Mid-list, A-list, Z-list: what type of author are you?

No one wants to think of themselves as not being a priority. No one wants to think they’re not as good as someone else, or worse, that they’re just as good as someone else but not being recognised.

There’s been some interesting chats on social over the weekend about the value of marketing in an author’s arsenal, even when you’re traditionally published.

I did an MA in Creative Entrepreneurship before my first book was published – I was prepared to put the work in. But really, I didn’t know how. My first publishers even said to me that they’d expected my big Greek family would have bought more books (everyone I knew bought one at the launch – my family isn’t that big). I chatted on Twitter, I had merch made, I ran competitions, tried to get an Instagram thing going.

But the truth was this – I was a newbie and really, no one cared. Why should they? I didn’t know how to market myself.

When I moved into romantic comedies, taken on by a big publisher, I’ll admit, I expected them to do the heavy lifting when it came to promotion. I’ve been published by companies of different sizes, with different priorities and goals.

I’ve had blog tours that I’ve organised, and one’s that have been organised for me, I’ve done launch parties, events, workshops, festivals. I’ve had promo images created. I’ve done Facebook Ads, video chats, regular blogging, blog swaps, blog jumps. Anything I knew how to do, or I saw someone else doing, I’ve tried it.

Most of the time, I expected to do things for myself (and sometimes I preferred it – more control) but whenever I received a really lovely promotion or idea (looking at you, lovely Canelo team) I was always pleasantly surprised. I never expected it.

This is because I’m probably never going to be an A-lister.

I know that. I don’t have an angle, I never have. I don’t have an interesting job or life. There is no backstory here. I’m incredibly boring. Literally the only interesting thing about me is that I write. Which isn’t particularly interesting for a writer!

Without an interesting backstory or a killer ‘blow it out of the water’ concept-driven book, you’re not going to make A-list. That’s just the way it is.

I’m bottom of the middle. I’ve been around a while, knocking out books pretty consistently for the last 8 years. That means I’m not expecting ads on the tube or book trailer videos I haven’t made myself (stay tuned though, because I’m definitely going to give it a go). I was thrilled when I got to go to the HC Summer Party this year, because I was never high up enough on an author list to go before.

We say not to fall into comparisonitus, but we do. We look at what everyone else is getting and doing and writing.

This view is also skewed, because we only see the good stuff. We see the unpacking boxes of books, and shelfies, and talking on the radio and famous people recording the audio. Of course we only see the good stuff! No one’s sharing that thirtieth rejection. No one’s talking about the years they spent failing to sell their books.

Is there anything wrong with being a mid-list author? Absolutely not. You have a fanbase, you get to keep writing, you have editors who are excited by your books. You still get deals and you get that gentle, delicate little fluttering of hope that says maybe this book will be the one. Mid-listers tend to have to focus on getting those books out consistently, coming up with new ideas and writing quickly to make sure we’re not forgotten and to capitalise on popularity of one book with another.

But here’s the thing: sometimes mid-listers become A-listers. Sometimes they switch genre. Sometimes after writing for ten years, they suddenly have that book that just takes off. Not even sometimes because it’s better than all their others, but because of the news or the politics or something someone else has written. Zeitgeist can make an A-lister.

And I’d hazard a bet that most mid-listers are living in hope that one day it’ll happen to them. But probably not enough to turn down another 2/3/4 book deal with the same publisher. They’re being practical.

The problem when it comes to marketing is that the mid-lister marketing tends to be invisible – it’s there, it’s just not explicit. It’s Facebook Ads and newsletter pitches, and Bookbub deals and a hundred other small things that push the book, but not necessarily you. A-list marketing is loud – it’s Reese Witherspoon’s book club, top of the chart positions, chatting on TV, huge poster kind of marketing. It’s about the author more than the book, most of the time. Because you take a bet on what you know.

Now, some debuts become A-listers immediately (and yet another movie/tv exec becomes justified in their ridiculous representations of how perfect getting a book deal is) and they’ll never know any different. They’ll think: ‘well surely everyone gets this? Isn’t this normal?‘ If they stay A-list, perhaps they’ll think, ‘well perhaps they’re not as good as I am.’

