Two months ago I wrote about getting my first book published and the experience that led up to it. Last month I wrote about winning the Smarties Book Prize. Now I want to write about what happened after that.
I remember having supper not long afterwards with Jenny Nimmo, a fellow Smarties winner – and Carnegie winner too – and her husband David Millward, with whom my family and I have spent many a happy New Year’s Eve. I was inclined to brush off the Smarties, thinking it would soon be like yesterday’s news, quickly forgotten and quickly over. But not so, Jenny said. ‘lt’s your CV. It will remain with you forever,’ she said. And she’s been right.
After winning a major book prize, finding publishers for your books is easy. Once they were like gold dust. Now suddenly they’re all over you. And agents. I’ve had two. The first brought me disappointment, and that’s all I’m going to say. The second, however, has been the sort of agent authors dream about. Laura Cecil. May she never retire.
Good agents can be the constant in an author’s life whilst editors come and go, especially in these days of international multi-whatever-you-want-to-call-it takeovers. I’ve lost count of all the editors I’ve worked with over the years, but some of them stand out as truly brilliant and deserving of mention. Sally Christie, then of Walker Books, stands out. Working with her was a real pleasure. So was working with Sarah Odedina, followed by Georgia Murray at Bloomsbury, and Anne McNeil, long ago now at Bodley Head. I wish each and every one of them could have stayed put in their publishing house, and never moved or had babies or whatever they did, and that I could have stayed put with them.
Julia Heydon-Wells of Faber & Faber was wonderful too. I took her the idea for my gap year novel, ‘In The Trees’, and without even a hint of characters or storyline she saw the potential and said, ‘We’ll go with that.’ Without her and Fabers behind me, I never would have secured the Arts Council grant that enabled me to go out to Belize to research that book. And without that trip there would have been no book – so I have a lot to thank Julia for. And indeed Laura, who brought the two of us together in the first place.
I remember once attending a Jacqueline Wilson event, watching children going up row by row from the audience, rather like participants for Mass, in order to get her signature on their newly purchased books. I’ve had a good relationship with all my publishers, but nobody has ever sold me like that. They’ve shown signs of appreciating my worth, which of course is always nice to know, but appreciation isn’t enough these days. What you want and need are the marketing boys and girls behind you – and I haven’t always had that, for all my books being called ‘lead titles’.
When I started out, I was advised that good books will always sell and that if I wrote enough to fill shelves in bookshops children and young adults would keep on coming back for more. Well, the world has changed since then. Back in those days, prolific and popular authors were allowed to fill shelves - but not any more.
When I first visited Fabers, too, their Managing Director came in to meet me. He wanted to assure me that that company was editorially led. This of course was music to my ears. The reality, however, is that with the best intentions in the world, and the highest concern for excellence, publishing houses nowadays are marketing led. What fills the shelves aren’t the noble volumes of the best of the bunch, but the titles that are easiest to pigeon-hole and plug.
Over the years, the rights for a handful of titles have returned to me, and there have been some – like Midnight Blue – that I’ve been anxious to retrieve. The buzz about e-publishing, and the knowledge that fellow authors were taking their back-lists and self-publishing inspired me to at least give it a go. I’m not the world’s most technological bunny, but found myself able to follow Katherine Roberts’ excellent guide to e-publishing [just about]. To my astonishment, after days of tearing out my hair and pressing the wrong keys, I ended up with a book on Kindle which looked as published as anybody else’s – and wow, it had been put there by me.
Then I heard via my agent about Authors Electric, which was just in the process of starting up. Around the same time, they seem to have heard about me because Katherine Roberts, who was co-founder with Sue Price, got in touch to say she’d be interested in talking to me. At least, that’s how I remember it. The upshot, though, is that I’ve been with Authors Electric ever since.
My first e-book, ‘Midnight Blue’ was published just in time for the 21st Anniversary of its Smarties win. My second e-book, ‘Telling The Sea’ [in which I attempted to prove that I wasn’t just a one-trick pony but could write a very different sort of story with not a hint of magic in sight], came out a year later. Hopefully later this year, more of my back-list will come out too. There’s still ‘The Candle House’, ‘Tyger Pool’ and ‘The Beast of Whixall Moss’ to come. I don’t have the rights on any of my other books, though ‘In The Trees’ is now out as an e-book too, published by Fabers.
