The Importance of Proof(s)

The path to getting published is a constant education.  Things I had no idea of until this year included crime writing festivals (I’m a fan and I’d never heard of such a thing); the particular skill of fiction copy editors, who put my previous lodestar for omniscience, the newspaper sub – now endangered – in the shade; and the importance of bound proofs. 

For most of my life the bound proof has been just another, rather different-looking, slightly illicit second-hand book.  (I used to find the stricture ‘Not for re-sale’ rather alarming.)  But it turns out that a good proof is key to getting noticed – not so easy, when there appear to be hundreds of novice crime writers out there, all equally likely to be the next big thing.  The proof will go out to bookshops, reviewers and other authors, and with skill and a bit of luck will ensure your début novel – your best shot at getting noticed – doesn’t get lost in the crowd. 

For the record, the proof of ‘Breathe’ was very classy indeed, with atmospheric cover art and clever graphics (by Sofia Hericson), and a wrapper consisting of a facsimile front page of the Daily Express for 9 December 1952.  No less an authority than the professionals at Crime Shots magazine – who must see thousands of proofs a year – said that Hodder had done me proud.

But the knowledge that your bound proof is classy does not help much when you have to enter the purgatory known only to first-time authors – walking up to complete strangers who may also be household names and, with no track record of your own, trying to get them to say the magic words: Send me a proof.  Because, it turns out, author comments are hard to come by.  Established novelists get sent many more proofs than they can ever read.  What you need is to get them to register who you are and what your book is about ahead of time, so that when it thumps onto their doormat there’s a decent chance they’ll read it rather than use it as a draught excluder.  This is where crime writing festivals come in handy – a ready supply of crime fiction’s household names, in theory ready to be snaffled by any importuning débutant.

Unfortunately my first Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July didn’t quite go that way.  The big name guests I had my eye on didn’t seem to loiter where I could see them, perhaps knowing the fate that awaited them if they did.  Joseph Kanon, John Grisham, Linwood Barclay – wherever I might be, they weren’t.  But then I stumbled out of one panel to see, standing right in front of me, and not yet surrounded by writers with books to flog, Lee Child.  A minute, perhaps two, talking about his thrillers (hooked ever since I read ‘Killing Floor’ in 2001), ‘Breathe’, the 1952 smog, post-war attitudes to death, and then the magic phrase: Send me a proof. 

Which I did.  He’ll probably never read it, or have the time to offer a verdict if he does.  But you never know.  And in any case, I got to talk to Lee Child, who I’d never have had the nerve to say hello to if I didn’t have a book to push.

And that’s the importance of proof(s).