writing & publishing


And That’s A Wrap

(This isn’t meant to be the whinge it seems like, honest.)

Once upon a time, I could write a book at leisure, with no deadlines in sight, no pressure, no distractions from reviews, no promotion to do. That stage was called being unpublished. I imagined being a writer meant I just had to write and maybe turn up for the odd extravagant lunch and a glass of wine with editors.

No chance. When I’d stopped dancing from my publishing deal, I had to do all of the other stuff, and then some (though I still get plenty of food and wine). I’d come home from my day job, only to start working again, and I do this because it’s simply easier than not writing.

Possibly the only thing I’ll ever miss about being unpublished is the freedom to just write; it’s the properly old-school experience of writers who simply locked themselves in their rooms and stumbled out a few years later clutching a manuscript. You can bet F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t last a month having to do so many blog interviews, the poor lamb.

I never like talking about the art writing – the actual nuts and bolts – because I cringe whenever others talk about it. Sure there are some dos and don’ts (which are often misunderstood) but for the most part you do your own thing; and so far I’ve found that those who talk loudly about sentences quite often know the least. That said, on a more macro level, do learn to enjoy that deadline-free process, because you might never again enjoy the luxury of freedom.

Of course, I should say I wouldn’t swap anything for where I’ve managed to get so far. I’m very lucky and work with fantastic people.

So, this is a rather long way of saying that The Book of Transformations – first draft – has been handed in. I’ve (pretty much) hit the deadline. And I feel like I’ve staggered out from hibernation, blinking whenever I stare at the sun. I’ve got the fourth in the series to start, and the edits will return very shortly once Julie has sharpened her pencil, but for the next week or two I’ve got very little to do. I came home from work and thought, ‘Huh, now what?’ and it feels pretty good.

What do normal people do exactly?


Hidden Influences

I received my first rejection letter from a major publisher when I was 23 years old. I was too wordy, the letter said. I needed more control over my language. So I took that advice on the chin, and I thought to myself: Who is the most restrained writer around Who was someone very good at writing minimalist sentences?

In the end, I decided to learn from Ernest Hemingway. Often out of vogue these days, his legendary status was well-deserved. I don’t want to talk about it here, but such was his impact, a lot of contemporary writers form sentences which are unknowingly influenced by his definitive hard and lean style. (Though his were not always short sentences – one was unashamedly 424 words long.) Anyway, the point being, I became so utterly absorbed in his – and I truly hate to use the phrase – very masculine fiction. There was action, and there were things happening in between sentences, implications. There was much to be found in the absence of words, as much as their inclusion. I became so fascinated in his writing, I’d even copy out pages of his novels onto the computer screen, just to try and see how Hemingway would observe a scene and describe it, to see where such implications lay.

Hemingway’s stories brought treasures from Cuba to Africa to France. They were engaging and thoughtful. I read so many of his books – literally the majority of his output – in one year (back in the days where I could read lots of books in a year). But I also became obsessed with the myth of the writer: here was someone who was an icon for using a typewriter, a personality that extended beyond the page, so much so that reality and fiction became inseparable. Although it’s a desire laced with disappointment, his myth made me want to become a writer – he’s probably influenced others in the same way.

I’d struggle to recall some of his stories now, but I drew a lot from that period. One of the most prominent tricks I gleaned from him was one of his writing techniques: to write a thousand words a day (or whatever word-count you set) but no more – stopping even if it’s mid-scene. That way, the next day you know exactly where to pick up again, denying writer’s block. It’s something that has worked so far.

I learned much about writing scenes and characters in fewer words, but that fewer words is just one way of writing (and a simplistic method that seems to have infected creative writing classes across the World – probably to help those new to the craft). This was before I read authors like Umberto Eco and Lawrence Durrell – where one can see the power of using many words to create an entirely different effect, one not to be ignored.

I tend to have reading love-affairs with authors. When I find an author whose prose I enjoy, I devour much of their output in an intense period. I think Hemingway was my first, but he is probably an influence that least shows in my own work.


