What a week and a bit it’s been.
A lot has happened since I last wrote about my experiences of being on the Guardian’s Not the Booker shortlist. The main new event is that my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, has been reviewed by Sam Jordison, the Guardian’s book club reviewer.
And the review is pretty scathing – which is exactly how I expected it to be.
In fact, I’ve spent the whole time between being shortlisted and his review warning my supporters, and especially my family, that Sam’s review would rip my novel to shreds. ‘Surely not?’ they all countered. ‘Believe me,’ I would reply, ‘I’ve been following Not the Booker for a few years now, and it’s not a friendly place to be.’
‘Why then,’ a good friend asked me, ‘did you want anything to do with it in the first place?’
‘It’s a brilliant platform,’ I replied. ‘Let a reviewer tear my lovingly crafted novel to pieces. If it means Not Thomas reaches an audience it would never otherwise have had, I’ll gladly let them do it.’
She didn’t quite get it.
And I guess it does sound pretty weird. I suppose it’s not the path all writers would choose to go down. I’m sure there are plenty of authors who would rather cut off their fastest typing hand than launch themselves into a less than flattering spotlight.
But when I was nominated for the Not the Booker, I saw it as a huge opportunity I simply couldn’t waste. I knew my novel would attract negative attention. I knew it would receive a harsh review from Sam. I knew many of the comments from the Guardian’s book clubbers would be damning and brutal, but yet…
I also knew that very many people who had read Not Thomas had praised it.
I knew those readers had recommended it to other people, and they’d liked it too. Word-of-mouth was working well for Not T, but word-of-mouth is a slow process. I needed to hurry things up. I’m over fifty with a heart condition and I may never write another book. This was my one, and possibly, only chance at getting my novel out into the big wide world.
What would you do if you were me?
Well, this is what I did as Sara…
Once I knew I was definitely on the Not the Booker longlist, I set about asking those people who’d already read Not Thomas and liked it, to think about giving it one of their votes.
There were very many worthy titles on the list – some of them from writers I knew personally, some from Welsh writers like me, and some from world-famous authors. I felt uncomfortable asking people specifically to vote for my novel, but I wanted to draw their attention to the fact that this particular prize is voted for by the public. And they had two votes, so if they had a spare, they might consider giving it to Not Thomas.
I sent out that message on Facebook and Twitter, and I waited to see what happened.
Thankfully, messages of support started coming in. People who’d read Not Thomas wanted to vote for it, but the Guardian’s Not the Booker voting page was proving a nightmare. At the top of the page it promised a ballot paper below, but at the bottom of the page there was no ballot paper to be seen. Nowhere did it say ‘Vote Here’. You had to click on ‘Join the Discussion’ to place your vote. Even then it wasn’t straight forward.
People who typed their review straight into the comment box often found the review disappeared once they clicked ‘submit’.
So I wrote a step-by-step guide and pinned it to my Facebook page. I wasn’t directing people to vote for Not Thomas, of course, but setting out guidance generally about how to navigate the voting page. Despite this, a lot of people contacted me to say sadly they’d had to give up.
But thankfully, so many more actually managed to vote. I had wonderful support from a whole range of readers. Two book clubs in my town had read Not T and they voted for it, and they encouraged other people to read it and vote if they liked it too. A fantastic group of on-line book bloggers, who had hosted a Not Thomas blog tour the week before, did the same.
A group of teachers who’d all read Not Thomas voted and shared the news about my Not the Booker nomination on Facebook. They encouraged more teachers to read it too, and to vote for it if they liked it. Family and friends got on board, of course, and very touchingly, people from my home town who’d read Not Thomas contacted me to ask how to vote too.
There are accusations every year in the Not the Booker comments thread about how publishers get their staff to vote for books on the longlist. This sort of mass voting results in reviews that are a rehashing of the book’s blurb.
Well, I’ll just say that Not Thomas is published by a tiny, tiny publisher – Honno Welsh Women’s Press based in Aberystwyth. Four people work there, all part time. I had their total support, of course, and five authors who are also published by Honno did a fantastic job of sharing my posts, and reminding people which box took you through to vote on the Guardian page. But mass voting and rehashing book blurb it most certainly was not.
All week long, I sat at my computer replying to the wonderful, and sometimes heart breaking, comments that Not Thomas readers sent me via Facebook and Twitter. Teachers, foster carers and social workers contacted me, all pleased that the issue of child neglect had been raised by Not Thomas. One message particularly stands out, from a person who said she had been a neglected child, just like Tomos. She thanked me for giving a voice to neglected children everywhere. I wrote and thanked her for her kind comments through my tears.
It was a very long and extremely emotional week.
As it drew to a close at midnight on Monday, 7th August, the last vote and review for Not Thomas came in at 11.58. It was from my lovely 21-year-old niece. I crawled off to bed, exhausted by the whole process, but hopeful that the wonderful efforts of all the fantastic Not T readers had got the novel through to the next stage.
At lunchtime the next day, my neighbour rang to congratulate me. I was still in bed, totally exhausted by the week’s efforts. I hadn’t yet discovered what he was about to tell me – Not Thomas was not only on the shortlist but had the most votes. It was absolutely amazing.
And I’m so grateful to every single person who took the time and had the perseverance to vote for my novel. It was a massive team effort, and I’m so glad Tomos supporters are part of ‘the journey’. I know it’s a horrible term, but I think it’s the right one here.
There’ll be more updates soon about this Not the Booker experience, but for now the comments are coming in on the Guardian’s page in reply to Sam’s scathing review. You can read them here and comment too, if you wish. There’s no guarantee your comment won’t be ripped to shreds by the Guardian’s book clubbers – just as they’re shredding Not Thomas – but that’s all part of the fun.
That’s the result of stepping into the spotlight – and this month, I wouldn’t want little Tomos to be anywhere else.
Thanks for reading my (very long!) post. Please leave a comment if you were part of the huge team effort to get Not Thomas onto the shortlist, or even if you weren’t.