At events, festivals and book signings there are always writers who want to talk about what to do with their own unpublished book or story idea. Members of writers’ groups I address with Leslie are often preoccupied with how to get published. Long as that story is, I’ve learned over nearly seven years as a full-time author that it’s just the preface. I certainly never imagined how the real life post-publication plot would develop and only now do I know its theme: survival. When a novel makes it into print, the author is really taking a seat on some ride that – unless she is lucky enough to have a rich publisher prioritising her title – will take her up and down and up a little, and way, way down, and just possibly up again at times… So, speaking as a novelist with five publishers, all very different but none of them with the resources for full-scale promotion on an Underground wall or the side of a bus, I’d like to offer an insight into those professional peaks and troughs.Peaks don’t come much higher than reader appreciation. When a single reader gets in touch to say he or she loved a book, or posts a great review of it, the joy is sheer elation. If I’m told my novel made a difference to a real life, supporting or enlightening that reader, I’m euphoric. It feels like the equivalent of one of the judges on The Voice turning the chair but it’s more than validation. It’s a deeply human connection and proof of the power of stories.
The troughs? Disappointment can bring me fairly low if the promise that didn’t deliver was particularly thrilling. I’ve had a few of those. I don’t mean coming second or third (I don’t know which) in the People’s Book Prize in 2012 with TRACES, because receiving enough votes to make the top three was hugely encouraging. I’ve got used to the near-miss situation where for a few hours it looks like I’m going to be on TV, until it turns out that I’m not. The only media to pick up on a story about me circulated by a press agency earlier this year was Italian (I’m la scrittice), and there’s no news yet about THINNER THAN WATER, the TV series I’ve scripted from the novel. But I think the biggest blow came out of my ecstatic belief that Beverley Knight had praised that book live on Radio 4, when in fact it turned out that the reference was made in a recorded interview and edited out before broadcast. Of course I comfort myself that the magnificent Beverley loved the book and I’m grateful for her generous intentions. But in the book world what counts is profile: being known. So an appearance in the media can make such a difference, not just because no one will buy a novel they’ve never heard of but because an on-air mention represents credibility. So I was delighted when THE WATERHOUSE GIRL was named in the Guardian’s list of Top 10 Children’s Books about hair.
If the public haven’t heard of an author they assume she isn’t worth reading – as I’ve discovered during Waterstone’s signings once or twice: “Sue Hampton? Who’s THAT?” or, sarcastically: “Oooh, wow, look – Sue Hampton!” And then there’s the deletion effect of a string of customers passing by me as if I don’t exist. But the curious and adventurous ones who ask questions, sample and buy a book are the magicians who remove the cloak of invisibility and firm up the friendly smile. On the up again! However, these peaks and troughs are rare now because although I used to be welcome at Waterstone’s branches where the manager liked my work, new rules from Head Office have effectively excluded all but celebrities (even if they didn’t write their books).
Talking of genuinely and deservedly big literary names, I’ve been praised by Michael Morpurgo too, but Harper Collins didn’t act on his recommendation that they published THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, and years later when I was interviewed up at their HQ in a development that I thought could result in a very big break, I was told that TRACES is “a really fabulous book” but they were “a bit thrown” by my breadth and range and “wouldn’t know how to brand me.” And of course, I don’t want to be branded. I’d assumed until a year or two ago that being signed up by a big publisher would be – apologies – ‘a dream come true’. That was before I met and read about authors who’d thought so too, until it happened to them and ended in tears – because these publishers took creative control, lied, delayed or even suddenly dropped the book before publication. I know of law suits over the rights to titles abandoned or advances demanded back. I’m afraid the book world isn’t always trustworthy or kind, and yes, of course it’s all about the money. Which is not my motive for writing – and if given a choice between a million pounds and a hundred passionate new Sue Hampton readers I’d choose the readers. No dilemma.
Bizarrely, a few hours after I finished writing this post, I heard from a CRAZY DAISE reader, grateful that my story restored her confidence as a woman with Alopecia: “Your book made my week.” So if you’re one of my readers, or have just read a book by another author that added something powerful and memorable to your life, tell the person responsible by email, tweet or review. Take her up where the view is great!