Archive for category The writing business

Man Booker, it’s time to open up literary prizes to self-published authors

It’s not my policy to run press releases, as this blog is my personal writing and publishing adventures. But this is a campaign I’m proud to get behind, and I think it will strike a chord with a few of you guys too.

Today, the winner of the Man Booker is announced, and Orna Ross (left), founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, has issued an official plea to literary prize organisers everywhere: it’s time to open prizes to the quality work being produced by self-published authors.

Here’s Orna:

‘As so many authors are now producing work of creative and commercial merit, a prize that fails to include author-published work is deficient: unrepresentative in a way that seems incompatible with the prize sponsors’ commitment to diversity and inclusion. We strongly urge the Man Booker Prize to find ways to include self-publishing writers in their programme.’

(You might also recognise Orna as past guest on The Undercover Soundtrack, advocate of slow writing and my co-collaborator in the Women Writing Women box set.)

Of course, including self-publishers in established literary awards produces practical difficulties. We know; we know. I’ve suggested my own solutions to them here – the post is intended for reviewers but the issues similar to those faced by awards organisers – the volume of entries, the variable quality. And it’s useful to understand the reasons that perfectly ‘publishable’ authors choose the indie route – a positive choice, not the last resort of a second-rate writer. Ouch. It hurt to write that.

Orna is well aware of the difficulties of such a change, and she also has solutions:

‘We recognise that there are challenges in doing so and The Alliance of Independent Authors has issued a guide to help those organisations that are sincere in ensuring that the best books, regardless of the means of production, are brought before their judges and committees. The Alliance runs an ongoing campaign, Opening Up To Indie Authors, which advocates for the opening of all book prizes – and other parts of the books industry – to self-publishing authors.’

 

For me, this is what it’s all about – rewarding the best books, regardless of the means of production. This should be said boldly and loudly.

And so I’m spreading the word as much as I can. Who’s with me?

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Writing, social media and other authorly tips – guest spot at Damyanti Biswas

Another guest post! You might be forgiven for thinking I’m using this blog as a hotel, dropping in to leave signposts instead of staying put and giving you something to read without another click. I’m sure this is just an artefact of launch time and the giddy whirl will slow down soon.

In the meantime I’m at the blog of Damyanti Biswas, a member of the Insecure Writers Support Group, something we probably all qualify for. She asked a wide-ranging set of questions about writing, publishing, marketing, writing courses and social media. If these last two interest you, you might also like these longer pieces I’ve written on this blog – What do writing teachers teach and How social media can be a long-term investment for your career.

There are a few sections about my publishing background, which might be of interest if you’ve recently started reading this blog, but easily skimmable if you’ve heard it before. And there’s a snippet or two about Not Quite Lost, but again you can skip that if you’ve already Heard Quite Enough. Do come over.

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Not Quite Lost is launched! And making-of interview with Henry Hyde

Oh my heavens, it’s publication day. Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is no longer a tease in a tweet or a blogpost. It’s a real thing. A paperback book. A hunk of Kindle estate, or Kobo, or whatever other ebook format floats your boat. (Though there are no boats in the travels … plenty of buses, however.)

And my writer/designer friend Henry Hyde has invited me to his blog to chat about it. We cover technical stuff like developing a writing style, influences like Bill Bryson and Gavin Maxwell, and  some of the main thematic stops such as the romance of old houses, impostor syndrome and 1970s Doctor Who. Do hop aboard.  Oh, and you can find the book here.

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Editing as creative development – guest post at Ingram Spark

Good developmental editing is one of the cornerstones of book production, but indie authors have a special advantage over the traditionally published. Indies can use the editing process to nurture their potential and perhaps find talents they didn’t suspect. I’m talking about this role of the editor at the IngramSpark blog today.

And if you’re in the environs of London, you can come and see me talk about this in a one-day self-publishing masterclass. I’m one of four expert speakers covering all the publishing bases (editorial, design, publicity, distribution) at this.

If you hop over to my post, you’ll see a special discount code.

Finally, permit me a little discreet throat-clearing … yes, you know about Not Quite Lost, but I can’t help mentioning it because it publishes in two weeks’ time and I’m rather excited.

