One year ago today, on 1 November 2018, my first novel came out. Nothing much happened on the actual day but, symbolically, it was momentous: my first published novel after years of accumulating a drawer full of manuscripts that just didn’t fly.
It’s been an interesting year, as a debut novelist, and I’ve learnt a lot. The experience of publishing my first novel was not what I’d expected (It never is! I hear you cry). I’ve been to the top of the mountain and back – blinded by just how bright the sun is up there. I’ve also fallen into hidden crevices, sitting alone at the bottom waiting for someone to come. If I could do it all again, I’d certainly do things differently.
I wrote This Thing of Darkness in 2011. It was my fourth manuscript but my first YA. I’d reworked it a lot, turning it over and inside out, but couldn’t find a home for it. In 2013 it was highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an unpublished manuscript. That, I thought, would be enough exposure to land a publishing deal. It attracted some interest but, for one reason or another, a deal never happened.
So I kept writing. I polished the fifth one, finished the sixth and began planning the seventh, all the while hanging on to my belief in This Thing of Darkness. So in early 2016, I sent a query to a new Melbourne-based literary agent. I’d been so busy working on new stuff that I hadn’t sent it anywhere for, probably, a year. Within ten days the agent got back to me with an offer of representation. She loved my book, she said, and was confident we could sell it. By this time, I was wary of becoming too excited. You can only get your heart broken so many times before you start erecting steel-clad walls around it.
It took three months and eleven submissions to get an offer. I remember where I was when I got the call. When I saw my agent’s name flash up on my phone, I knew what it meant – she’d already told me it had gone to an acquisitions meeting and she generally preferred email. A phone call could only mean one thing. I held my breath and pulled my car to the side of the road, parking beside an Australia Post box. I still think of that day when I drive past that red mailbox.
That was in June 2016. The two and a half years that followed were, I’m sure, the longest of my life. The book was supposed to come out a year after I signed the contract – in August 2017 – but scheduling issues delayed publication. I was frustrated, but what could I do? One thing I’ve learnt from years of writing, submitting and waiting, waiting, waiting on responses, is patience. You can’t make the lumbering beast move any faster. And any attempt to only frustrates you and the beast.
During these two years of waiting, I wish now that I’d known to start the publicity ball rolling early. But you don’t know what you don’t know. I figured that no one knew me so I’d just be shouting into a big a black hole. But I could have been approaching book reviewers to write reviews, getting in touch with libraries about events and chatting to booksellers to be on the lookout for it.
Don’t get me wrong, there were many positives in those two years. My editor was a dream to work with, the cover design that came back was striking and the book had already been sold to Australian Standing Orders – a guaranteed 2,000 sales before it was even published. It was off to a good start.
When it came time, the publisher mailed the author copies to my agent. We met for coffee so she could hand me the box. The hard copy was beautiful to behold – crisp, with a glossy cover and stiff pages that had never been handled. It held all the promise of a new baby, but I was nervous. Would the world love my baby too?
REACHING THE SUMMIT
The launch was a blissful event – at least, I believe it was – I spent most of the night in a kind of hypnotic daze, signing my name on the title page with a shaking hand and trying to think of witty or touching messages to write inside. At one point, however, I did stop to marvel that I was at my own book launch signing my own book. I felt like the character in that YA novel by David Levithan who wakes up every morning in someone else’s body – don’t get too attached because it might not be real.
It was a successful launch on all counts, surrounded by a hundred family and friends at my local library. I sold 65 books. I woke up the next day feeling joyful and energised (if not slightly hung over), like you do at the end of a relaxing holiday. But did I feel like a changed person? I don’t know. I guess I felt I was on the cusp of something enormously special and that the future was open to me in a way I’d never known before. The possibilities seemed endless. One of the most exciting things about publishing a book is that you have no idea what’s going to happen next. It’s also one of the most confronting.
There were a few early reviews – Good Reading magazine, Magpies, the Boomerang Books blog – and all were very positive. I remember on Cup Day madly ringing around newsagencies trying to get my hands on a copy of Good Reading; I finally just emailed the editor and she sent me a pdf of the review with a touching note of congratulations. I shared these reviews online and thanked the reviewers.
But then an unsettling silence set in. In December I went overseas for three weeks with my family (a holiday planned when I thought the book was coming out in March, not November). Then it was Christmastime. During this down period I started making plans for how I might generate some momentum. The book was still a new release and I was conscious that it wouldn’t stay that way for long. I’d heard that booksellers give a book three months before they start sending unsold copies back to the publisher.
I contacted some Melbourne YA identities, none of whom had ever heard of me, and organised to meet. Adele Walsh told me to think about marketing not as ugly self-promotion but as getting exposure for my book; Lili Wilkinson urged me not to worry – even established authors like her had to do their own promotion; and Amie Kaufman gave me the inside track on what she called ‘hustling’.
I worked my way through a now bulging list of contacts – public libraries, teachers’ organisations, prominent people in the Australian YA scene and writers’ festivals. I bought a box of books directly from my publisher and started mailing them out to anyone who I thought might be able to help spread the word. Only one of the writers’ festivals responded, and that was three months later with a simple ‘our program is full’. Some of the libraries got back to me, some didn’t. But none followed through with events. One promised to include me on the program for their upcoming YA day and, although I followed up twice, the event went ahead without me. Even the local library in the town where the book is set stopped responding after a few emails. Promised reviews didn’t eventuate.
