Sunday, 31 May 2009

Writing the recession (1): where have all the editors gone?

Here's a nasty surprise for you - getting your first book published means you have to move on to getting your second book published. And then your third. And then your fourth. It does get easier - after all there is an editor you know likes your work - but it's never guaranteed. Published writers get rejections all the time. And at the moment it's worse than ever. 

Indeed, it's getting harder to track down and speak to even an editor who already likes your work. Or maybe that's just my editors, and me - but I don't think so. Publishing companies are getting rid of staff. Editors who go on maternity leave are not covered. Yet at the moment many publishing houses are still processing the last stages of books commissioned before the recession struck, so they have lots of work to do now, just not so much work lined up afterwards. The staff who are left have had a frantic time, and know that when the franticness ends, the desert looms. (If any editors would like to tell me I am wrong here, I will be very happy to be corrected. As long as you are not saying 'No, it's all fine, it's just *you* we don't want to talk to'.)

I had a party on Friday - it was my birthday, in case I didn't mention that. I am now officially Very Old. The party was a fantastic affair, organised almost entirely by @billt (for those of you who Twitter) in the new offices of Faber and Faber in Bloomsbury. (Big 'thank you' to Bill, and to Stephen Page and Jo). Lots of my very favourite people were there and I had a wonderful time. But - of the seven editors I invited, only one turned up. Excusing those who were genuinely ill, some were too busy (see above) and one went instead to the Royal Academy to see the exquisite Kuniyoshi exhibition (which was a sensible choice). It's really not like editors to stay away from free wine and food, especially when there is also the chance of seeing inside another publisher's offices. Now I know why they stayed away in droves. The one editor who did come (my very first children's editor, who has become a dear friend) said that she was constantly being hassled by writers, illustrators, proof-readers, indexers - asking why they haven't got any work. I'd have thought the answer is rather obvious - durrrr! recession! But an editor who is hassled all day by writers and illustrators probably doesn't want to walk into a room of writers and illustrators in the evening, even for lots of Prosecco and miniature smoked salmon bagels. Do little fluffy bunnies go to parties where most of the guests are ravenous foxes? They probably anticipated an evening of endless proposals - and not of the indecent variety.

So if you have an editor, hold on to him/her. Be nice to him/her. Don't invite them to parties full of writers - just send the Prosecco and bagels over so they can have them at their desks.

Coming next... The writer's dress code

Friday, 29 May 2009

Where's it gone?

Sorry for the long silence - that's on account of it being my BIRTHDAY and my having much celebrating and party organising to do. OK, I didn't actually do much of the organising, but I did a lot of the stressing and worrying. And a good deal of the drinking and present opening. I especially liked that present you sent me - thank you. Oh, it wasn't you? Where's my present?

This post should be *totally unnecessary* - but sadly it isn't, as yet another of my friends has suffered computer trauma this week. Once you have started writing your book, and especially once you are legally obliged to deliver it, you need to *keep saving it* and *keep backing it up*. Not just at the end of the month, or when you think of it. Not even just every day. If you are working on it solidly, save it every few minutes and back it up every few hours. Don't depend on document recovery - that's just a bonus that will get you out of jail free sometimes.

I know, you've heard all this before. But it's easy to get blase about it - or even just to forget. If you lose your whole book a week before the deadline the publisher will have NO sympathy - you shouldn't have been so stupid. You are a professional, so act like one. Being a writer isn't all about putting squiggles on the page or screen, you know. It's about organising your work properly and being efficient. (And lots of other things, but those are two of the least attractive aspects and many of us like to forget or deny them - 'ooh, I'm a writer, look at me, I'm so ditzy and untechnological and I don't even take my pyjamas off'. I have nothing against working in pyjamas, by the way.)

