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Caroline Spalding
Features Correspondent
7:59 AM 29th September 2020
arts

Publishing In A Pandemic: Introducing Debuts UK 2020

E.B. White, the American author known for children’s novels including Charlotte’s Web, once said “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge”. How, therefore, does a debut author of 2020 shoulder the weight of this responsibility whilst also navigating the unchartered territory of publishing amidst a global pandemic?

We met via Zoom with a selection of debut novelists from the group, Debuts UK 2020, to discuss what has been, for them all, the unanticipated “rollercoaster” experience of becoming a writer, and how the group has brought them a sense of solidarity and companionship amongst the highs and lows.

Susan Allott (The Silence), Philippa East (Little White Lies), Trevor Wood (The Man on the Street), Cat Walker (The Scoop), Nikki Smith (All In Her Head) and Charlotte Levin (If I Can’t Have You) talked openly and with humour of the joy of being published for the first time during unprecedented times.

Charlotte Levin
Charlotte Levin
Debuts UK 2020 describe themselves on Twitter as a “motley crew of 50+ debut authors whose novels are out in 2020” and they initially came together back in April 2019 after the London Book Fair. They realised that they all shared common concerns, particularly how their books would be received by the public once the hurdle of publication had been surmounted.

Now comprising over 70 published or soon-to-be-published writers, the group has grown and evolved organically and its development has certainly not, according to Philippa East, been executed with the precision of a “military operation”.

To some extent the group’s development embodies the founding principles on which it all began. These are: in a world to which you are a newcomer, what is your place?; To whom do you turn for advice and guidance and who really understands what you are going through? As Trevor Wood candidly states, the writers had little knowledge and did not “want to look stupid in amongst a group of established authors” so instead they “started to find out things together.”

They therefore formed a group on Facebook, set up by a founding member Polly Crosby (author of The Illustrated Child). Seceding from a larger Facebook group for published writers, they felt able to ask newbies questions that might bore members of the longer-established group. They believe their group is the first of its kind; the only criteria for joining being that members should be debut novelists, traditionally published.

Nikki Smith
Nikki Smith
Debuts UK 2020 has evolved naturally, gaining a great deal of momentum once lockdown was announced in March. It has been a self-propelled trajectory: publishers and literary agents have been supportive of their taking the initiative – but the writers chuckle when they acknowledge that really, the group has saved their publishers and agents from a myriad emailed questions and concerns!

The group has given a platform to like-minded individuals who have shared a similar experience and from that developed firm friendships. We are told that there is a lot of general support within the writing world, but often this is confined to writers of the same literary genre.

Susan Allott
Susan Allott
The breadth of genres that stretches across the Debuts UK 2020 group not only brings together writers whose paths would not otherwise have crossed, but also brings their work to a wider audience through collaboration on social media. Initially wanting to support each other as people who juggled writing with a day job, now they collaborate to promote and sell each other’s novels - pooling resources to help a colleague up the ladder. Being a disparate group also means that expertise drawn from previous life experience may play a useful role: in this representation alone professional backgrounds include the worlds of finance and psychology, journalism, academia and even the Royal Navy.

They’ve all been grateful for the tendering of empathy and help where needed. For most, being published was the ultimate dream, but none could anticipate what would come next, not least in the midst of a global health crisis. As Nikki Smith remarks - in a normal job, in normal times, at least you have set objectives and a boss to tell you when you are going wrong. In a new field, however, in unchartered territory, they could at least ‘compare notes’, and not feel ashamed of their purportedly selfish response, say, to a negative review received in the context of Covid-19.

One aspect of writing that isn’t commonly acknowledged is that it can be quite a lonely journey. Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist) said: “The actual act of writing is hugely isolating and you are alone for weeks, months, years on end, going a bit loopy…” In usual times, there would be events - book signings and publicity shows, for example, to displace the feeling of seclusion. Lockdown has put paid to all that this year, but in some ways, Covid-19 has forced a new closeness and connection between the members. They would not have established their weekly Friday-night group Zoom chats had it not been for lockdown, an event now firmly a “staple for the weekend”.

Debuts UK 2020, they hope, will be the only group of debut novelists ever to exist during a global pandemic, but they have no plans to disband. How it will evolve remains to be seen – they have heard that a similar group, Debuts 2021, has been established on Instagram but the bonds these writers have formed this year will sustain them into the future. Many of the group are writing their second or even third books, all hoping that their writing careers don’t come to an abrupt halt and that they can shake off the dread of “imposter syndrome” to keep publishing.

