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Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.
But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.
Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.
Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.
Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.
If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales. Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.
Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.
It also helps to define a few parameters.
- Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
- Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
- Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
- Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
- Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.
Still stuck? Push on anyway
Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.
‘What happens now?’
‘Bah, I don’t know.’
‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’
When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.
You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.
Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel.
Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik
Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!
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Apologies to those on New Year diets. Early commenters at my Authors Electric post have already let me know they are distressed at my excessive use of pictures of pies. But they are artistically necessary.
I’m venting about publishers’ porkies. (In case that doesn’t translate outside the UK; it’s rhyming slang. Porky pies. Now you see.) As more authors choose to self-publish for career and artistic reasons, the publishing industry is maintaining the fiction that all those with talent shall be welcomed with open arms, and that writers can’t do without their nurturing support. If self-publishers are ever to be considered as equals by the literary community, this has got to stop.
More pie (much more) at Authors Electric. Do come over and say your piece.
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I’ve had this question from Kate Calcutt.
How important is the title of a book?
Good titles make you stop and wonder. Catch-22. Wow, what’s that? The Other Boleyn Girl. Wait, there were two? Nineteen Eighty-Four. Why then? What happens? (The book was published in the 1940s, so the forward-reaching, inverted date was startling.)
The more famous you are, the less hard your title has to work. Iain Banks graduated from The Wasp Factory to The Business. Would you have picked up The Business if it had been his first? Barbara Vine gets away with No Night Is Too Long because her name already tells readers what they’re getting. Which is just as well because No Night Is Too Long has zero stopping power and is darn hard to remember.
If you’ve got a long-running series, you can coast with the later titles. The first needs to audition with bells and whistles, but later titles can trade on insider knowledge. Mockingjay would be a challenge to remember unless you’d been primed by The Hunger Games. But it’s really a title that says ‘welcome back’.
But if you don’t have much already on the shelves, your title is your one chance to make a reader stop and consider spending time with you. It is your novel’s chat-up line in a place with hundreds of suitors. It needs to thrum with promise, intrigue.
Is this title okay?
Kate also said: I’m considering a title change from ‘In the Background’, to ‘Life, Captured’.
I’m afraid both of those fall at the first hurdle. They’re so vague that they can’t give a flavour of the book, and a reader is likely to pass them by in favour of a title that makes a strong case for what it’s about. Both these titles could describe just about any story.
Now, you might argue that we want our books to appeal to the widest number of readers. And I’m sure if there was a genre category called ‘for anyone who likes a good read’ we would all hope our book belonged in it. But marketing can’t be about ‘vagueness’ or ‘everyone’. It’s about specifics, individuals and distinctiveness.
Let’s get specific
So what are the specifics of Kate’s book? She described her novel to me as contemporary female fiction – the story of a woman’s life as observed by those in the background of her holiday photos.
Now this is an interesting concept and I can understand why she’s toying with those titles. But they didn’t make me want to pick the book up. In The Background might work with a stunning cover. But titles are seen just as often without their artwork, so we can’t rely on that.
So what shall we do to find a better title? We need to brainstorm.
I’m not saying I’ll get a better title in this post, but here’s a starter. Only Kate knows what really mirrors the soul of the book.
Find words that suggest photos, snapshots, images, likenesses, portraits. Exposure. Shot. Frame. Lens. Subject. Picture. I got down to ‘image’ and I found ‘angel’ – a nice emotive word. Photos aren’t the only interesting concept here. Let’s look up watchers, onlookers, witnesses. And moments. Even jigsaws, as this novel seems to present a life in pieces. Or chorus, as the piecemeal narrative is like the commentary of a Greek chorus. What about biography, as it’s the story of a life? Make a huge list of possible nouns.
Now start another list of verbs and adjectives that could go with those. You’re looking for something surprising or emotive. The blurred girl? Background is a good word if we use it strongly. Could that go with something?
Don’t stop with single words. List questions, enigmas, dilemmas that might arise from the book’s concept.
2. Go for the familiar – and twist
Find idioms that use all the words you’ve listed. And book titles – Amazon is useful for this, as is my beloved Library Thing. Song titles too. As good titles set up a frisson, you can get a powerful effect from altering a phrase that’s already familiar. Look at Anthony Burgess showing off (as ever) with a novel called Nineteen Eighty-Five.
In my scoot around LibraryThing I found a novel called Autobiography of a Family Photo by Jacqueline Woodson. That’s got an intriguing vibe so it’s definitely worth looking at other titles that are similar. There’s also The Photograph by Penelope Lively. The descriptions of these two novels necessarily explain the title, which could give you extra ideas to explore.