So, while you're working on your book, save it often (every 20 mins is good). Save it with a new name frequently (at least every day). You need a system for this. Some people use the date - 'the ear-sprogglers of doom 1 jan 09', for instance. That doesn't actually show them in the right order in the folder, though, so you can easily end up working on the wrong one, especially after a bit of a break. I name them starting from z in reverse order: 'ear-sprogglers z', 'ear-sprogglers y' and so on. Then the first letter that shows up in the folder is the most recent version of the book. Always change the name if you move the file between computers so that you don't end up with two versions with the same name - sooner or later you will use the wrong one and have conflicting edits in both.

When you have finished your working session (or part way through, if you're working for a long time) you must *also* back up your work. This means putting it on another disk. You could save it somewhere else on your network if you have more than one computer, or you can save it on a memory stick. That's fine as long as your house isn't burgled or burned to the ground, and you don't leave the memory stick in your pocket when you put your jeans in the wash. So save it somewhere outside the house. The easiest way to do this is to store it online. Email it to an extra email account (such as GMail) where it will stay until you remove it. Don't email it to your normal email account if the email is deleted from the server after it's been sent on to you - your back up will be gone.

Some newish writers worry that if they store their work online, someone else might hack in and steal it. Dream on. Unpublished books are not such a rare and valuable commodity that hackers are out looking for them. How hard was it to sell your book? Why would someone else want to go through that? And the book isn't even finished! They'd still have to write it. And other writers (a) aren't much good at hacking and (b) don't want to steal someone else's ideas as they don't have time to work up their own ideas, never mind random other ones that float their way. Chill - no-one's out to get it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Money for nothing (but no chicks for free)

Once your book is in print, you need to register for PLR - public lending rights. Under this scheme, authors, illustrators, translators and adaptors are paid for the use of their books in libraries. Great, huh? I suppose it's not exactly money for nothing, as if there were no libraries, some of those readers might have bought the book. But it feels like money for nothing when it turns up.

The beauty of PLR is that you don't have to share it with your publisher - it's all yours! The money is paid in January or February each year on the basis of library loans during the previous year. No, you can't fiddle it by borrowing your own books lots of times and getting all your friends and relatives to do likewise. The payment is based on a sample of libraries, which changes each year, and is scaled up to give an estimated figure for total loans.

This is how it works. The fund available for PLR (currently about £6.8 million) is divided amongst registered authors (etc) for their registered books. The amount you will get is calculated from the number of times your books were borrowed, with the payment being approximately 4p per loan. There is an upper limit of £6,600 to prevent Jacqueline Wilson and so on walking off with the entire pot. If you earn less than £1 it won't be paid but is carried over to the next year. You will receive a statement in January and the money will be paid into your bank soon afterwards.

You can't just sit back and wait for the money to come. You have to register each new book before 30 June to be included in that year's calculation and payment. You can't claim retrospectively, so if you don't claim your books one year, you can't pick up the cash for that book later (unlike ALCS payments - more on that another day). This is becaues the amount per loan is calculated by dividing the whole pot by the number of loans of registered books, so if your book isn't registered, it's not included in the calculation.

It might sound easy, especially when you have only one book, to keep on top of your PLR registration. But you need to register each edition (each new ISBN) of each book if you are to get all that is owed to you. That means you have to register the hardback and then the paperback, and if there are any further editions, you have to register those, too. Often, publishers don't tell you when your book comes out under a new ISBN (eg library binding rather than standard hardback). To keep on top of it, search for yourself on Amazon. Once a book is registered, it is carried on from one year to the next, but you do need to keep checkng for new editions of old books (reprints are OK - they have the same ISBN). One book can have three or four different ISBN numbers.

What now? The deadline for registering books to be included in this year's calculation and payment is 30 June. If you're late, your book(s) won't be counted until next year, and you'll lose your money. You need to register yourself with the PLR agency ( and give your bank details so that you can actually receive the money. Then you need to register each of your books in each of its editions. You will receive a confirmation to show what you have registered. You can't register books that aren't yours - there is a checking system in place and all your book registrations will be checked. Your name must appear on the title page of the book - that's the rule. However, if NO names are on the title page (as with licensed character books) you can still claim the PLR as long as you can demonstrate you wrote/illustrated/translated the book.

