Saturday 22 August 2015

Information wants to be free? It is already

 There are many people in the anti-copyright brigade who claim that information wants to be free, that the sum total of human knowledge is our joint heritage and that this is not compatible with copyright law and other regulations that restrict intellectual property.

A lot of things are covered by IPR. What I am not dealing with here is original research that discovers information that is commercially valuable - how to make a particular new plastic, for example. That's a different part of the debate. And I'm not talking about fiction, which might or might not be considered to be information. I'm talking here about the people who like to defend ending or vastly reducing copyright in books because 'information should be free'.

Information IS free. That's what wikipedia is for. Many, probably most, of the facts in my books are - I am fairly confident - available on Wikipedia. Not because I took them from Wikipedia, but because most things end up there sooner or later. You might have to go through a very large number of pages to find everyone of the facts that I have included in a particular book, and it will take a long time, but they should be there somewhere. So someone having to pay for my book about - say - gravity or spies or evoution or demons does not mean that information is not available. The work I have done on collecting and collating and connecting, on expressing and explaining is NOT free, and there is no reason why it should be. People who have freely given their time to write and correct Wikipedia (myself included) are giving you information. You don't need to steal it.

Let's take a step back. Assume I want to know about asteroids. There is lots of information about asteroids available on the NASA website and it's likely to be reliable. I can use this information - it's free - to write a children's book about asteroids. Why would a child read my book rather than look on the NASA website? Because I have selected the most interesting and relevant (for the child) information and presented it in a way that a child reader can understand. I have avoided unnecessary long words and complicated sentences. I have worked with an editor and picture researcher to find suitable images and diagrams that make the information easy for a child to understand and exciting to read.

I am not claiming to have studied lots of asteroids or to have collected data in space. Those are not my areas of expertise. The people who have collected that information have been paid for their work. My area of expertise is finding and presenting information in an appropriately accessible way for my readers. It's a type of work I expect to be paid for. And why not? I do it for 35-40 hours a week, just like people do other jobs, and I have spent many years learning and practising my trade.

If books are stolen by people who think information should be free, publishers won't commission more books. Then everyone will have to read through Wikipedia - plus a gazillion other websites, books and academic journals to find the information that goes into a book such as Evolution. So by all means take the information that is freely available online and through libraries, but if you want the particular expression, presentation, layout, combination and selection that makes a book more than information, please pay for it.

Saturday 4 April 2015

"I've been looking at your website..."

Do authors need websites? It's a question often asked. The answer, predictably, is 'it depends', though I'd tend toward 'Yes'. New authors are sometimes told by their publishers to get a website. Personally, I think this is a bit presumptuous. If a publisher wants you to have a website, they should pay for one. If they are going to give you a small advance, they can't then demand you spend it on promotion, which is their job. But see my later point about why it's better to have your own website than a page on your publisher's website.

Let's start at the beginning. Not all writers write the same kinds of things. I'm on the committee of the Educational Writers Group (EWG) of the Society of Authors and when I asked a group of educational writers a few months ago how many had a website, only half did. I was stunned. When I've asked that of a group of children's writers, they all - or pretty much all - have websites. The EWG people tend to fall into three groups (though I'm trying to extend it!)  - they either write in the English-as-a-foreign/second-language market (EFL or ESL), or they write test/exam papers and textbooks, or they write children's non-fiction (of any type) and schools fiction (reading schemes and so on). The first two don't generally have a website. They work for the same publishers again and again, their readers don't know their names, and they don't see a need for a website. I'd argue that there could still be a benefit, but if they are getting enough work, then why bother?

On the other hand, there are many writers who do/should have a website. Probably most. Why? What's the point? This is where it all depends. Ask yourself the following questions and answer honestly.