In February, after it been out for three months, there were still fewer than 10 ratings on Goodreads and only one review. I had to crank things up. I visited bookshops all over Melbourne and flew to Sydney for a day to do the same. The booksellers were, almost without exception, great. They were happy to chat, to share wisdom and to reassure me that it’s tough out there for all debut novelists. Up until that point, most hadn’t really noticed the book, which is understandable given the volume of books published every month and that I was an unknown author. The manager of one high-profile local bookshop said that had they known it was a Melbourne book, they might have given it a second look.
Another bookseller, however, had read it, told me she loved it, and agreed to make it the YA book club book for April. During that month I appeared at another bookshop event with two other YA authors. I wrote a guest post on a prominent blog, responded to a Q&A on an online bookseller’s website and was interviewed for a writing podcast. All of these things happened because I hustled for them.
I got my first royalty statement in March, covering the period until the end of November – 1,360 copies sold. It was a promising start, considering the book had only been out for a month, although I did wonder about the 2,000 ASO sales that the publisher had talked about.
I kept tweeting and Instagramming; I posted updates on my Facebook author page. I continued, despite my uneasiness about self-promotion, talking about the book and broadcasting all the good things about events. Then, in September, I got my second royalty statement for December to May. Only 189 more copies sold in six months.
What about the ASO sales, I wondered. The statement only showed 644, with 68 returns. I searched all emails from my publisher but couldn’t find any mention of it. The publisher must’ve told me on the phone, I reasoned. Maybe I’d misheard?
Either way, I was utterly disappointed, and I still hadn’t earned out my advance. I emailed my agent. ‘This is actually pretty respectable for a fairly literary YA novel,’ she responded. It didn’t feel that way it to me. It had been submitted for awards, got some positive exposure online and was mentioned in a couple of well-read YA newsletters. The word was out but there was no buzz. This Thing of Darkness wasn’t gaining the traction I’d hoped.
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
The most surprising part of this past year has been the unexpected places where I’ve found support and the places where support went AWOL. Some of the people I was sure would champion my first novel didn’t. Some of my writing friends still, a year later, have barely acknowledged that the book came out, which has been my greatest disappointment. Others, of course, have been fantastically supportive – liking my posts, sharing links, tagging me in photos of This Thing of Darkness in the wild.
And then there’s been the lovely, heart-warming, totally unexpected surprises – friends of friends leaning on librarians to stock it, people I’ve never exchanged a word with sharing my tweets. This has made me hyperaware of how important it is to support other authors. You can always find something positive to say (What a great cover! I love reading books set in Melbourne!), even without reading it (Looking forward to reading this one!). I have a new appreciation for this; in the past, I didn’t do it nearly enough either. I figured that books that already had their fair share of publicity didn’t need any more help. But, as Amie Kaufman said to me, the authors themselves are probably the ones paddling furiously underwater to get all that exposure. All support counts.
One of the hardest things I’ve found since the book came out is the lack of control over what does, or doesn’t, happen with it. You can’t make people read it, you can’t make people say nice things about it, and you can’t really influence whether it gets on high school reading lists or optioned for film. If you’ve sold world rights, sales to other territories are out of your hands too. This has been a tough lesson to learn – once your book is out there, you lose all ownership. This is both exhilarating and unnerving.
MY NEXT TREK
Before I was published, I had the idea that publishing a novel would make everything alright. That all of life’s other problems would fade into the background, brightened by the glorious and warm light reflecting off the glossy cover of my insanely popular book. I imagined that all the places in which my life was misaligned would magically fall into place. That hasn’t happened. Not for me or, probably, any other author. Ever.
The journey to signing a book contract, for most, is a steep and, at times, painful one, dominated by repeated rejection and negative self-talk. They tell you not to take it personally – they’re rejecting the work, not you – but it’s hard to feel that way when so much of you is in the pages.
It’s easy to see why some enormously talented writers give up on publication. It can be a hard slog, and sometimes you end up in a heap on the floor. After publishing two books, someone in my writing group has stopped writing novel-length works for this very reason. She summed up the experience like this: The road to publication day is like a hiking up a mountain. You reach the top, exhausted, only to have the clouds part and discover a mountain range looming.
But thanks to other Australian writers sharing their stories through blogs, podcasts and author talks, I know that my experience is far from unique. But as writers, you can’t help but fantasise about the limitless possibilities.
It’s a rare privilege to publish a book. It is. And when things aren’t going the way I’d like, I remind myself of this. I focus on one particular moment that happened not long before This Thing of Darkness came out. I was sitting at my desk at home, having just read through the final, proofread version before it was to go to print. I felt immensely proud of myself; I was confident it was a good book, and I was entirely happy with it. Even in this self-congratulatory state, part of me worried that the road ahead might be punched with potholes – bad reviews, negative tweets, impassioned reactions on Goodreads – but whatever happened I was genuinely proud that my name was on the cover. I told myself to carry this feeling forward into the months ahead. And so I have. I carry it with me today, one year since my life changed forever.
MY TOP 3 TAKEAWAYS FROM THE PAST YEAR
A book is only a new release for a short time. Make the most of the time leading up to, and immediately following, publication. Visit bookshops and make early contact with reviewers that need a long lead time.
Support other writers, especially Aussie authors writing similar stuff to you. Do it publicly.
Keep writing. The best thing you can do for your career, no matter if your book is flying off the shelves or sitting in remainder bins, is to write another, even better, book. Focus your energy on things you can control.