If more than one person is named on the title page - the illustrator and writer, or writer and translator, for example - you can claim only a share of the PLR. The standard is split of 50:50 author:illustrator for picture books. Adaptors can claim 80% if the original author's name is on the title page, or 100% if it isn't. (You can vary this if you both agree.) For illustrated chapter books, anthologies and so on, you will have to agree the proportion with your collaborators. You share will reflect the proportion you contributed, so if you have 10 poems in a book of 100 poems, you can claim 10% of the PLR. This means you have to talk to the other collaborators - the PLR agency won't do it for you.

PLR relates only to book loans in the UK, so there's no point registering the ISBNs of your US editions, for instance. (Money for loans in some other EU countries is collected by ALCS.) VAT is not payable on PLR payments (only useful info if you are VAT-registered.) And PLR continues for 70 years after you die, so your descendants can use the January cash to toast your memory.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The right words in the right order (2)

Let’s assume that now you’ve delivered your revised manuscript, the argument/theme/plot/structure/characters have been sorted adequately and the über-editor is satisfied. (If not, just repeat the last stage ad nauseam, or until you decide it’s too much aggro and you don’t want to publish the book, or until your editor goes on maternity leave – they all do eventually – and the next editor can’t be arsed and either lets the book through or cancels it.)

Time to move on to the next editorial stage, copy editingr. A copy editor deals with the detail of the words on the page – the ‘copy’ - turning them into ‘book words’ as they have become known, post-Jordan. If the book is largely text (such as a novel) changes will be intended to make the book read well, be grammatically correct and consistent. If the book has pictures, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, copy fitting is also involved. This aims to fit the copy to the spaces on the page allocated to text. This can be very frustrating, as material you consider useful – even essential – may be cut, or clumsily extended, in the process of getting the right number of words on the page, in the right text boxes.

If you have written well and know your audience and market, not much will change, but the book may still have to be cut to length. A good, considerate copy editor will preserve your personal style and will improve the text at this stage. If you are lucky, (s)he will have Word’s Track Changes option turned on so that you can see what has been done. (I presume you know about Track Changes? If not, shout now and I’ll tell you about it.) Where more significant or extensive changes are needed, the (good) copy editor will ask you to write the new text, detailing what is required. The editors comments and requests may be in Word Comments, in square brackets or, more usually, in a different coloured text (and square brackets). If it is a factual book, there may be queries about facts at this point. There may even be an expert reader (consultant) who can find mistakes for you to correct, but that depends on how wealthy your publisher is and how seriously they are taking the book (and how much they trust you to get it right, I guess).

Bad copy editors will ride rough-shod over your text apparently making changes just for the hell of it, either to justify their fee or to make their mark on the text. They will mangle your prose to the point where an A&E doctor would put a Do Not Resuscitate notice over it and order a body bag. Bad copy editors introduce grammatical errors, factual errors, anachronisms, inconsistencies… they buy them in bulk at Tesco and sprinkle them liberally. You will be lucky if you find them all before the book goes to repro.

Editors should have a good grasp of the English language. Sometimes they have too good a grasp of the English language and are reluctant to loosen their vice-like grip and allow the language any freedom to play. In this case, they will contort sentences with their (strictly speaking) accurate use of ‘whom’ and ‘whilst’ that is entirely unsuitable for a six-year-old reader. Medievalist Malcolm Parkes once told me he wanted to write a book on punctuation called The Strangulated Colon. He didn't intend it to be about these editors, but it could well have been. Some editors have only a slippery grip and the language eludes them, leaving the text strewn with split infinitives and hanging prepositions (fine if they’re yours and you chose them – infuriating if they have been foisted upon you). Worst (in my view) are those editors who cut a text to length by apparently taking out half the words in each sentence, leaving some half-thing crippled by terminal parataxis.

