Saturday, 7 December 2013

Contractual oddity

I found this interesting bit in a publishing contract I was signing this morning:

'If the Publishers decline to accept the typescript, they will set out their reasons for doing so... in a written notice of at least 250 words.'

I don't think I've seen that before - the publisher setting a word extent for their rejection letters. I suppose it means they can't reject the MS over twitter. And they can't reject it just be saying 'it's shit'. It means they have to give some critical feedback, I assume. But I guess they could use the 250 words saying just exactly how shit it is... I think I'd better write the books in this series well, as I don't want to read 250 words of how shit they are.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

About telling the truth

Last weekend (23rd November, 2013) I was in Winchester speaking at the Lighting the Spark conference organised by SCBWI - the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (UK bit). In case you haven't come across it, SCBWI is an excellent and supportive organisation run by and for writers and illustrators, both published and unpublished.

I'd been looking forward to going to the conference for months. As it approached, and problems at home multiplied, I kept all digits crossed, but finally got there. And then - after a a lovely evening with Crabbit Nicola Morgan and OUP designer/illustrator Lily Trotter, I got food poisoning. Aaargh. All looked in jeopardy. But Nicola and the wonderful and kind Kathryn Evans found me a dungeon to lurk in until five minutes before my slot and I got through. We had a lively session, thanks to the great audience, but I was only about 10% sparkle and I'm very sorry if I disappointed anyone who felt they had squandered their mid-morning slot on me. At least Lily didn't disappoint.

Lily and I were talking together about writing and illustrating for the education market and non-fiction. There seems to be a massive misconception that these two are the same thing. I wanted to use part of our session to help straighten that out, but in the event only touched on that. We decided instead to have a massive conversation with the audience, a Q&A session, which was much more fun. But in case you actually wanted to know what non-fiction covers, I'll put here what I didn't say there.

(I'm going to illustrate this post with my own books simply because I don't need permission to use the illustrations and I already have the covers on my computer. Please don't think I want you to buy them, or think they are better than other books. There are no links to buy - this is not a promotional post.)  

Types of non-fiction

Like all writing you want to sell, if you write non-fiction you need to identify your market and write for it. There are, roughly, four types of market for non-fiction. (I'm talking about books here. There are lots of markets for articles and other stuff, too.) You can write for:

Proper educational markets - academic books and text books.You'll find these books in classrooms and in school and university libraries. If you can find a school library.

Some text books are used for home-schooling, or for people providing extra work/tuition at home. I don't generally write these at all. Many are written by teachers with expertise in how the subject is taught. Although it is very easy to develop expertise in a subject, expertise in how it is taught really only comes from teaching it. That's how you find out which methods work and which bits people find hard. There are also open learning books, which are course books for people who don't have face-to-face tutorial support. It's quite a specialist area, and as most of it is now delivered online it's not a market that's generally reached through traditional publishers. The exception is teaching English as a foreign language, which is pretty much dominated by one or two big publishers.

Academic books are not for children. I have written them, but only in my area of academic expertise. If you have a PhD/academic teaching experience, you might be able to write academic books. But you won't get any worthwhile money from it, so you might not want to.

 Schools and libraries - books that are not used as teaching texts, but often support areas of the curriculum or provide extra information about topics and subjects a child might be introduced to in school. You'll find these books in libraries, school libraries, and sometimes in bookshops. If you want to write these, you'll have to get to grips with the National Curriculum and various bits of the US state curricula, but they are not specifically curriculum-coverage books.

Trade - general non-fiction which is not linked to the curriculum or school subjects. These are usually on topics children are interested in but don't have to learn - ballet, vehicles, spies, crafts, dinosaurs, space.. that kind of thing. it also includes some types of novelty book - such as origami instructions with packs of paper, or pop-up non-fiction books. You'll find these books in normal high-street bookshops. If you can find a high-street bookshop.

Mass market - often cheaply produced in large print runs, and entirely uneducational - such as joke books, books of random facts, books about sport and games. This includes puzzle and quiz books and some types of novelty title.They are often sold in discount bookshops and through organisations such as Book People.

And finally... educational books are not only non-fiction. There are educational books that are stories. They can be:

Stories written specifcally to be part of reading schemes or as graded or levelled books. You'll need to understand about reading levels, sometimes write to a brief, and take account of things that are and are not allowed to make the texts acceptable to a wide range of children. Many are based around school or home environments, or involve pets or other animals. They will have to fit in with a list or series so that teachers know what to expect and can plot each child's progress.

 Stories for reluctant or slow readers. This is my favourite market, but it's very challenging. You need to come up with plots, characters and themes appropriate to older children, then present them in accessible language and with simple syntax but without ever being patronising. It's a special skill - if you want to write flowery description and slowly unfurling plots, this is not for you.

Retellings of classics or traditional tales. What it says on the tin. Some people don't approve of these as they say - quite rightly - that the point of a book is not just its story. But some children are drawn to read the full text later because they liked a retelling. These are not a chance for being imaginative. You need to distill the essence of the story and (as long as the publisher allows it) a feel for the style of the original, and know where to cut (no room for a full Dickensian cast).

Of course, there's loads of other things to say about writing non-fiction/educational books. But I have to go and write about dinosaurs and maths, so they will have to wait for another day.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Don't be a rhinovirus

I don't usually do this - write a post that just directs you to go and read something else - but I'll make an exception for this one because anyone who writes

"My field of expertise is complaining, not answers. I know there’s no point in demanding that businesspeople pay artists for their work, any more than there is in politely asking stink bugs or rhinoviruses to quit it already. It’s their job to be rapacious and shameless."

deserves it. Tim Kreider, writing in the New York Times on why writers should (almost) always refuse to write for free. With the added bonus of a template 'No' email you can use to turn down such 'offers of exposure' as the offending people consider them. (Not as shouty as the Harlan Ellison video.)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

You're not my market... (probably)

I wonder if I'm doing this book thing all wrong. I'm at least not doing it the same way as everyone else. This thought was prompted by two things. One was Nicola Morgan's blog post on why she is no longer going to buy postcards to promote books. The other was a little dispute on a Facebook page for a writers' group. Oh, and a question in Book Witch's income survey (which you must look at if you haven't seen it yet) about how many review copies authors send out themselves.

The dispute followed a spate of self-published writers posting buy-my-book spam to the page. I remarked that I don't buy books because the author recommends them, and I don't buy self-published (e or otherwise) children's books at all. The predictable response followed - I'm a snob, I'm behind the times, I'm missing out on lots of good books, we can't believe there are still people like you.... Interesting, isn't it? The assumption is that I don't buy them because I don't expect them to be good, or I'm some kind of Luddite.

But that's not it at all. One reason that I buy and read children's books is because I write them and I need to know the state of the market. I enjoy them too, of course, but my market research reading is well, to research the market. Other reading time I often read books that aren't for children - for variety.

There is no room in my market-research book budget for self-published children's books because I need to know what mainstream publishers are publishing - what has already been done, who is publishing which type of books, and so on. I don't need to know what self-publishers are doing. If anything, their only value in terms of market research is to show me what mainstream publishers are not publishing. (I know not all self-published books have been rejected by mainstream publishers.) If a self-published book is very successful, that shows me what readers are buying. But I'm not selling to readers. I will say that again because you probably don't believe it.

