How to be an unknown literary author (part I)

I have a novel coming out in June. Someone else is taking the financial risk on it and therefore must believe it is good. But there are as yet no reviews or sales declaring me to be the next Plath. Nor (you will be reassured) am I holding my breath that they will come.

I have learned a lot about the literary publishing world over the last year. Here’s a sample of that hard-earned wisdom to enlighten and cheer you as we enter 2016:

  1. Even the winners of the best-known prizes largely sell a pitifully small number of copies. (And not all of those sold copies will be read.)
  2. Big publishing houses rarely take the risk of non-commercial literary fiction. (The one that was kind enough to read my manuscript told me I could be the next McEwan – if I rewrote The Storyteller as a different book.)
  3. Big publishing houses prefer not to risk debut writers whose market success is unproven.
  4. Big publishing houses exist to make money, and have high overheads and need big sales and (see ‘1’) most literary fiction sells small numbers of copies and couldn’t possibly cover those overheads.
  5. Big publishing houses (them again) are the only ones who have big publicity budgets.
  6. (following logically from points ‘2’ to ‘5’) – Success as a literary author is likely to mean being published by a very dedicated and aesthetically aware but financially-constrained independent publisher. There are many good points to this. I have built a friendship with my editor, and I trust his way with my words. I know he believes in and cares about my book. (His consistent belief in its value revives me when my confidence fails.) We developed the cover together, despite my visual incompetence, and it is a true representation of what I wanted to say. I have utter confidence that Robert Peett and Holland House Books will do their very best for me, and that best will not be swayed by the exigencies of what is trending in the outside world, the higher potential sales of a celebrity biography or the effects of share price falls on the publicity budget.
  7. There is no publicity budget.
  8. Even if there were a publicity budget, no-one would know what to spend it on. Amazon’s recommendations aside, no-one can track what the marketing actions are that best sell literary fiction. Reviews seem not to have much of an effect on sales, though they are very good for producing cover quotes that may then influence sales. Prominent positioning in bookshops helps, but publishers have to pay for that, and independent literary publishers can’t do that (see ‘7’). Winning prizes can make a difference, but doesn’t necessarily, even if it’s the Booker, and winning prizes sadly cannot be guaranteed. (I am re-learning how to pray, in case it makes a difference.)
  9. Social media is important, and writers have to do that bit themselves. God only knows how. My learning curve appears here to be slow.
  10. Word of mouth recommendations are the holy grail. When The Storyteller is out I shall be threatening repercussions involving boiling oil to any of my friends suspected of not singing its praises at least sixteen hours a day. Sadly, though, that will not be enough: beyond my friends and acquaintances it will have to make its own way. I believe The Storyteller deserves to be read. Others tell me it deserves to be read. That will buoy its sales for the first couple of months but no further. To my distress, I cannot sway substantially the purchases and reading matter of the literarily-inclined population at large. (I’m researching large population brain-washing techniques, but success achieved by those means will be slow and could be somewhat hollow.)

And so I sit and I wait. The editing is done. The cover is decided. My tenterhooks are already in place. I wish you happy 2016, too.

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