Wednesday 30 December 2009

Writing the recession (3): Some numbers

There's plenty of mumbling about the recession hitting publishing - publishing houses cutting staff, cutting advances, cutting lists, trying to rejuvenate the backlist (do kids really want to read Enid Blyton?), bookshops closing, liquidating or just selling crap. There have been a few stories about 'poor' authors having their advances cut from £120,000 to only £30,000, intended to make people scoff at authors (while ignoring the vast majority of authors whose advances are often well under £3,000, and first-time novelists for which they may be only £500). But largely authors are ignored in coverage of the industry's 'crisis' — which is a little odd, as without us there would be no publishing industry.

So, is there a crisis? There is certainly a crisis in confidence. But: The value of book sales in the UK has risen by £0.5 billion over the last 10 years (representing an increase of 40%). Fiction sales in the last months of 2009 were 14% up on the same period last year (up 3.3% excluding Dan Brown). The value of children's book sales in the year is between 3% down and 5% up depending on the source you look at.

But income is unevenly distributed in publishing. Some publishers are struggling, at least in some areas of their business. They are not very good at recognising that it's vital to subsidise some under-performing areas with income from over-performing areas in order to keep the whole organism healthy. Pouring all the money into celebrity crap or a few over-hyped books will not sustain the industry in the long-term as it neglects the need to nurture a new readership. It's easy to say 'oh, this will make lots of money now, we don't need to bother with that' - but then you're left madly chasing the next 'this' with nothing steady to fall back on, and have to scrabble around making cuts if 'this' doesn't turn up or doesn't deliver.

For most of the authors I know, 2009 has been a disastrous year. Although I do my accounts April-April, I track commissions Jan-Jan, so assuming I'm not about to get lots of commissions tomorrow, I can say that commissions are, for me, a long way down. They've fallen from £53,000 in 2008 to less than £12,000 in 2009 - that's a drop of nearly 75%. (This is new commissions - it doesn't include royalties, PLR and ALCS payments which are all income on old books and so don't reflect much.) Even removing the one unusually high-value commission in 2008, this year is still 60% down. (I would have done other work in that time, so excluding it is not really fair - but it is in keeping with the industry practice of giving figures including and excluding JKR, DB, SM, etc.) The number of commissions is is down only 25%. The average value of each commission is down 50%.

Well, those are my figures. I know it's not really done to reveal this info in public, but personally I'm in favour of openness. If the problem isn't talked about, no-one will make a move towards solving it, or even just sharing the burden. So - how do we fix this broken model of publishing for writers? Any ideas?

Wednesday 23 December 2009

The wayward muse

We've all been there. Deadline looming, book not finished (or not even started) and somehow that spark of creativity that you depend on to make the words glow and catch light cannot be kindled. The sentences - if you've written them at all - lie lumpen and cold on the page. The words sprawl lazily, dull adjectives sticking out like elbows. The book is an early-morning teenager, unwilling to rouse itself at all. Where is the muse when you need her? It's Christmas, there's snow outside - she's probably gone to make snow-hippos and sledge down ancient burial mounds. She may be waiting in A&E with a sledging accident at this very moment. She certainly doesn't want to hang around in here to help me build a dragon for an end-of-year picture-book deadline. I'm sure I heard her, on the way out, kicking a troll out of the way and falling over that cat with the bifurcated tail, grumbling that I don't use half the things she drags in.

The popular conception of a writer is of someone who writes when imagination strikes. The Writer of Popular Imagination (WPI) is a delicate flower, wracked by emotion and impelled to pour his or her heart out. He or she wears elegant clothes and writes in a beautiful room, which may be crammed with interesting
objets d'art. The muse sits obediently at the WPI's side, adding an eloquent line here or there and sipping a martini. The WPI does not sit on the floor in pyjamas with a laptop precariously balanced and keep checking Facebook and Twitter for some crucial debate that must be entered into - more crucial than writing about the damn dragon. The WPI's muse does not drink absinthe all night and then go awol for days.

Some books don't need much help from the muse. Then she gets impatient and starts kicking ideas around in a distracting way. 'Look at me,' she says, ' Look what I've found. Don't you want to come and play with this were-flamingo? What can we do with this witch-infested igloo built of icing sugar? Would you like some of this mandrake goulash?' It's Not Now, Bernard all over again. Maybe the muse is called Bernard. She gets petulant and stroppy and goes off in a sulk when I won't play with her.

Other books really should have the muse's name on the title page. OK, Bernard, you can have a credit. You can have half the PLR- please just come and tell me how to put these bits together.
How do you cope when the muse won't come in and the deadline is creeping closer? Write anyway. Write and just accept whatever garbage comes out, and keep going. That way you will have something to correct. At the very least, you will have something to srew up and throw at the damn muse when she deigns to show her face.

When she finally comes back in, the muse can look over what you've written and jeer at you. If you're lucky, she will want to prove her worth by fixing it quickly. If she still won't play, but acts like a cat you've left in the cattery for a fortnight, you'll just have to prove you can do it on your own. And you can - which is what really annoys her. You know how language works, you know how to put a book together - it might take longer and you might feel grumpier, but you
can do it without her. The child created by IVF is indistinguishable from the child begotten joyfully between Parisian sheets or the child conceived in a car park. No-one else will know. Lock the muse-flap, leave her out in the snow and prove you can do it anway.

Friday 4 December 2009

How short books have got shorter

You would think a book of 48 pages would always have the same number of pages, wouldn't you? But you'd be wrong...

Books always have multiples of eight pages, because of the way paper is folded to make a book. So short books for short children generally have 24, 32, 48, 56 or 64 pages. A lot of schools and libraries books have 48 pages. It's long enough to get some decent content in, but short enough to be unintimidating to novice readers.

Traditionally, the main text of a 48-page book starts on page 4 and continues until page 45. The prelims come before page 4, and the end matter (glossary, further info, index) comes on pages 46 to 48. But 48-page books have got shorter. More and more often, they are self-ended. This means the first and last pages are stuck down, becoming the endpapers. The main text then starts on page 6 and ends on page 43. The reasons are economic. The publisher can pay you less to write it (typically £100 less), they have to pay less for layout, editing, proof-reading and licences for pictures from picture libraries. It costs less to print and bind. But the cover price remains the same.

It is, literally, money for nothing (on those stuck down pages) for the publisher.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Why books are not videos or music

We are all used to the comparison of the book trade and its approach to e-books with the music and video industry - ie hiding the head in the sand, ostrich-like, and vainly hoping it will all go away, only to raise the head, shake the sand out of the eyes, and see the pirates swarming over the beach with the treasure. Unless publishers get their act together, we hear, it will all be gone to piracy and the publishing industry will be bankrupt, derelict, a dinosaur, etc.

Yes, publishers need to work out what they are going to do about electronic distribution (and theft) of content. Yes, more people are buying e-books in one form or another - but cheap iPhone and Touch apps are going to stamp all over the expensive Kindle/Sony/etc model (book apps are already outselling games on the iPlatforms). Yes, books are pirated (often from the pdfs the publishers send to printers in India and China) and distibuted for free.