I'm not selling to readers. I'm selling to publishers.

I'm not selling books. I'm selling manuscripts that are the raw material of books that still need input from editors, designers and layout artists. And sometimes illustrators. Publishers and bookshops sell books to readers. I sell manuscripts to publishers. You don't see Rio Tinto selling lumps of metal to the public, do you? No, they sell to - eg - cutlery-makers and those cutlery-makers sell spoons to the public. Selling the books is the publisher's job, not mine. I know a lot of people will disagree with that. So no, I don't send out review copies at my own expense; I don't print cards and bookmarks with my own money; I don't even promote my books on this blog - which was originally anonymous, and so would have been useless as a promotional tool. That's not to say I won't do any promotion at all for my favourite books. But I won't spend money on promotion because - as Nicola Morgan points out - it just doesn't pay.

(I'm not suggesting other writers aren't selling to the public or are doing the wrong thing. This is just my position, and it works for the type of books I write and the type of relationship I have with publishers.)

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Peeping over the parapet

I've not been here for a while. Not because I don't like this blog any more, or my dear readers, but because I haven't had time. I know, you've heard all that before. But here's a little post on what you should and shouldn't have time for when things get tricky.

Things you can definitely ignore:
Dust bunnies and dead flies on the windowsill
Spam asking you to send free books to yet another worthy cause
Reading other people's blogs, including this one
All online groups of any kind, even the seemingly relevant writery ones
A few years ago, everyone was banging on about if you have a blog you have to blog every day, or at least every other day. Personally, I've never agreed with that. That model might apply if your blog is primarily a leisure-interest type of blog rather than a professional-skills type of blog. But I don't imagine there are readers out there checking every day to see if there's a new post n this blog. Most of my readers are writers and have better things to do. I think you should blog when you have something to say that's worth hearing and otherwise shut up and do something else.

But sometimes you can have things that should be said and still not have the time to say them properly. For various reasons, that's been the case here for the last few months. Not regular, run-of-the-mill, I-have-lots-of-work-and-a-family-to-care-for reasons, but compelling out-of-the-ordinary reasons. Something has to give way when time is short. As I already never watch TV, there was no opportunity to recoup a few hours a day in the way most people could if they needed to.

The one thing that can't slip is writing - at least, the writing that is already commissioned and has a deadline. The novel my agent wants but for which there is no contract is on a back burner so far back it's fallen down between the cooker and the wall. But blog posts - who will notice if there isn't one for a few weeks? No one pays me to write a blog. I write it because I like to engage with you lovely people out there and hear your views, and because feel strongly that those of us with some knowledge of how publishing works from the writer's side of the fence shoud help other writers by sharing.

We've all met people who say 'I'd write a book if I had the time.' Well, it's not their job to write books, so they can say that, just as I can say I'd grow more vegetables if I had the time. It would be nice, but it's not necessary - I can carry on buying vegetables from Waitrose. But if I don't keep on writing, I can't buy anything from Waitrose. So that's the thing that can't slip. If I were a surgeon, I wouldn't stop doing surgery because my child was ill, or I was having trouble with the builders, or the house was a real mess and could do with a thorough clean. So I'll lurk behind the parapet and do things that have to be done.

These are my parapet priorities:

1. Keep self and child alive - enough shopping and cooking, caring and cossetting to keep us functional and resaonably happy.
2. Meet writing deadlines. And do the writing to a high standard. Not only is it unprofessional to let standards slip, cutting corners is a false economy as the editor will just come back for changes later and be less likely to commission more books. I've worked for years and years to get this reputation and I'm not going to let it slide now.
3. Talk to editors - warning them there might be problems lets them make contingency plans. Actually, when times are difficult I try to get stuff in early - because I know I can't leave it until the last minute in case there's a crisis. I think my longest-standing editors know that if I'm delivering early, things are tricky.
4. Keep responding to enquiries and commissions. I'll need more books to write later and so the time that goes into lining up later work can't be skipped.
5. Commitments to other people - sys admining blogs I have agreed to sys admin, preparation for conferences I've agreed to speak at, turning up to things (according to how important my turning up is to anyone else, not to how much I want to go). Responding to email/messages comes into that category, too. If you don't have time to respond, at least set up a polite autoresponse - it takes seconds.
6. Facebook, blog, twitter, etc - I've not been on twitter more than a couple of times in three months. I don't think my absence from twitter will be noticed. I dip in and out of Facebook as it's my main way of keeping in touch with friends, but I've done nothing with my professional pages as they really don't matter. No one cares that much.

Perhaps that's the point. Regarding most publicity, no one cares (except you) whether you do your publicity/profiling stuff or not. A big book launch is an exception, but the day-to-day 'don't forget me' stuff - it can slide. You can pick it up later. Write a book rather than a blog post. Oh. On that note - I have a few books to write.

Back below the parapet...

Monday, 9 September 2013

Vampires forever

I don't usually link from here to my posts on ABBA, but this one is less ABBAy than usual - my theory about vampires...

And it's a slight excuse for my absence. The real reason has been summer school and now builders. But soon. I'll write something soon.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

"The grave's a fine and private place..." Or not

Who owns the dead?

The Guardian's website today has an article about David Shields and Shane Salerno, two biographers of the famously reclusive American author JD Salinger. They claim to have uncovered what Salinger had been working on before his death and to release some (all?) of it after 2015. They are also publishing an unauthorised biography of Salinger in September of this year. It is unauthorised because Salinger didn't want a biography, and indeed even blocked one published in his lifetime. His estate did not release documents to the biographers. Salinger said that he wrote only for himself in his later years.

So who owns a writer's work when they are dead? (Or even before?) If Salinger didn't want a biography and didn't want to publish his later writings, why should anyone have the right to go against his wishes? In particular, if he produced work he had no intention of sharing, then it's theft to make it publicly available, isn't it? I can see that someone who has done all the work of digging to write a biography will claim it's their work and they can publish it - though I don't necessarily agree that they should be allowed to publish it. But his own work? Shouldn't he have the last say on what happens to that and who sees it? Do we have to destroy our own writings to keep them private?

Salinger died recently - in 2010. His living relatives might be upset by this invasion of his and their privacy - privacy he spent 50 years protecting. If he had been dead 50 years, with few or no living relatives who remembered him, perhaps the claims of scholarship might win out over the author's own wishes. But Shields and Salerno are not Salinger scholars anyway, and it looks as if they have an eye to the main chance and a tidy profit rather than a genuine academic interest in disseminating his work - a task which could have waited a decent interval.

I hope no one will buy this biography, but suspect that is a vain hope. If I were ever as successful and famous as Salinger, I would be horrified at the prospect of such a violation of my wishes and would make sure nothing was left to be discovered. Why do we worry about relocating and honouring the bones of people who died centuries ago (Richard III, I'm looking at you), but won't honour the wishes of someone barely cold in the grave because - as a writer - he is considered public property?

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Platform and the profession

Tonight I'm giving a lecture (with Brian Keaney - it's one of our double-acts) on living as a professional writer. I'm not going to tell you what we'll say, partly because we don't know until we plan it over a coffee at 5pm and partly because the students might not come if they can read it all in advance. But what we won't be doing is insisting that it's vital to have a platform to succeed as a writer.

