Tag Archives: publishing

Creativity without gatekeepers

When I was young, I imagined that publishers and record labels and people picking content for TV, and taking on film scripts all had one basic agenda – that they wanted to put the best things out there. In reality, the bigger a company is, the less likely this is to be true. What creative industries want are sure fire hits that will sell a lot of copies. This means that they are all incredibly risk averse. Things that are easy to market because they look like things that were already successful always have a better shot.

It’s difficult to get anything radical into the mix on these terms. A groundbreaking, original piece of work, is by definition an unknown quantity and no large company will be easily persuaded to gamble vast sums getting it out there. This is part of why films with female leads, or multiple female characters are rarer – it’s not what happens so there’s been little belief it could work. That it does work and is then ignored is because of the sexism inherent in the system. There’s also an assumption that white western folk, for example, are the main audience for film and need to see other white western folk on the screen in order to engage. That this is not true and is ignored is because there’s inherent racism in the system.

For many of us, the over-arching company acts as quality control. We believe that the publishers, movie studio etc will weed out the rubbish and give us the best stuff. (like Twilight… umm… ) Many people still mistrust self-publishing because there are no gatekeepers keeping out the ‘rubbish’. As a habitual reader of self published work, I can honestly say that it is easy to find good, innovative stuff.

There have always been many ways of doing things. Self publishing isn’t new. Jane Austen self published. John Aubrey’s ground breaking work on Avebury was published by subscription. Getting a wealthy patron to fund your project was also an option.

I like subscription publishing as a model because it reduces the risk all round. If a small publisher takes on a wild book, and it doesn’t work out, it can finish them. That’s not good for the author, either. A subscription model allows you to raise the idea of a book and see if people like it enough to get in there and buy on in advance. If enough people do, you publish the book. A publishing company working this way has to ask ‘is this a good book, is it exciting in some way?’ and does not have to ask ‘how do we sell it?’.

Subscription publishing can make publishing poetry and short stories viable – these are generally considered the hardest sells and many houses won’t touch them unless you’re already Neil Gaiman.


My life with books

One of my many hats, is that of book publicist. It’s work I’m proud of, and also work I think it might be useful to talk about. As an author, and as a person with lots of friends who are authors, I know quite a lot about the publishing industry. The bigger a company you deal with, the more they look for a sure fire win. They want books that are an easy sell. Most Pagan authors would not be able to get their non-fiction work picked up by a major publisher. Or their Pagan fiction for that matter.

For me, it’s always been a case of trying to identify really good books and then get those books in front of the people who would appreciate them. I think this is what the publishing industry should be about – getting great reads to people. Most of the time it isn’t. My friends Phil and Jacqui can’t get a deal – editors love their work, but Matlock the Hare is about a talking hare, and talking animals are children’s books and these are not children’s books and therefore it cannot be done. They are one example among many.

The average book sells three thousand copies in its lifetime. A bestseller is a book that sells more than five thousand copies. Over at Moon Books, Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess – a book about ritual descent and shadow work, has sold over ten thousand copies. This is not the sort of book that many publishers would have taken forward, and yet, the numbers tell a different story. Some time next year Morgan Daimler’s introduction to The Morrigan is also going to pass the ten thousand mark for sales. I take great pride in helping promote these books. What really sells them is that they are excellent and needed.

I’ve seen repeatedly that an original book in a definable niche can actually do better than something that looked like a box ticking crowd pleasing sure fire thing. Forgive me if I don’t name names and ask you to take that on trust.

The author who knows who, specifically they are writing for can do a lot better than the one who imagines they are writing for everyone.

For folk on the literary side, there can be something distasteful about having to consider the lowly business of actually selling the books. The book is published, and then by magic, should sell itself by dint of its obvious literary merit. Again, I’ve seen it done and I won’t name names. The kinds of books that get listed for literary prizes have often only sold a few hundred copies before they make the list. This frustrates and annoys me. If you believe something is good, surely it makes sense to do everything you can to get it in front of people who will appreciate it?

I can say with confidence that when good books sell, good things happen for the authors who created them. The morale boost of a few thousand sales versus a few hundred is considerable.

Moon Books has proved repeatedly that a book doesn’t have to be aimed at the lowest common denominator, or an obvious easy sell in order to be massively successful. All you have to do is figure out who is going to want to read a book and get it in front of them. I see my comics publisher – Sloth Comics – doing the same thing. Sloth publishes quirky comics, and then gets out there and sells them to people. That’s not a quick or an easy process, but it is possible. I think the same must be true of anything else good, well made, beautiful, thoughtful, or worth having.

