Saturday 29 September 2012

Don't be a Cnut

Man with a spiky hat being a Cnut
I look forward to receiving The Author, the quarterly magazine of the The Society of Authors. But it has tended to be full of whinges for the last few years. Take this, fairly typical, example: '[publishers] will be allowed to survive only to the extent that it suits Amazon' (p88). Or this: 'is Creative Commons a licence, really, to steal other people's work?' (That one is just misunderstanding on the part of the writer about what CC is, but they published it, so it counts.)

Of course there are things to be dismal about. But you know what they are, so I won't list them here - and if you don't, you can look in back issues of The Author for some ideas. Here is the only thing you need to know:

It's not going to change back. Not ever. No matter how much you whinge and whine. The past is a foreign country, and your visa has expired.

Some things are gone.

I read recently, but I can't remember where, that children won't learn to read because the libraries have computers in them instead of books. Well, obviously the libraries should have books in them. But children need to read to use the computer, so that's a stupid argument. It would be better to say children don't read because the classroom has a TV screen instead of a bookshelf. My youngest daughter learnt to read words and phrases such as All Programs, Control Panel and Instal at age 5 (alongside the usual raft of Biff and Chip books).

Reading for pleasure is not the same as reading. Learning to read doesn't need fiction, or even books - after all, children learned to read without there being fiction for them until the nineteenth century. *Of course* I'm not saying we shouldn't promote reading for pleasure, or physical books, or books for children, and it would be desperately sad if we lost these. And I *know* lots of children struggle to learn to read and need lots of help. But our preferred, current model need not be the only one that can ever work. (Indeed, we know it doesn't work that well as we are always arguing about how to improve it.)

Three in ten children in the UK own no books (four in ten for boys) - around four million children. Two thirds of American children living in poverty don't have a single book in their houses.

But nine out of ten children in the UK own a mobile phone. With cheap or free e-books, or e-book borrowing from libraries, perhaps those children will have the chance to read for pleasure, on their phones (and computers, Kindles, etc). Maybe we will have more readers, not fewer.

Yes, I know remote e-book borrowing looks bad for us, as authors (and publishers). But if something doesn't work economically, it won't last forever. If publishers don't make money from e-books because of e-book borrowing, the model will change in some way or they won't produce them any more. The system will self-correct. It might take a few years, cost a few businesses and livelihoods, but in the end something that works will emerge. We must not confuse concern for ourselves with Armageddon. Reading will not die; some publishers/writers might - different issues.

Whatever happens to the shape of publishing and the publishing industry, as writers we provide the key component - the words (the content, in newspeak). Whichever bits of the process can be done without, writing the words is the one that can't. Our words might be differently delivered, marketed, and read, but they are still needed. If you want to survive, don't stand on the beach trying to stop the tide; sit on a raft and wait to be carried by it. Don't forget to take a paddle so you have some control over where you go. We won't achieve anything by whinging and hankering after the past. But we might achieve something by being open to new possibilities.

Friday 21 September 2012

The elephant in the writing room

"Write what you love, with no thought to whether it's what the market wants."
"Write with passion - don't worry about selling it."

How many times have we heard this? We heard it reiterated again, more than once, at CWIG (the Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators' Group conference). That's all very grand and noble and swilling with creative integrity - but it's not very practical if you need to live by your writing.

It highlights the big divide in the writing community that no one ever discusses. So I'm going to invite the elephant to step out of the corner and introduce himself: the divide between those who have to live by their writing and those who can indulge in writing whatever they want because they have an independent income, accumulated riches from an earlier career, a large pension, a lottery win, an Arts Council grant, a wealthy spouse, or a 'day job'.

A very few people are able to write exactly what they want and, because it coincides exactly with what the market wants, can make a good (enough) living from it. Super. I'm *so* pleased for you, genuinely. Remember, though, that markets change. The people who sold crateloads of books a few years ago sometimes can't get a contract now. They have not become bad writers; the population has not suddenly gone off their books. It's just that what publishers want to buy changes.

Let's suppose Roald Dahl didn't die, but went into hiding. And now he submitted a book outline, under a false name, to a children's publisher. What are the chances of his book being published? Slight, I'd say. There's too much that is violent or scary for most publishers of books for 8-10s now. Fashions (and sensibilities) change.
So what about those of us who have children to feed, a house to run, and no high-earning partner willing to let us off our share of contributing to the household income? We either have a different day job, or we write other things as well - things that sell but are perhaps not our overriding passion. You could see it as a different kind of day job. I am a writer, and my day job is also being a writer.

Unless you are mega-successful or very prolific, you can't make a living just by writing what you like best. Let's suppose you are lucky enough to get a two-book deal with a £50,000 advance. (That's pretty lucky, these days.) You take a year to write each book (some people do). So that's £25,000 a year. Now give your agent 15% + VAT, which is £4,500 and we're down to £20,500, which is already less than the average wage - and expenses have to come out of that. My annual expenses vary hugely, but are never lower than £3,000 so let's use that figure. Now we're down to £17,500 a year. And you have to get this type of contract *every* two years without fail. And only if your books earn out do you get more. (Plus PLR.) Doesn't work, does it? It's a low enough income to get income support.

