Archive for category The writing business

Making a living as a writer: how social media can be a long-term investment for your career

Last weekend I was speaking at the PowWow Festival of Writing in Moseley, Birmingham, and they were interested to hear how a writer of 2017 makes a living.

The first thing to say is that not many writers make a living from their books these days – whether they publish themselves or have book deals.

This is often a surprise to aspiring authors – and not a tad disappointing. It’s not that they expect to be earning like the headline grabbers, but they usually hope their book earnings will become a reliable replacement for other income. It usually doesn’t.

Of course, you’re far more likely to make quantities of £££ if you write prolifically in a popular genre – if that’s you, you might find this post by cosy mystery writer Elizabeth S Craig has useful strategies. You might also have made a serious study of hardass marketing techniques – a discipline in itself. But for those of us who produce more slowly and aren’t ninja marketers, book earnings are much less dependable. Especially the midlist authors – writers who build a steady stream of well-received books outside of the mega-selling genres. These days, authors whose work would be midlist are really feeling the pinch, even those who have book deals. Here’s a post by Kathleen Jones that explains how times have changed.

The short version: Most authors I know have other income streams. I do too, and they’re all connected with writing – which is something the PowWow crowd were curious about. I’m not going to show you pie-charts or anything so crass as earnings tables, but these are the activities that keep me ticking over in the world of books and words.
Things I do

  • Developmental editing and mentoring
  • Story consultancy (eg for computer games)
    All the book editorial processes (copy editing, proof reading, typesetting)
  • Speaking and masterclasses
  • Surprising one-offs such as helping an author build a website
  • Ghostwriting
  • Writing and publishing of my own books
  • Magazine production

The PowWows’ major question was this: how do you get started in this kind of work?

Let’s take magazine publishing and book production out of the equation, as they came from traditional employment. I was a chief sub for years, and before that I ran the editorial department of a publishing imprint.

But many of the jobs I get now come from another source. Not from people I’ve worked with IRL, but people I’ve met since I started exploring the online world.

And here’s where my experience might give some useful pointers, because my online footprint is generating the majority of my work. For instance, editing – I’ve never pitched for editing work. It’s all come to me. My blogposts have acted as a kind of CV, getting me noticed by influential bloggers and by authors and other people who need book doctors – and they generate a steady flow of enquiries. When I look at my website stats, my consultancy page has more hits than any of my other pages.

And, at the risk of sounding unhelpfully gnomic, I’ve learned that your platform will work for you, but rarely as you expect it to. Just like real life, the contacts you think will be helpful might not come to much. And the ones you weren’t relying on will prove unexpectedly fruitful.

Platform

What did I do to build a platform? It was simple, really – and not very calculated. I can’t be bothered to develop grand self-marketing schemes. I did what interested me – wrote blogposts, commented on other people’s blogs, took part in tweet chats, talked equal amounts of wisdom and nonsense with likeminded souls. It began with a blog in 2009. By 2011 I was on Twitter, Linked In, Google + and Facebook. Eight years on, my personal world wide web is working hard for me – and I’ve made genuine friends along the way. (Which just goes to show that the best way to use social media is to relax, don’t think about selling, and just get to know people.) Here’s a picture of a good platform.

On the subject of pitching, one of the things I talked about at PowWow was the value of writing a cheeky letter. If I run across a bookshop or an initiative that says it’s looking for my kind of fiction, or an event that wants speakers in my areas of expertise, I’ll pitch to them. Nine times out of 10 I don’t get a reply. But sometimes it’s the start of something wonderful.

Here’s an example. Last year I discovered the One Giant Read initiative (to get people reading science fiction) so I pitched Lifeform Three to them. They loved it, featured it on their website with an in-depth review and interview. Always be ready to take a giant step.

A cheeky letter also got me started as a book doctor and writing mentor. Years ago, a publisher rejected one of my manuscripts with a form letter, and included a flyer for a literary consultancy’s editing services. So I wrote to the consultancy – but not to request their services. I told them about my ghostwriting experience and asked if I could work for them. Voila – a working relationship that lasted for many years.

