Slaves to the readers?

Interesting article in today’s Guardian about the Writer’s Manifesto to be presented tonight at the Manchester Literature Festival by Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat, among other works.

“She’s putting forward a really interesting question about boundaries,” said Writers’ Centre Norwich chief executive Chris Gribble, “and about what we expect of writers … and what the limits are of being a reader.”

What are your thoughts on this? Are the boundaries between authors and readers becoming unhealthily fuzzy?

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Author A.L. Kennedy on writing a Doctor Who novel

In a Guardian article a couple of weeks ago, British novelist A.L. Kennedy not only had nice things to say about the deep meaning of Doctor Who for children and adults alike, she also made some fairly damning pronouncements on the state of traditional publishing:

In a literary landscape of nervous agents and terrified publishers, where no risk can be taken and the next novel should be like the last novel that did well, or a mash-up of two that did quite well, or a version of a version of something that had solid sales in 2010 … literate sci-fi may be the only arena where the wild, surprising and wonderful can hide.

A. L. Kennedy (Schriftstellerin)

A. L. Kennedy

 

To her criticism of the industry she also added this barb about the other end of the gatekeeping spectrum – literature in academia:

It’s sad that so much of the air has gone from literary endeavour, that academic theorising and categorising have come to decide which novels are acceptable and reviewed, that literary publishing has squashed itself into more and more predictable boxes more and more often. Storytelling, company, human solidarity – they never go away, but they do seem to be moving away from the mainstream. It will be the mainstream’s loss.

I’m personally going through a lot of soul-searching fuelled by some hard research on what my next publishing steps should be with regard to the final book in the Embodied trilogy, and which of several embryonic projects to embark on after that (or even before it’s published).

The sands under our feet as authors are shifting. Does that mean we’re paddling at the edge of an amazingly powerful and beautiful ocean that’s safe and fun to swim in or will we be sucked down by hidden currents into a jungle quicksand? Either way, the days of writing our names in the hardening concrete of traditional publishing seem to be over. (End of concrete-mixing metaphors…)

Photo: “A. L. Kennedy (3)” by Heinrich-Böll-StiftungFlickr: A. L. Kennedy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

How the mind creates when you’re doing other things

As I’ve mentioned somewhere on this blog before, the name of my last book came to me in a dream. This quick read in this week’s Guardian explores the creative differences between writers who pre-plan their books (such as Michelle Paver) and those who wing it (such as John Boyne). It turns out that no matter which method you choose, your mind is working away in the background like a helpful little pixie. Or maybe like a beaver. Or a colony of termites. Anyway, the bottom line is, when you create, you aren’t really aware of everything that’s going on in your brain. And I like that.

Your brain on termites.

Your brain on termites.

Photo credit: Gnilenkov Aleksey / Foter / CC BY

 

The Guardian begins serious coverage of self-published authors

On Thursday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper began a series on self published authors with this article on Polly Courtney. In her interview she describes the negative experience she had when her third book (following two self-published novels) was marketed by HarperCollins in the UK:

Polly Courtney

Polly Courtney. Photograph: Hanna Palmer.

When I signed with HarperCollins, I thought “Great! This is the golden ticket I’ve been waiting for!” I thought it would be a great collaboration between me and the publisher, given my success self-publishing my first two novels. The reality was a big disappointment. The publisher seemed intent on pushing my books into pre-existing moulds (“misery lit”, “chick lit”) that didn’t reflect
the contents.

“Brand Polly Courtney” was increasingly muddled, leading to confusion for readers. It turned out that my editor hadn’t actually read my first two books. There was no marketing budget, which meant that it was up to me to promote each book. This wasn’t a problem per se, but my job was made hard by the frivolous book covers and titles assigned to them. I actually felt ashamed of the product. Now I’m back to self-publishing, I’ve regained control.

20 FERAL YOUTH Front cover Amazon

The Guardian appears to be making a genuine effort to provide its readers with coverage of self-published books such as Polly’s novel Feral Youth, which will be released next week. I’ve already touched on the issue of gatekeepers and quality control mechanisms in the traditional publishing industry as well as the ones that are springing up for self-published authors, such as the Awesome Indies website, independent reviewers, and the True Review Pledge. But one of the principal gatekeepers that has always existed in the world of traditional publishing is professional reviewing of new books in newspapers and magazines.

Reviews that appear in quality newspapers like The Guardian are trusted by the readership and have a huge influence on consumer behaviour. Many self-published authors are not writing with any expectation of profit, but for those that do, influencing consumers is the way to bridge the gap between amateur and professional status.

I’m already a professional writer (copywriting, book sales and translation work account for 100% of my income) so that gap doesn’t exist in quite the same way for me as it does for other self-published authors. But whether professional or not, pretty much every author, myself included, would like their work to be read by as many people as possible. Mind you, “read” isn’t necessarily a synonym for “consumed”. I’ve managed to give away over 5,500 copies of the Silent Symmetry ebook, and presumably the vast majority of those copies will be read at some point in the near future. Some will also be shared with family members and maybe some even pirated, which leads to even more readers but no actual consumption in a financial sense. For me, as an unknown author, this is all part of a professional long-term marketing plan. But it if that plan doesn’t ultimately translate into income through sales, it has failed.

So what makes people lay down their hard-earned pounds, dollars and yen (yes, Silent Symmetry has readers in Japan!) and buy a book? Trust. That’s why The Guardian’s series is an enormous step in the right direction for self-publishing. Of course, any single book may turn out to be rubbish, whether traditionally or self-published, but at least positive coverage for the indies in the mainstream media increases the overall credibility factor for self-publishing, and may encourage more readers to consume books that authors such as Polly Courtney have laboured so diligently to write and market.

On another note, if any self-published authors out there have the slightest idea why the Silent Symmetry ebook was downloaded over 2,500 times last week in the US but only 9 times in Canada and 58 in the UK, I’d love to hear their theories! Since Facebook,  Twitter and blogs are essentially international, I can’t for the life of me figure out why these figures are so disproportionately skewed in favour of the US. More copies were downloaded in India than in Canada where I live and wrote the book! As Jerry Seinfeld used to say, “What’s up with that?”

Next-gen ebooks?

The Guardian reported from the London Book Fair on a new “fully immersive” version of John Buchan’s century-old thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, which of course has already been made “semi-immersive” in cinematic adaptations by Hitchcock and others.

Click to view the article.

London Book Fair 2013

Screenshot of Faber Digital’s ebook of The Thirty-
Nine Steps

As interesting as the article itself are the comments which (unusually for the internet) are mostly sane and range from “why would they bother; this isn’t a book anymore” to “this is just interactive fiction” to “this looks super cool!”.

Clearly projects such as this that require a significant budget are a way for established publishing houses to compete with both independent ebooks and other media vying for the “entertainment dollar” such as video games and movies.