But books are NOT like videos and music. Why has no-one noticed? An mp3 or other audio file is a natural evolution of an LP, an audio tape and a CD. Think Pokemon - you get a basic level little monster and if it is successful it evolves into something more powerful in a Great Leap Forward. Films, too - from video tape to DVD to mpeg and other video formats on computer. But books? No. The difference is that you could never read a record, a CD, a video tape or a DVD without a piece of equipment. You can't hold a DVD up to the light and watch the movie. So if a better technology comes along, the cruddier technology will fail - of course. But a book you can read without any technology, and an e-book is an alternative rather than a replacement. The bicycle didn't replace walking; cars didn't replace bicycles, though the market share changes as new options are added.

e-books are an indulgence for the tech-savvy, money-rich, 1st world, social elite. If publishers neglect paper books while pursuing the illusory moneypot of e-books many, many readers will be disadvantaged and some people - those who most desperately need books - will be denied them. A library with 20 computers each with 2 million e-books can serve 20 readers at a time; a library with 20,000 books can serve 20,000 readers at once. A book doesn't turn off because it's run out of electricity; it's format doesn't become unreadable; you can only lose your whole library at home if you have a fire - you can't leave it on a train.

Make e-books, but give them away free with paper books - the format has no value, and if you are producing a paper book, producing a basic e-book is free - it's a by-product like weetabix or marmite (you can make it by sweeping up the spare electrons from the production process).

People will buy books if they are available and nicely produced. Books were always borrowed for free from libraries (and friends) and yet still people bought them. People like to have the physical object because of things they can do with it that they can't do with an e-book (like show it off on the shelf, smell the paper, enjoy the binding, flick through it to remind themselves of what it's like...)

Books aren't going away unless publishers give up on them, and even then there will be small presses and (God help us) self-published books. Because you could never do those things with a CD or LP or video (except, note, with the printed inserts) the change for the consumer from black vinyl to a bunch of electrons was insignificant. But an e-book does not replace all the functionality of a paper book so individual consumers will choose the format they prefer. Interestingly, it is the celebrity pulp novels that people are least likely to want in paper format. There is no pride or pleasure to be had in owning a Dan Brown paperback, surely? So the very books publishers are choosing to print are the very books that eventually - if they are right about the expansion of e-books - will be least well suited to that format. Hollow laugh.

Sunday 1 November 2009

Over there

Sorry, folks, I've not been blogging because things have been going wrong in a big way for more than a month. But I will be back. And in the meantime, I've blogged (about disasters) at ABBA.

Saturday 17 October 2009

eeeee - royalty fail

How much should you be paid for an e-book? As with so many things - that depends. There is no concensus so far. There are two very different situations in which you may be negotiating e-book royalties.

If a book is produced only as an e-book and never on mashed-up dead trees, there are certain costs that will never arise. These are the costs relating to printing, shipping and warehousing books - and then, on a bad day, pulping remainders back into mashed-up trees. (There is no need to pulp the electrons if they don't sell the e-books. Indeed, pulping electrons would cause a cataclysmic disaster, so let's not suggest it.) But all the other costs still exist, at least if the book is done properly. The costs of commissioning, editing, design, layout, and producing the final files are the same (though design may be lower, with a drab page design and no glossy cover). If the e-book sells for a substantially lower price than a paper book, the publisher may offer exactly the same percentage royalty as for a paper book. This might seem unfair, but it's possible that the maths are correct. A paperback produced in a large print run may have a printing cost of only a 25p or so; if the e-book sells for around two thirds or half the price of a paper book, the publisher is reducing their risk but not their costs.

If a book is produced as a paper book and then also as an e-book, the situation is rather different. The publisher is aiming to break even (at least) on the paper sales, so any e-book sales are a bonus that cost next-to-nothing to generate. (To convert from a print-ready file to an e-book format is the work of minutes, and even with checking and so on it's only a few hours). If the publisher is offering you the same royalty for print and e-book in this case, you're being cheated. The Society of Authors recommends asking for a royalty in the region of 40%. If a book is in print anyway, it is entirely reasonable for the profits from the e-book to be shared pretty much equally between publisher and author as neither is doing any substantial work to sell the e-book, and neither is taking any extra risk.

Many publishers are sneaking low-royalty clauses into contracts while authors aren't looking. You may think that your book won't become an e-book - but it may do, or it may be used in some other electronic format which your publisher hasn't even thought of yet. You need to keep electronic rights, say explicitly in the contract that they are to be separately negotiated or, at the very least, licence these rights for a short period with a review after 18 months or so. Things are moving quickly - the deal that looks OK now might look atrocious in 12 months' time. And you might even want to produce your own e-book... but that's an entirely different post for another day.

Saturday 3 October 2009

The Bint in the Bathroom

Blogging over at the awfullybigblogadventure today - see you there!

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Tell me about me

How often do you crop up on the web? How many times do your books crop up? Unless you search for yourself on Google every day - and if you do that, it's time to get a life - you probably don't know. Google Alerts can do the checking for you. Register, enter the term you want to search for - your name, the title of one of your books, the name of your main character - and pick 'comprehensive' as the search method and Google will email you each time your chosen phrase is found in new pages going online.

How useful it is depends on your name/book title. If you're called Gordon Brown, you might as well forget it, as wading through all the references to Gordon Brown to find one that relates to you, the real Gordon Brown, will take up so much of your time you won't be a writer any more.

Why do this? Vanity? 'Oooh, look at me, look at me, I'm on Google'? No, though you could do it for that reason. It's a good way of keeping track of reviews of your books and, increasingly, pirated uploads. That is, electronic copies of your books posted without your permission (or your publisher's) permission, usually for people to download for free. You can then decide whether to issue a DCMA take-down notice (more on that another day) or just glory in how popular your book is when it's free. Either way, it's good to know. Knowledge is power. And knowledge is also smug-juice.

Saturday 12 September 2009

'It's a business trip'

Practise saying it: 'I'm working; it's a business trip.' Good. Now plan your writing life around places you want to visit. Don't - like Meg Rossof (why did she do that?) - set your novel in Luton. OK, she set it in the airport, so maybe she got to claim all her flights to wherever she felt like so that she could keep researching the departure lounge.

As the bats flit over the Grand Canal and the strains of Cosi fan tutte fill the palazzo, so kindly lent to me by another writer who has the good sense to set her stories in a wonderful place, I can honestly say 'it's not a holiday, it's work'. I'm killing off 16th century Venetians and following the exploits of Melampyge, the cat who lived in the Campanile and it is not, for tax purposes, enjoyable.

Actually, I didn't choose Venice for this story - it chose itself. I stopped by en route to the Bologna Book Fair and the story started itself in a pizza restaurant north of Rialto. Thereafter, I followed where it led, through the archives of the Marciana, the offices of the Istituto Cini, the manuscript room of the Corer and back, again and again, between the Palazzo Pisani Santa Marina and Zanipolo. But it has taught me a useful lesson which I will generously pass on - never set your story in Basingstoke when you could set it in Berlin, or Barcelona, or Sao Paulo. Or Venice.

Monday 17 August 2009

Don't mention it ... (or No sex, please - we're American)

Yale University Press is getting some flak for its decision to remove pictures of the prophet Mohammed from The Cartoons That Shook the World. As well as the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 lambasting Islam, the book was to have included an engraving by Gustav Dore for a 19th-century edition of Dante's Inferno. (The illustration of Mohammed in Hell here is by William Blake.) They have been removed to avoid offending Muslim readers and so prompting terrorist acts. This type of pre-emptive censorship is hardly news to children's writers. We live with it all the time. And it's not Muslims we can't afford to offend, it's Americans.