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Bill Bryson, Lewis Carroll logic and cryonics – interview about Not Quite Lost at Andrea Darby’s blog

I’m thrilled to be at Andrea Darby’s blog today, talking about Not Quite Lost. You might recognise her name because she was a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack with her novel The Husband Who Refused to Die. Andrea and I discovered we had a certain chilly, chilling interest in common – cryonics, the daring science of preserving the dead in the hope that they can be revived when science is more advanced. Andrea spent a day with a cryonics group and wove it into the plot of her novel. I interviewed the same group several years before and wrote it in my diary, and eventually it became one of the encounters in my travel doodlings.

We also discuss how the book came about (with a sideways nod to Mr Carroll), the literary figures who showed me the way (sideways nod to Mr Bryson and others). And why writing – of diaries, novels or anything else – becomes a way of life even when publishing can be troublesome. Do hop over.

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The end of exploration – on writing a book where you can’t make things up

If you get my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+ you’ll have seen dancing and jubilation as Not Quite Lost is finally ready for general parading and pre-order.

It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.

The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps  – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought.  There’s something in that story.

When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.

So what do you do?

I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.

Full circle

This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.

And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.

My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.

Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.

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On publishing another book when there are already so many

Didn’t I say in January that I had a book I would write quickly? A book based on my travel diaries. A book that should have required a quick spit and polish, then out of the nest it would go.

But no, the months have passed, and if you followed my newsletter you’ll have seen the progress through rough edits, reconcepting, purge of darlings, second purge of darlings, beta reader 1, beta reader 2, reader 3, reader 4, final polish, snapshots of typesetting on Facebook and final sigh of relief.

January to July: seven months to take a book from personal notes to publicly presentable. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be, but still quite fast by my usual standards.

I haven’t been doing it full time, of course. My usual freelance editing gigs have snowballed, and sometimes I’ve been fighting to protect a few hours for my book. Equally, it’s benefited from being consigned to the basement, cogitating. If I’d had an uninterrupted run, it wouldn’t be the book it is.

Finding a destination

‘Finding a destination’ is generally the biggest challenge of the bookwriting process for me. It’s what takes literary writers so long (which I posted about here).

It also doesn’t seem confined to writing, by any means. I recently stumbled across these lines in an obituary published in The Economist of the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani:

By her own account, she was “slow” …. she teased out solutions by doodling for hours on vast sheets of paper … the point, she said, was not to write down all the details, but to stay connected to the problem. She likened mathematical enquiry to being lost in a forest, gathering knowledge, to come up with some new tricks, until you suddenly reach a hilltop and see everything clearly.’

I’m a card-carrying slowcoach, and I see this same struggle in the Facebook feeds of writer friends. It’s the hell of book writing, and also, eventually the heaven. You did it. You persevered, you made a substantial something out of fat nothing; just a notion that took your fancy or kept you fretting. The fact that it took so long is, in the end, part of the triumph. You persevered with a possibility that no one else saw, shaped it in a way that no one else would. Finally, a stranger can take your trip and say ‘I never went there before’.

Plankton

So far, so personally rewarding. But we stumble over the finish line and into an immovable fact. This cherished, nurtured, shiny new book is a speck in a sea of plankton. There are not enough eyes to read all the books that are published. It’s the best of times to be a writer and the worst of times to try to make a living at it, or run a publishing company. The Guardian recently published this piece with a bleak view, which we can boil down to this: barring a miracle, hardly anybody will buy it.

So does the world need my new book?

We have so many already. Good books; great books. The human condition doesn’t change.

Certainly it doesn’t, and Chaucer still resonates now. I’ll read a book from the 1950s as readily as the 2000teens. Dave keeps urging me to read New Grub Street by George Gissing, which was published in 1891 and nails the creative industries exactly as they are today. But sometimes we want the company of contemporary minds. People might not change, but the world will always do things that are, for better or worse, unpresidented.

Even if your work is not tackling current issues, it still comes through contemporary sensibilities. Although authors primarily write for their own reasons – personal fulfilment, making a living – the world does still need them.

The duty we have now is to publish only what deserves to be. To use a reader’s time wisely and responsibly.

Still, why write?

