Saturday 21 May 2011

Over there

I'm blogging at the Other Place today - Awfully Big Blog Adventure - on writing for reluctant readers. Back here next week!

Thursday 19 May 2011

How to speak publisher - B is for BookScan

Nielsen BookScan - words that can bring dread to the heart of an author. Or glee. BookScan is a data provider for the publishing industry. It collects sales figures for books from point-of-sale - so the number of books which are actually bought by people, rather than the number shipped to bookshops. It works across the industry, with sales figures from 31,500 bookshops tracked. Although some sales are not included (discount book clubs and supermarkets are key omissions), it has the best data available.  Before BookScan, each publisher knew only its own sales. Bestseller lists and charts were compiled by sampling booksellers. Now the data are accurate and nearly universal. Publishers can see not only their own sales but their rivals' sales. It's all open. Unless you're an author...

Because, of course, Nielsen don't do this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. They sell the information. Publishers pay to be able to see the figures, and figures are not available without payment. So you or I can't see the sales of our books or any competing books, but publishers can. If you propose a new book, the publisher can check how well similar books sell. If you approach a new publisher, they can see how well your last book sold. Which is fine if it sold really well, but if it didn't - perhaps because it was badly marketed, or a similar book by a more famous author came out a week earlier - they may not want to take a chance on your next book.

You used to be able pay to see sales figures for a single book, though today I can't find a link on the Nielsen site to do this - if anyone knows if you can still do it, please say in the comments. This may be OK, if irritating, if you've published one or two titles. But if you've published lots it's prohibitively expensive (it was about £10 per ISBN, I think). Personally, I think authors should have free access to their own sales figures. After all, it is data others are using to make decisions about us - whether to take our next book. Nielsen think this is commercial data - but for authors it is also personal data. Is it covered by data protection? Unlikely - it's probably classified as data about books, not data about authors. Do we have a right to see the data held about us, as we would if it were a credit rating? I think we should. (I've emailed Nielsen, but they haven't replied yet.) Perhaps it is something the Society of Authors could take up? If we had access to the data too, we could say in our next proposal 'my title xxx sold 80,000 copies'. Or we could shut up about it and choose a smaller publisher happier to accept more modest sales.

Friday 13 May 2011

Shhhhh - work in progress

Unpublished writers commonly ask 'how do I stop a publisher ripping off my idea if I send in an outline/story?' Of course, the answer is 'why would they?' Having ideas is the easy bit - writing the book is work. I have very, very occasionally heard of a publisher stealing an idea. On the whole, it's pointless (as well as unprofessional). They would still need to get someone to write the book, so if they like the idea, why not go with the person who is keen to write it? Unless they can't write for toffee, of course. But if you can't write for toffee, you're never going to get a publishing contract, so don't worry about it.

But that's rather a digression. What this is really about is how much you should say about a work in progress. Do you keep it a well-guarded secret in case people steal your idea? Or do you gossip about it endlessly? Most people who follow me on twitter (as @annerooney) know that I am writing a series of six vampire novels at the moment. Not many people know who the publisher is. I have leaked various plot details, but the very original premise of the series is not generally known. Writing a vampire series is hardly original. In fact, it's so unoriginal I feel I have to apologise for it constantly. But there are some things about this series that are very original, and those are the bits I don't leak - just in case.

I had to clear with the publisher that I would be talking about the series on twitter in advance of publication - in fact, while writing it. There's a sort of non-disclosure clause in the contract. I said I was going to talk about it on twitter and he didn't argue. The publisher is a laid-back sweetie and occasionally joins in the discussion on Facebook and twitter about the progress of #thosevampires (they have their own hashtag). But I would not make the central premise public at this point as that is risking not only my investment in the idea but the publisher's investment - and that's not fair. Plenty of people know that book 2 involves a nasty scene in Paris with a guillotine. But that's hardly enough to recreate the story - I'm sure everyone who reads that can come up with a completely different vampire story that involves a guillotine.

On the other hand, I'm currently playing around with three possible non-fiction proposals, trying to decide which to concentrate on - and I wouldn't discuss any of those on twitter until the contract's in the bag and the book quite well progressed. Whereas every fiction writer will do something completely different with the same details, the n-f books are entirely definable from the central idea. And although I like to think that my blend of experience and research skills is unique and no-one else would come up with quite the same book, I'm sure that given the basic idea many other writers could produce a very similar book. So about those potential books I can say nothing. Once I pick one, I can leak odd snippets of information and no-one will be able to guess the thread that links them. But until then, my lips are sealed.

I suppose the point is that it's fine to give away details of your work in progress as long as you don't give away enough of the central idea to risk compromising its originality. Maybe this is the grown-up version of 'will they steal my idea?' As soon as the publisher produces the catalogue, the central premise is there for all to see anyway. But by then, the books are in press and it's a bit late for someone else to start from scratch.

Small confession: I don't really know much about vampire novels, so my series is a bit out on a limb (but I didn't know that until I'd nearly finished book 2, so we're stuck with its bizarreness now). There - ignorance about how to write a vampire novel is the secret. Any help?

