It’s always an awkward moment whenever anyone asks me what I do for a living. Where I come from it’s usually people who carry butterfly nets who call themselves writers. For that reason I might reply with (the partially accurate) ‘journalist’ or ‘software trainer’ (still partially accurate) or (the wholly authentic) ’unemployed’. Because isn’t it true that writing for a living is more than a little like being Del Boy for a living? Well that’s my experience anyhow.
I didn’t always want to be a writer and probably still don’t. It kind of came to me by osmosis after I’d tried my hand at dozens of other things that I wasn’t very good at. That’s not to say that I’m particularly good at writing; it’s just that I’m more less good with words than I am less more good at other things. And in my defence, the people who think I’m more less good at writing generally outnumber the people who don’t.
During my twenties my career as a writer – if you want to call it that – was pretty meteoric: The very first thing I ever wrote was published by a magazine when I was 25; by 27 I was a full-time journalist with a national newspaper; by 28 I was the editor of a sports magazine; by 30 I was writing for a wide range of magazines and newspapers on subjects such as music, sport and technology; by 33 I’d had my first book published. The world was my lobster.
And then it all stopped for me. From 1999 until 2013 I didn’t write a single word. Well I did actually, but they didn’t make a lot of sense if I’m completely honest.
I won’t go into the reasons for my extended vacation from writing; suffice to say that I was poorly and if you want to know the details Google will readily provide them for you. However, what the 14-year gap in my writing career has given me is a first-hand taste of how the climate has changed since the digital revolution for those endeavouring to make a living out of words.
Back in 1994 I found myself editing a couple of books by a then little-known writer named Terry Deary. In the course of this I approached the publishing company with an idea for a book series. It was kind of along the lines of The X-Files, which was very popular in those days. Surprisingly, the bait was taken right away. Along with Deary, I was commissioned to write two books in the series and paid a small fee upfront.
If there has been a consistent theme in my life it has to do with my total lack of appreciation for how lucky I have been. I was lucky to get my first ever article published by a magazine; I was lucky to literally take my choice out of three or four literary agents who presented themselves to me at a launch party; I was lucky to survive and flourish as a journalist; and I was lucky that my first book had the word ‘internet’ in the title in the days when the internet was still a relative novelty.
This tiny word meant that kids bought my first book in droves. From my point of view it was a throwaway thing written for a fee but in total it sold more than 100,000 copies. I did zero publicity, zero marketing. It just sold. And I took it all for granted. I thought it was natural that people would buy your book. It was only when my second book sold next to nothing and –despite great reviews in many of the nationals – my first adult book struggled to sell its 5,000 print run that I began to realise that I’d better start acknowledging the fact that somewhere up there I had a fairy godmother looking after me. And never more so was this brought home to me when I finally began writing again after my illness had been diagnosed.
In the first three months of 2013 I was finally in position to put fingers to keyboard and I wrote a book for my ten-year-old daughter Sofia. I wanted it to be something anarchic and different. Not anarchic in the already well-trodden Horrid-Henry-bogies-and-farts way but anarchic in that the book tackled issues that were adult and presented them in a manner that was palatable and yet amusing for people of Sofia’s age and older. Different in that it would be a kids book that treated kids like equals instead of talking down to them. The end result was a book entitled ‘Johnny Nothing’.
In April 2013 I bought myself a copy of The Artists And Writers Yearbook and began approaching agents. To say that I was a little blasé would be an understatement. Surely, I thought, there were a million agents out there waiting for me to resume my writing career? Wouldn’t it be like the Second Coming?
Another round of letters and another round of rejections. And another… My awakening was rude but I was not unbowed. I set to work on an adult novel and completed three chapters. At last an agent got back to me and wanted to see more. The problem was, there wasn’t any more. And I was simply not prepared to sit and write a whole book that might take me six months to a year to complete without at least a little bit of money to keep me in cigarettes and alcohol. Still. it was good for my dwindling confidence.
