Seven things about writing that I know now, but wish I knew then
I have always – and I mean always – wanted to be a writer. Some people may have dreamed of being a pop star, or a model, or an actress. Some may have dreamed of curing cancer, or travelling the world.
Me? I dreamed of spending my days creating fictional people living in fictional worlds, and then having people read about them.
At the age of very-almost (within a week) forty five, I now work as a full time author. It took a long time to get here, and I’m always aware that it is a precarious position to be in, dependant as it is on many external factors that I cannot control.
But, for the most part it is the very best job in the world.
It does not, however, come with an instruction manual and over the course of the last fifteen years I have learned quite a few things that I believe every author should know. Some of these may seem quite obvious. Some of them may well come naturally to certain personality types. All of them are part of my personal journey.
1) Not all book deals are equal.
This may seem quite obvious, but it is worth saying that’s not always the case that book deal in the hand is worth two in the bush. Not only can royalty rates vary hugely (royalties being the money you will earn as an author), but so can a publisher’s business model.
Advances for authors these days tend to be on the low side, if offered at all. Those big six figure deals make the headlines for a reason – they are rare. There are a number of very successful publishers who don’t offer advances at all, but who offer very favourable royalty rates - with escalator clauses that mean the more you sell, the higher the royalty rate you receive.
Advances can offer a degree of certainty to an author – but there is additional pressure to earn out that advance.
Research your prospective publisher. Speak to other authors who have worked with them. Take advice from the Society of Authors. Be careful what you sign!
(For my money, don’t sign anything which gives you less than 25% return on a Ebook).
2) Not all agents/ editors are equal
The most important relationships you will have in this industry are with your agent and your editor. It might seem very appealing to have a big-name agent knocking at your door, or a big name editor – but again sound these people out. Chat with them, preferably face to face. See if you feel a connection and there is a rapport between you.
These are the people you are trusting to fight your corner and bolster your career – it’s okay to hold off until you get the sense that you have found the perfect fit.
You need to have complete confidence that they have your best interests at heart, always. It takes balls of steel to have faith in yourself enough to hang in there, but it is worth it.
3) Never go on a book tour while pregnant and experiencing severe morning sickness.
This is a bit of a niche one – but trust me, it’s very important all the same. It’s okay to put your physical health first. The last thing you want is to be sitting in the passenger seat of your publisher’s new car, driving at speed bumps at 15mph, with the window down because it’s highly likely you’re going to be violently ill. Even worse is when this happens after your publisher has taken you out to a fancy dinner with booksellers and you have to leave before you’ve even ordered.
Life gets in the way of this industry sometimes – and because there is so much pressure surrounding publication slots and rigid timetables authors can sometimes push themselves too hard, or find it difficult to say no. That’s when you become the ‘author who almost puked in my new car’.
It's much better to put your health first and just be known as the writer who wrote that brilliant book.
4) Ask questions about how it all works
Some publishers provide their authors with lovely welcome packs with as much info as they can think of included inside. This can be a lifeline. It can explain the publishing schedule, the marketing strategies and how you can best support your own career.
These can sometimes overlook the small details though. With my first book I didn’t know that you signed the copy on the page where your name is printed at the front of the book. I was corrected, discreetly, by my then editor.
I didn’t know all the lingo (I’m still learning TBH – I mean I only learned what a tipped-in page was yesterday). I found myself on several occasions nodding along like the village idiot while everyone else was throwing industry phrases around.
It’s okay to ask for an explainer. Your publisher isn’t keeping you in the dark, it just doesn’t always occur to people who are so used to this language that some of us are not.
5) It’s okay to big up your own book
Every year (pre-covid!) my publisher, Harper Collins, hold a ‘Big Book Bonanza’ event. It’s a chance for them to showcase their forthcoming titles to booksellers and the media. In Ireland, it’s a pretty big deal.
We authors get invited along to meet all the lovely people who will be selling our books and to do some networking. As a general rule, authors are solitary creatures and as a specific to me rule, I’m a solitary character who grew up to a chorus of ‘pride’s a sin’ in my ear from school teachers and priests etc. (Thank you, Catholic Ireland). So I find it very difficult to tell people that they should read my books, or why they should read my books. In fact I’m likely to do one of two things – 1) revert to deprecating humour and tell them ‘sure it’s okay, like’ or ‘Well, if you’ve nothing better to do’. Or 2) Quickly distract from my awkwardness by telling them how brilliant someone else’s book is. (I spent my first Big Book Bonanza doing just that until my editor - who’s book I was bigging up - told me to speak up for myself. Thank you (name-drop) Phoebe Morgan).
I had a conversation with (name-drop) Liz Nugent on this matter. She said ‘stop playing down your own books, or your own success. People will start to believe it if you keep saying it’.
That particular lesson is one I’m still learning.
6) Own your place at the table
You are a writer. You have created something. If you are published you have jumped through thousands of hoops and achieved something so many other writers would kill for. It doesn’t matter if you sell millions, or hundreds. You are a writer.
So much of what is deemed to constitute success these days is no reflection of the quality of the work. There are amazing authors who haven’t had their first deal yet, and there are multi-billion sellers who just happened to hit the right desk at the right time and get a kick ass marketing campaign behind them.
I'm not saying they aren't talented, but they are not necessarily a better writer than the person who just received their 45th rejection and is considering giving up.
This is the strongest piece of advice I can give any author starting out. Believe in yourself. Believe you deserve to be there. Keep learning. Keep striving to be better. But believe in your ability to tell a good story.
7) The writing community are your biggest allies
Be kind to people. Be respectful. If you like a book - tell people. If you are a fan of an author - tell them, and tell others!
Be kind to everyone on your publishing journey. Remember they know exactly how precarious and brutal and wonderful and thrilling this industry can be in a way no one else can. Reach out if you need help, but also if you can offer it.
Be generous of spirit.