3. Look in the text
The perfect title might already be in your novel, hidden in a line of dialogue, or introspection, or a description.
4. Look at the genre
Your book needs to woo the right kind of readers, so you need to capture the right tone. Note, especially, the emotions that titles evoke – that’s the promise to the reader. And avoid misleading ones. Although ‘witness’ is good for the brainstorming list, if you put it in the title you might give the impression that it’s a crime novel.
Write a shortlist of titles. Force yourself to come up with many more than you need. Then put them away and come back when you’ve forgotten what they are. Try the best ones out on friends, then go back to Amazon to see how your shortlist compares with the books already out in the marketplace.
Repeat until satisfied.
You’ll find some more notes on titles in this post by Ray Harvey aka Journal Pulp.
Do you struggle to think up titles? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments! And if you want to continue brainstorming Kate’s book – or if you think of a possible title share it here!
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Everyone’s writing prediction posts right now. I wouldn’t have dared, except the website On Fiction Writing asked what I thought might happen in the industry in the next five years.
Obviously writers can’t be oblivious to what’s going on in publishing, but if you look at what’s changed in the past two years, do we have a hope of predicting anything with accuracy? Anyway, who would trust the predictions of anyone who makes things up for a living? Worlds, economies, social movements roll out of our imagination to suit whatever story we want to tell. (And I see they put my interview next to a novel called The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Adorable cover anyway.)
The only certainties I can predict – for myself and for other writers in 2013 – are these.
- I will need to weigh up several new social media environment and decide if they’re worth the effort. I will need to remind myself that once upon a time I was scornful of Twitter, Facebook and even – gasp – blogging.
- I’ll need to embrace at least one new platform for publishing, on a device that I don’t see the need for. I will have to remind myself that putting Nail Your Novel on Kindle turned out to be a brilliant move.
- I’ll never decide what’s worthwhile unless I have help – which I will probably find by firing off a tweet or a Facebook post to all you guys.
- I’ll get stuck on the novel I’m writing, and when I think all is irretrievably lost the answer will fall effortlessly onto the page. (I talk about writer’s block in my interview, in case you’re wrestling too.)
- I’ll discover several writers whose work contains such insight, I will not know how I did without them (I talk about favourite writers too)
Predictions aside, I’m also talking about self-publishing, publishers developing new roles as partners for indies, finding readers – and ghostwriting. Do join me there and if you’re in a predictive frame of mind, leave a comment here with conjectures, projections and outright fabrications and fantasies for writers in 2013.
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A publisher was interested so we had a meeting. In a creative, convivial afternoon, we brainstormed ideas. I took reams of notes. But in the end I did nothing they suggested. Not one thing.
They were right
At home I made a beat sheet (one of my all-time lifesaving revision tools, explained in Nail Your Novel). It had been a while since I’d read the manuscript. The beat sheet showed that too much of the first half was atmosphere instead of story. My esteemed colleagues were right that it was slow.
They were wrong
But they were disastrously wrong about how to pep it up. ‘Let’s have a character on the run, a threatening political movement in the wider world of the book, another sub-plot to keep characters busier’… All sorts of plot fireworks, all out of kilter and unnecessary. I knew the central character had a compelling major problem and that the action must come from that, not from a carnival of chaos around the edges.
So how did I fix the book?
As always, the best insight came from examining why I wrote the story the way I did – made possible by the beat sheet (left, with fortifying accessories). I included those slow scenes for a good reason – to introduce ideas and threats that would emerge later. I’d made them strange and intriguing, but I now saw they didn’t have enough momentum in themselves. They didn’t immediately generate interesting situations.
I’d known I was in trouble
I had even suspected they were weak, so I’d tried to solve it with false jeopardy. I confess I made the main character worry that nasty things could happen. I now clutch my head in shame – these extended periods of worrying were not jeopardy, they were nothing darn well happening.
I even realised this, and tried to atone by making the main threat bigger. In hindsight it creaked with desperation.
Agent and publisher were nice enough not to say any of this. Perhaps they didn’t notice or mind. Perhaps only I knew how bad it was, because I knew my desperate motivations.
Unpleasant as it was to examine my writerly conscience, the answers helped me decide what to keep, what to add and what to adjust.
Better. Stronger. Faster.