But selling books can be so soul-shrivelling, particularly today. So why do we still write more? We do it because the long process of conversation with an idea, like Maryam the mathematician, is intrinsic to those who are creative. Even though it’s often agony to face a blank page. The writer in the Guardian goes back into her cycle, the way we all do – not knowing if she has the goods to do it again.

The selfish gene?

Is that primarily a selfish process? It must seem so. But at the least, it must make us wiser people. To understand our own themes forces us to see them from more sides than just our own. We might delve a long way in research to write a situation truthfully. To create a character who isn’t a stereotype, we might have to admire their flaws or be critical of their virtues. Our invented people teach us tolerance and generosity.

Even my travel tales – which were not invented –  had to be revisited with a more critical eye.

And so, for better or for worse, I have a new book. Because that is what I do.

Not Quite Lost – Travels Without A Sense of Direction will be available on preorder soon -watch this space.

Still time to grab this bargain! You have until the end of July to grab a special offer on Nail Your Novel – Amazon have chosen it for a Book Of The Month deal, so the Kindle edition is just USD$1.99.

Bargain! again! – Last chance to read my novels FREE and choose from hundreds more titles on subscription service Bookmate – exclusive code at this link.

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Two reasons to use your official author name on Twitter

Are you using Twitter to build your online presence? If so, what’s your handle? Is it your author name or a readily recognisable variant? If it’s not, you could be wasting your time.

I love Twitter. For discovering lovely distractions, uniting in the face of shocking news, tripping over quips that restore faith in the human spirit – and, in a professional capacity, for networking. I’ve had numerous good opportunities that started with a humble tweet. And when I meet a writer I might get on with, I naturally seek them out on Twitter.

But sometimes that’s not straightforward. Eventually after a bit of a hunt and a beakful of guesswork I might track them down and discover they have a name that’s many species away from the name they write under.

Forgive my blue-faced cheek, but this seems to be a mistake.

1 It makes you hard to find

On Twitter, you really want to be found. That’s how the Twitter world revolves. Somebody shares your blogposts, or talks about your work. They use your name, which brings others to you.

So you want to make sure that any stranger could find the ‘right you’. And thus you can be introduced to a new and eager flock. This is incredibly powerful – unlike other social networks, you don’t have to already be friends with a person to start tweeting to them.

It’s as easy as calling their name.

Here’s how it goes. I’ll look up Jane Austen and find @JaneAusten – but she’s an estate agent, unlikely to be my author. I ‘ll look down the list at the other users whose real names are all Jane Austen. Which one is mine?

I squint at the avatars and the biographies. If I’m lucky she might be @AuthorJaneAusten or @JaneAustenAuthor, in which case, all is good. But she might be @Bonnetgirl5, or @InventorofElizabeth. Or @WriterInFarthingaleLane.

Finding her handle has now proved quite the expedition – which is not ideal in our attention-deficit world, and especially not in the 140-character-squeezed bird-brain world of Twitter. If I’m on a slow connection, or using a fiddly device that won’t tolerate a lot of searching and footling, I might not persevere any further because Jane Austen has made it too hard.

2 The much more important reason to use your name

You know how comedians traditionally sign off a set with their name? ‘Thanks for being a great audience, I’m Joe Bloggs.’ It’s the last thing they do before they leave the stage – make sure you remember their name.

They’re not going to trust that you’ll look in the programme, or the sign outside the pub, or that you’ll remember how they introduced themselves at the start. Their last task before they leave you for the night is to TEACH YOU THEIR NAME.

This is one of the reasons you’re putting yourself about on social media, talking to strangers. To teach them you exist. To teach them your name as it appears on your book covers.

So why teach them @WordHoarder, @PagesBeforeBreakfastAtHelens, or @ToastAt10am? You may laugh, but these are name-forms that I see used by otherwise respectable authors on Twitter. Every day.

So can you change your Twitter name?

Yes, it’s easy. Just open your profile, type the new name in and see if you’re allowed to take it. Start at your profile page and look for your icon at the top. Hover over it and you’ll see ‘Profile and settings’ appear. Then look for ‘account’.

 

What if your name is taken? Yep, I have that problem. Read on.