Publishing’s Freeze

And I thought I was the one writing about ice ages:

But how much trouble is the British publishing industry really in?

Certainly publishers are frozen. The rate of announced acquisitions in this country has dropped to an extraordinary low over the last year. The US, a market that is five – six (let’s be generous) times our size has deals running at a rate of 25-30 a day; in the UK it is less than one a day.

Traditionally at this point publishers talk about lack of retail outlets, tough market conditions etc.

All no doubt true enough, but when has the market been anything but tough? How about this: there’s an almost total industry wide loss of editorial confidence? UK publishers are deeply unsure about what they should be publishing any more…

The trouble is that sales marketing and publicity only want what’s already popular. Really they’d just like to republish last year’s successful books. In theory publishers hire editors to judge what the trends are going to be two years from now.

That involves making mistakes. The only books that the committee will ever feel entirely happy about acquiring are either by celebrities, brand authors or New York Times bestsellers: books that represent the lowest possible risk and the probable death of British publishing.

That’s from the Bookseller, too. I can’t imagine a more pessimistic outlook for struggling writers, which just goes to hammer home the fact that – first and foremost – you should write because you enjoy the process of writing. I used to think that you should write because you want to be read, too, but I’m never sure how quixotic that is these days.

My other tip – to minimise the chances of being rejected – has always been to get into a bookshop to get a flavour of what editors are looking to buy. I wrote about it a couple of years ago. I know it has the whiff of selling out, but it’s not meant to be – more of a reality check that publishing is a business. Given such a bleak outlook, I think those thoughts still make a great deal of sense.


Tor UK & Alt.Fiction Present: Other Worlds – Saturday 6th November

I’ve just got the itinerary from event organiser, Alex Davis. Should be a pretty good show, this – Tor UK and Alt.Fiction are teaming up, which is a great idea – proper community stuff from a publisher, panels and workshops and open conversations. It’s much more focussed than a convention, and I think it’s aimed at those who want to write, and perhaps at those who don’t normally make it to longer conventions. I’m doing a workshop, and I promise not to mention vegetable gardening or jam making or the environment.

Other Worlds offers panel discussions, giveaways and signings and is an ideal event for both readers and writers of science-fiction and fantasy. Authors appearing include the UK’s best-selling SF author PETER F HAMILTON, Shadows of the Apt writer ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY, rising fantasy star MARK CHARAN NEWTON and author of the Recursion trilogy TONY BALLANTYNE.

Workshop Sessions: Tickets cost £3 each.
11am-12pm Fantasy workshop with Mark Charan Newton
11am-12pm Sci-fi workshop with Tony Ballantyne

These will take place in The Box and the Meeting Room at QUAD.

Other Worlds: Tickets cost £8/£6 concessions
1pm-1:45pm Panel: Other Worlds – The landscape of SF and Fantasy with Peter F Hamilton, Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Tony Ballantyne (Cinema 2)
1:45pm-2pm Break
2pm-2:45pm Science-fiction discussion with Peter F Hamilton and Tony Ballantyne (Cinema 2)
2pm-2:45pm Fantasy discussion with Mark Charan Newton and Adrian Tchaikovsky (The Box)
2:45pm-3pm Break
3pm-4pm Signing with Peter F Hamilton, Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Tony Ballantyne (The Box)

Books available to buy on the day from 12pm.

Derby Quad, Market Place, Derby.
Saturday 6th November. The Workshops (£3) are from 11am-12pm, and the main event (£8/6) is 1pm-4pm
Tickets from QUAD box office on 01332 290606 or at www.derbyquad.co.uk


Old Bloggers’ Retirement Home

Pat’s debating giving up SFF blogging:

After 6 years, a couple of millions of visitors from over 100 countries, 263 book reviews and counting, many fun and interesting interviews, and countless giveaways and related SFF material, maybe it’s time to hang ’em up. . .