I returned with a leaner, stronger Life Form 3. A really compelling read, said my agent – not noticing it was actually longer. He didn’t give a hoot that I’d ignored his suggestions. He didn’t even remember them. Unfortunately the publisher’s imprint closed that month – so Life Form 3 was out in the cold again. But that’s another story.
Some writers hate it when editors, beta readers et al make suggestions. I don’t – I welcome them as oblique illuminations from the surface to the murky deep. And if you’re new to the writing game, or need to fit an unfamiliar genre, there’s much that a savvy editor can do to guide you.
But you mature as a novelist by understanding your own style and your individual ways – which includes how you handle your material and second-guess your own process. In a talk given at BAFTA, screenwriter, playwright and novelist William Nicholson said it’s the editor/producer’s job to tell you something’s wrong, and the writer’s job to find out what that is.
Before you act on revision notes, reread your manuscript and examine why you wrote what you did. This is how you stay true to your novel – and how you come into your own as a writer.
Thanks for the camel pic Loufi
In my next post I’ll discuss in detail how to add jeopardy to a story. In the meantime, let’s discuss -
Have you had detailed editorial advice on revisions, and how did you approach it? Do you appreciate it when editors chip in with changes they think would improve a book?
You can find my beat sheet in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. A second Nail Your Novel is under construction – if you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.
And – spoon tapping on glass – this week I had an email from CreateSpace telling me that demand for the print edition has been so high that Amazon placed a bulk order so they have enough stocks for Christmas. Who says indies are killing print?
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I’m at Authors Electric today, discussing how indie writers are getting their work to readers by curating collections based on a solid respect for craft and originality. While publishers play safe with marketing pigeonholes, some of these indie groups will be the brands of the future. Come and see…
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How to self-publish an ebook and get a traditional book deal – guest spot on The Write Lines podcast
When I was first discovering blogs – and looking for a home for my own fiction – I discovered The Write Lines on BBC Radio Oxford. Presenter and novelist Sue Cook brought together experts from UK publishing to give advice, information and resources for new writers.
Fast forward through a few revolutions and the latest series (now a podcast) is exploring indie publishing – both as a leg-up to a traditional deal and a viable option in itself. Some of the authors whose blogs I was reading as the first series aired are her experts this time – including Nicola Morgan and Catherine Ryan Howard – and me. I feel like I’ve graduated. Exciting times…
In my episode I’m sharing a studio with indie superstars Mark Edwards (one half of the Edwards/Louise Voss partnership) and Mel Sherratt. You can either listen on the site or download….
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From last resort to new career – how I self-published and how it’s changed my outlook as a writer: speech for the Society of Young Publishers, Oxford
This week I was invited to give a talk on my self-publishing adventures to the Society of Young Publishers in Oxford. Inevitably they also got a few opinions (at the end) on how I now see my role as a writer
I’ve since had requests to publish it here, so…. here goes.
I wasn’t new to publishing when I self-published. More than two decades ago my first job was in the editorial office of a small publisher where I handled every kind of non-fiction title – books, directories, partworks, magazines, a newspaper – and even, once, a novel. From there I moved to magazine editing. In parallel I developed a career as a writer – I’ve ghosted 11 novels and 8 of them have been bestsellers. I also mentor other writers – originally for a literary consultancy and now freelance.
I’m fully armed with literary agents – two of them, actually. In spite of this, I ended up self-publishing. Here’s the story.
I self-publish a writing book
Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence was the book I published first. I wrote it as a natural extension of the writing blog I’d just started. It’s my writing process distilled into 10 steps – how to take an idea, flesh it out, draft it and revise it thoroughly. It’s 40,000 words, which proved too dinky for the market. But that was deliberate. I knew from the online community that writers wanted a book that wouldn’t snaffle their precious writing time but told them only what they needed.
No one would publish it, so I thought it had better not sit around. I set it up on Lulu – the most straightforward print platform at the time – and told my blog and Twitter followers. I also gave away free PDFs. This was three years ago, so the giveaway packed a punch. NYN got good reviews, sold about 20 print copies a month and became quite widely known – at any rate, strangers would email me telling me how useful it was.
So NYN ticked over on Lulu as a nice accessory to my blog, but I still wanted a deal for my fiction. It wasn’t respectable to self-publish fiction – especially if you’d secured an agent.
Most people self-pub with ebooks first, especially now. I didn’t. Three years ago when I brought out NYN I’d never seen an ebook. I had a house full of print. I’d worked with print and I wasn’t convinced that making an ebook was worth the fuss.
