Wednesday, 25 March 2009


A timely post on the behlerblog reminds me of one of the most important things I haven't told you yet (and there are many, but I'm getting there.) See, in all my years of trying to get published, I thought "getting published" was the end result, and that then I'd just sit back and relax in the smug champagne-infused knowledge that I was "An Author".

Oh, how wrong could I have been! Publication is just the start and if you think that all you've then got to do is write, eat chocolate and google yourself every Friday evening, you'll have a major shock.

To illustrate this, here are a few questions that you will be asked / fascinating observations that will be made by your non-writerly friends and relatives (especially relatives, some of whom seem hard-wired to say the most unintentionally annoying things).
  • I haven't seen any reviews yet in the national papers
  • so, doesn't your agent book events for you and do marketing?
  • I went into the bookshop in Pittenweem but I didn't see your book there
  • so, how are sales?
  • my son's teacher hadn't heard of you
  • is this the book signing? So why is no-one here?
Thing is, unless you're very lucky, you are going to have to jump and down and do a bit of marketing. The dreaded self-promotion. Because you can't expect your publisher to do as much as you would like, and with many books there will be zero marketing budget.

You have two choices:
  1. sit around, moan, and wait for the world to come asking you to do huge events / signings / interviews
  2. get out there and be pro-active. Ideally without being obnoxious - there are plenty of authors who break that rule, but I will like you more if you don't. I am also more likely to buy your book if you're not arrogant and don't go about thinking you're the only person who ever wrote a book. In fact I make a distinct point of not buying the book of anyone who I don't like (though I have been sent a few by publishers ...).
So, what can you do?
  • read Marketing Your Book by Alison Baverstock.
  • have a meeting with your publisher to brainstorm ideas - even if there's no budget, there's a huge amount that can be done for nothing (or very little) if you work together. Your publisher will respond well to you having sensible ideas and working with them, and they are then likely to help more. They want to sell copies, too, remember, and they like authors who work with them in this way. (But not unrealistic or pushy ones.)
  • at that meeting, ask them what they plan in terms of sending review copies out. At this point (or earlier, ideally) tell them your relevant contacts, anyone who knows your name and might be willing to do a review or comment for a press release, for example
  • be imaginative - sit down with a sensible friend and work out some ideas. Get his/her help to contact local press and other media - if your friend can be your publicist, so much the better. (But do talk to your publisher about this - if they have a publicity dept doing something for you, they will not take kindly to you announcing that you have your own publicity person. Friction here is a Very Bad Idea.)
  • talking about being imaginative, if you're a children's or teenage author, why not do what I do and work with a school on the publicity? One of the greatest mysteries of the world is why I'm the only author who seems to do this. OK, so it's hard work and you have to start by being trusted by a school, but it's incredibly exciting, very rewarding and it gets a lot of publicity each time. For a bit of detail about the current porject, see the Deathwatch project here or for a previous one, see My Mad Moniave Monday. Between them, those two pages will give you a pretty good idea of the possibilities. I've done things like this with every new book in the last 4 years.
  • contact schools and libraries in your area - but be clear what you are offering. See my website's Inviting me to Speak page for what I offer. Around publication it's acceptable to offer free events but otherwise it's frowned on - you're undermining your art, talent and hard work, not to mention those of other authors. Sorry, I feel a rant coming on and a hobby horse demanding to be ridden - I must control myself. (Events / signings in bookshops are, however, normally free - it's simple economics, but you'd normally do this around publication anyway.)
  • know your strengths and weaknesses - but remember that what you think is a weakness can become a strength if you face it and work at it. Nervous about speaking in public? Two tips: prepare fantastically and just DO it - a few times and you'll be so much better. Expect the first few talks to be less good than later ones.
  • talk to booksellers - often they're very amenable to a lovely author coming in and politely and enthusiastically (and briefly) explaining why their book might usefully be stocked. Sometimes you will come out of the bookshop feeling like a trodden-on slug. Pick yourself up and move on. It's a tough world and people do sometimes step on slugs.
  • have a website - it's your shop window. Readers can send you reviews (and you can select the ones you like ...), you can advertise your events etc etc.
  • and a blog - ditto
  • join one of the many on-line (or other) support groups of writers in every genre - if you don't know of any, your agent or publisher probably does. That way, you'll get ideas for marketing and support from people who know what it all feels like.
Remember that there are VAST numbers of books published every year and even the keenest reader can't read more than the tiniest fraction of them. This means that only the tiniest tiniest fraction will get reviews (other than on Amazon, where reviews are highly unreliable - but let's not go into that right now); the tiniest fraction will be read; and most won't ever appear on general release in bookshops. So, if you want to give your book the best chance, you've got to work at it.

