Friday, 22 January 2010

A trouble shared?

I knew a woman on Staten Island who had a knack for finding coins. She, being a devout Catholic, thought it was some kind of telepathy / magnetism thing rather than any mystical ability (and no, she didn't have a metal detector walking-stick). By all accounts, she racked up a tidy sum over the years - in dimes, nickels and pennies.

I've developed a bit of a talent myself, lately. It seems that wherever I submit my books, the first thing the editor says in reply is: 'Have you got any spare money?' Well, it's more subtle than that but the end result is the same. I'm talking about shared cost publishing. I have mixed views at this point; a cocktail of disappointment, hope, cynicism and bewilderment.

On the one hand, I can see that publishing a book is expensive, especially where one of my novels works out to almost 500 pages (I did the maths on Lulu and gave up!). And I'm not blind to the global financial meltdown that's still pooled at our feet like last month's candles. But somehow it feels like I'd be buying someone's endorsement rather than earning it.

The excellent Writers Beware waves from the shore to steer me from the rocks of vanity publishing. I could quote you horror stories aplenty now, of writers who invested their cash only to see poor quality material - or no material at all - and a non-distribution service to match.

Then there is the question of sales. It's one thing to see your work on Amazon but another entirely to generate enough actual sales from the web and shops to get a return on your investment. And let's not forget that you'll likely be selling off your debut work. Something that may have taken a long time to create.

So, what to do? Well, apart from checking with Writers Beware and the Society of Authors, you could try my approach. I ask straightforward questions. They're not difficult - any self-respecting publisher should have them to hand.
They are:
1. Will it be Print on Demand or Print in Advance (conventional printing)?
2. What's the distribution network? i.e. Are you linked in with Gardeners / Atlas so that shops can order the books as well as there being web sales?
3. How do the costs break down - and how much money is involved?
4. What is the break-even point? This is crucial if you aim to recoup your investment and / or turn a profit.
5. Is there a marketing plan for my book? Basically, how do they propose to sell it?
6. What's the success rate with other authors?
7. Can I speak to two or three of those authors?
8. What's the frequency of payment for sales?

I think, if writers approach it as a business proposition, they're less likely to be swayed by other factors that might part them prematurely from their hard-earned cash.

As for me, I remain open to all options, while I wait for three different lists of answers!

http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/


Friday, 15 January 2010

... and relax

It's hard for any novelist to convey the full magnitude of relief and satisfaction when that work-in-progress reaches the final full stop.

It can be a long courtship - you and your novel starting out as strangers, uncertain if that spark of possibility will grow into something more meaningful. Then getting to know them over time, learning about their foibles, going through the 'hot and heavy' stage where you can't get enough of one another. Up all hours together, and when forced apart by circumstance, they're all you can think about. Worrying about the future and yet relishing that delicious sense of uncertainty and adventure.

It can't last of course; that blood rush of passion yields gradually and progressively to a more stable sense form of commitment. It's not all plain sailing though, not by any means. Many a novel is scuppered on the coastline of indifference and misunderstanding. Or else the author is seduced by some other literary turn-on. Or the need to get a job.

But in my case, the first draft of Line of Sight sits before me, in a closed file. It will remain closed for a month then I can return to it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. For now, I've completed the voyage of discovery and I know how the plot lines, major scenes and character arcs fit together, I can concentrate on honing it all into something more readable and more commercially viable. Make no mistake, I never write for an audience of one.

So, with Line of Sight ready for the next phase and a month's shore leave ahead of me, I can go back to the other dozen writing projects, all eagerly jumping up and down in front of me like puppies at a rescue centre. Easy guys, one at a time. I'm not made of ink.


Thursday, 14 January 2010

all change

Someone I know once likened computers to children. They do what they're told, most of the time. They demand your attention when you have better things to do. And you can never truly relax your guard with them. Did I mention that he's divorced now?

In December I decided that waiting 15 minutes - for my PC to boot up, open Word and grant me the privilege of reading my own emails - every morning before commencing the business of writing was not a great start to the day. Take into account the lock-ups, inexplicable errors and slowcoach close down and that all adds up to a fair chunk of unproductive time.

As an occasional Mac laptop user, the obvious choice was either a base unit (not possible with my iBook) or a new - for which, read: reconditioned - Mac. The apple store website has some good deals if you can catch them. It's still early days now, organising the transferred files and discovering that a huge chunk of my emails didn't survive the perilous memory stick journey.

Trawling through the address book that didn't import properly, it's interesting to note just how many old contacts are still there. Many relate to previous projects, publisher and magazine pitches and the occasional networking contact that faded away. It all made me think about the projects that never got off the ground for one reason or another yet still occupy disk space - and headspace. Sadly, there's no purge button on organic memory but it's both useful and therapeutic to do a little data housecleaning every once in a while. If nothing else, you face up to all the stories, articles, plays and plans that never saw daylight.