To correct the ‘corrections’ of a bad editor you need to explain exactly what is wrong with the revised text in a way which brooks no argument - not by being stoppy, but by being incontrovertibly correct. You need a well-honed critical capacity and the right vocabulary. It is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s worth it – it’s your text. Very occasionally, you may need to appeal to a higher authority within the publishing house. If you feel they have really mangled your text beyond the point where it could be identified even by dental records, you can plead violation of your moral rights and withdraw it - or ask for your name to be removed, if it was a commissioned piece and you want to keep/have already spent the money. More on moral rights another time.

With a picture book text, in which every word counts, I generally explain each and every change that I want to make to the editor’s version of the text. You are far more likely to get it changed if you can support your case cogently. Refer to the cadence, legibility, vocabulary/age match, ease of reading, repetition – any objective criteria you can think of that explain why your way is better. If you can’t explain why your way is better, perhaps it isn’t. Oh, and the point is not to get all your original text restored, but to get the best text. Thank the editor for improvements; acknowledge where they have done a good job. And if they didn't like your text and you don't like theirs, perhaps you can find a new way of putting it that you will both like.

Whether you should compare the edited text with your original is a matter of opinion. I do in the case of non-fiction because of the accuracy issue, but with fiction I don't do so until I am happy with the edited version and my new changes to it. It's useful to see whether it really is better than the original (it often is), but it's hard to set aside your allegiance to the original if you look at it too early on in the process.
Text can go backwards and forwards several times, accumulating comments and rewrites as it goes. At some stage, when the editor is happy with the text, it will be sent for layout – more about that another. The changing around hasn’t finished yet – there may well be more checking and changing to do after layout.

Ultimately, your aim should be to work with the editor to produce the best book possible. The editor is not your enemy. You are both working towards the same ends. Most editors are good, clever people who can do their jobs well, and if they sometimes make mistakes, well – so do you. The relationship of author to editor is rather like that of parent to teacher. To you, your book/baby is the most special in the world and can do no wrong; to the editor, it is one of many to be dealt with and, good or bad, could probably be made at least a little more presentable and be encouraged to fit in a little better with the rest of the list/class.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The right words, in the right order (1)

Your book is finished and delivered. Fantastic. But the publisher isn’t just going to publish what you wrote. Oh no. They're going to mess about with the words and possibly with the structure. I know, I know, you followed Alice’s advice to say what you mean and mean what you say… But that isn't necessarily what the publisher thinks you should say. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – the role of an editor is to improve your book. Of course, you think your book is great already, but almost any book can be improved by a good editor. Similarly, almost any book can be destroyed by a bad editor.

The editor is your first critical reader and tries to stand in for all your future readers. There are generally two broad stages to editing. When you first submit your MS (manuscript) the editor will read it looking for changes you need to make (there may be none at all, but this is relatively rare). The editor will tell you what to do and expect you to do it (we'll come back to this). You'll submit your revised version of the book. Then the second stage. The editor, or a copy editor, will go through the book making small changes - copy editing. The rest of this post is about stage one; copy-editing comes later.

If your book is fiction, the editor might ask for changes to the plot, the characters, the structure, or for an additional (or removed) subplot, more or fewer words, a different voice, etc. If it's a non-fiction book, the editor might say the material needs to be restructured, that something needs to be added or taken out, that the argument is not logical, or strong enough... or countless other things. Either way, fiction or non-fiction, you may have to rewrite or add either small sections or whole swathes of your text. There's a huge difference here between a commissioned book (the publisher approached you) and an author-generated book. If the text was commissioned to fit into a particular series or for a particular market, the editor will have a fixed idea of what it should be like. You will have less room to manoeuvre because your work really must sit comfortably alongside the others in the list, series or anthology.