And on the subject of ghostwriting? Well, most ghostwriters get their best opportunities from personal contacts. I got my break when I happened to be in the right place at the right time, so I had the chance to prove myself (if you haven’t heard it before, there’s more here). At the moment, I don’t do many ghostwriting projects because my calendar’s taken up by other things, but I’ve noticed in recent years that I no longer have to seek opportunities. My website and blog – again – are acting as a CV and people come to me. So if you’re interested in writing books for others or collaborating, make sure your online home has pages that showcase your style, experience and versatility. (If you’re serious about ghostwriting, here’s my course.)
Social media are ideal for shy writers

Some of the writers at PowWow weren’t sure about social media or how to use them to build a career. Here’s how I explained it. Most opportunities in the writing and publishing world seem to come by networking. People work with people they know. Before we all facebooked, snapchatted, tumbld, tweeted and blogged, writers would get on by going to publisher parties or book launches. If you weren’t in that world, it was hard to break in. And anyway, most of us are not party people. (Certainly I’m paralysed if I’m thrown into a roomful of strangers. I stand in a corner wondering where to start.)

Online, though, writers are at two enormous advantages.

  • You can talk to anyone. Anyone you like.
  • You can do it by typing. Which is where we’re absolutely in our element.

And, purely as a result of meeting people online (via social media and on my blog), I have contributed to anthologies, spoken at events, collaborated on online courses and given masterclasses.

I didn’t pitch for any of them; they came to me.

Likewise, when I’ve been building a team for an event, I’ve approached people who’ve impressed me with interviews or posts I’ve read online.  

Here’s another tip: once you start being offered new types of work, update your website to show people you can do it. Once I put speaking on my website header, I got more offers. Then opportunities beget opportunities.

There’s a saying: ‘build it and they will come’. In most areas of life, that’s disastrous advice. It’s certainly not a recipe for selling a lot of books. But with social media, if you build solid relationships over time, and a website that shows your work to good advantage, a lot of good will come.

And speaking of building something

I have an announcement. A one-day self-publishing masterclass, taught by selfpub professionals (including yours truly), sponsored by IngramSpark, in London on 23 September. Special early-bird rate of £80 if you book your place before the end of May (spaces are limited to 200 attendees, so grab yours now).

Thanks for the footprint pic pmarkham on Flickr

Okay, back to the post. What’s your experience? Have you noticed that social media has brought you opportunities? How much has been by conventional pitching and how much by more surprising routes?

 

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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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Literary writers, we are not alone – meet Main Street Writers

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-12-34-34While I’d never claim that genre writers ‘have it easy’ in this publishing ecosystem, they have undeniable advantages – they plug into well established tribes.

Literary fiction is much more about individual visions and the people who don’t fit. And if you’re publishing literary fiction as an indie, you’re usually a tribe of one, squeaking your tiny squeak in a roaring wind. I have friends in mainstream publishing who give me furious pep-talks about how I’m on a hiding to nothing, which, of course, is excellent for morale. Thanks, guys. (Here’s where I thanked them more extensively.)

That’s why I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss this – a campaign that aims to represent the work of literary writers, small presses, independent bookshops and anyone who struggles to be heard or find their audiences. It’s called the Main Street Writers Movement and it’s the brainchild of Laura Stanfill, of litfic publisher Forest Avenue Press.

Laura’s vision is for a number of hubs around the US with live events and networking, but if you’re not one of her geographical neighbours, don’t be put off. Wherever your desk is (I’m waving to you from London), we can blog, tweet, share, meet IRL (heavens!). And support each other to do what we must do.

It could be a lifeline for literary.

Of course, by its very nature, the term literary spans a vast range of writing. Not everyone likes all of it, or even agrees what it is. Laura faces this head on. She says Main Street Writers is for ‘Writers who are tired of writing fluffy reviews about books they don’t particularly like due to a sense of obligation. Let’s replace that instinct with better, more genuine ways to support each other.’

