Publication day. I woke up and ran downstairs to the laptop. There it was, available to order. Actually out and published. I danced around the kitchen. I danced through the morning, to the beat of whining children and sandwich-making. I bundled the children up the hill to school, wondering if I looked different. Cleverer. Harassed parents said hello. “Very impressed,” said one who has seen the book. “Wait until you read it,” I said, aiming for self-deprecation and missing by a million miles to land in big-headed twatdom.
It is the weirdest feeling, that you – a stranger, who is most definitely not my mum – will actually be able to buy my book. Maybe even read it. So here I am, a published novelist. A dream 20 years in the dreaming and ten in the writing.
What do you do, people will ask me at parties. I am a writer, I will reply – all nonchalance and off-hand shrugs. A writer.
I first started trying to write fiction in earnest about a decade ago. I was working as a financial journalist, trotting out pieces on pension planning and mortgage deals. It was a fabulous job. There were freebies and champagne, PRs with credit cards bankrolling lunch. But, always, always, there was the voice in the background.
I could hear the obsessively bookish child, the child who believed that books were everything. The girl who argued passionately for the genius of Mary Renault and CS Forester and Rosemary Sutcliff. The girl who cried for hours when Tess was hanged, when Will called Mr Tom ‘Dad’, when the pirates sailed away from Frenchman’s Creek.
The child in me might have called me to write, but the adult has learned some hard lessons about publishing on the way.
My first novel remains unpublished – which is not surprising because it was pretty crap. Treason’s Daughter is the second completed manuscript and the first to find a deal. It’s a truism often repeated that writing is a skill like any other; it requires practice and hard work. Stuff the muse; what counts most is effort. Writing is what happens when you’re not fannying about on t’internet.
The money is terrible. Really terrible. I think my per hourly rate is about 20p. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but one estimate suggests that writers tend to earn less than 30 per cent of the average wage. About 60 per cent have second jobs. Some 10 per cent of writers earn 50 per cent of all the UK’s royalties.
Even the traditionally-published authors need to become self-publicists. It is not enough any more to have a pretty cover and expect to be picked up in a bookshop. The migration to digital, the decline in traditional book-selling and the drying up of review space in national newspapers for fiction have all conspired to make visibility a real issue for debut novelists. Amazon algorithms are mysterious but the one obvious point is that the more you sell, the more visible you will become. It’s a virtuous circle, but one that’s hard to break into.
One hitherto un-suspected realm for book publicity I have been introduced to is the blogosphere. There are umpteen passionate, committed book bloggers out there, reading and writing reviews. My publisher sent out my book to a number of bloggers, one or two of whom have reviewed it for their followers. It’s a strange sensation. I’ve been encouraged to embrace Twitter. One of the bloggers tweeted her view of the book as she went along – I watched a reader reading my book in real-time. It led to some strange etiquette issues; should I reply to her tweets about Treason’s Daughter? Act aloof and dispassionate? Cravenly thank her for reading it at all? (for the record, she loved it: http://forwinternights.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/treasons-daughter-by-antonia-senior/).
As a journalist whose professional life coincided with the rise of digital, I am used to the notion of the relationship between writer and reader becoming more personal. The comments at the bottom of articles can be funny, insightful or bonkers. Sometimes they can be cutting. You need a thick skin – as I discovered when I wrote a passionate column in favour of abortion – and even more so when I accidentally implied that sci-fi was a bit rubbish.
I look forward with some trepidation to being in contact with my readers – if I have any. But questions of tone arise. I want to sell my books but I don’t want to look desperate.
There’s no intermediary, no banner of a century’s old newspaper to give me automatic gravitas. There’s just me on my laptop pretending to be a 17th century teenager, and you in your bed/kitchen/sofa/hammock/beach, all passing judgement on my ability to tell a story. Be gentle, I want to shout into cyber-space. If you must tread upon my dreams, could you take your heels off?
So here I am. Alone in the study, with a cup of tea and a sausage roll instead of oysters and champagne. I miss the irreverent, boisterous and sweary company of other hacks. But I have never been happier. Because I am a writer, now. And that, even in this age of Kindles and tweets and blogs and self-published s&m dross, means something. To me, it means everything.
By Antonia Senior
More info: @tonisenior; Antoniasenior.com; www.amazon.co.uk/Treasons-Daughter-Antonia-Senior/dp/1782392645; http://atlantic-books.co.uk/content/antonia-senior