If you need more money, maybe you do other things, such as school visits or teaching creative writing. That's fine - but it's no more noble and filled with integrity than writing something you are less passionate about.

Enough of the hypothetical. How does it work? These are the books I have written over the last two years:

seven short vampire novels
an adult history of physics
children's non-fiction books on -
  • maths
  • aerospace engineering
  • the work of charities in emergencies (eg war, famine, earthquake)
  • what the world would be like after a pandemic
  • fast things
  • rock bands
  • animals
  • internet safety
  • cybercrime
  • the history of surgery
a novel I'm not going to tell you about yet
three retellings of classic stories
four picture books

So that's a total of 26. OK, some are very short. But no matter. It's still a fair number. (As we're going for full disclosure, I've also written part of a book that has several authors, done a bit of copy-editing and critiquing, been an RLF fellow, an RLF lector, taught an 8-week undergraduate summer school on creative writing, built a few websites, and made two book trailers.)

I'm not going to tell you which of those books I was passionate about, but I did draw up a table of passion-against-income for each of them. I have estimated total royalties likely and have ignored PLR, so the income bit is not wholly accurate, but it gives an idea. So, in terms of percentage of income from writing, missing out one book that doesn't have a publisher yet (but is 10 on passion) and missing out the partial book, here's the breakdown:

% of income     passion rating 0-10 for book  number of books in this category

22%                  10                                         8
25%                   8                                          6
6%                     7                                          2
31%                   5                                          5
13%                   4                                          4
3%                     2                                          1

So if I had only written books I was passionate about (and we'll go down to 8, as fairly passionate about) I would have earned half as much. Which is not enough - though I can see that if I had other money from somewhere, it would have been a very nice sum to have.

There really are two classes of writer. Those who can afford to spend years on a book and accept a tiny advance are not professional writers. They may be published, and popular, and very good - but they are recreational or part-time writers. Professional writers need to worry about margins and expenses and need to negotiate good deals with their publishers. The recreational writers are no less 'real' writers, but their position is different - and they have no right to claim moral superiority or greater integrity on account of that position. Those of us who need to earn a living are not 'selling out'. A book should be judged on its own merits, and a writer shouldn't be judged at all.

Monday 17 September 2012

The Other Place

I'm over at Awfully Big Blog Adventure this morning talking about the CWIG (Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Group) conference in Reading. It's not a serious write-up. You won't find useful hints and tips on writing or fulsome praise for the speakers. Not at all.

Monday 10 September 2012

The Internet: seducer, scapegoat or serendipity stall?

Are writers distracted from work by stuff on the web? Yes, sometimes. Do they need to pay good money for silly applications that block their access to the web. No, not unless they are total wimps and suckers.

An article in the Daily Telegraph is the latest in a string of mumblings that the internet is the enemy of creativity. Naomi Klein, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith are apparently amongst the novelists who can't write unless they use SelfControl and Freedom (applications) to prevent them watching dumb cat videos on YouTube. Really? What's wrong with unplugging the modem, working in a cafe or library that doesn't have wifi, or even just using real self-control? After all, if they know they want to avoid messing about online, turning off the router, or just disconnecting from the network, is really not very hard to do (and it's free). I'm with Will Self, who said of this self-nannying: "“Get a grip, Zadie! I’m sorry, but that is just pathetic. Turn off the computer. Write by hand. I find that ludicrous.”

But there is another aspect. I suppose it depends in part on what you write, but I find instant access to the internet very helpful. I'm just starting a new project, and it's set in Victorian London. I'm not one of those people who does all the research and then all the writing - I'm too impatient to get started.

So I spent a day sitting in the sun making random notes on an old envelope and reading MR James ghost stories, then started writing. I probably won't keep those early pages, but they help to get the voice right. Yet writing the first 500 words I needed to check: when cigarettes replaced clay pipes in London; how long a baby will survive without oxygen at birth; which treatments of such a baby maximise the chances of its survival without ill-effects; when artificial resuscitation methods started and what they were; what the Society for Recovery of Drowned Persons recommended for treating nearly-drowned people; the appearance of a baby born in the caul; the appearance of the original Waterloo Bridge; when the toffee apple was invented (1940s - no good). I needed to know these things immediately. Guessing and writing on wouldn't work, as some of these are essential to the working out of the plot and I need to feel it's right, or at least possible. And in looking for a mudlark, I discovered there is a very unsavoury job of sewer hunter. I'll have one of those!

