The lottery of writing fame

Last Thursday evening I had a great opportunity to see a very successful writer up close and hear the details of her career. Ann Cleeves imageAnn Cleeves was visiting Cockermouth in West Cumbria, not far from from where I live, and I was asked to ‘interview’ her live in front of a sold-out audience. So I got to decide some of the questions that I was most interested in. This woman has written an astonishing 30 books in 30 years: ‘How did it all start?’ I asked her. ‘Well,’ she said with a smile, ‘for the first twenty of those thirty years I made only enough money to pay for a week’s caravan holiday in Dorset.’

It was only after the first of Ann’s ‘Vera Stanhope’ series was bought for TV that her career really took off. And how did that happen? A classic serendipity: in a charity shop in London the book – ‘The Crow Trap’ – was picked up by a person who worked in TV production, as something to read on holiday. The company she worked for was looking for something to replace ‘Frost’ on ITV, Ann’s book fitted the bill exactly, and the rest, as they say, is history. The ‘Vera’ TV shows now sell to over 120 territories worldwide, and the Shetland series has also been successfully adapted for TV. The Crow Trap51D7rW7FLaL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

Ann’s books are good, no question, but much of the extraordinary success she has enjoyed in the past decade stems from that chance purchase in a charity shop. As she joked herself last night, crime writers are busy dropping copies of their books into charity shops all over London, hoping to become the next TV sensation and enjoy everything that follows.

Knowing how arbitrary these matters can be, how does it make a struggling writer like me feel? Very happy for Ann, naturally. Some regret also that I left it so late to try my hand at fiction. When you first publish at 65, waiting twenty years to hit the big time is tempting fate. But the overriding feeling, if commercial success is indeed so much matter of luck, is that the only thing you as the writer can really control is the quality of the work you do. Even if your books don’t reach a mass audience, you aspire to make them truly worthwhile – well-researched, well-written, memorable, and a credit to your effort and skills. That’s a legacy to be proud of, whether you sell a thousand or a million.

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How do we measure ‘success’?

I spent decades of my professional life working with schools and education systems on how they find out how well they’re doing: what information to gather, how to do so, and how to use the information so that it improves their ‘performance’ rather than just measures it. As the old saying goes, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow.’quote-Charlie-Brown-sometimes-i-lie-awake-at-night-and-3-254664

Many of my Twitter contacts are educators, from all around the world, and these same concerns never seem to fade. All of us accept that as educators we should be accountable for the public money we spend and for the futures of our students that we share with their families. The issue has never been ‘accountability’: it’s always been accountability to whom, for what, and what information is pertinent to these purposes.

The key first step is to define what constitutes success in our classrooms, schools and systems. Only after that can we decide what information will relate to and reveal these important outcomes. All sorts of information can be useful, including numerical data, so long as the numbers accurately represent something of agreed value. The problem is that the quick and ‘manageable’ tests commonly used as the most important measure are seriously flawed, capable only of representing a fraction of the outcomes that we all agree to be important in preparing our children for their future lives. These future lives are to be lived in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, our young people need to be literate and numerate, but they also essentially need to be resourceful, flexible, digitally confident, and collaborative if they are to thrive as individuals. If the communities and societies they inhabit are to be successful, our people also need to be aware and respectful of others, thoughtful, optimistic – the list goes on, influenced by one’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, in England, our students and their schools face a barrage of measurement that hardly scratches the surface of the information we really need. Students’ worth can be calibrated on their performance in these inadequate assessments, and – as we have seen this week – those students whose estimated future performance might adversely affect the school’s overall ‘scores’ can be asked to leave. This perversion of true educative values has been going on for years, and this week’s headlines have been no surprise to many of us.

There is much more to say about all this, but for now I want to make a link to what can be defined as a ‘successful’ book, or author. Yes, of course ‘success’ can be defined simply in sales which are gratifyingly easy to count, but even that number doesn’t equate to the number of people who actually read the book, finding it in a library or lent by a friend. Other quantifiable measures might be the number of five-star reviews on Amazon, but you don’t have to look hard to find the flaws there.Screen-Shot-2017-03-28-at-16.48.56

Professional reviews? Questionable indicators of quality, in terms of which books are chosen and how they are reviewed, by whom, and under what pressure or obligation from a shared publisher or personal loyalty.

As with education, the starting point for deciding the success of a book is to ask the author to define what they were wanting to achieve, and go from there. When I run my workshops on “Successful self-publishing” that’s where we start. ‘What constitutes success for you?’ I ask, ‘and what it would look like if this were achieved?’

