A Novel Guide

Finally got that first book published? Our anonymous insider tells you what happens next.

it will feel real

The day your first book comes out will be the best day of your life. You’ll do an interview for BBC Shropshire, appear on a podcast hosted by a couple of SOAS DPhils, someone with a Substack you once read will review your book for the Swindon Advertiser. You’ll go to your book launch, where everyone you’ve ever met will be in one room, and you’ll feel like a rock star. You’ll get drunk and make a slightly foolish speech where you talk about the power of storytelling and compare Boris Johnson to Heinrich Himmler. Your editor will give a speech where they make wild claims about your literary significance. The audience will cheer. Your parents will be proud. Your friends will look at you with new found respect. You’re a writer now. Your words matter. Your judgements matter. People will treat you with a certain reverence.

but there’s a club and you ain’t in it

I regret to inform you that the Daily Mail is correct and the luvvieish London media world does, in fact, exist. These people work at Channel 4, the Beeb, the Observer, etc. and they look after their own. Membership of this club will secure you a blurb from Caitlin Moran, an appearance on Good Morning Britain, and a serialisation deal in the Times (Sunday edition).

You are not in this club.

there’s another club and you ain’t in that either 

Your average Literary Review piece is Stephen Spender’s grandson favourably reviewing the latest novel by Cyril Connolly’s great-niece. Both reviewer and reviewee are agented by Vita Sackville-West’s daughter’s son-in-law and once a year all three holiday on Stephen Runciman’s nephew’s cottage on the Isle of Mull. Unless you have memorised Debrett’s you would have no way of knowing this – but it’s true.

Newsflash: you are also not in this club!

there will be no events

Which may actually be a good thing. Most literary evenings for no-name authors have an audience size of zero. While the pages of The Fence are no place to offer medical advice, trust me when I say that explaining your book to five rows of empty chairs is bad for your mental health.

there will be no literary festivals

Which one will it be? The Jaipur Literary Festival? Hay Cartagena? A little jaunt to Brooklyn, San Fran or Aspen? Oh come on, you’d settle for Edinburgh, Cheltenham perhaps, or the one held in that country house where appeasers used to meet in the 1930s.

Such, such are the daydreams of writers-to-be. Surely once you’re published your inbox will be brimming with invitations to literary festivals? You’ll travel the world! You’ll swap jokes in the green room with Ian McEwan! You’ll stalk around a stage wearing one of those weird headsets you’ve seen on TED talks!

Again, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but none of this going to happen.

Literary festivals are vanity projects run by the spouses of hedge fund managers and land magnates. Unless you did dressage with Tiggy’s daughter you are not getting an invite.

there will be no prizes 

You will not be long-listed for the Booker. In fact, your publisher never even submitted your novel for the jury’s consideration.

This is one of the least appreciated aspects of the publishing world. A lot of authors labour under the illusion that they are automatically put forward for literary prizes.

Not true. Publishers decide which books to put forward for which prizes. You, of course, will never know whether your book was submitted or not.

In the case of the Booker, imprints hold annual meetings to decide which of their books to submit for the jury’s consideration. The secrecy and skulduggery that surrounds the decision-making at such gatherings make papal conclaves look like paragons of transparency. Needless to say it is very, very, very unlikely that your novel is going to be the beneficiary of this process.

(Parenthetically, this correspondent has served on literary prize panels and if the scribbling class ever learned of the calibre of deliberations there would be Jonestown-style mass suicides from Clapton to Nunhead.)

there will be no sales

The only time your name and six figures will be in the same sentence is when you look up your book’s rank on Amazon.


See above.

No club membership = no coverage = no sales.

‘it didn’t work’

Because you are a poor deluded young writer you will largely be able to ignore the sense of rising dread you feel in the days and weeks after the unexpectedly quiet release of your beloved book into the world. But whatever, you’re a writer now, right? So you’ll just write another book, right? You phone your agent and she listens attentively to your pitch. There’s a pause. ‘I like it.’ Pause. ‘I really like it.’ Pause. ‘But it might be hard getting the publisher on board, because, you know, the last book didn’t work.’

You will wonder what didn’t work. Then the full horror will dawn on you.

avoid second-hand bookshops

Four weeks after your book comes out you will be perusing a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road and see a pristine copy of your hardback selling for 20 per cent of its RRP and your little heart will break. Try not to visit central London for the rest of your life.

good luck out there

Look, nobody ever said this was going to be easy. I am here to tell you it will also be humiliating and futile.

All the same, my editor tells me I should end on a high, so I’ll say this: it’s still worth doing. Most people never even get the chance to play the game. You have. That counts for something. Not much, but something.

And anyway, debuts are overrated. There’s a reason the literary greats refer to their early work as juvenilia. First-time writers get so wrapped up in mentally writing their Booker acceptance speech they forget to actually focus on what matters. Once all your illusions get shattered you can actually begin the work of becoming a writer.

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