A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It’ll be ten years in October since Phillipa Ashley’s first novel, Decent Exposure, was published in the UK. A year later, she became one of the very first interviewees of a fledgling Vulpes Libris (we celebrate our own tenth anniversary next year).
Since then her career has blossomed, with 12 published novels, a film deal and a brace of awards to her name, so it seemed an excellent moment to renew and old acquaintance ….
VL: So. Ten years. That’s a long time in publishing. Does it feel like ten years ago that your writing career took off?
PA: Absolutely not! It’s scary that a whole decade has passed since I sent off my first ever novel to an agent. At the time, I had heard time and again that you couldn’t have your first novel published and that you had to submit many novels to many agents before you might gain representation.
I’ve never forgotten the sheer disbelief when Broo replied, saying she loved the partial and would be interested to see the rest and in representing me ‘if I could sustain’ what I’d sent her. In fact, I was so green and so new to the process, that I thought she might be a charlatan rather than one of the most experienced, respected and sought after agents in London.
Happily, we now know each other well enough for her to laugh at that story.
One of the problems with writing, planning and promoting books is, I think, that it makes time fly by faster. It seems to parcel up your time into chunks of waiting for submissions, edits, covers and publication day. Before you know it, half your life has whizzed by …
VL: I remember that when we first approached you about an interview to accompany the review we were running of ‘Decent Exposure’ you couldn’t believe THAT either. Do you still, somewhere, have the lurking feeling that you’re just a little urchin and one day someone’s going to rumble you and the game will be up?
PA: Ah, you mean ‘Impostor syndrome” I presume? I think that feeling of ‘being found out’ afflicts most writers at some point. However, without sounding complacent in any way (and publishing is a business that punishes complacency faster and harder than most) I’ve come to accept, that after 12 published novels, and 3 more to come in 2016/17 with 4 major publishers, a film deal, two awards and translations into half a dozen languages, that I may have become an author by mistake! Despite my CV sounding healthy, I have many – far too many – days when I feel that I don’t know what I’m doing and I should give up and get a Proper Job. Fortunately, it’s much too late for that so I carry on writing even when I feel every word is rubbish. Knowing other authors feel that way, and that the doubts are not only normal but healthy and necessary, is a comfort. Sometimes …
VL: Publishing has probably changed more dramatically in the last ten years than at any time since the invention of moveable type, with the advent of e-publishing in all its forms. You’ve had experience of most of them, of course … but if you were starting from scratch today, armed with the knowledge and experience you now have, would you still choose the same route in?
PA: Many romance publishers, particularly digital imprints, are open to non agented submissions these days which is a very good development and of course, self publishing is a viable option and can be highly lucrative. More and more of the established authors I know are hybrid authors with a mix of traditional print, digital and self pubbed backlists. I’d definitely still take the agent route as I value her industry knowledge and editorial expertise, not to mention her moral support throughout the past ten years. One of the biggest contracts I’ve had also came as a direct result of my agent’s industry knowledge and expertise, and I certainly wouldn’t have got it without her. That’s not to say I wouldn’t self publish some of my work at some point, if I feel it’s the best option, but I’m delighted to have signed a new three book deal for my new Cornish series with a fantastic digital first publisher. Digital first is a great way to bring books to readers faster, which was important with this series. The advent of new digital imprints has also opened up many opportunities for new and established writers, giving fresh voices a chance to bring their work to readers outside the traditional ‘category’ style romance.
VL: Publishers will say, of course, that they know what sells – which is why they’re generally unwilling to put a toe into strange waters … to the extent of actively discouraging writers from trying something slightly different. That’s not only vaguely insulting to the book-buying public, it also must also, inevitably, have a deadening effect on creativity … but are there, do you think, hopeful signs that traditional publishing houses – encouraged by the e-publishing revolution – are beginning to becoming more receptive to genre-breakers?
PA: In short, yes I think digital publishing has enabled publishers of all sizes to experiment to a degree with different lengths and types of stories, within the romance genre. I can’t comment on cross genre novels, I’m only generalising within romance. However, sales are vital to publishers of all sizes: without those they can’t publish anything. I also think that Amazon have a lot of influence on the visibility of any novel but don’t ask me about the intricacies of their dark arts!
