Part 4 of Polly’s ‘Self Publishing Professionally’ series: Getting Press Coverage

‘What’s the best way of getting people to know about my book?’ asked an author, at the end of a talk I recently gave on marketing.

There is no ‘best’ way. Every book is different, and what works for one author may not work for another. If you write in a particular genre, for example romance or sci-fi, then maybe the best form of marketing is simply to write more books and make sure they’re set up correctly on Amazon and other retail sites.

Personally, I find that traditional press coverage is a good way of marketing my books, because despite being fictional, they are all based on a real-world issues that I care deeply about (sexism in the city, fame culture, lads’ mags, disenfranchised youth, the London Riots and so on), so I comment on these issues in the national press, with the byline ‘Polly Courtney, author of …’. If your book also touches on real-world issues, or if you have an interesting back story yourself, then this technique might also work for you. If you write about zombies in outer space, it might be less relevant.

As I say in my video, the first and most important stage of getting press coverage is asking the question: Who’s my book for?

Please, don’t say ‘everybody’; it’s neither helpful nor true. You need to think really hard about who your readers might be – I mean those people who would pick up your book before any other, the ones who will tell all their friends about it. I mean your advocates. Perhaps it’s a demographic group, based on the characters you’ve written about. (For Feral Youth, some of my readers were young adults, as the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl.) Or maybe it’s a group with a shared common interest that’s aligned to the themes in your book: vegetable growers, skydivers, heavy metal fans… or maybe it’s an attitudinal group: liberals, right-wing types.

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Once you’ve identified your target readers, think about what type of media they consume. Are they online all day, or out in the garden listening to Radio 2? Do they read The Guardian or do they skim Twitter for news on their phone? What do they watch? Note down every single programme, channel, publication, event and website you think they might like, then dig around for the contact details of the producers, editors and curators. This will take time, so set aside a few hours for searching.

Here’s the most common mistake people make when they publish a book: They think that this is news.

It’s not. There are 100,000 titles published each year in the UK. That’s an average of 275 books launched every day. Even the news desk of your local newspaper probably gets bombarded with ten press releases a week, saying ‘Local author launches book’. This is not a story.

Your ‘angle’ might be the story behind the book – the real-life events that led you to write it in the first place. Were you in the army? Did you work in a crèche? Or it might be the way you wrote it. Did you scribble it down in your lunch hour, or type it into your phone? My biggest success in this respect was the ‘inside story’ I wrote for the Observer back in 2006 about my less-than-glamorous experiences in the square mile, entitled My high-flying City job was not worth a life of misery. There’s usually something that makes your story uniquely interesting.

By the way, all of this thinking should happen long before you publish. Ideally, start to plan your marketing six months before publication. This may sound like overkill, but if you’re planning to approach print publications, you have to work with their timelines. Glossy magazines have a three-month lead-time and if you intend for people to read the book, you’ll need to send out Advance Review Copies well in advance.

The other reason you need to plan in advance is that ideally, your ‘angle’ should tie into another news story. Journalists are pack animals; they only cover a story if there’s a ‘buzz’ around the subject already. If you’ve written a book about alternative methods of parenting, it won’t make the national news – unless, for example, Victoria Beckham makes a statement about motherhood. This is your time to strike. You can set up a Google News Alert to tell you when your subject hits the headlines.

When you make your approaches, be professional. Use the journalist’s name, not ‘Sir/Madam’. Be succinct and state briefly who you are, what you intend to write and why you are qualified to write it. Check out the example email I use in my video. Oh and don’t harass them if you don’t get a reply! They receive hundreds of emails every day.

Press coverage is just one way of generating awareness of your book. Other ways include Making a Book Trailer (the subject of my next post) and Holding an Epic Book Launch (the one after that). Until then… good luck with that marketing plan!


You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Part 3 of Polly’s ‘Self Publishing Professionally’ series: Publishing Your Book

Writers are observant people – right? That’s why we write good books, because we notice the little things like the shopkeeper’s nicotine-stained fingers, or the puff of white smoke on the horizon.

Well, this is a fortunate trait when it comes to getting your book on the shelves, because frankly, the best way to publish is to replicate what the traditional publishers do – with a few improvements.

I’m assuming you’ve got a final draft of your book. (This means a book that has undergone all four stages of editing – see my Editing Your Book post.) I’m also assuming you have a full wrap-around cover for your book (see my other post, Getting an Awesome Cover Design). In addition, you need your back-of-book blurb, your ‘back matter’ and your ‘front matter’.