It's a familiar theme for writers - what is it that we do and what is it that we don't do. The answers can be surprisingly fluid but unless we check in with ourselves ever once in a while, we can waste a lot of planning time, writing time and thinking time on endeavours have have neither our full commitment nor a probable chance of success. And the upside of that is that we focus on the writing that does. I'm thinking of calling it Ocham's Pen.


Thursday, 7 January 2010

Compensation: nil

What's the difference between a writer and a plumber?

Many would say that a writer works more unsocial hours and a plumber is seen as having a more noble profession. But, for me, the main difference is that you wouldn't ask a plumber to work for free.

Writers though, particularly at the start of their journey, are often expected - in print or online - to work for 'compensation: nil' as an opportunity to raise their profile or gain valuable experience and a readership. One could argue that it's now part and parcel of a working apprenticeship, although when I last checked, apprentices were still being paid.

So why does it happen?
1. I think the democratisation of writing is part of the problem. If everyone can write then anyone can write. Which means there will always be someone else out there willing to answer the call for a freebie.
2. Another reason is the ambiguity of the term ‘writer’. It’s a catch-all for a range of skills, experience and qualifications. For starters. There is journalism, copy writing, poetry, novels and comedy writing – these specialisms all have their own requirements and it would be a rare soul indeed who was comfortably proficient in all of them. Okay then, Clive James – I’ll give you that.
3. Another factor is the lack of a standard rate of pay, even for web articles. It really is a buyers’ market and any polite noises towards the existence of a minimum wage will quickly find out opportunity-less.
4. Until they are published – and often afterwards – most writers are fantastically insecure. The very idea that someone is interested in and willing to use our words is music to our ears.
5. The ‘industry’ knows it has us by the gonads because writing is now really sexy with a creative writing course on every street corner.

This is a REAL issue affecting countless writers today. Bad enough that many of us earn less than £10,000 a year from writing alone, we also have to contend with an ocean of upcoming newcomers who have become convinced that working for free is the only way to get a start in the industry.

I’ve done it too. Of course I have. So far my gratis proof-editing, copy writing and comedy material has been limited to friends, non-profit organisations and one or two occasions when I believed I was getting in on the ground level (few of those are still standing). But I can’t help thinking that every time we support a business – where everyone else is being paid – by submitting to the tyranny of ‘compensation: nil’ we are just undermining ourselves, our fellow writers and the future prosperity of writing.

Wait, I hear you shout. What about the print publications and websites that would cease to exist without the input of freebie writers and enthusiasts. It’s a fair point and so is the counter-argument; that if they’re a business and their business model relies on having people (who have their own bills to pay) working for nothing – for any time at all - then it’s little short of scandalous.

So what’s to be done?
I’ve given it some thought and I think we need a union. No subs though, no committee power struggles and a simple manifesto. After a dozen pieces of work, maximum – which are signed off by the client as meeting their needs and supplied to prospective employers on request – all work undertaken thereafter has to at least meet the minimum wage.

Or we could retrain as plumbers.

And to end, let’s hear a few words on the subject from the highly respected and successful writer Harlan Ellison. Check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE


Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Reader, I parried them!


Rejection, as every published author tells us, is part and parcel of the process from the first draft to that magical copy on the book shelf. While rejections can be galling, confounding and sometimes amusing, what matters most is whether there is anything we can learn from them to improve our work or our approach.

Often, we're grateful to get a response at all and doubly delighted if there's actual feedback in there, beyond anything that commences 'Dear Writer'.

So, hot off the coffee table, here is today's rejection in all its glory. With a little added comment from me along the way.

The turnaround time was two months, which is very good. Three months tends to be the industry average but you can often wait much longer. And the covering letter thanks me for a lively manuscript. I have to say that seeing my covering letter marked with 'Slush' made me laugh out loud and didn't stop me reading further. Anyhow, here's the reader's feedback.

Standpoint, Derek Thompson
Manuscript type: Conspiracy theory come spy novel serialisation.
Set: Leeds, London, more perhaps.

Third person narrative the story appears to be told solely from Thomas Bladen's perspective.

It was fast paced and humorous, which worked well with the genre. The opening scene had plenty of action and intrigue. It was an easy read, chapters are short and the tone is light.

Seems like a very weak imitation of Ian Flemming. Though the setting is modern day there are Russians and East End criminals, which seems too reminiscent of the Cold War Era and doesn't appear convincing. The synopsis of the plot also seems a little convoluted. Miranda's character, the daughter of an East End criminal is unbelievable; it too is a bit outdated.

That said the story undoubtedly, with many changes, would have an audience and would be marketable, whether the proposed serialisation would have continued success is questionable. Nor is Standpoint on a par with other books published by us.


Ouch! If I were in a room with the reader, I'd thank them for taking the time to read my work. I might also mention that the Russian is actually Kosovan and that Ian Fleming only had one 'm' in his surname. Still, churlishness aside, there is useful detail in the half page of feedback - about the synopsis and Miranda - along with some positives about the humour and pace. I think if I'd known up front that the publisher's catalogue was already filled into 2011, I wouldn't have submitted Standpoint. But I'm glad I did because if you don't ask, you'll never know.