Delighted to have Kevin Duffy of Bluemoose Books kicking off this series on The Empowered Author with the publishing story behind Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession. (Goes without saying, if you haven’t read this wonderful book yet, then make amends right now. It is the sort of book you immediately buy for 3 or 4 friends).
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession.
It arrived in my inbox at 11pm one Friday night in May 2018 and it did what all good email headers do, it grabbed my attention. LEONARD AND HUNGRY PAUL by Rónán Hession. The Booksellers Association did a survey a few years back and they stated that a book cover has a fifth of a second to catch the casual browsers eye. That’s 0.2 of a second. A cracking title helps and Rónán had a cracking title. I opened the email and read the first line. I have to say it is one of the finest first lines I have ever read in a book. Here it is. ‘Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.’ I’m telling you this because when you’re selling a book to booksellers or reviewers you are time limited. Your pitch has to be smart and quick and so I knew after reading the title and the first line how I could sell this book. Now the only problem was would the rest of the following pages match up.
I read the first chapter and contacted Rónán the following morning and asked for the full ms on paper. It arrived on the Wednesday and I offered him a contract on the Thursday morning. It is that good. Now to tell the bookselling world with little if no money.
The first port of call was my local Independent bookshop, The Bookcase in Hebden Bridge and their sister shop, The Book Corner in Halifax. I spoke to the managers, Kate and Sarah and told them I had found a gem and given the phenomenal success of The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, which was to go on and win the world’s leading literary prize for historical fiction, the £25k Walter Scott Prize, they didn’t laugh me out of court. If you can get your local booksellers passionate about your book, the independent network of bookshops they are linked to works like the bush telegraph.
Now to get the London press on board the LEONARD AND HUNGRY PAUL (LHP) wagon. Bluemoose is part of the NFA, the Northern Fiction Alliance and we were holding a southern roadshow at Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road at the beginning of October 2108. Publishing’s version of The Game of Thrones. The Northern publishers invading the south. The 8 publishers present would have 5 minutes to pitch and read, so before flying Rónán over from Dublin we needed to get some proof copies out into the world. By the end of September we had proof copies available and this is where you have to use your nouse and be aware of what is happening within publishing. I knew that Kit de Waal was editing a book of short stories from working class writers called COMMON PEOPLE. Rónán comes from a working class background and so I messaged Kit on Twitter and asked her if she would be interested in reading LHP. I was polite and said that if she was very busy, which she is, I would understand if she couldn’t manage it. Never demand, ask and be polite. She said she would and asked if I would send the book to her agent which I did. To be honest I thought she wouldn’t get round to read it given how busy she is.
Two weeks later she tweeted with a picture of LHP that a book had arrived and she hadn’t managed to get out of the door because she ended up reading the first three chapters straight off. A tweet a week later at 2am in the morning saying that she was laughing her head off at LHP. She gave her copy to Sarah Moore Fitzgerald at Limerick University who passed it on to Booker listed writer Donal Ryan and they all loved it. They gave us quotes and more importantly were so generous with their time about LHP that the internet lit up.
Rónán read the first chapter at Waterstones Tottenham Court Road and had the room in the palm of his hand. The response was brilliant and readers and booksellers and publishing professionals came up and congratulated Rónán on his reading and the book, which was great. It’s always good to get the industry talking about your book before publication, helps later with reviews and stuff.
I also thought we had a hit on our hands and one that Radio would love. The Reading Agency, a non-profit organisation that promotes reading and libraries manages BBC Radio 2’s Book Club, selecting a short list of titles for the consideration of the BBC. You have to enter 6 months before the scheduled book club is aired. I sent off proof copies and waited. Two months later I found out LHP had been short listed and then a month later that the BBC Radio producer’s had chosen LHP as one of the book club choices for spring 2019 and Rónán was to be interviewed live on air on the Jo Wiley show on Monday 14th March 2019. This was gold dust. Radio is the best way to reach readers and sell books, period. It is just the best way. There are 850,000 members of the Radio 2 Book Club.
I sent review copies to all the literary editors in the press and to book bloggers/influencers and they put up reviews of LHP the week before publication. They loved the book and told all their followers about Rónán and LHP. It matters, this book chatter is imperative because readers are looking for new books not just on the underground tube station posters but from book bloggers and people they trust and that is the greatest marketing tool we have , letting those influencers, if they so wish, to recommend our books to their followers.
By far the biggest influence on sales has been Indy bookshops who have sold 1000’s of copies. They fell in love with Leonard and Hungry Paul. From Scotland to Bath via Halifax and Cornwall, the book has been placed into reader’s hands by passionate booksellers and their trust has paid off because those readers have gone out and bought even more copies for friends and families. Still the best way to build a bestseller is word of mouth. Book clubs and libraries up and down the country have already chosen it as their book of the year and even today four months after publication readers are emailing and contacting me about how much they love LHP and that means everything.
Find a book you fall in love with, let those you trust in bookselling and publishing aware that you have something special and get them to read. You have to be authentic, passionate and free of bullshit. I always say to people who want to get into publishing, it isn’t the great big grand gestures that sells books, it is the small things you do every day that will pay off and give your book and author longevity. What I’m doing today may not pay off tomorrow or next week but I’m damned sure it will in two, three, four months down the line and as we all know it is the back list that keeps publishers in business, sustaining our future publishing lists. Thanks for listening.