No one seems to have any idea whether a platform - as in a regular blog, twittering away, a Facebook author page and all that shiz - makes any difference to book sales. It's a general assumption that it's vital if you are marketing self-e-published books. After all, how else are you going to get any publicity? But for mainstream publishing? Publishers like us to do it, but unless you already have a significant following, does it make much difference? It's an impossible question to answer, of course, because there's no control: we can't compare sales of book A with and without the author's platform.

I have a Facebook author page but pay relatively little attention to it. I comment on new books, occasionally on books in progress, occasionally on reviews or mentions. I can't really imagine anyone is interested. I have never asked all my friends to like it. That seems to me both rude and pointless. I wouldn't go up to someone (except a very close friend who would give an honest opinion) and say 'do I like nice in this?' or 'do you like me?' So why would I do it online?

And I have a blog, obviously. But this blog doesn't identify me. OK, it's not hard to work out who I am. It used to be a lot more secret than it is now. But when one of my editors identified me from the writing style alone, I gave up on the pretence that it's actually anonymous. Besides, this blog doesn't promote my books. Occasionally, I even anti-promote them. I once suggested people did NOT buy my books unless they had actually checked that they wanted them, as I thought the Amazon write-up missed out crucial information and I don't want people to be disappointed. (The books in question were short.)

If anything, this blog reduces my income. At least one publisher has said he'd never consider publishing someone who called themselves Stroppy Author. I can't decide whether to rise to the challenge and try to sneak a book to him or whether to say 'I wouldn't want to be published by someone so cowardly and insecure.' But actually, he's a very fine publisher, so probably the former. And I have argued with publishers more than once about things I've posted here (not recently, but it happens). Publishers like an author to have a platform, but they don't like it to be built on their own books. It's a sort of virtual NIMBYism. That all makes my platform a negative platform - more like standing in a hole in the ground.

Does it affect sales? Who knows? My best-selling book has sold over 350,000 copies. I have never mentioned it on this blog. I don't think the two are connected (though maybe if it's a negative platform, they are!) I think, rather, that it's a popular sort of book that will always sell. And some others are not. And no amount of shouting about them will make people suddenly want them. So I don't. I hate shouty things anyway. I can just about cope with being publicly facetious in text but I always turn down requests for radio or TV. To my shame, I didn't even return the call to the last TV person who wanted to talk to me.

So I'm not really qualified to talk about platform. As I said at the Society of Authors the other day, I have a kind of e-agoraphobia - fear of the virtual market place. Perhaps I would be a mega-bestselling author with lots of money if I didn't. But then again - I think I'd just have pissed off more people. Even more people.

But to the point. When new, young writers ask how they should be building their platform, my answer is 'You shouldn't. You should be writing decent books.' Or, as Nicola Morgan puts it, Write the damn book. No one likes to look up to a platform, anyway. We all prefer to peer down into a hole. I'll be in there.

Please, all you pro-platform people, put your case so that my students can get a balanced view!
Nicola - please add a link to your stuff on platform as I can't find it!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Story is an emergent property

Yesterday, Brian Keaney and I gave the first lecture of our summer school course at Cambridge University. We don't script out lectures. Brian did have half a page of scrawl which he called notes, though that's really an overstatement. (Sorry, Brian: they were sweet.) Instead, we sit in a cafe for three hours before the lecture and just talk around the subject. That stirs the ideas up. It's a bit like poking a muddy pond with a stick. We get all that sludge of acquired knowledge about writing moving around. Then when we have the students chained to their chairs, glasses of wine in front of them, we just talk.

One of the things we were talking about last night was how to make stories. What is the difference between an account and a story? An idea that came up in the cafe but didn't make it to the lecture was that story is an emergent property. An emergent property is something which comes about when you put things together, but isn't inherent in any one of the things. So wetness is an emergent property of water. If you have one water molecule, it's not wet. If you have a million water molecules, you also have wetness.

When you first ask a small child to tell a story, it gives an account. For example:

I got home and my cat had killed a bird. The bits were on the floor. I made a sandwich.

That's an account of unrelated events. Well, they are related in that they are in a chronological sequence, but not causally or in any other way. Add a link and it becomes a narrative:

I got home and my cat had killed a bird. The bits were on the floor. I made a sandwich, but I couldn't eat it.

You might say that's not a link. But it's the ingredients of a link - the reader will make a link out of it.

Although there is no statement of cause, we infer an emotional connection. The narrator can't eat the sandwich because the bits of dead bird make him/her feel sick, or disgusted. Now we know something about him/her - they have the beginnings of a character. There is movement; our understanding of the first part of the narrative is altered by what comes afterwards. It does the 'show, not tell' thing, and it makes the reader do some work.

Stories emerge if you put the bits together - plot, character, causation, emotional change, setting, motivation. They emerge because the reader is also a human being with similar consciousness/experience. You don't have to state the links all the time - you can rely on the shared human experience of writer and reader to supply the links. And that's another thing. It's fine if the reader makes a story that differs slightly from the story you thought you wrote. A person with OCD might assume the narrator in that little snippet couldn't eat the sandwich because the mess was offensive simply as mess. That's fine. Let the reader make what they will of it. It's not your story once you've let it out of the box. You put things together, and something else comes out of their juxtaposition.

Look at this:

The man stood on the high ledge. Then he plunged off.
The raven stood on the high ledge. Then he plunged off.

See? You know ravens can fly, and men can't. The first is a tragic ending. The second is an exciting start. The story emerges from the mix of words and the reader's knowledge.

(Of course, that's not all it takes to make a story that is worth reading. Writing a good story, that's another week's lecture.)

Thursday, 27 June 2013

To e or not to e

If you're a regular here, you'll know that I'm pretty committed to traditional publishing.

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
(Ooh, don't think we've had Elizabeth Barrett Browing here before!)

I like traditional publishers because:
  • I get to write books rather than do marketing. I hate selling, and I hate selling my own books more than anything. I will be rubbish at marketing. I say things like 'Don't buy this book unless...' rather than 'Buy this book because...'
  • They do all the faffing about with proofreaders and cover designers and illustrators and permissions and all that, so I can just do some writing, which I like better than faffing about.
  • They give me an editor. An editor I am not paying, who will be as rude or ruthless as necessary to make a good book (rather than to make a happy author who will pay again).Or that's how it should work.
  • I know pretty much what I'm earning - they promise me some money if I write a book; I write the book; they give me the money. Then later I might get some more money. Great! This is all very straightforward and I can plan things like buying some food or going to Italy. Occasionally, a publisher goes bust and I don't get the money. But, to be fair, I've probably lost only about £5000 like that over the last fifteen years. Painful at the time, but not a bad average. 
  • This will cause howls of disagreement from the self-publishing lobby, but I genuinely think the endorsement of a traditional publisher counts for something in the eyes of the buying public - and with good reason. Anyone and his dog can put out a book on Kindle. While there are some very good ones, there is also a lot of total shite out there. If I am looking for a book of a specific type and I see it's only available as an e-book I check out the publisher. If it looks as if it's self-published, I don't buy it. I want publishers doing quality control - I don't have time to do it myself. I expect other readers are the same. And yes, of course some traditionally published books are bad. But a higher proportion of self-published books are bad.
But recently some traditional publishers have been getting very difficult to work with. (No names, for obvious reasons.) I'm talking here about non-fiction and fiction that it is commissioned for a specific list, not one-off stories or non-fiction titles. Here's how:
  • Their projects are increasingly urgent. I used to have a deadline three months from the point the project was suggested. Now it's more often six weeks. Then the publisher eats into those six weeks in the following ways:
  • They don't send the brief immediately, or when they say they will. It's as though they consider their job done when they've found an author. Ahem - we have to do the book, yet. Not sending the brief means I can't even start the outline. This summer's record for this one: not sending a brief for three weeks on a project that had six weeks to start with. And I've still not got it. They have failed to send a brief for three weeks, because they are 'very busy'. But their project is very urgent. Of course. Just not urgent enough to devote any time to.
  • They sit on outlines or synopses for weeks - sometimes until after the delivery date for the manuscript. Record on this one: until after the final delivery date of the manuscript.
  • They take ages to respond to questions - that is, questions about the book they have commissioned and that has a deadline that isn't going to move just because they haven't answered crucial questions about content or format.
It's impossible to work like this. I had an editor last year who sat on things from Monday morning until Friday afternoon and then sent their responses, to be turned around and back on their desk by Monday. Do they think I don't have a life? What do they think the working week is for? How would they respond if I worked like they do? (Arguably, not at all because they never respond to anything.)