1. How many books have you published?
  • zero
  • one or two
  • several
  • many
If you haven't published any books, what are you going to put on your website? Think carefully about that. A website needs content.You can talk about yourself and the book(s) you are writing, and what drew you to those topics/stories, but don't assume an air of authority about publishing and writing (though you can about an area of specialist knowledge) and don't say anything that you won't want future readers, editors, agents, teachers, librarians or parents to read. In particular, never ever slag off publishers or agents who have rejected you.

One or two books published and you're off to a good start. You can talk about those. You can talk about how you got to be a writer, what else you do, whether you do events (though frankly I'm not a fan of talking as though you're an old hand when you've published one book - but it's up to you). You can talk about your life and your next book, but be wary of saying too much if the book is not finished (and accepted).

Several is the best position to be in. You have books you can talk about, but not so many your website loses all sense of shape because there are too many. You can probably pick out some key themes or series or topics. You should be able to make a nice website out of this, with plenty of emphasis on the books and only as much extra material (about events, school visits, yourself, other interests) as you want to include - you won't be scratching around for stuff to fill the pages.

Many is not as tricky as too few, but it has its own problems. Your website is in danger of being obese and sluggardly. Do you really want to list and describe every book? Even those that have been out of print for years? Who's going to read that? If you are going to include them all, you need to develop a clear structure so that people can find what they want, and get an overview of your work - two different things. Look at the structure of publishers' catalogues. They don't give loads of detail about every book on the backlist. It might be time to let some go. There are books of mine I have mentally pulped. They get a mention, at best, but no big shout.

2. Who will look for you online?
Be brutally honest. No one? Your ex and your neighbours? Schools? Publishers and agents? Your readers? Readers' parents? People who thought you were someone else? People who have just met you or are going to meet you (at a meeting/conference/date)? Other writers?

This is a really important question as it should determine what you put on your website and how you present it (which is not really covered in this post, but I might write about it later).

You really don't need to cater to your ex and your neighbours. They might look and they might not - who cares? Except they will care if you slag them off - 'The evil car-park attendant in this story is modelled on my next-door neighbour.' Don't.

Schools (ie teachers, librarians) will look if you do school visits, or if they think you might do school visits. They might look if they are using some of your books and want to see what else you have written. They might look to see if there is any extra material they could use, such as worksheets to support your books, or ideas for activities they could do using them.

Publishers and agents will quite likely look if you submit to them (and your stuff is any good; they won't look if they have no intention of following up). It will give them an idea of what you are like, whether you behave professionally, and what else you have published. For this reason, a prominent page of your website might not be the place to foreground the problems in your life. Harsh but true - unless it is relevant to the subject of your books. If you are writing about depression/cancer/caring for an aged relative, it's good material for your website. If not, it might lead a publisher to wonder whether you will be able to meet deadlines. Your call - but bear it in mind.

Your existing readers might look at your website. Someone who has seen one of your books and wondered about buying it, or has had a book recommended to them, might take a look. Readers and potential readers want different things. See below.

Readers' parents and other gatekeepers might look from a potential-reader or reader point of view, or they might be checking that you are not an obviously evil influence. Still, if they want to decide you are an evil influence, they will do so regardless of what is on your website. (This is from a review of one of my books on Barnes and Noble: "One quick look at the authors' [sic] website and you will know exactly the type of values, and her MISSION to "educate" children." - I'm an evil influence, you know. But my website doesn't mention a MISSION or use the word "educate".)

People who thought you were someone else will probably be disappointed, but if your website is super-exciting, they might stay. But probably not. They're busy people. Unless, of course, your name is Kitten Video.

People who have just met you will look out of curiosity, and the kind of curiosity will depend on who they are and where you met. If they are a publisher/agent they fall into a category above. If they are someone you met at dinner, or a  party, or on a train, they will probably just want to see what sort of books you write. Someone who is expecting to meet you at a meeting or conference might want to be prepared (to introduce your talk, for instance) or want to look as though they are familiar with your books. If you are going on a date with them - well, this is one of the problems of a public profile. They are going to know a lot more about you than you know about them. The best solution is only to go on dates with people who are equally famous. And make sure you have read their website, too.

