Sunday 20 November 2011

Self-appraisal: what you have achieved this year?

One thing I have not done - tidy my office
One of the things about being self-employed is that you don't get that annual appraisal thing that employed people get. Nor do you get the work Christmas lunch. *Note to self - line up some Cambridge writers for a work Christmas lunch.* It's worth doing your own annual appraisal, especially if you don't think you're getting anywhere. It might reassure you - or it might give you the kick you need to realise you really aren't getting anywhere and need to make some changes. (Hey, it's not my job to pull punches.)

You can set your own rules and your own standards. I live on my writing income, so if I'd written three wonderful novels and not yet sold them, that would be a failure. If you're a full-time pilot with five children and no partner, writing two pages might be a massive success. Be realistic.

I used to do an appraisal/audit at the end of every year - review what I'd done and set targets for the next year. It sounds very artificial, and it was done in a very lighthearted way, but I think it was valuable. I haven't done it for a while. It's two years since my life fell apart big-time and I feel I've done nothing since then. So time for a return to the end-of-year audit (end of two years, this time). Since Nov 2009 I have:
  • written 25 books (one was rejected at acquisitions, but I count the writing anyway - I'm not counting those I didn't send out)
  • been an RLF fellow one day a week for a year (harder than it sounds, as there was 5 hours travel each day as well as seeing the students)
  • been an RLF lector for a year and a bit (ongoing)
  • revised a set of seven revision guides that I wrote ages ago for a new edition (heavy rewrite)
  • taught two summer schools at Downing College, Cambridge
  • started working with three new publishers - *hello, publishers*
  • written a few articles 
  • mentored a couple of people
  • given (very few) talks
  • got AS level Italian
  • continued this blog, if that counts. Intermittently, I admit.
What are the failures? Well, I've done very few book reviews; I've abandoned a couple of ambitious projects - or at least put them on hold; decided A2 Italian couldn't be worked around bint's GCSEs; NOT started my publishing company; not put any effort into selling new book ideas; not been to the Bologna book fair either year; not looked for a new agent after parting company with the old agent.

On balance, enough done. I think. Or maybe not. Time will tell. See if I'm still here next year....

Then you have to set your goals for next year. You choose the balance of realism and optimism, but remember that you're going to look back on it next year and assess how well you did. I'm not putting my goals here - it's not just that I can do without the public humiliation, but professionally it's not a good idea. But I'll let you know next year if I did them.

So - do your own professional writing audit. Or illustrating audit, if that's what you do. What have you tried? What have you achieved? What have you failed at? What will you do next year? Which skills do you want to develop? How? Treat your writing like a real job - if you don't, no one else will.


Thursday 17 November 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for Delivery

Delivery of a book, like that of a baby, may involve a lot of people in the run-up to the event but really only the mother/author can do the last, crucial bit. There are a few simple things to remember:

  • deliver your book on or before the agreed date
  • deliver the book that was commissioned and make sure it's finished (ie as good as it can be).

If you can't do both of these, ask your editor in advance which is most important to them. Should you send a less-than-perfect draft on time, or can they give you a bit more time to perfect it? If they can, you must perfect it by the next agreed date.

Whatever other compromises there are, you must deliver your book in a format the editor is happy with. This is likely to be a Word file, sent by email, though I have worked with a couple of publishers since 2000 who still wanted a printed copy (as well). Within the Word file, they might want something very specific - eg Times 12 point double-spacing with two-inch margins, or whatever. There is a reason for this, so if they specify it you must do it. The reason is not that they are boring old farts with no appreciation of your artistic formatting skills. It's that they know how to judge the length of a manuscript in their specified format. (This is less important when they can just look at the word-count in Word, but old habits die hard.) If you're working with a freelance editor or a small publishing company, it's often best to save your file in .doc format rather than the newer .docx format. It wastes time if the editor has to come back to you because she can't open the file on her antiquated computer system.

Deliver your book with a brief, polite email. Don't apologise for anything in your book. If they are going to find faults, they will find them without you pointing them out. And certainly don't say 'I'm sorry chapter six is a bit thin - my son was sick, and...'

If you know the editor well, you can be a bit chatty - ask after their children/holiday/health. Don't give a run-down of all the problems in your life even if you do know the editor well. It's not professional. What you should do, though, is alert the editor to any forthcoming events that will mean you're out of contact if they have any problems with the file or the book. So 'please check that you can open the file, as I won't be around for the next couple of days to resend it' is fine. Or 'I'm going to Borneo for three weeks next Wednesday so I'll be out of contact...' This is helpful information - if you don't tell them, you might hold up production of your book by several weeks and that won't be popular.

But really there is only one thing to say about delivery of your book: deliver your book, as agreed. No excuses, no crap, no delays, no 'corrupt files', no decorative effects, no pages stuffed in jiffy bags (unless specifically requested). Simple.

Monday 14 November 2011

A note on PLR

Today I got my notification of Irish PLR. Many writers I know have been saying their PLR payments have been dropping, year on year. (PLR is money from public lending rights, paid on books borrowed from libraries.) Generally, my UK PLR rises, perhaps because I keep writing books at a healthy rate. I'm not sure whether the Irish is up or down, but I thought I'd do a little statistical analysis to see which books earn the most.

