Friday, 25 May 2007

Wanna bet?

Well, here's a thing - take a look at - it's a new 'virtual market' where you can take a punt on whether book proposals posted on the site will find a book deal. Traders can buy shares based on guessing whether a book deal will materialise - but remember, the valued of shares can go up as well as down. When trading closes in September, five proposals will be chosen and one or more will be offered a book deal by Simon and Schuster (currently embroiled in a furore with the Authors Guild in America because it's claimed they want to have contracts with writers which will retain rights over works even when said works are, to all intents and purposes out of print - a juncture where an author might well want to retrieve their rights and move on.)

Not only can you bet on these proposals, you can submit your own work (agents can do this too, and are) - there's a page of guidelines for doing so. Presenting your work as a proposal, within a tight wordcount, is a useful discipline anyway, and worth practising. Remember, the time will come when you will have to be able to summarise your work pithily, with a clear focus on what the 'heart' or'point' of the story is. You can't just drivel on for page after page, blow by agonising blow through the plot.

Of course Touchstone/Simon and Schuster aren't just in it as an act of charity - it's an experiment to see how well the public can predict what will and what will not work - the philisophers' stone of marketing. Mark Gompertz, publisher of Touchstone Books is quoted in the New York Times: 'Since Gutenberg first printed the Bible, critics have always said publishers don't know what they're doing. Just throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks is a crazy way to do business."

Imagine a focus group gathering to discuss the potential of Gutenberg's bible, or, indeed, Malory's Morte d'Arthur ... 'Yeah, Tom, it's like exciting, what with knights and ladies and all, but although you've produced an interesting synthesis of those fancy French legends (and the ladies will like the lurve aspect) and macho trad Anglo-Saxon schtick, I think there's a real danger, you know, that it isn't like, focussed enough? I mean, who's the hero? Is it Arthur, or Tristram, or Gawain or Arthur?And what's with all the religion? What's with Guinevere going into that nunnery at Amesbury? Won't the readers find that a downer? She's a feisty broad - coudn't she and Lance just set the kingdom up again? Round Table 2: Return to Joyous Gard? Round Table 3: Search for the Lost King? Round Table 4: Farewell to Avalon? The only thing investors like more than a sequel is lots of sequels ...'

Finally, remember my fellow wannabees and literafiends, the wise words of William Goldman, when talking about the unpredictability of Hollywood success: 'NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING - Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. '

The same goes for books. Time and again, when I'm writing, I think 'Will this sell?' But I can't tell - all I can do is write the story I have to write, the story that nags in my head all the time, the story that's a terrier, that won't let go. And so should you. Then throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Pop go the festivals

I'm back - I have a backlog of things I want to discuss but am still pushed for time because of the manifold claims on my attention!

In the meantime, check out an article in the Independent about the boom in literary festivals - you may remember me discussing this in an earlier post. With the Hay on Wye festival imminent (130,000 attended last year), this is a timely examination of the 'more than 100 jamborees for the prose and poetry-obsessed every year.' It refers to a music promoter who's 'thinking of getting into book events. You don't realise how many people there are out there who want to spend a weekend in a tent, or maybe just an afternoon, chowing down about the latest hot writer or wanting to be in the same room as Simon Schama or Lauren Child'. Well, my fellow literafiends, how hip are we? Whose books are you chowing down at present?

Liam Browne, who's involved with the Brighton and Dublin festivals, says: 'Publishers will now often require an author to make a certain number of appearances ... There is more pressure than ever on writers to perform.' Was it Monty Python who long ago had a sketch where a famous writer (Hardy?) sat at a desk in public and started to write, with a spoof sportstyle commentary going on ('And he's picked up the pen ... and he's written his first word ... and it's 'The' .. No, no, he's crossed it out, groans from the waiting crowd ...') Or was it Not the Nine O'Clock News that did the sketch? Some kind soul will enlighten me.

I digress. Liam Browne also says audiences are no longer passive: 'these events are much more interactive than they used to be.' Sounds scary. By the way I can recommend a book edited by Robin Robertson called 'Mortification' (Harper Perennial 2004), which is an anthology of the humiliations writers have gone through at signings, interviews, on book tours in darkest middle America and the like. A nice helping of schadenfreude there!

The festivals article is at

'Scuse me now while I go off and nag my son (in a loving manner of course) some more (he has four more exams this week, a music performance and a coursework draft ...)

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Say no more?

My students' AS and A Levels - imminent.

My elder son's year 10 exams - current.

I think you'll understand why I'm not blogging frequently just now ...

Friday, 11 May 2007

Daemons and debates

Again, I've been silent for a few days because of computer woes. Honestly, you just feel that working with a computer is like falling serially in love with men who say all the right things but then don't call you - it's the triumph of hope over adversity (the computer-daemon lurking under my keyboard as I type these words is listening and will probably throw a mega-wobbly in revenge now, so if you don't hear from me for weeks, you'll know why.)

I'm glad to see that another glitch, this time with this blog, has sorted itself out: my Quotes of Note section, which was supposed to lie along the bottom of the page, had mysteriously repositioned it down the side, and the quote looked like pretentious avant-garde free verse - but now it's gone back to where it belongs. However, I don't think it's working too well presentationally and will set up quotes as a label and try to post more soon - I've got loads of the things to share with you!

And no, you don't need to slap my wrist - I haven't hassled my agent in any way, shape or form (one week and counting ...)

Thanks to Si Spurrier for getting in touch about my last post - do have a look at what he says.