Danger for planet complacency
And the money. I get less for a book now than I got for a comparable book 15 years ago. Royalties, advances and fees are all down. One has even just tried to change the fee after the event.  But this post isn't about money, it's about behaviour. That last point is relevant though, changing the fee after the event. It's as if I went to Pizza Express, ate a pizza, and then refused to pay the advertised price. They'd call the police!

I have to say that I also work with some wonderful professional, capable, efficient and hard-working editors. I love them to bits. They are the reason I put up with the others - every time I hope I will have a good experience. I know which publishers I can trust and I work with them repeatedly. They know who they are because I tell them that I appreciate them. I am working with three of them at the moment. But some others - what planet are they on? Planet complacency. And planet complacency is about to be hit by a meteor (otherwise known as 'the changing face of publishing').

So - should I give up on these unprofessional people? There are plenty of authors out there saying 'why should the publisher get 90% of the income from a book?' But this isn't about the money. It's about the attitude. It's about not being able to write a book of 128 pages over three successive weekends in August, spending the weekdays waiting on the editor's response. It's about needing a brief before starting a project (of the type that needs a brief). It's about working with professionals.

Last year, I had an argument with a publisher who said that now is the best time to be an author. It so isn't. Now is the worst time to be an author. You earn less than ten years ago for the same work. Many - not all - publishers have a ridiculously unprofessional attitude, short deadlines and no budget. They don't value authors, but at the same time they depend on authors to sort out all their scheduling screw-ups. Perhaps it's a good time to be starting out as an author. You can stick all your books on Kindle and take a chance on them being discovered. Do lots of promotion. Alienate all your Facebook friends. I don't want to do that. I want to do what I'm good at and leave publishers to do what they're good at. Only problem is, some of them don't seem to be good at it any more.

It's actually  much harder for someone who makes a living from books to switch to e-self-publishing than it is for someone who still hopes to find a publisher. The unpubilshed are not giving anything up (except perhaps a dream of being published by Penguin, or whoever). I'd be risking my whole family income, and certainly swappping a model on which I can plan a budget for one on which I can't.

This would be less tricky if I wrote more for adults. Of course, there are lots of people writing for adults who make a good living from well-written self-e-published books. Children's books are a different matter. And I love my adult publisher, so I don't want to self-publish instead of working with them.

So I'm not *quite* ready to jack it all in and start poking the HTML, but I can see it's not far off. Publishers were always vulnerable to people wanting to keep more of the money, but that won't be my motivation. When they lose the battle to keep the people who would rather work with them than not, they've really, really lost.

And finally... even if you think you can work out which publishers I'm talking about, you can't. I have books at various stages with eight different publishers and none of you knows who all of them are.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

How not to send in crap - self-editing

This post was prompted by a question asked by Vanessa Harbour on her blog Chaosmos - why is it so hard to see problems with our own writing, even when we can pick up the same problems in the writing of others? The answer, as she says herself, is that we see what we want to see when we re-read our own work - we're blind to the things we never intended to be there (ie mistakes). How to get unblind?

I've spent some years as a Royal Literary Fund fellow. RLF fellows work in UK universities helping students to improve their writing skills. A lot of it is about self-editing. It's not about teaching them to write fiction (most of them are not creative writing students - they can be writing about pharmacology, fashion, maths, history - anything). It's not about editing what they have written. It's about teaching them to be better writers, to take charge of the nuts and bolts of writing, not only using grammar competently but writing effectively. One of the techniques I use with students might, I hope, help other writers. You need to print out some of your work to do this.

1: I go through a few pages of the student's writing highlighting all the mistakes with a highlighter pen and explaining what is wrong. If possible, I use different colours for different types of mistake. For instance, there might be one colour for grammatical errors, one for changes of point of view, one for unnecessary passive constructions... you get the idea. If you can get someone you trust to do this for you, they might spot more than you spot yourself, but if you don't have someone to do it, print your work in a font you don't normally use so that it doesn't look like your work.

2: Over the next few pages, I highlight the same mistakes in the same colours, but without the annotation.

3: I check the student understands why each bit has been highlighted and help them to change/improve it. I tell the student to go through the rest of the work highlighting the errors, using the same colours.

4:The colour pattern shows which are the most common mistakes. Focus on looking out for that type as you write. Every few pages, print some out and highlight in colour all the mistakes of that type. Revise to correct them.

5: Do the same with the next type of mistake. Every so often, do an audit of the type of errors that are sneaking through still and try harder. Keep the highlighters by the keyboard as you type - seeing them will remind you of what you are avoiding.

This is much easier for a competent writer than for a student who doesn't really understand why some of the things even ARE mistakes.

This method doesn't work so well on big, structural issues, but it's useful for many other types. This is part of my writing-in-colour method which I will write up one day. Probably after I have bought shares in a highligher company....

Friday, 31 May 2013

How to speak publisher: F is for frontispiece

This is not a word publishers say a lot. But I think frontispieces should make a comeback.

The frontispiece is the illustration at the start of a book, facing the title page. It's not the same as decorated endpapers or an illustration the title page. It's a little advertisement for a book. It was used in the days before blurbs on the back cover, self-puffing on Twitter, and Amazon reviews to give people a flavour of the book. It was the equivalent 'I've just published my book, why not buy it? #mybookisgreat' tweet, but more intelligent - it had to encapsulate what the publisher thought would attract a reader to the book, but using a picture to advertise a book that was entirely prose.

Sometimes the frontispiece is a picture of author. That's a bit dull. But if the author is already known, it's an incitement to keen readers to read this book, too. I'm not showing those here. You know what authors look like.
Frontispiece to Elementary Chemistry,
project Gutenberg

A picture of the subject of the book is more interesting. This is a portrait of Lavoissier from a book called Elementary Chemistry, published in 1905. Below the portrait is an unfortunate scene - Lavoissier being interrupted in his laboratory by officers of the Revolutionary Committe, shortly before he was executed by guillotine. This makes chemistry look a more exciting and dangerous pursuit than many might immediately suppose. Why Lavoissier? Well, he was considered the 'father of chemistry'. It's an aspirational picture in a way - elementary chemistry is the first step towards being Lavoissier. Preferably without the sticky end, but hey - chemistry is exciting and dangerous. You could blow yourself up at any moment.