I write children's non-fiction (trade and schools and libraries), children's fiction, and adult non-fiction (trade and academic). Here's the breakdown:

Type of book                     % of my registered titles            % of Irish PLR earnings

Adult non-fiction, trade             11                                              3
Adult non-fiction, academic        6                                             0
Children's non-fiction, S&L     58                                             19
Children's non-fiction, trade       11                                           23
Children's fiction                         13                                             56

Conclusions? If you want to maximise your PLR, write children's fiction - more than half the PLR income came from around a ninth of my books. Children's trade non-fiction is much more profitable than schools and libraries titles, showing that children are more interested in reading for fun than doing their homework. Who's surprised? Not me.

(And another conclusion? I haven't registered all my books.... though I did exclude some that are so old I don't really count them. Still, the total is seriously lower than the number of books I've actually published, so something has gone wrong somewhere.)

Thursday 10 November 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for Design

There is a clause in every book contract that says the design (and some other things) is the sole preserve of the publisher. You should breathe a sigh of relief, as book design is a tricky thing.

Design is most obviously complicated in the case of an illustrated book. It's not just a case of picking the right illustrator or choosing the right photos. Pick up an illustrated book. Ignore the content of the pictures. What has the designer done? You need to look at where the pictures are on the pages, what size they are, how they relate to the text. Do they bleed off the edge of the page or are they surrounded by white space? Is text integrated into the pictures? Does it flow around them with a curved or jagged line, or is everything in rectangular blocks? How is white space used in and around the pictures?

Now look at the pictures themselves. How does the palette of colours used in the pictures work with the colour of the paper and any colour in the text? What does the style of the pictures tell you about the book? Are they whimsical, flippant, strong, aggressive, traditional, avant garde?

But design is important in even an unillustrated book. The design tells you a lot about the type of book you are reading. If the type is small and cramped and the margins are small the book is probably printed on thin, off-white paper and is most likely a cheap novel. It might be a mass market paperback bodice-ripper or a cheap edition of a classic. If there are large margins, lots of space between the lines (extravagant leading) and a font that is airy and leaves lots of space (long ascenders and descenders) you are reading either a book for reluctant readers or an expensive poetry book, or possibly a hardback novel which is shorter than you feel it should be for the money you spent. There are plenty of other elements of design: the running headers and footers; whether chapters start on a left- or right-hand page; how much space there is above a heading or chapter head; the font(s); the leading, the kerning of the title and headings; how many pages the book runs to ...

And I'm not even going to talk about the cover.

Book design is a specialist art. Good book designers make a book a thing of beauty. And book design is one of the reasons that e-books are currently inferior to real books. The look of the text is ugly, and that's a shame.

The designer rarely gets a credit on the acknowledgements page of the book, but they should. Their work is more visible to the reader than that of the editor or the proofreader. A useful trick for writers struggling with a book they can't evaluate is to print it out in a different font. Text looks different in a different font. The book you wrote in Arial (yuk) or Times New Roman (yuk) will look quite different if you print it in Goudy Old Style or Palatino. Suddenly, you can see the book with fresh eyes. Now - does your book suit a spindly, spidery font or an elegant, crisp font? Does that curly 'Q' really work?  Do you have to change the font because of the style of one letter? (I often do.) *Now* you see what the book designer does.

PS If you can't see any difference, please leave the blog directly, do not pass Go, and do not collect £200 (as if!).

Wednesday 2 November 2011

D is for Disconnect

This is not really a How to Speak Publisher as it's just a word used in its usual sense...

I'm listening to yet another programme on books/writers on radio 4. Why is it that books and reading seem to get a massive amount of media coverage at the moment, but writers struggle to survive? If the public so likes books, why are publishers cutting commissioning and cutting the rates they pay on the books they do commission? Does the public really want books? I don't mean authors who are starting out - they have always had a hard time, and always will - but established, mid-list writers who have been making money for publishers for years and have a following. There is a massive disconnect between the public image of writers and books and the reality of being a writer and trying to sell a book.

I'm happy to work hard. I routinely write ten or more books a year (many are short - but all are books and take work). I work as many hours a week on writing as most people in other jobs work. Of course, if the publisher were not selling the books and making money, I could understand why my income drops year on year for the same amount work (or more work!) But the public is apparently gagging for books, if radio 4 is to be believed. So why the disconnect? Print costs have gone up; margins have gone down; publishers are scared of the future [come ON, guys - the future was always uncertain, that's why it's the future!] Books sell for the same or less, but the bookshops and distributors still want their cut, so that leaves only the author to dump the losses on. If the public didn't want books, that would be more understandable, but that's not how it looks. So the public is willing to buy, and the publishers cut the price. Er......

It's odd, isn't it? I accept that we live in a world of market forces, though there are some things that should not be subject just to market forces - the food supply, medicines, education. (A few books fall into the latter category.) I don't think writers should generally be subsidised if they can't write economically viable books. My view that writers should not usually get Arts Council grants is, I know, not widely held amongst writers. But if a publisher thinks a book will sell well enough to be worth publishing, it should pay a living wage to the writer - and the public should be able to buy a book without being complicit in the exploitation of the writer.