Two items to share: first, an article in the Times on the 9th about women in publishing. The gender debate to do with writing and publishing goes on. Cf the Orange prize and whether there should be prizes for women only, the amount of review coverage given by men to books written by men etc etc. The article tells us that last year men bought 128million books (how do they know this?) and women 188 million - and I bet the ones bought by women covered a far greater range of genres too. Look at your family and friends, local books groups and so on - what is the proportion of male to female readers/buyers?
The article is at
and has a very good comment by Danuta Kean, who writes about the book trade.

Further to my last post and the debate about putting RRPs on books, see

Friday, 4 May 2007

Show me the money

Two items in the book trade news today, both of which mystify me. Firstly, Waterstone's will be selling the final Harry Potter (What? You didn't know it was coming out?) at half price because they're driven to be 'price competitive'. Customers will also get a free copy of Wizardology: A Guide to Wizards of the World. Whoopee - get in the queue right now! Simon Fox, their chief executive, says they won't lose money but that 'At half price it's pretty difficult to make money.' Well, duh.

I'm sure you're all aware of the madness going on in the book world which over the past few years has seen the rise of discounting and of the clout of supermarkets, along with a corresponding decline in the independent bookshop sector. What has happened is that customers (and I include myself) have been trained to view books as products on which we want a good deal just like the 3 for 2 or Bogof deal at the chemist or supermarket. The question always is, can we treat a book like a can of beans or a tube of toothpaste? Do we now view books sold at full price as a bad deal? There is a debate going on yet again in the book trade about removing RRPs from books entirely and letting prices find their own level. The whole question of perceived value is an interesting one. We don't want to shell out £7.99 for a paperback but don't mind the same price for a main course on a lunch menu? Remember, as Milton said: 'A good book is the lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.' Isn't that of more worth than a lasagne and side salad?

With the Harry Potter scenario, one wonders if any copies will be sold at all at the RRP. With the gigantic economies of scale involved, neither Bloomsbury nor J.K. herself will suffer. But what about struggling authors who are already facing the prospect of declining royalties which may well be based in the future not on the price printed on the book but on the actual selling price. God knows, a paperback that generates a royalty of 5% or 7 1/2% of a selling price of £7.99 isn't much - but if the book is discounted and a royalty paid on that price, it's far less.

I know we writers are crazy idealists (Got to be, why else spend months and years of self-doubt and effort to produce our books) but where is it written that we have to pretend we don't really want to earn money for our work? I don't mean J.K.'s millions - just a nice living income so we can concentrate on the thing that matters most to us? Anything wrong with that?

Which brings me to the second news item: that Headline is going to publish the debut novel by comic writer Simon Spurrier online for free, in 6 weekly instalments from 24th May. Editor Piers Blofeld says '"Contract" was one of those very rare submissions that had me literally jumping out of my chair with excitement ... While there are obvious issues for publishers, the main point for me is that what writers need above all else is readers.' Well, duh, for the second time - but what about an income? Can someone please explain the logic of all this to me?

The book's website, ironically, is - and after free online publication, it's out in hardback on June 4th at £19.99. Once again, can someone please explain?

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Letting it Go

I'vebeen quiet for the past few days because I was printing up (with yes, final tiny edits) my typescript, and repaginating the whole thing because I keep each chapter as a separate file. Fun.

Yesterday I sent it off. There's the frisson of gently pushing a pristine MS into a Jiffy bag (remember when submitting, no staples, slippery plastic wallets and the like - keep it as simple as possible) and another kind of frisson as you seal it up, because you have to resist the urge to haul it out again and tamper some more.

Then you hand it over the counter at the post office. It's gone. You try to have faith in the postal service. You tell yourself you won't hassle your agent to check whether it arrived. You really won't, even though the Royal Mail is in a parlous state these days and anything could have happened to it. You won't drop a carefully light email to him/her, now, will you? You wouldn't dream of it. He/she is busy and you'll merely antagonise them. You'll possess yourself in patience. At least until after the Bank Holiday ...

In Sunday's Observer, Sebastian Faulks, who's publishing a new book, 'Engleby', described the writing life, saying that 'For three years, you're alone with your thoughts, then for three weeks you're thrown to the microphones in the name of 'publicity'. The modern writer's life is like a cross between that of the Venerable Bede and Naomi Campbell.' He talks of the difficulty readers seem to have when it comes to differentiating between art and life. Of 'Birdsong', he says 'One man asked me how I knew what it was like to fight at the Somme. I told him I'd read a lot of documents, visited the site, then made it up. 'You made it up?' he spat at me.' This reminds me of how in my youth I used to doodle faces a lot (still do) and some well-meaning friend/relative would peer (yes that word again! - for those of you who've read an earlier post on editing) over my shoulder and say 'That's nice - who's it meant to be?' (And when you come to think of it this is patronising because if it had been meant to be representaional it implied I hadn't exactly captured the reality.) This used to drive me up the wall. I'd explain it wasn't meant to be anyone: I'd made it up. 'What, out of your head?' they'd say, bemused.

There are crossing guards at the border between fiction and reality and they give writers a hard time. Witness the trouble Ian McEwan had recently because he'd used material from a memoir by Lucilla Andrews as source material for part of 'Atonement'. Shock! Horror! Writer uses source! Writer acknowledges source! Therefore writer did not commit plagiarism, the ultimate modern literary crime. Chaucer and Shakespeare, well-known literary recyclers, would not have understood the furore. The art lies in the reshaping, the transmuting of the source, of the familiar, into something new, personal, original, rich and strange.

Strikes me this blog has been a bit of a ramble. Anyway, wish me luck with my MS - and feel free to slap me on the wrist if you see me reaching for the phone anytime soon.