After all, however much your publisher supports you, no one loves and wants your book to succeed more than you.

But do it all nicely, please, unless you're actually happy to have readers but no friends.


SueG said...

This is all spot on and definitely what I found I had to do when my novel first was launched last year (and now, to a lesser extent with the paperback). But all this would lead me to add one more item to your list: be prepared to spend a year of your life doing more marketing than writing! I found it very difficult to work on the new novel while I was promoting the old one. It was frustrating but necessary, and now when I'm promoting book 2 (hopefully!) I'll be more prepared for the time commitment. Thanks!

Jake Olvido said...

Great article you've got, Nicola! Book marketing need not be taken for granted...for what else works? Authors have to have the right attitude. Publishers can only do so much.

DanielB said...

I remember being amazed when I had my first publicity meeting for my first book and the publishers asked me if I had any media contacts. I looked at the publicity girl and thought (but didn't say) "isn't that *your* bloomin' job?"

Of course, I have learned since that the best authors work with a publisher and pool their resources. Having said that, it isn't always realistic to make huge publicity demands on a writer who has another job, a family, etc., especially when things are arranged at short notice. Always best to know in advance what you are doing, and when!

You also have to be very thick-skinned. I have heard of writers who stand at doors of bookshops to talk about their new book and give leaflets out to customers coming in. The very thought fills me with horror. I would rather amputate each of my toes without anaesthetic than ever do such a thing. But I am strong enough to take the odd knockback from a request to do a creative writing workshop in a school.

The BBC in particular are cheeky buggers when it comes to asking for stuff for free. The odd "5 minutes" here, the odd "short slot" there... often they call because one of your books published 5 years ago has the most vague and tenuous connection with something they are talking about that day (viz. the reforming of Spandau Ballet this week, for me) and they want you to drop everything that very day and do a slot for them - even though it will probably result in precisely zero extra sales for you. I sometimes wonder if their researchers actually think these things through.

Rebecca said...

I love the idea of working with a school. What fun that would be! And since I happen to work at a school, I've already got one foot in the door. Now all I need is to get a publisher to buy one of my books!

Thanks for all the great advice.

Nicola Morgan said...

Daniel - agreed with all that. Esp re the BBC - but we all say yes to them, don't we? And, like you, I could no more stand outside bookshops and say anything to anybody than I could do that amputation thing - we all have to work out the things we can do confortably. Mind you, I am suspicious of the humanity of anyone who can stand anywhere and tell people to buy their books. Subtlety is far preferable. And probably more productive in the long run. And none of us should beat ourselves up about what we aren't good at - I agree.

Vanessa said...

As a bookseller who veers between grumpier than a very grumpy thing and positively gushing with sweetness and light can I suggest that early in a writer's career it's important to be willing to do events when a book's newly out.

We get masses of authors being suggested to us by their publishers who won't do school events but are willing to do a signing in a shop. Only thing is, if you're new and no-one's heard of you then it's unlikely that I'm going to have a shopful of customers queuing to buy your book. And then you'll be hurt and I'll feel dreadful. However (and this is especially the case for older readers and especially teenagers) if you let me take you to a nice school, you can do an event with lots of interested kids and hopefully, if the school's amenable, we can sell quite a few books.

And if you want to get your local bookshop to sell your book, drop a copy off with a note about who you are, other things you've done and whether you'd be happy to do an event or not. And bring chocolate or cake - one of our favourite local authors often calls in to say 'hi' and brings us chocolate. It's not why we love her but it doesn't hurt!

bookchildworld said...

OK, I have a question. How, as a new writer just getting into doing school visits, and with no helpful background as a teacher, do you know what you are supposed to DO at a school visit? I've done a fair few of the free sort, around publication time, and they seem to go well enough, but that's usually just answering questions and reading from your book. Presumably for a paid school visit lasting a day or half a day, you have to do more than that. I've tried to ask teachers but they're not very helpful.One said airily 'Oh, just inspire them'. What is expected of you at these things? Are you meant to run creative writing sessions? Or dress up as your book character? (please, no.)
I've booked to attend a NAWE training day on running events for children, but is there any other way one can get any training in doing school visits? Or even just a book one could read about it? Or anything? I feel as if I'm trying to figure out some arcane science and no-one wants to explain how it works...