No doubt this reasoning has been repeated in publishers up and down the land.
I was even getting requests for a Kindle NYN but it took a catastrophe to boot me over. One day Lulu deleted a bunch of Amazon listings and then bickered with Amazon – and its authors – about whose fault this was. My book, which was generating a buzz, vanished from sale for several weeks – and so did my reviews. The links from bloggers who’d written about it went to dead ends.
Clearly I had to find out about sales avenues, instead of just being a writer. I read my most trusted bloggers, filled a few information gaps, formatted NYN and wrote a how-I-did-it post for my readers.
Woot, I’d launched an ebook. I say launch, but that ‘how-to’ post, a Facebook event and a few tweets was the only launch I did.
Again, I was thinking with my writer head. I had no idea how books should be introduced to the market. When I worked for the small publisher, the marketing manager handled it. When ghostwriting, I was never the focus – the celebrity authors had an army organising bus stop posters and appearances on Breakfast TV.
But, probably only by the grace of bloggers, my tiny launch sold five times as many copies in one month as I’d sold in print. There must have been quite a few people waiting for a Kindle NYN because it spent a long time in the Kindle top 10 for books on writing and it’s still in the top 50.
I revamped the print edition and put it on Amazon’s CreateSpace (because I’d got fed up of middlemen). NYN immediately got offered on a 4 for the price of 3 deal and is always on a bundle deal of some sort. Now it’s catching up with e-sales.
Does blogging and social media sell books? Yes, but I did it by accident
So, I had a book out but my goodness I needed to learn more about promotion. Off to my bloggers again. It turned out my blog got top marks for being a good platform -
- I stuck to a subject I could blog about until the end of the world
- I could demonstrate with my background that I knew what I was talking about
- my posts were useful and accessible
- I was happy to answer commenters and develop posts into a conversation.
All of this I did entirely by accident. The tight focus on writing came from my background in magazines – where you give readers useful advice and don’t dilute your value with off-topic material. The rest happened because I was having fun.
I was relieved to find I didn’t have to do a hard sell – because I’d seen some pretty grotesque campaigns around Twitter and Facebook.
As with blogging, social media marketing seems to work by a gentlemanly process of relationships – people get to know you, enjoy your company in an interview or a blog post. It’s the way books have always sold on in traditional publishing – by generating curiosity so that one day the reader stops and picks up the book. It is, to quote one of my guru bloggers Joanna Penn, hand-selling on a global scale.
By mid-2011, NYN was doing well. My agent had given up trying to sell my own novel. The typical feedback was: ‘we really enjoyed it but it’s too unconventional’.
Meanwhile, in traditional publishing, a number of novelists were daring the unthinkable – they were going indie. They were writing articles explaining why, many describing exactly my predicament – too unusual for the market.
I decided it was time to publish My Memories of a Future Life. I put it through a rigorous round of edits and got an editor friend to scourge it as well, and it was ready to go.
The promotion problem
Publishing my novel was very liberating, but how would I launch it? People who wanted writing advice wouldn’t necessarily like my fiction. I couldn’t change my blog into a hybrid of writing advice and marketing for my novel – that would annoy the readership I’d built up.
That took care of its online home, but where should I promote it? So far I’d learned how to sell a book that was helpful to people – which was easy and unembarrassing. But a novel isn’t helpful and nobody needs it. All I could do was try to drum up curiosity. But where?
All the advice I’d found was about marketing genre fiction – where you create a buzz on forums, Goodreads groups and books blogs. But my novel is contemporary fiction with literary sensibilities. Its tag line is ‘what if your life was somebody’s past’, so it seems to be a reincarnation story, but is no more about reincarnation than We Need To Talk About Kevin is about a crime. Publishers said it was too much like a thriller for literary readers and too psychological and poetic for thriller readers. And the narrator isn’t regressing to a past life, but looking to an incarnation in the future – so that might add a label of speculative fiction – or not, depending on your take on the story.
I began to see why publishers passed in favour of something easier.
(You might be wondering if such a duck-billed platypus of a novel would ever work, but it’s got a respectable clutch of high-starred reviews, none of them paid for and none of them calling in favours.)
Some writers hire publicists but that wasn’t an option for me:
- I wouldn’t know how to assess whether a publicist was any good
- I didn’t know anyone else who’d marketed an equivalent book so couldn’t use them as a template or find suitable publicists through them
- I didn’t have any budget anyway.
