Wednesday, May 2, 2012

So how does one become a successful author? Well don't ask me!

Sadly I don't know the first thing about becoming an actual published author - but being a blogger I do feel there is a book in me somewhere...if only I could find it's plot and a spare thousand hours or so to actually write it. Hmm.
However I do know an actual published author - and very successful she is too. So I thought I'd ask her to share her wisdom with us and I got a humdinger of a guest post back in return. 

Hollie Smith has written a grand total of ten books so far so listen up!

How did I become an author? Well, more by luck than judgement, if I’m honest, and by being in the right place at the right time. I was a freelance journalist with a vague idea for an anger management manual for parents, since I myself was a parent badly in need of some anger management skills. Someone told me that a small but respected publishing company called White Ladder Press had a book proposal form on their website, so I filled it in and pressed send. After an ‘interested’ phone call from WLP’s then director Roni Jay, and some time spent sweating over a more detailed pitch, I was gutted when the idea foundered at the first editorial meeting. Happily, Roni insisted on taking the idea back to the board and won them over (the thrill of which was dampened somewhat by the news that it would earn me a not-very-princely advance of £2,000 - and no, I haven’t made a further penny in royalties from it since!) But anyhoo, that’s how Cool, Calm Parent came about, and on the back of it, I was subsequently asked by the people at WLP (now owned by Crimson) to write a further three books.
More or less simultaneously, I was approached by Netmums director Siobhan Freegard, who wanted me to write the third title in their three-book deal with Headline. This is what I mean about being in the right place at the right time: Siobhan knew of me because she’d helped me find case studies for features, and because I’d written a piece for the Times about a Netmums campaign to make mums happier. So that’s how my involvement with the Netmums titles began. I’ve now had a hand in six of them.

Ask the author
Because of this relatively painless route into publishing, I’m always a bit stumped when people ask me for advice on how it’s done. So, in order to include some actual, useful guidance in this post, I turned to some of the other authors I know.
The first thing I asked them was, is it even worth trying to get your book published these days? Isn’t it just too competitive out there? And isn’t the book industry dying a slow death? Reassuringly, they all answered ‘no’.
‘If you have a very strong idea, then it’s worth pitching it, absolutely. Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ says Jane Alexander, who blogs at Diary of a Desperate Exmoor Woman and, impressively, has more than 20 book titles to her name. ‘I’d say, write if you feel you must, if your book is just yearning to get out there. But I’d also say: don’t give up the day job, and don’t pin all your hopes on it.’
It’s advice echoed by Ben Hatch, who went from local newspaper journo to author with the publication of his novels The Lawnmower Celebrity and The International Gooseberry, and whose funny and touching travelogue, Are We Nearly There Yet?  is currently riding high in the Amazon travel bestseller list. He says the key is writing because you want to – and not because you hope to get a publishing deal, or to make money from it.
‘Unless you’re very lucky and also incredibly savvy, writing a book is never going to make you rich. But that’s not the reason most get into it in the first place. You do it because you love it,’ he says. ‘It’s tougher than ever right now – and it’s wise to make sure you have another income stream.’
So, whilst optimism is a good thing in this business, it’s important to be realistic, too. You’re going to need a number of factors in your favour if you’re going to publish that book of yours. ‘In my experience, it’s about having a great idea, good writing skills, a handful of contacts - and a healthy dose of luck,’ says Joanna Simmons, co-author of Can I Give Them Back Now?: The Aargh to Zzzzz of Parenting,  as well as a handful of books on interiors.

Blogging: a good start
So where do you start if you’ve got a book in you? Well, if you’re already blogging to a wide readership, that’s a great start – although clearly, there’s no point sitting back and waiting for agents or editors to come calling. ‘You could be waiting a long, long time for the great gods of publishing to swoop down from the sky and offer a deal. I’ve heard of it happening once or twice, but it’s very rare, so if a blogger really wants to write a book, they need to just get on with it and start writing,’ reveals Joanne Mallon, who blogs at Joanne the Coach, and whose first book, Toddlers: an instruction manual, was published recently. (Her second is due out soon). Your blog, and your social media presence, could well stand you in good stead, though. ‘If you can show a publisher or agent that you already have a busy blog and lots of Twitter followers, it shows you have an audience that’s interested in what you have to say,’ goes on Joanne. ‘I’ve no doubt this was helpful for me. These days authors are expected to do a substantial part of their own marketing, so the more you can build an audience and connect with people the better.’

