Flash-forward to today and he is now a bona fide author, his own book out today after many years of working with other people’s books.
I recently chatted with Steven about publishing, writing, Bachelor’s Degree in Unemployment and whether it was awkward his employer’s rivals are publishing him:
1. What came first for you: writing or publishing?
Definitely writing. I wrote my first story when I was 6 and I’ve been hooked ever since. I would write and draw stories in exercise books my mum would buy for me. They tended to be outright rip-offs of things I was a fan of; instead of Ninja Turtles, I came up with Warrior Cats. Instead of Transformers, I wrote about the Power Converters (which sounded really cool at the time but now sounds like robots who transform into double adapters).
I majored in Creative Writing at unni, which started to feel like a Bachelor’s Degree in Unemployment until I got a job as an Office Assistant at a publishing house. Five years on I’m still there, having moved into marketing and eventually sales. All the while, however, I kept writing, dreaming of the day that I’d see my name on the front cover of a book.
2. You work for one of Penguin’s rivals: how have both your employer and Penguin handled it? How have you handled it?
My employer has been really great about it, actually. I remember mentioning in my first interview with them that I wanted to be a writer. In fact, I’ve been open and honest with them about my ambitions every step of the way and they’ve been nothing but supportive and encouraging.
Penguin’s been great as well. They’ve all been so friendly and helpful, and have allowed me a lot more input than I would have imagined. And while I’ve tried to keep a very distinct line between my job and my role as an author, a lot of the bookshops I call on have been telling me that they’re looking forward to the release of the book. Hopefully they like it when they get the chance to read it!
3. Did you query your own publishers? (Or did your agent, if you have one.) Why/why not. If so, did you use a pen-name?
When I finished writing the manuscript, I told my boss about it to make sure they had no issue with me pursuing it, and while a few people at work read it and offered some really helpful feedback I think it’s worked out for the best that I was picked up by another publisher. It would have been weird to try and sell my own book, to say the least. And though I considered using a pseudonym, it would have felt disappointing to have gone to all that effort to end up with essentially a stranger’s name on the cover.
4. Do you think it was an advantage that you already work in the industry?
Yes, in that it gave me a good knowledge base to work from. I didn’t have any connections at Penguin that helped me get through the door, though. My manuscript was picked out of the slush pile, and while I mentioned the fact that I worked in the publishing industry in my cover letter I didn’t go into too much detail about it because I didn’t know if it’d be a problem that I worked at a rival company.
I’d written another manuscript that I spent years trying to get published before this one. One of my bosses read it once and while he was really supportive of the standard of writing, he said that he didn’t feel it was very marketable. I didn’t really understand that at the time but I totally get it now. What I’d written wasn’t one thing or the other. Its genre and its readership were both ill-defined and its premise wasn’t easy to encapsulate.
And that’s the biggest thing I’ve learnt from my time visiting bookshops, and probably the best advantage I had in crafting my pitch letter. You need to have a strong, easily-communicated idea. I described my book as “Alex Rider joins the X-Men”, and while some people take issue with boiling a book down to such crude components, the fact is it immediately gives you an idea of the subject matter and the potential audience for it. My publisher must have agreed because they’ve retained that line in all their promotional material. If I hadn’t worked in the industry, I probably wouldn’t have known to be as “bottom line” as that.
5. Where do you see yourself in ten-twenty years time? Do you want to continue to juggle your publishing work with your writing? Or move into full-time author mode?
I’d love to be a full-time writer, even if that means taking on various other jobs and assignments. I just did some freelance copywriting for a children’s party book that will be coming out in September, which was a lot of fun. I’d love to do more jobs like that to help supplement the book writing.
That said, I still very much love my job and can foresee doing it for as long as they’ll have me. There are much worse things to be doing with your time than working with books.
6. Some authors say it’s easier having a day job that doesn’t involve words or publishing, so they can completely switch off. Many other successful authors juggle both. How do you see it? Do you think you could get sick of publishing and words?
I don’t tend to compartmentalise my life that way. If I’m into something then I’m all in. That said, the time demands can get a little overwhelming and you feel yourself yearning for the days where you were writing purely for fun, without expectations or deadlines. But then you remember the fact that this is what you’ve been wanting all your life and how many people would kill to have this opportunity and you shut up and get on with it.
7. With your debut novel just released, no doubt you’ll be doing a flurry of interviews and talks. What’s one question that, so far, no-one’s asked you that you really want to answer? (What’s the question, and the answer?)
Actually, this is the first interview I’ve done (it may not be very shrewd to admit that, but it’s true). If I were to speculate, I’d love to be asked a question to which I could simply answer “42”. That one’s for the Douglas Adams fans.
Sam Lee was just a normal teenager . . . until the disastrous emergence of his superpowers. Now he has the chance to join his childhood heroes and become the youngest-ever member of Vanguard Prime. But when the time comes, will Sam have what is takes to save the world?
Goldrush: Vanguard Prime Book 1 is out today.
And you’re invited to the launch! Check out the details here.