I weighed up my novel’s biggest asset – a thought-provoking distinctive idea – split the book into four parts and released it as a Kindle serial over four weeks. Then I followed with the complete novel on Kindle and in print.
I called each instalment an ‘episode’ to echo the freshness of serials like Lost and also to suggest how to approach it – as a modern, multi-level thought-provoking story.
This meant I was handling an exhausting 4 launches instead of one – but it created an event, and people around Twitter, blogs and Facebook helped to build the anticipation – and even wrote reviews for the individual episodes.
My lovely readers
Here I found I’d underestimated my lovely followers – they were curious to see, at long last, the kind of novel I’d written. Also, subscriptions to my blog doubled – suggesting I’d passed some kind of test. Perhaps I’d proved, after all this talk, that I also walked the walk.
I was careful never to abuse this generosity. I wrote posts about the novel on my main blog only if they were useful to writers. For instance, I discovered that splitting the novel in four was an excellent way to test the story structure. I also wrote about how to produce a print edition and another post about how to write back cover copy – with examples of my laughably rotten versions.
Another accident – the novel’s blog gets a new life
Once the releases were out, I was going to leave the novel’s blog as a static site. Then I wrote a post called The Undercover Soundtrack – about how I used music as inspiration to create characters and crucial story developments. It fitted nicely as the novel is about a musician.
I suddenly thought I’d like other authors to tackle this, rather like Desert Island Discs, so I turned it into a series. It’s building a following from readers who like the concept and it also allows me to showcase other authors – karmic payback for all the advice and support they’ve given me.
I now get emails from publishers and publicists asking if their authors can take part – which is nice for a site that started as a way to launch a self-published novel (and by the way, you’re welcome to email me too). The boundaries are blurring.
My changed outlook
So I became a self-publisher by necessity. It wasn’t initially as a positive choice, just the only way to get my work to an audience who were increasingly curious about it. But my experiences and the recent shifts in the industry have changed the way I think about my role as a writer.
In my conventional publishing experiences, the author is a cog and a lot of decisions are left to others: blurbs, covers, style questions – sometimes even editorial direction. The book becomes the ‘property’ of the publishing team. Now, though, I’m used to being in charge.
The genie’s out of the bottle. Authors are learning what’s possible and that they can have far more control. And that’s before we even think about royalties, especially with ebooks.
But before you worry this will become a strident call to arms, let me say this – the ‘empowerment’ of writers works both ways. Level-headed, professional authors are also learning what we want help with.
To take me as an example: I’m writing NYN 2 and I’ll self-publish because I have the resources to do a good job and to find readers. (Indeed I’ve had 5 small-press offers to republish book 1, but I didn’t need editorial services and they didn’t have a wider reach into relevant markets.) So I can write, produce and sell books on writing.
But that’s non-fiction.
With my fiction, I can take editorial charge, I can find a compatible developmental editor – but I’d be just as happy to build a relationship with an editor in a publishing house. Also, I need help to find an audience. My novel does pick up new fans, but I have to work non-stop to get it to new readers and I’m doing it very inefficiently because I’m guessing. And I certainly can’t get the notice of influential reviewers.
Writers will weigh up these options, and savvy publishers could too. Some writers can lead the process and produce top-notch books. Others will gladly leave many jobs to the publisher. For every writer that equation will be different. Probably for every book it will be different.
To take an example – my husband, Dave Morris, recently had a critically acclaimed hit with an interactive app of Frankenstein. He’s a game designer as well as a writer and could have programmed the app himself and put it in the app store, but he preferred to partner with a publisher. He found a home for it with Profile Books – which gave Frankenstein a prestigious launch.
Message 2 for publishers – don’t throw away your competitive advantage
One of the problems is that marketing strategies are steering editorial decisions. I know Big Six editors who don’t read submissions from unknowns and instead trawl the indie bestsellers on Amazon. My own agent tells me he’s had plenty of phenomenal novels from first-time writers that reached the editorial board and were rejected because they didn’t fit with what sells.
Obviously there’s no simple answer, but this pressure is squeezing out the original, unusual books written by people who dared to be different, the game-changing novels that will be the classics of the future.
This is bad for our art form. It’s bad for everyone who likes a good read. It’s ghettoising our next generation of original writers, who 10 years ago would have had a chance to build a career.
It’s especially worrying when you consider that a lot of self-publishing bestsellers are not the most original work but derived from what’s already successful. So if publishers copy the copies, where does everyone end up?
Publishers need to take a longer-term view. They need to have confidence in innovation.