We live in a world where the norm is to make cheap throwaway things, pile them high, sell them as fast as you can and move onto the next one. I know, because I’m part of a company that does it, that other ways are available. I know there are plenty enough people out there who want substance and quality, originality and beauty. I feel no shame in trying to sell to those people so that good authors are paid for their work and encouraged to keep going.

A modest business proposal

Tom and I have an idea for a business model and we’d like to run it past you all and see what you think. We’ve been thinking how great it would be to open a restaurant. We’d need to get funding for the venue, and to buy all the eatery gear and set up a kitchen. We’ll need to pay for raw materials, for waiters and bar staff, cleaners, managers, someone to take bookings, maybe some publicity. Where this really gets clever though, is our vision for the chefs.
We think chefs should be paid a percentage of every meal they sell, rather than paying them a wage. It gives them opportunity to earn a great deal more, of course, but if their food doesn’t sell, it reduces our financial risk. We’ll only start paying them that cut when we’ve covered the cost of the food and the waiting staff and taken something towards the rent, too.
If we’re taking on new chefs, who won’t automatically attract eaters, then we think they ought to pay for their own ingredients. We, after all, are taking most of the financial risk here, it’s only fair to ask them to contribute to that. We think it would be helpful if chefs made some effort to promote their food, too. We envisage them going out to people’s houses to cook sample meals now and then in order to attract customers. If a chef already has a TV program, they’ll get a better deal and we might be able to consider paying them up front.
We’ll pay the chef their percentage every six months. Well, we say that, but in practice the six monthly cheque will arrive when we get round to it, and could be a month or two late. However, such will be the contracts that if chefs don’t like this, about their only option will be to take their skills and recipes to another restaurant and try their luck there. To really make this work, we will get all other restaurants onboard, so that these are the only terms available for wannabe chefs.
We realise that with this model, the chef will probably need to work a regular day job in order to make ends meet. However, as being a chef is such great work, and it’s really a hobby job, this seems perfectly fair and reasonable to us. They ought to be happy doing it for love. Given the glamour and reputation of being a chef, we’re also confident that there are so many people who want to do it that we’ll never struggle to find people willing to work for us on these terms. After all, everyone has a meal in them.
If this business model made you a bit uncomfortable (and I really hope it did!), please consider that this is how the publishing of art, words and music tends to work, and that this is standard as a way of treating creatives in those industries. We’re wondering if the idea of ‘fair trade’ could be extended across the creative industries. All creative industries depend on the ‘product’ but usually the people making that product are the last to see any money from it. Editors, managers, in house designers, and the person who cleans the editor’s office will all get paid long before the creator sees a penny, in the vast majority of cases.

Author Envy

After much soul searching, I’ve realised that I am indeed envious of the folk who do NaNoWriMo. Not on account of the quantity produced, but the confidence and self-assurance with which it appears to be done. Those enthusiastic facebook postings of word counts, lives happily rearranged to fit it in. Perhaps I had that once, but it was a very long time ago.

Writing for yourself is a safe kind of pleasure. The only person who has to enjoy it, is you, and that can work well. However, until you attempt to put your work in the public domain, you have no real measure of how good you are. It takes a lot of belief in your work and your qualities as an author to start putting yourself in front of agents and publishing houses. Many big houses won’t take you without an agent, and many agents aren’t interested in unpublished authors. There are exceptions, but the odds of you being one of them are pretty slim. How many rejection letters, or telling silences can you take before your faith in your own work starts to waver?

There are of course plenty of smaller houses who may well let you in, and there is self-publishing. They can say no. The editing stage is a shock for anyone who believed their work was pretty much perfect. Been there, back at the start. I’ve also seen it lots of times as an editor, with a lot of authors over the years who could not handle editing as an emotional experience. It was awful for them, and I felt for them, but if a paragraph doesn’t make sense, or a scene is full of continuity errors, there’s work to do.

The work goes out, and you get reviews from readers, and maybe from professionals. Some of them will be awful. All well known and successful authors get bad reviews now and then, no one is universally loved and respected. For less prominent authors, the bad reviews can be pretty damning and demoralising. One bad review can rip your guts out, even if the other ten were excellent. Worse still is the absence of reviews, because no one was interested. That happens. Putting a book out does not guarantee that anyone at all will buy and read it. The reality of tiny and non-existent sales causes a lot of aspiring authors to quit, or to give up on what they cared about and make the professional decision to write something more obviously lucrative. I’ve done that one, too. Even if you self publish your work and give it away for free, this can all still happen. As soon as you share, you are exposed and if you care about your work, it’s going to hurt sometimes.