The books have sold, though more in a stately saunter than in truckloads. But then I haven’t flung myself into the marketing side of things with the gusto of some of my fellow authors. Linda Gillard astonishes me. I am so impressed by what she’s achieved. So am I by what many of my fellows AEers have achieved. I have to say I often find myself floundering in the marketing stakes.
It’s completely wonderful to have the opportunity enabled by self e-publishing to reach out to a new generation of young readers. I’m enjoying it, and consider it to be a not only a worthwhile venture, but very much the way forward for the future of publishing. However, I’ve learnt that doing the publishing myself - having control over my own work, re-editing if necessary, finding appropriate covers and physically getting the books out there, not to say anything of marketing them afterwards and taking on the challenges of social media, is not as wonderful as I’d hoped. I find myself torn between feeling guilty when I’m not doing more of it, and feeling guilty when I do. After all, what I really, really want to do with the last whatever years I’ve got on this earth - thirty if I’m extraordinarily lucky, tomorrow if I’m not – IS WRITE!!!!!
You can tell from my posts how much I love to write, and that for me writing’s all about sharing. I love it that I’ve found this very special, intimate, personal way to reach out. What I’m doing is heart to heart. Me to you. I wouldn’t go as far as to say soul to soul, but you know what I mean.
A couple of weeks ago I was stunned by the Wim Wenders film ‘Pina’ which I saw courtesy of the Shrewsbury Film Society. Something as small as the turn of a head or the gesture of a wrist pulled out of each of Pina Bausch’s dancers something intimate about themselves. For twenty or more years, she sat at her desk watching her company dancing, discovering through their gestures who they were, drawing out of them what she’d discovered and helping them to celebrate it in dance.
And when I write, I hope to draw the person out of the reader in something like the same way - though doing it by means of story. Sometimes these stories are fictions on my part. Over the last year, they’ve been the stories of my home town [if you haven’t come across it, go to My Tonight From Shrewsbury and see what I mean]. I may not encounter my readers across my desk, face to face, but believe me I know they’re there, and every one of them matters to me and if what I write becomes even the most molecular part of what they are, or the way they see the world around them - what an extraordinary achievement for just a handful of words.
So how can I take time out for publicity and marketing, when what I need time for is to write the next thing, wherever that may be? And, if I don’t take time out for publicity and marketing, who’ll become my reader or even know that I write?
It’s a balancing act - one that all us writers are engaged upon. That’s what Authors Electric is – a collection of circus performers swinging from out trapezes, leaping through hoops of fire, walking that hire wire, hoping it’ll hold us up. Hoping for wings and the illusion of flight.
When I first started out as a young writer, I was much impressed by a Graham Greene quote. He likened the first novel to a short, sharp sprint. You throw all you’ve got into it, he said. But a literary career is more like a marathon. You have to pace yourself. You write differently. And you keep on writing. That’s what marathons are all about. Staying in for the long haul.
Well, Graham Greene certainly stayed in for the long haul. And on Sunday, I’ll be taking part in a writing marathon, blogging, jogging [maybe] and interviewing my way around the town as Shrewsbury’s first marathon gets underway. Look me up on My Tonight From Shrewsbury and see how it all pans out. Or make my day and go on Amazon and buy my books and see for yourself what I’ve done with my writerly, wastrel life.
Really, when I look at myself, what I see is one big jumble of books and ideas, lessons learned and mistakes made, every step of the way accompanied by words. Somewhere in a box I still have my terrible teenage diaries – volumes of them. I have my first attempts at poetry. I have my first nine year-old story, an Enid Blytonesque adventure called ‘Bobby and the Monkey’. I can remember writing it. I can remember standing, three years old, at the garden wall telling stories to the big children in the house next door.
So what’s next, I ask myself? Well, there’s no answer to that. The page is blank – but it won’t be for long.