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.


The Unbound project is live!

ABurning Secret Flyerfter a flurry of activity the Unbound project to publish my next book went live on Monday. I’ve been busy the past few days emailing the link to dozens of people asking for their support. This is the very classy flyer that gives the basic details but there’s much more on this link.

Yesterday I did a marathon tour of some of the libraries at the other end of Cumbria, where foot and mouth was rampant, and heard more memorable stories from the catastrophic outbreak in 2001. It was the smell that is most vividly remembered: animal carcasses, and the smoke from the pyres. A dystopian landscape.

For the next few weeks I’ll be busy getting the link and the flyer shared as widely as possible, and encouraging people to pledge their support for the project anyway they can. If you can help, please do and I’ll be very grateful. Thanks.














The latest ‘genre-fads’

As any regular reader of my blog will know, I’ve always been puzzled by the complexities of ‘genre’ and its effect on those in the book business whose role is to decide what gets published and what doesn’t. Apparently in the latest edition of the ‘Bookseller’ magazine, which I haven’t seen myself, is an article about a new ‘sub-genre’ label ‘grip-lit’, a term used to describe psychological thrillers, such as ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Girl on a Train’. (I’ve already noted the repeat of ‘girl’ in the title, to bring one’s work instantly to the notice of a literary agent.) ‘Grip lit’ is hardly a new idea; it’s been around for decades, displaced more recently by the new wave of ‘detectives’. Perhaps literary fashion, like its clothing counterpart, has a ‘retro’ phase, when the delights of a previous era are re-discovered and claimed by a younger generation.

If genre is indeed driven by the vagaries of fashion, writers like myself face some choices. We can scour the landscape of current trends to find what sells, analyse the component parts and imitate them as quickly as possible, before the trend fades. And if we’re really clever, we’ll use a trendy title book too. Alternatively, we could aspire to something more timeless and run the risk of being ignored by the bandwagons that sweep by so relentlessly. The beauty of aiming for the timeless is that the books’ shelf life is much longer. If you’re self-publishing in paperback – which you probably are as no agent is interested in anything so untrendy – shelf life is an important consideration. Self-publishers can’t afford the ‘launch’ and promotion budgets available to traditionally published books, and have to rely instead on steady sales over a longer period to get any return on the initial investment.

In the Saturday Guardian review section, a few pages on from the piece about ‘grip lit’, there is an article by Hilary Mantel about the life and work of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard’s work is often disparaged, with a genre definition of ‘by women, for women’. Mantel believes that this category existed ‘until very recently’, but I think it’s still around, and just as disparaged as ever. The difference is that now such novels rarely if ever penetrate the net thrown around the publishing business by the professional agents on whom the business now relies. Confusions abound. When does fashionable ‘chick lit’ grow up into unfashionable ‘by women, for women’? Is this another example of the confusing irrelevance of genre? Isn’t it time we dropped the whole labyrinthine idea, or a least cleared away the clutter and returned to a smaller range of overall ‘categories’ of fiction which is not defined by assumptions about who will read them?


Flogging the new book, but not a dead horse?

Well the books are here, 400 plump pages in each one, fresh from the printers in Cornwall, boxed and shrink-wrapped and fork-lifted into the storage space, ready to be sent out again as feverish demand mounts. I wish, but we did ship out six boxes straight away to waiting customers and that number should grow over the next few weeks in the run up to Christmas, and with the various planned ‘launches’ and events. I earned more through direct sales last year than any other route to market, which is interesting but unsustainable, and I’m constantly looking for ways to increase sales through the regular bookshops beyond the reach of Hills of Workington, the Cumbria-based distributor that takes most of my stock.

The other big distributors, Gardners and Bertrams, keep small publishers like me at something of a distance. We’ll have to pay them a big discount for the privilege of having them store my books ready for despatch. As it stands, they email us whenever they get an order and we send it off, one or two at a time, which is so wasteful and inefficient. With sales relatively low we’re just too small to be taken much notice of.

