An Open Letter To New And Would-Be Writers

[This was first published a few years ago. I’ve since migrated my website to do something new with it, and lost a lot of old content. This was, I think, worth bringing over with me. It’s probably the most popular thing I’ve ever written, and still, I hope, makes some people feel a bit better about the publishing situation that they’re in.]

Dear all,

Re: expected sales of your debut novel (and probably most novels after that)

So, a few days ago, Robert Galbraith – author of The Cuckoo’s Callling, seller of 470ish copies of that novel in hardback – was exposed as being JK Rowling, who obviously has sold a lot more copies of books than Mr. Galbraith did. And then people began discussing why this happened; why the pseudonym that Rowling had created was exposed, and so quickly. It must have been, seemed the collective response, because of Galbraith’s sales. 470 copies was a dreadful number, sales so low that the book was a failure. It must have been, so the publishers and editors and writer and shops and everybody thought it better to leak the news and bolster those sales figures.

Thing is, that’s rubbish. Three months in, a debut hardback? 470 copies is fine. It’s not setting the world alight, sure, but it’s absolutely fine. UK only? That’s okay. It’s on shop shelves (or it was, until people panic-bought the novel upon the reveal) and one could get it on Kindle and whatever. 470 copies is absolutely fine. It’s a ground to build upon.

Have you sold 470 copies of your book? Awesome. Be proud of that.

I frequently hear it being said now that hardbacks are for reviews and blurbs, and the paperback is where the sales are. This is true. Hardbacks, unless you’re Kate Atkinson or Stephen King, aren’t meant to sell tremendous numbers. It’s nice if they do, of course, but they’re just not. They’re meant to sell, over their lifetime, 1000 or so copies. That’s when people (read: publishers) feel satisfied, because that’s a base to build upon.

People talk about publishing being short-tail nowadays – if you don’t sell, you’re done – but that’s not true, not unless you’re cashing in or something, or you’re in this for the right reasons. For the writer and publisher both, this still is about time, and audience, and nurturing – of both you, and your writing. And that’s how you have to treat this: as something that isn’t going to stop mattering to you. It won’t because it can’t, no matter how many copies you sell, or how that number is perceived by people who haven’t even read the book.

A personal story: earlier this year – a week before The Cuckoo’s Calling, in fact – a novel that I wrote called The Machine was published by HarperCollins in the UK. It’s my best book, I think – I hope – and I spent a long time working on it, trying to make it exactly what I felt it could be. I – quite literally – broke my heart writing it, and I worked harder on it than any other book I’ve written. Multiple rewrites from the ground up; so many hateful days where the words just wouldn’t come; hating it completely, and then realising that hating it was important. I worked hard.

In fact, everybody associated with the novel did. My agent did, reading multiple drafts of it; my editor did, working with me to get the book to be the best that it could be; my amazing HarperCollins publicist did, trying to get reviews in newspapers for it; the tireless, exceptional HarperCollins sales team did, trying to get it into stores so that you – other readers – could, in theory, buy it. We had great blurbs from other authors, an amazing cover that felt and looks expensive, and great initial word of mouth on the internet.

Only… Well, I can’t really find the book in many bookshops now. It didn’t get front of store in any, aside from the few stores that loved and worked the hell out of my previous books. It only got a couple of press reviews, and none from the broadsheet literary sections. Not many people have heard of it, really. On Amazon, Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling held a higher sales rank than The Machine did throughout its life to this point; I don’t know my sales figures, and I don’t really want to know (though I have been told that it’s the worst selling of my three novels). I’m guessing it’ll break my heart all over again were I to find out an exact number. The book has 11 5* reviews on Amazon, hasn’t had a single bad review on blogs, has lovely mentions on Twitter… and yet.

This won’t suddenly get easier, either. No reviews means no quotes from newspapers for the paperback cover; they mean no exposure, no paperback roundups (which are mostly abridged reprints of the HB reviews); and I’ve been told that some outlets don’t want to include The Machine in Summer Book roundups etc, because they want big name novels that readers have heard of, not new things.

Publishing is just like any other media business: you promote something, throw money at it, you tell people that they want it, and it will be a success. But not every writer gets that money; for some of us, we’re resigned to praying for miracles, or relying on blind luck.

So we graft, and we work, and we graft again. And we go back to the grindstone, and we try. This isn’t an industry where sales actually mean anything, other than that the machine is working; they are not representative of the quality of your work. I have to believe that, and so do you. Because, as a writer, it’s an absolute fucking treat to be published. To have your work on a shelf, somewhere. That has got to be the only goal, not some arbitrary sales figure or chart ranking. That’s soulless. That’s ripping the heart out of this business, and totally opposed to the reasons that – I would sincerely hope – you got into this in the first place.

You got into this to write. I tell myself that, when I am feeling sad about this – and I do, frequently, I won’t lie – but you got into this to tell the best story that you can, in the best way possible. You got into this to push yourself, and to try to affect people. 470 sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling; and I’ll bet every single one of those means more to Rowling than any of the people giving it 5* on Amazon just because it was written by her. I’ll bet she wasn’t even disappointed. So I can’t be. I reckon The Machine has sold around that number as well (and that’s my third or fourth novel, depending on how you count these things). All I really hope is that the readers who bought the book liked the book. I hope that it affected them.

That’s what you need to cling to. Getting into this was never about money. We’ve always known that. It’s not about advances, it’s not about film rights, it’s not about sales. It’s about writing the best book that you can, and then crossing your fingers. So while I get sad – The Machine has all but disappeared from your shelves, nothing to be done until the paperback is released in January and I get to try this all over again – I can’t be disappointed. Everybody involved has worked harder on it than they’re paid to, because they believe in it. I have to believe in it as well. I have a publisher who believes in me, the support of an amazing community of bloggers who get and like my books, and I’m still writing, every single day. I’m still trying to get better at this.

And you, ambiguous writer, have to believe in whatever it is you’ve written, because that’s all that matters. Make it the best it can be, put your heart into it. That’s what matters. Heart doesn’t sell books – luck and money sells books – but heart means you’ll be proud of it, and that you can stand by it. The Machine is my best book so far, I think, and I am really, really proud of it. Selling what I have (or haven’t) sold doesn’t change that one iota.

So, really, this letter is to tell you to ignore the people who treated Galbraith’s 470 copies as something to be ashamed of. It’s a great number. It’s something to build on, to be proud of. Any number sold is, frankly.

This isn’t about sales; it’s about intent. You intend to write a great book; do that. The rest is all, frankly, bullshit.

Yours etc,

James

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