You can’t beat the publisher system

There are two ways to understand this.  If you saw the title of this blog as a challenge then it’s very likely that you have just self-published (or, are considering self-publishing) your novel.  If you saw the title of this blog-post as the encapsulation of a self-evident truth then you’re probably one – or more – of the following: (a) a publisher, (b) a literary agent, (c) an author who has jumped through the hoops, or (d) a bookseller who has had to again explain why this is so (and no, it wasn’t me on the occasion that inspired this post).

In the UK, a typical paperback costs around £8 or, in current terms, an hour of your employed labour before taxes.  If you worked in a typical job and spent all your money on books, you could buy – on average – 7-and-a-bit paperbacks per day but you don’t do that because there’s things called ‘mortgage’, ‘utility bills’, ‘credit card repayments’, ‘bank overdraft’, ‘insurance’, ‘pension’, children and so on.  The £8 cover price is a sum of money that each bookseller has to work hard to extract from the already tight household budgets of book-lovers.  Every time a book is bought, there is the inherent promise that the reader will be entertained for a few hours from a restricted budget that might otherwise have been spent in the cinema, buying DVDs, paying for swimming lessons, saving for a holiday… well, you get the idea.  Those bestsellers you hear about were not created by a certain online website because as everyone knows, the very best marketing is word-of-mouth and bookshops are where, despite the loud volume of social media, that conversation about new books begins.

So, if you are a self-published author and wondering why the bookshop won’t stock your book, ask yourself these very important questions:

1. Did you pay to have your book professionally edited?

2. Was your manuscript typeset by a professional who understands how the font and spacing of words can influence the enjoyment of your book?

3. Was the book jacket designed by a professional with an understanding of your target market?

4. Have you provided free copies to booksellers, journalists, fellow writers and bloggers in the hope that someone, somewhere might write a short review that will be widely read?

5. Have you ensured that you have a large print-run stocked in a warehouse from which replenishment stock can be re-ordered digitally on the off-chance – the most slender chance – that a sale will be made?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of the questions above then you must know that the process of taking a book from manuscript to publication is a very expensive process, in other words… you didn’t do any of this.  You simply lost patience with agents and tiring of these elitist gatekeepers, you took matters into your own hands and now you’re left with a whole pile of books in a non-standard font, very likely printed in Times New Roman on very bright-white paper, with a very shiny jacket designed by you to your very exacting standards and this, this shop boy, is telling you ‘no, thanks’.

Booksellers are also gatekeepers of a sort.  Usually paid minimum wage or thereabouts and expected to work overtime for book launches and signings in lieu of time off next month (maybe), we also don’t get paid a commission for recommending the books we put in our customer’s hands.  In a straw poll of current and former colleagues, we reckon that with the exception of free proof copies from publishers, we see maybe one book a week each that we like enough to buy for ourselves.  There are around 190,000 new books published each year in the UK or, less than one in a thousand.  Booksellers don’t work in bookshops for the wages: we know that we’d get better pay employed by Starbucks (at least £1.10 per hour actually).  We’re in the bookshops because we love books and that’s the same reason that literary agents who receive upwards of 50 unsolicited submissions a week do what they do: the hope of finding that one perfect novel.

If literary agents said ‘no’, take it on the chin.  If you’ve been rejected a dozen times, it’s probably time to reconsider your novel and start working on something else (though if you’re serious about writing, you’ll be doing that anyway).  If you’ve been rejected a couple of dozen times, maybe throw that book away and start on something else because it’s possible you’re writing in the wrong genre or the wrong historical period.  Maybe, you should try writing non-fiction (but definitely not autobiography because if you really were that interesting, the publishers would have approached you) or tackle a screenplay.  Why not?  We learn by doing and trying something unrelated can open your eyes to different ways of seeing the world.

Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on scams and don’t – as happened last week to a former colleague in their own bookshop – shout at the guy behind the till because chances are, they are also an unpublished writer, albeit one who knows Rule Number One of Being a Writer: Don’t be a dick to the people who you need to sell your book.

Rule Number Two of Being a Writer: Always remember that everyone knows everyone else or at least someone who does.  Publishers and booksellers might take the mickey out of each other but the book business is like a family business and we don’t like folk who kick our siblings.

More helpfully, here’s a couple of very useful and informative links that very concisely give advice to new and emerging writing talent:

Chuck Wendig describes ’25 Things Writers Should Know About Agents’.  Read it.

Though some of the advice has an Australian slant (and therefore contains information particular to non-UK and non-US authors), Ian Irvine gives new authors some helpful tips about things to look out for and things that must be done in ‘The Truth About Publishing’.  He also writes very good fantasy fiction.

Advertisements

Re-imagining Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’

747,510 words and thirteen months later, I now have a first draft.

If you’ve wondered why I’ve been a bit quiet of late, easing up on the social media and getting involved in other stuff, including going out for a drink (sorry, Chris) then this is why.  Between three and six hours a day, every day with only the two weeks off while in Hong Kong is a huge commitment but I kept going because I was having so much fun.

‘Gargantus’ is not the first novel I’ve attempted to write (it’s either number nine or number thirteen depending on whether you count those stories I never quite got around to finishing) but it’s certainly the first one I want to see published.

To think I only got into this because I’ve never understood why ‘War & Peace’ isn’t more widely read.  It’s got more clogs ‘n’ bonnets than Austen and more action and melodrama than Dickens.  Surely, if people are happy to spend a weekend watching a boxed set of DVDs then the size isn’t enough to put people off.