But a frontispiece can go further than that in misleading the reader. How about this one? It's the frontispiece to an edition of the works of Aristotle (c.1850). Now, I've just finished writing The Story of Philosophy, and I can assure you that Aristotle did not write one single raunchy novel - or not one that has survived. If ever there was a frontispiece that could be deemed misrepresentation, this is it. The volume contains Aristotle's Directions for Midwives, and includes Counsel and Advice to Child-Bearing Women (in Victorian English terminology). I suppose the nude-woman-geting-into-bed-with-a-man stage is a necessary prerequisite for the midwifery stage. But even so. Hardly legal, decent, honest and truthful. Or indeed any of them. It would fall foul of modern advertising standards.It would be generous to assume the lady on the title page is considering a water birth. I think it's just a gratuitously scantily-dressed lady.

Some are honest representations of what the book is about. That's easier if the book sounds exciting anyway. This is the frontispiece of a book called The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants, and Other Curiosities in Guildhall and published in 1741. Looks good - I'd buy it.

Here's a book that might be exciting if it lives up to the promise of the frontispiece. It's from a book called Wings: A book of flying adventures by W.E.Johns (1931). That's quite a mix of British and German planes - it would certainly have been an adventure. In fact, W.E.Johns did a good line in frontispieces. (He's the Biggles chap.)

I've looked through some of my own books (books that I wrote, rather than that I own) and there are none with frontispieces except a couple of editions of historic texts. A few have a title page illustration that extends over the facing page, but most just have copyright information on the page opposite the title page. It's a shame - I'd rather have a frontispiece than a cover blurb (as long as it doesn't show my photo). Please, publishers, can we go back to frontispieces?

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Dinosaur Date of the Day: Chasmosaurus

"See that frill? Pretty cool, huh? How can you resist it? See the nice patterns, the blue, the pink? Only the luckiest lady chasmosaurus is going to get to see a bit of this action.

I'm hot, I'm ready, and I'm only 75 million years old. I weigh only a couple of tonnes, I'm a lithe 5 metres long, with not too much tail, and I don't eat meat. What's not to like? Come on, you ladies. Did you see my frill?"

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Dinosaur Date of the Day: Bagaceratops

"Good evening. I'm not the most glamorous dinosaur, and I don't even have a glamorous name. I'm a bagaceratops, which sounds very much like the less-interesting cousin of the famous and popular triceratops. And that's how it is, really. No one ever takes any notice of me. I don't have majestic horns. In fact, I do look as if I have a bag over my head.

"If there are any lonely dinosaurs out there who'd like to take a chance on me, do get in touch. I'm about a metre high - I know that's not very big, but I'm quite robustly built. I'm 80 million years old. As you can see, I'm not covered in armour and I don't have any dangerous parts, so don't be wary! I live in Mongolia. I know, it's a long way away...

"I'd like a partner who enjoys peaceful meals of conifers and ferns, doesn't want to rush around being the life and soul of the party, and is tolerant of my rather backward and primitive ways.

"Oh, the beak. Good for cropping ferns, not so good for kissing. Sorry about that."

Monday, 20 May 2013

Dinosaur Date of the Day: Chialingosaurus

I'm writing a dinosaur book. Yay! Best project *ever*! As I can't contain my dinosaur excitement until it's published, I'm going to do a little 'dinosaur date of the day' post each day I work on the book. This will whet your appetite for lots of dinosaurs. But I don't expect you to wait for the book. Go and enjoy some dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum in London, or your nearest dinosaur emporium.

Today's dinosaur is Chialingosaurus. Only one has ever been found, so it's a lonely dinosaur. In fact, only part of one has been found...

"Hello. I'm a a sort of stegasaurus with some super, spiny spikes instead of all those sedate, safe-looking plates. I have some plates, but they're a bit too cutesy for my taste - I'm pretty big on spikes!

I'm looking for an easy-going partner, up to 4 metres long, to share vegetarian meals. My preferred location is China. I'd like a partner who is 142-159 million years old, and not too chunky - no more than 150 kg, please. I'm an Ankylosaurid dinosaur, and I'd like to meet another Ankylosaurid."

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Watching planes crash

I've been watching The Battle of Britain (1969). And later today I'll be in the Science Museum in London looking at an Ox-box (Airspeed Oxford), and imagining my characters into it. This is for a story with a fairly specific brief and the setting is rather outside my comfort zone, so I'm doing a lot of almost-real-world research. Actually, although I say it's outside my comfort zone, I've ended up writing quite a lot about aeroplanes in the last year. This is despite a longstanding vow never to write about sport, music or engineering. I'm on my fourth engineering book in 12 months, not counting the story.

But to the film. How do you find out how a pilot escapes a WW2 plane when it catches fire? How do you find out how much noise the engines make, how a plane crashes into the water and how long a 1940s parachute takes to open? I've been to Duxford (the aeroplane bit of the Imperial War Museum) and talked to experts but these are the kind of details you don't find in books or objects. Even contemporary accounts of flying and crashes don't itemise the details that were obvious to the participants, but that disappear into history as planes and procedures change.

Film is perfect. Newsreel film is best, but even fictional films are fine as long as you can trust them to be accurate. That means they must either be well researched, or made sufficiently close to the times they portray to be necessarily accurate. People would mock a film that got it wrong when the events depicted are still well within living memory. Many of those involved in making The Battle of Britain would have been in the war, or in the forces soon afterwards as National Service recruitees. So I'll trust them to show me how planes crashed in 1941. And even if they're wrong, they will fit in with how we imagine planes crash.

It can be a problem when research reveals that the popular conception of something is wrong. Then your book can be accused of being wrong when it's not, and it's everything else that's wrong. But I'm assuming this isn't the case with film of how planes crash, since some planes had to be crashed to make it.

I first saw The Battle of Britain when it came out. I went with my father - who had been in the RAF - to a cinema in Aldershot, home of the British army. At the time I had no idea, being very small, of the significance of that. There would have been plenty of people in the audience who remembered the events - and they loved the film (perhaps because it's full of jingoist heroism, of course). I'll trust those servicemen from 45 years ago. They would have had no truck with blatant technical inaccuracy, at least.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Market envy - quit whingeing and write something

Can we trust readers to know what they like? Writers - at least children's writers - tend to think that we can't.

Whenever you get two or more writers together, there's bound to be grumbling about some new writer being given a good deal, or about the sales of some perceived-to-be-not-very-good book, or the marketing spend behind a perceived-to-be-not-very-good book. The subtext is 'why didn't I get a good deal/high sales/decent marketing spend?' And the tacitly agreed conclusion is: because people buy what is marketed at them; publishers only like books that will become bestsellers; and publishers choose the books to turn into bestsellers on some odd basis that seems to be centred on the criterion 'not written by the authors who are grumbling'.

Let's take a look at this. Market envy is based on assuming publishers are stupid/evil and book-buyers are gullible. Or that publishers want to make money. Well, wow. It's a business - of course they do. Now, I am not defending the current market practices in publishing - but we aren't going to change them by whingeing.

