Flying Tips for Clueless Birds

After 30 years of being too shy to tell anyone that I write, turns out I’m a bit useless at responding to questions about it. Generally I feel like I’m, at best, confusing whoever I’m talking to and, at worst, flailing around like someone who was quite obviously lying when she said, ‘yeah, I’m a writer.’

Actually, ask me about writing and I’ll talk until you literally beg me to stop (won’t take long). But people don’t ask about writing – why would they ask about something that essentially involves staring at a screen, being rejected a lot and occasionally crying into a lukewarm cup of tea? You might as well work in a call centre.

They ask about publishing. And I’m afraid, in the case of the debut novelist, that’s like asking someone how to fly a plane because they were once in a Heathrow Airport coffee shop.

I’ve been a long-time subscriber to a writing magazine called Mslexia, which features articles about writing and articles about publishing. And I have to admit that until recently, I completely skipped over anything to do with publishing. It seemed pretty dull, stressful, and not something I’d ever have to worry about.

Stuff happened, and now here I am, reading emails from my editor and having to google every other word (ARCs? Proofs? Roughs? Line edits? Interiors? Wha?) So I’m learning as I go, and since people seem interested enough to ask about it, I thought I’d write a blog post along the lines of ‘Things you vaguely wanted to know about publishing but were afraid to ask…’

First off, when I was a guest at Sharon Dempsey’s fantastic Young Scribbler’s group at the Crescent Arts Centre recently, one of the kids asked “What’s the most surprising thing about being published?” (Excellent question).

I said it was the sheer number of people involved. A while back, my adorably clueless parents asked when my book would be out.

Me: Next March
Mum: Next March! What’s taking so long?
Dad: Have you typed it all into the computer?

Not even kidding. But actually a lot of people probably assume it’s just a case of you sending off a word doc and the publisher warming up the photocopier. To be honest, I never knew how complicated it is either. But here’s what happens:

  • Write book.
  • Send to literary agents and get rejected a billion times. Repeat until you secure agent.
  • Agent suggests some changes to manuscript (MS), which you make and send back.
  • Agent sends book to publishers for Round 2 of rejection. Apparently a whole team of editors has to like the book before they’ll accept it.
  • One of the publishers makes an offer (Yay!) and you run for a pen to sign the contract.
  • Agent says, ‘Whoa, not so fast,’ and there’s a bit of back and forth on legal terms you don’t understand.
  • Contract is signed and publication date set for 1-2 years away. They finally go for 2 because they want to hit the ‘Summer Romance market’. (No one who’s met you believes you are a summer romance writer. Angry crime noir surely?).

This is not my novel

  • In the meantime, editor sends you ‘cover roughs’ by a very talented cover designer and asks your opinion. You try to give an analytical and considered response while basically doing this…

Cos it’s so pretty!

  • Marketing people send you a big questionnaire to find out if your life is interesting enough to get in a newspaper or something. It’s not.
  • You set up social media accounts and a website because that’s what you’re supposed to do, you read it in a magazine.
  • Editor sends you the ‘Big Edit’. This is her notes on how the novel can be improved. It may mean enormous structural changes and will feature a tiny stab in the heart on every single page of your baby. This is especially hard because she’s right about EVERYTHING. You send MS back with your changes.
  • Line Editor sends you the line edit, featuring more minor changes. You send MS back with your changes.
  • Copy Editor sends you the copy edit, featuring downright pedantry over commas and typos and other things us artsy types shouldn’t be expected to concern ourselves with. You send MS back with your changes.

  • 6 months before publication, publisher produces ARCs (advance review copies) or ‘Proofs’ of the book and sends these out to book bloggers, reviewers and other writers, hoping someone will read it and provide a cool review quote.

It’s an actual real thing!

  • You start reading at literary events to get some practice in because you have a suspicion you’ll be rubbish at this and you have a horror of letting all these publishing boffins down after all the work they’ve put in.
  • You meet Roddy Doyle and beg him to read your book.

My goodness, Roddy Doyle is a nice man

  • Editor sends you ‘interiors’. This is a print out of the actual pages of the book. You send back with your changes.

I took a photo. It seemed momentous

  • The publisher’s PR person invites you to a training day on book promotion.

On my way to the Big City

…where I found my book in impressive company

  • Editor sends email with some more small changes to consider.  You send back with your changes. Repeat several times.
  • Get Final Final Final cover and interiors through and make small changes while hyperventilating because this is your last chance to make it brilliant before they say ‘Pens down, please.’
  • Realise book is out in less than 2 months and you haven’t planned a launch party.

And that’s where we’re up to. Except that, alongside all of this, you’re trying to write book 2!

I am no longer surprised it’s taken 2 years from contract to publication and why there are so many people involved. In fact, I’m impressed they’ve done it all so fast.


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