A report produced by the Publishing Association showed that 151,956 books were published in the UK in 2010 - a figure which has increased by 40,000 in the space of just ten years. This figure will continue to rise dramatically in the coming years, with the onset of ebooks, the growth of print-on-demand and self-publishing services and the increasing availability of creative writing courses. For authors, it is easier than ever before to get their work into the public domain. This also spells greater diversity and a wider range of writing from authors of all backgrounds, nationalities and means. However, throwing the market open does come with negative consequences, particularly for those trying to establish their position in the industry. Just how does one get noticed in the crowded creative landscape? How can one convince readers to purchase a particular book over hundreds of thousands of others, many of which are similar? The ways and means of selling and marketing a new book have had to change drastically to accommodate the ever-expanding marketplace. Marketing has altered from being a run-of-the-mill, formulaic procedure to being an intrinsic part of the decision-making process; i.e. influencing a Commissioning Editor’s decision whether to go ahead with a particular project. For authors, it is no longer enough to be a talented and accomplished writer, they need to have an appealing personality, a busy schedule of networking engagements, a flair for public speaking, a scandalous love life/childhood/hobby/enemy, and be well-versed in the art of self-promotion. The air and manner of Sebastian Faulks, teamed with the darkly thrilling past of Lucretia Borgia and the good looks of James Franco. Publishers politely refer to this plethora of expectations as ‘marketability.’ An author’s marketability is their potential to make sales, to attract publicity and to be ‘in demand.’ But how does a new, enterprising young author cultivate the required ‘marketability’ to get published, and how does an older, long-established one embrace the new opportunities represented to ensure they don’t become cast aside?
The first step for authors seeking to make a career in writing is to find a good agent. Authors needs to be prepared to convince an agent of their ‘marketability,’ and potential for commercial success – an agent’s main goal, like the publisher, is to make money. They need to persuade the agent that they are capable, adaptable and able to be moulded into a brand. However many rejections an author has faced, they must show unwavering self-belief. It is not a time for shyness, modesty, self-deprecating drivel and ‘struggling writer syndrome.’ The author must believe they are capable of making an impact on the book market and be prepared to prove it. It is essential that they display entrepreneurial spirit and arrive at an agent’s door brimming with ideas – agents seek authors who have mileage. Carole Blake of Blake Friedman sums it up:
‘I look for evidence that I am dealing with a writer – someone who believes in their material and writes with a sense of conviction…I want to represent writers who are planning a career in writing. I never take one-off clients.’
One of an agent’s key roles is to strategise the author’s career and to offer stability in what is often an erratic, unpredictable environment. Similarly Tom Maschen, Publisher at Jonathan Cape, described his decision to make Jeffrey Archer an offer on his first book (Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less) as owing more to his personality than his aptitude for writing, for which he admits he was ‘indifferent.’
‘I was motivated in part by the feeling that Jeffrey was so ambitious that he would be likely to succeed in almost anything to which he put his mind.’
Self-belief is the author’s first weapon in the fight to get noticed. Without it, the journey from pitch to publication will be a difficult one. A marketable author must have a clear idea of the market they are targeting; its key characteristics, values and the various channels through which content is consumed. The author should be aware of competitors and existing publications which could lure readers away from their book. This will provide them with valuable ammunition when attempting the hard sell – convincing an agent/publisher why they are the best person for the job, why their book will be chosen over the competition. This needs to be summed up in one sentence and without hesitation. This may require creating an author ‘persona,’ an alter-ego which shakes off all of the anxiety, the insecurity, the self-doubt that often comes with being an writer and replacing it with a ‘commercially-minded, business-like and professional attitude,’ qualities highly prized by Agents and Publishers alike. As Betsy Lerner argues in her creative writing guide ‘An Editor’s Advice to Writers’
‘Being a writer includes the implicit hope of becoming known. How comfortable or uncomfortable a writer is with that exposure may be the decisive factor in whether or not he is heard from.’
