How useful is a big book ‘launch’?

pexels-photo.jpgWhen I produced my first book in 2012 I was so taken up with the final stagesĀ  of publication and all the detailed stuff that most writers – me included – find so intimidating, that I didn’t even think about a book launch. Then I came across a friendly local PR person, who gave some free advice about a ‘launch’, and I did as she advised. It seemed like a lot of work – press releases, emails to heaps of people I’d never met – and the outcome was deeply disappointing. I didn’t realise then what I know now, that self-published novels are two a penny and rarely make ripples on the local news scene. I also know now that many self-published novels deserve to sink without trace.

In my early innocence, I was surprised that the local media weren’t very interested in my book, and nor were local bookshops. The only people who agreed to come to the launch were friends and family, and it would have been easier and more comfortable to have a party for them at home. It felt as if we were putting on a show in front of a non-existent audience. On the way home I recall feeling wretched about the waste of money and the sense of humiliation – a far cry from the achievement of a life-long goal that I might have been celebrating.

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With the second book I tried again. This time the local paper sent a photographer and there was quite a good write-up, but again it felt like an anti-climax. With Book 3 I didn’t bother with a launch. The book just appeared in the shops and as I toured the libraries and local groups talking about it, the local paper would appear and publish a photo. So the same end was achieved without the expense and awkwardness of standing around pretending to have fun.

Books 4 and 5 went the same way. Now the concept of a ‘launch’ has been so negatively affected by previous experience that thinking about ‘launching’ the new book fills me with dread.

This fear may be irrational, as the situation is quite different than it was in 2012 when I started down this road. I now have a considerable local following of readers who are anticipating the next book, having read all the previous ones. It’s hardly the Harry Potter phenomenon, but local booksellers tell me that they are regularly asked when the new book will be out. My readership has grown through word-of-mouth not as a result of serious promotion and marketing. The area of interest is regional to Cumbria, but there is a Cumbrian diaspora too that reads my stuff, and visitors to the area sometimes come across my books too and spread them further afield.

The region at the heart of the interest, however, is largely rural and thinly spread, with no obvious population centre where a launch would naturally happen. So what to do? Is a one-off ‘launch’ worth what it would cost, in both cash, time and anxiety?

The publication date of the new book is about two months away, and I have a decision to make about how to mark the event – if at all.

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Agents – how did they get to be so powerful?

books-education-school-literature-51342.jpegI saw an advert today for a ‘writing conference’, but actually it was an event designed solely to give writers access to a group of agents, for whom the writers were expected to ‘perform’, aka ‘pitching’. For this experience the writers would travel to the venue and pay a considerable fee. Could this be entitled a ‘writing conference’? It was about seeking approval from an agent, nothing more. Who are these arbiters of quality, and where does their power come from?

I need to declare an interest: twice in my writing life over the past ten years I have tried to find a agent, and twice the attempt has been fruitless. The second time, as a moderately successful self-published author, I said as much in my ‘pitching’ letter, and in one of the few responses I received I was told that my success so far was really nothing special and that I should be more ‘humble’. Thanks for that. Most of the responses from agents I have gathered over the years have been generic, making no specific reference to my work, which I suspect had not been read.

Sour grapes? Bitterness? Yes, probably. I’ve had a long professional career and don’t relish being ‘judged’ by a group of people whose qualifications for their role are so hard to define or to check. Granted my experience is limited, but the ‘average’ agent appears to be young (ie. younger than my daughter), well-spoken, publicly anodyne, and based in London. All of the agents I have encountered at conferences have been female, but some of the ones I’ve written to have been male, so gender may be immaterial.

I suspect that age may matter in this lottery of who will be of interest to an agent. The agent’s living comes from a percentage of an author’s sales/earnings. If the author has thirty or so years of writing life ahead of them they are a more attractive investment than someone like me who started late. It must also help to be well-connected in writing circles, with a wide reach for promotion purposes. When agents are, as they claim to be, inundated by submissions, the fact that the writer knows someone who knows someone would probably help too. Selecting a very small number from a huge range of applicants must be a nightmare, and any easy selection criteria must be welcome.

A fundamental dilemma of current publishing lurks beneath all these more superficial choice mechanisms. No one in publishing seems to be clear about what they are looking pexels-photo-187333.jpegfor. ‘We need new voices’, they cry, but are drawn by the lure of sales to replicate the most recent best-seller. Best-sellers are regularly a surprise, as predictable as a winning lottery ticket. The agent must be risk-averse and a risk-taker simultaneously. No wonder their public statements are often so bland and unhelpful. A regular pronouncement from the agenting group is that they know a good book because they ‘fall in love’ with it, and we all know what an arbitrary process that is, impossible to define or to rationalise.

If the yearned-for book is impossible to describe, perhaps the agent is actually looking for a writer instead? Does he/she really want someone young, photogenic, articulate, ambitious, flexible/malleable? Find a book with some quality – not much better than thousands of others but with a ‘promotable’ author – pour a great deal of money into promotion and hope for the best. We are told that the great majority of published fiction fails to make any money at all: not a great affirmation of the agents’ or publishers’ judgement.

Without an agent, I continue to self-publish, and it’s hard work. I would love someone to take on the responsibility of getting my manuscript into production, although I would be less happy with the paltry royalties. But I’m done with agents. Going to a ‘pitching’ conference seems like buying a very expensive lottery ticket, with similar chances of success.

 

 

 

Opening paragraph: it has to be good!

hardback bookAlmost at the end of the writing and editing process on the new book now, and the last thing on the list of issues to deal with is the opening paragraph. The current version has been written and rewritten countless times over the past few months and before I’m done it’ll be started all over again. Not many lines, maybe half a dozen sentences, but I want to get it as good as I can.

It’s always a challenge. In a short space you have to give the reader a sense of place, time, character and the impending story, and every word counts, like poetry. It’ll be the first thing the curious potential reader will look at, and probably the first thing I read aloud when I’m presenting the book. I’ve read the first paragraph of ‘A Good Liar’ many times over the years since it was published and I’m still pleased with it, and I want to feel the same about the first paragraph of this book too. It’s almost there, but it’s still too clumsy. I’ve tinkered with it until the words start to blur. Now’s the time to start it all over again.

The other crucial section of course is the ending, the final few sentences. All the major plot points are sorted out by then, no more twists, just a ‘human interest’ scene and a shred of dialogue to leave the reader interested in what might come next. I think I’ve got that. So the first paragraph will keep calling to me until the deadline for sending it to the designer is upon me, or I just can’t bear to look at it any more. In either case, by the end of next week it’ll be done. Thank heaven.