Archive for April, 2017

A plea for reviewers – can we open up a dialogue about self-published books?

So I find a lovely-looking review blog. The posts are thoughtful, fair and seriously considered. I look up the review policy and … it says ‘no self-published books’.

Today I want to open a dialogue with reviewers. If you have that policy, might you be persuaded to change it? Or to approach the problem in a different way?

I used the word ‘problem’. Because I appreciate – very well – that in making this policy you are trying to tackle a major problem. Your time as a reviewer is precious – and let me say your efforts are enormously appreciated by readers and authors alike. You get pitches for many more books than you can read and you need a way to fillet out the ones that are seriously worth your reading hours. A blanket ban is a way to fend off a lot of substandard material and save you many unpleasant conversations. And traditional publishing implies a certain benchmark of competence.

Competence. That’s probably the heart of the matter. There are good self-published books, of course, but how can I help you sort them from the bad and the fug-ugly?

Most people would probably tell you to look at the presentation – whether the cover and interior look professional, and the blurb looks authoritative and slick. But to be blunt, pigs can be well disguised by the right kind of lipstick. Still thinking in pig, a good sausage and a bad sausage look mostly the same on the outside.

No, instead, I urge you to do this. Look at the author.

The author

Consider the following:

  • What experience do they have of publishing? Do they know how much meticulous polishing a book should have? Have they already been traditionally published, and learned what it takes?
  • Do they give the impression that they are wise and competent enough to make responsible publishing decisions?
  • Look at their online persona – do you think they’d act on professional feedback, and would they have the self-discipline and pride to give the book another revision if a pro told them it wasn’t yet ready?

Underbaked books

Yes, it has to be admitted that some books are published too early. A release date is decided, and sometimes there is no time for the author to do a rewrite, even if the manuscript badly needs it. The editorial people do the best they can in the time available, tidying up the typos and inconsistencies – or sometimes they don’t even have time for that. I’ve been involved with books like this – and industry friends have too.

Sounds like a ghastly compromise, doesn’t it? And do you know, the examples I have in mind are not self-published books. They’re books produced by traditional publishing houses. I promise on my honour, this happens and it’s not even uncommon.

Manuscripts that have already been published in hardback often get another proof-read before they release in paperback – and all manner of unholy errors come to light. Not just the odd typo, but fundamental goofs with credibility and consistency. And major craft issues like head-hopping. I can’t count the number of published books – yea, even those from trad houses – where the author hasn’t grasped point of view. When characters start talking about things they can’t possibly know, it can slap a reader right out of the story.

So it’s not safe to assume that a trad published book has superior quality control.

But, you might ask, who is doing the quality control on an indie author’s book? Well, the trad houses use freelances – freelances who are also now working with indie authors. It’s the editors who guide the book, line by line, into a publishable shape – so indie authors who use them are getting exactly the same degree of professional stewardship as authors who are published by an established imprint. And, if they’ve been sensible with their schedules, these authors might be able to use the editor’s contribution more fully. (Here’s a post where I give advice on how to build in time to use your editorial experts properly.)

But all the good authors get book deals, don’t they?

No. They don’t. A book deal isn’t like an academic qualification – you hit the standard, you get the badge. That’s one of publishing’s biggest myths. Here’s the reality – a book deal is awarded to writers whose work fits current marketing needs. Big, big difference. Here’s a unicorn.

Thank you, Catherine on Flickr

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what it’s really like. I have a friend who’s a senior editor at one of the Big 5. A decade ago she published a set of novels that were well reviewed, got a five-figure advance – the full fanfare. She’s now come out with a new novel, which has seriously impressed an agent. But.

What’s the but? The market has moved on and isn’t looking for books like hers. On its own terms – as a reading experience – the book is her best ever. Her old fans would probably love it too. Her original books are still finding a steady trickle of new readers. She’s made the grade, dammit, but that book does not fit today’s market.

