A Prayer for Debut Authors

or: what I wish I'd know in 2018

In 2018 I became a debut novelist, then had a fallow year, and in 2020 I’ll be putting out a novel again. In 2021 I will put out another. In 2022 I’m contracted to put out two. This should also solve any “how the fuck does Caroline make a living?” questions you may have – it’s not off the podcast, that’s for damn sure, but the podcast does stop me from surrendering to a life of solitude and losing my ability to relate to new people. If I didn’t have a podcast, I would probably ask strangers to brush my hair on the street. If I didn’t have a podcast, I would probably be in prison.

I’m really happy with where my life is but I have a certain amount of dread about 2020. My second adult novel, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, comes out in June, which means the first six months will be spent quivering like a whippet over who likes it, whether they like it enough, and for what reasons. Then, once that is out, I’ll spend the summer promoting it, and immediately start quivering about the pre-release of the next one. That’s a long time to spend quivering. The only thing easing my nerves about this is that it’s not my first time.

Maybe it’s your first time. Maybe next year your novel, or cookbook, or essay collection, or whatever, is coming out. Maybe you’re going to be a debut author. Maybe you’ve already proclaimed that 2020 will be “your year”. I have no doubt that 2020 will be your year. But I also know that being a debut novelist plays tricks on you, and I think it’s only my duty to tell you the things that I wish someone told me.

  1. Bookshops are ruined for you now.

    Here’s the thing. No one knows who you are. Unless you clean houses on Instagram for a living, you have no audience. “But I have six thousand followers on Twitter!” What’s that, me of 2018? Sorry, your Twitter followers count for shit, unless you have 60,000, not 6,000. In keeping with your anonymity, most bookshops will order one copy of your book, if they order any at all. If you have a hardback release, they will have the one sad copy in the weird bookshelf called ‘Hardback Fiction’ and you will be forced to check on the same copy for months. When it eventually goes, you will wait, and wait, and wait, for more to come in. It doesn’t. When the paperback comes out, you will see more of your book, maybe five or six copies on the front table in Waterstones. This will give you a momentary golden buzz of self-importance, which you should savour, because it will fade. Instantly. You will now check on these five books for weeks, wondering why no one is buying them.

    Bookshops are ruined for you now. I know. I’m sorry. You probably used to love bookshops. You probably thought of them as your own private sanctum of intellectual calm in an urban environment. Sorry. You hate bookshops now. They are a living abacus of your success or failure. The first few months of this will be excruciating, but eventually, it will fade. I recommend spending more time in public parks.

  2. Book parties are not a thing

    I’ve known a lot of debut authors and unfortunately almost all of them have lost their shit completely when it comes to the launch party thing. Most of us have heard the word “launch party” but most of us have never been to one, so we picture canapés, coat check-rooms, long-stemmed candles, and cast members of The Crown congratulating us on our talent. This has only happened once in the history of debut authors, and it was at Dolly Alderton’s book launch, and as we all know, Dolly is rumoured to be the daughter of Zeus and lives at all times under the gods’ protection, so don’t beat yourself up about it.

    We all assume there will be a launch party, arranged by someone at the publishers, and we wait to be asked to provide a guest list. The moment, alas, never comes. We send an email to the publishers, asking when they would like our guest list. They gently tell you that they are not organising anything; that this is not 1996; that having splashy launches for unknown authors is a poor use of funding in a publishing world operating on a threadbare budget. This makes sense, but you will still lose your goddamn mind about it. You’ve worked for 2-4 years on this book! Don’t you deserve a party?

    You do. You do deserve a party. Which is why you need to throw it yourself. Call some independent bookshops and ask them if you can have the launch there. Ask your publisher (nicely) if they will donate some money towards the booze. They will (usually) say yes. Make sure you include minerals, because a third of publishing is pregnant at all times. Book an area in a nearby pub, and put some of your publication day money behind the bar. You will make plans to cook your own canapés. Abandon those plans. Get a blow-dry instead.

  3. You will not be cancelled

    Look. I know we’re having a lot of conversation about what, exactly, we mean by the phrase ‘cancelled’. Personally I think the phrase began as a sort of jokey way for teenagers to ironically communicate how they felt about Post Malone, and as usual, we’ve taken it all a bit too far. But every author of every generation has something new to worry about, and for this generation, it is the fear of being cancelled. It is impossible to cancel a person, to make them disappear into the ether like Kirstie Alley’s TV show Fat Actress, but that’s not what we mean. What we mean by that is that we fear being misunderstood. And while ‘cancelled’ is a new fear, misunderstanding is a very old one, as old as writing itself.

    Your fear of being cancelled, in the weeks and months leading up to your publication, will be manifest in wild second-guessing of your book and late-night sweats about a throwaway phrase you suddenly think may be inappropriate. I can’t tell you whether or not these things are inappropriate, but I can tell you this: it is far likelier that your work will be ignored. The thing you’re worried about will be glanced over and never emerge to the average reader as problematic or inappropriate. Why? Because you are thinking about your work much, much more than they are.

  4. Cut every ribbon, kiss every baby

    You should get good at public speaking. Even if you hate it. Most authors are introverts by nature, and most authors are expected to sell their own book to a roomful of strangers at least twice a week for the first six weeks of publication. It’s extremely cruel and doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s just how it is. If anything gave me an edge during the summer I promoted Promising Young Women, it’s that I had already been on stage a lot. I had been in bands, so I already had experienced the maximum amount of mortification it is possible to experience: I have forgotten words, I have sang to pubs that didn’t want to be sung to, I have performed an elaborate choreographed dance, with kazoos, to a crowd that were horrified to behold it. So talking on stage about my book didn’t bother me. I accepted every event invitation, no matter how big, small, or far away.

    Events like this will seem pointless. You will be lucky if fifteen people show up, and you might sell five books. That is a good result. I won’t tell you what a bad result is, but I’ve experienced it, and it’s horrible, but you still live.

    Here’s why bookshop events are important. First off, your appearance will be advertised for a couple of weeks before you arrive, and this will sell books, even if the people who buy the book don’t come to the event. Second, at least a couple of the staff will read your book in preparation for your coming, which makes them more likely to recommend it to customers. Third: people like having met an author. You will meet two girls who wandered in just before the bookshop was closing, decided to stay for the free wine, and then bought your book to be polite. When your next one comes out, one of those two women will see your book in a shop and Whatsapp the other saying: “hey, remember that girl we met???” and then buy two copies of that book, too. Then they will Instagram it, and tag you, and you’ll say thanks, and you are well on your way to maintaining an affectionately distant twenty year relationship with these women where they buy your books and you thank them for it.

  5. Now, more than ever, is the time for self-care

    Events are important. But so is not hating yourself. Balance these two accordingly. You will wake up after every event, no matter how well it has gone, feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck. This is called an adrenaline hangover. If you’re a writer, you’ve likely never done a team sport in your life, and hence the feeling is completely new to you. All the thoughtful talking and artful listening and standing around and signing (or not-signing) books is a performance, and your muscles are absolutely rigid with stress the entire time you’re performing it. You will be strangely buzzed on the evening, but you will feel like death the next morning. Never schedule events one evening after another. Always try to schedule a lie-in the next morning if you can. If you’re in full-time employment, try to schedule some time off on the day of your release, even on the days you don’t have anything on. Do not watch TV shows made by women roughly the same age as you. Limit yourself to one Amazon review check a day in the first six weeks, and then once a week after that. Never go on Goodreads. Get into sheet masks in a big way. And finally: learn to like your book again. It will be hard, but you’ll get there. I promise.