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Going Viral

This has been quite the most extraordinary week.

On Saturday I had a book launch event for my picture book Saving the Sun at a beautiful local independent bookshop. I say local – it’s 100km round trip from my home. But when you live in rural New Zealand, that’s local. I’ve lived here nearly three years and I’m still not used to the distances.

Nobody turned up.

The previous weekend, nobody had turned up to my storytime at the local library. Other things, writing- and non-writing-related, happened too, and by Sunday I was feeling beaten.

In a year of low points, it was a nadir.

I composed a tweet with a photo of myself putting on a brave face at the non-event. I wanted to acknowledge it somehow: the humiliation, the blow to my confidence, the temptation to give up. The post stayed on my screen most of the day. I’m not sure I ever really wanted to share it with anyone. I just wanted to create it, to sit with the emotions for a while, to figure out how to pick myself up and move on. In the evening as I was shutting down my computer, I impulsively hit send. I don’t even know why. I figured nobody would see it anyway.

By the next morning it had gone viral.

I was overwhelmed by the deluge of messages, by the outpouring of support and encouragement. A movie guy called Zach Braff had reposted it and gone to the trouble of adding a purchase link to the book. I didn’t even know who he was (sorry Zach!), but he’s famous apparently and he has 1.8 million followers. I’m not sure if that was the catalyst and I can’t begin to imagine how he even saw my post. Throughout the day I watched in amazement as the Amazon sales rankings soared (from somewhere in the mid-1-millions to around 12,000). People were not only reaching out with words, they were also buying the book. I received invitations to appear on a radio show, to feature in a magazine, to do school visits. I am still well and truly floored by the whole experience.

Why on Earth was it happening? Honestly, I am very un-savvy when it comes to social media. Most of my posts hardly get seen by anyone. I had 66 comments and 285 likes when I announced my agent representation in 2022 and that was the pinnacle, the extent of my reach. So what was suddenly different? Why were so many people reading and reacting to this particular post?

I'm guessing that there's something relatable about creatives putting themselves out there and being open and vulnerable when it feels like a failure. The kidlit community is full of warmth and mutual support and some of the best people, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised. But still... I never imagined something like that would happen to me.

I’d had a book launch event at the same bookshop earlier in the year for my first book Mending the Moon. A few people came, and I was grateful for each and every one of them. I read my story, signed some books, and chatted to a reporter. I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd – probably would have been terrified if I’d got one. But there were kids there who loved the story and had fun with the colouring in sheets I brought. And that made it all worthwhile. I thought a second, similarly low key event would be worth doing.

I have to stress that public events make me extremely anxious. I’m an introvert lacking in confidence and not in the least bit comfortable with being centre stage or speaking in public. I can do it. I can build myself up for it, take many deep breaths, and I’m probably not entirely rubbish at it once I pluck up the courage. But it takes a huge toll on me mentally, physically and emotionally. Afterwards I’m exhausted. Ideally, I would go home, curl up in bed and not face the world again for a few days. Ideally, I would have several months between events to recover and have time to build myself up again. Actually that might be a lie. Ideally, I probably wouldn’t ever do another event again because it’s really, really hard.

But because the publishing world seems to require it of authors, I keep going. Even though it’s hard to see any tangible benefit from putting myself out there like that. It’s expected. So I comply.

And when nobody turned up two weeks in a row, I had a bit of a crisis of confidence.

Now I’m well aware that this happens all the time to authors. That it’s not a reflection of my worth as a writer or the value of my books. It’s just that people are busy, especially at this time of year, and maybe not many people even knew the events were happening because they hadn’t been widely advertised. I know that it’s kind of a rite of passage for this to happen. I know that it’s happened to even the most successful writers – including, unbelievably, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, who are certainly among the best of us. I know it doesn’t make me special or unique or give me any kind of right to whinge or complain. But… it was a heavy blow. And after putting so much emotional energy into preparing for something I didn’t really want to do, the anticlimax was almost suffocating. I won’t lie – there was a certain element of relief that I didn’t have to ‘perform’. But I also would have preferred not to have even tried. I could have saved myself the anxiety, the sleepless nights and the petrol, and stayed at home.

I started this year buoyed and excited about my writing career. My debut had just released, my second picture book was due out in September. I had many other projects in the pipeline.

My YA novel went out on submission to publishers and I was hoping for news about a book deal. It didn’t come. My agent sent two more picture books out on sub. Again, I was hopeful. Again, nothing happened.

I had high hopes that my debut picture book would be successful, that sales would be encouraging, that it might make a ‘best of’ list or even be longlisted for an award – something that could raise its profile and edge up sales. It’s a story about looking for miracles in nature and caring for the planet. It’s a story I’m proud of. And the illustrations by Sara Ugolotti are truly stunning.

It’s a beautiful book. And it’s had many wonderful reviews. I’m deeply moved by some of the messages I’ve received and I genuinely believe it has touched people’s lives.

But it hasn’t got any real traction and the sales numbers are… discouraging. There was an initial flurry when it was first published in November 2022, but since then, the sales numbers have actually declined because of unsold books that have been returned by booksellers. The total number of sales was 2196 at the end of the first month. A year later at the end of November 2023 it had fallen to 1848. It feels like all the hard work I’ve put into promoting it has yielded… nothing. Or even less than nothing. And I can’t pretend it’s not dispiriting.

When Saving the Sun came out in September 2023, even though it had more publicity because the publisher organized an ‘awareness tour’, which they hadn’t done for Mending the Moon, sales were considerably lower than the first book. The Amazon sales rankings for both books had dipped to around 1.5 million only a couple of weeks after Sun’s publication. Both books were lost in the masses, barely visible except to people who know me, literally two miniscule drops in a vast ocean of other wonderful books. How can people buy them if they don’t even know they exist? And what more can I do to lift them up in the world? My power and capability in this is so limited.

Professionally it’s been a year of constant rejections, disappointments and difficulties. It takes a toll on my mental health and that makes my personal life full of difficulties too. But let’s face it, it’s also been a shitty year for the whole world. War, grand scale atrocities, the resurgence of the far right, the escalating climate crisis, financial inequity, extreme weather, natural disasters… the list is endless and ominous. Enough to make any rational person question the fundamentals of our so-called civilization.

So why, against this backdrop of global devastation, death and destruction, did the fragile ego of a 50-year-old rookie writer of children’s books strike a chord? Why such an outpouring of sympathy, empathy, support, encouragement and downright love? Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful beyond anything you can imagine and I appreciate every single gesture from every person who contributed to this strange viral moment. It truly means the world to me. But I can’t begin to understand it.

There’s also this strange pressure to make it count, to turn it into something concrete, to maximise the exposure in some meaningful, measurable way. The moment has in fact already passed. If I had been more prepared for it, maybe I could have made more of it. But perhaps that’s the whole point. Maybe it doesn’t have to mean anything other than a moment in time, a sign from the universe, a special glimmer telling me to keep going, keep doing what I’m doing. After all, if 2.1 million people see a thing online, 22,000 of them hit like, 3,400 people are moved to comment… it means something in itself, doesn’t it?

I strongly believe that children’s books are the most important books of all and that every single one of them contains magic. It’s an honour to write for children, I’m proud to share my stories with them and I hope I get to publish more books. But even if I don’t, even if two is my lot, I am blessed in so many ways. And I think this ‘moment’ has helped me to realise that. If you were a part of it, or if you’re reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The power of kindness, empathy and a community coming together is vast. Fittingly, I suppose that’s the message at the core of my two picture books. Now let’s turn that power to fixing the other, far more important things that are wrong in the world. That would be something truly special.

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