DanielB said...

Vanessa - agree it's important to be willing to do events around the time of publication, although given that most publishers barely pay enough to keep most writers in biscuits, most people do other work and so doing daytime events is not always easy. I think people who work in other areas of the book industry often forget that everyone in the process is salaried apart from the writer.

I'm in the lucky position of being freelance and combining writing with teaching adults and school visits, but it wasn't easy to get there and I had to do a lot of other jobs I didn't really want along the way.

bookchildworld - if you have never done any teaching then the NAWE course sounds like a good move. I always ask the school what they want - sometimes they don't really know! I do a combination of writing exercises, reading, talks about being a writer, etc. In one school I did the same one-hour slot four times to Y3, Y4, Y5 and Y6 (talk with slides, followed by questions, based around Doctor Who the series, how I came to write for the book series and how to be a good writer generally).

In another local school I've just finished my third annual 6-week visit. Some of what I do: developing ideas around pictures as story "snapshots"; photos to inspire dialogue (I get them to write "snappy" pieces with just 4-5 words per line and build up to longer ones); imagined conversations between a wacky selection of characters (Tony Blair, a dinosaur, the Tooth Fairy, Paris Hilton, a witch, etc.); using the Jenny Joseph poem "Warning" as a model for their own version; using fairytales, e.g. Cinderella, as a model for story structure (who is the character, what does she want, who/what is going to stop her, what is the turning point, etc.)... I've built up a portfolio of things which I dip into as appropriate. And before 2007 I had never done a session in a primary school in my life!

I did a session in an FE college with some AS level students recently, using Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" (recommended to me by an experienced tutor) to illustrate how to write a story in 85% dialogue, then got them to try the same thing.

For me the most frustrating thing about school visits, if you're doing a workshop and not just a talk, is breaking away from "to the exam" thinking - what I call the "afta" syndrome ("Wot we afta write? Ow we know wot we afta put?" etc.) They can be genuinely astonished when they realise it's up to them to take ownership of their writing and that it is not an exercise which is going to be "marked".

Nicola Morgan said...

bookchildworld - depends entirely on a) you b) your book and c)the age group you're talking to. First, though, only do what YOU feel will work, rather than what the school asks you to do. Second, remember you are an author and not a teacher (even if you're an author who was a teacher) and you are not there to do the teacher's job. You are there to interest, enthuse and inspire the kids. Can I suggest you take a look at my "inviting me to Speak" page on my website ( for an idea of what i will and won't do. Remember that i talk mostly to teenagers. For younger children, I'd break the hour up into small sections and get them to do some things (like Daniel's ideas). Ask them questions and get them involved, whatever the age though. Be cautious about planning to READ your work to teenagers - if you have a sticky audience, or one in which a couple of them are being distracting, READING from your book is very hard, as you are then tied to the words on the page and you can't engage them so well, unless they're already at that stage. Oh, and by the way, it would be very unusual to do an event that lasted half a day - if you are in the school for that amount of time or more, you should be offered different audiences, so you can repeat yourself. Finally, DON'T overdo it at least at first - it's FAR FAR FAR more exhausting than teaching for the same amount of time. (I was a teacher too, so I know.) FInally finally, only do what you're happy to do - even if you're being paid (oh, please do be paid!) you're still in charge of the content. Good luck, and most of all enjoy!

bookchildworld said...

Thanks Daniel and Nicola! I'm going to copy and paste your advice into a document and make a file of 'How to do school visits'. It really helps. I'll see if I can find someone who's already good at it, to observe, as well. Have ordred the Baverstock book, too.
thanks again, it really helps!

jenny2write said...

What's the NAWE course mentioned above? Sorry if I am being obtuse.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Jenny
NAWE is the National Association of Writers in Education. It's a UK organisation. I used to be a member, but the stuff they send is (to my low-tolerance-for-guff mentality) guff-ridden and turgid. So I dropped my membership. ACtually, I'd only joined in order to get my CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) doc to say I wasn't a danger to kids, but I totally disagree with the idiotic CRB system so I ripped that up too. ANYWAY, NAWE may do a useful course, but there are also other organisations that do things. Scottish Book trust, and maybe Book Trust. Not sure about things outside the UK. One of the most useful things you can do is speak to (and maybe even WATCH) another author do a talk. This evening I spent some time on the phone to an author who was wanting tips for school visits, and I've had people come to observe mine. If you live in the UK, let me know and you can come to my next one, (except that I'm not actually doing any till May now).