Do the data support the popular view? The top 10 bestsellers (children/YA) in UK in 2012 were, in order:

1,2,3 - The Hunger Games trilogy
4 - War Horse
5 - A Diary of a Wimpy Kid title
6 - The Hobbit
7 - Another Wimpy Kid title
8 - Billionaire Boy (David Walliams)
9 - Ratburger (David Walliams)
10 - Mr Stink (David Walliams)

I've only read the first Hunger Games book, but it's well written and there's no reason teens shouldn't like it. It has plot, it has characters, it's a perfectly respectable mass-market read. It's not 50 Shades.

War Horse. Well, that's by a former children's laureate deemed to be one of our best children's authors. At number 4. Don't make excuses about films and plays - it's at number 4.

Wimpy Kid - these get young kids, especially boys, reading. They speak directly to the insecurity in kids and provide something they need. A good thing. They have spawned a bunch of spin-offs, some of which might not be very good, but that in itself shows they do something that kids like.

The Hobbit - well, obviously there's a film. But the book is a classic. We aren't going to complain about kids reading Tolkien, are we? It's not exactly manufactured pap produced in a cynical marketing move.

I don't know the David Walliams books, but they look decent enough. Billionaire Boy has 224 reviews on Amazon and an average rating of 4.5 which suggests firstly that people like it and secondly that it appeals to people who will write reviews. They're not Rainbow Fairies, are they? In fact, you have to get as far as number 15 in the bestsellers list before finding anything that could be considered manufactured, and that's the One Direction 2013 Annual. The Beano Annual is the only other non-fiction title in the top 20, and I suspect there are a lot of people who will defend the Beano.

Which of these ten books initially had a massive marketing spend? Only the Hunger Games titles. Collins got a six-figure deal for three books and a first print-run of 50,000 (hardback). That's a good deal, but it was in the US where there is a larger book-buying public, and before the recession. It was perceived as cross-over, so the deal was closer to book deals for adults. ('Six figures' is anything between $100,000 and $999,999. It is not, as many people imagine, an advance of a $1m, which would be seven figures.) The big break for Hunger Games was the sale of foreign rights into 38 territories. That isn't part of a secret publishing cabal - foreign rights sell if foreign publishers think they can make money from the book.

Wimpy Kid is the only other series represented in the list. The first title, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, emerged as popular and big spends followed on subsequent titles. And, er, isn't that what we are all hoping for? That kids will like our books and so we will get a better deal next time?

If a writer chooses to write niche literary fiction, they are not likely to get mega-sales., though they just might if they strike a chord. If a writer wants to make money, or (less cynically) if what they happen to want to write is something that's more likely to make money - a series about a dyslexic fairy, dinosaur pirates, whatever - they will (if they do it well) command a larger market. It's not rocket science.

It's a normal distribution curve. Write for the ends - the very reluctant readers, or the very sophisticated readers - and you're likely to have fewer sales. Write for the big bulge of kids who just want an exciting adventure or some funny, familiar stuff and you stand a chance of making more money if you do it well. And well doesn't mean all the best metaphors, it means what people want to buy.

The thing is, you aren't going to change what people want to read so that it matches what you want to write. And that list of bestsellers doesn't suggest people want to read crap. They want to read decent books. Just maybe not yours. Or mine.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Sex for sale - or not

Who do you think should choose which books we can buy? Children's writers are used to the frustration of trying to satisfy the gatekeepers that sit between writer and reader - the parents, teachers, librarians and school boards (especially school boards) that decide whether books can ever reach the hands of children. The views, or anticipated views, of gatekeepers influence publishers' decisions about what to publish and what can be included in a book.

But what about adult publishing? Surely adults should be free to choose their own reading matter without gatekeepers intervening? As long as the content of a book is legal (so not deemed obscene, blasphemous, libellous or anything else against the law), we can buy it, right? Wrong. Readers and writers are increasingly at the mercy of self-appointed moral guardians, particularly Apple and Amazon - those very organisations that have been in trouble for exploiting workers and avoiding taxes. Those moral guardians.

In a move that has largely slipped under the radar, Amazon has dropped a lot of books with adult (ie sexual) content from search results. As far as I'm aware, they haven't dropped violent content - so you can still find American Psycho but not Fifty Shades of Grey. I know which book I consider to be more offensive, and it's not Fifty Shades. But that's irrelevant - neither book has illegal content, so it should be available to people who want it.

It's not that Amazon won't sell adult books - but that they won't show up in general search results. You need to know the title you want, then you can buy it. How often do people who buy erotica search by title? I don't know, but reports from publishers of erotica suggest not many as this has hit their business hard. Of course. The rise of Amazon, and then ebooks, saw a boom in sales of erotica. People who were embarrassed to buy erotica in a public bookshop - always assuming they could find it - could buy it privately online and it would come in a brown box that just said 'Amazon' all over it. And then they could buy it on their Kindle or KindleClone and no one could see they were reading it.

Not one to take rumour at its word, I searched Amazon for 'erotica'. 120,000 hits, near enough, in both UK and US. It sounds like a lot, but it's fewer than I would have expected. And 'erotica' is not exactly a general search. A lot of self-published steamy novels. In the UK, the second hit was a book by Goethe. Yes, that Goethe - the German author of Faust who's been dead more than 200 years. *Second* in erotica. I suppose Amazon filters results by my known preferences, and I've bought more books by dead Germans than erotica, but even so... Fifty Shades didn't feature on the first page in either or .com. I searched for 'whipping' and got a recipe book, a few saucy Kindle offerings, a book about politics (UK use of the term 'whip' to mean pushing politicians to vote along party lines) and, number 1, an academic book on scapegoating of transsexual women. God knows what this is doing to my Amazon profile.

As The Telegraph pointed out, whatever you think of Amazon trying to invade the moral high ground, that's just a stupid business decision. Amazon is throwing away sales of a book people can - and will - buy in the supermarket.

But I don't care if Amazon loses business - I care deeply that publishers and writers can't get their legal content out to readers who want it unless the reader knows the title in advance. How are readers going to find out about books they haven't heard of? They might have favourite writers, they might have friends who make recommendations, but a lot now rely on the links Amazon makes for them.

Of course, Amazon has encouraged self-publishing through Kindle and that's a route many writers of erotica have taken. No doubt many of those erotic novels are not very good, but Amazon isn't judging on the quality of the writing - it's just saying 'No sex, please, we're American'. There are writers and publishers who have businesses built around the model Amazon pushed at them who are now having their books dropped from searches and, in some cases, dropped from Amazon completely. Barnes and Noble also have filters, but not as harsh, it seems. As for Apple - they've been known to be highly prudish about what they will allow on iTunes for ages, but that squeaky-clean, teen-puppy look is part of Apple's public image (however disingenuous) so it's less surprising.

Amazon is a commercial organisation. It is free to sell or not sell what it likes, right? John Lewis doesn't sell porn or sex toys and no one complains about that. The differences are transparency and market share. If you go in to John Lewis and ask where the sex toys are, they will tell you politely that they don't sell them and they might even direct you somewhere else that does sell them.