Some people are only in it for the money and a vision of fame, and don’t seem to care who hates their stories. Some people are so confident in their work that they won’t hear criticism. The first set do produce successful authors now and then, the second set hardly ever, if at all. There’s a really hard balance to strike here. You need enough faith in yourself and your work to keep going in face of all the inevitable setbacks. You need to be able to hear the feedback and criticism so that you can grow and learn. It is not easy, and seldom comfortable.

So yes, those distant memories of a time when I did it just for love and without fear, leave me envious of NaNo folk. The time before reviewers, before editors, before people who hate my blog, before putting myself out here in front of all the people who are at liberty to knock me down any way they like. The days before I lost my nerve, lost my faith in my ideas, my skill and the point of what I was trying to do. The days before I hadn’t come to hate my work, and when I hadn’t been subjected to the judgment of those around me. Most people don’t care whether you make good art, they care whether you make good money, and there’s only so long you can spend writing books before you’ll start to hear about what an irresponsible waste of time your hobby is. I’ve done it all, got up and tried again.

And yet, the project I have that’s been most commercially successful is the one I made purely for love. The man who inspires me most, believes enough in my writing to keep encouraging me to do it. I can’t imagine feeling any pride in simply having written two thousand words, or fifty thousand words, or a hundred novels, come to that. I am envious of the people who do. I probably sound very bitter and cynical to anyone who has not walked this path. It’s easy to stand in a place of inexperience and know you’re the special one, the super gifted talent who will break through with an instant best seller just as soon as you put yourself forwards. Being able to imagine that is not the measure of you as an author. Whether you make or break, eventually, is probably going to depend on whether you can keep dreaming even when every dream you ever had has already been trampled on.

And in spite of it all, I am still here.

Insanity mathematics

When you want to expand a business, you invest, and do something new, or do more of something you had established was working. Your put profits back in, to pay for development, or you borrow some money against anticipated future returns. No one attempts to grow a company by taking money out of it, cutting staff, and doing less. No one sane, at any rate. Sure, you might do a bit of economising now and then, efficiency drives are good, but in a company that is, and will be thriving, the economy drive is there to free up time and resources for more productive things. You don’t just cut back and assume that will achieve something all by itself.

I’m not an accountant, or an economist, I have a GCSE in maths. I have worked as a self-employed person for a lot of years now and I know a lot of others who do the same. I’ve seen the working end of a number of businesses and I pay attention to things. No company grows by cutting back on everything. Maybe some strategic cutting back, but nothing more. Companies grow on investment, of time, money, ideas. I’ve talked before about working more effectively by doing less and picking carefully. That’s a strategy. It’s about using my resources to maximum effect to get the best return I can. All businesses do that sort of thing.

Here in the UK, we’re still in recession. Austerity has not delivered a reduction of national debt. There is a lot of poverty out there, a lot of unemployment, a lot of punishing the poor. The government were explicit in their assumption that if they cut public sector funding and jobs, the private sector would just magically fill the breach, do the work, hire the workers. Using all those magic spells and supernatural powers we in the private sector are known to possess. Sorry Mr Osborn, but economics don’t even work that way in Harry Potter stories. Of course it hasn’t happened, because to expand a private sector you need to invest.

We’ve been taking money out of higher education and research, which we could have invested in, to encourage the private sector. We’ve missed out on much of the potential for growth in new green technologies. The government could have led the way there. Much noise has been made about infrastructure, but no action. Do we need high speed trains? Not really. We could really use a bus network capable of getting people to and from jobs affordably, and delivering customers to our ailing high streets. We could use everyone being on broadband to stimulate the online economy. No government input there. We could use not having VAT on ebooks, crippling British writers and publishers. Our publishing industry is one of the few areas growing, not shrinking, you’d think a helping hand to keep that going would be an obvious call to make. How about investing in us as a cultural and tourism destination? No, we’re taking money out of the arts industries as well. How about supporting our valuable film industry? No.

The lunatics in power seem to believe that you can grow a country, and economy by taking money out of it. Your average five year old could work out there’s something wrong with the maths here. Mind you, if Mr Gove gets his way, we probably won’t have to worry for much longer about our five year olds being better trained to think than our politicians.