I like this immensely. This is about honesty; making meaningful connections. If enough of us get involved, we’re all more likely to find the people we really do click with. Writers, publishers, agents, bloggers, reviewers, events organisers – and readers.

There’s a pledge (which, alas, you can only sign if you have 5-digit zip code), but you can register separately for the blog and the newsletter. There’s also a hashtag #mainstreetwriters so we can all get – and stay – in touch.

I think it looks exciting.

Back with a proper post this weekend.

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Traditional publishing & selfpublishing … not so different: Q&A from New Generation Publishing summit

yin-yang-14264436247ktSelf-publishing and traditional publishing. What are the differences? Today I’ve been on a panel at the New Generation Publishing summit, and it’s clear there is no longer an absolute divide between the publishing approaches. These days, we have a spectrum.

So that sounds abstract – let’s have concrete examples. This is how the discussion went at the event today – plus some more thoughts I wanted to elaborate on. (Yes, being a typical author, I muster my best lines several hours after the conversation.)

The question: What do you see as the main differences between self and traditional publishing?

My answer was :

  • The solo artist – and who’s in charge
  • Who pays
  • Speed

And here’s where we find ourselves in grey areas.

1 The solo artist – and who’s in charge

When you self-publish there are no gatekeepers. You don’t have to be accepted by anyone. Also, you have the final say about the text, the cover, the way the book looks. When you traditionally publish, you have to be chosen, and your book is filling a publisher’s need to fit a certain market. They will make many of the decisions – including the cover and the title. They might direct certain rewrites. They’re usually unwilling to let you lobby for changes; they don’t regard it as your territory. Some writers are happy with this; after all, they are writers, not publishers. Sometimes it turns out well for all. But plenty of authors end up feeling railroaded or compromised, or with covers that attract the wrong kind of reader (who then respond with negative reviews).

Indie authors shoulder all this responsibility themselves – but that doesn’t mean they’re one-man bands. Indeed, they shouldn’t be. Although they might know how to write, that doesn’t mean they also have the other skills needed to publish well. In the early days of indie, many had a go anyway, and the Kindle shelves were stuffed with unedited, unproofed horrors with unsuitable covers. But indies have wised up, and a well-turned indie book will have creative input from editors, cover designers – and even blurb writers. There’s no change in who the final boss is, but an indie book is now more of a team effort – and editors might even steer the book significantly.

2 Who pays for production!

Here’s where the boundaries start to blur. In traditional self-publishing, you pay all the editorial work, cover and launch. And in traditional traditional publishing, the imprint pays. Plus they pay you an advance or a fee to acquire the book.

Here’s how that’s changing.

Crowdfunding If you’re self-publishing you might be able to crowdfund. There are authors who use Kickstarter or Indigogo, to name just two. Ben Galley has a post about it here.

pub-unboundOn the trad side of the fence, there’s Unbound – an imprint with traditional gatekeeping and commissioning editors, who ask authors to raise the money for the first print run (here’s an interview with several successful Unbounders plus a Q&A with an Unbound editor). You might wonder what the upside is? Prestige – Unbound is developing a reputation for books that are more innovative than the safe-bet choices of purely traditional publishers.

So you might think that if you’re offered a traditional-traditional contract, you don’t pay any of the costs. But here are two ways that trad-trad authors might help fund their book’s journey.

Developmental editing The market is so competitive now that it’s not unusual for first-time authors to work with an editor to give their manuscript the wow factor. Sometimes literary agents will nudge a promising author to seek an editor to iron out some craft problems.

Promotion and marketing A lot of trad-trad releases have a limited budget for promotion and marketing. It’s not unusual now for authors to top up the launch package by hiring a book marketing company or funding a signing tour. (But beware of self-publishing services companies that upsell marketing packages of dubious value. You’re better going to a specialist consultancy that handles traditionally published authors as well as indie authors.)

