How Writers Handle Success
In rom-coms, all the effort is put into finding a mate and falling in love. The film usually stops at the altar, as if this is where life ends instead of being where it begins. So with writing; all the effort is concentrated on finding inspiration, writing and getting something published, not on what happens after, as if that part is irrelevant. It’s not. It’s where the fun – and the problems – begin.
Publishers don’t look for one-offs. They want to build chains of books that create reader loyalty, because if you own the writer, you own the reader. They want you to be around for years. But nobody tells you that this is ideally what they want, and many authors make horrible mistakes.
Example 1: I once wrote a stupid book called ‘How To Impersonate Famous People’, and despite having warned my agent that I didn’t actually do impersonations myself, I arrived at the TV studio for live filming to find that they had built a stage for me to appear on. But when you’re young you’ll try anything, so I gamely tackled it. The result was deeply embarrassing. I got tagged as ‘the impersonations guy’ for ages. Lesson: First impressions count. Whatever you start out doing, you’ll be known for it.
Example 2: Everyone remembers my first novel ‘Roofworld’ as being a huge success. It wasn’t. Its print run was over-optimistic, its marketing was misguided and it failed with the public until it was later reprinted with a better cover. This had a terrible knock-on effect with my second book, which nobody at the publishing house gave a toss about. The good news was that it de-tagged me, making me an ‘unclassifiable’ writer that freed me to do what I wanted. The downside to that is you get fewer sales and a loyal but smaller readership.
And in all of this there’s something nobody talks about; networking. There are authors who shamelessly work the system. They go to conferences, attend awards ceremonies that are not their own, sit on committees and judge at literary festivals.They’re all things to all people. I know someone who will claim different nationalities to sell books. These people are often better networkers than they are writers. Some make their living solely through attending events rather than book sales. (One of the few who does both successfully is Barry Forshaw, whose books about film are superb, and who seems to attend every event going.)
I used to network more than I do now. I still see other writers, of course; Jake Arnott and I did something very unwriterly in Europe last week – we went swimming (he’s super-fast, much better than me). Jake is like me; he refuses to be pigeonholed, and chooses each subject according to his passion. His most recent novel, ‘The Fatal Tree’, could be described as a reimagining of John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ from a female perspective. Much like doctors, writers don’t often talk about their craft when they get together. And I don’t have as much time as I once had. Conferences and committees are a boring necessity, and I admire anyone who can handle them without complaint. But anything I attend is time lost from writing, so I need a good reason for being there.
You can become a popular novelist by mercilessly working the system, glad-handing the reps and complimenting members of literary boards, but I don’t recommend it. I suspect it also helps if you went to a good university, given the snobbery that still exists in the industry. You can also do it the hard way, through your writing alone.
What you cannot do anymore is write a book and then hide behind it, refusing interviews, not appearing on social media, not attending any events. It won’t make you exclusive, it’ll turn you into a pariah. Embrace the book, and be aware that it’s just the start of a long, long road.