Wednesday 22 June 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Case study

This is a rare, specifically non-fiction post. Except it isn't really, as the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is very - shall we say - blurred; imprecise.

Much children's non-fiction includes examples of things that have happened to real people - case studies, in grown-up speak. Now, if I were writing an academic text, a case study would be well-documented, would use verbatim quotes from someone who had agreed to be interviewed and whom I had met or at least emailed. That sounds like a real case study, doesn't it? Is that what you get in a children's book?

In the good old days of longer lead times and higher fees, I would try to apply this method to case studies in children's non-fiction. But it's not always viable. If I need the story of a child in Eritrea, how am going to find it? Not by going to Eritrea, I can tell you. For the last few years, most case studies have come from the web - of course. Short bits, I'd quote directly and credit with the original name. If I took a lot, and didn't have permission to use the case study, I'd change the names and vary the wording to avoid any permissions disputes. Do you think that's dishonest? How much time do you think someone can allocate to chasing permissions from websites that don't reply when writing a book for £1500 in four weeks? Publishers get what they pay for - actually, they get a lot more than they pay for - and there are corners that have to be cut.

Sometimes, I really did take my case studies from life, often from friends of my daughters. They kindly agreed to talk to me honestly about things such as their substance abuse or criminal activities. They wouldn't thank me for using their real names. Of course, books and their case studies vary. In a recent book about careers in vulcanology, I found lots of real vulcanologists and either emailed them or, if they proved elusive, took the information I needed from their professional websites. In a book about drug abuse, I took stories from real friends, but also testimonies from the web, particularly support groups and fora for drug abusers, and changed the wording and the names. Real stories, but with the details changed.

I haven't done a book based on case studies for a while, and things have changed in the three or four years since the last one. This time I have a totally new approach. There are still people I know who will give me some case studies. (This time it's on charity work in disaster zones and emergencies - please say in the comments if you work in this and I can talk to you! See what I did there? Used my blog as a source of case studies...) Many more are, again, coming from the web. But no longer just from the charity websites I might have used three years ago. This time round, I'm taking them from blogs, from YouTube - there is footage of rescue workers digging people from earthquake rubble, for instance - and from twitter. A quick request on twitter for people to talk to about charity work in emergencies brought in a few offers of stories. There are new ways for voices to be heard and so tracked down, and new ways of asking for help. Twitter means I can ask the whole world, and case studies can come to me - before I had to look for organisations or people to approach.

But remember that when you see in a book 'Sadia of Karachi said...' it probably means 'here are the rewritten words of Ahmed from Islamabad that I found on the Guardian website'. Privacy and copyright concerns, coupled with the tiny amounts of time and money allowed, mean that case studies - while not fictional - are certainly fictionalised. Publishers know this - of course they do; they're not prepared to pay the BBC to quote chunks from their website. (The BBC's proprietorial attitude to comments given them for free on pages financed by our licence fees is scandalous.) Publishers don't admit this goes on - they don't say 'go out and make up some case studies' - but if you sent in your book with a list of people they had to get permission from or pay, they would rapidly tell you where to go. I have, sometimes, been asked to give the contact details of my case studies and have refused. A teenager tells me he uses ketamine and I give his details to a publisher?! NO.

Oh, and look at the contract. You probably have to pay permissions yourself and are responsible for any breach of copyright or privacy cases. So a bit of fictionalising really is the only way if you want to make any money from the contract and keep your house.

Monday 20 June 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Contract

The contract is the aim of much of your writing - the publisher's promise to publish your book as long as you write it properly, the publisher is still solvent, and you can agree the terms. I'm not going to say anything about contractual terms here as I've covered pretty much everything in the series How to read a publishing contract. But I will repeat one important point - don't assume the contract is written in stone. Actually, two points - don't be cheated in your pitiful gratitude that someone wants your book.

The contract the publisher sends you is a starting point for negotiation. They may well say it is a standard contract (it is; that just means it's the template they start from) and that everyone else signs (possibly true, especially if they don't have any astute or professional authors in their stable). Of course, the terms in the contract will favour the publisher at every turn. There will be clauses that, if you query them, the publisher will claim 'will never be used'. Fine; if they will never be used they can be removed. Do not be bullied. They want your book or they would not have offered you the contract in the first place. Read it carefully, and maybe have it read by the Society of Authors (if you are in the UK). Make sure you understand it all. Yes, I know it's about ten pages long, written in legalese and boring. But that's exactly why you DO need to read and understand it.

Once you have signed the contract, you won't be able to change the terms unless some significant event changes things rather dramatically. So if you sign a contract saying you will deliver your book by 31 December, you have to do that. Running out of time is not a good reason for delivering late. Losing the book because you didn't back it up and your computer breaks is just professional negligence, so don't do that either. If your family is wiped out in a fire, that is a good reason but you need to tell the publisher long before the deadline. (If the tragedy happens a couple of days before the deadline, you will have written the book already, so it won't be a problem.)