In writing as well as learning, the most useful information is ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ‘ipse’ meaning ‘self’. We are most usefully assessed against our own previous best, not against some external norms, or even against criteria that may not fully reflect our personal aspirations. If you’re a teacher or a writer, what does success look like for you?

Beware of publishing rip-offs

4038219-1867078991-1ca07A year or so ago I ran a self-publishing workshop at a northern book festival, explaining the various choices and challenges we authors encounter when trying to get our books first into print and then into readers’ hands. One of the the twenty or so people there told us a horror story about her failed attempt to get her book published: she had found a company online who promised to help and appeared to be ‘kosher’. They explained that she would have to send the money upfront to cover the expense of printing and that after that they would use their global resources to professionally handle her book, print, and find buyers. She duly sent off an amount that represented a sizeable chunk of her savings, and waited. And waited. And waited. The company disappeared, taking with them her money and her manuscript.

Recently I came across another example of someone who’d been asked for a four figure amount to get their book printed. A contract was provided but was either inadequate, or misleading, or not carefully enough scrutinised. Whatever the reason, the writer received the original money back, but nothing more, despite the 1000 print run selling out almost immediately. The author was not involved in the decisions about the book, including the curious choice of unnecessary heavy glossy paper for a book with no illustrations, a price double that of a ‘normal’ paperback, and a fairly amateur cover design. Some profit must have been made, given the basic calculations of printing costs, price and sales, including the retailers’ discounts – but the author saw none of it. When the publisher then asked for even more money to reprint and meet the obvious demand, it was declined.

What was going on there? As a self-publishing author I expect to invest my own money in the publishing project, but I also enjoy exercising choice over the paper quality, font, page layout and chapter headings, cover design and price. When the book is sold all the profits come back to me. It takes time and promotional effort to make a small profit, but at least the profit ends up in my account, not someone else’s.

SOA_col_rgbSo, fellow-writers, please think twice before paying out your own money to someone that to publish your book, however much they may reassure you and promise great things. If you’re in the Society of Authors, use their excellent contractual advice service and act accordingly. ALLi_Complete_300x150_WEBJoin the Alliance of Independent Authors, another really helpful organisation, or look for free self-publishing advice on the internet. What you do with your money is your business, but beware of being ripped off by the many unscrupulous people out there who make their money by stealing yours.

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 ‘Unbound’ contract is signed, so what now?

How did this happen, and now that it has, am I up to it?

I started to write relatively late in life: going on a course on ‘How to Write a Novel’ was my 60th birthday present to myself. Four years later I published my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ and four more have followed since then, one each year since 2012. I tried half-heartedly to find an agent or an independent publisher, failed and gave up. Being self-employed for 25 years provided a degree of self-reliance that was useful in the decision to self-publish, and to do so I well as I could, investing my own hard-earned savings where necessary. I did, and it worked, My books have sold thousands of copies, but most of the sales have been within fifty miles of where I live. They’re all set in Cumbria, and this is obviously very attractive both to locals and visitors, but the stories themselves transcend the setting: it’s the people who matter, what they do, how they feel, how they relate to each other and the lives they lead.

Knowing that the stories are wider than the setting, the promotion and distribution problems that all self-published writers face have been frustrating. With few exceptions, the prejudice against self-published books has been obvious: no reviews, no access to mainstream competitions, insufficient ‘celebrity/literary profile’ for acceptance as a speaker at the book festivals, scant regard from buyers for the major booksellers. Fortunately, I enjoy and am good at talking about my work, and do so regularly at libraries, local writers’ groups, and for Women’s Institutes and other organisations. As a result direct sales of my books are a large part of the overall total. The writer in me gets great satisfaction from readers’ appreciation of what I do, but the entrepreneur in me has been frustrated by the book world’s assumption that self-published novels are ‘ipso facto’ second-rate.

In the end, after all my planning, the invitation to move into a wider publishing world came by accident. At the end of one of my library talks a man introduced himself and told me about his daughter who works for a London-based publisher called Unbound. I listened, but people often tell me that they have contacts in the publishing world and almost invariably it comes to nothing. A week later, however, an email arrived from the daughter, a Commissioning Editor with Unbound, who’d been regaled by her parents about my books – which they love – and my talk. We met, we talked, we negotiated, and less than two months later the deal is done: I will publish my next book in 2018 through ‘Unbound’. With a working title of ‘Burning Secret’, it will be a family/police/crime story set in Cumbria in 2001 at the height of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. Next time I’ll explain in detail the stages of writing and publication over the next year or two. For the time being, check on Unbound, and look at ‘How it Works’. In a couple of weeks my project will go live on the Unbound website, video, pitch, pledges, the works. I’ll post regularly about the process here and through the Unbound website. If you want to share the journey, I’d be delighted.