Who pays? The authors in both camps are edging closer together.

pub-offerAnother ‘beware’. There are companies that contact authors, apparently offering a publishing contract, but really they’re just touting for business. See here for a post on how to spot them. If you get an approach like that, you’re often better shopping around properly. Check what value you’re getting.

By the same token, keep your head if you’re offered a traditional deal. A significant number of indie authors are turning these down because the offers aren’t worth their while – here’s a post that expands on that.

3 Speed

Speed is one of the great advantages of self-publishing. It’s as instant as you like. You can, if you like, pull a Word doc off your computer, whack it up on KDP and voila – instant ebook. An hour or so of tinkering and you can be making a print version on CreateSpace. You shouldn’t, of course, but there are no barriers to stop you. The tools are available.

Traditional publishing, on the other hand, means entering a slow-moving machine. Your contract might be inked in January but the book might not releases until October – or even later.

pub-schedSome of that delay is corporation inertia. But actually, indie publishing, if done properly, should also have a long gestation. It might take you many drafts to finalise your manuscript, and after that, you need other processes. The developmental edit (especially if you’re new to publishing). The copy edit. The proof-read. The cover design. The marketing plan (which shouldn’t be left until the book is about to hit the shelves). (Here’s a post on who to hire and when.)

Some of these checking and polishing stages take a necessary amount of time … And good editors and cover designers might need to be booked several months in advance. Many indies then go straight to press once the book is ready, but if you want to pitch to mainstream reviewers, they need bound copies several months before publication – because that’s when magazines prepare their books pages. And bookshops place their orders three to six months before publication – so if you’re selling into shops, you need finalised copies by that time.

All this means that more indies are setting long-term schedules for their publishing plans –in some cases, the same amount of time that a traditional imprint would take.

The artist working solo. Funding the production. Speed to market. These used to be the defining characteristics of indie versus traditional publishing. Now, we’re discovering how to get the best of both worlds – and I find that encouraging. Which other distinct divisions might disappear? What do you think? What have you noticed already? Let’s chat in the comments.

top-100-literary-badge-high-resForgot to add… This blog just got a rather nice honour, alongside The Paris Review and a number of other writerly boltholes.

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Got a personal story to tell… should you make it into a novel?

mona-1This week I’ve been advising a writer who wants to gather his professional experiences into a daring expose of … well, I’m not allowed to reveal that. But there is malpractice, corruption and a lot of harm being done to innocent people. Publishers have told him they’re wary because he doesn’t have a platform as an investigative reporter. Others have suggested that he could make his experiences into a novel. And that was one of the questions he asked me. Should he?

Obviously, if you’re going to embark on fiction, there are certain mechanics to learn – storytelling, character invention, show not tell, arcs, dialogue.

But this kind of book comes with an extra challenge. If your material is a true-life account, or a memoir, or an expose, you also have to change your attitude to the content. You have to be willing to change everything – anything – in the service of the story.

mona-2Believability

If you’re drawing on real experiences you’re often wedded to the exact details. ‘What really happened’ is part of the authenticity. Its very unbelievability might be part of its extraordinary nature. Real life is often stranger than fiction – that proverb exists for a good reason.

In fiction, believability works in a different way. You have to persuade the reader that the situations and developments are real. In memoir and autobiography or any other kind of anecdotal narrative, we already accept that it is. We accept whatever is put in front of us.

People in fiction must be believable too. Fiction has to present its characters with great care, especially the main characters. We might have to alter them from our original concept. An antagonist might seem ridiculous unless they’ve given a quality that makes them human. A protagonist might seem drippy unless they’re given a chance to be wicked sometimes. To create the credibility of novels, you have to be much more willing to adapt as you work. And invent.

Legal aspects – will fictionalising get you off the hook, legally?