A contract is not a gift, it is a professional agreement and you should enter into it as a professional, not as a grateful wannabe-writer. Just as no writer has an automatic right to have their book published (most books written or proposed are crap), so no publisher has the right to dictate unfair terms and have you agree to them. Don't sign away electronic rights for 2% (or nothing); don't agree to do endless publicity for nothing for a flat-fee book; don't agree to revise a flat-fee book as necessary for future editions without another fee. In short, don't agree to be exploited or cheated.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Copy

Copy is the text you submit for publication in a book or article (the same term applies in newspaper and magazine publishing).

If your copy is 'clean' - and it should be - it will need little editing before it can be published. This doesn't mean that it's not covered in coffee stains and cat hairs, although it did also mean that in the days when you sent in a wodge of typewritten pages. It means that your copy is not peppered with grammatical mistakes and spelling errors, it hangs together properly and does what it says on the tin. Doing what it says on the tin is important. If you are supposed to submit a 500-word biography of a classical composer and you send 800 words that are mostly a critique of his music, you have done the wrong thing and can't expect the editor to be pleased - nor even to publish the work you have laboured over for so long. If your outline promised a 40,000-word novel for 10-year-olds, but you actually send 40,000 words written in language accessible only to a 13-year-old then again this is not what it said on the tin and you will be in trouble.

Editors like clean copy because it means they don't have to do much work. Or, rather, they only have to do their own work - they don't have to do the work you should have done properly in the first place. The bottom line is that 'copy' should be as close to the text finally published as possible. Improvements the editor makes, in consultation with you, should be adding the benefit of the editor's expertise and alternative view, not fixing the things you screwed up. The editor may work hard to fix the book they have already commissioned from you - but they sure as hell won't commission another if the copy you send is a mess. Copy is not a draft. Drafts are your steps towards copy.

Copy, of course, must also be presented in the correct way. That means an ordinary font - preferably Times New Roman - in a legible size (often 12 pt) with large margins and 1.5 or double spacing. Don't use lots of fancy styling and fonts and changes of colour or text size. Firstly, it annoys the editor to have to strip all that gumph out. Secondly, it obscures essential details, such as how long the copy is. An editor used to receiving all copy in 12 pt Times can see at a glance how many final pages your chapter will work out to - but if you have sent it in 14 pt Comic Sans they can't do that. You are making their job more difficult as well making yourself look unprofessional.

Now, it's not my job to tell you how to format your copy. There is plenty of advice on that elsewhere (Nicola Morgan pronounces on it now and then, so take a look on Help! I need a publisher). And there are plenty of people who blame their lack of a contract on having used Times 11.5 pt instead of Times 12 pt - not so. If your book is good, the editor is not going to turn it down for that reason. If it was turned down, it's because the editor didn't want it (for whatever reason).

If the editor gives you a house style to work to, follow it. If not, use a sensible and fairly plain format. It's your writing the editor is interested in, not your skill in making fancy Word documents. (In fact, making fancy Word documents is skill that has no market value whatsoever - designers work in Quark or InDesign, and no one makes a 'real' document in Word.) Making things look fancy is the designer's job - you're not the designer. The publisher has a designer. What it doesn't have is someone who can write decent copy. Do your job, and do it properly - leave other people's jobs for them to do!

Sunday 5 June 2011

How NOT to speak publisher - B is for bucket

As some of you know, my Small BInt has been unwell for many months. I'm the sole breadwinner and the sole carer, and these two are incompatible in times of illness. I'm also now the educator in the midst of GCSEs, which stretches the time budget to breaking point. That's why there hasn't been much on here recently - sorry, patient readers.

How is this relevant? Well, it's relevant because none of us knows when someone else will need our time and love and emotional and creative energy, leaving little or none for work. And it's something worth thinking about if you want to be a professional writer (or, indeed, any type of freelance professional). How many months' money do you need in the bank for emergencies? How much will you tell your clients (publishers) if things start to go wrong? My answer to the first has always been £13,000 (after tax), which should last 6 months at a push, though I'm not sure how I arrived at this figure as the optimum. As for the second question - as little as you can get away with.

I have written before about telling publishers of your own health problems or difficulties, but those of your dependents are a rather different issue. It all seems even more out of control. If you're unwell yourself, you know how unwell you feel, what you might be able to - and how much information you are willing to share with the outside world. But when your child (or partner, or parent) is sick, you are dealing with someone else's feelings and privacy. It's very difficult. It's also very difficult because their sickness is so much more painful than your own, and the feelings of helplessness and despair are far more acute than if you are ill yourself.

I have shared very little of my Bint's illness with my publishers, and have only asked for any kind of concession from one client (who was extremely gracious and generous in giving it). Otherwise, I have turned work down or negotiated longer deadlines right at the start of the project. It's not their business, as long as I can continue to deliver work on time and up to standard, and I increase the likelihood of that by taking on very little. Of course, now I've blogged about it, they can all see it. But they also know I've delivered everything on time so there's no threat to them. And the GCSEs will be over soon, so the pressure will ease a little.

So B is for bucket (sick), and it's orange. And worn out. That's all you need to know. Other than that, yes I will deliver the MS, even if I'm up till 2am each night. And when she's better, I'll be working even harder to replenish that emergency fund.