Get on your bike! What to do once your book’s out, advice from a new author

Bike and Clapham Books

My book – an “endlessly enthralling” part-history, part-travelogue about national anthems – came out last August on Random House, but since it’s just emerged in paperback, I thought someone might appreciate this guide of what to do after your book appears. Because I’d have really liked it when mine did!

1) Visit every bookshop you can

Random House did an amazing job of getting my book into Waterstones, the UK’s largest book chain, but I quickly discovered it wasn’t in many independents – the stores I buy books from. And to me, that meant it was like it didn’t exist.

What did I do? I cycled to every independent in London I could find. This took ages – the best part of two weeks – and was at times utterly dispiriting. In one, I asked if I could have 30 seconds of their time and got the reply, “You’ve already wasted more than that, goodbye.” In another, I was asked two questions:

“Is it self published?”

“Has it been reviewed in The Times?”

It was only because I replied, “No,” and “Yes”, that they agreed to take the book’s name.

But other occasions were, frankly, brilliant. The Stoke Newington Bookshop in north London already stocked it and almost instantly booked me for their festival. While Newham Bookshop in east London ordered some and arranged a talk based partly, it seemed, on the fact I “looked alright”.

I dread to think how hard it’d be cycling around shops if you’re a fiction author – “Can I tell you about my book? It’s a modern retelling of Jonah and the Whale”. I also dread to think what it’d be like if you’re self-published.

But I would still recommend doing it above anything else.

Oh, I took a CD of brilliant anthem covers with me to give to shops in an effort to guilt them into stocking the book. I wouldn’t recommend doing that, though. It turns out most shops, like most people, don’t play CDs anymore.

2) Contact every festival and event organiser you can, and do it NOW

Of all the things I’ve done, events have been the most successful in getting the book ‘out there’.

I did a 5-minute reading at the Brixton Book Jam recently and sold out of books immediately afterwards. I’d taken along 15 copies, which I thought was somewhat optimistic; turned out to be the opposite. Saying that, at other events, I only sold a third of that, but that’s still five more I would have otherwise

I would recommend doing as many events as you can, but contact people early. And I mean E A R L Y. Like yesterday.

I didn’t realise that book festivals book a long time in advance – literally six months, a year in some cases. Most of the ones I contacted loved the idea of me doing a talk, but had already filled all their slots, which was, again, quite dispiriting. Your publisher may actually arrange events for you, but mine largely left me to it and it took me too long to realise I needed to act fast.

Be creative too: schools, your local library, universities – all may like you to come in, especially if you’re writing non-fiction. I write that not having done any talks at schools or libraries, but I’m sure it’s true.

3) Practice signing books

I’ve written some utter rubbish in books I’ve signed – “I hope this gets you singing!” being perhaps the worse. Make sure you don’t write anything as bad.

4) Do as much press as you want, but don’t get ripped off

I honestly haven’t got the faintest idea what the best form of press is. I’ve written articles about anthems, listicles, I’ve been on TV talking about them, I’ve popped up on radio shows and done podcasts.

I haven’t checked how many copies my book’s sold after each bit. That might be a mistake as it’d be good to realise what works and what doesn’t, but I long ago decided I didn’t want to know how many copies my book had sold (it’s not good for your mental health, especially after your agent tells you a good non-fiction sells a paltry 1,500 in the UK and not to expect any more).

I admit I might have found it easier getting press than others do. I’m a journalist so am used to pitching to editors (and dealing with the rejection). I also have a very helpful PR person, and I a topic that’s regularly in the news. But do keep plugging away no matter how many editors ignore your calls.

When you are doing press, though, keep in mind it’s always impossible to get across what your book is. Some articles I’ve written have made my book seem like a wacky fact book (it isn’t); others have made it seem like a deathly serious analysis of nationalism (it isn’t). Also, don’t be ripped off. If someone’s asking you to write something that requires original research, ask to be paid. If someone’s asking you to go into a radio studio, always ask for an appearance fee. You may not get any money, but you’ll feel better for asking.

Where have I drawn the line? To be honest, I haven’t turned down much. It’s only really been from US publications who’ve asked me to do work on the basis it’ll be “good exposure”. My book isn’t out in the US and spending several hours on a piece for a one-sentence quote hasn’t seemed like a good use of my time when I could be writing blogs like this instead!

5) Enjoy every minute

The first few weeks after my book came out were such a panic I didn’t do one thing: enjoy the moment. I had a bloody book out! I’d worked on it for years, I was proud of it, and now people were reading it. Some were even enjoying it. That is utterly amazing.

And then I met another author one night who literally said, “You’ve done something thousands want to. Have fun with it.”

I’ve tried to ever since, and it’s led to some of the most amazing experiences – seeing a man buy my book in a shop, making over 500 people laugh at a Book Slam, being interviewed by journalists I admire, meeting Hadley Freeman at a literary festival and having her drag me around like her fake husband…

For all the slog of cycling around every book shop in London, it’s worth it, I promise.

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