Other writers will be curious and look you up to see what you do. They might buy your books - writers buy or borrow a lot of books (well, good writers do). If you have helpful information for other writers, put it in one place so that it doesn't put off people who aren't writers. One nice thing you can do is put links to the website of other writers whose books might appeal to your readers - it will please readers and writers (but possibly not your publishers). That depends on whether you think of other writers as competition. I tend to think that people will buy more books if they find more books they like, not that they will buy one book instead of another, unless they are very obviously in direct competition - two books that are about the top ten biggest whales, for example.

3. Why will people look at your website?
Just as important as who will look is why they are looking. It is quite possibly not why you hope/think they are looking (on which, see below).

They might want to:
  • find out a particular piece of information, such as whether you do school visits or live in Bristol
  • find out what kind of books you have written
  • buy a book you have written
  • look for other books, if they have read and enjoyed one
  • find out how to get in touch with you
  • find out more about you generally.
It is pretty obvious that you should make it easy for people to find what they want. Otherwise they will be frustrated, and having a website will have done you more harm than good. Put yourself in the shoes of each potential visitor. A school will want to know what type of events you do and how much you charge. An existing reader will want to know more about the book they have read and see what else you have written. A potential reader will want information about your books, but without spoilers. A publisher or agent will want an overview of your professional path and aims, as well as a good idea of the type of books you have published (and who for). Publishers and schools might want to get in touch with you. (An email contact form is the best way to handle this.)

4. Why do you want people to look at your website?
Think about your aims. Why are you going to the trouble of making a website? It can be any or all of the following, or something else. The important thing is to determine what you want from the website. Getting it is another matter, but at least make it possible for your website to do what you want. You could very broadly divide the intentions of a writer's website as selfish or generous. Do you want something from other people (book sales, school visits)? Or do you want to give to other people (information, entertainment, freebies)? It can do both, but most have a bias one way or the other.

Many writers hope a website will sell books. That's probably what their publishers hope, too. If you are self-published, this will be an important part of what your website is for, and that's really outside my realm of expertise, so go and ask someone else for advice. If your books are published by mainstream publishers, you might:
  • sell books directly through your website
  • link to your publisher's website
  • link to a bookseller, such as the ubiquitous Amazon or a real-world chain (such as Waterstone's) or a network of independents
  • not link at all. 
You might think the last is stupid, but it's what I've chosen. I reckon people know how to order a book online, and I can't be bothered with creating all the links. If you have published fewer books, your enthusiasm for making links might be undulled. Good for you.

Some writers hope their website will sell them, either to schools or other organisations to do visits or events, or to publishers who might commission them. If your primary aim is to sell visits and events, they must be prominent, but remember that people only want you to appear because you are a writer, so it's important not to let that aspect slip out of view.

A website that gives might well attract more visits. If that is your intention, giving something - information, a good laugh, free stories or worksheets - might appeal to you. But make sure the material is good quality and - if it's downloadable - compatible with systems your visitors will have.

5. Why do you visit websites?
The visitors to your website will be human beings. You are a human being. Use that to your advantage to gain insight into your visitors. Think about what you want from a website and how your website might satsify those requirements in someone else. Do you ever go to a website thinking, 'I hope it will be full of shouty endorsements for a product and lots of chances to buy things'? Probably not, unless you are actually going to a retail site. Do you go to a website thinking, 'I hope it will be really hard to find what I'm looking for'? Unlikely, unless you are writing a guide to web development and need some examples of bad design.