VL: Ha! Amazon is a whole other subject … but it does bring up the thorny question of publicizing your books, especially on social media. It’s a delicate balancing act and if you get it wrong, it backfire horribly. Sometimes Twitter seems to be wall-to-wall ‘Read My Book’ posts – which, quite frankly, I more often than not just skim past. What’s your approach to it?
PA: What’s my approach? We shall see when my new one comes out in May! For the past 18 months, I’ve had the luxury of not having to promote a book, so I’ve been closely observing the author Twitterverse. The general etiquette and advice is not to overdo it, keep a balanced ratio of ‘personal’ vs ‘promo’ tweets and posts etc I also see other advice about delivering content relevant to your ‘brand’ to followers. The idea of managing people like this fills me with horror BUT – hear the fanfare – in my experience, the people who do shout loudly, are successful at getting their book and name in front of readers. I think you have to swallow your natural revulsion and shake off your reserve and shout about your book, loudly and a lot. How bold I will be when it comes to the crunch, I’m not sure, but after working so damn hard on writing it, and loving the characters, I know I want as many people as possible to read and enjoy it. That’s the thing, you see, it’s really not about the money for me, it’s about sharing my work as widely as possible so I can keep on doing it.
VL: So you still love writing as much as you did when you first began? Working at the coal face hasn’t blunted the pleasure at all?
PA: I must do, or I couldn’t have carried on through 11 years, 15 novels – in fact, I opened the file on Number 16 today. I can’t seem to stop (and believe me, there have been moments when I wanted to).
VL: Romantic novels are, of course, notoriously prone to being formulaic … something that’s almost unavoidable given that the central theme is nearly always a variation on ‘boy meets girl, something-goes-wrong, but everything’s fine in the end’. Given the eye-watering sales figures that romantic novels enjoy, it’s obviously a winning formula, and I’m not knocking it, but finding ways of introducing variations, twists and new perspectives must be very difficult – and as important for you as a writer – to keep you fresh, as it for the readers, to keep them engaged …
PA: First of all, I’d like to be part of the ‘eye-watering sales figures’ with my new book!
I can’t speak for other authors but I write a romantic novel because it’s a story I want to tell, with characters who appear in my head and demand to be written about.
As for fresh twists, as a case in point, last year I finished two novels because I couldn’t choose between two very different ideas that both screamed at me to give them life. One is a ‘scientific rom com’ about a brilliant young female scientist who risks everything to help her pregnant sister win back her cheating partner. It features ‘cutting edge’ genetics and tiara making and is written in the third person past from the two sisters’ points of view. I’m making some developments to that one at the moment.
The other is the book that’s going to be published this spring. It’s the first in a new romantic series set in Cornwall, which I’ll be announcing soon.
Cornwall is a place that makes my soul sing and which I visited four times during last year alone.
After a fallow period when I needed to recharge my batteries, both ideas came to me at once. I wrote them in tandem and when the novel set in Cornwall was finished, I had several offers for it from London publishers.
I leave it to you to decide if this romance author has any trouble finding a fresh twist – my only worry these days is that I know I’ll never be able to write all the books I want before my time runs out. Now, that is scary.
VL: Cutting edge genetics and tiara making? … Okay. That’s definitely a fresh twist.
Final question: In the interview nine years ago, we asked you to name your five favourite books/plays/poems. If we asked you again, would your choices be the same?
PA: I would now add the Poldark series of novels – especially the fourth, Warleggan, which is stunning. I dare not say more because of spoilers. The books are so gripping, so evocative and so psychologically true to the characters – and on a technical point, Winston Graham breaks every modern ‘rule’ of writing by using multiple points of view within the same scene yet does so in a masterful way. I can’t wait to see how the TV adaptation handles one particular aspect of Warleggan.
VL: Excellent choice! Thank you very much for finding the time to chat when I know you’re frantically busy. Good luck with the Cornish novels – and here’s to the next ten years …
Let's stay creative and energetic in our endeavours, and support each other as we resist the extremists, all over the world.
Monday 23 January: a rerun of Sharon's review of The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman.
Wednesday 25 January: Simon takes a look at some Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal.
Friday 27 January: Hilary ascends Golden Hill with Francis Spufford.