Saturday, July 28, 2007

Times Online

Letting go of your first novel is so very hard to do

Antony Moore describes the trials and tribulations and, frankly, dirty tricks of a first-time author trying to get his book noticed in the days just after its ‘birth’


DAY ONE: WATERSTONE’S, JUST off the Charing Cross Road in Central London. I take a cagey glance round to ensure none of the staff are watching me, then approach a shelf, take down a copy of the book, carry it to the table near the front of the shop and place it on top of something by Bill Bryson. Can I get a copy into the window? There is a high cardboard barrier, advertising Harry Potter – inevitably – between me and the window display. Not worth the risk. So I return to the shelf, move a couple of Michael Moorcocks to a lower position so my book can stand facing outwards. And after a quick impulse purchase of a couple of copies – it’s important to start sales ticking over – it’s off to Borders. Thus is passed the first afternoon of a newly published author.

My debut novel, The Swap, came out a few weeks ago and it’s hard not to be proud of it. It’s got a cute cover; it’s just the right size; and it smells like a dream. And yes it’s got ten fingers and ten toes, and yes I know it’s a terrible cliché, but you’ve got to love them at this age. Although, God knows, you worry over them, too.

For example, will people ignore it and make it feel left out? So far there have been reviews in the Daily Sport and The Big Issue. This is promising, if somewhat surreal. But it’s not exactly J. K. Rowling live at the Albert Hall, is it? I’m suddenly aware just how many books there are out there, all with pretty pictures on the cover, all pushing and jostling for attention. I worry that mine will get forced to the back.

But you can’t spend all day in bookshops buying copies of your own book. Soon it’s time to return home and start buying them on the internet. Google is awash with references to the book, which is important: honest word of mouth from the general public is the only publicity worth having. So I start writing reviews immediately. I give it five stars on Amazon: “A fantastically funny and original work.” I want to say “master-work” but this might be a bit strong. “Genius!” That sounds fair.

Amazon has nine secondhand copies of the book for sale. This sparks a brief crisis. Has everyone who bought it instantly resold it? A call to my agent reassures me. Someone has bought a load of copies cheaply from the publisher and is selling them on. Relieved, I write a quick review under another name, “gloriously witty”, and move on to

Day Two: Back in Waterstone’s and there are the same number of copies on the shelf. Has no one bought one? Worried, I buy a copy to keep sales ticking over. I consider leaving this one on the train to get some more word-of-mouth going.

My publisher has set up a website for me so that I can communicate with my readers. I’ve had two “hits”. Both from people who also have books coming out. Result!

It’s good finally to feel like an author. I wrote the novel nearly two years ago, but it was a long time before the first copies arrived, wrapped in brown paper like a delivery of Swedish pornography, only even more welcome. And I was able to try it on my bookshelves, to see how it looked next to Dostoevsky for example, or Jeffrey Archer.

At that stage my publisher had lots of plans for marketing the book. We even had a meeting about it. The problem arose when I asked about the marketing budget. There were a few embarrassed glances, even some laughter. Slowly I realised that the entire budget had been spent on organising the meeting.

Day Three: I'm on the train home from work and taking a detour to Books Etc. when I see someone reading the book. It’s an epiphany. I want to kiss the man but I’m afraid it would distract him from his reading. So I sort of sidle over and have a look what page he’s on. I don’t recognise it. It’s not the book. It just has a similar cover. I feel a sudden fierce hatred for the man: traitor, cuckold. I close my eyes and picture him boiled.

Books Etc. has lots of copies, which is good, unless this means they haven’t sold any, which is worrying. I inspect the racks. The book is in a good position in the buy-one-get-one-half-price promotion right at the front. But I’m not sure about the promotion. Do I want my book mixing with these others? What if someone buys mine, gets someone else’s half-price and prefers theirs? What then? I don’t know what then. I buy one and get another one half price. The man looks surprised that I want the same book twice and has to check that the promotion works like that. But I’m firm. I’m certainly not buying anybody else’s book.

And I realise that’s what it means to publish a book: there’s a part of me over there on the shelves, and in Blackwell’s earlier today when a man took a copy down, rifled through it, and then, dismissively, returned it, I wanted to walk over and ask what the hell he was up to. Could he not see that he was touching a part of someone’s soul? Walk softly, I wanted to say, for you walk on my profits.

Day Four: Waterstone’s in Greenwich – my local branch and I feel at home. I can’t immediately see The Swap so I ask the man at the counter, who looks confused by the request as if I’ve asked for a pound of back-bacon, but checks on the computer. “Oh no,” he says. “That book is only on limited release, you’d have to go to our West End branch.” But this is my branch, I want to tell him. I’m a local writer and you can’t even stock one copy? What are you, some kind of an animal? But I don’t say that. I just say “Oh, so can I order it?” and he fills in a form and sees the card I’m carrying with my name on it and we have one of those J. R. Hartley moments that I had been trying so hard to avoid.

Day Five: Back at Waterstone’s. Two copies of the book are missing. I didn’t buy them. We’ve had sales! But where are those copies? Are they being cared for? I rearrange a bit but I’m losing my zeal. I know I need to let go; it’s time to release the little hand that has been in mine so long. After carefully obscuring Nick Hornby with a couple of copies I turn to go, but a tiny cry, audible only to me, calls me back and I run inside to buy one last copy. Just for old times’ sake, just to remind me what being a father is all about. And to keep sales ticking over.

Maybe I’ll leave this one on the bus home – after all, it’s word of mouth that counts.

The Swap is now available in all good (large, West End) bookshops and on the internet, where the reviews are very promising

THE SWAP by Antony Moore

Harvill Secker, £11.99; 336pp

Buy the book here for the offer price of £10.79 (free p&p)