just as easily have been taken away from me.
Five large glasses of wine later, the big moment came. There were to be two winners, as the judges could not pick an outright victor. David Logan, with his novel Half Sick of Shadows, was announced as the first winner. When Sir Terry said the second novel had won “despite the awful pun”, I knew it was me. I can’t remember too much about what came next. I know I made a short speech, posed for some pictures, and had a brief chat with Sir Terry. I also ducked outside every fifteen minutes for a calming cigarette, tempted to jam the burning ember against a hand to prove this was all real.
Eight months later, I’m still tempted to do the same thing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Still I ask myself if the book is any good, even though more than 500 people read the novel and liked it before it reached the shortlist, and then a panel of judges, including senior figures from Transworld, chose it for publication.
What strikes me is how this self-doubt almost robbed me of the biggest break of my writing career. This, for me, is the key lesson to be learned from my experience. We all doubt ourselves. We all worry our work isn’t good enough. We all fear rejection. But the pain of rejection is a small price to pay for the unbridled joy of having your dream come true. And while doubt serves the purpose of driving us on to improve our work, it should never be allowed to become so crippling that is stops us from getting our work out there.
And so, with that in mind, I would encourage everybody working in fantasy to enter the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award, which is running for the second time this year (full details here).
I firmly believe that were it not for this competition, my novel would remain unpublished, and perhaps I would have given up on writing altogether. If you are having problems pitching your novel to agents, this is your chance. Your book will be read, even if you can’t write a decent synopsis or pithy one-liner summing up the entire work.
The one piece of advice I would offer to entrants is that you should not try to be Sir Terry. The publishers are not looking for the next Terry Pratchett, who is irreplaceable. Write the story that speaks to you, even if it is about zombie cows, and send that book in. You never know.
Next month, I’ll cover the many things this novice learned in the months that followed, such as how difficult it is to create an author picture that doesn’t involve cheesy poses in front of bookcases, managing expectations, and working with a team of professionals to produce a final product.
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Diary Of A Terry Pratchett First Novel Award Winner
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