Do you really have to?
No, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. You are not an employee. If you really don't want a website, don't have one. We are all allowed to make choices, even stupid choices. It's the prerogative of grown-ups. If your publisher is desperate for you to have a web presence, they will build you one, or put a page on their website. This, in their view, is better than nothing. But really think about it. If you have your own website, you are in control of how you are presented. Your publisher won't mention books you have written for other publishers, or anything you have self-published, and they probably won't mention school visits or how to contact you. You won't have the chance to build a web persona - all they want you to have is a profile. A profile is flat, it's a view from one side, it's an outline. You can have more than that. You can have a personality. If you want.

We're not finished with this yet. There will be more. But this is long enough for now...

Monday 23 February 2015

Dear Editors...

Most of you are very lovely and a joy to work with. Some of you have also become valued friends. Some of you - while still lovely - are rather young or inexperienced. Which is fine - everyone has to learn their job before they are good at it.This is not a stroppy post at all. This, I hope, is a helpful post for new, young editors.

Firstly, as an author, I am very pleased to welcome new editors into the publishing world. The more editors the better. We need you. And, sadly, editors get older and retire and we don't want any gaps in the supply. I hope you will enjoy working in publishing and that we will become friends.

No doubt when you took your new job someone in-house told you all their procedures, and how to work the coffee machine and all that. I doubt anyone told you how to deal with authors, though, and we have more buttons than the average coffee machine. So here is a little guide to working smoothly with authors.

Five steps to a good relationship with your authors

1. Authors are people, too
We have families, friends, domestic commitments, lawns to mow, supermarkets to visit and existential crises to fit in. Please assume that we work around 35-40 hours a week and those hours are not all overnight or over the weekend at the time of your latest crisis. Do not send work late on Friday that you want back on Monday. If we choose to work weekends, that's our business. In exceptional circumstances - and that doesn't mean when the in-house people have taken too long to turn things around and eaten into the schedule - you may politely ask us to work over a weekend if you already have a good relationship with us, have not made the same request already in the previous 12 months, and as long as you will be polite if we say 'no.'

2. Authors need to eat
We don't write these books for fun. Or not only, or always. We need to earn a decent living. Let's do some maths.

Say you pay an author £1500 advance or flat fee. How long do you think the author can afford to spend on your book?

Let's assume an experienced author with years of expertise would like to earn £35,000 a year. That's not unreasaonable, is it? That's not very much for the expertise the author brings to the job. A senior author should not be paid less than a senior editor - they are comparable jobs.

So imagine an author works for 5 days a week, 46 weeks of the year (four weeks' holiday and 10 bank holidays; no time off sick). In general, 20% of an author's time is not productive in that it doesn't directly earn money. It is time spent chasing the invoices publishers haven't paid, reading and arguing about contracts, writing outlines for books that don't go ahead, attending meetings, computer admin, going to and from places for research or other purposes, ordering stuff, buying stamps, doing tax returns, picking up books from libraries and bookshops, fixing the network, fixing the printer, calling the ISP when the internet doesn't work for three days in a row, and all the other things that are magically done by someone else in your office. So we need to earn about £27 an hour to make £35,000 turnover, not profit.

My expenses during a year are in the region of £5,000. So I need, let's say, £40,000 turnover. This comes to £31 an hour. Call it £30 to make the maths easier. Your £1500 buys you 50 hours. OK? If you want a 48-page book, you're looking at just over an hour a page. And that includes the hours spent writing the outline, answering emails, talking on the phone, writing a picture list, dealing with editorial queries, checking layouts, suggesting replacement pictures when the ones chosen are inappropriate or the ones we wanted are not available or too expensive, checking the layouts (twice). Oh, and writing the text.

3. We have the same number of hours in the day as you do
This is related to point (1). Try to remember this when you send a request for a book outline that you want in three days' time, especially if two of the days are Saturday and Sunday. For a book of less than 30,000 words, the outline is most of the work. That's when we have to feel the shape of the project, set the parameters for the book, do most of the research, divide the material (that we are not wholly familiar with yet) into workable chapters or spreads, find out what could be used to illustrate it, search for artwork reference, and persuade you we know what we're doing. Do you really think that is going to fit into three days? Especially as we will also be answering emails from other publishers, checking layouts of the last project - and quite often answering queries from you, too. Plus sleeping, eating, getting dressed (optional), going to Waitrose and dealing with other people in our lives.

