Zen and the art of writing

Arriving on a Caribbean island is an object lesson in slowing down. It didn’t help that four planes arrived at once, but the line for passport and customs checks took nearly two hours. Inline_979198_4.3Friday night traffic jammed the road from the airport, and by the time we had walked to a local restaurant, the meal on the plane – surprisingly good – was a distant memory.

We were a large party and the young man serving us struggled to keep track of orders. He came back twice to check drinks, and three times to check the food order before anything arrived. You could feel people getting more fretful as the time ticked by. When it finally came, the food disappeared fast, but dessert was abandoned as we trudged towards our beds, four hours on from local time and more interested in sheets than sweets.

Today while the rest of the group went sight-seeing I stayed behind to rest my injured leg, and practiced doing everything more slowly. I swam in the pool slowly, did some slow washing, lay languidly on a lounger and drank a bottle of beer one small sip at a time. Delicious. And I also did something I haven’t done for too long – read my copy of ‘The Author’ (quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors) from cover to cover. Normally I skim the headlines and read whatever looks most interesting, but in the spirit of a slow day I started at the beginning and read on to the end. All sorts of unexpectedly good things revealed themselves, most memorably a piece by a Turkish author currently imprisoned about the life of the mind which nourishes him in the bleakest of circumstances. That helped to put things in perspective

More prosaic, but still important, were references in various articles to the choices that minor novelists like myself face. Fundamentally, what are we really trying to do? It’s a question I put right up front when I do workshops on ‘Successful self-publishing’: what constitutes success? Every author will have their own answer, and these days whether you’re self-published or part of the mainstream commercial publishing world, writing just for profit is increasingly problematic. We know that most commercially published fiction actually makes a loss, and even if you keep outgoings to a minimum by self-editing and going for ebook only, the result may not financially justify the hours of time and effort invested in the project.

zenFrom my slow reading of various reports of events, the advice to fiction writers seems to be ‘Be true to yourself; enjoy the reactions of readers, regardless of how many there may be; find a community of writers (and agents, publishers etc for those who have them) to engage with and be supported by.’ Nothing new there then. No blinding flash of revelation, just a message of internal efficacy and relatively low expectations. Of course  close scrutiny and replication of commercially successful books, and assiduous courting of the ‘blogsphere’ might pay off financially. But who wants to spend their precious time doing that? Not me.

The zen of the art of writing seems, ultimately, to be about doing what pleases and satisfies you, and letting go of the urge to borrow other people’s definitions of ‘success’.

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Goodbye and good riddance to the hardback ‘literary’ novel?

The papers this weekend are commenting on, and apparently bemoaning, the decline in sales of the ‘literary’ novel over the past two years. Some of the articles suggest that sales of this or that novel might increase when it’s published in paperback, usually a year or so after the hardback.hardback book

I read all this with some bemusement. Firstly, I’m struck yet again by the artificiality of genre distinctions that the publishing world seems fixated on. Who decides whether a novel is ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ fiction – I think that’s the main divide, before the ‘genre’ is further sub-divided? I’ve seen it defined that character drives ‘literary fiction’, and plot drives ‘genre fiction’, but surely these are points along a spectrum, not a dichotomy? It might be easy to identify novels at either end of the spectrum, but after that the distinction falters.

The ‘literary’ tag may have to be reconsidered, especially as it now seems to be connected to poor sales, which is increasingly the traditional publishers primary concern. We’ve all heard that a very high proportion of published books lose money, and that the business is rescued from financial disaster only by a few block-busters. Some of these massive sellers can be predicted – the ghastly Dan Brown, for example –  whereas others come out of nowhere, as predictable as a win on the lottery. Does any other business trying to make a profit organise itself like this?bella-literary-fiction

 

And if we’re talking about sacred cows in need to disposal, what is the point of  publishing novels in hardback form first and making anyone who doesn’t want a heavy expensive tome wait for a year to get the version they actually want to buy? This is a mystery, and clearly, it’s not working. This time next year, and the year after, will publishers still be fretting about poor sales of the hardback versions and still planning to keep on churning them out? I admit to be baffled about it all.

 

Many readers like a ‘real’ book – I do myself: the paperback format fulfils this need. Ebooks are also useful in some circumstances.  So who wants to read a hardback, besides a tiny number of picky traditionalists who profess to have ‘standards’ and probably insist on esoteric and expensive ways of eating and drinking as well as reading?