Probably it won’t. If you’ve been a thorn in someone’s side and you bring out a novel that seems to enact your conflict with them, you’re probably vulnerable to being challenged. Changing a few details – or a lot of them – won’t stop somebody recognising themselves, their organisation or their battle with you. And if you’ve improved on the real events to make a better story, you might have compounded the possible libel by suggesting they’d do things they haven’t done.

realBut people do make real life into stories, quite effectively and without getting sued. The trick is to use the real details as a starting point and present them in heavy disguise – here’s a post all about that. Look out for Dave and me in that pic.  (Ghostwriters do it too, for famous and infamous people who, ahem, write novels about their lives. If you’re curious about how that happens, step this way)

Assess your priorities – and perhaps adjust

You can still use fiction to expose an injustice or tell your unbelievable truth. Fiction writers usually want to probe for truths, anyway, even though they’re using invented people and events. Although fictionalising might involve compromise, you don’t have to see it that way. Aim instead to identify some core truths and then build a story that stays faithful to those. Your goal isn’t to be a chronicle; instead you’re communicating the deeper spirit, the themes, dilemmas, rights and wrongs.

Your turn! Have you tried to make real-life experiences into a novel? Do you know anyone who has, perhaps in a writers’ group? Any experiences, lessons or wisdom to share?

dscf8458FLASH SALE Congratulations to Sophie Playle and Mary McCauley, who won the paperback copies of My Memories of a Future Life in the prize draw. Thanks to everyone who entered … and if you weren’t lucky this time I have an extra treat for you. Until Monday 17 Oct, My Memories of a Future Life is 0.99 on Kindle. Hurry there now! If you’ve already got it, send your friends!

 

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5 things I didn’t expect when I released my first novel

It’s five years since I released My Memories of a Future Life. I actually hadn’t realised it was that long ago, but Facebook has an algorithm that nudges you to repost old updates. And recently it gave me this:

fb-mm-5-yars

Still, I wasn’t feeling especially retrospective until I happened upon this post by Caroline Leavitt at Jane Friedman’s blog, which talked about a few realities of author life.  And I thought: yes. Releasing that book marked a big change. A set of new and unforeseen challenges.

Model posed in ornate costumes: in black pressed pleats, with top hat; standing tip-toe on champagne bottle

Pic from Wikimedia Commons

1 Lovely reactions – which will wildly delight you

My Memories of a Future Life wasn’t my first book. I’d ghosted lots of titles (more about that here), so I was used to seeing my work bound between covers. I’d also published the first Nail Your Novel book, and knew how nice it was to get feedback. But fiction sets up a different kind of relationship. I received long emails and reviews – as if the book had started a thoughtful and personal conversation. I didn’t know this happened.

2 Upsetting reactions – your author friends will see you through

In her piece, Caroline Leavitt talks about bad reviews. We all accept we’re not going to please everybody, so we shrug and move on. But sometimes, a bad reaction really knocks you. Especially if it’s soon after the release, when the book is finding its way.

I had two.

The first was from a pre-release reader. It all started well. He wrote me emails while reading, chapter by chapter, saying how much he was enjoying the book. Then the end threw him right out of whack. It wasn’t what he was expecting. He sent a long, wounded email.

I was prepared for disagreement, or even dislike. I’d had the book rubber-stamped by people who wouldn’t let me get away with bad work. But still, my confidence was battered. This reader was genuinely upset and I didn’t want that.

My fellow authors told me: ‘Never apologise for your book’. Even so, I wrote back – which I shouldn’t have done and probably wouldn’t now. He replied, calmer, admitting there were complicating personal factors. Quite horrendous ones, as it happened. Still, I sneaked back to my blurb and description and examined them carefully, in case any of it was misleading.

The other upsetting reaction was a thoroughly scathing review. A blogger eviscerated it viciously. Again, I wondered what to do. Again, other authors held me down: ‘It’s dripping with malice. Some people do that. Stop being so sensitive. You don’t have to do anything.’

This time I heeded their advice. But I worried about that streak of spite, sitting on a blog for all to see, a stain on my book’s reputation before it had had much of a chance in the world. And I also didn’t do anything about the person who voiced plenty of critical opinions about the book but managed to reveal she hadn’t read it.