The image a writer projects to the media and to the readers must be continually interesting and intriguing, mysterious yet personable, and most importantly – sustainable and consistent. To quote Truman Capote;
‘The writer’s individual humanity, his word or gesture towards the world, has to appear almost like a character that makes contact with the reader. If the personality is vague or confused or merely literary, ça ne va pas.’
Andrew Crofts, the UK’s leading Ghostwriter and an expert in self-promotion, talks about presenting a polished corporate image and affecting an air of complete efficiency– he calls it ‘creating a writer’s myth,’ - the more eccentric the better! While researching this essay I was amazed by how many editors, publicists and authors thought that a sense of humour was one of the most crucial qualities of the marketable author. Quirks are human; they are what make us unique and memorable. They can often help to endear readers to an author, attracting additional publicity. In New York, this is called a ‘shtick,’ a trademark, something which will become synonymous with the author. To quote Carrie Bradshaw;
“In New York, you need a shtick.” “A shtick?” “Who you are, but better. Embellish.”
After creating a coherent image, the author must work on building an adequate platform from which to project. With the advent of social media, there is a great deal the author can do to help themselves before they have acquired either an agent or publisher. Both will look for evidence that the author is actively engaged with their proposed audience and are more likely to be impressed if the author is a regular blogger, prolific tweeter, involved in online discussions/debates and even hosting their own website. The benefits of a blog are twofold; if done regularly and using interesting angles, authors can build a loyal readership who are likely to effortlessly transfer over to print, and secondly, it is useful writing practice as it allows for reflective comment. Blogs can even lead directly to publishing contracts – the most famous case of this was a blog called ‘Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen,’ chronicling a woman’s attempt to recreate the recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It gained a large following and attracted the attention of publishers Little, Brown USA who offered her a publishing contract in 2005. It has sold in excess of 1million copies and was made into a film in 2009. This shows how influential and powerful blogs can be, however amateur they seem to begin with. There have been countless other success stories – enough to prompt Lulu.com (a self-publishing website) to create ‘The Blooker Prize’ in 2006, open to any printed book based on either a blog or website. A truly marketable author will be creative in their approach – seeking out new, exciting ways to get their name noticed, whether it is via the web, at a Literary festival or at unorthodox events such as London’s Literary Death Match and The Book Stops Here, a monthly evening of readings. These have proved to be valuable marketing fodder for new young fiction authors, helping them to establish both a platform and a network of support.
The most marketable authors are those who keep the reader firmly fixed in their mind throughout the process. Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing states:
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.
R. J. Ellory, a crime-thriller author who wrote 23 novels before finally securing a publishing deal with the 24th, because ‘he wrote a book he would enjoy reading.’ Putting himself in the position of the reader clearly had the desired effect.
Once an author has secured that elusive publishing contract they must ensure that they maintain the momentum and buzz which made them such an exciting prospect originally. The most commercially successful are tireless in their efforts to keep their name, and their work, in the public domain. With agents carrying out annual culls and publishers reluctant to renew contracts when sales are dipping, an author must do everything they can to prove they are still a valuable asset. One of the most fundamental, often underestimated, methods is to build and maintain a good working relationship with the publisher. This means having regular communication, preferably face-to-face meetings, where the author informs their editor of any events/projects/activities they are involved with, shares new contacts, keeps them updated with progress on new work and suggests new angles through which to promote the book or themselves. Publishers and Agents want authors who are resourceful, enthusiastic and brimming with ideas. Authors should be easy to contact (both for publishers and the reading public), and they should always deliver. This can mean anything from the very basic; respecting deadlines and being punctual, to being gracious and accommodating when offered criticism or suggestions. Some of the UK’s most marketable authors act as book reviewers, guest bloggers, cultural journalists, speakers and guest lecturers in between publications to ensure that their name remains in print, in some format, and to gather a larger audience in preparation for their next publication. Notable examples include Hanif Kureishi, Daisy Goodwin and Sarah Churchwell. I’m sure many of their readers discovered the power of their writing through a particular article or event. It is good to be seen to be in demand by the literary public. Play on any other interests you have – get involved, associate your name with particular hobbies, people or places, because as Simon Flynn of Icon Books says, ‘it’s extra hooks from which to hang the book.’