Recording an audio book: lessons learned?

This week I finished the recording of ‘A Good Liar’ and here are a few things I learned, in case you fancy doing it yourself.

  1. Find a good studio with a decent mike and a proficient engineer. Mine was the Music Farm in Egremont, only 20 minutes from home,mf-studio7 and exactly what was needed.
  2. Abridge if you need to – definitely consider the number of CDs, cost of duplication and packaging, and the consequent price.
  3. If you’re not using CDs, consider whether all your potential customers/listeners will have the necessary new technology at their disposal or within their confidence boundaries.
  4. Once you have the text you want, print it out, double spaced and in good dark quality. Number all the pages.
  5. Read and rehearse, marking up your script with prompts about where to take a breath or a longer pause, and alerting yourself to difficult words or phrases. The fewer times you have to stop and re-record, the quicker the process, with less studio time and lower costs. Rehearsal before you go to the studio is key, at least twice and more for difficult passages.
  6. Do all the sound checks, wear the headphones and get used to them.
  7. In front of the mike, use a stand and arrange your pages in such a way that you can work through them without having to stop each time you need to go the next page. A very good mike will pick up every sound, so practice doing this until you can do it confidently without making a noise or stopping. It helps if each page ends at the end of a paragraph when you would be pausing anyway.
  8. Have water at hand, you’ll need it.
  9. If you make a mistake as you read, or if you’re not entirely happy with the way it sounds, stop and re-record straight away – much easier than going back to it. If you need to stop frequently, don’t worry about it, just keep going. Afterwards, however, think what made you hesitate or stumble and try to correct it before the next session.
  10. Concentration is key to both the technical quality of the recording and the feeling you can put into the text. This is where recording your own story is so effective, if you can do it well. You know everything there is to know about the story and that will come through.

Crowd-funding – what’s it all about?

Last year I heard about  Unbound publishing for the first time. At first it sounded like a scam, reminding me of when someone I know went to work for an iUnbound photonsurance company and pestered all her friends relentlessly to buy a policy so she got the commission. Crowd-funding a book? I couldn’t understand why someone would pay money for an unfinished product and get nothing in return.

Recently, I’ve learned more about Unbound, and the picture is getting clearer. Firstly, Unbound have to be convinced about the quality of an author’s writing: it’s not in their interests to be promoting and publishing poor books. Secondly, people don’t just send money, they ‘pledge’ an amount of their choosing, depending on the ‘level’ of return they want. They can pledge for an ebook, or a special edition hard back, possibly with their name in it as a ‘subscriber’, or even an invitation to the launch party It’s the way commercial publishing was managed in its infancy, more like a ‘pre-order’ process with bells and whistles. If the necessary level of funding isn’t reached, subscribers can ask for their money to be returned, or transferred to another ‘project’. While the writing is in process the author will keep subscribers in touch with how they’re going, probably through a blog like this one – ‘writing about writing’.

So much for the subscribers’ reward, what does the author get out of it? For a start, they get 50% royalties, which is a vastly better deal than the norm, and could be seen as payment for the effort the author undoubtedly will put into the raising of the initial money. They get more of a partnership with the publishers, and a really well-produced edition of their work which their readers will look forward and value. They also get – as far as I understand – a ‘trade’ edition of the book, published in paperback some months after the hardback, and distributed through Penguin Random House. Yes, Penguin Random House – doesn’t get much bigger than that.

There’s the upside. What’s the downside? Well, if you want to go down this road as an author you’ve got to be happy to promote the funding campaign by any and all means short of pestering and alienating your friends. You do the video explaining your writing life and your hopes for the new book, you talk to people directly and through social media, you invite people to feel part of the project you are undertaking. If this sounds tacky, or scary, or beneath your dignity, then don’t sign up for crowd-funding.

You may have gathered that I’m interested in Unbound. If I get the chance to work with them, I’ll take it. It’s not for everyone, but it sounds like something I would enjoy. It would also give me the chance to reach a much wider readership than I have been able to reach so far, without sacrificing my hard-won self-publishing independence. I would relish the sense of involvement and partnership and appreciate the help with the technical aspects of book production. Wouldn’t you?