When is a book a ‘real’ book?
If you’re writing your first novel, I’d argue that your book becomes ‘real’ when the first draft is complete. The reason being that if you’ve finished a first draft, you’ve already achieved something significant. You’ve spent months at the keyboard, you’ve made sure your plot is not a series of events but actions with consequences, ruthlessly eliminated your clichés and turned your cardboard cut-outs into flesh and blood people.
When you’ve ‘finished’ it?
So you’ve written The End, even though you know it’s not the end at all, but the beginning of the next phase of your book, where even more slog, angst and hurdles await. Still, after the first draft, you can pat yourself on the back and book that fortnight in the Maldives or more likely, open a bottle of Tesco’s Finest Cava and rest up for the next, even tougher, phase.
Eventually, after several months of thinking and rewriting, you will get to a point where The End really does mean your book is finished. You’ll realise that, while your ms is far from perfect, it can never be perfect and tinkering further will be counter-productive. It’s time to get feedback from a critique service, or send it off to agents or a publisher.
When you’ve sent it out into the world?
You may also feel the need to tell friends, relatives and random people on the bus about your book. Perhaps you’re looking for validation, support and applause. But do they believe it’s a proper book? Well, quite often the answer is 'no'!
From the non-writer's pov, your book will probably not be considered a ‘proper’ one unless it is published. If it’s not, you may as well claim to have landed on the Moon. It won’t matter how brilliant, funny, touching and insightful your work is, or that you’ve spent years researching it and agonising over every word. Unless it’s been published, many outsiders switch off as soon as you mutter ‘well, not yet but...”.
When you get a deal?
Let’s be optimistic and say you get a publishing deal. Maybe with a big publisher, more likely with a smaller, independent press. You are ecstatic – and validated!
Er... no. Because out there in the big wide world, many people won’t consider your book is a ‘proper’ one, unless it’s published by a ‘real’ publisher – i.e. one they’ve heard of, usually Penguin, possibly Hodder (schoolday memories) or Bloomsbury (Harry Potter.)
When you see your book in print?
Despite the Rise of the Kindle, for many people, e-books still don’t count. As an example, I’ll share a conversation I had with my hair colourist last week (whaddaya mean, I’m not a natural brunette?).
Me: “Want to see my shiny new Kindle?”
Hair colourist: “A Kindle? I’d never have thought you’d have one of those. I thought you loved books.”
Me: “I do love books but a Kindle is simply another means of delivering stories to readers, the way iPods have replaced records and CDs. And my books are in print too...”
Colourist: “What a shame. That just shows what the world’s coming to. I’ll leave you to set for half an hour.”
When it’s in the shops or won an award?
For some people a book isn’t proper unless it’s in The Shops. Not just Waterstones and Tesco and Asda, but every little shop on every street they will ever drift into. And it needs to be in all the shops, in perpetuity, for it to really count.
For a few, a book’s not proper unless it’s won an award, and that has to be a big award sponsored by a coffee company, a mobile phone provider or Richard & Judy.
For a sizeable chunk of the population, your book won’t be real because it has a pink sparkly cover or butterflies or a couple snogging. It may not be a proper book unless a main character dies at the end when you least expect them to, causing you to weep for a week and throw the book against the wall. Or it’s not real unless a dozen people are killed in ingenious and horrible ways or the book is set in 13th century Outer Mongolia or an alternate universe where everyone is a yeti with telepathic powers and fangs.
Or it may not be a proper book because you, the author, are in fact, still alive.
So, if you’ve written a book, and you’re still worrying about whether it’s a proper book, I’ll let you into a secret. It is.