I was uncertain about writing a blog post to mark a year since Goblin was launched into the world, as it felt a bit self-indulgent. But it’s been a helluva year, and I thought writing about it might help other debut writers.
Firstly, I think most writers (especially debut writers) are worried/concerned/anxious about sales, reviews, interviews and other publicity – basically whether the book will get some recognition or disappear without making so much of a ripple.
I didn’t have these worries. And it wasn’t out of arrogance – it was because I was busy being extremely anxious about something else that there just wasn’t much room for these concerns. I also didn’t feel there was much point in angsting about these things, as it’s not always in your hands to be able to do much about it – so I would deal with publicity/sales etc when it came to it. In the meantime, I’d just do my best.
Not A Little Raconteur
I’m not Goblin. I’m not a little raconteur. I’m a shy introvert hermit creature who’s happy writing in her cave. The main thing I was angsting about before Goblin came out was having to be in the public eye (no matter how small that public), particularly any kind of public speaking. I’d been building up to this – I started a creative writing MA in 2009 and since then I’ve been using social media as a professional author creature, and I’ve been doing the odd reading here and there, trying push myself into being OK with public speaking. A high point was Edinburgh City of Literature’s story shop at EIBF in 2012, which I loved. I really enjoyed the experience, but it took a lot out of me just to do this one event and I still struggled with the public speaking side of the writing career. Around this time last year, on the months leading up to the Goblin launch I was a mess of anxiety, working my way through a CBT book trying to deal with all the angst that underlies my fear.
While there are some resources/opportunities out there to help writers with public speaking skills, it’s still often the case that writers are expected to just be good at it and get on with it, but it’s such a different set of skills to holing yourself up and writing. To me, it always seemed like established authors were naturals at this side of things and I rarely came across writers talking or writing about any anxieties around public speaking, so I hope this will help any writer creatures who struggle with this to know you’re not alone.
I’m glad to say the Goblin launch went well, thanks to a great chair and a fabulous audience. Looking back, I could have been more confident, but given how nervous I was, I did pretty well. Over the past year I’ve done numerous events, from small bookshop readings and Q&As to bigger festival appearances, and I can now say, a year later, that I’m much more comfortable owning the stage. While I still find this side of the writing career difficult, I’m proud of myself for doing all those events – I didn’t once turn down an event out of fear, and I’m pleased with how far I’ve come.
The positive thing about doing events is that I’ve had the opportunity to meet and speak with some lovely and amazing people, and it’s given me a platform to talk about things that are important to me. I definitely don’t take that for granted and I will always embrace the opportunities that come my way.
Dead Things Can’t Die
The good thing about having the public speaking fear is that it distracted me from two things 1) worrying about sales and publicity 2) the Freight mess. While the public speaking fear was my main focus of anxiety, these two things were obviously still on my mind, and they fed into each other. If you don’t know about the Freight situation, the short version is: the director up and left in April last year, leaving no one to run Freight. While Robbie, an ex member of staff, jumped in for a few months to try and keep things afloat (and did brilliantly, given the mess of it all) everyone involved was in a very dire situation. I was fortunate, in that Goblin had already been printed, the press release had gone out, and copies were available in shops and online. I didn’t see the rest of my advance or any royalties, but other authors were worse off – some owed thousands, and others with books due to come out later in the year or the year after but were no longer going to be published, which must have been devastating.
Although the uncertainty was stressful, Goblin and I managed through the next few months with support from fellow Freight authors, my brilliant agent Jenny Brown, and various friends and lit world colleagues. Goblin got some good mainstream press reviews (Scotsman and The Herald) as well a few lovely blog reviews and I was fortunate to have festival slots at EIBF, Wigtown, and Dundee lined up. As things were looking dire for Freight, my agent managed to get my rights back late summer last year, and I was then in the really odd position of having a debut novel out without a publisher (though, in the months before that I obviously hadn’t had the backing of a publisher anyway, and felt that very keenly).
Two things I’d like to highlight for debut authors:
- If you can, get an agent. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t, so don’t angst about it if it doesn’t work out, but going through the Freight mess really highlighted to me how important it is to have the support and expertise of an agent. I can’t sing Jenny Brown’s praises highly enough.