It’s the mid-listers who become A-list who intrigue me, because they probably know, better than most, the difference when someone truly invests in you as an author (rather than just your book, at that moment in time). The books are finite, the author is the commodity. Or at least, they should be.

Both authors and publishers have their ends of the deal to live up to when a book is brought into the world, it’s like giving birth. Everyone has a role to play in that room. The problem is that every author thinks their baby is amazing. And the publisher knows that not every baby is capable of going the distance. So they’ll do what they can to support your book, give it what it needs to reach its potential. But your potential might not be the same as someone else’s.

And it might suck, but it’s true. You may have written a kick-arse book. But it might not be a best seller. Because of the time of year, the subject matter, the other books that are out there, similar books that have more budget, better known authors who’ve written about similar things, the fact that no one’s writing about what you’ve written…

There is so much luck and chance involved in this game, and I think that’s why so many writers say they’re addicted to writing. When you’ve never been published, you think it’s going to change you’re life, but once you have been, you keep rolling the dice, thinking you’re going to win big. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you win small but it’s still brilliant. Sometimes you worked on what you were sure was the best book you’ve ever written and it sinks into oblivion.

As a writer, all you can keep doing is writing. Be tenacious, be curious, be fierce. Work hard as hell but acknowledge that luck and timing has a helluva big part to play.

So what do you think? Do you notice a difference between ‘list’ writers? Do you care? Are there books you loved which you wish were marketed more widely?

When writing full time isn’t the goal…

It’s meant to be the dream, isn’t it? Being a full time writer has a level of authority – you’re good enough to survive, you must be doing a good job!

But one of the problems with the publishing industry and writing in general is that there’s so much of a disconnect around what writers make, how they survive and how we measure success.

To someone who has never met a professional writer, they’ll immediately assume you’re a JK Rowling. You are well paid for your books and you never have to worry. Publication means you’re rolling in it.

It’s only when you explain royalties and digital pricing and everything else, that people start to get it. In which case, you’re suddenly a failure. But here’s the thing – you can write a book that everyone is talking about, but not make much money from it. You can make a lot of money on sales and still be a complete unknown only selling self-published ebooks. Money is not the only measure of success with books, in fact, I’d say it’s a terrible one.

We don’t ask what situations people are in when they’re full time writers. We don’t know if they’re self employed through other means, if they’re supplementing their income, if they’ve taken early retirement, inherited a bunch of money, sold a company, won the lottery, have a partner who works so they don’t have to, if they’re a stay at home parent. We don’t ask. We assume that those people are doing better than everyone else.

Writing is the only job I’ve had where strangers feel comfortable asking how much I make. But we also don’t acknowledge privilege when it comes to being a full time writer. That doesn’t mean those writers aren’t working super hard. It doesn’t mean it’s not a full time job. It just means it would be good if they acknowledged they probably wouldn’t have to survive on the money their books bring in.

But hey, talking about money is awkward. Talking about success is hard, and why would we want to minimise a moment of feeling successful?

That’s only the start, though. Because if writing full time is a sign of success, surely we should all want to be doing that? That should be the dream, right? That was what I was working towards for a long time. In fact, I started my writing career as a full time writer – I ran writing workshops, tutored in English and creative writing and did everything I could to survive and thrive. It was a badge of honour – this was what I trained for and I was doing it.

But it was hard! It was so hard! It was lonely. There was so much pressure on my books to sell, on me to write more and more quickly. I had to have a quick turn around in order to survive. I had to be grateful and not make waves because I depended on those book deals. And I wasn’t building anything, beyond an author name. No pension, no savings, no work life balance.

So I got a regular job. And, as much as I resisted it, it actually improved my writing. I wrote more regularly, I loved it more. It removed the pressure, it allowed me to write what I liked.

That was what success looked like to me. And maybe, one day in the future, I’ll want to return to writing full time. When it’s not about the money. When success is reduced to its purest form – seeing people read and love your work.

So when you don’t feel like you’re doing enough as an author, remember:

We all measure success differently!

Why writing for wellbeing is not self indulgent

Hey gang! I’m back!