These distribution issues, and the cost of storage, make the ‘ebook only’ alternative sometimes seem very attractive, but I still can’t bring myself to take that road and abandon the ‘book in hand’ altogether. I love books: ebooks are OK for travelling, but I love the feel of a book, the smell of it, the touch of a page under your fingers, the sight of the spine on the shelf or by the bed. So for the time I’ll carry on playing the real book publisher game and enjoy it, rather than berating myself for making less profitable choices. If you’re proud of what you’ve done, back yourself.

Hopeful anticipation or more self-doubt?

I veer between positive and fearful anticipation from hour to hour in this final run-up to the publication of ‘Cruel Tide’. Very occasionally I imagine what it would be like for it to be a runaway success, with sales off the scale and a rushed reprint. But most of the time I know I’m probably not doing enough to overcome the self-published author’s biggest challenge – getting people to read what you’ve written and created when there are so many other books out there competing for attention.

I’m actually going to get a review for this one in Lancashire Life, the offer of which was unexpected, but what if they don’t like it? Perhaps the value of getting any kind of review is greater than the downside of a bad one. I’ve put out so many feelers, and so few of these get any kind of response that it can be very disheartening. I wonder if those who don’t respond understand the impact they have. Maybe they do, and just shrug. I wish I understood that world better and could handle it with more equilibrium.

This general anxiety wasn’t helped this afternoon when I took an advance copy of ‘Cruel Tide’ to show to one of my strongest local supporters in her shop where she’s sold heaps of my books over the past few years. ‘Do you want to see it?’ I asked, preparing to pull my advanced copy of the book out of the envelope for the big reveal. She grimaced. ‘I’ve seen the poster, but I can’t look at it because I can’t bear hands.’ For a moment my heart sank. ‘I’ll sell it,’ she added, ‘and I’m sure the cover won’t bother anyone else, but I won’t be able to have it on the counter.’ What??? That’s a strong reaction: I know the cover image is striking, but it was meant to spark curiosity not revulsion. Surely someone would have advised against using the cover if it was that bad?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

Front and back covers, with the offending hand.

Anyway, it’s too late now. The books are printed and the full shipment will arrive on Monday. I’m taking a copy through to Waterstones in Barrow on Tuesday and will see what a professional bookseller thinks. I hope she doesn’t have a hand phobia. There must be a special word for that condition, and I hope that it’s extremely rare.

Beyond that the dates and events for presenting the book multiply, in libraries and bookshops all around the area. I’m grateful for all of them, and will enjoy them all too, but I wish I could break out into the wide sales uplands of Manchester or London. What would that take?  Maybe I should just rock up to the huge Waterstones on Manchester’s Deansgate, book in hand, and tell them how lucky they are. That’s what I need – more chutzpah.

Fads and fashion in the book business

We know how fashion works in clothes. Someone – usually one of the big fashion houses – decides that the coming season’s colour will be ‘ecru’ or orange, or whatever. Or that women’s hemlines will be high or low, trousers wide or narrow, or whatever. The new ‘look’ is pored over by the fashion writers and ready-to-wear clothes manufacturers and the word goes down the supply chain: after a few weeks the shops are full of the latest look, and the sale rails full of last year’s stuff.

The more I listen to agents and publishers talk about the book business, the more parallels I can see. I used to think that what mattered was ‘quality’ and all would be clear when I understood what ‘quality’ really meant. Old and cynical as I am, I wonder if the real ‘quality’ that creates and perpetuates the fads and fashions of the book business is mostly about money. There are two levels, it seems to me. First there is the definition of quality that engenders a Booker Prize shortlist, for example, which in turn guarantees relatively healthy sales. And then there are the outsiders, who for whatever ‘unliterary’ reasons are picked as potential best sellers and hyped vigorously enough to make them so. Different definitions of ‘quality’ apply to these two categories. Let’s face it, some of the ‘bestsellers’ are pretty bad by any literary standard, but if they boost the finances of a hard-pressed publishing house, who really cares? The publisher of the ghastly Dan Brown, for example, could brag to his/her peers about sales figures however embarrassed he/she should be about the absence of any literary merit. It’s like admiring Donald Trump just because thousands of people turn up to hear him ‘speak’.

