Behind the scenes at The Riff Raff: why we built a community for debut authors

Riff Raff

This is an interview with Amy Baker, founder of The Riff Raff. Amy is also author of Miss-Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America, and a freelance writer, writing travel and lifestyle content for a range of publications. Learn more about The Riff Raff, and follow them on Twitter.

Where did the idea for The Riff Raff spring from? How would you define it in a single sentence?

The Riff Raff is a writers’ community that champions debut authors and supports aspiring writers. It came about because Rosy and I were both debut authors and we bonded over feeling a little bit lost in the process. We didn’t really know where to go for information, to promote ourselves or to meet fellow writers. The book events we attended felt intimidating – either because they were super highbrow, or because they featured established authors we couldn’t yet relate to. We created The Riff Raff because it was what we both wanted and needed at that stage in our writing careers – a friendly, welcoming community that would inform and inspire.  

What led you to focus on debut authors in particular, rather than all authors?

There were already lots of events out there for established authors, award-winners and best-sellers, but not too much to celebrate the enormous achievement of publishing that first book. Writers battle away for years to get published – we wanted to provide a friendly forum where we could learn from them, but also celebrate how hard they worked to get published. There’s a lot of cheering at our events! 

Also, when I was writing my book, I’d go and hear writers like Caitlin Moran speak and I’d get overwhelmed with how many steps I’d have to take in my career to be anywhere near where Caitlin was. It made things feel less doable. The beauty of putting hopeful writers in a room with those who’ve only just been published is that it makes it the dream seem achievable. Hearing authors who just months ago were going through the uncertainty that you were inspires you to keep going. There’s a special magic in that. It’s been wonderful to see people who were once in our audience take to The Riff Raff stage as published authors, Helen Cullen for example.

You run a podcast and an event series: which is more important, and where do you see The Riff Raff going next?

They’re an extension of each other so neither one is more important. The Riff Raff started with the events, and they’ve quickly become the highlight of my month. After each event, when everyone had gone home, we’d always discuss how insightful our authors were about writing and how we couldn’t wait to apply what they’d said to our own writing. We wanted to share that invaluable content with more people. The podcast is our chance to dive into their processes and to share more insight with our audience. Sometimes it only takes one comment or tip to completely clear up what’s been blocking you!

We’ve recently launched The Riff Raff Mentoring Scheme that pairs our authors with aspiring writers over three months, for 1:1 coaching and mentoring. We’ve got 30 great authors signed up as Mentors, including Sophie Mackintosh, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Sharlene Teo and more. In line with our ethos – the scheme provides aspiring writers with access and insight from contemporary authors in a genre similar to the book they’re writing. It also values the time and expertise of our authors so they’re supported in writing more books.

Are publishers doing enough to source new talent and connect with new authors? Is self-publishing becoming a more attractive route, or do you think ‘getting a contract’ is still the ultimate goal of the authors you work with?

We source our authors from publishers of all sizes, and we’re never short of debuts, so they’re definitely doing a good job as far as we’re concerned. It makes it very hard for us to choose! There are some exciting initiatives out there promoting diversity, like Penguin’s Write Now scheme and Hay House’s Diverse Wisdom scheme, which aim to attract new talent. I’m excited to see what new initiatives are launched in 2019.   

It’s hard to comment on self-publishing as The Riff Raff focuses specifically on those published in the traditional sense. However, over the year and half we’ve been operating, we’ve met a lot of self-published authors who are bashing out books and earning decent money from doing so. If you’re writing something that people read voraciously, are able to write quickly and aren’t marketing shy – self-publishing seems a very attractive option.

What’s your advice for anyone else who’s thinking of setting up a publishing network?

Find your niche. The Riff Raff works because it knows what it is. Everything we do is designed with the same aims in mind – support aspiring writers and champion debut authors. It keeps us on track, helps us develop products and lets us know where to market things. I’d also advise you to find something you’re passionate about. We love nothing more than reading and discussing writing… The Riff Raff allows us to indulge that passion, and that keeps us motivated.

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