I changed tack: in Johnny Nothing I had a whole book to sell and – in my admittedly impartial opinion – it was good. It was genuinely good. And different. If I couldn’t find an agent who could present it to a publisher I would publish it myself. My next step, therefore, was to look at crowdfunding. Years ago I had written a partwork series entitled ‘The Ancestral Trail’ I knew that there was a Facebook fan group devoted to it that had hundreds of members. My first book ‘Internet Spy’ also had a lot of fans; twenty years after its publication I still got the occasional fan letter. Somebody had even made it into a film. Surely, all I had to do was announce my presence on Kickstarter and the money would flood in?
I have a degree in filming so I hopefully know a little bit about how to make a promotional video. So I made one and people told me it was genuinely funny. I posted it on Kickstarter and began my campaign to launch Johnny Nothing. Guess what? Nothing. After a month I managed to get people to pledge about a tenner in total. There was obviously something wrong with my campaign. Or maybe my book wasn’t as good as I thought it was.
So bugger it, I thought. I’ll publish it without any money. And that’s exactly what I did. Having taught Adobe InDesign for some time I put together the book in that program. I then set about illustrating the book myself, which I did solely on an iPad as a kind of bloody minded exercise in stubbornness. And lo and behold the book hit the Amazon top ten kids books chart within a week.
If you were expecting a happy ending that wasn’t. In fact, you could file it under ‘false start’. Within weeks the book began to plummet down the listings towards obscurity. Obviously some kind of marketing had to be done. I approached newspapers and was immediately featured in two of them. From their point of view mine was obviously a good story. ‘Best-selling writer who almost died comes back’ was the basic premise of their stories. I contacted radio stations and also got myself on to a few of them.
Next I let Google help me. The general consensus these days was that for a book to sell you had to have several things:
1/ A lot of followers on social media
2/ A successful blog
3/ A fan base
With this in mind I resurrected a dormant Twitter account and began working at gaining followers. Soon I had over 10,000. I began blogging. A lot. And I began contacting people who had enjoyed my other work, as well as trying to attract reviewers for Johnny Nothing.
It’s now just over a year since I self-published Johnny Nothing and I’ve learned a lot. I now realise that promoting yourself on the internet is akin to being a salmon swimming up a crowded river. You’re just one of millions of those pink fishes.
I’ve learned that like most things, the self-publishing revolution is both good and bad. Because even though it is now insanely easy to publish a book with your name on it this very virtue is actually an extreme liability. Because there’s a lot of real shit out there. And I mean real shit. Shit covers and shit words. And the moniker ‘self-published’ tends to lump you in with that shit. Lumpy shit, you might say.
I’ve learned that Twitter and Facebook and the rest of social media are OK but they are not the answer. And that the more work you put into promoting yourself actually ends up promoting Twitter and Facebook and the rest.
I’ve learned that blogging is yet another unpaid job that the internet tends to gift us. It’s great if you’re retired and financially independent and need people to talk to but don’t ever count on making a penny out of blogging. And don’t ever count on selling a single copy of your book via blogging.
All in all, it’s a gloomy picture for writers who want to have the luxury of eating an occasional meal. And in many ways it leaves me wishing that I’d taken that bank job that was offered to me years ago. A friend who did now has three cars and is about to retire to play golf.
So why bother, I hear you say? Well there are many reasons. I’ve never been one of those ‘writers’ who ‘have’ to write; who don’t ‘feel alive’ if they are not writing. When I read that on people’s Twitter profiles I generally find myself swallowing my own vomit. However, this doesn’t stop me from writing. And it doesn’t stop me from trying to get people to buy my books.
In my never-ending quest to sell ‘Johnny Nothing’ I’m currently touring schools. This, I think, is what I should have done in the first place. Because there is nothing like sitting face to face with your readers and hearing how they react to what you have written. And there is nothing like a hall full of children really laughing at what you are reading. It gives you hope. And even though these kids are unlikely to buy your book at this juncture, it’s a start. Because more than ever I believe that you have to take the long view these days if you are ever to become a success at writing. Alternatively, you have to be very, very lucky. And unfortunately for me I’ve already used up my full quota of luck.
Ian Probert 2015.
So a wonderful guest post from the equally wonderful Ian Probert. He has been an utterly brilliant author to work with and can’t wait to continue that into the future. All links including my reviews are below and as always any comments, pop them in the box below 🙂