Tuesday 10 May 2011

How to speak publisher - B is for Bung

Ever been tempted to buy a book because the bookshop labels it a 'staff choice' or 'one of our favourites'? Because it's in a three-for-two deal or some other promotion? As many people now know, these are not always 'real' staff favourites. The paid-for plugging of a book in a bookstore is a bung. A bogof, incidentally, is a type of bung - it's a 'buy one get one free' offer.

The iniquitous bung system was exposed in 2001 in an article in the Spectator. At that time, W.H.Smith was charging £10,000 to label a book a 'recommended read' and Amazon wanted £6,000 to call a title 'Book of the Month'. The quality of the book was pretty much immaterial - the booksellers who endorsed the books had often not even read them.

Although Waterstone's says that today's staff recommendations are genuine endorsements, it is still well known that the books on special offer in many bookshops, or on the tables at the front of the shop and so on, are there because the publisher has paid for them to be there. 

Does it matter?  OK, we can grumble about unfairness to authors - 'my book is not selling because it wasn't vigorously promoted'. More worrying is the suggestion to book-buyers that any particular book is really good, that it has been chosen by the bookseller for special promotion on the basis of its content. That, surely, is abusing the book-buyer's trust? But this post is not about the ethics of bookselling, it's about how to speak publisher. Now you know what a bung is - decide for yourself whether or not it is honest.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

How to speak publisher - B is for Boring bits

Not specifically publisher speak, so this is a bit of rogue entry. 'Boring bits' is not jargon for anything - it means the bits of your book that are boring in plain, ordinary English.

Some bits of a book are boring to write. On the whole, they are also boring to read. The obvious solution is not to write them so no one will have to read them. Is that a realistic ambition?
Let's step back. What counts as boring?

Personally, I would always skip the Elvish claptrap and the doggerel verses in Lord of the Rings (LotR is not my preferred reading anyway, but I read it aloud to Big Bint over a period of 18 months). These are definitely boring bits. I skip some of the war in War and Peace. And I skip anything that goes into detail about vehicles or other mechanical stuff in anything - just not interested. But of course there are people who really like reading about war and vehicles, and possibly even Elvish claptrap, so they would think I'm skipping the best bits. No request for Tolstoy or Tolkien to miss these out - they're just not to my taste. It's my fault as a reader if I pick books I'm not interested in; that's not the same as the book being boring or having boring bits per se.

But in other books there are boring bits that anyone would find boring. In a non-fiction book, it might be setting out the basic rather dull info you need in order to understand the really exciting bit that will only make sense if it's built on a solid foundation. In a story/novel, you might need to move characters plausibly from one place to another, kick-start a train of events that will lead to a crisis, or add some form of explanation so that readers continue to believe in what's happening.

Here's an example. I currently have to get my heroine, a vampire who models for Jack Wills, from her home with her neurotic, controlling mother to a photo-shoot during which she will be guillotined by a rival during a mock-up of the French Revolution. That is not, I think, a boring premise for an episode. But she has to be invited to the shoot, persuade her mother to let her go, get there, do some non-threatening photos and so on before the exciting bit can happen. How long will the reader stay with me? I'm already thinking 'I don't want to write this bit, it's boring'.

Of course, as the writer you can skip ahead and write the exciting bit first, but how to stop the reader skipping ahead? There are conflicting demands here: the integrity and plausibility of the story depend on setting up the incident, but the readers need to be drawn through the less exciting parts or they won't even get to the 'good bit'.
The answer, of course, is to stop the boring bits being boring. To do this, you need to insert lots of micro-narrative elements. In this example, it could be an argument with the mother in which it looks as though the girl won't get to the shoot. We have to want her to go, be on her side and keep reading. And I have to sneak info into this argument that moves the story forwards. In a non-fiction book, it requires showing why or how the foundation information is interesting. And that means creating wonder - an underrated commodity that needs a post of its own.

If your publisher thinks your book has boring bits, they will (if you're lucky) ask you to rewrite to remove them. What they really mean is remove the boring, not necessarily remove the bits - though you do need to check that the bits are actually essential and not just an indulgence (because you really like describing horses, for example). If you're unlucky, they'll just reject the book. It all depends on the ratio of boring:exciting.

If boring has an interest level of 0 and crisis has an interest level of 100, your book (of any type) must have no bits with a score of 0 and the rest going in a series of peaks with at least one getting to 100. Too intense for too long and it loses impact, but too long a stretch without anything exciting happening and it loses readers. The exact balance depends on the type of book/readers, but as a general rule if you find it boring to write, readers will find it boring to read. Don't go there. Add some excitement.

I might make an exception to that rule about vehicles - a tumbril can be exciting. When you think it's a two-wheeled cart, it doesn't look very interesting but once you know it's carrying a disgraced aristocrat to the guillotine, it gets a whole lot more engaging. Fill your writing with well-loaded tumbrils and expunge the carts.