Two lessons here. 1 – other authors are your rock. 2 – you have to hope that on balance, you reach enough of the right people.

3 Your book changes you – a deep work of fiction is a work of personal examination

You mine yourself to write a novel like that. Your central characters come from your understanding of the people around you, and of yourself. Spending time with people in deep crisis, even imaginary ones, can change you. As do your antagonists. In order to make them rounded, I had to empathise with their point of view.

Carol’s end point made me examine some of my own life. Her psychological journey felt like my own rite of passage, a memoir in parallel, even though it was all invented.

Hence the need to be talked down, from time to time.

clapham-lit-fest4 When the book comes out, that’s not the end

When I ghost-write, my contribution finishes when the book goes to press. But your own book needs constant shepherding and revisiting – and not just for promotion. I made an audiobook, which meant presenting it to voice actors, discussing the characters and approach – and finally, listening to the recordings chapter by chapter (which revealed how much of it I had completely forgotten). This year I was interviewed at the Clapham Literary Festival by Elizabeth Buchan, so had to brush up on it again.

Tip – keep a list of your old interviews so you know what you said about your book when it was fresh. Also read your good reviews so you can discuss the themes and bigger picture – I found my smartest reviewers identified these more readily than I could.

5 Your debut is a special time – enjoy it

‘Debut’ is a good word for releasing your first novel. ‘Inauguration’ would be a good word too. It’s more than just putting a book on public sale. It’s the beginning of a new order. Even though I’d written for years, been published under cover, taught and mentored, produced oodles of other books, nothing was like this. Releasing my own novel was like finally putting my feet down, having a voice in something I hadn’t been part of before.

3d-mm-smlAnd now a new look

Lately, Husband Dave had been dropping hints. Should My Memories of a Future Life have a new look, in tune with the style of Lifeform Three? I resisted long and hard. Getting a concept first time round was difficult enough. And if you’ve been round this blog for a while, you’ll remember that the cover of Lifeform Three was an epic undertaking.

But he was right and it’s now wearing its new jacket. I was going to sneak it out without much ado because, well, it’s just a jacket. But I didn’t anticipate how new it would feel, all over again.

Which is where we came in.

 

If you’ve released a novel, what took you by surprise? Is there anything you’d do differently? Any advice you’d pass on? And I think next time I owe you a writing craft post, so if there’s something you’d like me to tackle, leave it in the comments or drop me an email on RozMorrisWriter at gmail dotcom.

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Is your writing a hobby, an art, a business, a vocation, a profession? Let’s discuss

van_gogh_-_starry_night_-_google_art_projectThis question was raised in a Facebook group this week: if you’re not earning much from writing, does that make it a hobby rather than a serious pursuit? My gut reaction was ‘no’, and I’d like to examine why. What follows will be a few attempts at definitions, a few assumptions – and I want this to be the start of a discussion rather than the last word. So do let me have your thoughts at the end.

Here goes.

A hobby?

First, let me state that when I use the term ‘hobby’, I’m not suggesting a pastime that isn’t serious. I have hobbies that matter greatly to my enjoyment of life. I ride horses and I attend dance classes at Pineapple Studios in London. My weekly schedule is constructed to accommodate these activities. They are essential outlets in a cerebral, sedentary life and they ensure my general wellbeing. I spend money on them; I’ll buy a good pair of riding boots to see me through the winter or because I’ll enjoy using them. I’ll pay serious attention to technique and invest in tuition. Because of my perfectionist nature, I’ll be frustrated if I’m having a klutz day.

But they are hobbies. I don’t kid myself I can match the standard of real professionals. I’ll perform them with dedication and I’ll try to improve. But my expectations are capped. I don’t have ambitions for them.

A business / profession?

Any level of writing where you’re earning money would fall into this category. Or is it that simple? Perhaps not.

If you’re writing as a business or a profession, the sums are important. You are careful about the investment of time. Will the book repay in terms of sales, or as a gateway to other kinds of income such as speaking or consultancy? When you buy equipment or services, it’s not an indulgence as my boots might be. It’s an investment that must save time, or add polish to the final product.