Your ‘blurb’ is what goes on the back of the book. It’s also the text that gets used on all the online retail sites like Amazon. It needs to entice people to crack open your book – that’s all. It’s a taster. A teaser. Don’t try and summarise everything that happens in your book. It’s totally fine to leave lots out. In fact, all you really need to do is identify the premise of the book, give a flavour of the theme and/or style, and leave readers gagging for more. As I say in my video, self-publishing is not about doing everything yourself. You’ll get a much better result if you collaborate with others along the way. This goes for cover design, editing and everything else, including blurb-writing. Get a friend to help – preferably someone who works in marketing, because that’s what this is.

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The ‘front matter’ consists of all those pages you see at the front of a book before the narrative begins. Use your powers of observation; see what these pages look like in other books you have at home, or in the shop. The same goes for ‘back matter’. A quick tip here – and this is something that many publishers don’t think to do: Make sure the first thing your reader sees when he/she gets to the end of the book is a list of any other books you’ve written (or you’re writing) and a website link for them to register their interest. This way, you’ll catch them when they’re dying to read more of your stuff. If they drop their email address into your website, you’ll be able to alert them when your next book comes out. This is very important!

If you’re planning a paperback edition, you need to get your pages typeset. I don’t recommend doing this yourself, but if you’ve got the skills and software, go ahead. Otherwise, a typesetter will set you back about £100 for a full-length novel. (There are a few here, or the Alliance of Independent Authors lists a number of vetted professionals.) You might want to use a publishing house for this, as well as the printing and distribution. I use Matador, but there are a number of options. The DIY route involves uploading straight to Amazon using their print-on-demand Createspace offering, which is pretty much free and (if you tick the box) can offer distribution to all online retailers, not just Amazon.

Everyone should have an ebook. The only exceptions might be coffee table photographic books or those with lots of visuals, but for books that are mainly words, you need an ebook!

Making an ebook is just a question of converting the file you used to write the book – usually Word or similar – into a new format. There are various software programmes out there to do this, such as Calibre, or you could pay someone to do it for you. Beware: Many companies will charge up-front and then charge you more to correct any formatting errors that will inevitably have crept into the first conversion. Doing it yourself is free and allows you to convert as many times as you like, until it’s perfect – and it must be perfect! Check it a hundred times. Get ebook-reading friends to check it too. There’s bound to be a random blank page in there somewhere, or strange spacing between words. These things happen.

Your choice of publishing partner(s) and formats will depend on your book, your likely readers, your budget and your aptitude for doing things yourself. These days, it’s possible to do this stage for almost zero up-front cost, which is great because it means you can invest your money in the things that really matter: editing and cover design.

So, that’s how to get your book on the shelves. Next time, I’ll be talking about getting your book flying off the shelves in my post on Getting Press Coverage.


You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Part 2 of Polly’s ‘Self Publishing Professionally’ series: Getting an Awesome Cover Design

First off, a confession: I didn’t do this for my first novel.

Bizarrely, it hit number 2 on Amazon anyway, due to various pieces of press coverage (which I’ll talk about in my Getting Press Coverage post), but I can’t help wondering whether it might have made it to the top-spot if I’d known then what I know now about cover design.

As I say in my video, authors should not design their own book covers. There are no exceptions. Even if you’re a designer by trade, you should get a fresh pair of eyes on the project – a designer friend, perhaps – if you can’t afford the £500-£1,000 it’ll cost you to get a professional to design the full wrap-around cover and thumbnail.

A word of warning up front: If you’re calling in favours from a friend who knows a bit about design, make sure he or she understands book cover design. There are a whole load of book-specific rules around fonts, layout, margins, kerning and other mysterious things that I’m not going to talk about here, which your designer should live and breathe so that you don’t have to. (You’re heading up the publishing house, remember – not doing everything inside it!)

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Hopefully I’ve convinced you to collaborate with a book cover designer. So… where will you find such a person? Well, one way is to wander round your nearest book store (or Amazon, if you prefer things virtual) and pick out a few designs you like the look of. Turn the book over (or click to expand the thumbnail) and you’ll see the name and/or website of the designer, somewhere near the barcode. Beware: Some designers won’t take on independent commissions and some might be out of your price range, but if you dig around, you should find someone suitable.

Alternatively, there are lots of marketplace websites, this being one of them, which aim to match authors with service providers such as cover designers. Make sure you get genuine testimonials from previous clients and of course, only go with a designer who has worked on books of a similar style or genre. If someone has spent their life designing sci-fi novel jackets, it’s unlikely to be a good match for a romance writer.

