Now that the whirling debut dust has settled, Lui Sit invites Polly Owen to talk about one thing she's learnt since becoming a published author.

My debut year has definitely been a whirlwind, far greater than anything I expected. As a long time, pre-published author, you get used to not expecting much. So, seeing those first positive reviews and articles is a huge relief, and somewhat unbelievable. 

Of course, there will be the odd negative review or ‘one star’ due to delivery time. But producing something that even one person enjoys, feels great. I was advised not to read reviews, but who has that much self-control?! Especially for a first book. I do agree that you should take some comments with a pinch of salt. Not everything is for everyone. But you will reach your audience, and hopefully by the end of the year, you will start believing in yourself again, like you did at the start of your writing journey.



A reading event at Watford Central Library

This year saw me face some big fears such as public speaking and even posting on social media platforms! I had barely used social media in the past, but I tried to embrace all forms (okay, TikTok was a tad too far). I had read an article on how you could have the best book in the world but if nobody knew about it, it wouldn’t be successful. 

As I have M.E. I knew I was always going to struggle with lots of events so I did what I could online, including a few blogs and competitions. Sometimes I felt like I was talking about my book too much but I was reassured that everyone's feeds are busy and they don’t see you as much as you might think. Despite everything I did, it was my publisher’s marketing team that had the greatest reach. I would never have managed to get onto lists or into libraries around the world without them. I felt relieved that I hadn’t given in to the urge of self-publishing. I think self-publishing is great, but I, personally, couldn’t have achieved this and admire those who can.


One of the best things I did was join a group of debut authors on X (formerly Twitter), which was a wonderfully supportive environment (so thank you Kael, for inviting me, and everyone else in the group.) This way, we could promote each other’s books, which is a lot easier than banging on about your own. My daughter also helped promote Darwin's Super-Pooping Worm Spectacular and made a great dolls scene, with mini books for those debuting at the same time as me.


Polly's daughter is fantastic when it comes to helping with promotion

One of the first things that felt strange about being published was coming across my book in magazines or being reviewed and having no idea it was going to happen. Someone may tag you or you may miss it completely but you quickly realise that it’s not your baby anymore. It’s out there with a life of its own and you can only watch, helping with the odd social post where you can.


A surprise magazine review

I was thrilled to see reviews appear in The Guardian and BBC Wildlife Magazine as well as being selected as a recommended school book by Books for Topics. I was also surprised to receive a parcel with copies of Darwin in German, Dutch, Italian and Korean (and particularly surprised by the Dutch title!). I’ve also recently spotted a French version online, so the surprises keep coming!


Polly's book has been translated into multiple languages

By the end of the year when I thought things would quieten down, it became book awards season. Darwin was lucky enough to feature in Amazon's Best Books of 2023, Kirkus reviews’ best Picture Books and (a personal highlight) in posts by Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham (I’m a big fan!).


Award season has brought some wondeful and well-deserved accolades

All this promotion and marketing is for one thing: selling books. And how well your books are selling is never far from your mind. At the period end there are a few months before you get the official numbers – the anticipation nearly killed me! Even when I got the figures, I had nothing to compare them to so I was unsure if it had done as well as expected. As a debut there are so many things you still don’t know and so much is out of your control. The best thing you can do is just get on with writing.


So, one year on, what have I learnt? You might not know where to focus your time (schools, book shops, festivals etc). You might not have any clue about sales numbers. Your book isn’t yours anymore and you’ll find it popping up in surprising places and languages. But you should prepare as much marketing in advance as you can. Not just one social media post/comp but a few to mark different events. Prepare presentations and props. Make costumes, bookmarks, stickers, badges. Have your website up and running along with a database or app for recording income, contacts, events etc.


A book signing where my daughter made and wore a worm costume!

What I wouldn’t do: I don’t think book shop signings were a good use of my time. I sold between two and eleven books at the three I did. I sold a lot more at school visits which were more rewarding as you see how enthusiastic the children are. Going back to my own primary school was a particular highlight, and speaking to the children who lived in the same blocks of flats that I grew up in. It was great to show them one of the many occupations available to them.


Visiting my old primary school

And after the whirlwind? Well, I don’t think the whirlwind has quite died down. I think things will always be a bit busier now. Every time it’s Darwin’s birthday or earthworms are in the news, there is the chance of a mini whirlwind. But the debut year really can be a great, memorable time so photograph, screenshot and scrapbook everything you can. And enjoy it. Good luck!


Darwin’s Super-Pooping Worm Spectacular (Illustrated by Gwen Millward), published by Quarto, January 2023. Learn the funny and fascinating story of Charles Darwin and the ground-breaking discoveries that resulted from his love of the humble worm in this hilarious, illustrated children’s book.

Polly’s second book Made for Us (OUP) was published in Feb 2024, illustrated by Daniel Duncan.  Made For Us is an independent reading book for 6-7 year olds and looks at inclusive design and how design can make life easier and more fun for everyone. 


Polly Owen is an author from Hertfordshire. With a degree in mathematics and statistics, she loves STEM subjects and incorporating serious science into silly picture books. Nature and history play a big part in her non-fiction books but she also loves to write in rhyme. Follow her on X , Instagram or visit her website

Lui Sit writes MG, non-fiction, adult short stories, and memoir. She is agented by Becky Bagnell of Lindsay Literary Agency. Find her on X, Instagram and on her website.


Anne Boyere is one of Words & Pictures' Feature Editors and runs the #SCBWIchat X chat about books for all ages @SCBWI_BI. You can find her on X.

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