If the editor has any large-scale issues to be addressed (plot, characterisation, themes, length, structure, line of argument) (s)he will probably ask you to revise the book accordingly. Ignore your instant response to the suggestions. Leave it a few days until your righteous indignation has lost its edge. Look calmly at the suggestions. Are they sensible? Will they improve the book? Are they feasible? Will you want your name on the cover if you make these changes? Once you have decided, talk to the editor. I prefer to use email as there is a record and it gives me a chance to explain arguments at length and cogently, rather than ranting incoherently on the phone, which is rarely useful. Say which things you agree with as well as which things you think are arrant stupidity (probably phrased more diplomatically than that).

Don't assume that you absolutely have to do as the editor says, but you can't just refuse to do it either (at least, not if you want them to publish the book). Give reasons for your own views. In order not to come across as a prima donna author (or just plain lazy) you must be able to defend your point of view in terms of the structure/aesthetics/marketing of the book. Don't just say ‘that’s how I see that character’. Why do you see the character like that? How is that vital to the book? If the editor saw the character differently, how did your writing suggest that different view? Is the editor's idea (God forbid) better? Soemtimes it is. If the editor thinks your argument/plot should be structured differently, make sure you understand why. The editor will not mind if you ask questions and it won't make you look stupid. It's much better to be clear about what you are doing and why than to spend time rewriting it and then have to rewrite it yet again.

You may also be asked to make changes to the writing style at this point. Perhaps the editor doesn't think it appropriate to the age group or target audience, or perhaps you're just not very good at writing English prose (in which case, the editor should not have bought the book, but if the idea/story was good enough they might have done so anyway).

You may end up with a set of changes you have agreed to make, and a set the editor has agreed to forego. If you want to make the changes (rather than tear up the contract), make sure you do it properly. Don't resubmit something that is very slightly different but does not really address the issues. Any but the most useless editor will notice and you'll have annoyed them, led them to think you're stupid, or incompetent, or both, and wasted some of the precious time in the publication schedule.

You won't necessarily be happier with the second version of the book. Dealing with the disappointment that the publisher doesn't want to publish exactly the book you want to write goes with the job, I'm afraid. The book you want to write appeals uniquely to you - the publisher wants to produce a book with more general appeal (a sale of one is not a good commercial prospect). If you are really committed to writing only what you want, regardless of whether it will sell, you should stick to self-publishing.

Coming next… More dealings with the editor: copy-editing

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Guest blog – Rook Sunday

Hello there, I’m the Stroppy Author’s crow. Today is Rook Sunday, in honour of which I get to write the post today. I also get to wear a nice crown, made from one of those paper napkin rings you get on Eurostar. Firstly, I’d like to say that the Stroppy Author is also a Domestic Slut, as my bluebells are dying and have not been replaced. Ahem. Now, to business…

The Sunday closest to 13 May each year is called Rook Sunday. This is not a happy day of celebration for us corvids, as it’s the day people traditionally bake rook pie, gruesomely decorated with the feet of rooks. Crows (corvus corax) and rooks (corvus frugilegus) are related, but people do not eat crow pie, thankfully.

Just in case you think this is post is irrelevant I would like to point out that pies stuffed with dark-coloured birds do have some bearing on children’s books – what about those four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, eh? And children’s writer Russell Ash told the Stroppy Author about an establishment figure asking at dinner ‘Can you get your keepers to eat rook?’ (Probably put in an expenses claim for the pastry and the pie dish, too.)

Back to real publishing next time…

Saturday, 9 May 2009

'Do you draw the pictures yourself?'

If you have written an illustrated book of any kind – fiction, non-fiction, picture book, illustrated chapter book – it won’t be long before someone asks you if you draw the pictures yourself. Grrrr. The first time you can smile sweetly and say ‘no’. But after a short while, you find you’ve stockpiled so many barbed replies that NATO wants to inspect your armoury, and your smile becomes strained with the effort of concealing them. It is one of five questions you will be asked all the time once you start telling people you are a children’s writer. (We will revisit the other four later.)

1. So, are you going to be the next JK Rowling?
What do you think? Would I be talking to you if I were about to become a multi-gazillionaire recluse?

2. Where do you get your ideas from?
Waitrose; you can buy them loose or vacuum-packed, but the loose ones are best. Don’t get too many at once or they go off before you use them all.