I was off running workshops at Larmertree Festival this past weekend, and it reminded me how much I love running writing for wellbeing activities. Using writing to become introspective, to look at yourself through metaphor, to explore and re-inhabit your good memories…it all feels rejuvinating.

My favourite one this weekend was Letters to the Moon, where we explored different memories and symbols of the moon in celebration of the Moon Landing anniversary.

My other session was called Wild Words, and it was about exploring inner wildness – the prompts were about what ‘wild’ meant to you, and making a wild promise to yourself.

One of the participants, perhaps expecting a more traditional writing workshop, said that writing about her own feelings felt ‘self indulgent’.

This is one of the main lies of the inner critic when it comes to writing – you have nothing to say that’s worth listening to. You aren’t having thoughts that haven’t been had a hundred times before.

I am here to tell that critic to shut up. In fact, I’m here to tell you the opposite: writing your feelings is not only NOT self indulgent, it’s NECESSARY.

If you need to process things, if you haven’t got another outlet for exploration, if you don’t know how you feel about yourself, your life, your dreams…writing can help!

I’m an introvert, so as well as finding the festival quite intense this weekend, I took the opportunity to write my way around some thoughts and issues I was having. I’ve been quite low energy and ‘off’ over the last few weeks and having the opportunity to start a dialogue with my inner critic, to ask her what’s up and what I’m struggling with was really helpful.

So here’s my response: writing about yourself, from your perspective, about your feelings is NOT SELF INDULGENT. The same way that going for a run, eating something that makes you happy, having a long bath, chatting with your best mates or turning up for therapy is NOT SELF INDULGENT. It’s self care. It’s showing up for yourself and acknowledging that you have something to say.

So whether you’re writing a book, a diary, a poem, a to do list…do it because you have something to say!

And if you’d like to do one of the activities we did, start with:

‘I am wild like a ……….’

Feel free to share how you find the activity, or what you think about ideas of writing and self indulgence. Do you feel guilty taking the time to write? Do you worry about the value of your words?

The risk of unlikeable females

It’s every author’s worst nightmare:
‘I like the book, I’m just not sure she’s a likeable character.’

I totally get it – we need the reader to give a crap about the person they’re reading about. That’s the whole point. You need to care. And yet every time this question comes up, I want to say ‘to hell with it! She is who she is – she doesn’t need to be liked!’

Of course, I don’t do that. Because I do want you to love her, and invest in her and want the best for her…even if you don’t like her sometimes.

In my forthcoming book about two friends, I was very concerned about the likeability of one of the characters. She’s a renegade, she’s confident, she doesn’t take shit from people and she’s inherently selfish. She was pretty much created out of my own self hatred whenever I agree to do something I don’t want to do, or prioritise someone else’s needs above my own in a stupid way, or apologise for something that I know wasn’t my fault.

Any time I diminished myself, I put more life into Cass. Cass is a ballbuster – she’ll call you out and push you to your limits and she sucks at apologising and she always does what’s best for her.

And I worried about that. Because it’s hard for a woman to be like that. If you’re not nice, what are you?

So my other main character, Lauren, is the antithesis of that – in fact, she’s me. She’s anxious and angry, and can’t deal with her feelings. She thinks something mean and then feels bad about it. She says the thing that feels right at the time and then tortures herself with it for hours. She does what people ask, and she goes with the flow.

It surprised me that Lauren was the one people were worried about when it came to likeability.

Because she was bitter. She was jealous. She thought mean things and didn’t take chances and even though she did the kind thing, she was kind in her thoughts about it.

It blew me away because I thought Lauren got a free pass – she’d been through some tough shit, and she was handling it badly, wouldn’t you? I wanted to defend my poor little Lauren, and myself.

And I wanted to defend female characters in general.

It’s gendered, without a doubt.

Women need to be nice. We need to like them. No one stopped reading Fight Club because Tyler Durden was an arsehole. No one stopped reading American Psycho because they couldn’t relate to the absolute psychopath.

Fictional women, just like real women, are held to a higher standard. Yes, be interesting and flawed and broken, and vulnerable. But also be strong and sassy. Be flirtatious, but not too sexy. Be just a little unsure of your looks, even when you’re confident in your work life. Never think you’re beautiful. Never accept a compliment. Demurely discard it.