Getting the right designer is the hardest and most important part. Once you’ve done this, you need to get him or her to understand your book and the vision you have for it. In an ideal world, your designer would read the book, but at the very least, sit down and talk it through. Show him or her any examples of books in a similar style and share any thoughts you have on colours, themes, fonts etc. Don’t be too prescriptive. The designer should have the freedom to come up with ideas!

As you’ll see in the video, coming up with the perfect design is an iterative process. You will hopefully start with a few different options, then narrow it down to one core concept, which you can collaboratively hone until you have the perfect layout, colours, fonts, spacing and so on. One of the great things about self-publishing is that you can liaise directly with your designer, rather than being at the mercy of a committee of marketers, editors and other people who haven’t read your book.

Test out your concepts! This is a great way of getting potential readers to engage with your project ahead of publication. I often put the shortlist up on my Facebook page for fans to compare. You’d be amazed at how differently people perceive the designs and you might find that the artwork is giving off entirely the wrong vibes. It’s better to learn this now than when the Amazon reviewers are complaining about being misled.

As I say in my video, it’s only when you have the perfect front cover (which needs to work as a small thumbnail as well as at scale) that your designer will work on the full wrap-around cover. For this, you’ll need your back-of-book ‘blurb’, which I’ll talk about in my next post, Publishing Your Book.  In reality, you’ll probably do all these things simultaneously, working with your editor(s) to produce your final draft, collaborating with your designer to get the perfect cover, agreeing on your publishing and distribution while planning your marketing. It’s not as arduous as it sounds – promise! Next time I’ll be talking about the mechanics of publishing, i.e. getting your book on the shelves, both physical and virtual. Until then… good luck!


You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Part 1 of Polly’s Self Publishing Professionally series: Editing Your Book

‘But my grammar is excellent,’ protested a man in the audience at a recent conference on self-publishing. ‘And my wife proof-reads my books,’ he went on. ‘So why should I hire an editor?’

OK. Deep breath. Here’s the thing. Editing is about so much more than just grammar and typos.

You can get your spelling and punctuation perfect, but if you haven’t had a structural editor ruthlessly tearing your book apart, or a line editor getting it as tight as it possibly can be, you’ll just be polishing a turd. (Sorry.)

As I say in my video, there are four stages to editing and you should do them in this order, because there’s no point in getting the details right if you then go on to change the entire premise of the book.

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Structural editing is what most writers find the hardest, because it involves killing your darlings – you know, those characters you put in just because they reminded you of those people you met on the train that time? – and it involves turning the whole narrative inside-out, twisting and flexing it until it ends up in a completely different order or style. My first novel was a non-fiction book before an astute editor laid eyes on it. With my latest, I was merrily writing the novel from two different perspectives in alternating chapters until my editor – fortunately after only the first ten thousand words – pointed out that I didn’t need the second character’s voice. I literally scrapped every other chapter.

You need a professional editor. This is where to spend your budget – this and cover design. Expect to pay around £5 per thousand words for a good editor, although if you’re using a friend [who is also a professional editor!], you might be able to negotiate mates’ rates. I open my manuscript up to a trusted set of readers sourced from Twitter and Facebook at this point, to build on the suggestions made by my editor. The result is surprisingly non-conflicting. I would never rely on this alone, however. Professional editors exist for a reason. Oh and you absolutely cannot do this part yourself. Sure, you can (and should) re-draft your book a number of times until you’re really happy with it, but it’s not perfect yet – believe me.

Line editing comes next. This is something you can have a first-stab at yourself. Try reading each sentence out loud. Does it make you cringe? Right. Go back and change it until it works. Again, you should get a professional to help – possibly the same one you used before, although fresh eyes always help. Does the dialogue sound right? Is the narrative consistent? Are there words you use far too often? (We all have writers’ tics. Draw up a list for next time!)

Copy editing is about the details: grammar, spelling, consistency, timelines. If your book takes place over a year, or a summer, or even a day, then make sure everything that happens is in the right order, with appropriate references. Don’t talk about cherry blossom in winter, or kids in school uniform in August. Again, it’s best if you can get a fresh pair of eyes on your manuscript, as your editor (and certainly you) will just read what you expect to see on the page.

Proof reading is the final stage and for me, this is where the second set of crowd-sourced reader volunteers comes in. You’d be amazed at how many people want to get their hands on a copy of your book ahead of publication. Some people are ‘big picture’ types, so set them to work on the structural editing, but proof readers need to be irritatingly observant – like the people who go around correcting the grammar on shop signs.