It would be sad to see Pat’s blog end. I paid close attention to the blogosphere over the years, from my days setting up Solaris. I’ve seen so many reviewers come and go. Back then, it was easy to see the potential. We were a smallish publisher who relied upon people power, since we couldn’t afford massive marketing campaigns or to spend thousands of pounds on advertising. Without getting too quixotic, I liked to think of blogging as a bit of a grassroots literary community. It was about a few people who loved the genre and loved talking about it, who did not have an agenda. More importantly, it was not influenced by publishers – they were busy courting print reviewers. At Solaris then, we wanted to be part of that debate. We happened to be fans in a good place – fans in charge of an imprint. There existed a mere handful of bloggers, not many more. As editors, we got to talk to most of them, got to know them a little too. To chat about books with others was a wonderful job.

The difference these days? As I said on Twitter:

I think the difference in book blogging is that 4 years ago publishers ignored you. Now they realise you can make them money.

Whether you like it or not, bloggers, all publishers now want to make money from you. Whenever you mention their books, there is a chance they will sell more copies. While for the most part publishers love being in the community and probably would anyway (don’t forget, many are geeks too), it’s also ridiculously simple to see the awkward corporations blunder about to focus debate in their court (they’re the ones that use terms like “networking” and “building communities”). They started to realise this potential only a couple of years ago, and who can blame them for trying to get you on their side? Their business depends upon it. Margins are tight. Supermarkets are screwing them for discount. Life is tough on the frontline. So free books started being sent out to bloggers – to this new reviewing middle-class, in order to monopolise word-of-mouth publicity. And more people realised they could join the debate and start their own blog. Some did it for the free stuff, and they kind of fell away quickly because they couldn’t keep up with the sheer volume of demand from publishers.

Why I am waffling on like an old man? I don’t know. Twitter was abuzz last night with people commenting that the community wasn’t what it used to be, and that there was a growing distance, even growing rudeness. Also, people seem to find it increasingly difficult to find things to talk about, and I understand that.

Some random thoughts on those points:

1) You are not a slave to your blog. If you want to talk about other things, then that is perfectly fine. I’ve had stacks of people contact me in one way or another to say they’re glad I talk about other stuff – politics or the environment. There’s a whole world out there, and if you ignore it constantly then you’ll become tired of blogging. Also, it’s a helpful reality check. We do quite often blog in a bubble.

2) Don’t worry about hits. When you start worrying about hits, you’re not doing it for the love of reading. You’re doing it for the attention, and these days, you’ll likely be disappointed – because there is more white noise out there than ever before. You will possibly never achieve the level of hits Pat achieved – because he got there early and maintained it solidly for years.

I suspect the blogosphere is having another growth spurt. Soon it’ll settle down again, and cliques and niches will form naturally, but I’m afraid it still won’t be that cosy little place of a few years back.


Interview With Tim Waterstone

This is a very interesting and surprisingly open interview with the man who created the biggest UK bookchain, Waterstone’s.

“I became increasingly frustrated – frankly pissed off – with the way it was being run. I was chairman of HMV and was watching my own baby being absolutely murdered. And it was so stupid because the book market was just growing and growing, and people coming in from Tesco or Asda or Boots seemed to think their job was to get Waterstone’s away from books, and move it towards multimedia or something. It was very hard for the people who worked in the stores, who I’d known for years – great, terrific people, wonderful people.”

If anyone wants an insight into how publishing operates at the frontline, they should read this.

It was interesting when they acquired Ottakar’s and turned a successful book chain into a more troubled chain, have more recently decided that the Ottakar’s philosophy was the way to go after all, and that booksellers should have more of an influence in what gets sold at a local level. Because they know their stuff and it’s good for everyone.

Yes, I did once work for Ottakar’s, so perhaps I’m biased.


Blair Cancels Book Signing

As reported in the Bookseller, Tony Blair has cancelled his latest book signing due to the threat of protests, such as those in Dublin last week:

“I have decided not to go ahead with the signing as I don’t want the public to be inconvenienced by the inevitable hassle caused by protestors. I know the Metropolitan Police would, as ever, have done a superb job in managing any disruption but I do not wish to impose an extra strain on police resources, simply for a book signing.”

Aw, the poor lamb. What a brave gesture. A strain on resources, you say? A hassle? Even a disruption? That’s awfully altruistic of you, Mr. Blair.