An art / vocation

What follows will be completely subjective. I’m going to try to explain why I regard my fiction writing as an art or vocation, not as a hobby.

I’m not happy to write – or use my writing sensibilities – just for income. Of course, I have to take income seriously, but I also want something more worthwhile to show for my days, months and decades. Stories have been some of my most enthralling, memorable experiences, so that’s what I think a proper story should be. When I read a good writer, it is a challenge to my sense of worth – if I don’t aim for this, I am not respecting the medium. Some people don’t feel like this about their writing, and that’s fine. But I do.

The crossovers

Writing this piece, I’m struck by the crossovers. The hobbyists and artists are not so far apart, in terms of devotion. So let’s quarry further.

In my hobbies, I don’t compare myself to others. A hobby is something we largely enjoy, give or take the odd teething trouble or bad hair day. We keep a sense of proportion. But many serious authors find writing exquisitely hard. They like ‘having written’. They can be profoundly disappointed in themselves.

Let’s return to the question of income. I earn most of my income by editing, teaching and ghostwriting, and I find these rewarding in more ways than just £££. I’m not a mercenary, I believe in my craft and I love to teach. But I see them as enablers for the work that matters to me most – my fiction. Like a director or an actor who makes one movie for artistic satisfaction and another to pay the bills, the work that truly defines them is the passion project.

An artist finds their identity in their work, for better or worse; which is why it’s hard and relentless and a personal quest that will probably be endless. Is that it? Let me know your thoughts.

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Yes, social media DO work for writers – here’s how

warden abbey 2010 037 (2)Social media are an inextricable part of author life these days – and for some, the value seems dubious. Writers might flog themselves to blog, tweet until they turn blue, but months in, the magic hasn’t happened. Where are the book deals, the viral quantities of fame? Is it worth all the trouble?

I am here to tell you it is. But you may be looking at the wrong things, or have mistaken expectations. Social media have been an absolute transforming force for me, and if the channels were closed tomorrow I’d be howling for their return. So I thought I’d quantify the ways I’ve found it so worthwhile.

Quick background. I’ve been on social media since 2009. My major haunts are Twitter @Roz_Morris  and Facebook. And I blog, obvs. I probably get most of my results from those platforms as they’re where I’m most consistently active, but I also have profiles in the outer reaches of Linked In, G+, Pinterest and Tumblr (see my sidebar).

Building useful contacts

Networking is, of course, the number one aim. Like all professionals, we make our luck by bumping into the right person. Unless you’re born into a clan of literati, you have to build your own black book. Before social media, that came mainly from real-time encounters – book launches, writing groups, courses, conferences. Now we can strike up relationships without being on a guest list. On the internet, a cat can look at a queen (and will probably be photographed doing so).

And it’s much easier to keep our contacts warm. Quick DMs, text messages, Facebook posts are much less effort than letters, emails or – gulp – face-to-face coffee. Indeed, as most of us perform better on the page than at a party, written encounters probably allow us to be more genuine.

But Roz, you might say. What about the numbers? We might have thousands of friends and followers, and thousands we befriend and follow. Setting aside the times we might use social media just because the contact is fun, is it working for our careers? In that clamour, is anyone actually getting anywhere?

I can only speak for myself, of course. But I know this: my career under my own byline has been entirely generated from social media (if that sentence makes no sense, here’s an explanation). Because I blog, tweet etc, I have sold enough books to make it worth writing more; been offered paying jobs, speaking gigs, editing work and spots on online courses; found supporters among influential figures in the writing and publishing world. And I’ve met fantastic people who have become more than colleagues.

annular rings

Social media work. But for most of us, the results are best measured in annular rings, not by weeks or months. But look back several years and you start to see a big change.

(Of course, much comes down to how you use it. What to blog about? This post has some ideas.)

But there are other benefits too, and you don’t have to wait for them to mature.

