Getting your first book published is one of the highlights of any author’s life. But what is it like in different countries? What are the nuances that we can learn from by talking to writers in different countries and cultures? I spoke to Kaja Kvernbakken, a Norwegian writer and writing teacher, whose debut novel met with unexpected success, about the process of getting her first book out into the world.
The Smell of Chlorine is your first book. Can you walk us through the path from finishing the manuscript to actually getting published? What were the challenges? How long did it take?
I was very lucky. Seven years ago I got in touch with an editor who wanted to work with me on a collection of short stories I was writing. As that project progressed, I realized that what I was actually working on was a novel, and we agreed that I would get back in touch with him once that was finished.
When I was finally able to finish it, in 2018, I got back in touch with him, and he liked it so much that we wrote a contract for publication within a week, and started the work on the cover and marketing campaign.
I had a few weeks to rewrite the ending and made some minor changes to the rest of the manuscript before we sent it off to a proofreader and a graphic designer for layout. All in all, it took less than three months from when I sent in the manuscript until it was sent to the presses.
Tell us about the traditional path to publishing in Norway
Normally you have to have a finished or near-finished manuscript, at least as a first-time author, before a publishing house will start working with you. I don’t think my story is unique in any way, but I have heard stories both of writers who made nearly no changes from the first draft to the printed version, and also those who work for years on refining a manuscript before it is released.
Your book is in Norwegian. Have you considered reaching out beyond speakers of Norwegian? What would be the challenges to getting your work translated?
I would love for my book to get translated, and reach a larger audience. Right now I am leaning on my publishing house’s foreign rights agency, as they have a large network of agencies and publishing houses abroad, and I don’t.
I really don’t know where I should start. A friend of mine in France is a translator, but not from Norwegian. Since I am fluent in French, we have toyed with the idea of me doing a first, rough translation, and her rewriting it, but there would still be the issue of getting it published and into the hands of readers.
Since I work as a translator, I wouldn’t want to translate the book into English or French on my own, since neither of those languages is my mother tongue. I fear too much would be lost in the process. But doing a collaboration of sorts could be interesting.
Do you find that books from outside Norway; i.e. the USA, Latin America, Africa, China, etc are easily accessible in Norway?
The best sellers or big names are, at least. Western literature is overrepresented, of course, and sadly, but I do not like to rely on Norwegian publishers or book shops to find what I should read. I prefer looking to authors I like, and see what they recommend. So often what I find is a lot more interesting than what the big publishers are able to offer.
The Norwegian library system is exceptionally good, and often they are willing to stock a book, if you ask them to. Most bookstores can also get you what you want if they don’t already have it, and if not there are ebooks, although I prefer a paper book any day of the week.
When did you first think of yourself as a writer? How did you move from that point to actually starting to write a novel?
I knew I wanted to be an author at the age of 18, or that that was actually something that one could do. From that point I started writing different kinds of book manuscripts (novels, short stories, plays), attending classes and workshops, but it wasn’t until the age of 25 that I felt that I was a writer, and I went “all in”, quitting my career job and trying to “steal” as much time and brain capacity as I possibly could putting it towards my different writing projects.
I have written several manuscripts that were all rejected before I finally finished The Smell of Chlorine.
What were the challenges you faced with the book? What are the main lessons you learned during the process?
My main challenge has been finishing what I start. And the main lesson I learned is that a bad thing that is finished is better than not finishing anything. A bad thing that is finished can be worked on, or at least it is also a lesson so that the next thing can be better, if only incrementally so.
I also, finally, understood what all my writing teachers meant when they were talking about writing shorter things: A short thing is so much easier to finish than an entire novel, and the victory of finishing should also not be underestimated.
What are the main lessons you have learned about marketing and getting a readership?
One: Having a publishing house with a clear plan for when and how the book should be released, and good connections to book stores and literary critics, is the most important reason why this book has gotten as big a readership as it has.
Two: Social media. Although I do it because I think it is fun, and that I get to know wonderful people: Talking about my work, about writing and my writing life, reaching out to readers and writers alike, and starting discussions, makes people feel connected to me and to my work. It triggers their curiosity and makes them want to read and share their reading experience.
You spoke to me about the success of the book. Could you say a bit more about this? How well has it done in terms of sales and reviews?
Well, success is relative. I may have made it sound like a bestseller, which it has not been in any respect, but the publishers decided to make a second print run. Debutants rarely sell enough to qualify for that. A normal first print run is of 1400 copies, where around 1100 is distributed to the libraries through governmental funding.
My second print run was 400 copies, so 1800 total. I have had a number of reviews. One in the largest cultural weekly newspaper, where the reviewer was positive all across the board, and did a wonderful reading of the book, so that definitely contributed to the sales.
Do you want to say a bit about some of the aspects of the book release that helped to get it more attention?
When the book was released, in 2019, the publishers made an effort to bundle most of the debutants early in the year, when not much else was being released. That means there was less competition to get in front of the reviewers, as the bigger names and established authors normally are published around easter or after the summer. They also had special events where all of the debutants were invited to read from their books, and I think this also contributed to getting the attention of the public.
Photo: Anna-Julia Granberg/Blunderbuss