How Writers Handle Success

Reading & Writing

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.


6 comments on “How Writers Handle Success”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    I guess you can hide upto an extent on social media, create a façade. E-mail and internet interviews are possible in written form.

    I guess there are pros and cons for the shy and the secretive, but for me it’s still about the writing.


  2. Eva Balogh says:

    This reminds me of how significant the invention of photography has been to the promotion of so many writers whether wanted or not. Apparently, when Alfred Lord Tennyson’s image was first published as a photograph in the public domain, he was at first flattered by such ‘celebrity’ but soon became extremely irritated by the constant recognition and endless approaching from his ‘adoring fans’!

  3. Roger says:

    Thomas Pynchon has done pretty well out of backing into the limelight.

  4. Chipmunk says:

    Writers should be read and not seen

  5. admin says:

    By readers, I agree, but within their industry they have to be seen.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Of course, to deal with success you have to have achieved it. We were always told that an agent does the shmoosing with publishers, or that if you can get your manuscript to a publisher’s reader you have as good a chance as anyone. I wonder. As for being on committees, you have to be “someone” to even be asked I’d imagine. It seems to come down to that old cry, “They want you to have experience before they’ll hire you but no way will they give you the experience.”

Comments are closed.