Ah, but perhaps Zadie and co are more worried about wasting their time on Facebook and twitter and Skype chat? But what better research source than intelligent, knowledgeable people? From Facebook, I got this from a professional historian: "I think non-clay pipes replaced clay pipes; cigarettes were common by the 1870s but regarded as unsuitable for a gentleman; and had become pretty well universal by the First World War." Twitter can bring an expert in minutes. On Skype, I chat with other writers who help me work out tricky plot points or how to adapt something to make it age-appropriate.

Besides these clear and sensible benefits, though, the web is a serendipity market. It's where you can come across astonishing snippets that trigger ideas, or feed in to your writing. That dreadful question, where do you get your ideas from, can often be answered by 'from the web' or 'from radio 4' as well as the usual 'from the world around, people talking, books, paintings...' I'm off to the library in a minute to read Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, volume 4. Which I was directed to by an article on the web. (The Google bookscan version is full of thumbs.) There, I will write and make notes and I won't bother to connect to Lapwing, the Cambridge University wifi network, because I won't need it. But I wouldn't wilfully shut myself off from that source of serendipity for extended periods in an artificial way.

If I'm writing, and want a break, I'll often look at twitter and find an interesting link to follow. It's the same as picking up the newspaper and flicking through it, or doodling in the margin of the page. A lot of writing is waiting for the brain to make connections, for the subconscious to do its stuff. Feeding in a few stories about female pirates or steam-powered submarines or sewer hunters can't do any harm.  It might be procrastination, but it's useful procrastination. In fact, perhaps web browsing is the modern equivalent of sewer-hunting...

And have you noticed how, once you are into a topic, it crops up everywhere? It's like only seeing how many pregnant people there are when you are pregnant yourself. Once you're on the lookout for arctic explorers or Victorian undertakers, they're everywhere. But mostly online. Not so many hanging in my office if I turn off wifi. I need a big sign: Serendipity welcome here.

Thursday 6 September 2012

How to speak publisher: E is for editor

Editors come in lots of flavours: chocolate, vanilla, pistachio...

Editor-god is the commissioning editor. (S)he puts together lists and series to make a coherent offering by commissioning writers/books - either looking for writers for specific books or responding to submissions. She may help a publishing director to decide the direction of the list.

The vanilla editor you will deal with most of the time is in charge of the overall shape of a book. If it is fiction, the editor will advise on the structure, plot, characterisation, voice and so on. If it is non-fiction, the editor will advise on structure, choice of material, voice and so on.

The copy editor is most concerned with the words on the page. (S)he will do a line edit - go through the book advising on style and grammar.

Don't be scared of editors (1). The editor is not some harpy bent on removing all vestiges of your individuality from your book. The idea is that you and the editor(s) work together to produce the best book possible. If your individuality manifests in using the same phrase thirty times, or having an apparently major character disappear after three chapters never to reappear, and with no explanation, then some individuality should indeed be pruned away. But the point is to make the book better. All books can be improved and a good editor does that. Have you noticed how some successful writers seem to produce worse books once they are really famous? It's often because editors are unwilling to tell them their latest book is too long, or has too much of something that was a nice quirk once but tiresome when overdone.

Don't be scared of editors (2). Editors make suggestions. You don't have to follow all the suggestions. Follow the good ones and explain why you don't think the others are good. You need a reason if you want to reject changes, and 'I like it like that' doesn't count. If you can't explain and defend what you've done, why should anyone take your view seriously? But you really, really don't need to do everything the editor suggests. To do so makes you look like a push-over. If you aren't going to defend any of your original choices, perhaps you didn't think very hard about the book?

Here's a little anecdote. Last year, I was in Starbucks in Oxford. On the next table were two men who were clearly editors. One began telling the other about a new writer he had signed. The book had come in, and there were a few problems with it (as always) and he had gone back to the writer with his list of changes. "He made every one!" the editor said. "He didn't want to discuss any of them." Do you think the editor was happy? No. The two agreed the writer was unprofessional - he couldn't have had any reason for structuring his book in that way, so he hadn't thought about the commission carefully enough. Finally, the editor said he wouldn't be rushing to take another book from that author. So you might think you're being good and compliant if you agree to every change, but you're not doing yourself any favours if you don't defend at least a few of your original choices!

Editors offer advice and suggestions, and tell you if something isn't working. The editor doesn't have to tell you what to do instead of what you've done - though (s)he might if (s)he can see a solution. Fixing it is your job. Discuss it - the editor might be able to help. If there's a problem with part of the book, you will have to do something about it, so explaining why you wrote the book like that is a good starting place for finding a solution. If you say (for instance) 'this scene you say is boring helps to show Z's character' the editor can help you find a solution that helps builds Z's character but isn't boring. If you just have a strop because the editor wants to change your great work, you're on a hiding to nothing. Don't bother. Work with your editor, not against her.

Caveat: Very occasionally, you work with a bad editor. A few editors secretly want to be writers and change your book just to make it more 'theirs'. But that is unusual. I have had one editor like that in 15 years (about 150 books).