3.5 and the same number of days in a month
You go on holiday sometimes and leave an auto-response email saying you are away. Sometimes (rarely) authors like to go on holiday, too. We try to give you good warning so that you can build it into your schedule. If your schedule slips, we will still be on holiday. We will not cancel our holidays to do the work. We will not take it with us - or we might if you pay a lot extra. I have done that once. It was an extra £770 to check colour layouts on holiday. Just so that you know.

If your schedule slips (your end) it is NOT our fault and NOT our responsibility to make up the lost time, though we will try to help you with that. If we have booked out time - following a schedule you wrote - to do your work and it doesn't turn up, that is wasted time when we earn nothing. We can't push other publishers' projects out of the way to pick up yours when it comes back, all late and urgent. You won't have thought of this, because if the designer doesn't send the book back to you on time, you will still be paid to sit at your editorial desk. We have to suffer a week or two unpaid because of those cock-ups. We can't just magic work out of the air, and no one pays us extra because the work didn't come back on time.

Further - if we said we could do something in two weeks, that was because we had set aside time in those two weeks to do something. It doesn't follow that we can do it in two weeks if you send it at a different time, because we will have other work then - or maybe we will have gone on holiday for a fortnight. Letting your schedule slip a week means it might take us four weeks to do the work, alongside our other commitments. And the less you are paying, the less likely we are to prise our schedules apart to make a crack to fit in your late project. So don't pay £1000 for a book and then say, 'It took ages for the designer to do this, so can you just turn it around for tomorrow, please?' Because the answer is often 'No, sorry.' We will always try to help - but you can't rely on us being able to. There was a schedule to help everyone plan their time, including us.

4. We are proud of these books and want them to be good
We like this job or we wouldn't do it. After all - we'd hardly do it for the money, would we? To you, this book is one of many that you are struggling to get finished, or off your desk for a while. For us, it represents a piece of us, and it will go out into the world with our name on it, and will represent us to readers and to other publishers. So we will put in more effort than you are paying for.

Please do not introduce random errors because you can't be bothered to check something. Don't think of extra things to put in - there is usually a good reason that thing you just thought of is not in there. By all means make suggestions: we welcome suggestions, and sometimes we did just overlook or not know something. But please don't make changes without telling us. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and we check everything carefully. So you found a nice snippet on Reddit you thought would fit in that book about Nostradamus? I read Nostradamus in the original, and that 'quote' is not in there. If you want to make changes, give us the chance to check them. We won't always just spot them when you send the layouts - we don't remember every word we wrote, and our minds have moved on to a different book in the weeks it has taken for the book to go through design. And don't introduce grammatical errors. The proofreader should pick them up, but it doesn't look very professional and it's very annoying.

5. We are proud of these books and want to see them
Don't forget to send our contractual copies of the books when they are published. This is what we have to show for our work: a shelf of books. There is no excuse at all for not sending the pitiful number of copies you are contracted to give us. We need them. Not just to gloat over, but to show other publishers at meetings what we can do. Don't imagine we are going to accept that it was an unusual oversight that you didn't have them sent out. Unusual oversights like that happen with about half the books we write. You are not special in your discourtesy. You know what [some] novel-writers get? A note of thanks and some flowers when their book comes out. We usually discover they have come out because the publisher advertises the book on twitter, or we notice the publication date posted on Amazon has passed. Do you really think that is a polite way to treat the person who put more work into the book than anyone else?

Oh - and please also tell us when new editions come out. This is not just a pride thing, and we won't hassle you to send a copy (though it would be nice if you did, especially if it says in the contract that you will) - we need to register all editions in order to get our payments from PLR. This is not money you have to pay. It's money we are entitled to and you prevent us getting (but can't get yourselves) if you don't tell us the book has come out with a different ISBN. So please tell us.