Once your manuscript has been through all four stages, congratulations! You have your final draft. Next time, I’ll be talking about Getting an Awesome Cover Design, which is the next step in getting your book on the shelves.


You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Intro to Polly’s ‘Self-Publishing Professionally’ series

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The trouble with self-publishing is that it’s very easy to do badly.

I’m talking about those books that have four typos on the first page; the ones with the amateurish cover designs. You know: the books you put down after half a chapter because the main character is driving you mad. I’m talking about those books that get held up by publishers as shining examples of why they still need to exist.

See?’ they jeer, scoffing at the wonky photograph on the front cover, with its tacky white border and laminated sheen. ‘This is what happens when you bypass the publishers!’

Well, yes and no. Publishers have always provided a filter between the vast jumble of words out there and the bookshelves our readers peruse – a filter that may or may not be based on quality, depending on your point of view. Either way, they don’t have to be the only ones policing the literary waters. Those of us who do choose to bypass the publishers – for whatever reason – should impose our own quality filters, out of respect for our readers and our fellow indie authors. Nobody wants to be part of an industry that is perceived as shoddy.

For me, self-publishing is about doing everything a traditional publisher does, but doing it better.

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This means getting your book ripped apart by an editor, who will leave you to put it back together again. It means getting a professional designer to work on the book cover – even if you know your way around Photoshop. It means working out your best options for printing and/or ebook and executing on a well thought-through distribution plan, setting prices that work for you and your readers. It means marketing the hell out of your book in whatever ways make sense, based on your personality, your time, your budget and the type of readers you think you’ll attract. Oh, and it also means laying on an epic book launch.
Sounds daunting, eh?

Don’t worry; I’ve spent nearly ten years making mistakes so that you don’t have to (if you read this blog series, that is). I muddled my way to the number 2 spot on Amazon back in 2006, which got me a book deal with HarperCollins. There, I learnt a lot about what works – and what doesn’t. I’ve since returned to self-publishing for my latest work, Feral Youth, which has offered me more control over how my books are branded and enabled me to put into practice everything I’ve learnt.

It turns out, traditional publishers don’t do everything in the most optimal way. They’re big, which means they’re not nimble. If you want to run a short price promotion, forget it; they’ll take six months to get sign-off. If you think all your marketing will be taken care of when you’re with the big boys, you’re sadly mistaken. It would be nice if we still lived in those times, but these days you’re expected to handle all the promotion yourself, using your initiatives and your ‘platform’. Sure, the publisher takes care of your book cover design (and in my case, the title too), which can be a blessing and a curse. But even in the editing stage, although publishers use professionals, they only ever get one set of eyes on the manuscript at any one time. Books are subjective things… your readers might not think like your editor does.

I’ve divided the publishing journey into six parts:

  1. Editing Your Book (live 25th April)
  2. Getting an Awesome Book Cover (live 5th May)
  3. Publishing Your Book (live 12th May)
  4. Getting Press Coverage (live 19th May)
  5. Making a Book Trailer (live 26th May)
  6. Holding an Epic Book Launch (live 2nd June)

Each post has an accompanying video, which shows examples of the advice in action – often based on my own experiences publishing my latest novel, Feral Youth. Although this series won’t cover everything you need to know about self-publishing professionally, it touches on the parts that matter most to me.

One big tip, before we get stuck in: Collaborate. As self-publishers, we don’t need to do everything ourselves. In fact, it’s a really bad idea to try and do everything ourselves. We head up the publishing house, which means we have the control, but we consult with experts to get things done properly. Right?



You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Book Marketing Masterclass with Bestselling Authors Joanna Penn and Polly Courtney – 7th June 2014

Jo Penn + Polly CourtneyA workshop for authors, led by two authors with years of marketing experience.

Saturday, 7 June 2014 09:30 to 17:00 Waterloo Action Centre, London


The first job of an author is, of course, to write great books, but these days, the second job is to market them. Traditional publishers and agents want authors with marketing skills and a platform. If you’re self-publishing, you definitely need to know how to do it yourself.

This full-day seminar is for authors who want to sell more books, but it’s also for those writers who want to think more like an entrepreneur, even if they have only just started on the journey. It’s for traditionally published authors who want to take control of their future income, and for self-published authors who want to jump-start their sales. It’s for fiction and non-fiction authors, with specific tips for both in the workshop.

What you will learn

  • Why marketing isn’t scary, discovering how your goals impact your marketing plans, and the strategies that don’t change even when the online tools move on.