We could be investing in the good stuff: Green technology, creative industry, scientific research, and innovation. We could treat our people as a valuable resource, not as scroungers. We could be a great country to live in. The epic failure of courage and imagination is depressing, and I am heartily sick of being told this is the only way. There always were other ways.

An idea for a book

Doing events always results in certain kinds of conversation. So, I thought I’d answer a few standard questions, both to relieve my frustrations, and as an act of public service.

1) I have an idea for a book.

An idea may give you a short story if you are lucky. Write it, because you will learn something. Please do not walk into a room full of published authors who have been doing this for years and assume that ‘I had an idea for a book’ puts you on an equal footing with people who write books. It just makes us grouchy. Also, nine times out of ten you sound like a pompous idiot when you start talking this way in public.

2) I’m working on my first book, should I look for an agent, or a publisher?

No. It is wonderful that you are writing a book, well done for getting that far. However, get it finished, make sure you can finish a book of a good 70,000 words or more before you get carried away. Then leave it alone for a while and come back to it. Most first books are rubbish. This is fine. You wouldn’t expect to sit down and just write a symphony. For the record, it took me three goes to get a book I thought was even worth sharing and that didn’t get published. So unless you come to this as a film writer, with a huge body of short stories, or otherwise prepared and experienced, please reconcile yourself, now, to the fact that you are going to be learning a craft and that the first thing you write probably isn’t publishable. If that’s too off-putting, you are never going to survive the publishing industry anyway, so bail now and spare yourself the pain.

3) Can you read my book/recommend it to your publisher/ help me with it?

No. Authors are often busy people, what with the writing, marketing, research, doing events, and many also have day jobs and families, and need to sleep occasionally. Unless you are a personal friend or we really fancy you, the odds are that we cannot afford the time. Plus, we worry that you will then decide we stole your ideas, even if we didn’t, and most of us prefer not to go there. Offer me a short story and I might be able to read that and comment. If you have a book with a publisher, it’s relevant to stuff I write, and I have time, I might be up for furnishing you with blurb – not all authors have time for this either.

4) What a great job you have, it must be like being on holiday all the time. Or, it’s not a proper job, is it? It’s just a hobby.

There’s a lot of work goes into writing. Research, planning, drafting, redrafting, edits, marketing… there is a lot more to being an author than having an idea, throwing it into a document file and waiting for the cash to roll in. The majority of authors are not well paid and work long hours. Yes, we love what we do, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult. Some of us write because we’d go crazy if we didn’t. Some of us have things we are compelled to share. The reasons are many, and creation, for some, is a tortuous act. Every author is different, it is best to assume you do not know what their life is like. But, unless your holidays reduce you to tears and sometimes make you feel like jumping under a bus, no, it’s not like being on holiday all the time.

5) My six year old child writes stories/ wants to be an author.

That’s lovely. We will make every kind of warm encouraging noises to you and your child. Just so long as you do not want us to herald your small offspring as a literary genius, or take them as seriously as we would the author at the next table. No, really.

6) I’ve written seventeen books so far but they are too difficult for most people.

Either reconcile yourself to not getting the same sales as Fifty Shades then, or change what you do, because you can’t have it both ways and there’s not much point bemoaning the uselessness of readers. Hey I’m a reader. I read stuff. No, actually after that sales pitch I am not desperate to get my hands on a copy of your seventeen masterpieces, all lovingly self-published because they were too difficult for the publishers as well, with cover art by your six year old child…

Most people at events are a delight to talk to. But there’s always one and if it’s been a long day, I fear breaking down into hysterical giggles/weeping. If that happens, you know you were ‘the one’.

Being vulnerable

There are limits on what you can do by playing safely. The person who does not want to expose themselves to risks doesn’t get much done. Any undertaking to do a thing, courts disaster. It gives us opportunities to fail, to be knocked back, humiliated, and made miserable.

I’ve been submitting works to publishers on and off for about fifteen years now. It doesn’t get easier. Granted, I now have more ‘yes’ letters than I did, but I still get a lot of rejections (mostly around short stories). Every time I send a piece in, even if it’s to a publisher I’ve worked with before, I’m acutely aware that ‘no’ is an option. It doesn’t stop there. Books get published, only for readers to hate them, and with the internet it’s really easy to take that hate to the author.
Putting things out in public invites criticism, and I’ve had some harsh ones over the years. One reviewer called an early piece of mine ‘repellent’ and that stayed with me. I don’t have a thick skin.

