Discovering how Elizabeth sold a million copies

Emma Healey’s emotionally impactful debut novel Elizabeth is Missing (Penguin), 2015’s bestselling paperback debut and a Costa First Novel Award winner, has sold over a million copies worldwide into 30 territories and been translated into 27 languages. But success like that doesn’t just happen – as Healey, literary agent Karolina Sutton and editor Venetia Butterfield explained during Elizabeth is Discovered, a panel at Curtis Brown’s Discovery Day on Saturday at Foyles.

Chaired by Anna Davis, director of Curtis Brown Creative, the panel offered its perspectives on the publishing process, and the hard work that goes into the making of a hit debut like Elizabeth is Missing.

The book took Emma five years to write. In the early stages, she attended London-based courses to develop the skills she needed, and set up a critique group with other writers – it was invaluable having “a group of people who know if you’re not writing”. Emma mentioned earlier “semi-autobiographical” novels that had “fizzled out” about a “girl living in London with her boyfriend, and her job…” It took time for her to find a story she “connected to, something that was mine”, that really resonated with her – and would go on to resonate with others. At the end of her UEA MA, students met agents, but for Emma it was less structured than that – more like “hiding in a corner with a glass of wine and being able to say ‘Oh yeah, I met you that time’ when actually you hadn’t”. It took another year of editing before Emma felt ready to submit her manuscript to agents.

(From left) Anna Davis, Venetia Butterfield, Emma Healey and Karolina Sutton. Picture: Amy Lankester-Owen

For Karolina, one of the most rewarding elements of working with writers is when she gives someone like Emma editorial feedback. “She took some of the prompts, then went and did her own thing that was much better than anything I could have suggested,” said Karolina. Her advice for the prospective writers in the audience: “Your reader will never give you the solution, you have to find it yourself.”

Venetia read Emma’s manuscript and loved it immediately. It’s rare, but “there’s a tingling thing that goes on. You’re a bit like a shopaholic: you have to have it.” Everyone at Viking, up to the c.e.o., wrote their personal reactions on handwritten notes, echoing Maud’s incessant note making in the novel, and securing them Emma’s book.

Returning to the core activity of the day, which saw writers pitch their books to agents from Curtis Brown and Conville and Walsh and get feedback, Davis reminded the audience how all-important that quick, ‘elevator’ pitch is – it ignites the imagination, and needs to be passionate, but “it doesn’t have to be high concept”. It’s not just the author who pitches the novel to the agent they’d like to work with. That pitch is the thread running through the entire process: as Karolina said, it’s how publishers get the attention of their marketing colleagues, how sales teams sell the book in to booksellers, and how booksellers sell it on to customers. The 10-second sell is how the publicist attracts media interest, too. Your pitch can’t be “too abstract or it will dissipate in that chain”, said Karolina. For Emma’s book, the strapline was: “How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?”

But not every book sells a million copies. What about the so-called midlist, and when might it be a good idea to self publish? “We probably don’t publish as much as we used to… what we’re trying to do is publish those books better,” Venetia said. A lot of work goes into publishing any book, however many copies its publishers set out to sell.

And agents “can have blind spots”, admitted Karolina: “We are not arbiters of taste.” If you have true belief in your book, and you know there are readers out there, then consider self-publishing, though it works better for niche genres than for literary books. You should do it with a strategy, too. Don’t just put the manuscript up online. In traditional book publishing, as Karolina said, there are many “people behind the scenes, making sure each book is positioned correctly, with the right marketing campaign, that every bookseller in the country has heard about it six months’ ahead of publication… How do you become that one book a reader notices and buys?”

Anna also cautioned: “Be prepared to move on to writing another book. Real writers will keep going.”

Elizabeth is Missing reaches out to the reader, and it’s an inspiring example to other writers, of publishing doing what it does well. From Emma’s authorial sense of being connected to the text, to Venetia’s tingling feeling, it all coalesced into a work of meaning, and relevance, and of course, one that sold and sold.

Amy Lankester-Owen is a writer and freelance editor. She also lives in Stoke Newington with the editor of The Bookseller.