They say that a first book can take as long as the writer requires: some have been many years in the making. But now they’ve achieved that objective, they feel a shared pressure to repeat it, often within a narrower timescale, especially for those who have secured a two-book publishing deal. They will ask themselves, inevitably, will people still care about what I have to say, am I now past it? The goalposts, Charlotte Levin says, constantly move and how you measure success all gets drawn into a complicated framework against which to judge yourself as a writer. And here again is one benefit of the group: a writer doesn’t necessarily want to share the pain and torment of the writing process, because, bluntly, if an author voices all this negativity, surely the audience will assume the worst about the actual novel! You must be mindful with whom you discuss your personal hang-ups, they tell me, but at least within the group, they know they are all in the same boat, more or less.

Reaching readers is always a challenge, more so if published when bookshops are closed, as was the case for most writers in the group. Now that bookshops have reopened, however, the writers still face a very crowded marketplace, with publishers rushing to unveil a backlog of books acquired during the lockdown. On September 3rd, Susan Allott tells us, 600 new books were published on one day, posing the challenge of getting a debut novelist’s voice heard amongst a crowd of better known and more established writers. We are told that people read more during lockdown, but it’s probable that people gravitated more to what they already knew, eschewing newer writers.

Cat Walker
Cat Walker
eBooks have grown in popularity, but bookshops, it seems, have an irregular attitude towards the books they choose to stock. Some, thankfully, have embraced the idea of supporting debut novelists: Waterstones in Harrogate have proactively supported the marketing of Cat Walker’s novel, however there does not appear to be a universal policy across the organisation. Others talk of making phone calls to numerous stores, to be left without a response. What the individual stores choose to stock depends, it appears, on both the store manager and the policies advised by central decision makers of larger businesses. Cynically, one suspects, bookstore owners and managers might prefer to go with the safe option of better known writers to recoup some of the revenue losses suffered during the months of closure.

With the absence of book signings and physical literature festivals, it has also been hard to gauge audience response, unable to reach readers face to face and adopt a marketing strategy to suit; all adding to a sense of isolation on the part of the writers.

This Saturday, October 3rd, marks National Bookshop Day on which bibliophiles will embrace our national love of literature and indulge in book-buying to support writers and bookstore owners alike. Social media is playing a role in drumming up enthusiasm for the national event: launched in 2013, National Bookshop Day forms part of a nationwide campaign entitled Books Are My Bag run by the Booksellers Association to celebrate bookshops. Endorsed by major publishing houses, booksellers and authors, the day will see bookstores holding events (many virtual this year), creating elaborate decorative window displays and encouraging people to step out in support of their local booksellers. It’s a chance for all who care about the book industry to encourage wider involvement and participation, sharing the love of books.

Phillippa East
Phillippa East
During lockdown there was a surge of interest in creative writing. Online literary festivals appeared in abundance, for example the Stay-at-Home! International Literature Festival held from March to April, and the Jericho Writers’ Summer Festival of Writing 2020.

In September the Debuts UK 2020 group held their own online festival through Facebook, set up by the writer Emma Christie. Diary of a Debut Novelist showcased interviews, events and articles and will likely continue into the coming months as a place for writers to post videos and stories to their audience – sharing tips, advice and plenty of opportunity for discussion and debate.

The events of this year, however, have not necessarily put people in the right frame of mind for creative writing, which led to us discussing the role of authors in society, and in particular, the role of books and reading for our cultural wellbeing. Jessie Burton notes - “In the end, seeing the impact that a book can have on a reader’s wellbeing is, in turn, the very best thing for a writer’s wellbeing”. Reading, Cat Walker added, may provide a reader with escapism, relaxation and the chance to see the world beyond their own boundaries and learn that they are not alone in their experiences, but for the writers themselves, writing can be “a way to process your own emotions and past traumas…and to work out your own, better, fictional solutions”.

Trevor Wood
Trevor Wood
The group acknowledge that they are, whether they like it or not, the “voice of our generation”, and this has prompted a discussion on the prospect of writing about the experience of Covid-19. It will certainly be revisited in fiction, but for now, they believe, the experience is simply still too raw and too fresh in the memory to relive it in fiction.

Susan Allott concludes that the experience has made her braver. Before the pandemic, she admits she was quite “timid” but having overcome the shock of the roadblocks that lockdown threw into the equation, she feels resolute in her determination to ensure her book reaches its audience, safe in the knowledge she has a reliable and unquestioning ally alongside her in the form of the group.

Over the next few weeks we will be publishing a series of reviews of the debut novelists’ work and author interviews – don’t forget you can contribute to the conversation on social media, following us on Twitter @TheLancsTimes.

Support Debuts UK 2020 by following them on Twitter @DebutsUK2020

The Silence by Susan Allott is published by Borough Press.

Man On The Street by Trevor Wood is published by Quercus Publishing.

Little White Lies by Phillipa East is published by Harper Collins.

All In Her Head by Nikki Smith is published by Orion Books.

The Scoop by Cat Walker is published by Red Door Press.

If I Can’t Have You by Charlotte Levin is published by Pan Macmillan.