Bardic work means standing up in public and exposing your work, your inspiration, your soul, to scrutiny. Sometimes it goes wrong. The voice breaks. Words are forgotten. A string snaps. Someone in the audience undertakes to be rude. And again, it only gets slightly easier with practice, and performing always brings you into situations where people can really, seriously hate what you do.

Creativity is a very personal thing. A lot of self and soul goes into it, and not having that recognised and honoured can be agony. The cake that nobody liked and the epic cleaning job nobody noticed. The flowers that barely got a word of recognition, the ritual no one thanked you for… creativity is not just about obvious arty stuff, it’s about the making and the inspiration in all aspects of our lives. Sharing it makes you vulnerable. Not sharing isn’t an answer, because you remain untested, never confident you’re good enough, afraid of being knocked back, or of holding too high an opinion of yourself. We fantasies about the praise and applause, but it’s never enough. Imagining we could be good if only we dared becomes soul destroying itself after a while, just another delusion to cart about. No one respects the book you know you could write or the career you would have had if only…

So this week I answered some questions for OBOD about why I’d like to be a tutor for their course. I’ve exposed myself to being looked at, tested, considered by whatever means seems necessary or appropriate. Last time I did that (an editing job) I didn’t even hear back, not so much as a rejection letter. Well, I know the OBOD folk can and will do better than that.

The day I stop asking if I’m doing a good enough job, if I could do better, is probably going to be the day I stop breathing. The idea of resting on your laurels never made any sense to me. I always have to be pushing to do more, and better, on whatever terms I can. I don’t enjoy being tested, but it’s inevitable. The alternative is to create a little reality bubble in which I am the only person who judges what I do. Sure, that way I would never have to believe that anything I did needed work, but I wouldn’t improve much. I care more about doing things well than about being able to pretend to myself that I’m there already.

In the meantime, never under estimate the power of saying encouraging things and praising the stuff you love – the cake and the craft item, the story and the song.

Good art and entertaining

“The list of 55 titles, drawn from 98 official nominations, is presented annually at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. The books, recommended for those ages 12-18, meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens.”

That quote comes from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/ggnt/2013 and the Young Adult Library Services Association selection of Great Graphic novels 2013. There must have been thousands of potential candidates.
All on its own, that quote would make me very happy. The recognition that good quality creativity that is also accessible and entertaining, should be available, is vital. Dull if worthy books do not get readers excited. Vacuous books… well, I think we’ve established what I think about throw away content. It makes me grumpy. More time spent shouting out the good stuff, the stuff that has content and is also fun and enjoyable, is time well spent, so there’s a list of 55 things that it is well worth waving at teen readers, and people who like teen reads. Do give it a look if you like graphic novels.

We found out about this yesterday, and we found out because we made the list. Hopeless Maine only came out last November, we never expected anything like this kind of attention. It’s startling, and we feel profoundly honoured. We’re also delighted to see Rust and Cowboy – other titles from Archaia – also on that list. Archaia put out unusual books, they aren’t driven by market trends or assumptions about what is ‘in’ this year. They take risks – they took us – and those risks are resulting in kudos and sales. There are enough people out there who want something new and surprising after all. It feels like a huge victory. The comics industry is dominated by DC and Marvel, people in what looks to me like fetish gear, thumping each other. But evidently there is room for other stuff too, and that makes me happy. Diversity is a good thing.

A matter of weeks ago I had run out of hope. The whole business seemed impossible, demoralising, a bit… hopeless. To be recognised as both good art and entertaining is so important to me. I want to do both, be both. I don’t want to write the kind of stuff only a handful of academics could ever be interested in, and at the same time, I don’t want to write the kind of stuff I don’t enjoy reading. I was so close to quitting, because I kept feeling I just couldn’t do it on my terms. 5000 librarians and library workers apparently think otherwise. That’s huge.

I’m in a process of doing some serious rethinking about how, and why, I want to work. I’d reached some decisions that are, in many ways, reinforced by what happened yesterday. I’m not interested in ‘being a professional writer’ I need to do work that is meaningful to me. If I can do that with the writing, excellent. If not, then tutoring, workshops, editing and whatever conventional stuff I can find will be more in the mix. My terms, or not at all. Which leaves me asking the interesting question of what ‘on my terms’ means to me these days. In all the crap and fear and stress, I lost my way. Figuring out what I want is a big part of what I need in place to move forwards. I have some ideas –more on that soon. In the meantime, I just feel a bit vindicated, which was timely, and a lot encouraged, which is helpful.