I'm not skiving. It's research

I’m not skiving. It’s research

Social media helps create a work environment

Non-freelances ask me how I stay motivated if I don’t go to an office. I think they imagine I’m running amok watching Breaking Bad or surfing eBay or strolling to the shops or idling away an afternoon with my horse. Personally I’m too much of an obsessive to skive, but if you are too tempted by the distractions of home, social media can create a circle of colleagues to keep you accountable. On Facebook and Twitter, if you look, there are plenty of writers sharing their milestones or their to-do lists. They just finished a draft. Got edits back. Wrote or approved a press release. Signed up for a course. It’s like mini-Nanowrimo community, except you can use it year-round, 24/7.

If you know how to set up lists on Twitter and Facebook, you can assemble a posse of virtual team-mates whose work ethic will spur you to achieve. (And then make a separate list of people to hobnob with in downtime.)

Social media are a tool for book research

Somewhere, one of your contacts (or perhaps more than one) can verify a snippet of research or point you to a trustworthy source. Of course, you might also get misinformed nonsense, but hopefully you’ll have enough contacts for a reality check.

Social media are a resource for reliable advice on publishing, whether traditional or indie

Thanks to social media, the author corps 2016 is a savvy beast. We’re more clued up about fair book deals. We have our eyes open about the pitfalls and pleasures of the many publishing routes. We have access to fantastic watchdogs like Victoria Strauss, the Alliance of Independent Authors. Other terrific places for advice are Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer and Jane Friedman – generous, knowledgeable professionals who are raising the general level of publishing knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

But there are so many platforms…

Well you don’t have to do all of them. Which platforms should you choose? I only know what works for me, so put these questions to social media expert Adam Waters in this edition of my radio show.

Although social media might seem ephemeral, they are actually permanent. Years on, you might feel a twitch on a thread, and hook a new person.

message

Over to you. What social media platforms do you like? How do you use them? What works for you and what doesn’t? If you look back over the long term, what have social media helped you accomplish? Any questions? Let’s consult the hive mind.

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The ethics of ghost-writing

282428943_322a2027b4_oThis week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.

It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.

What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:

  • Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
  • Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?

I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.

Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.

What about the sanctity of the byline?

In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.

Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.

Books are rarely solo projects

Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.

16600055975_5f58168b7c_bA quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.

In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)

Article on Abe Books: top 10 ghostwritten titles

Article on Abe Books: top 10 ghostwritten titles

Art v commerce

Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).

Indeed, not all professional writers want to ‘produce art’. They are happy to use their skill and get rewarded, like session musicians. Others have a scorching need to sing their truth. There’s room for both – and some of us do both (in case you think I’m selling my soul, here’s my manifesto for when I write as me)  and here’s a piece where three ghost-writers talk about making room for passion projects.

Books are not just books

And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.

Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?

trumpI’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.

 

Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.)
Publishing is a business

But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial.  Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.

Weird Tales

You see Houdini’s name in the byline on this cover? The actual writer of this story is believed to be HP Lovecraft.

This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.

‘Let’s not lose the writer’

In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’

 

matt haig

Matt Haig

Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.

Matt Haig also said:

‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’

Lifeform Three by Roz Morris

Do not attempt if you are not Michael Morpurgo. You have been warned

I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).

I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.

It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.

That’s the ethics of ghost-writing.

Thanks for the Superman pic Klobetime on Flickr

ghostwriter red smlAnd, ahem, if ghost-writing might suit you, I have a professional course.

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5 essential habits I learned while ghost-writing – guest post at Jo Malby

jo malbySome of you know that I began my writing career incognito, as a ghost-writer. It gave me certain habits and approaches that I still use to this day, and I’m sure they were a head start for productive writing processes. Today I’m talking about those habits at Jo Malby’s blog. (And as I’ve had two guest posts this week, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the rest of the weekend off. There is bank holidaying to do, as well as a spot of writing.)

And if you’re wondering about ghost-writing yourself, let me clear my throat discreetly and point you to this…

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