  • Your book fundamentals. Understanding your target market, creating back blurb/sales copy, organizing your book page on the retail websites, including categories, pricing and your tips for reaching the bestseller lists

  • How to get book reviews and use paid advertising for spiked sales

  • Key aspects of traditional media and PR. How to find the story about you and your book, how to choose and pitch editors and journalists, as well as how to act when you get the call. How to network in person and through professional speaking and events.

  • Your author platform and marketing for the long-term. Branding, your author website, email marketing, content marketing with text blogging, audio and video, plus social networking

  • Tips for launching your book and where to get started, as well as Q&A time with Polly and Joanna throughout the day

Learn from authors who specialize in marketing their own books.

Joanna Penn writes bestselling thrillers under J.F.Penn, with over 80,000 books sold in 30 countries. She’s also the author of non-fiction books, including the Amazon #1 bestseller ‘How To Market A Book’. Joanna was voted one of The Guardian’s Top 100 Creative Professionals in 2013, and her site for writers has been voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for writers three years running. Joanna is also an international, professional speaker and has been featured on BBC World, BBC Radio 4, The Guardian, The Independent, Forbes, London Book Fair, and Wired, although she focuses primarily on internet marketing. Connect with Joanna @thecreativepenn

Polly Courtney is the author of six novels and a business book about entrepreneurship. She is also is an experienced speaker and media commentator with many TV, radio and press appearances including CNN, Channel 4 News, BBC News, Sky News, Grazia, Company Magazine, BBC Radio 4, Wired Magazine, The Independent, The Guardian and Marie Claire. In 2011, on the publication of her fifth novel, Courtney famously walked out on her publisher HarperCollins, frustrated by the ‘chick lit’ marketing of her books. Connect with Polly @pollycourtney


In the words of previous attendees…

“Fab. Down to earth info presented professionally and entertaining too.I didn’t expect it to be so engrossing, but it was.”

Debbie Flint, on the Book Marketing Masterclass, Feb 2014

“Excellent! The amount and level of detail was excellent. All the sessions were of a very high standard and expertly delivered. The time was managed well and questions were answered effectively. Great stuff, excellent value for money.”

Michael Cairns, on the Book Marketing Masterclass, Feb 2014

“Joanna Penn has an intuitive understanding of how marketing works and how that pertains to the unique challenge of reaching readers and selling books. Her advice is always practical, actionable, and – most importantly of all – effective.” 

David Gaughran, author, Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible

“Highly recommend. Polly clearly knew her stuff, presented all the information well and in a structured way. She was an engaging and encouraging speaker.”


When Grime meets Classical: the soundtrack that inspired Feral Youth

This post is taken from Roz Morris’ The Undercover Soundtrack:

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by Polly Courtney @PollyCourtney

Soundtrack by DebussyDJ DiceWagner

It might seem odd that a book called Feral Youth was inspired by classical music. But despite its title, Feral Youth is not just about a disenfranchised young person living on the fringes of society. More, it is about the relationship between that young person – Alesha, 15, alcoholic mother, unknown father – and Miss Merfield: a middle-class piano teacher with an alternative outlook on life and a love of tea and Chopin. It’s about two cultures colliding and the mark that each leaves on the other.

001_Hannah_Palmer bAs you might have guessed, my background is more akin to that of Miss Merfield’s than to Alesha’s. I grew up on classical music, playing piano and violin and performing in shows and concerts all through my teenage years. I’m still part of the semi-professional string quartet that plays at venues up and down the UK. But it was my piano lessons in the early years that lodged in my mind and planted the seed for Feral Youth.

Back to that rickety piano stool

Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum was one of the final pieces I learned to play. My piano teacher was an elderly lady, much older than the youthful Miss Merfield but with a strong, forceful manner and a kindly streak. When I hear Debussy, I think of Mrs Luton-Brain (yes, that was her name – ‘Luton where they make the hats, brains for putting under them!’) and I imagine myself back on that old, rickety double stool, filled with a mixture of fear and intrigue as my fingers tripped up and down the keys. Although Alesha’s piano lessons with Miss Merfield were short-lived and took place long before the summer in which Feral Youth is set, they were instrumental in developing the relationship between the characters and I used Debussy to send me back to that place and remind myself of what it felt like, sitting next to Mrs Luton-Brain in that stuffy room.