If anything, look at the reaction to a female football star declaring that she deserved her win – outrage! How dare she? Because male footballers aren’t arrogant at all. For some reason, it doesn’t look right on a woman, and that’s because we aren’t showing it.

I love unlikeable characters. I’ll admit, I had to grow into them but time and perspective changes your feelings too. When I was a kid I used to watch Gone with the Wind with my nan and my mum. Super long movie, but I loved the big fancy dresses, and how Rhett Butler swept in and wanted to look after Scarlett. I could never understand how she was so interested in boring Ashley when there was Rhett, being all Rhett-like.

I couldn’t stand Scarlett the first few times I watched that movie. She was mean and conceited and selfish. She never did anything for anyone else, only cared about herself, put her feelings for her sister’s husband above anything else and didn’t care who she hurt along the way.

I remember saying so to my mum, who shook her head and said, ‘Oh but poor darling, she was only a teenager when she was widowed. She’s all dressed in black and just wants to dance and be a kid. She’s so young and everything’s so hard.’

When I grew up, I began to love Scarlett. Yes, she was conceited and young and stupid, but she was tenacious, determined. She was a survivor, no matter what. She worked hard, and she knew how to charm people to get what she needed, to keep her home, put food on the table.

She is one of the most complicated female characters I’ve ever seen, and every time I watch that movie (I need to re-read the book, that was a teenage read and I have a feeling my thoughts will have changed!) I feel differently about her.

But I love that she’s complex. There are so many people in our lives who we accept are contradictions. They’re wonderful and loving, but their politics are opposite to our own. The elderly relative who accidentally says awful things, or can’t understand modern issues, but was there for you when you needed them. People are complex and flawed and beautiful and awful. They make poor choices and think bad thoughts and try to do the best they can.

I think that’s more important that likability.

So I hope you do like my girls in the new book – I hope you like their friendship, their devotion to each other, their dedication to the child in their care. I hope you fall in love with their memories and you want to yell at them when they’re stupid and empathise with them when they fall prey to their weaknesses.

But more than that, I hope you find them interesting. Because that is far better than liking them, in my opinion.

You can like a sunrise, but you can’t tear your eyes away from a storm.

What do you think – do unlikeable characters put you off a book? Has it stopped you finishing a book? Which unlikeable characters do you love the most?

Review: Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams

From the moment I saw that beautiful bright yellow cover with the pink tube lines crossing, I knew I was going to want to read this book. Not only were my favourite editors, publishing types and other authors yelling about it, but the premise was a right sort:

Two people who start their love story through the Missed Connections bit of the newspaper are destined to be- but will they ever meet?

I love Missed Connections, it was the best bit about having to go into work on the tube. And Nadia, our heroine, feels the same. Nadia is always on a Routine to Her Best Life. She tends to keep failing at it. But when Daniel sees Nadia, he knows it’s meant to be. And not in a creepy stalker way. In a romantic way.

He sends her the message through Missed Connections, and she sends messages back, but they keep missing each other. The universe is sending them every sort of ‘meant to be’ vibe and yet it seems the universe is waiting for the perfect moment.

This was a modern day romance that was woke AF. The men talk about third wave feminism, and expressing their feelings. Toxic masculinity is identified, consent is discussed, there’s all this stuff where I felt like these were the conversations I had with my friends, and it was nice to see people feeling real. Friendships weren’t perfect, relationships were complicated, sometimes there’s no bad guy and sometimes there most certainly is (looking at you, Awful Ben).

The whole story is told with this light wittiness and charm. It’s romantic without being sickening, it’s funny without trying too hard, and I super loved that it had a bunch of badass women working in STEM. So often women in romantic comedies only get a choice of certain jobs, so it was really refreshing to step into a world where the women are top of their game, breaking boundaries and totally killing it.

Our Stop was destined to be a bestseller from the minute that cover started showing up everywhere. I bought it on Kindle for 99p and it’s a total bargain, for a couple of days of reading that I really enjoyed.

Also, loved all the Soho House references – hell yes, Farmhouse is the shit and I hope I have friends who will whisk me away there when I’m sad.