Amazon doesn't tell readers that it's operating a filter and that there might be more books that match their search which are not displayed. And, worse, it doesn't tell publishers and authors when their books have been marked for filtering. This means they can't appeal if they think the filter has been wrongly applied, and it means they don't know that they should just take their book elsewhere. Self-published authors can at least see their sales figures fall off a cliff and might guess, but those who have to wait for royalty statements to see sales can lose up to 9 months' income before they even have a clue.

Amazon's monopolistic position in the market means it can dictate how writers make their living (and which writers can make a living) and what adults can read. Writers and publishers who can't sell through Amazon will really struggle to make a success of their work. That can't be right. Who are Amazon to tell people what to write and what to read? It's not as though they have a great reputation for moral behaviour themselves.

I don't write, buy or read erotica. I have no personal interest to disclose. But I'm a writer and a reader and want my books and those by others to be freely available - or at least to be told when they are not. Is that unreasonable?

Friday, 19 April 2013

My visit to the abbatoir - by A Cow

An author visiting a book fair has been likened to a cow visiting an abbatoir. But I'm sure that was said by someone (in publishing) who thinks authors should sit at home twirling their pens and not knowing anything that undermine their potential for being exploited and lied to.

So here's a little photo essay (more essay than photo) about What I Did in My Easter Holidays.

I'm not going to bore you with meetings. I took photos of the stands of some of my publishers. I didn't have meetings with all these, and I also had meetings with some I didn't photograph.

Call me stupid, but I hadn't realised before that it's the red carpet that tells you you're still in the children's books zone - which is where I spend a lot of my time.


Arcturus - providers of very fine lunch on Tuesday. Thank you, lovely editory folk!

Barrington Stoke






Ransom! A shared stand, but all meetings at this little coffee bar in Hall 2 (yes, hiding from the real book people).

I didn't bump into quite as many people as usual, but possibly because I had seven meetings on Tuesday (fewer Monday and Wednesday) and so not much walking around time. But there was one bumping-into (won't name and shame) which led to rather too much drinking in Old Brompton Road when the fair closed on Wednesday, and so to me staying an extra night in London.

The best part of all was staying with other writery friends in the fantastic apartment of one of them, overlooking the Thames. Super food, wonderful company - and the Fair was a bit of a distraction, really....

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Dead witches, past and present

I'm not going to blog about the death of Thatcher - there's enough of that about. But it is a trigger: there has been lots of public display and speaking-out. I find celebration of anyone's death distasteful and demeaning (to the celebrator), but the acceleration of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead up the charts is an interesting display of the public turning to art as a means of social protest and expressing dissent. Who'd have thought The Wizard of Oz would end up as social satire? (Well, Henry Littlefield, who believed it started as political satire on 1890s Populism: "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism", American Quarterly 16 (1): 47–58)

Thatcher provided a rich seam for satirists during her years in office. Fortunately, whatever else we think of Britain, we do have a society in which artists are relatively free to write political satire. We won't be sent to a gulag if we write an allegory of some political or social abuse. In children's books, satire and allegory are considered dodgy, dangerous, insidious. Many people criticise the Narnia books because of their hidden, right-wing, Christian agenda. But right-wing Christianity was the dominant ideology of the time, so Lewis wasn't doing a whole lot more corrupting than mainstream schools were - it's the concealed nature of the message that makes people anxious. Still, the Chronicles of Narnia are allegorical rather than satirical: not all allegory is satire (though a lot of satire is allegorical).

Lewis might have felt Christianity was under threat, but it was hardly in its death throes in the 1950s. Often, allegory and particularly satire are the voice of the powerless or of those who want to say something unpopular. Arthur Miller didn't write about witch-hunts in The Crucible without regard to the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s (though astonishingly the Wikipedia entry on The Crucible doesn't mention the satirical aspect of the play).

(Have you noticed how all these use witches? Bit lazy, isn't it?)

Don't we all, to some degree, put our own political/religious/moral views into our books? Or raise the questions we think children need to think about?

Raising questions is not telling someone what to think, but any group that is aware of its fragile hold on the public, or aware at some level that there is something wrong with its policies or promoted beliefs, always takes raising a topic for discussion as a form of attack. After all, if everyone was happy, we wouldn't need to examine it, would we? Except we would, because that's how we make sure whatever we have chosen is still fit for purpose. The unexamined life is not worth living, and all that.

In a story I'm working on at the moment, there is a lot about the Victorian poor. I am not standing on a box saying 'look, kids, you can see this happening around you.' But the perceptive child will think, 'Hang on, I've seen people sleeping in subways. That's not just what happened 150 years ago. But the people sleeping in subways now aren't sort-of dead. Are they?' The book does have satirical intent. Whether that will make it hard to publish, I don't know. You can never tell why something is or isn't published.

So - allegory and satire in children's books. Dangerous and insidious? Corrupting and brainwashing? Or encouraging the next generation to examine their socio-political context and think about the issues society expects them to miraculously know about at age 18 when they get their voting card? What do you think?

Thursday, 28 March 2013


I'm rebuilding my website at the moment - you can't visit yet, but I'll post a link when it's done and  here's a sneak preview.

My new website - under construction
It was building Mary Hoffman's new website that prompted me to do this revamp. I've not been very good at updating my website and the reason is that I did it in Dreamweaver and so it's just too much faff. I have to rebuild the pages and then upload them - which doesn't sound too hard, and it isn't, but it means I can only do it on the computer (the downstairs PC) that has Dreamweaver on it. Most of the sites I build for other writers can be updated online. So why not mine?

Well, the reason it hasn't been so far is that I don't like the design limitations. I really didn't want a website that followed the ubiquitous strip-down-the-middle-and-two-side-panels format, the Wordpress/ Blogger/Jimdo bla-bla format. But now I'm being realistic. No more Javascript and graphic text with mouse-over effects. No more different backgrounds on different pages. Goodbye to all that. I'm sure it will be fine. I've found a nice HTML5 web-building site that costs a bit more than the Wordpress-clones but gives me just enough control over design that I can bear it.

And if you haven't seen Mary's new site yet - take a look.

Mary Hoffman's website
Some other writers' websites I've built:
Honour and the Sword (for Louise Berridge)

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Frivolous Gizoogling

I'm updating my website at the moment, and have got a bit sick of writing those little blurby bits about the books - especially as I don't want them to be too earnest and dull. I'm sure this is a commonn problem (if a first-world one) for lots of my writer friends.

So you'll need this:


You can use it to Gizoogle your books on Amazon and then snatch the copy from there.
Here's the Gizoogle version of 50 Amazing Things Kids Need to Know About Maths (or 50 Amazing Things Kidz Need ta Know Bout Maths).

And on the page, there is the perfect blurb for my web page:

"50 Aamzin Things Kidz Need ta Know Bout Maths will muthafuckin help you over yo' maths hurdlez once n' fo' all."


PS - Yo, biatches! Ma new lingo mathz now has cred:

 From MateMaite.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

How to speak publisher: F is for Foreign rights

It's book fair time. Bologna next week, and London next month. Those are the only book fairs I go to, but there are others, of course (and I haven't been to Bologna since they moved it out of the school holidays and so made attending impossible). I'm well aware of the view that authors going to a book fair is like taking pigs for a trip round an abattoir, but I'm not squeamish.Book fairs are not about writers, though. They're about rights. I know, the words sound the same - "I'm off to Bologna to buy some rights"/"I'm off to Bologna to buy some write[r]s". It's easy to see how writers got to think they are somehow involved.

