Writing a novel for me requires routine. Publishing cycles are slow, with around a year between books, it can be easy to drift for days without actually producing any meaningful work. Apart from the odd e-mail from my editor and occasional catch up with my eternally patient agent, there is no real accountability for spending the whole month watching the cricket World Cup.
So, my answer to productivity, is to have a routine. To try and have some set times to be sat in front of my keyboard to be either researching or writing the second and third book of my historical thriller series, The Harveen Gill Mysteries. I allow myself only the length of time to drink my morning cup of tea to scroll through social media to see the latest thing that the writing community is getting excited about.
On the 22nd September 2023, there were a series increasingly emotional posts about the debut historical novel from the nineteen year old actress and now author Millie Bobby Brown.
The writing community is made up of some of the most supportive, kind and open minded people you could possibly meet, so it was something of a surprise to read these posts.
There was outrage that the book was actually in the main written by Kathleen McGurl, with Millie adding only the initial research and inspiration for the book and of course, her celebrity magic. Millie's grandmother was apparently a survivor of the Bethnal Green tube disaster on 3rd March 1943 in which 173 people died in a crush whilst rushing down into the tube station to take cover from a German bombing raid.
Writers posted up sections of the book and lambasted the quality of writing. Sentences were pulled apart and whole chapters ridiculed. This was the work of shoddy amateurs and not written nearly as well as much of the work that they had been involved in themselves.
People were further incensed that Nineteen Steps had been backed by a major publicity campaign and was heavily featured by Waterstones and other booksellers. At this point, with my morning cup of tea emptied, the ongoing research into the layout of the Ptolemaic Egyptian Palace on Antirhodos for my own book was calling me so I turned off my phone and promptly forgot about it.
It was a couple of days later and as expected, The Nineteen Steps was instantly on the bestseller lists. The national press featured photos of Millie arriving at Waterstones Piccadilly for a book signing and positive reviews drowned out any negativity.
I understand the rage at a young actress securing a major book deal with a big advance and publicity campaign ensuring success. For most authors, writing is a hard way to make a living. The average salary for a UK based author is £7,000 per year according to a report commissioned by the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and carried out by the UK Copyright and Creative Economy Research Centre (CREATe). This is far below minimum wage. The task maybe even harder for writers of historical fiction as they need to dedicate significant time to research.
The market for historical fiction accounts for only around 3% of overall book sales in the UK, so to see some of that small percentage given to someone who has not dedicated the time to research, drafting, editing and revising that we have to do even before querying, securing an agent and then going on submission for a publisher is frustrating.
However, the equation is not that simple. The maths in publishing does not work in that way. The reason that publishing suffers from a lack of diversity is not due to the prejudice of editors and publishing houses. Rather they follow trends in the market to give a higher probability of success. The big publishers have very detailed data on readers and book sales. A quick scan of agents/editors wish lists in the months after the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey would have writers rushing to the seedier parts of town to research their next book. There are any number of YA novels featuring wizards and witches heading off to school as the phenomenon of the Harry Potter series continues.
So, as a writer of historical fiction, I love that Millie Bobby Brown has chosen our little corner of publishing for her first book. I don’t mind that it was ghostwritten and I hope that it is a huge success and the inevitable film adaptation is top of the Netflix charts for many, many weeks. I hope that it inspires many young readers who have never read historical fiction to finish it and then take the next recommendation from Amazon for another writer and continue their journey into this amazing genre - I hope that book maybe your book.
Even more, I hope that this starts a trend for other celebrities to write historical fiction. Perhaps Taylor Swift could write about a colourful 1920’s country star solving murders revolving around the Grand Ole Opry? or Prince William could eclipse the sales of his brother's books with a dark, gothic Princes in the Tower novel? It will mean that the category grows, publishers will look for more great books and we all win together.
If that does not happen, I hope that we can at least be kind to the other writers that join this space. The playing field is not level, but it is not the fault of the players that are on it. Now, back to the cricket…
Hamish Morjaria is the author of the historical fiction Harveen Gill Mysteries which was acquired by Pan Macmillan in October 2023. The first book in the series is The Muziris Empire and will be released in Summer 2024