Laura Jane Williams is a total babe too, and I was lucky enough to chat with her at the HarperCollins Summer Party. She’s doing some really interesting talks in the next few weeks at Waterstones with The Flat Share author Beth O’Leary (another amazing book and one of my absolute faves this year) and Rosie Walsh (of The Man Who Didn’t Call fame). Sounds like a blast, so if you’re in Manchester or London, check them out!

Have you read Our Stop? What did you think?

Taking time to celebrate

If you’re following a lot of authors online, or you’re an author yourself, you’ll know yesterday was the HarperCollins Summer Party. It’s the event of the season and yesterday was my first one!

Author meet ups are always a little strange – people you talk to online regularly become real people in real life! The editors and agents you may only recognise from Bookseller news updates, or very kind rejections, are suddenly hanging around and being introduced. There’s so many beautiful people that the famous ones sort of merge in and about because everyone looks sort of famous.

It’s in the garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it was everything I’d thought: opulent, stunning and only slightly terrifying.

If you’re an author, you know there are so many times where movies and TV shows make being a writer look glamorous. In real life, there are not that many opportunities to get all dressed up, hang out with other writers and feel a little bit special for being a creator.

So even though I get a little anxious, and I didn’t really chat to anyone I didn’t already know (networking is not my thing!) I did really enjoy myself. I saw authors I recognised form online. I recognised authors whose work I absolutely love (and may have quietly fangirled before running away at the end of the night!) and I laughed and chatted with my agent, and editor and friends.

Also – BIG DRAW – the museum very kindly opened up the Dior Exhibition (which I failed to get tickets to months ago) and it was so beautiful to see it in the evening without huge crowds.

My lesson from this lovely party is to celebrate whenever you can. Don’t just save celebrations for publication day! Celebrate finishing a first draft, finishing edits, solving a problem, starting something new!

How do you celebrate your writerly achievements?

Debut or not to debut: that is the question…

Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously being ignored, or to take arms against the indifference, and by saying you’re a debut, end them?

Okay, it was a bad bastardisation, but the question is still the same:

What is the big deal around debuts?

You may be surprised to find that a lot of your very impressive debut authors are experienced writing roses by another name. For some reason, in publishing, debuts are a HUGE deal.

I’m not entirely sure why, because it seems pretty counter-intuitive to how you pick someone for any other job. Even when you do submit as an author, you often have to show that you have clout – you’ve been writing a blog, or reviews, you have a good social following or you’ve written before.

When you’ve been a published writer for years, you have a following to work from, a target market to work towards, measures of success and sales and a relationship with publishers and authors.

But that can also work against you – if your sales were good, but not amazing. If you had a bad book (hey, it happens) or the book that looked like it was going to be phenomenal had a failure to launch…those things have an impact.

As a debut, you don’t have a backlog of work, you have nothing but the talent of that one manuscript, and a heap of potential. And that, as in most stories, is more appealing. It makes a better narrative, to hit it out of the park with an amazing debut. It makes those debut authors seem so sparkly and talented, and lucky! They build momentum more easily, because they automatically seem more successful.

And we buy into it as authors too. We think ‘oh crap, I missed my chance’ because our first books weren’t bestsellers. And yet, every book I’ve written has been better than the last. Every time I write another, I learn something new, and I get another chance to tell a story.

So why wouldn’t we use that experience? Why isn’t it valued?

Well, it is.

That’s why a bunch of those debut authors are actually experienced authors with new names!

Some people find that annoying, or misleading. And in many ways it’s super dumb. But as an author, I find it so comforting. Because these are authors who have been slogging away, working hard, improving their writing and possibly creating in other genres before they try something new.

A new direction, the chance for growth and a do over: a fresh start. That’s exciting no matter what industry you work in!

So I’m joining the ranks of the ‘new-name-start-over’ society – no one’s pretending I’m a debut, and I’m certainly not hiding my experience, but maybe with a new name, a new direction and a little luck, new people can find my books and be excited to discover something.

What do you think about debuts, as a writer, reader, publisher or anything else? Do you take a chance on a debut, or are you more likely to read your existing favourite author’s new books?