Innovation is where the big hits arise. Harry Potter and Twilight weren’t like anything that was already successful. The competitive advantage of publishers is their experienced editors who can take a nurturing view.
There can’t be a publisher – or indeed an agent – who doesn’t have a stack of outstanding manuscripts they couldn’t get commercial backing for. I’ve suggested before that agents should help them self-publish under a special imprint, but it’s not what they’re geared up for. But publishers are.
Publishers should start ‘Discovery’ imprints on print-on-demand and ebook, perhaps produced as a flexible partnership with the author but released under the publisher’s banner. They should showcase a handful of titles every few months that they passionately believe in. The major reviewers would take notice, because the titles would come with the seal of approval of an editorial department. Those authors are going to self-publish anyway, so why not get involved?
This partnership approach is where the real publishing industry of the future will be formed.
The session ended with Q&A … so who wants to start…?
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I’ve had an email from writer/poet Philippa Rees , who is weighing up whether to use CS or LS for her book. Dave and I have published with both for a number of years, so here’s what we’d say from personal experience…
Philippa: My book is a poetic history of scientific thought. It’s a dip-in-and-return work, most likely to be read in print (although I will put it out as an ebook too). I have seen some VERY amateurish CS-designed books, fairly dire, and some acceptable ones.
Eek, I take it you’re referring to the covers?
CS offers templates for covers and urges you to use them, but I recommend you don’t. For one thing, they’re familiar enough that they yell ‘CreateSpace!’ to anyone who’s been on the CS site. Not that there’s any stigma, but you want your cover to yell about your book, not the company whose rather recognisable template you used.
You don’t have to use CS templates. You can upload a PDF, created by any package you want, either by yourself or a designer, so long as you leave space for their barcode and calculate the correct spine width from your page count. They give you an easy help page to get this all right – and indeed they have excellent help resources in the CS Community.
Although covers may look easy, if you don’t have experience, please, please use a designer. Your book is intended to be taken seriously and it needs a cover to do your words justice. The wrong design, even if it looks nice to you, might send the wrong message to readers. If you’re prioritising what to budget for this is a one-time investment that will do your book endless good.
So far, I’ve designed my own covers, but if I found I was out of my depth (which is extremely likely with my next novel) here’s where I’d look.
- 99 Designs – a design site that lets you host a competition to find the ideal designer for your book. Post your requirements and budget and professional designers will pitch for it. You only pay if you commission a suggestion.
- Smashwords has a list of cover designers that other Smashwords authors have used and would recommend, both for ebooks and for print – email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for ‘Mark’s list’ (that’s Mark Coker,the very approachable inventor of Smashwords).
- The Book Designer – fantastic site by design veteran Joel Friedlander. He holds monthly book design competitions, so you can browse and find a designer whose work hits your sweet spot. He also writes some of the help entries on the CS site, though he’s not affiliated with them. He’s just a generous-spirited, knowledgeable guy.
When talking to a designer, make sure they know the book will be print on demand. POD processes sometimes don’t crop a book straight, or line up the spine precisely – so you need a design to forgive that kind of error.
Interior design CS also provides a Word template for the interior. Dave tried it, and while it was quick to use and saves you worrying about page sizes and margins, it has glitches. For instance, it insisted on an ‘acknowledgements’ page and when he tried to delete it everything else went haywire. But again, you can upload your interior on a PDF – and that way you have complete control.
Dave and I create our book covers and interiors on Serif PagePlus – much cheaper than the top-end packages like Adobe InDesign, and more versatile than Word. Here’s my post on formatting the interior of My Memories of a Future Life. It’s fiddly, but if it gives you an attack of the vapours, freelance designers can do it for you.
Europe, Australia etc
Philippa: I understand Amazon is difficult about stocking books put out by LS, yet LS may be better for distribution to Europe and Australia.
We’ve frequently found our Amazon listings for LS books are quoted as out of stock or ‘available in six weeks’, for no reason. When queried, Amazon reply that they get the data from the supplier. The supplier said the book was available. In fact, when you do order, the books arrive as fast as any other book. But buyers don’t know this. The same used to happen when I published Nail Your Novel with Lulu.
Pause a moment to growl and stomp.
Initially, LS gets books to the European Amazon sites more quickly. When you approve for press, the cover artwork goes up within a week. With CS, books go to Amazon.com immediately but expanded distribution to the UK site and further takes a good two weeks, sometimes more.
Some writers make CS editions to sell on Amazon, and LS editions for other channels. I’m not sure about the logic of that because once the book is up it’s up.