Still, if anyone fancy’s reading his memoirs, they might need to search more creatively:

“But a Facebook page was today inundated with pictures of the former prime minister’s book in odd places after thousands joined a group entitled “Subversively move Tony Blair’s memoirs to the crime section in bookshops“.

The Facebook page – which had more than 5,000 members by mid-afternoon – urges them to ‘make bookshops think twice about where they categorise our generations [sic] greatest war criminal’.”


Novel Advertising

From the Wall Street Journal:

With e-reader prices dropping like a stone and major tech players jumping into the book retail business, what room is left for publishers’ profits? The surprising answer: ads. They’re coming soon to a book near you.

I’m not giving Rupert Murdoch any more money, so I’m not paying to see the rest of the article; but I’ve a good idea what it may be talking about, and the concept is enough for a good debate.

Publishers have for decades advertised other novels in the backs of books. If you pick up any book, there is a good chance that the publisher has given a blurb for other works by that particular author, or a plug to visit their own website to see more. Even in some SFF novels, there have been ad swaps (I presume they’re swaps) with genre magazines. Also, it’s been a recent phenomenon for product placement within the text itself.

But what about advertising other items in the backs of books? If advertising is kept relevant, as it tends to be on television, we might find all sorts of clichés popping up: chick lit with dodgy wine advertised in the back. Political thrillers with MANLY razor blades.

Of course, the thing to bear in mind is – just how many novels the average author sells. Here’s a clue: not many. Not many companies will want spend money advertising their product in a book that sells only a couple of thousand copies. The genre of literary fiction doesn’t stand a chance. This sort of thing can only really be of use for the very commercial end of the publishing spectrum.

Would any of this interrupt the reader experience? I’m not so sure anyone cares to be honest. Unless ads are slap bang in the middle – right in between chapters, perhaps – then I doubt it will bother people, though with e-books I can see that being something that will happen. In my grouchier moments, I’d say good on publishers if they do consider this – with supermarkets and online retailers squeezing every last penny out of them, every little helps them stay in business; although I can’t see this being a huge revenue generator for the most part.


If You Build It…

First, my next Amazon.com post is online, where I talk about the similarities of mystery and fantasy fiction. Feel free to jump in with your thoughts.

Now to business. I thought I’d share the graph of my web stats, month by month over the last couples of years.

Pretty cool, isn’t it? Yes I’ve covered up the numbers, because I was questioning the etiquette. (If you do want to know, drop me a line.) The spike in December was the infamous Death of SF period. The leap in hits for this month is, I’m guessing, because of the US debut, combined with the UK mass market release, and everything reaching a critical mass.

The point is, given that authors are told to get out there and publicise themselves, you can go from nowhere to somewhere, just by sitting at your computer. I’ve been on a few panels talking about social media and all that nonsense, where people come for advice on this subject, but there’s no secret really. It’s like a relationship, and like in any good relationship, you should not look to see what you can get out of it yourself (I must blog to get sales! Uh, no), but you should look to nurture it for the sake of enjoyment – which means you must put in effort.

And before someone says, “But look, you are doing all this to sell books!” – well, if I didn’t want to sell books, I wouldn’t write them in the first place. Writers all have egos, let’s not deny it. We all want to be read – there’s nothing malicious about it. Blogging is not a direct way to sell books, and should never be looked at in such a way. It’s about a chance to connect to the community, and also it’s about the author brand, which I’ll mention later.

Making the assumption that, as a writer, you aren’t going to inherit a five-figure marketing budget to heavily promote your work across all media (welcome to the real world), here are the basic things I’d suggest to get nice, upward-sloping lines:

1) Blog regularly. I’m talking at least three times a week. We no longer live in the age of news items, but constant updates. It’s not rocket science – how many times are we ourselves put off by seeing graveyard blogs, updated once every two or three months? Exactly. It stinks. And that’s what people will think of you.

2) Put dark text on a white background so people can actually read what you’re writing about. The more readers are forced to squint to understand what your point is, the less they’ll want to come back.