A friend (an MP) recently grumbled that he couldn't find a book about evolution for his young son. He sent me a message on Facebook to suggest I write one. I would love to, but evolution is one of many topics that are out of bounds for children's writers. Although most British parents and teachers want their children to know about this important aspect of science, the US market is evolution-hostile. There are enough Creationists to make it difficult for US schools and libraries, and in some places even bookshops, to stock a children's book about evolution because they are worried about complaints and boycotts. This year I even had an adult book about evolution turned down because the UK publisher (who wanted to do the book) couldn't find a US publishing partner to take it on.

Without a US market, many full-colour children's books aren't financially viable. The result is that the reading of UK children is limited by a bunch of nutty Creationists 4,000 miles away who don't even work in publishing. It's insane - as insane as the idea that the world was created by a supernatural being in seven days (or six with a holiday - why would an extra-temporal being need a holiday?) And no, I am not going to 'respect their beliefs' any more than I would respect an adult who believed in the tooth fairy.

It's not just evolution that's out of bounds. Sex and nudity are also ring-fenced - to the extent that it's not possible to show an image of Michelangelo's David in an art history book, or a teenager in a short skirt or a bikini. In 2007, an American publisher precipitated a row with a German illustrator after asking that the virtually invisible penis on statue in an illustration of an art gallery be airbrushed out. The statue itself was only 7.5 millimetres high, so you can imagine how hard you would have to look to find the penis and be offended by it. (In this case the publisher backed down under the ridicule heaped upon it.)

Violence fares no better, despite American children spending most waking moments playing World of Warcraft and watching Terminator movies (or worse) while choosing which gun to buy later. Books on medieval warfare can't show dangerous weapons or violent activity - so no swords, and no bows and arrows. And for later periods, absolutely no guns. (How the West was won - they gently persuaded the native Americans to die off?)

Fiction is no easier than fact. Stories can't feature unfamiliar things such as a hedgehogs, wardrobes and sausages (God forbid the American child would have to find out something about wildlife or bedroom furniture outside the Land of the Free). Witches are often vetoed, too, unless you are JKR (and her books aren't allowed everywhere). It's a bit easier at the upper end of the age range.

It's not just the US that limits what British children can see in books. As more and more books are printed in China, offending Chinese sensibilities has become a new concern. Anthony Browne tells of how he had a book pulped by the Chinese printers after they noticed it showed a Tibetan flag. Other books have any mention of Tibet removed, and even any critical remarks about China's allies in Africa may be censored.

Why do we allow this? Why don't publishers print their books elsewhere (yes, I know China is cheap - but so are India, Russia and eastern Europe), and why do they go along with US nannying? Separate US language editions are produced anyway - it wouldn't be hard, since the black plate is different, to blot out the bits of pcitures that American children aren't allowed to see, and to edit the text. Of course, blotting out would let them know their book has been censored. And they have that thing, don't they, about freedom of speech? As long as you don't use your freedom of speech to say something like - life on Earth evolved over billions of years... (For a confusion of Creationism, evolution, prejudice and gun crime, see this brilliant scene from Mean Girls.)

Some of this nannying is dangerous not only to the intellectual health of children, but to their physical health, too. A book about healthy living for teenagers can't include advice on aspects of sexual health - presumably because teenagers who hadn't thought of having sex might feel encouraged to try it if a book mentioned condoms or health checks or contraception. American children need this information as much as - and perhaps more than - British children (who have other sources, at least). Here's another bit of advice from Mean Girls, this time on sex education.

Enough grumbling - I'm off to sit in the wardrobe in a skimpy outfit, drink some Taiwanese spirits, and write the outline for my book on the evolution of the Tibetan hedgehog. UK market only, of course.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Saturday 8 August 2009

Machines guns to the ready - writers get together

Writing has always been a lonely business. Years ago, the world was very different. Not only did we have to wipe the dinosaur footprints off the galley proofs before sending them back in the post, we had hardly any contact with other writers so we couldn’t even compare dinosaurs. But over the last two or three years the loneliness of the long-distance writer has faded away. Our studies and writing sheds now hum with the voices of other writers, always on hand to offer advice, distract with jokes or questions, to encourage, sympathise, congratulate, grumble or just gossip.

Like most writers, I belong to several online groups. One of the best is Balaclava, the discussion group of the SAS. (Yes, we’re cool, we writers, we know how to storm an embassy and bust a hostage situation. Leave your machine guns at the door, please.) Groups like Balaclava provide the workplace gossip that people in a normal working environment take for granted. But they also offer a source of emotional support, celebrating successes and commiserating over disappointments, and they are an invaluable source of information. That information ranges from the practical details of publishing (whether the contractual terms we’ve just been offered are any good), to essential everyday knowledge (how to make gingerbread), to facts we need for our writing – how to flay a human being, what people might have eaten for breakfast in 15th century Poland, the details of a particular World War II plane… Many things that could lead to a night in the cells if asked outside the group are common currency inside the charmed circle. Where will I dump the body? Where can I find out about Serbian sex slaves? How long does it take to strangle someone? (Crime writers’ groups are full of especially salacious work-gossip.)

For all their benefits, online groups are also a huge distraction. Writers spend a lot of time avoiding writing, as you probably know. Published, professional writers are no different in this regard from writers-in-training, in fact they are possibly worse. And if someone has just asked for suggestions for the title of their latest book, or how pop-up books were made in the 1880s, or what were the ingredients of theriac (a ‘cure’ for plague), you do, of course, feel duty bound to spend the morning helping out your friend rather than getting on with your work. It’s great for building a sense of community, but perhaps not for getting books written. I wonder if anyone is studying the productivity of authors alongside the rise of online groups catering to their interests?

There will be losers, but they are not us. In the dim and distant past, great literary friendships were carried on by letter. Our online groups, Facebook and, to a lesser degree, email have replaced letters. Future scholars will find no equivalent of the correspondence between Tolkien and CS Lewis, or Boswell and Samuel Johnson. If I ever became a renowned literary figures (dream on!), the advice I’ve received from even the most famous and accomplished authors will have disappeared into the ether long ago – no-one will ever dig it out of the twisted bowels of Facebook and the archives of the SAS are deleted regularly (secrecy comes with the balaclava).

Choosing the right online groups can take a bit of trial and error. My favourites are Balaclava (for published writers of children’s fiction), Nibweb (for published writers of children’s non-fiction) and Wordpool (for published and unpublished writers of any kind of children’s books). None of these groups is concerned with mutual critiques, by the way – that’s an entirely different kind of activity. If you're not part of a writing group yet, you can start looking at the lists of groups offered by Yahoo, or on Facebook, or you could join one of the social networking groups aimed at writers, such as JacketFlap.

I find UK-based groups the most useful. Publishing in the US is very different from publishing over here, and advice does not always ship across the Atlantic well. Over here, too, many of us share publishers or agents and write for the same lists and series. That helps to create a real sense of community as though we actually were, really, in a workplace, doing real work that we were being paid real money for while actually standing around the water-cooler having a natter.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Plundering ancient tombs

BookMaven has blogged about the Albigensian massacre of 1209 which features in her latest book Troubadour (out Mon 3rd August) - an 800-year anniversary that has gone unmarked and unmourned. (You need to know that BookMaven is Mary Hoffman if you want to order the book, which you should.)

