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When your debut novel launches in a pandemic

BY Clare Pooley
23rd Mar 2020

Clare Pooley took our three-month novel-writing course in London in 2018, where she worked on her debut novel The Authenticity Project with tutor Charlotte Mendelson. Within months of finishing the course, she gained representation and a major book deal for her debut novel, which was sold to Transworld in the UK and Penguin Random House in the US.

The Authenticity Project is set to publish in hardback on 2 April 2020. Public gatherings and book launches are being cancelled and Amazon is no longer stocking 'inessential items' (books!). So, authors, publishers and bookshops are having to be creative and come up with new and innovative ideas for promotion. Clare talks about what it's like to launch her book during the COVID-19 pandemic ...

You know that point in the novel which we, the reader, can see coming, but of which the unwitting protagonist is totally unaware? She is living a charmed life, which she stupidly takes for granted. Until disaster strikes, by which point it is too late.

Well, that blithely happy, blinkered heroine was me.

The last two years have been a wonderful dream. In March 2018, I sent off my application for the Curtis Brown three-month novel-writing course with Charlotte Mendelson. During that course, I not only met a fabulous group of fellow writers, but I wrote the first draft of the novel that had been in my head, slowly gathering characters, direction and detail, for years – The Authenticity Project.

Within three months of finishing the course, I’d landed a brilliant agent (Hayley Steed at the Madeleine Milburn Agency) and a six-way auction in the UK, culminating in a contract with Transworld – my dream publisher. This was quickly followed by deals in the USA and another twenty-eight countries. The CBC course taught us to avoid cliché, but sometimes they are true, and this really was beyond my wildest dreams.

For the past eighteen months, we have been building momentum towards the launch date – 2 April, 2020. There were several rounds of edits, then hundreds of early proofs were sent to authors, bloggers and journalists. There were events to meet the salesforce, media and the wider publishing team. I had no idea how many people were involved in launching a book, and it was totally thrilling – after months of typing away in solitude – to feel like part of a huge team, all wanting my little book to succeed.

As a ‘debut’, you are made to feel special. You get extra attention and marketing budget. But, as a result (perhaps incorrectly), you also start to feel that everything hangs on the success, or failure, of this one book. You believe it will totally define the trajectory of your career. Emotionally, it was a rollercoaster. One minute I was riding high, convinced it was going to be a great triumph, the next I’d be in despair, imagining being slated by readers and having thousands of books pulped.

Nothing, however, could prepare me for what happened next.

Just two weeks ago, despite the bad news circling above us like vultures, my publicist and I did a tour of bookshops around London, dropping off proofs of the book and telling booksellers all about the upcoming launch. A week later, we did the same in the north – Manchester, Sheffield, Harrogate and Leeds. This time we took anti-bacterial hand gel and skipped the hand-shakes. This time, the booksellers had lots of time to chat, because their shops were empty.

Every day for the past week an email has dropped into my inbox starting with the words we’re sorry to have to tell you that… The first casualty was my book launch at Daunt Books in Marylebone. I understood, obviously, but I had been imagining the launch of my first novel for pretty much my entire life, and I’m old, so that’s a long time. I ate cake and I cried. Since then, all the events which had been so carefully lined up have been cancelled one by one.

It’s true that people will need fiction now, more than ever, and we’ll all have more time to read. But if your book has no marketing or PR, and no-one is going into bookshops, it doesn’t have a hope of getting into anyone’s hands.

Well-meaning friends told me not to worry. There’s always Amazon they said, who could deliver my book to self-isolators all over the country. Then, yesterday, Amazon announced that they would no longer be stocking books as they are an ‘inessential item’. I could hear the thud of the final nail being hammered into my coffin.

I remind myself constantly that I am extremely lucky. So far, my family and I are all well and safe. I don’t own a restaurant or a travel agency. I’m not responsible for meeting a wage bill. I’m not on the front line of the NHS desperately trying to save lives. It’s just a book.

Some wonderful things have come out of this too. The outpouring of support on social media for, and solidarity from, debut authors launching in the next few months has been extraordinary. Every day there are more creative ideas about how we can launch our novels ‘virtually’, and some hugely generous book bloggers, and authors like Clare Mackintosh and David Nicholls, have taken the time to help publicise our books to their followers.

Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown made us feel better when he tweeted that launching a book is a marathon not a sprint. There is still the paperback launch, possible film/TV deals, and more opportunities down the line, and my publishing team are doing a fabulous job of trying to keep as much as possible on track, and adapting to our unforeseen circumstances.

So, here I am, in the second half of the story. The catastrophe has struck, and – like all good character arcs – the protagonist (me) finds themselves much changed. I am older, wiser, humbler, and more able to appreciate the important things in life – health, friends, family and loo roll.

Now, there’s a marketing plan! The Authenticity Project: Four hundred pages of relatively soft, semi-absorbent paper in a convenient protective hardcover…

Alternatively, you could read it, and – if you like it – tell your friends. Support your local independent, or Waterstones, by buying a copy from them online. They, and I, will be terribly grateful.

The Authenticity Project is available now as audio and eBook. Or, you can pre-order the hardback, to be published 2 April.