Once a ‘best-seller’, however poor, has established itself the rush is on to replicate it as quickly as possible. If it’s an 800 page doorstop that’s what we’ll see more of; if it’s ‘chick-porn’ there’ll be more, God help us. If the hero is a dysfunctional depressive alcoholic similar miserable protagonists will rise up everywhere: the next fad has been established and the bandwagon rolls on again down a different track.

There will be exceptions, of course, but not too many as the financial risk is now too great. No wonder finding an agent feels like such a lottery, and the criteria remain notoriously vague. The book business seems to demand that the agent finds a few offerings from the thousands on offer that resonate with current fads, has a good look at the ‘marketability’ of the writer as well as their work, and brokers a deal with the publisher in terms of potential sales. The publisher then invests as much as possible in promotion, persuades the other authors in their ‘stable’ to write the come-on reviews, and prays they’ve backed a winner.

Tell me I’m wrong about this. Persuade me that the book business is not dominated by fads and fashion. Please. In the meantime, writers can avoid the whole sorry business and have the guts to publish their own work, which can hardly be worse than some of the stuff that makes it through the commercial publishing process.

Why do we crave recognition?

For the third time this spring I sent off four copies of my latest book to enter a local literary competition. The first time, three years ago, I was quite sure that the quality of the work, its local roots, deathless prose and professional publication values would shine forth and guarantee at least a place on the shortlist. When it wasn’t on the shortlist, I actually wept. The following year, with another book out, I tried again, but by now I was a little more realistic about how things work and my expectations were lower. Just as well, as there was no mention on the shortlist. This year, my hopes were higher again, as the subject of the book happened to be of interest to one of the judges and I thought this might make a difference. Wrong again. When the shortlist was emailed to me last week, I scoured it again, and again in vain. Disappointment, yes, I admit it, but not as acute as before, and quickly overcome as I settled to polishing the new book. Will I enter this book for the same competition next year? Probably not. Patience is not my strong suit and after a string of rejections I tend to think, ‘Sod it,’ and move on. It was the same when I was looking for an agent, some years ago. Initial high hopes, born of ignorance about how things actually work, were quickly dashed, and after a dozen or so rejection letters I decided to go it alone. I’ve enjoyed doing so, and sales have been remarkably good in both paperback and electronic formats, but I would still have relished the buzz of feeling that someone out there in the book business thought highly enough of my work to offer to represent it and me.

On a day to day basis as I tour the readers’ groups and WIs of West Cumbria I get wonderfully positive feedback from people who read the books and love them, and I know I should be content with that. But, but, I would still love someone who knows about books to tell me that mine are worthwhile, and why they think so. ‘Get over it, Ruth’ I say to myself. Get on with what matters and stop fretting about being ignored. I do, and I have. The second draft of the new book is coming on splendidly, sharper, clearer than before as any second draft should be, and the feedback from my Editor was more positive than any of the others, and she knows about books. But she’s also a friend, so does that count?

Even four years into the self-publishing business, I’m still irritated by the assumption that anything self-published is of poor quality. I joined the Society of Authors partly because they take account of an author’s sales, to distinguish serious self-publishers from others, and membership of the SoA, alongside writers like Philip Pullman whom I revere, means a great deal to me. But I’m still looking, unsuccessfully so far, for someone to review my books and provide one of those pithy quotes you find on book covers, the ones that make you feel it must be worth reading. 

I accept that the need for recognition is linked to ego, and to a competitive urge to prove something to oneself and to others. I still think it’s OK to blow your own trumpet a little if there’s a reason to do so, but I can’t stomach some of the excessive self-promotion that others seem to pursue. And it’s obviously not enough for me to get great feedback from my friends, or my readers. I don’t want a Booker prize, but it would be so comforting to have someone whose work I respect tell me that they’ve read my trilogy and value it, for whatever reasons. While I wait for that I shall ‘bash on rewardless’ and put the pursuit of recognition back in its box, out of sight, and not let it distract me.