She says her post is a memorial or a plug, but I think I recognise something else in it, too (though I may be wrong). Writing about real historical events in which real people died can make the writer feel a bit uneasy. On the one hand, we are bringing their memory to life, acknowledging their lives and their suffering for a fleeting moment, hundreds of years on. If even one person thinks of them, and perhaps reflects on how their fate relates to current events, we have done a Good Deed.

But at the same time, I personally feel slightly uneasy appropriating their tragedy for a book that will be an entertainment. Would they approve? I think on balance that they would - better to remembered than forgotten - but respect and an acknowledgement that their tragedy was real, not just a story, are a vital courtesy we must afford the dead.
'My' group of dead are the 32,000 who died of plague in Venice in 1576-7. Every time I go to Venice, I light a candle for the plague dead and a candle for Marcantonio Bragadin, who I've also appropriated. I'm not a Catholic, nor even a Christian, but they were, so it seems right. (Marcantonio was brutally executed by the Ottomans while defending Venetian interests in Cyprus. He was flayed alive, and his skin is now in Santi Giovanni e Paolo; that's his tomb above. He - or at least his skin - is also a character in Michelle Lovric's splendid The Undrowned Child.)

Writing about the past is very important. It is easy to think that the 'past is a different country' and that people were not the same. People may have done things differently then, but they felt and thought and hoped in the same ways as now. It is the job of historical fiction (and historical non-fiction) to show us that a person in 1209, or in 2009BC, was just the same in all important regards as a person in 2009. It is our shared humanity that makes their stories matter to us. Don't believe that people were immune to the harshness of their lives, did not feel and fear the famines and plagues that ravaged their lands, or got used to their children dying - read Ben Jonson's
On My First Sonne, or Lear's speech on the death of Cordelia if you doubt that they felt such tragedies as strongly as we do.

On My First Son by: Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy;
Seven yeeres tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soon scap'd worlds and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lye
Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Book Maven moves

The excellent Book Maven has moved her blog to a new address, so please all change your links and carry on following her!

She can now be found at:

Happy New Home cards to be sent directly to the new address, bunches of flowers to her real-world address only.

Happy moving, M :-)

Saturday 11 July 2009

Am I a real writer now?

Imagine you are at a party. (Maybe you actually are at a party, but if so you shouldn't really be reading this - it's not very polite, even if the party is boring.) Now imagine you've asked someone at the party what they do, and they say 'I'm a writer'. What assumptions do you make about them? Personally, I expect them to be a published writer, making money from their writing. I don't think you should say you're a writer just because you write. I wouldn't say I'm a cleaner because I sometimes (OK, very rarely) do some cleaning. And I wouldn't say 'I try to make Small Bint do her homework' even though I spend a lot of time doing it because - sadly - I'm not paid to do it. (I would be very rich if I were.) 'What do you do?' means, in the usual course of things 'what do you do for a living?'

Now, you have a publishing contract - someone asks you at a party what you do for a living and you say 'I'm a writer.' Jolly good. Next question will either be 'have you published anything?' or 'should I know you?' (often followed by 'do you write under your own name?' because they haven't, of course, heard of you unless you are Dan Brown, or someone such as Katie Price or Madonna who is not actually a writer.) The first of these questions gives the lie to my definition of a writer. Why do people ask this? If someone said 'I'm a pilot', we wouldn't say 'have you ever flown a plane?' would we? It's because so many more people want to be writers than are writers, and they've muddied the water by adopting the mantle prematurely. Once, when I said I was a writer, someone responded with 'is that the new term for unemployed?'

With this much confusion about the label it's no wonder writers themselves have difficulty feeling like a 'real' writer. It's odd - there is the handful who feel confident claiming to be a writer when, in my view, they're not, and then there are hosts of writers who spend years feeling they aren't quite bona fida writers yet. Being a real writer is always just around the corner. It's easy to feel as if you are only the shadow of a real writer, and the real writer is just one step ahead. As soon as you get to where you thought the real writer stood, it's moved on.

It goes like this: if you write non-fiction, well, that's not very hard is it? All you're doing is organising some facts and sticking them down in a relatively sensible order. If you have an original argument and have done lots of research, that doesn't make you a writer, it just makes you a bit of a boff.

If you write picture books, well, they're not really very hard are they? It's not as though you had to sustain a complex plot with subplots and develop characters. And the pictures do half the work.

If you write chapter books or short novels, well, that's not too hard - no need for complex style and structure, challenging ideas and intellectual rigour. And if you write a long novel for children, well - it's not like writing for adults, is it? Poems? Well, they're so short, and they don't even have to make sense!

And so we undo ourselves in a self-doubting modesty-fest. Here's a secret: many - maybe even most - writers privately worry that they are not 'proper' writers. It's especially true of children's writers, partly because people so often ask if you've ever thought of writing for adults, implying that would be a better thing to do. I do write for adults as well and, believe me, writing for children is much harder.

Listen carefully: if you write words and are paid for them, and they include any originality, imagination, creativity or skill in the content or the expression, you are a writer. There are subgroups of writers - novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, non-fiction writers, children's writers, adult writers, picture-book writers - but they are all real writers. That contract you have - that tells you that you are a real writer. Don't listen to the bad voice in your head: you don't have to wait until you're buried in Poet's Corner to know you're a real writer.

Friday 10 July 2009

Happy 1st Birthday ABBA!

The Awfully Big Blog Adventure celebrates its first birthday today, with lots of give-aways, guest posts from stars of the world of children's books and even a virtual cake! Pop over there and take part in the festivities.

Friday 3 July 2009

Free at the point of use

In the UK, we have a free National Health Service. Healthcare is 'free at the point of delivery' (= use). I know that's a bit of an alien concept to some transatlantic readers, but bear with me. We also have a system of books that are free at the point of use.

There are lots of ways books can be free to the reader. Here are some:

  • borrow the book from a library
  • borrow the book from a friend
  • be given the book by a friend
  • steal the book from a library/friend/shop
  • download a pirated e-copy of the book
  • pick up a book-crossing copy
And some books are virtually free, or very cheap:

  • books bought from Amazon re-sellers
  • books bought from charity shops and car-boot sales
  • books ordered from a library and incurring an inter-library loan charge.
In all these cases, the writer of the book gets nothing. In the case of the loan from a library they might get increased PLR - it's about 6p per book per loan. How do writers feel about these free methods of getting books?

On the whole, writers are vociferous and enthusiastic supporters of libraries. Many of us were early signatories to
Alan Gibbons Campaign for the Book - and, indeed, signed the first scruffy bit of paper that represented its original toddler-steps last summer. We get our 6p, we're happy. Incidentally, school and university libraries are excluded from PLR. For children's writers, this means that probably most of our borrowings generate no income at all, not even 6p. And, of course, we get no PLR on books borrowed from libraries in the US, Australasia, Canada, etc.

Personally, I'm happy about people borrowing books from friends or passing them on when they have read them. It is environmentally sound, and book-giving and -sharing builds strong social bonds and endorses the emotional and intellectual value of books, which are Good Things.

I am not in favour of stealing books from libraries, friends or shops. Doing that deprives others of the book and of its value as a physical object.