What’s your book about?
Having a good idea is a vital first step, so think hard about your subject – and look to the well-worn adage to ‘write about what you know’. Of course, if you’re already blogging on that subject, then maybe you won’t have to look far for inspiration. Ellen Arnison, who blogs at In a bun dance, is a great example: having posted about how blogging helped her cope with depression, she used it as a springboard for a successful pitch – and her book, Blogging for Happiness, was born. (There’s a bit more from Ellen further down in the post.)

Life’s a pitch
If you want to get someone who counts interested in your book, you’ll need to pitch it. I won’t go into the whys and wherefores of publisher versus agent here – helpfully, the issue’s already been neatly debated by Jane Alexander and her fellow author Keris Stainton in this post on Linda Aitchison’s site,
But whether you know someone or not, you still need to work up a pitch that’s going to grab these people by the nuts and say ‘commission me’, which in itself, is a challenge.
‘There’s an art in pitching – some people write better pitches than they do novels,’ reveals Ben Hatch. ‘Get friends whose judgment you value to look at your pitch before you put it out. They might have a fresher perspective on it.’
With non-fiction, you needn’t have written a book first in order to sell it – a pitch based around an outline, a chapter breakdown, and perhaps a sample chapter, is usually all you need. For fiction (by all accounts a much harder nut to crack), the usual practice - unless you’re already an established writer and you can convince a publisher of your book’s worth before you’ve actually written it all - is to complete the whole manuscript before trying to sell it, and offer up just a synopsis and the first few chapters as a taster. Whatever you do send out for consideration, for gawd’s sake don’t let any typos, spelling errors, or grammar gaffes sneak through. It’ll make you look a bit crap.
Frustratingly, it can be tough for a first-timer to grab an agent or publisher’s attention in the first place. Your blog or any writing you’ve already seen in print could help, so by all means flag them up in your approach. And don’t be ashamed to tap contacts, however tenuous. ‘There’s no question that contacts help,’ says Joanna Simmons, who freely admits a ‘personal recommendation’ from a friend of a friend helped pave her way to publication. ‘In this fiercely competitive market any mate, colleague, or acquaintance’s cousin’s uncle that can wave your work under the right nose, or help it get to the top of the pile, is worth having.’

Yay! So you’ve got yourself a commission…?
If a commission becomes yours, do a little dance to celebrate, by all means. But don’t get too excited: the hard work starts here, with the small matter of getting it down on paper, or, if it’s already written, shaping it up to your editor’s specifications. ‘I was thrilled to get a ‘yes’, but then I realised I had to actually write the thing,’ recalls Ellen Arnison. ‘I only managed to do so by turning off the internet!’
Even once you’ve pressed send, bear in mind your lovingly crafted manuscript will almost certainly return to bite you on the bottom – with edits to make, queries to answer, and perhaps even whole sections to re-write or add in. Every author hates that bit. But you get used to it.

Don’t wait for permission… publish yourself!
That was then; this is now. And these days, if you want to write a book but you’re getting nowhere with the big bods of the book world, there’s a new and increasingly credible option: self-publishing. As Joanne Mallon puts it: ‘Your writing doesn’t have to be wasted if you don’t get anywhere with traditional publishers. Self-publishing is much more accessible and better regarded than it used to be. And you don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission.’
I’ve got to confess, I don’t know anything about self-publishing - but I know a lady who does. Having independently created a book from her blog, Hot Cross Mum, Hazel Gaynor has since moved on to fiction and her novel, The Girl Who Came Home, has been number one on the Kindle historical fiction charts for several weeks. She self-published it using Amazon Kindle KDP Select, and says she found it a ‘fairly straightforward’ process. ‘The hard part is writing the book in the first place,’ she says. ‘Anyone can self-publish, but you do need to be confident about your book, and be prepared to invest time in promoting it once it’s available for download. And one of the great things about it is that you have absolute control.’
All that said, Hazel admits she’s a traditionalist with a love of books proper, and still hopes to secure a non-digital deal – perhaps for her third title. ‘It’s partly about credibility as an author and partly about gaining the experience of working with an editor and everything else which goes with it,’ she says. ‘And yes, the industry is going through a tough time, but deals are still being made to publish those books which really stand out from the crowd.’
If you want to follow in Hazel’s footsteps, meanwhile, and need to know more about self-publishing, I’m told that Catherine Ryan Howard is your woman. There’s also guidance to be found at Clare Christian’s Self-Publishing Advice Service.

Right, well, I’d better stop now. It’s already a lot longer than a post ought to be! My grateful thanks to the authors who shared their thoughts, and to Kate for hosting. If writing a book is a dream of yours, I hope it helps.
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