Key to angst

I also used music to unlock emotions as I wrote. Alesha is an angry character, full of angst at the way she is persecuted by those in power, ignored by those who should care and cheated by those she thought she could trust. I began by listening to grime. Grime is a relatively new genre that grew out of the east London garage/hip-hop scene. Two years ago, I hadn’t even heard of it but as I got deeper and deeper into my research, I heard it oozing from car stereos on the estates, rattling youth club windows and whirring from tinny speakers on phones. Imagine a beat that is so low, slow and dirty you can feel your teeth vibrating in your skull. The wax in your ears starts to shift and it almost hurts to listen, but somehow you keep listening because the juddering, creaking beat draws you in. Here’s a DJ Dice sub-low mix that I used to get myself back to where some of the scenes are set.

20 FERAL YOUTH Front cover AmazonIn the early stages of writing, I was sketching the outline for Feral Youth on a bunch of Post-it notes and something didn’t feel right. There wasn’t enough of a bond between my two main characters. I realised that something had to have happened between Alesha and Miss Merfield in order for them to behave in the way I envisaged during the book. I was listening to the radio one morning when Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries came on. I turned it up loud. This is one piece that’s guaranteed to set off a swirling cocktail of emotions in anyone. I could feel it surging through me, washing away my frustrations and replacing them with something jubilant and powerful. It was this ‘rinsing’ effect that gave me what turned out to be an important insight into the relationship between Alesha and Miss Merfield. There had to have been a shared experience that bonded them… and I’d just worked out what it was.

We stayed on the floor for the rest of that lesson, like a couple of crazies, staring up at the ceiling as the music crashed and blasted around us. I never told Miss Merfield this, but while we was lying there it felt like some of my anger was leaking out. It wasn’t like proper crying. It was just hotness and tears and this weird lightness coming over me – in a good way. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, that’s why it don’t feel right to be thieving off Miss Merfield right now.

Writing, memories and music

I may have committed a literary cardinal sin by making amovie-style trailer for Feral Youth in which I use some of this music – including the Wagner – to try and transport readers to the place I was in when I wrote it. Perhaps that’s an impossible ambition; I suspect that the links between writing, memories and music can never be transplanted from one person to another. All I know is that for me, music was the vehicle that took me back (and forward, and sideways) and that without it, I’m not sure Miss Merfield and Alesha might have ever met.

Polly Courtney is the author of six novels and a regular commentator on TV and radio. She made her name with debut novel Golden Handcuffs, a semi-autobiographical account of life in the Square Mile. In late 2011, on the publication of her fifth novel, Courtney walked out on her publisher, HarperCollins, frustrated by the ‘chick lit’ titles and covers assigned to her books. She went on to self-publish Feral Youth, which delves into the frustrations that led to the summer riots. Here website is here, and you can follow her on Twitter as @PollyCourtney

Rising from the ashes of the riots: a play worth seeing

It’s been two years now since riots swept the nation, destroying people’s homes, storefronts and livelihoods. Some shops still look like burnt-out shells. Many businesses are only just receiving compensation and others still are locked in battle with their insurers: a battle that only the lawyers can win. Two years is a long time to wait to start rebuilding your life.

Advice banner

Two years is also, it would seem, the approximate length of time it takes for something creative and meaningful to emerge from the rubble.

While the mainstream press has busied itself seeking out tales of woe about the ‘youth of today’, focusing on their criminal behaviour, their apathy, their sinking grades, their inflated grades… a number of young people have been quietly, diligently working on some rather remarkable creations inspired by the events of August 2011. Last week I was fortunate enough to sample one of them.

Advice for the Young at Heart is a play for young people, about young people, performed by young people – and it’s brilliant. Written by award-winning playwright Roy Williams OBE and produced by charitable professional theatre company, Theatre Centre, it is honestly one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long while.

The backdrop of the play is a scene of looting and ‘madness’ in the London riots of 2011, but it’s also set in the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, exploring the parallels and differences through the eyes of two generations of young people.


This play is about more than just riots. Its main character, Candice, played by the mesmerising Alix Ross, is a feisty, mouthy teenager of today whom I recognised immediately from the cast of characters I used in Feral Youth. She’s raw and real and torn between two paths in life and – much like Alesha – in denial about the possibility of ‘coming clean’ and doing something that breaks the unwritten code of the street.

Flipping between 2011 and 1958 through conversations with her dead grandfather, Candice begins to realise that history is in danger of repeating itself and for the first time in her life, she begins to understand what her grandparents went through for the family and for future generations. Masterfully exploring themes of peer pressure, gang violence, racism and social division, Advice for the Young at Heart is filled with poignancy – as well as some funny moments. I wish I’d had plays of this calibre touring my school when I was 15.