And what’s she doing? She’s seeking my advice on self-publishing. As is another friend who got his original publishing deal by winning a national award, and then went on to publish 10 highly acclaimed novels.

These are some of the people who are self-publishing. Senior figures in the industry. Prizewinning authors. People of solid publishing pedigree. And they’re probably even better authors than when they started because they’ve grown as writers and people. Other kinds of people who self-publish responsibly include authors who’ve begun under contract and then continued as self-publishers; authors who have released their books once they went out of print; authors who’ve published in very commercial areas but would like to publish with more creative control – me, for instance, but I’m not alone. Purely as an example, here’s my story.

Some book deals are unacceptable to authors

Even if an author ticks the marketing boxes, they might prefer not to accept a deal. Not just because of money or royalty rates, but because of other clauses that have long-term consequences. Two that particularly deserve attention are rights grabs and reversion clauses. Here’s a shark.

Two technical terms
What’s a rights grab? A book contract is a grant of the right to publish in a particular format. A book could be published in many formats or ‘products’ – an ebook, a print book, an audiobook, a movie script, a TV adaptation, an interactive app, a workbook. And it could be all these, multiple times, in all languages (translation rights) and other English speaking territories (England, US, Australia etc). A rights grab usually tries to get as many of these in one deal without paying extra for them. If the author sold them separately elsewhere, they would usually get a better deal. Publishers are usually not keen on this.

What’s a reversion clause? A book doesn’t have to ‘belong’ to a publisher for life. Indeed, a book often goes out of print, which means the author could then take it back and find a new publisher for it, or publish it themselves. So contracts should have a reversion clause – but if the terms of this aren’t fair, that book might completely disappear. For many authors who are building a body of work, that’s simply not acceptable.

Sometimes, a publishing deal doesn’t make business sense to the author, even with the kudos.

Dealing directly with authors

Now this is tricky. If you review traditionally published books, you might deal with third parties – publicity departments or services such as NetGalley. If you don’t like a book or choose not to review it, you don’t have to explain or justify anything to the sensitive person who wrote it. But indie authors might contact you directly, and it could get difficult.

So here’s a plea to authors. If a reviewer has agreed to look at your book, send it and then … forget about it. Don’t hassle to see whether it’s being read or when the review will be published. In the publishing ecosystem, far more copies get sent out than are reviewed. They slip through the net for all sorts of reasons, many of them unrelated to the book itself. Don’t hound a reviewer to give you feedback. Fire, forget and move on.

The author as creative director

We are in an age where more authors will be their own creative directors – for artistic reasons and financial ones (we haven’t even mentioned creative control, but that’s another factor for committed authors with their eye on the long game). A lot of the new, important voices will come up through self-publishing because traditional publishing will have to play safer and safer. And a lot more of your favourite authors will be continuing their body of work by self-publishing.

So if an author can prove they have the necessary maturity and wisdom, would you give them a try?

A few more things to chew over.

Here’s a post about highly commercial publishing and creative control.

Just to confuse matters even more, here’s how the boundaries between traditional publishing and self-publishing are blurring.

And here’s a post about how we’ve – thankfully – moved on from the bad old days of ‘vanity publishing’.

I’d like to take this debate forward in a helpful way. Book bloggers and reviewers, you set your policies for thoroughly sound reasons. Would you share them here? If you accept indies, how do you make this work? And if you don’t, what are your concerns? I’d like to understand them. What would you need to know about a self-published author to consider one of their books?

What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter

 

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Writing the perfect love triangle – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

I haven’t had a hardcore writing post for a while, so today I’m making up for that. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have invited me to their blog to be a guest tutor, and the subject I’ve chosen is love triangles. In spring, a young man’s fancy, etc etc.

Seriously, though, it’s a potent ingredient that can spice up any story, whether it’s centre stage or a dalliance in the wings of the main plot, and can fit into any genre. So I’ve worked out some ground rules to help you make the most of it. Do come over.