Book fairs are about selling foreign rights. That means: you have sold your book to a publisher in your own country, and now someone is going to sell it to a publisher in another country. Since I'm in the UK, let's assume you've sold your book to a UK publisher, but it works in much the same way anywhere. Now it gets a bit complicated. Your contract might have sold the publisher rights in all languages and formats in the known and unknown universe. Or you might have sold only the UK/English language rights. In the first case, the publisher owns the foreign rights. In the second case, you do. Of course, if you sold the copyright in a flat-fee deal, you don't have the foreign rights even if they were not mentioned in the contract. (Actually, I'm going to start buying up Martian rights. And maybe exoplanetary rights. No one's doing that. And I'll retain those in all future contracts.)

So what are foreign rights? Put simply, the right to sell your book in foreign places. Not sell as in bookshops, but sell as in republish (and then, we hope, sell in bookshops). Obviously, foreign rights often involve translating the book into a foreign language. Not many people in the Ukraine are going to read your book in English, but if you sell Ukranian rights and the book is translated into Ukranian, you might find yourself a lovely new market.

If your publisher handles the foreign rights for your book, your contract will tell you what share you get of any sales. Let's imagine my vampire publisher sells the rights in Vampire Dawn to the Ukraine (I have no idea whether they are planning to - this is just hypothetical. Hello, any Ukranian publishers.) They will seek out, by whatever means, a Ukranian publisher interested in buying in a series of short books about vampires. This is what they do at book fairs. Here we hope either the Ukranians speak good English or they have a good translator, as we don't want them buying what they think is a series of books about short vampires. The publisher says, "OK, you can have the vampires for £20,000." I get a proportion of that money - I can't remember what proportion, but probably about 40%, which would be £8,000. So foreign rights = money for nothing. The author has to do NOTHING to get money for foreign rights. Hooray!

If your publisher doesn't handle the foreign rights, your agent should be selling foreign rights. And that's what they do at book fairs. They look for Ukranians interested in short vampires, or whatever. Now, there's clearly an advantage to retaining the foreign rights, isn't there? If your publisher sells the foreign rights for £20,000 and you get £8,000, there's still £12,000 for the publisher. But if your agent sells foreign rights for £20,000 and you pay the agent 20% + VAT (it's often 20% for foreign), you get about £15,000. Hooray! Foreign rights =  even more money for nothing! Of course, for your agent it's also best if you have retained foreign rights. If they sell your rights to the Ukranian vampire-hunter, they get £3,000. If the publisher sells the rights, the agent gets 15% of your £8,000 (£1,200).

If your publisher doesn't handle foreign rights and you don't have an agent, guess who gets to sell the foreign rights? Yes, you. That's when you might want to go to a book fair with your selling hat on. NOT to interest some random editor in your latest unpublished tale about ponies or flying bunnies or bone-sucking monsters. Editors aren't even there, usually.

I have no experience of selling foreign rights, but here's an encouraging story about a guy who - obviously a selling genius - managed to sell foreign rights to something he calls a spiritual allegory about bees for $40,000. I know, I know - but people buy pot noodles and jumpers for their dogs. There's no accounting for what can be sold. If you sell your own foreign rights, you don't have to pay anyone else anything. So assuming you've tracked down that Ukranian publisher and secured £20,000, you get to keep all of it. You don't even have to pay VAT as it's outside the EU (isn't it? I think it is, but the EU keeps growing). Hooray. Ish. Foreign rights = money for something, which could be considerable effort.

Let's sum up the maths. Look away if you don't like numbers.

We will assume Ukranian rights are sold for £20,000.

Publisher sells rights, your share is 40%
If you have an agent, you get: 40% of £20,000 LESS 20% agent commission + VAT
= £6,080
If you don't have an agent, you get 40% of £20,000
= £ 8,000

Agent sells rights, you pay 20% commission
You get: £20,000 LESS 20% agent commission + VAT
= £15,200

You sell rights
You get: all of it
= £20,000

If, like me, you would rather gouge out your eyes with a plastic spoon than talk to a Ukranian rights buyer, the last option isn't going to happen. But having an agent who handles foreign rights is definitely a good idea - as long as they are good at it. It's not quite the no-brainer it appears to be, though. You need to take account of (a) how likely each potential seller is to sell the rights at all and (b) how much they are likely to get.

Your publisher is trying to sell lots of foreign rights. They can bundle things, do deals that involve more than one author, and give away lollipops (or champagne, or at least prosecco) on their stand. If they are good at selling rights, they might (a) succeed and (b) get a good deal. But they might also be less fussed about your particular books/deal as they have others to work with.

Your agent might or might not have a department for handling foreign rights (that's an advantage of a big agency), or links with agents overseas, or expertise in selling foreign rights. That's something you should look at when choosing an agent. They might stand less or more chance of selling the foreign rights than your publisher.

You, frankly, stand less chance of selling the rights yourself than either a publisher or agent. There are exceptions - you might be a real sales whizz and cut a wonderful deal. Good for you. But imagine you are the rights buyer of Vampire Press (Ukraine) and you can either fix a meeting with Ms Professional Publisher or Ms Top-Shot Agent or Ms Author. You have one slot left in your diary. Which will you go for? Either of the first two. Simply because if either of them shows you a series about short vampires and you don't like it, you can ask what else they have and they will have something else so your slot was not wasted. If you opt for the author and don't like the vampires, all you'll get is a lot of moaning and tears. And no lollipop/prosecco.

As an author, you are also less likely to sell the rights for as much as your publisher or agent could. Imagine thatt you sell the rights for £10,000 - you're still better off than you would be if your publisher sold the rights, but less well off than if your agent sold them. And I know plenty of authors would sell their foreign rights for a mess of pottage (or a lollipop and a glass of prosecco) just because they would be so delighted to have a deal. Don't - all right? Just don't. I'll buy you a lollipop and a glass of prosecco - save your rights.

During the interregnum, or interagentum, after I had left one agent and not signed with my current agent, I let publishers buy all foreign rights. I did this because I had no intention at all of hawking foreign rights around anywhere. I am not a salesperson. I am not good at it, and I can't be bothered. I would rather write another book. Now my secret agent Q is a bit cross about that. I hope I don't have another interagentum, but if I do I'll remember to hold on to foreign rights so that any future agent has something to sell at book fairs. It's a useful thing to consider if you are currently unagented but looking for an agent - if you can offer foreign rights to some successful books along with your current work, that might make you a more appealing prospect. Please, if any agents disagree, say so!

Selling foreign rights in a book already published is one thing. Looking for a co-edition partner is another. (Oh, I should have done co-edition under C. Oops. A co-edition is when the book is published in another language/territory at the same time by a second publisher.) Publishers often need a co-edition deal before they can afford to go ahead with a book, especially if it is in full colour and therefore expensive to produce. And that's where I have to wave and step away from the screen, as three of my potential contracts at the moment are hanging on co-edition deals. I'm off to do samples for the London Book Fair so that foreign publishers flock to sign up and those books go ahead. Any publishers interested in space? philosophy? retellings? Head to LBF, form an orderly queue, I'll tell you the stand numbers later. Lollipops and prosecco will be on offer.