My recent and unsuccessful dalliance with ‘Unbound’ crowd-funded publishing came across this issue all the time. Many of my readers, keen to see the new book as soon as it comes out,were puzzled that they would have to pay twice as much as normal for a ‘special edition’ hardback when they would actually prefer a paperback, lighter to carry around and easier hold with one hand in bed, for instance. ‘That’s the way traditional publishing works’ I would lamely explain, and I had no answer to the inevitable next question – ‘Why?’

 

 

Unbinding from ‘Unbound’, without regret

If you’ve read last week’s post you might not be surprised by my decision to ‘unbind’ from ‘Unbound’. This is not a criticism of them: all the people encountered there were friendly, supportive and helpful. But it does raise a question about the suitability of the ‘crowd-funding’ notion for some writing projects.crowdfunidng-piggie-bank

It was a new notion for me, first encountered at a Society of Authors conference last year and put aside as interesting but too ‘trendy’ for someone as internet-wary as I still am. I didn’t pursue it, but then Unbound came to me with an offer and I was flattered enough to think it was worth a try. So I got involved, made the promo video, went to the crowd-funding workshop, read it up, made a plan and followed it through, although it all felt rather surreal. I couldn’t understand why anyone who didn’t already know my writing would feel sufficiently enthralled by my earnest talking head video and sketchy outline to commit to pre-ordering a hefty hardback book over a year ahead of its appearance.

I wasn’t hopeful about attracting ‘cold’ sponsors, but thought I would get support from people who know my work and were already looking forward to the next book. Three months later, reflecting on the decision to withdraw from the project, I’m beginning to get the process in perspective. What went wrong?

Well, I was right to be sceptical about attracting ‘new’ sponsors, of whom there were very few forthcoming. What surprised me more was the deafening silence from most of my existing readers, very few of whom made those necessary ‘pledges’. I asked some of them about their reluctance. They said, variously, that they don’t like buying via the internet; that hardback books are too heavy big-book-featureand cost double what they would normally pay; that they’d rather wait until the book is out and buy ‘the usual way’. I couldn’t say to them, ‘If you don’t pay upfront the new book won’t happen’ because we both knew that wasn’t true. The new book will happen, in the same way as all the previous ones, without the fanfares, trade edition, big launch and other bells and whistles. It might find a small and more local ‘commercial’ publisher, or I’ll commission a team to help me and publish myself, as I’ve done before.

What else have I asked myself? Does non-fiction draw a larger ‘crowd’ than my relatively ‘quaint’ and page-turning Cumbrian fiction? Does it help if your potential supporters are younger and more internet-savvy? Is the day of the ‘special edition hardback’ dead and gone? Would Penguin Random House – the publishers of the Unbound paperback version six months after the hardback – expect high volume sales and ‘remainder’ the book too quickly? My books sell slowly and keep on selling, year after year, as new people discover them and follow the series through. This business model, such as it is, goes against the grain for contemporary publishing. We were always going to be uneasy bedfellows, and for the time being at least we’ve agreed on an amicable separation.

 

A writer’s dilemma: what’s the priority?

Social_media_fear writing-cycle

After my last novel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ came out in 2016, I promised myself a break. Five books published in five years, and I needed some time out. So six months later I’m looking back and reflecting on what the break has taught me, so far.

Firstly, it’s clear that I was right to step off the conveyor belt for a while. I needed time to get my head up and look around without worrying every day about the next target and the immediate tasks. Secondly, with less intensity to occupy my head, I began to dawdle more over social media and realised how much of it is trivial ‘noise’. Thirdly, and connected to the other two, I resented the pressure I felt under as a self-published author to spend more time marketing, promoting, blogging, tweeting, just to keep sales of my books ticking over. If I stopped for a while, no one else would help: it was down to me alone. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have someone else to share that load, to care about my sales and push the books onto shelves on my behalf.

After the second search for an agent, and the same negative outcome as before, I’ve given up any expectation that my books are attractive to someone looking only for the next best seller. I’ve sold thousands, and they’re all still selling, but it’s a trickle, not a flood. London-based publishing seems distant and uninterested in what I’m doing out here in the sticks (or is it ‘Styx’?). So forget about an agent. If I need to, I could go straight for a small publisher, preferably not in London, who doesn’t rely on ‘agented submissions’ and is prepared to read my backlist to see what I can do. There aren’t many of those, but it only takes one to change my life.

 

The next stage in reflection on this unpromising scenario came recently while I was away in Canada and offline for a week or two in the far reaches of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan Inner Passage. What a relief it was not to have to check my KDP sales reports and the ‘pledges’ for the crowd-funding that was supposed to finance my next book – more of that next week. In my clearer head, the images of the new book were turning. I wasn’t writing anything, but I was thinking about the story for once, not the sales, and noticing how much more satisfying that felt.

Maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the story is my priority. Yes I’ll need an editor at some point, and when the story is as good as I can make it I’ll have to think about how people will find and read it. But not now. For the next few months I want to be a writer, not a self-publicist.

The power of the spoken word

First, to pick up on the last blog post, how has it been the past week to be back in a place where I used to do so much work? Actually, despite my fears, it’s been great. There are enough people here who still remember me and our time together, and it’s been lovely to see them, even if only for a few minutes. But if I’d left it much longer to return, it would have been too late, so the timing was about right and can’t be repeated.

Secondly, I’ve realised that what people remember, about me or anyone else in the public arena, is not the written word, but the spoken. The events of the past week have reinforced that too: we long to hear words at time of tragedy or uncertainty, not just read them. The human voice has immense emotional power and subtlety. Used well it can move, to tears, to anger, to inspiration. It can also reveal discomfort and insincerity, the tone and timing sometimes belying the actual content.

Can we learn to speak effectively, or is it a gift? For me, relying on my voice over decades in my education work, what seems to matter most is to clear my mind of everything that would come between the words in my head and their expression. Only then will the connection between me and my ‘listeners’ be as close as it needs to be. The words in my head come from careful thought, over an extended period of time, and maybe a few notes which may be discarded or used only as an occasional prompt. Never read, never look down for more than a second, look at people, connect with them, speak freely, let your mind elaborate and make connections.

Don’t rush, hold a silence if you want to, make the words count. Speaking freely and without notes has a cost: sometimes things don’t come out exactly as they should. A story or a joke may bubble up and can’t be contained, even though some might find it inappropriate. If that happens, apologise, but not too much.

It’s been interesting to discover that what people heard me say is what they remember most, and gratifying to realise that most of it is positive. I’m pleased that some remember my words as both thought-provoking and funny. In a few weeks I’m heading into the first draft of a new novel, which will mean a intense focus on the written word, not the spoken. What I will need also is the chance to speak about what I’m writing and learning, and to savour those precious opportunities.

I’m asking again – do I need an agent?

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I’m sure I’ve blogged about finding an agent before: I certainly think about it ‘ad nauseam’, but until this past week I’ve done nothing about it since about 2012. Aversion, avoidance – for whatever reason I’ve put it off, until a necessary change in my route to publication has forced me to take a next step.

The change is necessitated by the retirement of the publishing partners, editor and book designer, with whom I’ve worked since I decided to self-publish several years ago. If I want to continue writing, then I need to do something to fill that gap. There are three possible options:

  1. find an editor and a book designer, preferably closer than London, establish a relationship and work with them in the same way as before. I take their advice, and pay them for it, and keep overall control of the process and of the income generated by the books. The costs are upfront and considerable, but I’m used to that, and it works, so long as there’s a reasonable rate of sales;
  2. approach a publisher direct. It would have to be one of the few who will accept ‘unagented’ projects, and ideally they would take on my backlist too, reprints, storage, orders, distribution, and so on, leaving me more time to focus on the writing. You can find independent publishers like this, but keep an eye on the small print, and on the royalties – how much and how often. Ebook only publishers are more generous, as they should be given lower costs, but if you want to produce a paperback in larger numbers, not just Print on Demand, the number of potential publishers goes down. Some are focussed only on crime fiction, which might not suit my future writing plans;
  3. Find an agent. This is the default choice these days if you want to get ‘traditionally’ published. The majority of publishers will deal only with agents, who act as a ‘first filter’ and protect the publisher from being overwhelmed with stuff they don’t want and can’t sell. Fair enough, but it still feels like you’re dealing with the doctor’s receptionist, who may or may not have the skills to recognise symptons and do proper ‘triage’.

For the time being, I’m keeping my options open by pursuing all three of these routes simultaneously. Down comes the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ from the shelf and  I start combing through, doing everything I’ve advised my aspiring writers to do in my workshops and have been so reluctant to do myself.

The list I gathered of possible agents was quite long, and of course almost all of them were in London, which always pisses me off. (I had to explain to an agent in London once that ‘Cumbria’ was actually an English county, not somewhere in Italy where Islington goes on holiday.) Because I’m interested in getting my backlist re-published rather than touting a half-finished draft, it’s a different ‘submission’ process, more factual and less aspirational, but I still feel like the ‘supplicant’ rather than a prospective partner, and I still don’t like it. I’m a mature woman with a successful career, five popular novels and an enthusiastic (local) following. I fear I’m not the kind of client many agents would want to work with – too stroppy, too old, and too far from the literary action, and part of me knows that. But here I am, deserving of attention, but I fear I will get get very little. One good response in the few days since my first exploratory emails went out, one mildly curious, and three rejections so far, worded almost exactly the same way as the rejections I received last time around.