3) Be yourself, so long as “yourself” is something vaguely interesting. Do I care how many words you typed today? Nope. Unless you’re George R. R. Martin, a few million others won’t care either. With all this white noise online, readers will need a reason to keep coming back. Your daily word count, or your grocery list, is not a reason to return. And “interesting” doesn’t have to be much: your thoughts, a video, a muse, something you saw, a funny anecdote about your editor, whatever. Just keep number 1 in mind.

That’s pretty much it. Simples. You can do other stuff of course – and for that, I’d recommend visiting Mr Edelman – but I’ve not consciously gone out to market myself. I’ve just set up a digital soapbox. Sure, you’ll get a few haters, but that will happen simply because you’re out there. It’s amazing how people can secretly be enraged behind their monitors, since it lacks the human touch.

It’s all about the author brand. My general observation is that – online at least – writers are viewed in the same way as brands (or music artists or sports teams – you get the idea). We might not like that situation, but it’s my gut instinct on how writers are perceived online. Or if you don’t like to think that, would style be a more applicable word? To authors who want to take advantage of the opportunities of the internet, you might need to think of yourself in the same way. Blogging is another way you can control your brand or style, outside of your writing. People might choose to listen to what you’ve got to say because they enjoy your blog style.

And luckily, authors also have books with which to build a brand – what you represent as an author with a particular style or niche of writing – but as I say, without a massive marketing budget or a commercial cover, there’s no guarantee your work will miraculously fall in the hands of readers overnight – it could take years.

So to deliberately misquote Field of Dreams, as the graph shows: If you build it [and maintain it properly], they will come.


Writing, Time, Age

Some random thoughts on writing and age. But first, you’re never too old to get a book deal:

An 82-year-old grandmother is celebrating after landing a book deal for her debut novel… Myrrha Stanford-Smith, a teacher and theatre director, said she was ”gobsmacked” to be handed the three-book agreement, which saw her first work The Great Lie start appearing on shelves last week.

The trained actress, who lives in Holyhead, North Wales, has always held a passion for creative writing.She decided to see if her talent could really take off after receiving positive feedback on a short children’s story she sent in to BBC Radio Wales last summer. The Brighton-born writer secured herself a deal with publisher Honno, for a trilogy based around her swashbuckling Elizabethan hero Nick Talbot. The adventure reignites, in fictional form, the rivalry between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

Perhaps it bypasses the perennial Amis riff on Ishiguruo, where “a writer’s best work is produced in their youth”, to have one’s first work published at a later stage in life.

I like to think that many writers produce their best work at an older age. DeLillo’s Underworld being an exceptional example of this – almost a thematic culmination (or perhaps this is in Point Omega). I love seeing a body of work that, over the years, spirals inward towards a writer’s set of inner truths. Then again, it goes the other way, and the same old rubbish might drift around like flotsam.

I like to think that, for the most part, we live in a fairly apologetic literary culture – debuts are bound to be rough, many say, because writing is something that improves with practice; possibly – hopefully – leading eventually towards some kind of edification later in a writer’s career. (I’ve mentioned before about people attacking young writers merely for being young, but this is a different thing entirely.) Reviewers generally forgive the problems of debuts, and that’s something I’m glad about.

So aging allows us deeper contemplation; we have better perspective, more experiences, even – and more time to think about those experiences – and one would hope that reflects in writing. Then again, there’s something to be said for the youthful energies of a debut, that keeness to get across a set of different ideas or style. To be recognised. As an aside: can ideas improve with practice? Perhaps, to an extent, we become better at explaining them.

And we as a community also seem so enthusiastic about the Next Big Thing, keen to see what’s new on the horizon, which freshly minted name we can attach ourselves to, though that may say more about the internet than literature. Though it should be said that literary careers are generally slow growers, books resist being produced quickly, to the internet’s rate of change, and will likely therefore resist such demands.

I wonder which of the current crop of genre writers will improve with age and still be around in fifty years? Personally, I’m investing in a course of yoga, cod liver oil capsules, and immense amounts of luck to ensure I’ll still be here annoying you all in decades to come.