Advice for the Young at Heart is touring the UK now. For more information or to book tickets, follow the link. Theatre Centre is on Twitter at @TCLive with the #AdvicePlay hashtag. Go and see it! Now!

A little addendum to this: I was thrilled to hear that Alix Ross, the actress who plays Candice, had read Feral Youth. She had this to say about it:

“I could barely put it down. (It took me just 3 days to read it.) I was left in tears at 6am on Sunday morning (when I finished the book).

The first thing that sprang to mind when I started reading it was how great the dialect was – including the Jamaican. For a story about young people to be written in language they understand makes me feel like it is written not only for them but to educate those of us who don’t understand or appreciate how these young people feel and communicate.

What kept occurring for me when I read it is how it did not patronise but left a subtle message that anything is possible as long as you believe in yourself. Though the road is not easy you can do it.

Though my personal background is by no means close to Alesha’s, I still see and have spoken to “Aleshas” all over south who are dealing with the pull between better and what they know. The bottom line is that young people are angry, they’re not dumb but angry and need more support than they are getting: not just “pop-up youth centres”. Here is a perfect novel explaining why. One of my favourite parts is regarding why some young people want to have babies early – not for housing but to have a person love them back. There is so much more that I love about the novel but it would make this email an essay if I attempted to put everything down.

I can definitely see why you saw connections between Candice and Alesha. I hope that you are thinking of doing more with this wonderful story.

Alix. Aka Candice

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“Raises uncomfortable questions about this abandoned generation of poor, semi-literate, “feral” youth.” – Press for Feral Youth

A breakthrough book… Alesha is compelling, even loveable. In the choices she has to make, she raises some uncomfortable questions about this abandoned generation of poor, semi-literate, “feral” youth.”  – Independent on Sunday

“Are they really “feral”, or is that just an excuse that keeps us from thinking about the problems?” – The Guardian

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“Feral Youth is both moving and shocking. It grips from the first page.” – Words With Wings

“A story from the streets: An extract from Polly Courtney’s novel Feral Youth about 15-year-old Alesha, who gets caught up in the London riots.”  – We Love This Book

“Courtney’s latest book gives an insight into the young lives of generation recession, revealing the riots as inevitable and a long-time-coming.” – The Student Journals

“In her speech, Polly thanked everyone who helped her with the publication of Feral Youth (both Jennifer and Sarah were summoned on stage!), and reminisced of her decision to leave HarperCollins – which she did so fairly publicly, in 2011, at the launch party for It’s A Man’s World – and return to self-publishing. “ – Troubador Publishing

“What I’m trying to do is get into the head of Alesha and show people what it’s really like to be like her and how it’s very different to a lot of the stereotypes of young people today…I think she’s a person people need to know about.”  – Ones To Watch

“The more I heard from young people, the more opinionated Alesha and some of the other characters became.”  – The Londonist

“A book (and message) that should resonate with many young people.” – CultureFly

“It is Alesha’s resourcefulness and positivity, alongside her underlying goodness, that makes us root for her, even when her actions seem deplorable, and it is this that pushes the narrative on as we race towards the unexpected ending and a potential new start for Alesha.”  – The National Student

“The backdrop for the novel is the build-up to the 2011 summer riots and it’s written from Alesha’s perspective. The ambition is to get readers thinking about the reality of life for many young people like Alesha, who are either ignored or stigmatised in the mainstream press – labelled ‘feral’ and assumed to be beyond hope.” – The Omnivore

“Then I read it, and I was hooked. Polly Courtney gets it. She understands why things are the way they are. Courtney tells the truth and she does so through the eyes of a character that you are rooting for from page one.”  – Shout Out UK

“On 26 June we went to Soho for the launch of Polly Courtney’s latest book ‘Feral Youth’. The place was packed with young people, journalists, youth orgs, publishers, film makers and other cool cats…” – Youth Media Agency

“I opted to return to self-publishing precisely because I longed for collaboration. For Feral Youth, I wanted to liaise directly with my cover designer. I wanted to seek feedback not just from one lone individual with a subjective view from her ivory tower, but from a stable of trusted, crowd-sourced advisers as well as from my professional editor.” – Huffington Post

“What I love about self-publishing is the ability to carefully choose those third parties and to work directly with them, instead of being at the end of a long chain of faceless entities in a publishing house.” – Teleread

“While this week has proven to be filled with interesting discourse on the current state of self-publishing, some counterarguments just write themselves.” – Good eReader

“It’s due to the fact that Courtney knows the importance of collaboration that she succeeds in self-publishing.” – Kirkus Reviews

