An interview with Abiola Bello, Author and Director of Hashtag Press.
Some people know what they want to be when they grow up; a doctor, fireman, astronaut. For others, the path is less clear. It can take years of trying different jobs to find the one that fits. Some people never find it, working instead in a job that constantly feels like a pair of shoes that are far too tight.
Abiola Bello always knew she wanted to be an author, but like so many others, for many years she wore the wrong shoes. Her shoes weren’t too tight, just the wrong type – they were dance shoes. Not such a bad choice you might think. Abiola joined a hip-hop dance crew in her teens which went on to become the resident dance crew at the Barbican and choreographed the London Olympics. She was even invited onto The Apprentice as part of a task to help contestants create their own exercise video and appeared in the dance/comedy movie All Stars in 2013.
Anyone who’s walked in the shoes of a successful dancer will know the amount of hard work and dedication it takes to achieve so much at such a young age. Abiola was in her early 20’s at the height of her career. Yet still, something didn’t feel quite right.
“I was dancing 20 hours a week and then writing late into the night and trying to work out how I could get published. My life was all about dance, but my dreams were in the pages of the book I was writing. I’d written stories since I was eight years old and always knew I wanted to write books, I just didn’t know anyone in publishing or how to go about getting published.”
Stepping out of one pair of shoes into another wasn’t easy. It was a tough decision to cut back on dancing to write her debut book. At the age of 25, Abiola was offered an opportunity to attend the Hip Hop International Championships in Las Vegas. Around this time she was working on her debut book, Emily Knight and knew that if she wanted to get the book finished, she wouldn’t be able to go.
“I really wanted to go Vegas and dance with my crew but with the intense rehearsal schedule I knew I’d be too exhausted to stay up and work on my book. I had to choose and I chose my book.”
As it turned out, it was the right choice. Abiola has gone on to become a successful author as well as co-founder of Hashtag Press, The Author School for aspiring novelists and founder of The Lil’ Author School for young writers and ink, providing quality self-publishing services for authors. In 2018, she was announced as the winner of the Trailblazer Award which is run by The London Book Fair. Her second book Emily Knight I Am…. Awakened won The London’s BIG READ 2019 and was nominated for the CILIP’s Carnegie Award. And it looks like an adaptation is on the cards. So what‘s the key to her success?
Sheer hard work and a refusal to give up are top of the list. Abiola calls it being stubborn.
“I’m very stubborn if I say I’m going to do something I do it. My goal in life was to write a book and have it published. If you believe that’s all you’re meant to do, no one can tell you otherwise. We only have one shot.”
Next, is having the right people around you. People who want you to succeed, who believe in you and want the best for you.
Author Leone Ross and editor Laura Atkins both played a part in gently pushing Abiola into her new career path. Leone and Laura teach at Roehampton University where Abiola completed two years of a three-year degree in Creative Writing.
“I met editor Laura at Uni and for some reason she took a shine to me. She was very pro-diversity and wanted me to make my main character, Emily, a black girl, which I did. When I wanted to leave Uni, Leone was the only teacher who told me If I could figure out publishing, I should just go for it. So I went to Borders bookshop and bought every book I could about how to get published.”
Writing success didn’t happen immediately. Like every wannabe author, Abiola had many ups and downs along the way. Getting a publisher was the first step – actually more of a mountain, like climbing Everest. “I didn’t know how to make it happen, but I knew I had to figure it out,” she said.
After applying for work experience at Random House and various internships at publishing houses, Abiola was still no closer to fulfilling her quest. It’s Catch 22, without an agent you don’t show up on anyone’s radar. So she did the next best thing; self-published her first book and took it upon herself to start promoting it; emailing agents and attending various networking events. At one book event she met Helen Lewis who was promoting her services as a PR to publishers and authors. Helen suggested Abiola went with her to the London Book Fair, but had some homework for her to do first.
“It was a matter of here’s the database of everyone attending I want you to email all these agents. I was really out of my comfort zone. I had responses from two agents asking to read the rest of my manuscript. I was thrilled. I thought this is it, things will really start to happen now.”
Another agent also showed interest and, full of excitement and with expectations that everything was about to take off, Abiola signed on the dotted line. Sadly it wasn’t to be.
“It just seemed to be one thing after another. I had a big publishing house who wanted my book as a trilogy. A three book deal was on the cards, then they made most of the staff redundant!”
From then on it seemed to be…. almost but not quite yet.
“I decided to write another book that wasn’t fantasy. I usually write middle-grade but this was YA. Unfortunately, I got the feeling my agent didn’t liked it. The problem was, I did. She had a number of authors on her list and after a few years I didn’t feel like anything was happening. I learned a valuable lesson. No matter how big or small your agent is, you need their total support so you feel confident that they’re doing their best by you.”
Abiola was now faced with a difficult decision, stay with an agent who wasn’t making things happen, or go back to square one. Desperate to move her book forward, she went back to square one.
“I just wanted to cry and give up. I’d been trying so hard for so long and things just weren’t happening the way I thought they would,” she said.
It just so happened that by then, Helen Lewis had changed her career path too. With the skills she’d acquired as an excellent PR consultant, she decided to become a literary agent.
And so, we get back to the importance of having the right people around you. After thinking long and hard Abiola agreed to let Helen represent her.
Things started to happen as soon as Abiola and Helen teamed up. Abiola’s YA book began to make the rounds of the publishers with positive responses. Things also picked up with Emily Knight. With Helen behind her, Abiola started to get the recognition she deserved.
So, what advice would Abiola give to new writers desperate to make a name for themselves?
“Be very clear about what you want. You need to set yourself goals. Be a big dreamer but be realistic about what you need to do to get to the first level. Be structured and look at all the options. There are more ways to becoming a successful author than going down the traditional route. But above all, make sure you’re surrounded by people who want to make things happen for you. You never know what doors will open. I had no idea I’d end up running so many publishing businesses. I didn’t know I had it in me to be a business woman.”
Abiola now works full time for Hashtag Press which she runs with Helen and still writes every day, balancing her own career with helping other people find their writing success. She’s also recently set up Hashtag BLAK, a new publishing house that will showcase the UK’s best under-represented voices starting with Black British authors.
It’s been really inspiring talking to Abiola. Of course, you need talent and the desire to write, but it takes more than that to become a success. Stop wearing shoes that don’t fit. It’s scary but ‘what if’ doesn’t get your book on the shelf. Don’t wait for a chance meeting, or half-heartedly send out a few emails to potential agents. Take Abiola’s advice. Make a plan. Make it happen.