I am not 100% anti-piracy. Despite the anti-piracy advertising, it's not the same as stealing a physical book as it does not deprive an individual or organisation of an object they have paid for. (Yes, I know, the publishers have paid to develop the book - the stock of printed books is not depleted by piracy.) Publishers could do a lot to prevent piracy by making more books available as e-books. If someone wants an e-book and there is no legitimate copy they can buy, they are more likely to download an illegal copy. I am not convinced that downloading pirated copies damages sales - how many of the pirates would buy the paper book? Probably very few. If it is not a lost sale, it has cost publisher and author nothing. Sometimes, sales increase when a free (legal or illegal) download increases awareness and popularity of a book. But that's an argument for another time...

Book-crossing involves leaving books in public places - heartlessly orphaning them - in the hope that a sympathetic foster-parent will pick them up, read them, then pass them on in the same way.This can't cost many sales and it's a nice idea. The serendipitous discovery of a lovely book on a bench or train must bring such joy to someone's day. And if they find your book like this and like it, they might buy one of your other books. Gillian Philips has
blogged about book crossing already this week, so look there for more info and thoughts.

Charity books selling second-hand books doesn't bother me either: I approve of recycling nd giving money to charity, and people buying from a charity shop would rarely go and look for that precise book in a bookshop. Selling at car boot sales falls into the same category of giving books away after reading them, with the added bonus that someone who is sufficiently motivated to drag their old stuff to a rainy car park at 5 am gets a few pence in return. Good for them. I'd want money to go to a rainy car park at 5 am, too.

That leaves Amazon re-sellers and the like. I can't find any excuse for scumbags who somehow get hold of books that are only just out and sell them for a fraction of their cover price, eroding the market for the book at just the point it should be earning back the investment that the publisher and writer put into it. These copies will sell to people who would have paid full price - they have gone onto Amazon because they want the book, so presumably they would have paid for it. I've no objection to re-sellers selling used copies at a discount, or out-of-print books.

Of these, I use libraries (when they are open - insert grumble here about Cambridge Central Library having been closed for about a decade), charity shops, borrowing, getting presents (:-) - and swapping free contractual copies with friends, but that's a method only open to writers. I have only downloaded pirated copies of my own books and have never been lucky enough to find a book-crossing tome.

I don't buy new books from Amazon re-sellers - except my own. Because I can buy my own books more cheaply from there than I can get them from my publisher, even with the massive author discount.

Oh, there's another new way of getting free books: quite a few publishers with Twitter accounts offer free books as prizes to micro competitions, or even just to people who send their details. I got two books in one day like this last week! I suspect they count as promotional copies, so the author doesn't get a royalty. But if the publishers are doing it right, people who didn't win are made aware of the book and may buy it. So get a Twitter account and follow some publishers for guilt-free free reading.
And when Awfully Big Blog Adventure has its first birthday celebration on 10th July, there will be free books to win there, too.

Please tell me which free ways of getting books you use and which you approve of and disapprove of. I'd really like to know where others stand on this. (I suspect I'm a fairly lone voice on the pirate deck.)

Monday 29 June 2009

Dividing the spoils

As tomorrow's the last day to register your books for PLR, here's a quick reminder of how to work out the share you should register as yours.

  • 100% if you wrote all the book and it is not illustrated, or if you wrote the book and illustrated it and no other author or illustrator was involved
  • 50% if you wrote OR illustrated a picture book
  • 80% of the text share if you retold or adapted an existing book AND the original author is named on the title page; 100% of the text share if the original author is not named on the title page
  • a %age of the text share if you co-wrote a book; the %age must reflect your contribution (so if you wrote one of four stories, for instance, your share would be 25%)
  • a %age of the whole if you wrote or illustrated a book and the illustrator/author is named on the title page; the %age must reflect your contribution. Unless it is a picture book (50:50) the author's share is likely to be more than half, reflecting the balance of text:pictures and should be agreed with the other party/parties
  • 30% of the text share of a translation
  • 20% if you edited the book and contributed at least 10% or 10 pages of the material
  • 50% if you compiled a book from different sources and did a good deal of work on it, including adding some original text
  • 80% if you compiled a book for primary sources and the work took many years of research and included additional original writing.

And finally:

  • if other contributors are dead you can't claim their share
  • if other contributors live abroad you can't claim their share
  • if you are not named on the title page OR entitled to a royalty, and others are named on the title page, you can't claim anything
  • if you are not named on the title page BUT neither is anyone else, you generally can claim a share.

If unsure, register what you think and query because if you miss registering while waiting for an answer you can't register late. You can only register books that are actually published - a book that comes out in July (yes, I have one too) can't be registered until next year.

Now, go claim your money. You'll get the filthy dosh in February.

Sunday 28 June 2009

Crow's recommended reads (1)

Here's a post that Stroppy Author should read and take note of. I sit watching her tinker with those words all day. I know the score. This guy gets it right: write the right stuff first, then tinker with it. How hard can it be? Durrrr.

Friday 26 June 2009

Making the buggers pay

So you did all the right things, sent in your invoice, politely queried it's non-payment, accepted a few facile excuses and it's now some time later and they still haven't paid you. What next?

Send a statement, itemising the unpaid invoices and note to say that they are overdue for payment and you will apply statutory late payment penalties if you are not paid in 7 days. Refer to the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 which gives you the right to do this. If after seven days they still have not paid, or have not given you a payment date you are satisfied with, issue another invoice showing the interest and late payment compensation you are claiming. As I mentioned in the last post, this is
£40 for an invoice up to £1,000, £70 for an invoice of £1,000-£10,000 and £100 if the invoice is for over £10,000. Interest is 8% above Bank of England base rate (so currently not much more than the 8% penalty). There is a useful calculator online that will work out the interest due for exactly the right number of days. You have to put in various details about your invoice and the organisation that owes you money and it will tell you how much to charge.

At this point, I usually add a note to say that the interest is increasing daily and I will issue updated invoices each month until it is paid - you could issue them more frequently. They might pay as soon as you send this invoice. They may or may not pay the penalty interest and charge and it's up to you whether you pursue it if they don't do so. For every month that your patience endures, chase the invoice and add more interest. If you have some other hold over the publisher - they are waiting for you to return proofs or deliver another book, for instance - you may tell your editor you won't be doing any more work until you've been paid the overdue amount. Or you may be too scared you won't get any more work from the publisher. But to be honest, do you even want any more work from a publisher who isn't going to pay you? I did once hear the 'you will never work for us again' line and I answered 'you think I want to if you don't pay me?' They paid. I didn't work for them again, as they went bust. But at least they didn't owe me any money when it happened.

If they still ignore you, or give excuses about waiting for re-financing, or their suppliers not paying them, or any similar guff, you can decide whether to wait longer or take further action. Some writers consider a debt recovery agency. An agency will ruthlessly pursue the non-paying publisher, but they will take a portion of the money. A better option (in England and Wales) is the small claims court. Write to the publisher (accounts department, copied to your editor and to someone higher up if you like) saying you will start small claims court proceedings if they have not paid you within seven days.

Most of the time, they will pay as soon as you threaten court action. If they don't carry the threat though. You can file a case against someone online - it is very easy. You can sue for debts under £100,000 this way and, frankly, if your publisher owes you more than that you should not have let the situation get this far! You will need to have all the details of your invoices and due payment dates, the publisher's address and so on before you start filling the form in. You will also have to pay the court costs of between £25 and £100 depending on how much you are claiming. But you can claim this fee back from the recalcitrant publisher, too. Don't forget to add the interest and penalty payment to your claim, and use the online calculator to update the amount of interest.