“How can a first-time, self-published author gain the attention of the BBC and the Times? And after such a coup, what can go wrong when you join a big publishing house?” – NY Book Editors

“The sense of freedom, creativity and entrepreneurship was instilled in me from a very young age.” – Words With Jam

“Walking away from a publishing deal with HarperCollins was a massive step, but one that has given me the freedom to write what I believe is an important story: the story of Alesha, a vulnerable, disenfranchised young person from a generation of disaffected youth.” – Chptrs: Publishing’s Next Chapter

“Alesha’s is the voice of a barely literate teenager, reaching out to us from a world we’d prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.” – The Library Cat

“In the summer of 2011, I was lying in bed, smelling burning police cars and scrolling through Twitter…” – High Heels & Book Deals

“Her new, self-published book, Feral Youth — involving the 2011 London riots — is scheduled for an August 1 availability in the States.” – Jane Friedman

“Immersive book launch for Polly Courtney’s latest novel”  – Book Brunch

“Feral Youth is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Emotionally charged throughout I instantly felt a connection to the disenfranchised protagonist.” – Creative Bloc

“A great, compelling story told from the perspective of a 15 year old girl growing up in Peckham, South London.” – Completely Novel

“Feral Youth is as life-affirming as Trainspotting and will connect with teenagers and adults alike.” – Lambert Nagle

“There was a lack of cohesion between what they believed about themselves and their books and the “profit mindset” demonstrated by their publishers.” – Stand Out Books

“I don’t like to see inequality or prejudice going unnoticed.” – Nolan Parker

“After the riots, I was left thinking why did that happen?” – Me, My Books & I

“In short, it’s been a really liberating experience for me. I’ve been able to write about a subject I care about, retaining control of the way it’s published.” – Movellas

“Alesha’s is the voice of a barely literate teenager, reaching out to us from a world we’d prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.” – Catriona Troth

“The truth is, it ain’t just a race thing. They talk like it is, but really and truly it’s black against white, young against old, authorities against the rest… There’s bare reasons for feeling vexed right now.”

I have just finished reading Polly Courtney’s remarkable new book, Feral Youth.

Feral Youth is story of Alesha – a fifteen year old from Peckham in South London. At the start of the book, Alesha is living under the radar, dodging social services, gang violence and her alcoholic mother. But she has a roof over her head, a friend she owes everything to, a youth centre that provides an occasional refuge, and a ‘rep’ that provides some flimsy protection on the streets.

Feral Youth

Feral Youth

In the course of a few short weeks over the summer of 2011, even those are taken away. No wonder Alesha’s angry. Angry enough that when messages start crowding onto her phone, telling her riots are kicking off all over south London, she is ready to take revenge on the whole self-satisfied world she sees around her.

Only, it’s beginning to look as if the one person she can really trust isn’t from the streets at all. She’s Alesha’s eccentric former music teacher, Miss Merfield – and she’s trying to tell Alesha there’s another way out.

Courtney has broken some taboos in writing this book. First of all – as many people already know – she is the self-published writer who gained a coveted traditional publishing deal, only to ditch it when she realised she was being shoe-horned into writing books she didn’t really want to write.

To cap that, she has written the book her agent told her not to, the one that was too ‘niche’. (“How niche are young people?” Courtney demands at the launch.)

Finally, she is a young, white, middle-class woman, writing in the voice of a homeless, mixed-race teenager from South London. “You can’t possibly be authentic,” she was told, when she mooted the idea.

Polly Courtney at the launch of Feral Youth

Polly Courtney at the launch of Feral Youth

Courtney refused to be put off. Motivated by her own anger at the ill-informed responses to the 2011 riots in British cities, she spent time with girls from Westwood College in Croydon, learning from their point of view what it was like to be a teenage in South London today, how they saw the riots and the reasons behind them – and most of all, listening to their voices and learning how they spoke to one another.

When the riots kicked off in August 2011, I was away on an oh-so-middle-class family holiday in Cornwall. I looked on from a distance, seeing events unfold on television, reading about then in the newspapers. What I struck me in those first few days was the way commentators were contrasting the supposed ‘mindlessness’ and ‘criminality’ of the 2011 rioters with what they now chose to cast as the ‘legitimate beefs’ of 1981 Brixton rioters.

What? Did no one remember the initial response to the Brixton riots – before the Scarman Report shed a chink of light on the causes? Did no one remember Thatcher saying: “No one should condone violence. No one should condone the events … They were criminal, criminal.”

And did no one think, even for a moment…