Something pretty awesome happened this week in the world of publishing. A début novelist sold more books in her first week of being published than anyone else has since records began (apparently, only in 1998 – but it’s still cool). Are you amazed? Thrilled? Excited? I certainly am.
The author’s name is Zoe Sugg, who goes by ‘Zoella’ online. Until the other day I was only vaguely aware of her existence. As well as a novelist, Ms Sugg is a vlogger and a YouTuber who posts videos online dealing with beauty tips, which might explain my lack of familiarity with her work. Her novel, Girl Online, seems fairly squarely based on her own experiences as an ‘internet sensation’, insofar as it deals with a teenage girl’s sudden rise to fame after her anonymous blog goes viral; whatever about the similarities to her own life experiences, though, it definitely seems like a zeitgeist-y piece of work which speaks to the modern reader and is based squarely in the world we live in right now, where the internet is king and many people live their lives online. It doesn’t, to be honest, sound like my kind of book, but I’m so pleased by its runaway success, and long may it continue.
This wasn’t the only wonderful publishing success story announced this week, though. Another young woman by the name of Tallia Storm (who, at sixteen, is already an accomplished musician) signed a two book deal with Scholastic, and her début novel will be about the meteoric rise to fame of a young singer. Again, it sounds somewhat based on the author’s own experience – but what’s wrong with that? When you’ve had a life wherein you’ve played onstage with Nile Rodgers while still in your teens, frankly you owe it to the world to share your story.
Fantastic news, right? Well.
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a tendency among aspiring writers, and others, to be disdainful of book deals like these. Commenters have complained that these books are not ‘literature’, or that they are too closely based upon the authors’ own lives to count as fiction. At least one person has said that seeing Zoella’s success was the nail in the coffin of her attempts to get published, and that instead of being inspired and impressed by Zoella’s success she felt dispirited and saddened by what she saw as an effortless book deal. To that person, and others like her, I’d like to say: I get it. I understand how hard it is to try, and try, and try. I understand how hard it is to constantly put yourself out there, submitting and querying and dealing with feedback and criticism and rejection, and I know it’s hard. Even when you get an agent, there’s no guarantee of a book deal. Even when you get a book deal it’s no guarantee of sales. Even if you get the sales, it’s not necessarily a guarantee of fame, or fortune, or recognition, or awards. In short, in publishing there are no guarantees. Sometimes, it can feel like there are no rules. And yes, sometimes celebrities can appear to romp straight to the top, and it can be hard to take, particularly if you’re not looking at the bigger picture.
However, both of these young début authors have been working for years behind the scenes in their own fields – vlogging and music, respectively – to build their following. Both have an established fanbase and an undeniable level of expertise. Neither of them are ‘overnight’ successes, nor have they been plucked from obscurity and garlanded with a book deal. There’s nothing unfair about their treatment. In both cases the publishing houses involved saw the authors as a good bet, and worth investing in, and they’ve made a sensible business decision.
But there’s also this very important point.
If an author gets a book deal and is then wildly successful, like Zoella has been and Tallia no doubt will be when her book is published, it is a good thing for all writers, published and unpublished alike. It’s a good thing because it shows that there is still an audience out there for books, and that people are still interested in buying books. It shows that there’s still a market to be catered for. It shows that there’s still money to be made in publishing. Having a successful book also means, for a publisher, that they may be in a better position to offer deals to aspiring writers – so, far from being discouraged by successes like these, I think aspiring writers should be applauding them. I have always been of the opinion that, when it comes to publishing, a rising tide lifts all boats; one person’s success is a success for everyone. As well as all this, thousands of teenage readers who may have been disengaged or disinterested in reading up to this point or who may have been searching for a book which spoke to them and made sense in their lives have now found a book they love, and which they are reading with huge enjoyment, and I think that’s fantastic. All reading is good reading. These books may not be what some would consider ‘masterpieces’, though I don’t feel it’s appropriate to make a call on that. Whatever their literary merit, I am delighted to see two young, hard-working women succeed like this, and I’m delighted that in 2014, in the midst of the internet revolution, we’ve seen the highest sales for a début novel since records began.
That, to me, is the most awesome thing of all.