Early days yet. I understand applications to agents take a long time to process: they have to be weighed against each other, as only a small number of new clients can be handled at once. Waiting is always a drag: patience is not one of my strengths. But I am resigned to the delay. Maybe my current circumstances are different enough from five years ago to make the outcome different too.

One independent publisher has reacted fast and positively, but they want only crime books and I have yet to see what their contractual terms might be. If the potential sales are high enough then acceptance of a low royalty might work out. But what if they’re not? Publishers talk about the quality of their marketing, but how can you substantiate that? Amazon ebooks sales figures can be manipulated, and I want my books on shelves, not just in the cloud.

Reading this, I can see why I’m an unattractive proposition. I ask questions and have clear expectations, and five books self-published in five years gives me a bit of clout. Maybe I have the answer to my question, but I keep on asking it. Apart from the first step of getting published, I want some of the extras that could come through ‘traditional’ publishing – access to reviews, to the major book-chain shelves, to radio or TV, or audio book production expertise. I write good stories that people enjoy, and I want more people to be able to find them. So I wait for the responses to my search for professional help, but I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

 

Algorithms for Marketing? What?

I was talking self-publishing with an old friend who writes and publishes in a different genre to me, and does very well. Most of his sales are on Amazon, both paperback and ebook formats. ‘It’s all about algorithms,’ he said, and I nodded sagely. I should have said straight out that he’d have to explain, but I didn’t. Since then I’ve cast around to understand what this is about, and ended up – as we all do – ‘googling’ the term to see what turns up. This appeared, in an article by someone called Samuel J.Woods, who is clearly American from his spelling of ‘behavior’. It was helpful, up to a point…

16602455-abstract-word-cloud-for-algorithm-design-with-related-tags-and-terms-stock-photo“An algorithm is a set of (well-defined) instructions for carrying out a particular task. It’s, for the most part, deterministic, predictable, and not subject to chance. It works for all cases and gives a (presumably) correct answer.

Lots of people approach marketing this way, especially with the lure of “Big Data”.

You look for predictability in buyer decision-making and behavior, so you can scale a campaign.”

OK. Still not quite sure what you will do next after this analysis. And I’m wondering how much time this process might take, or at least how long it would take me as a data novice. My friend did say it took a long time, but he clearly felt it was time well spent.

Part of me thinks I should ‘get with the programme’ as the Americans say, embrace the new world of Big Data and grow my sales that way. But the other part of me thinks that life is short, especially at my advanced age, and maybe I should spend my time doing something more enjoyable than sitting at the laptop. Last year, my ‘direct’ sales, that is books sold direct to the reader by me, were greater than all sales through Amazon or my website. I know it’s wasteful to work in this way: I can only be in one place at once and sometimes I have to drive quite a way to reach my buyers. And I have to entertain my potential readers first, with a talk or discussion of some kind. Groups are sometimes quite small and I know it doesn’t make sense commercially, but here’s the thing – I enjoy it. It helps that I live in a stunningly beautiful area so the driving is often scenic. And I meet hundreds of people, mostly women, who love my stories and tell me so, and share stories of their own.

Now I’m doing a deal with a California-based book publisher and marketer who lives and breathes algorithms and reckons he could increase my digital and POD sales, especially in North America. He’s explained the dark arts of his expertise, but most of it sailed well over my head. I could do all this myself, or I could get him to do it and share the profits – if there are any. No brainer really. So we’re talking about the two crime books, for a year’s deal. I can carry on doing everything I do now, talking to my readers, publishing and selling ‘real’ books to them and the distributors and bookshops. The new deal marks my tentative entry to the brave new world of algorithms.

I’ve just noticed the title of the article from ‘Samuel J. Woods’ quoted above. The title is ‘Algorithms are cool, except they don’t work for marketing: heuristics do.’ What? Back to the definition of ‘heuristics’ that follows:

“A heuristic… is an experience-based technique that helps in problem discovery, learning, and solving. It basically helps you come to a “good enough” solution — close enough to the best, optimal, solution. It’s like a set of educated guesses or “rules of thumb”.

If you approach marketing this way, you have a greater chance of success (in generating leads, sales, or what have you). Why?

Because marketing is, inherently, unknown and disorderly.”

Back to the drawing board. Stick to what you enjoy, and don’t expect that any single approach to marketing is going to be enough.