Unless the publisher has a very good reason to contest the payment, they will generally pay within the period between submission of the claim and the case going to court. I had one publisher pay up on the very last day, when the (virtual) hearing was due the next day, but at least they paid. (And I have worked for them since.) If they let it get as far as court, it's probably because they genuinely don't have the money. You can persevere and even have bailifs seize their goods and chattels if you like. After all, why should you be the one to go unpaid when it could instead be the electricty board or a colossal printer in China? You did the work - you deserve to be paid. Go for it.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Invoices and all that

The idea of being a professional writer is that someone pays you for what you write. Actually getting the money can be like getting blood from a stone, even when you have a nice contract in your hot little hand. Publishers won't pay if you don't do the right things (and even then they might not. But let's not run ahead to future crises...). If you have an agent, your agent will deal with all this, so you don't need to fuss about it. If you don't have an agent, read on.

Your contract will usually specify instalments for payment. Typically, these will be: on signature of the contract (and possibly delivery of a synopsis and/or sample); on delivery or acceptance of the manuscript; on passing of colour proofs or on publication. We'll come back to the iniquities of the 'on publication' tranche another time. Then there are royalties, but that's a different system. This is about flat fees and advances - payments of a fixed amount at a fixed time.

When one of these instalment dates arrives, you can start anticipating the money. But don't spend it in advance. That way lies ruin. First you need to send an invoice. This sets out:

  • your own name and address
  • the publisher's name and address
  • the date (or 'tax point' as it's known in TaxAccountantSpeak)
  • the amount they owe you (important detail)
  • what the invoice is for (eg 'on signature payment for The Armadillo Harvest' or 'first advance payment on Do Onions Jump?')
  • the contract number (if there is one) or name of your contact at the publisher
  • your own reference number (you should number all invoices and keep a record of which number relates to which invoice)
  • the amount of VAT, if you are VAT registered.

At the bottom of the invoice, specify your payment terms - eg '30 days'. If you are VAT registered and/or a limited company you will need to put your VAT/company registration details. If the publisher can pay money directly into your bank account, give your bank account details on the invoice.

But that's all standard stuff and you are probably doing it anyway. Now, thinking ahead to when they decide to sit on your invoice for months, you need to pave the way for getting compensation for their tardiness. Add a line to the bottom of the invoice to say that if they don't pay you promptly you will be charging them interest and a late payment penalty. There is a law that lets you do this (in the UK). It is the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 and it was amended in 2002 to incorporate parts of European Directive 2000/35/EC. There's more information about it here.

If the publisher does not pay you on time, you will be able to charge interest from the day the money became overdue (so you needed that bit about payment terms). You can also charge a penalty and charge them for any costs to recover the debt (such as small claims court charges, which we'll look at another time). How much you can charge as compensation for late payment depends on the size of the debt. If it is up to £1,000, you can charge £40. If it is £1,000-£10,000 you can charge £70, and if it is over £10,000 you can charge £100.

This means that although it is more aggro to separate your invoices you should do so if there is any chance the publisher will pay you late. If they are late paying two invoices of £200, you can claim £80 compensation, but if they are late paying one invoice of £400 you can only claim £40 compensation. Even if you send the invoices for stages 1 and 2 together (as I often do) make them separate invoices with different invoice numbers so that you can pursue them separately later.

Send the invoice and keep a copy of it. (You may be able to email it - ask your editor.) If you are feeling particularly efficient, you could send a statement at the end of the month showing how much they owe you, listing the invoices you have sent, the total amount each is for and when the payment is due. This is a useful prompt to the accounts department but they don't expect it from writers. I have only had one publisher ever grumble that I didn't send a statement and that was just an excuse because they didn't want to pay.

When the payment date comes, see if they pay you. Be optimistic, they might! I have some publishers who always pay promptly - and some who always pay late. If after a week or so you don't have the money, send a polite email or make a polite call. It may be an oversight, or they may only pay at the end of a month (that's common - you can argue about it or live with it). They may give you excuses. If so, you are about to start on the lengthy process of Making the Buggers Pay. Don't worry, you'll get the money in the end.

Coming next: Making the Buggers Pay

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Guest posting: Message from a pirate

This is not strictly speaking a guest posting - it's more of a kidnap posting.

More on piracy anon, but here is a message from a pirate I criticised for referring to a book I had written and he had illegally uploaded as one of 'my books' (ie his books):

Dear Friend...
Thanks for your comment on “1001 Horrible Facts - By Yukkopedia”.

First of all, I must clear that when I say my books, meant my books collection which I share on, for sharing book on it is not necessary that one must also be a writer of that book. (you could see my profile, I didn't wrote any of book, as i am not a writer). We are here to share knowledge and education.

Secondly I didn’t say anywhere that “this book is written by me”, “I got its copyrights” or “I own this book” but in-fact neither change a word of your book given you a credit of writing this impressive & great book (see first page, writer name).

Thirdly, Your Book is available for free download on many different sites on net…if someone want to download one just have to run a search on net, then how could one defend against privation or copyright.

Well... still no hard feeling… it was not my intention to cause you distress. Cheers.

Faisal (Memonz Mind)

(His full name is Faisal Shazad and he lives in Karachi.)

Incidentally, the book is not 'By Yukkopedia', it's by me. As for 'given you a credit of writing', that means reproduced the title page. (This book has been taken down by in compliance with a take-down notice.)

What is interesting is that Faisal clearly doesn't see anything wrong with his piracy activities. I particularly like the 'no hard feeling' in the last line to indicate that he is not annoyed that I challenged him on his use of the phrase 'my book'. Of course, I am violating Faisal's copyright by reproducing his message here. What a shame. He can issue a take-down notice and I will comply. But I thought I'd let him make his case ;-)

Sunday 14 June 2009

Killing people

Conversation in the car with Small Daughter:
SD: Have you killed someone?
SA: No.
SD: Not ever?
SA: No.
SD: Are you sure?
SA: Yes. I'm sure. Why?
SD: On Google Earth, you have a label that says 'dump body here'.
SA: Ah. Yes.
SD: And 'park car here to dump body.'
SA: Do you think if I'd killed someone I'd label it on Google Earth?

Some of you are familiar with my Facebook updates that say things like 'leaving boy to drown while I make dinner' and 'trying to hide the body'. The fact that the door hasn't been beaten down by the police suggests that either no-one in Echelon is watching or that writers have a special dispensation to talk about this stuff. [Murderers take note - become a writer!]

Killing is not as easy as it sounds. In a children's book, the main character is relatively unlikely to die, though
other characters may die from time to time. (There are exceptions in which main characters do die, of course, but I won't mention any as that would constitute a list of spoilers.) Killing people is a serious business. Death (or murder) should not be undertaken lightly; it must be meaningful and accurate. It's not feasible to go out and kill people so you need to do some other kinds of research. Forensic investigators practice on dead pigs; unless you live on a pig farm, you might find libraries easier to come by.

Books, t'interweb and experts will be your sources. There are several books for crime writers on how to kill people (how much arsenic does it take to kill an adult? how long does it take to strangle someone?), on police procedures, CSI and autopsies - see below. Online, the most excellent Muse Medicine gives the low-down on various ways of dying and lesser suffering, including natural forms of death and just illness from which your character might recover. The medical muse is a highly experienced nurse, writing for writers - just what we need.

