My Experiences as a Debut SFF Author
by Gerrard Cowan
The day I got my book deal is one that will stay with me forever. I remember I was sitting in work, minding my own business, when my phone buzzed. I looked down, and there it was: an email from HarperVoyager, saying they wanted to publish The Machinery.
I came into publishing through a slightly unusual route: the HarperVoyager Digital Submissions programme. This was launched back in October 2012, and allowed writers without agents to submit their novels to the publisher. I had finished writing the book about three months earlier, and had been firing it off to various agents, with little success. I thought, ‘what the hell,’ and sent the book in.
I honestly did not expect to get it. My thinking, rightly or wrongly, was that I could use the experience to judge how good the story and the writing were. If HV knocked it back straight away, I would think it needed a lot more work, but if it got quite far along, I would know I was onto something, at least in the eyes of this publisher. But then I got that email, and I almost fell out of my chair. That is not a joke.
So what’s the experience been like? What have I learned? It’s been overwhelming, exciting, and educational. It’s also been a lot of hard work. I probably shouldn’t boil it down to a handful of key points. But I will.
1) SFF writers are fantastic …
I have heard before that publishing is a fiercely competitive, dog-eat-dog world, where it’s each person for him or herself. OK, yes, of course it’s competitive, like all professions. But other writers are amazing. I’ve befriended a fair few through social media, and they have always helped me out with queries, from the mundane to the complex. That also goes for writers at the very top, many of whom offer opportunities for new authors to blog on their site: John Scalzi is a good example. The SFF writing world is a welcoming place.
2) … and so is the wider SFF community.
Honestly, if you’re a new writer or you aspire to be one, reach out to bloggers and journalists in the SFF world. You couldn’t find a nicer bunch. They really care about the genre, and welcome anyone new with open arms, in my experience.
3) The art of editing
I’ve only had one book go through the editing process, so I might not be the best to judge, but I’ve found it a great experience. My editor made suggestions – never orders – and they really made a big difference to the book. More than anything, they got me thinking about the story in a way I hadn’t before, and led to me making some pretty big changes that I think made it much better. Editing is a real art.
4) You have to let go
Editing is great, but it can take over your life. You have lived with this book for a long time: seven years in my case, from the day I first had the idea to the day I sent in the final proof. When it’s just you and your novel, you can tinker away at your leisure. When there’s a deadline hanging over you, things get more serious; you find yourself flicking through pages late at night, staring at the same sentence for the ten thousandth time, worrying about characters and descriptions and even individual words. But there comes a point when you have to let it go out into the world, to see what others make of it. That’s coming for me soon, and I feel a mix of excitement and apprehension. I imagine the second book will be very different and I won’t be quite so obsessive. I hope not, anyway.
5) You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover … but …
One of the great things about releasing your book through a publisher is the cover they make for you. OK, everyone knows the old saying about covers and judging, and it is of course absolutely correct. But they are important, particularly in this digital age where they have to look good in a tiny thumbnail. I didn’t really have anything in mind for mine, and was delighted with what they came up with. The Machinery follows a society whose leaders are chosen by an omnipotent machine, but there’s a prophecy that claims the next leader selected will bring ruin to the world. The cover they went with shows a mysterious figure, bathed in a spectral light. I loved it, and would probably have tattoed it to my forehead by now if it weren’t for SOCIETY, man.
So overall, I’ve found only upsides in being a new writer. Obviously I would love my books to do as well as possible, but even if everything was to fizzle out from here, I’ve very much enjoyed it so far. I’ve made great friends and I’ve learned a lot. The main thing I would say to people who have just got a book deal, or who are working towards one, is this: listen to the experts. Things might not go exactly as you expect, but if you have good people on your side, they will probably go better.
The Machinery by Gerrard Cowan is available on ebook now, and paperback in 2016.