That's it
That will do for now. There are other things you can do, but if you could do these five it would be a great start. It would make working with you even more of a pleasure. And you will learn, as you ease into the job, that good writers are easy to work with. That you need good writers on your list of contacts. That when you are promoted, or move to a different publishing house, you will need people to commission, people you know can write, know can follow a brief, know will deliver on time. And you don't want to have pissed us off, because we do turn commissions down. We turn them down if the book is ill-conceived (or just not interesting), if the schedule is too tight, the fee/advance too low or the editor impossible to work with. Don't be that editor.

Enjoy your career. We look forward to working with you again, many times, in your many different publishing houses over the coming years. And let's meet for a drink at the London Book Fair.

[This post was not prompted by any recent experience with any specific editor. Please, lovely editors, don't try to work out if it's you - it isn't.]

Saturday 14 February 2015

The flipside of PLR: the books people don't want to buy

The media have just started their annual assessment of what can be learned from the library loans (PLR) statistics. The answer is - not entirely what they think can be learned. Someone needs to teach these journos about statistics. An article in the Guardian, for example, claims that fiction totally dominates borrowing because  most of the top 100 most-borrowed titles are novels. That doesn't follow. Bestsellers are less of a thing in non-fiction. There could be more non-fiction loans in total than fiction loans, but just spread over far more books so that few make the top 100. Indeed their table of 'loans by genre' puts fiction in second place (largely because they didn't include children's fiction, probably - but no matter).

But that aside - PLR figures tell you which books people borrow. Or, looked at another way, they tell you which books people don't buy. The Guardian is surprised that the only cookery book in the top 100 is Jamie Oliver's book on cooking for cheap (laughable, really, as his view of cheap is not everyone else's). That's not at all surprising. On the whole, you want to have a cookery book in the house so that you can use it again and again over a period of years, not borrow it for a couple of weeks. Cooking for cheap (whatever it's called) is an exception, and  is presumably borrowed because the book is so expensive that people who want cheap food can't afford it. (£26! WTF?)

The books people borrow from the library are those they can't afford to buy or don't want to buy. Some people can't afford any books (or think they can't - some just have different priorities) and so borrow anything they read. Then there are people, including me, who will borrow books that are very expensive and which they don't expect to use repeatedly. I do occasionally buy books that cost over £30 but I try not to.

Children's books are heavily borrowed. This is good, of course, as the children get to read the books. But it also indicates that people are unwilling to buy books for their children. Fine, many kids get through books at a rate of knots and it's too expensive to keep up with them. But that's not all that's going on. There is a perception of value related to book length. Picture books in particular are heavily borrowed - often because people think it's 'not worth' paying £5 or more for a book that's only a few pages long and has few words. I won't even go there. I've read the 19 words of  Duck is Dirty about 200 times in the last fortnight. And will read them again and again and again over the coming months. Plus all the times I read them 23 years ago, and 19 years ago. That was money well spent. Looking at my own PLR figures, I get way, way more PLR on very short illustrated children's fiction than on anything else.

What else don't people want to buy? Blockbuster/bestseller novels they would read once and give to the charity shop - hence Dan Brown being top of the 'not bought' chart. Obviously lots of people do buy these books - that's why they are bestsellers. But if I ever felt the need to read a Dan Brown novel, which I can't see happening, I would be quite likely to borrow it from the library and leave my book-buying budget for books I will value more and want to own.

Anyway, the cheque should come soon, so I shall be happy enough to benefit from people not wanting to buy my books. I hope those who don't get very much PLR are comforted by the thought that there are not many people who don't want to buy their books.

Why use the web when you can use a book?

Evolution, Hachette, 2014

Over on ABBA, a quick summary of my talk to the Hampshire school librarians on defending books to pupils and teachers keen to turn to the web.