You make more profit per copy on LS than you do on CS, but LS charges setup fees – GBP£42 to set up each title, and a handsome hourly fee to give you proof copies. If you want to make changes on LS books that can get you into more expense and if there’s something wrong with your files they’ll charge you while they fret about it. As their PDF requirements are a lot more strict than CS, you could find yourself spending a lot of time and cash if you’re new to this.
CS don’t have any hidden charges. Proof copies don’t cost any more than ordinary copies. However, CS quotes long shipping times (6 weeks) in the hope you’ll stump up for express shipping – especially if you’re eager to get your proof. Ignore those quotes and get the cheap option – it’s never taken anything like 6 weeks for me to receive a proof copy.
Advance review copies
Philippa: I plan to print pre-publication copies to get (and then add) endorsements for the final edition.
As I said, proofs cost you dear on LS. So I’d set up a rough ARC edition either on CS or Lulu, where proofs are cheaper. Then if you’re still keen on LS, save your proofing budget for the final, sparkling copy. If you want to stick with CS, changes are easy – upload a new PDF, wait a day or two and check the proof either on line or order a copy.
Don’t try to do without a hard proof copy entirely. Margins in the printed book may not look as you expect. Cropping can make cover proportions look totally different. Colours can look sludgy or gaudy in the flesh, even if the PDF looked luscious.
Use Amazon Marketplace
Do you know Amazon Marketplace? Individuals can sell anything that’s on the Amazon database. A lot of people use it to resell secondhand books, but authors often use them to offload surplus contractual copies and online shops also sell that way. I have a stock of my CS books and put them on Amazon Marketplace to fill supply gaps, for instance -
- - for limbo days when my print copies are unavailable because I’ve updated the cover or interior.
- - for distributing my books to people who are outside the usual Amazon areas; if people contact me saying they can’t get my book, I direct them to Marketplace or sell them a copy directly using Paypal.
Philippa: What about the tax issue for a non US writer publishing with CS?
As with Kindle, CS deducts 30% from your earnings unless you send an exemption form, for which you need a US tax code. Here’s how you get it. I’d advise you sort the paperwork before you start selling, as CS can’t refund you the tax. You have to apply to the IRS, which by all accounts is like shutting your eyes and wishing really hard.
Phillipa: What’s CS service like?
I’ve been pleased so far. Their support team are quick to answer questions, and patient with what must be moronic queries. Mind you, I haven’t had any real problems, which is usually the acid test. Dave had mighty problems with a graphic novel he was producing with LS, and found their UK help people were clueless and obstructive. But that was a full-colour book with high-resolution graphics. With straightforward text we’ve had no problems.
Is the Amazon connection with CS a genuine benefit?
Undoubtedly. As we’ve seen, it seems to be ‘easier’ to keep a CS title in stock.
I find my CS titles regularly get promoted in ‘three-for-two’ offers (see pic) – especially Nail Your Novel. It gets offered with other top-selling writing titles – priceless promotion that you couldn’t buy. This never happened – ever – when my print edition of Nail Your Novel was on Lulu.
Philippa: My book is probably the most unmarketable book ever written. I believe it will have a market but it will be up to me to find it. Do you know of anyone who has signed up for CS ‘marketing’ help?
I don’t, and I’d like to hear from people who have. But I would be wary of standard packages, especially for unusual works such as yours. Expert help is always worth paying for, but it has to be the right expert.
What works for one book won’t work for another – as I know from the vastly different experiences of marketing an offbeat novel starting from a writing advice platform! To be honest, I’m still guessing – I’m soaking up lessons from novelists who have marketed successfully but the less easily you fit a widely read genre, the fewer equivalents you have. Bide your time, understand who your audience is, and find out how similar writers have reached theirs. If an expert for marketing your book is out there, one day you’ll trip over them.
And – good luck!
Any further questions? Share them in the comments! And comment if you have any further answers, or particularly if you want to set something straight
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If you have to showcase your novel – perhaps for a reading, a book trailer or as an excerpt on a blog or website, how do you choose a piece to do it justice? I recently gave a reading at a book event in London – a landmark as it was my first – and choosing an excerpt was a little more tricky than I anticipated.
Not the beginning
I’d assumed I’d read from the beginning. Surely that was a no-brainer. There would be no need to explain anything. It introduces the narrator, charms you into the story world.
