On Being A professional Writer 10: The Long Game

Media, Observatory, Reading & Writing


So, you had your first book out and it sold quite well. Sales for the second one were a bit soft – already you’re not a new face. Many authors on second or third novels get branded ‘The New Jo Nesbo (or insert other name here)’, as if Nesbo, discovered by the mainstream just a couple of years ago, was already dead and gone. What do you do?

It’s important to realise that you’re in it for the long haul. The instinct is to panic and write something fast – and certainly publishers encourage that. If you do, you end up producing my second novel, ‘Rune’, good of its type but diverting into an entirely different segment of the market. In my experience, nobody gives you advice on what to do next. Agents facilitate, publishers offer verdicts, but no-one really explains how and why book marketing works.

True, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no grand plan at all; I’ve dealt with some astonishingly disorganised publishers who seem to choose books for promotion at random. You do get branded by what you write, and face a choice of doing more of the same (possibly repeating yourself) or establishing that you’ll be working in several different genres.You can establish yourself as a ‘fantasy’ writer, say, which covers everything from supernatural to crime and history so long as it has a fantastical twist. It’s important to make this decision early on if possible, so that readers get some notion of who you are.

Under ‘fantasy’ I’d include Susanna Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Ben Aaronovitch. It’s wrong to think that a genre will limit what’s written; a good writer brings their worldview to everything.

It’s important to heed the warning signs. If sales are falling it’s time to move out of your comfort zone and convince everyone you can handle a different kind of book. Equally, this can lead to traps. I have two friends who made high-profile leaps into other areas. One found that her readers weren’t happy with the move because they said they only wanted more of the same. The other did well in his new area (mainstream thrillers), but hated writing the books because he couldn’t make them quirky and personal.

There are a lot of authors like me who have moved around (although I can’t think of many who have moved around quite so much) and still bring their readership along with them. Sometimes a move can be facilitated with a high-concept idea (Jack the Ripper on board the Titanic!) but generally a publisher recognises that the unifying link is your writing style. There are many authors I follow because of their personal styling, no matter what they write.

The important thing is to keep producing, even when you find you can’t sell. I’ve learned a lot from running the Invisible Ink column. One, most writers seem to dip out of their careers for a while, perhaps to recharge their batteries or because they’re raising families, or as is often the case, struggling with debt and drink. The other, more hearteningly, is that many make late comebacks (in some cases, very late) with critical and public successes. Writing, it seems, is one of the few careers you can continue into later life. But you have to keep going. Readers move on all the time, and if you stop, they won’t.

5 comments on “On Being A professional Writer 10: The Long Game”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Another valuable and interesting post in this series. Are you going to bind them together and publish? Perhaps as a paperback and/or e-book? Would probably be a valuable book, if not a B&M.

  2. Vivienne Cox says:

    Have just finished Plastic (now intend to revisit Vauxhall), as well as having enjoyed some Bryant & May, so feel I am not genre-bound. I do love Invisible Ink, though. Know quite a few, but they all seem to offer that sense of time and place so well – so more of those are on my list (even at the expense of Admin’s).

  3. Helen Martin says:

    A rather specific and touchy subject: authors who take on an associate when they begin to fade. His publisher has just announced that Sir Terry Pratchett has just signed a contract for ten books. I don’t like the feel of this and wonder if it would be more helpful for a fund to be set up to which fans could contribute a pound for every one of Sir Terry’s books they’ve read, the money to help with his care. There’s something about the last few books that doesn’t sound like his writing. This is more specific than this column usually gets & I;’m trying to tread lightly, but I don’t know where else to take this.

  4. Janet Wilson says:

    ‘A good writer brings their worldview to everything.’ What a great motto!

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    I agree with Helen. I find follow-on books by other writers are seldom as good as the originals. The last couple of Pratchett novels have been less light, a tad sour, and with great blocks of exposition in place of dialogue.
    “A good writer brings their worldview to everything” is certainly true, and a good observation, but frequently it is the “personal styling” that can greatly set off a writer. There is play in the English language and in its punctuation that can be so natural to a writer, as well as palate touches, that brand a writer to the perceptive reader.

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