Medical experts are usually delighted to help writers, too. I've had help from the pathology consultants of Addenbrooke's Hospital on how long a body must lie in a canal before it is unrecognisable, for instance. They will think to ask questions that hadn't occurred to you - what is the temperature of the air/water? Is the water salt or fresh? Is it tidal? How quickly does it flow? If your character is dying of illness, find out exactly how the illness you are using works. How do people die of malaria? Why does cholera cause diarrhoea? Yes, you need to know. You may not be writing a factual book, but you can't get the facts wrong. Do your research. No-one said murder was going to be easy.

Don't forget to get rid of the body properly, too, if it's a murder. How shallow is a shallow grave? Through how much earth can a dog sniff out a body? What happens to a dead body and how quickly? (read Stiff by Mary Roach, or Jim Crace's Being Dead) For getting rid of bodies (and any other geographical issue) Google Earth is useful - the conversation with SD came about because I had a boy spot the body from a train going between Peterborough and March. I needed a dyke visible from the train line, and the car journeys that go to and from the place needed the right turns, a level crossing in the right place, and so on. I may not actually mention the places in the end, but I know where they are and that it all works. So I haven't killed someone - but I could have done.

Killer's reading list:
Forensics and Fiction: Clever, Intriguing, and Downright Odd Questions from Crime Writers, Douglas Lyle, 2007

The Crime Writer's Guide to Police Practice and Procedure,
Michael O'Byrne, 2009

Strictly Murder: Writer's Guide to Criminal Homicide,
Martin Roth, 1998

Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers,
Douglas Lyle, 2003

There's another I can't immediately find on exactly how to kill people by different methods and diseases. I'll post it later if I can find it.

Sunday 7 June 2009

Writing the recession (2): No-one but a fool...

...writes except for money. But money is hard to come by at the moment. If you look at the industry figures (yes, you're a writer, you need to take an interest in this) book sales have not dropped so very far. There are different figures, both sides of the Atlantic and in different market sectors, but they tend to be single-figure percentages: generally, sales are down 1.7% p.a. in the UK (April figure). Hachette's sales even rose 3.3%. But publishers are laying off staff, shares in publishing companies are falling in value and commissioning is so far down it's taking advice from worms on how to live without ever seeing daylight.

After my last post on the recession, I carried out an impromptu and not remotely scientific survey amongst writers I know. The picture is the same for everyone - writers with dozens, even hundreds, of books in print are now walking dogs and building sheds to make money. It's a relief that it's not just me, but it's bad news for everyone. And I'm allergic to dogs and not very good with sheds, as evidenced by the pile of wood rotting in my garden. (Not even a dog on a string is an option. Will anyone give money to someone who just has a string?)

So how bad is it? It's always been hard to make a living from writing. The Society of Authors'
survey of the earnings of children's writers in 2005, headed by Mary Hoffman, found that a third of children's writers live on less than the minimum wage (£8,827 at the time) and only 17% earned £30,000 or more. According to the UK graduate careers organisation Prospects, only 20% of writers get all their income from writing, and the median income for writers under 35 is £5,000 pa. That's not encouraging if you're thinking of giving up your day job to write.

As if things weren't already badly wrong, they've now gone Very Badly Wrong. Everyone in the industry has been hedging around this in public. It's become the elephant in the room. In the Middle Ages, people called bears 'bruin' - the brown one - as speaking the word 'bear' was considered calling it and risking being eaten. I'm going to come clean and talk about how bad things are fo
r professional writers - and if I get eaten, so be it...

I write lots of different kinds of things and have easily been in Mary Hoffman's top 17% earning category for years. That's the result of being a writing whore, driven by the necessity of bringing up two daughters, one with an expensive taste in Jack Wills hoodies. I will write almost anything for money. I'd rather write than do anything else, so it's what I do: I don't do school visits, festivals, public events and only occasionally do university teaching. It means I have a wide spread of publishers and, in the past, if one has hit a hard time I've just switched my affections to another. A real tart. But now all my regular customers have turned celibate.

My older daughter (not the hoody-wearer) is off to university in October. Hurray, well done her. This means I have to fill in forms about my income, something I would normally leave until minutes before the Jan tax deadline. When she was offered her place in January this year, we looked at the figures for loans and grants and she was entitled to perhaps £50 or £100 of grant. When I filled
in the forms last week, she was entitled to the full grant, by a very large margin. In five months, my income has dropped 80% - 90%. And this is not atypical - it's not that I've suddenly got stupid or unpopular. Other writers report the same.

Working back from this to the state of the industry and the future implications for writers... if publishers aren't commissioning books now, they won't have anything to do in a few months, when those non-commissioned books would be coming in-house for editing, layout etc. Will the staff sit around twiddling their thumbs? If things improve, they will be commissioning for the future. That will defer the thumb-twiddling for a week or two until the commissioned authors go off to write the new books. Then what? Lay off more staff? Who will edit the books when they come in? I'll put on my Cassandra hat here and say - we could be entering a decline in traditional children's publishing from which it is not possible to recover, at least in some areas. Children's non-fiction, which has provided my bread-and-butter many for years, is facing the most
serious problems and looks as though it's opted for a DNR sticker on its notes. With Schwarzenegger's pronouncement this morning that schools don't need books - kids can use the Internet, he says - the nails are lining up to be hammered into the coffin. (And into the coffin of a decent education, I hasten to add.)

Back to the whoring... I'm going to need an even shorter writing skirt, I think. Instead of lying in the boudoir waiting for my elite band of faithful publishers, I'll be walking the streets looking for any publisher with a spare fiver. As for the looming demise of traditional publishing - I'm not going to jump onto its funeral pyre like some over-keen Hindu widow; as the whoring winds down, I'm eyeing up the toy-boy of new models of publishing. Lean and fit - what's not to like? Writers will always be needed, we just have to find where we fit in. But I'll blog about e-books/Internet versus print another day: I'm off to Anne Summers now for my new whoring costume.

Saturday 6 June 2009

Writing wear: the writer's wardrobe

Writers are not renowned for their glamorous wardrobes. Some scrub up nicely for public appearances - JKR looks pretty decent (but she can afford to) and Jacqueline Wilson is smart in black (wise choice, as the smudges don't show - not of course, that Ms Wilson would have smudges). Barbara Cartland used to wear pink silk chiffon and pearl-crusted cardies (or so she would have us believe). But saggy jumpers and torn things, layered for warmth, are more typical writerly attire, at least in this house.

One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that you don't need to get up and dress smartly and go out to work. In fact, you don't need to do any of those things - you don't need to go out, you don't need to dress smartly, or indeed at all, and you don't need to get up.

On the rare days when I don't have to dig daughters out of bed with that special tool on the Swiss army knife, lying bed to write is a delicious pleasure. You will need: two pillows, preferably Siberian goose down with white Egyptian cotton pillowcases, propped up in a cross (horizontal one behind vertical one); snuggly duvet of similar type; fully charged laptop (to avoid accidents with the cable) or pen/pencil and notebooks; heating on if it's winter; someone to bring you fresh coffee and occasionally croissants and wash the crumbs from the sheets later; soft pyjamas, preferably stripy, but not silk as they are too slippery. OK, I wish... You can do without most of them, and make a quick trip the kitchen yourself which you then blot from your memory. But you will need the pyjamas, or at least an old t-shirt as the top part of your sticks out of the duvet and gets cold. If you do without the writing materials you're in danger of being blamed for not working (by yourself or others), although you are of course thinking which is a vitally important part of writing.