But then I was listening to Radio 4’s Film Programme and noticing how they teased a movie they were about to feature. There would be a short spiel about the premise and then a clip. It wasn’t the beginning, but the first plot point, the first irrevocable step into a new and perilous situation.
So although we hone our beginning so that it grabs, it’s perhaps not for a live situation. It’s for settling down with, not standing up.
So I looked at my first plot point. Out of context, it was too baffling. I tried my narrator’s first hypnosis session when she goes to the future. It was spooky, but much of its power came from the interplay with the two characters. It was as much about them as it was about what they were doing, but if you hadn’t got involved with them I feared it wouldn’t sizzle.
A grounding scene
But not long before that was a scene where my narrator’s best friend is hypnotised back to the time of Jack the Ripper. This is the way hypnotic regression conventionally works, and I’d written it partly to ground the reader, to present them with the idea in familiar guise before I started to warp it. This excerpt is easy to understand if you come to it cold, it has plenty of drama and it’s narrated by a horrified friend. It’s self-contained. Perfect.
I had to fit into a strict five-minute slot. Reading at a pace listeners can keep with, that’s less text than you might think – though it seemed for ever with all those faces watching me. Five minutes gave me two sides of text from my print edition.
I didn’t use the excerpt exactly as it appears. I removed sections that you could only understand if you’d read the earlier scenes. An audience’s attention will wander easily and if you confuse them, you lose them. I also trimmed the description of what the hypnotised Jerry sees in the regression. In the book, it’s part of the veracity of the experience and the details are significant later, but in radio drama descriptions tend to be shorter. Writing that works for the eye doesn’t always hold the attention of a listener. But even if your excerpt will appear in print, consider whether you need the extra details that only make sense in the full work.
Write an introduction
I had to allow for an introduction in my five minutes as well. My usual back cover blurb was too sweeping so I simplified to give my excerpt maximum impact: The narrator is Carol, a classical pianist, who is forced to stop playing because of a mysterious pain in her hands – and fears she may never play again. Her closest friend, Jerry, also has a secret burden – he has crippling panic attacks and is convinced they are caused by a trauma in a past life. In this scene Carol accompanies him to a secret theatre under a house in London, and a stage hypnotist. (If you’ve read the story you might spot I’ve taken liberties with my own ‘facts’. In the novel, Jerry’s curiosity about past lives isn’t as straightforward as this introduction suggests. But it’s all a listener needs to know for these purposes.)
Dammit, be a storyteller
As I said, I’d never read my work out loud before, even in the writer-friendly confines of a bookshop. This event was taking place in a pub. Not a place where people go to read. We had a stage and a microphone, but the crowd had their cronies and beer. They were too nice to heckle, but we had to win them over.
Delivery made a huge difference. Some readers kept their noses in their novels and never looked up. Their excerpts might have been great, but they were reading to themselves and after the first sentences the general rustle of conversation rose. The readers who commanded attentive silence looked frequently into the crowd and told their stories with a bit of swagger.
Dammit, we’re storytellers. We hold our reader with our conviction on the page, and stand-up reading needs that confidence too. (You can guess which option I favoured. It worked.) Afterwards I talked to a seasoned pro who had roared and waved through his piece and he confirmed that you could never overdo the drama.
Of course, take copies of your books. But those of us who were new to the crowd didn’t sell many copies, because people don’t usually buy the first time they hear about you. Or they might want ebooks. But they will take other souvenirs and it’s worth cramming in as much as you can – bookmarks, catalogues, flyers. I had dinky Moo cards, beautifully printed slivers the size of a French train ticket. All of them disappeared.
If you’re doing a reading, here are my tips for success
- Choose an excerpt that shows off your hook
- Re-edit your original text
- Take ‘souvenirs’
- Tap your inner show-off. There’s no such thing as too much drama
Thanks for the bookshop pic, katclay
Such was my experience. Have you got any tips to share, either as an audience member or from reading your own work at events? Share in the comments!
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As @NailYourNovel I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per dayMy Tweets
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- From ‘To do’ to ‘Done’ – confessions of an organised author December 8, 2013
- ‘Music to make a creative space’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kirsty Greenwood December 4, 2013
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- Could The Undercover Soundtrack help you reach readers? Post at the Alliance of Independent Authors November 30, 2013
- ‘Sex, drugs, metaphysics and rock’n’roll’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Biddle November 27, 2013
- How do I develop something special in my writing? November 24, 2013
- 2 Tone Records and two cities riven by conflict – The Undercover Soundtrack, Catriona Troth November 20, 2013
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