- I highly recommend joining The Society of Authors. I remember having a conversation with someone in my writing group who thought the yearly membership fee was too high and they didn’t feel they were getting much out of it, but I’d like to highlight two things: Firstly, if you’re a SoA member and things go wrong with your publisher or any other aspect of your writing career, SoA are a great resource for support and advice (some of the Freight authors who didn’t have an agent found SoA particularly useful). Second, while they might not be doing something directly for you, they’re supporting other authors who need it, and they’re working in your interest – for instance, SoA lobby the government and push for fair legislation. I personally think it’s worth supporting an organisation that is championing and supporting authors (however, as I’ll go on to explore, writers don’t often earn much, so if you can’t afford the fee, that’s fine).
In terms of what happened with Freight, I know I was extremely lucky. Goblin had some good publicity and support, and winning the Saltire First Book Award in November was a massive highlight after such a messy, uncertain, and difficult year. Another major highlight was being rescued by the amazing team of lovely people at Saraband. I can honestly say working with Sara Hunt and team to bring out a new edition of Goblin in December last year was one of the loveliest experiences. It really brought home what it meant to have the backing of a publisher and someone who genuinely cares and is passionate about publishing. This all lead on to bringing Goblin to an audience that missed it the first time round, a major highlight being the review by Peter Ross in Guardian, which left me a bit stunned.
Weirdos Always Find Each Other
While the end of the year was more positive for Goblin, I had the devastating experience of losing one of my best friends. Cherry Bee died on 22nd December. It all happened so quickly and I’m still struggling with the shock of losing her. She was one of the loveliest creatures I’ve ever known and it feels wrong using the past tense. CB was one of my first Goblin readers and I still have her precious handwritten notes. I was fortunate to be able to add a dedication to her in another print-run of Goblin. I hope to write more about her soon. I miss her terribly. The world feels wrong without her.
Time and Money
The other aspect of my first year as a published novelist I want to write about is money. I don’t earn a living from Goblin. While sales have been decent for a lit fiction debut, especially given the circumstances, advances from Freight and Saraband were small (and I didn’t get the full advance from Freight) and I haven’t yet seen royalties. PLR (Public Lending Right) money has been small, as Goblin was slow to get into libraries. Money from doing events has been pretty decent, but it isn’t something you can live on, and I can’t do too many because of my health. If I didn’t have fibromyalgia, I would definitely still be in part-time work to make ends meet, and/or I’d be doing some intense freelancing. As it is, because of my health, I struggle to do much freelance work, and I had to give up my part-time office job a few years ago, as it was making me very ill.
“I would be really struggling without funding because I’m unable to do the myriad of things writers often have to do to make ends meet. All too often I hear the arts dismissed as a frippery and a luxury, but the arts and storytelling were a lifeline for me when I was growing up, and I know it’s saved the lives of many others. If only the privileged can afford to pursue a career in the arts, then our culture will be myopic and impoverished. Arts funding is incredibly important.” – from an interview with The Bookseller
I was relieved when I secured funding for 15 months from Creative Scotland to write my second novel, HellSans. This funding takes me up to December 2018. I’m uncertain about how I’m going to earn a living beyond that, but I’m in a fortunate position as my husband is now in full-time work (but it’s not ideal to be reliant on him). We’re doing well at the moment and we’ll get by, but I wanted to highlight how uncertain earning a living is as a writer, especially if you’re from a working class background and/or you have a chronic illness or your disabled. This was really brought home to me recently when I got talking to a well-respected award winning writer from a working class background, who also has a chronic illness – from the outside looking in they seemed to be doing brilliantly, but they were actually struggling financially and unable to keep their home. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I was shocked at this. Something needs to change in the publishing industry if we want writing to come from varied voices. The publishing industry and the funding bodies need to do something to assist working class and disabled writers in an industry that is dominated by white, middle class, able-bodied people. We need diverse voices, and we need more than just lip service to diversity. We need action. This is something I will think on further and I will put together the beginnings of manifesto with an outline of what needs to change to make this happen.
“Unless authors and illustrators can expect to earn a reasonable salary from writing, we will lose the already limited diversity of voices, and hear only from the few who have supportive working partners, or inherited wealth. We are already repressing many of our best and most established writers by poverty – and we are unlikely to encourage interesting new voices either.” – Publish And Be Damned
What Is And Was And Is To Come
The present and the future is HellSans. Thanks to the funding from Creative Scotland, I’m busy working away on HS, which will be finished in December. I very much hope that Goblin is the start of a long career.
It really has been a helluva year. While there have been difficulties, there’s been some amazing moments and I want to thank everyone who has supported Goblin and I. You know who you are – you’re all amazing. A salute to you and Corporal Pig. Praise the lizards!