If you do decide to get up, you can still wear the pyjamas. There's something so comforting and self-indulgent about still being in pyjamas that you can get lots of writing done. You can also keep having more breakfasts, living the whole day on coffee, toast, croissants, left-over tiramisu - whatever you like to have for breakfast - as it's the best meal to eat in pyjamas.

You might want to invest in a dressing gown, too. It can get very cold sitting writing for long periods. In the winter, I even write in a sleeping bag. It saves turning the heating on when I'm the only person in the house. The only drawback is that to move across the room you have to jump like some kind of up-ended slug and it's dangerous (especially if, like me, you have a polished wooden floor). Fingerless gloves, Bob-Cratchit style are indispensible in the winter, too, and even a scarf and hat.

Much of the time I work in any old mish-mash of clothes. Today it's some grey trousers (£5 in a sale) with a massive hole in (the sale was a while ago) and a pink jumper given to me by a friend who bought it a size too small (£0) and some flip-flops from Primark (£1.50). But occasionally even the most reclusive writers are prised out of their hovels to meet Other People. Sooner or later you will have to go to a meeting with your editor or your agent, and more often you will have to go to the library and the bookshop for extended periods of blobbing around doing 'research' and drinking coffee and thinking. You might go to book fairs (London, Bologna; if you're keen, BEA and Frankfurt; if you're very, very keen, Moscow and Beijing as well). And many children's writers - not me - do school visits, readings, signings and other publicity events [shudder]. You can't do all of these in your pyjamas. Some of them, it's best not to do in a holey pair of trousers and a handed-down jumper either. If you're successful enough, you might manage to project the image of someone so aloof from everyday concerns that clothes are of no importance to you, but for most of us it just looks as if we're poor and lazy. Which may well be true, but it's not a good impression to give those who might be thinking of commissioning you.

So what to choose? I have a few things which look sufficiently quirky (OK, downright odd) that they scream 'I am a writer - I don't have to conform to your ideas of sensible clothes. My favourite 'I'm a writer' outfit is a mauve/orange changeable silk skirt with artistically ragged edges, expensive blue leather flip-flops and a red jumper that is a collection of holes tied together (it's supposed to look like that). Except the flip-flops, they're from Jigsaw, which is a sufficiently not-totally-cheap shop to suggest that I'm reasonably successful but not so rich I don't need to sell any more books. More importantly, it's a colourful and comfortable outfit that is memorable but not remotely smart and business-like. It's distinctive; I can say 'meet me in the British Library café ? I'll be wearing a red jumper full of holes' and un-met editors can find me.

Now the nosy bit. What do you wear to write? And what's your favourite 'I'm a writer' outfit? Please tell me - use the comments. I really want to know. My skirt now has extra holes in it and I need inspiration.

Coming soon (when it's sunny enough to take photos)? Work where? Writing spaces

Thursday 4 June 2009

PLR update

The Bookseller has an article on the need to register for PLR and how much you can miss out on if you don't do so.

The deadline for registering titles to include in the current year's payment (paid in Jan 2010) is 30 June, so get registering!

Monday 1 June 2009

Dummies guide to dummies

In most books, turning the page is what you do when you've run out of words on that page. A page break comes when the page is full up and there's no space for more words. In a picture book, turning the page is a specific act, part of the performance, and a page break comes at a carefully chosen place. There is usually space on the page for more words, but the writer has chosen to put a page break. Knowing where to put the page breaks is an important part of the skill of writing a picture book.

When the child (or reading-aloud adult) turns the page, the first thing they will notice is the new picture. Then they will read the words. (I know, you're the writer, you want them to see the words first - they won't. Live with it.) You can use the page breaks to reveal a surprise, to build up tension, to share a joke... But whatever you do with it, you must be doing something; there must be a good reason for putting the page break where it is.

You need to think about where the page breaks go when you are writing, but to check that you've got them right you need to make a dummy. A dummy is a little model of the book as it will finally be. Illustrators make dummies all the time, but not all writers bother. It is worth it - it's much easier to see how your book will be used and to understand the impact of the page breaks if you have a dummy. It's also very good fun as you get to mess about with glue and scissors and can claim it is real, hard work. You can even do some drawings if you like.

Most picture books have 12 working double-page spreads distributed over a total of 32 pages. To make a dummy, take 16 sheets of paper and fold them in half (I use A3 as it gives you A4 pages to work with, but you can make smaller ones). Number the pages, 1-32. Your text will start on page 6 (or 5 if you want to start on a recto - right-hand page). You can have 12 spreads, or 13 at a push. (There is some variation possible - you can use the end-papers, for example - but this is the basic scheme.) Now print out the text of your picture book and cut it up, then glue each bit of text onto the right page. If you're feeling artistic, or want to waste a bit of time, you can sketch roughs of the illustrations, but it's really not necessary. (You shouldn't send the roughs to the publisher unless you really need to show how something should look - or unless you are a professional illustrator. You really, really shouldn't get your child or friend to draw pictures and send them to the publisher - unless you are Joyce Dunbar, of course.)

Now you'll have a paper model of the book with the text on the right pages and a lot of blank space. If you are not very good at gluing, some of them might fall off, or be wonky, or actually be stuck to the table instead. No matter. As long as you have something roughly functional you can proceed. Turn the pages of the book and read the text aloud. (You must *always* read your picture book texts aloud as that's how they will be delivered.) Of course, you will listen to the sound of the words, the cadence, etc and correct the language as necessary - but what you need to concentrate on just now is what happens each time you turn the page. What is the nature of the event? Why is the page break there? Should it be there? Is it there just because you think there are enough words on the page? That's not good enough - your book is not sufficiently tightly structured if that's the case. Rewrite it.

Next look at where you move from a verso (left) to a recto (right) page. This is a lesser event, but it is still an event. There should be some logic to the split in the text. Sometimes the text might run straight across the spread and there is no split. There are some spreads like this in Polly Dunbar's Bubble Trouble, for instance. You need a strong spread if you are doing this. It will probably have a single line of text. Look also at where blocks of text should go on the page. You might have bits of text in several places - think about how you are dividing it up. Why does the block break there rather than somewhere else?

Think about what the pictures are going to show on each page/block. You can't have a page that has no potential for a strong picture, so you will need to change the text or page breaks if this is happening.
You will probably have to make another dummy, or tear chunks out of your dummy and reglue them. (It quickly becomes a crumpled mess - make another.) But eventually you will work out where the page breaks need to go. When you are happy with them all, revise your manuscript and mark in it where page breaks occur - [page break] or [spread 3], for instance. (Notice that editorial instructions always go in square brackets.) Your editor will thank you for it - and also be less likely to break up the text in a stupid way. With luck, the illustrator will put you right if you've still managed to mess it up. You will look more professional if you can learn to get it right, integrating text, picture and the event of the page turn into a whole performance. Try to leave space not just for the illustrator's input but for the reader-aloud's input - space for sound effects, funny voices, oohs and aahs of surprise and suspense. That's why writing picture books is hard - just because it's short doesn't mean it's easy.

That was red herring last time, about work wear. Coming next... the writer's dress code