Can’t use your actual name? Good solutions and not-so-good

Here are some of the tactics authors use to convert their name for Twitter.

By far the easiest thing to do is to put an underline in the middle. It’s as close to your real name as possible and doesn’t eat up many extra characters. That’s why I’m @Roz_Morris. Out there on the wires there’s another @RozMorris – who is actually rather quiet, but that’s another story.

Underlines in other places – beginning or end, or a double underline in the middle – are trickier for users to spot. A double-underline is hard to type reliably on some devices. If the underline option is already taken, you might be better adding something that makes it clear you’re the writer Jane Austen, not the vet or whatever. You could also preface with ‘author’ – @AuthorJaneAusten. Or put it afterwards @JaneAustenAuthor.

Initials – if you use initials I think you’re becoming harder to remember, but @AuthorJAusten at least looks professional. However, an initial is straying away from the name on the book cover (is she Jane, Jean or Josephine?). @JaneRRAusten gets both elements of the name in, but might be tricky to pick out from search results and autofills, or difficult to remember if typing from memory.

(Scenario: ‘oh darn, she’s JaneRR, not Jane like she is everywhere else – I always forget that’.)

Reverse your names@AustenJane – Just my personal opinion, but I find this is easier to recognise at a glance, and have no problem remembering it the proper way round. Maybe that’s just the way my brain works. Your grey matter may differ. But – another point in favour of this format – Hootsuite seems to include swapped names in search results quite readily.

Numbers – you could add a discreet number – @JaneAusten1. Again, this is a personal view, but I find this to be a good solution that doesn’t interfere with the readability or memorability of the name, and it doesn’t cause search problems.

Character names or book titles – I don’t think this is such a good idea. Certainly it’s useful for people to know your books. But social media are about people, not products. Readers would rather connect with a person, not a figment, although @MrDarcy would probably be a notable exception, especially if tweeted from @RealJaneAusten’s brain.

(That’s another option if you have the chops for it: Real. Or Himself.). Back to book or character names, think long term – do you want to build a presence for one work when you might one day something completely different? For instance, if, like me, you swerve into a completely different bookwriting lane with a travel diary (which is coming along quite nicely, now you ask). But build your platform in your name, and you can use it for anything.

Abbreviations@JaneAstn. The other day I came across an author who dropped some characters from her name to make a Twitter handle. It was infernally difficult to find her. What’s more, the result was so unintuitive that I kept mistyping – had she dropped the second r, or the vowels ….?

The abbreviations were probably logical, but people in the rush of Twitter don’t have time to learn the rules you used to create your name. Copying letter by letter is laborious and squinty. And anything that creates an obstacle might be enough to make a person lose heart in trying to contact you. Although Twitter and Hootsuite has an autofill option, you only have to misremember the contracted version to be tweeting the wrong person.

Cutesy or oblique versions of your name or anything that makes sense only to people who know you or your books – these are the most difficult of all. They’re fine if you only want to be found by your personal friends – and that’s how some people use Twitter. But it’s not ideal if you want to be visible to the wider public.

Once again: it’s easy to change your name! Red-faced relief…

And yes, I’ve flirted with less suitable Twitter names. For a while I was @NailYourNovel, because I was dividing my teaching side from my fiction-writing side. For my fiction I had a separate account, @ByRozMorrismore here about that, and why I stopped it).

My first Twitter name, though, was the epitome of unsuitable, and if you’ve been with me for a long time you can enjoy an in-jokish kind of chuckle. We live and learn.
Other tips to help good Twitizens

Anyone who mentions you on Twitter is doing you a favour. Help them to help you.

  • Make sure your description includes as much identifiable stuff about your writing as possible, not just who you read or how you take your tea. Make it absolutely obvious – if you put ‘changing the world, one word at a time’ people might think you’re just a sweet teenager, not an author.
  • Use a consistent headshot so that people who know you from your blog or Facebook recognise you instantly on the list of possibles.
  • Put your Twitter handle prominently on your blog and in the byline of your blogposts – change it in your blog settings). Like this:

But most of all, make us remember your name.

Thanks for the peacock pic Jamain. And in case you’re curious about Not Quite Lost, you can now get a sneak peek on Pinterest.

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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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