It’s pretty rare to find an author who started off self-publishing, landed a multi-book deal with a big publisher, and then decided to go back to doing it herself… but that’s exactly what Polly Courtney has done.
Today she launches her latest novel Feral Youth. It’s a great, compelling story told from the perspective of a 15 year old girl growing up in Peckham, South London. Polly’s got some great experience with cover design, editing, marketing and more. We caught up with her to ask her a few questions:
A book’s cover is very important. It’s well known that you fell out with your publisher over their cover choices for some of your previous books which didn’t reflect their content. At what stage do you start thinking about the cover, and how do you go about coming up with the design?
The cover is critical. It gives your book its identity. Consciously or subconsciously, the reader makes a snap decision – not just in terms of what type of book it might be (style and content) but also whether (s)he likes it. A splash too much pink and you’ve tipped your book into the ‘chick lit’ box. The wrong font and your reader assumes thriller instead of memoir. You need to make sure that first impression is right. I actually start thinking about the cover design as I’m writing it – as the characters start to come alive and the themes start to grow. I don’t design the cover myself, however. I use a cover designer, who is amazing at what she does. As I’m nearing the end of the writing process, I give her an initial brief and she comes back with a selection of ‘roughs’, from which I choose one or two, then she works them up, then we narrow it down to one and tweak various elements, and it evolves like that.
This book is written entirely from the perspective of a 15 year old girl growing up in Peckham, in the language that she speaks. How did you make it sound authentic?
Of all my books, this was the hardest to write – but also the most interesting. I had to really immerse myself in Alesha’s world – a world of anger and fear and crime. I spent a lot of time on the streets of South London, literally, sometimes just listening and watching, but sometimes trying to reach out and make contacts. My middle-class accent and sensible clothes aroused suspicion, but once I explained what I wanted to do – how I wanted to portray a different angle from the mainstream media about the causes of the 2011 riots – there were people who were willing to open up. I also have links to young people through friends, schools and charities, so I was able to get different angles and viewpoints. After a while, the same themes kept coming up again and again. I started feeling angry about the same things Alesha got angry about. I started seeing things from her perspective. I even found myself using her language sometimes – much to the confusion of my family and friends!
It feels like this could be a real crossover book, in the sense that I can imagine both young adults and older people enjoying it. Was that the intention you had at the beginning?
When I started writing, I think my intention was to attract readers who didn’t know anything about this world – to open up their minds and show them the world through a different lens. But as I talked to more young people, both for research and more recently for the film-style trailer we’re shooting, I’ve realised that there is a lot of excitement among them. There isn’t enough literature that resonates with young people. I met a youth group leader the other day who said that that’s one of the big problems in schools; the texts are all out of date and irrelevant to young people’s lives. I really, really hope that this book does indeed have crossover appeal.
When it comes to marketing your own book, what do you think makes the biggest difference?
I think the most important thing a self-publishing author can do when it comes to marketing is to think about who the readers are and where they can be found. It’s no good launching an elaborate ebook/social media campaign if most of your readers are browsing the independent book shops for paperbacks, and similarly it’s a wasted effort doing TV and radio appearances if your readers are all buried in SciFi communities online. Every book is different, so every audience is different too. My readers are quite diverse in terms of demographic and technological adoption, so I use a mix of marketing techniques. For building up a long-term, loyal following, I commentate on current affairs on TV and I write for various publications and websites. As for specific marketing around launch, one of the things that works best for me is to throw a big party for everyone: friends, contributors and press. That usually gets a good buzz going!
If someone’s writing a book now, are there any things that they can start doing, which will make promotion of the book easier when they’ve finished?
Definitely. Start thinking about ‘angles’ that you might be able to use to promote the book. These might be themes in the book, storylines, experiences you underwent during the research for the book or a part of your own personal journey: anything that makes it interesting. You might even decide to adapt what you’re writing to make it more commercial, if selling copies is your main goal. (Not everyone wants to do that, though, so don’t feel you have to.) Ideally, you’d also have some ‘hooks’ in mind, i.e. real-world events or situations that make your book topical and relevant. For me, the two-year anniversary of the summer riots will be one of my hooks. It could be anything though, from Shakespeare’s birthday to a royal baby!
How to you edit and proofread your books – do you pay a professional, ask friends or do it yourself?
I do a mixture of all three. It’s impossible (and inadvisable) to do all your own editing, so I have a professional to do the structural edits – taking it apart so that I can put it together in a better way – and the copyedits. However, in between I let a team of self-selected fans loose on the manuscript, as well as line-editing it myself. As a final check, I have another set of self-selected fans and friends to check for typos and inconsistencies. Each stage requires a different skill set and I certainly don’t possess all the skills!
Some of the biggest recent hits seem to be series of books, which gives authors the chance to get readers hooked and eagerly awaiting the next instalment – are the any plans for a sequel?
I would love to do a sequel to Feral Youth. I got to know Alesha so well that I feel as though I need to know what happens next. I guess it’s just a question of whether my readers feel the same way!