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Before Arrival: appreciating Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang is probably better known as its movie adaptation, Arrival. I haven’t yet seen the movie – but before I do, I want to post about the prose story because it pulls off a trick that seems impossible in the literal and external medium of film.

Spoilers follow; if that’s a problem, toodle-pip and see you next time.

Still here? Fasten seatbelt. Off we go.

Story of Your Life opens as alien artefacts appear on Earth. They seem to be windows into a spacecraft. The narrator is a language expert who is called in to help establish contact. This narrative is intercut with another story – a letter to her daughter, who, we soon learn, has died.

Two narrative threads

One of the narrative threads is linear – the process of decoding the language. The other, the story of the daughter, has a more haphazard order. One moment we see her as an infant; the next, her mother is travelling to identify her dead body.

The focus isn’t on revelations or startling events. We’re not directed to wonder what the aliens want and there aren’t any secrets to learn about the daughter and her fate. The story’s interest is smaller scale, an unravelling process of study. While the aliens and humans evaluate each other, the narrator is retracing the times with her daughter. Indeed, for some readers it might veer perilously close to the navel-gazing kind of literary story where nothing appears to happen.

But there is a story

Still, something kept me reading – a sense of exploration, in themes of time, development and change. There’s a searching emotion, a sense of puzzlement. One puzzle is literal – the intellectual task of figuring out the aliens’ language. The other puzzle is less easy to solve – the phenomenon of the narrator’s loss. Her mind grasps at memories and questions: how her daughter could grow up so fast; how parenting could cause such anxiety and wonder; how the narrator’s own life could extend beyond the beginning and the end of her child’s. This interior working is the true quest of the story, the narrative momentum.

As the narrator studies the aliens’ language, she begins to grasp their way of thinking. While humans’ world view is mostly linear, like our sentences that place one word after another, the aliens think in complex constructs of time. Their written language is more like a work of art, an image that contains many ideas all at once. With this comes the main reveal. The action with the aliens is not in the present, but in the past. It’s how the parents met. The family life – and ultimate tragedy – is yet to come.

Described like this, the revelation seems rather negligible, but within the atmosphere of the story I found it to be a powerful perceptional pivot. It suddenly transforms everything we’ve seen.

Perception

The process of learning the aliens’ language has altered the narrator’s perception and allowed her to reach a resolution. Because of the way the aliens communicate about time as complete pictures, the narrator is able to see her years with her daughter as a complete, rich life, instead of just its endpoint, a numbing loss. We finish with the narrator and her husband coming together on the night that will be the daughter’s conception – and an uplifting feeling that, if you look at it as a whole, the best is yet to come.

Kurt Vonnegut has said it rather elegantly:

Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now. To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are.

And here’s the thing. I don’t know of any medium that could do this better than prose. I’ll be interested to see the film adaptation, but I’m guessing its story will have to be more literal, perhaps including a device like time travel or precognitive vision. It may work well in its own terms, but I can’t see how it could achieve this subtle, deep-level trick of switch and release, which allows the narrator to let go of the tragedy. The interior shifts are as important as the objective facts. And they’re only possible because prose has such a close contact with the reader’s mind.

Tell me your interpretation

As with all good stories, you could argue several interpretations (and do add yours below in the comments if you wish to). But whatever your takeaway, Ted Chiang’s prose has achieved something rather fascinating – the learning process about the alien language has gradually adjusted the reader’s brain.

I think that’s awesome.

I’ll no doubt have more to say when I’ve seen the movie. Meanwhile, if you want to read more about Arrival, plus a little bit about the story, here’s a discussion about how it portrays translators. And if you want to know more about storytelling techniques, you might like the Nail Your Novel books.

What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter

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‘The unrelenting passage of time’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Theresa Milstein

My guest this week has just published a collection of vignettes. They’re linked by a sense of time passing, anniversaries both happy and sad, and nostalgia. Music was the way to capture and preserve the essential moments and personal memories she wanted to examine, so the soundtrack was a soundtrack to her life too. She is Theresa Milstein and she’s on the Red Blog now.

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