It’s an old story.
You want to be a writer. You work at it, spending hours locked away in your room bent over a notebook when others are out socialising or watching TV or spending time in the sunshine. You deal with the rejection and the pain and the criticism and you finally break through – you have a book published.
It’s an amazing thing, that first book. It feels like your whole life has led up to this moment, like all the potential you always knew you had has finally been realised. It is a very sweet feeling – you have a physical representation of all your struggle and effort, something that will sit on shelves in bookstores and in your home for everyone to see.
It is a mark of approval, a sign you are part of a select club.
You are a writer. A published author. That truly is something to be celebrated.
But now you come across a side to it all you didn’t really expect (well, I didn’t anyway!) – books don’t sell themselves. All the window displays in your local store, all the encouragement you give your friends and family to buy a copy, all the admiration from your Granny in the world won’t shift your beloved tome in the numbers your publisher wants.
And that means you’re on the promotional circuit.
You are expected to get out there and sell your work. Which amounts to selling yourself.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met a writer who actually enjoyed this part of the job, but I’ve certainly met authors who are very good at it. It’s something I’ve had to work hard to do, and every single time I step up to do an interview, or pen a piece for the culture section of a newspaper or magazine, or (the most dreaded of all) arrange a book launch or signing, I have to force down a flutter or nerves that can at times be almost overwhelming.
You see, before I became part of the world of publishing I always thought that writers were a quiet, retiring bunch who worked away on their books, came out of their garrets for an occasional glass of whiskey, during which they might discuss something intellectual with a fellow scribe, before scuttling back undercover to think deep thoughts and write more words.
The creators I admired were people like JD Salinger, who never gave interviews; Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both notoriously publicity shy; Ernest Hemingway, who saw discussing his books as a complete waste of time (he’d talk to journalists for hours about other things, but loathed analyzing his work).
When, I wondered as I was given a schedule of promotional work when Wednesday’s Child was first published, did the writer become a marketing executive as well?
The first interview I ever had to give was to a DJ on a station that mostly played music. He obviously hadn’t read a word of the book, and he didn’t listen to a single answer I gave either. Luckily the travesty only lasted about five minutes, but I was horrified – is this what the promotional section of my publishing adventure was going to be like?
Thankfully, it wasn’t.
During the three weeks I did the publicity for Wednesday’s Child I appeared on the Late Late Show with Sara Payne, a mother whose daughter had been abducted and murdered and who had come to Ireland to campaign for the rights of survivors of abuse (both Pat Kenny, who presented the show back then, and Sara had read my book and loved it). Gerry Ryan gave me 45 minutes on his massively popular radio show (he had read the book in detail and asked some really deep questions about it).
And Wednesday’s Child went to Number 1. It got picked up by Penguin for international publication. I was subsequently featured on UK TV and radio shows (I remember being kind of in awe arriving at the BBC studios). Here was the power of promotion in action.
Of course, I had the benefit of big publicity companies setting all these meetings up for me. I wasn’t knocking on the doors of radio stations or TV studios cold, without an introduction. I’ve known people who have to make all those connections by themselves, and I admire hugely anyone who has picked up the phone and called RTE to tell them they’ve written a book and would they like to talk about it on their show without the benefit of an agent or publicist having paved the way first.
Because even when you have a profile, it still niggles when someone turns up their nose at your work.
I was at a ‘literary event’ a year or so ago around Christmas. A few writers had been asked to get up and read seasonal pieces they’d written, and it was a jolly enough affair. Afterwards a fellow author was standing chatting to me when one of the organisers happened to wander past. My friend mentioned to said organiser that my Dunnigan series has a strong seasonal theme and has a few passages set around Christmas. Might I be considered as a reader for subsequent gatherings?
“I don’t think so,” was the response. “You see, I only invite writers whose work I like.”
There really isn’t an answer to that, is there?
Occasionally you get an interviewer who isn’t all that impressed by your book, either. Earlier this year I did an interview for the first book in my Stories From the Margins series, Bleak Alley, with a journalist who clearly wasn’t over the moon about the whole project. His questions were terse and his overall tone was one of tolerance rather than enthusiasm. I wondered if I had done something in the past to offend him dreadfully – I couldn’t work out why he was being so cold.
It bothered me, and a day or two later I rang him and asked him what had elicited such a frosty response. He hemmed and hawed, but I finally gleaned that he just wasn’t a fan of the genre of True Crime, usually only interviewing literary authors.
“I just don’t know how to assess if your book is good or not,” he eventually admitted.
He seemed to get around this by writing a terribly non-committal piece, which more or less told the reader that the book was out there, but gave no sense of whether it was worth downloading or not.
It felt like I had wasted an hour talking to him. But then, I don’t think he enjoyed the experience much either.
And then there’s social media.
It has, in many ways, revolutionized how writers communicate with readers and the world at large. Anyone following me (and I assume you do, seeing as you’re reading this) will know my Facebook Wall and Twitter-feed and whatever you call the Instagram equivalent has been awash with book posts these past few weeks.
My friends at Audible have made a collection of video promos about the book, we’ve run competitions, and (under strict instructions) I’ve posted one or two things most days about the book and up-and-coming interviews, articles and online events.
Sometimes it feels as if I am being completely over the top and that people must be sick of me, but as my agent, Ivan Mulcahy, reminds me almost daily, being writer is all about brand recognition.
“And YOU are the brand,” he told me just today. “No one can read a book if they don’t know it’s out there, and no one will bother to spend their hard-earned cash on a story they think they won’t like. So every moment you spend building up a relationship with your readers, telling them about the books you’ve written and giving them a sense of the type of person you are and type of stories you’re interested in telling is a moment well spent.”
You can’t argue with that logic.
And I don’t want to.
On Friday next (6th November 2020) I’ll be doing an interview with my friend Sam Blake (who is a very wonderful crime writer) and Simon Trewin (a rather successful literary agent) as part of their amazing Writing Game series. On Monday 9th I’ll be on the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTE Radio 1. In December I’ll be a guest on Redhanded, the massively popular True Crime podcast.
I know I’m lucky to have these incredible platforms. And I’m lucky to have loyal readers who want to come back time and time again. Being able to reach out and chat to them is part of my job.
But it is also a privilege.