I’ve tackled three different translations to get a better understanding of how the book works (Tolstoy insisted it wasn’t a novel – pah).  Tolstoy preferred the original Maud sisters translations – yes, it’s good – but I prefer and recommend the Anthony Briggs version.  It’s like a soap opera on amphetamines.  (Don’t bother with the most recent Random House version which is for poseurs only).

The biggest challenge faced in re-imagining such a well-loved book is that folk are always going to be looking for different things.  First up, it’s not a re-write.  That’s something completely different.

What I realised on re-reading ‘War & Peace’ is that the world of Napoleonic Europe two hundred years ago is as strange to us as any attempt to imagine the world in two hundred years time.  I also felt that there were a couple of things about two of the major characters that just jarred and so I got my thinking cap on.

Hands up, I’ll admit that boxed set DVDs are as big an influence on my writing as the books I’ve loved most and having seen such brilliant writing in recent TV dramas such as ‘Les Revenants’ and the re-imagined ‘Battlestar Galactica’, I don’t think I can be faulted for that.  It was watching Helen McCrory in  the BBC’s ‘Peaky Blinders’ that gave me a second light bulb moment.

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky became Heddar Wallaner.  A girl.  In uniform.  Kicking arse (trust me, when you say it like it’s written, it sounds just so much better than the American ‘ass’).

I have had an absolute blast creating the first draft and am really excited about beginning the re-write.

The next step is to find an agent who will hopefully then help me find a publisher.  I’m really looking forward to introducing these amazing characters and their amazing world to a wider audience.

From first draft to gigantic project

Portrait_OiPandaUsingTypewriter

I’ve been writing since I was eight years old.  When I last burrowed through old files, I had eight novels completed to at least first draft stage, three screenplays and a number of short stories.  When friends wonder why I’m not yet published or at the very least, actively looking for a publisher, I usually give the same reason: it’s simply not enough to finish a novel, find an agent and then a publisher.  Writers face greater challenges than just finishing work.

I’ve been working nearly twenty years in the book trade and one phenomenon that has been pretty constant in all that time has been the ’emerging talent’.  Every year, a new author is hailed as the best, the brightest and blah blah blah.  It would be unfair to name those talents of yesteryear as the failure to repeat that early success should be expected given the pressures that every author is subjected to in the drive for sales.

There are some writers who can produce a novel a year, every year, ascend the bestselling charts and generate sales that are exceptional in comparison to the vast majority of books produced.  I’m pretty sure I’m not one of those writers.  Writing fiction is more than just a process for me as I suspect is the case for most writers.  From the initial idea for a novel, I might spend at least another four months working on character development, fictional environment and background history and at the end  of that time, hope to have completed a first draft synopsis.

Just like proving a loaf of bread, the synopsis needs to be left to leaven.  After a few months, I’ll go back to the synopsis and after re-reading a couple of times, I’ll redraft the synopsis.  When I’m satisfied that there are no plot-holes or mysterious turns of character in the outline of the story, I’ll then begin to write.

Most days, I can write around two thousand words but there are days when everything I write will be scrapped.  A typical novel produced by a UK publisher is around 180,000 words.  Shorter novels are rarely published in the UK unless they’re bestselling works in translation because it is felt that book lovers in this country expect books to be a certain length (and from what I’ve observed in bookshops, that certainly seems to be the case.  Few people will buy a novel of 100 pages or less for the same price as a novel three times longer even if Andrew Kaufman’s ‘All My Friends Are Superheroes’ ranks among the very best contemporary novels).  This means that at least ninety days are going to be needed to produce the first draft of the novel.

Guess what?  The novel is not finished then.  It needs to be redrafted and that’s best begun after the first draft has been been allowed to sit for a while.  Fresh eyes make better for better editing.

It seems crazy but UK publishers will usually offer a standard format of book contract to all new fiction authors, regardless of genre, age or experience.  After years of effort, it must come as not only a relief but a huge vindication when a contract is offered but the hard work begins before the ink is dry.

With so many books published each year, getting any sales at all involves a lot of marketing.  With a celebrity author, that part is easy, particularly if the celebrity has a strong presence on TV.  Authors will not only need to create a strong presence on social media (requiring daily effort) but will need to visit bookshops, book festivals, try and get themselves on radio and into newspaper articles and so on and so on.  While doing all this publicity, the author’s not writing and remember, most of them will not have been offered a lot of remuneration for their initial contract and will have to continue with their day job.

How on Earth is a debut author supposed to produce their second, third and fourth novel while fulfilling all the other obligations in their book contract?

Over the years, I’ve been very aware that few authors seem able to keep up the momentum and so I’ve quite deliberately held off sending out my work.  It wasn’t my own idea but advice I’ve been given by a couple of editors, one of whom also made the leap to becoming a fiction author.  At the time, this editor-author told me that I’d find another advantage to holding off and acquiring a backlog of work: my writing is better now than it’s ever been.

And so it should be: on 1st February this year, I began writing a re-imagining of Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’.  I loved the book and knowing that it was simply a matter of discovering the ‘right’ translation, I felt the book (Tolstoy never described his magnum opus as a ‘novel’) could reach a larger audience.  ‘War & Peace’ isn’t a heavy-weight, intellectuals-only book but a vast sprawling soap-opera that switches between bloody battlefields and romantic parlours.  It’s the DVD box-set to other author’s summer movies.

When I first started writing ‘Gargantus’, I thought it would be an interesting project that would keep my writing muscles exercised while I worked on improving the synopses – or story outlines – for two other novels.  Eleven months and over 600,000 words later, I’m close to finishing the first draft.  By this time next year, I hope to have finished redrafting the novel.