3. I wonder if you’d just take a look at this story? My children really like it and my friends say I should publish it…
No, I won’t, because when I tell you your story sucks you will be very angry. And in the extremely unlikely case that your story doesn’t suck, you will want me to help you to find a publisher.

4. Have you thought of writing a book for adults?
Good grief, what an original idea! Are there adults who read? Why did I never think of that?

5. Do you draw the pictures yourself?
There are things I can draw very well: conclusions, short straws and inane questions, as you can see.

But of course you don't say any of these things (usually).

Why is the question so annoying? Because it suggests that writing is not enough, or not the hard bit. And most writers secretly struggle to suppress a feeling of inadequacy all the time, so when they are asked this they immediately feel guilty and caught out. Inside, you may be screaming 'Look at these fantastic pictures? Do you think I could do that? Of course I couldn't!' Hold it in. DON'T come over all humble and say you don’t have enough talent to illustrate the book. Bollocks. You have a very valuable talent — you can write. Writing and illustrating are different but equally valid and worthwhile skills.

There are a few talented individuals who do both but — listen carefully — most writers do not illustrate their own books, most illustrators do not write their own books. (Sometimes, people who do both are called authostrators and that is such a horrible word it is best to avoid having both talents in case it’s used against you.) I hold illustrators in hugely high regard and am in awe of their skill, and I love working with good illustrators. But I’m not one, don’t aspire to be one, and am NOT going to feel inadequate because I am not one. And nor should you.

Coming next... The right words, in the right order - working with editors

Friday, 8 May 2009

Signing on the dotted line

You've slipped the fat contract out of the envelope — or opened the PDF attachment — and there is your first publishing contract looking alluring on the desk(top). It's a Hooray! moment. But wait — put down that pen! Don't sign it yet. They aren't going to take it away or cancel if you don't sign and return it immediately. A contract is just a suggestion. You are probably going to need to argue about those terms. Yes, you really do have to read it — all of it. And you really do have to say that they cannot have your first-born, nor can they extract a pint of blood every week. OK, this is your first-born and they already have it; you aren't necessarily going to give them your second-born.

A contract offers so many delicious opportunities for being stroppy that they can't all be covered in just one post. Being properly stroppy about the contract is something you have to build up to. For now, you can delegate to people who are professionally stroppy. If you have an agent, your agent should check the contract and argue. This doesn't mean you can't argue some more, later — but your agent can deal with all the obvious problems with the contract. I make it a point of honour to find at least two things my agent has not spotted. As a beginner, you could say 'Hmmm,' in a thoughtful sort of way, and agree that you can't see anything too dire in it — but do make it obvious you have read it.

If you don't have an agent you can ask the Society of Authors to check the contract for you. You can become a member of the Society of Authors as soon as you have a contract for a real book . They will then check your contracts for free. Or you can pay them to check your contract without joining. We will come back to the Society of Authors later, but it's a good idea to join. They have a nice ceiling, so if you go to an event and it's boring, you can look at the ceiling. There are more advantages. Later, remember.

If you want to get straight down to checking your contract, here are some red rags for your bullishness to look out for:
  • waiving moral rights
  • competing works clauses
  • grabbing of rights in all territories
  • grabbing of electronic rights
  • an atrocious deal on electronic rights
  • option on your next book
  • agreeing to do free publicity
  • outrageous liability clauses
  • reversion clauses that don't specify what counts as out of print.
Don't worry if any or all of those mean nothing to you yet. They will, in time. And they don't all apply to all types of publishing.

So: a contract is not cast in stone. It is a starting point for negotiation. You will have been sent a boilerplate contract that is sent out to all authors, whatever their book, and it is up to you and your agent (if you have one) to get it tailored to your particular book and needs. DON'T feel so grateful that someone wants to publish your book that you just sign it without looking at it or thinking about the terms.

Coming next... 'Do you draw the pictures yourself?'