Thursday, November 01, 2007

Is it worth it?

I had a long email from my friend Tracy Saunders earlier in the week, who lives in Spain. She is currently going through the process of publishing her own book, on Christian martyr Priscillian with I-Universe, (A US based print on demand provider who recently merged with Authorhouse). Like many other authors, she is going through the phase of what's it all about, and have I done the right thing, will it be worth it all. I remember it well, as it is something I and a thousand other POD (and no doubt commercially published) authors go through almost every day of their writing lives. I have said it before, that you don't have to be mad to do this, but it certainly helps. I lost my marbles a long time ago, and they are currently rolling about on the floor of the Lightning Source printing plant in Milton Keynes ...

Tracy makes the point though that how are we to ever get over the POD stigma so that we can compete on not just an even footing, but be taken seriously as authors. It is a tough one to answer, as it depends not just on the quality of your writing (which is very much a subjective thing anyway), but also on being seen in the right place at the right time by the right people. This is difficult enough for commercially published authors let alone POD ones. It also though and perhaps more crucially, depends on the opinions of others. The problem is that people still remember the bad old days of vanity publishing, where the books were badly written and poorly produced, but times have changed. A lot of people though have not moved on from those times. This is where we have to work that much harder at changing perceptions.

Where though do you begin? The book buying public do not care how the book they are reading was published, only that is it interesting and affordable. The problem then lies not with the book buying public but with the book trade itself. Hard working POD authors and some of the recent success stories have helped, but most of all what the POD author needs to be do in order to be taken seriously on any level, is to write a damned good book, and get out there and promote it in as professional a way as possible. This is not easy when you are also trying to manage a house and a business, as Tracy is, or in my case when you have no other source of income and everyone keeps demanding free copies before they will make a buying decision.

It is true that the vanity stigma is much more of an issue for American writers, and attitudes here in the UK do seem to be changing fast. Personally I have found the supply chain to be by far the biggest problem, as have the few of you that have voted in the poll on my other blog site. It is not so bad here because we have chain stores in the form of Waterstones, Borders and WH Smiths. Waterstones are easy to get into, Borders and Smiths less so. Spain though has none of these chains, and Tracy's book is not in Spanish, the native language, but written in English.

Spain she tells me, has just ten Bookworld Espana shops (she plans to break out her shortest skirt to visit the main buyer), with very few independents. Fortunes are not made on this. They are not though made on the 300 odd copies I have sold either (not when they are sold at 55 percent discount anyway).

She goes on to ask me the question as to whether it has been worth it all. This again depends on your point of view and why you are doing it. A lot of the things that I am doing now I should have been doing when my book first came out, but neither I nor the book was ready for such exposure. I thought I knew the publishing industry and how it worked, but I didn't, I was just playing at it. I did very well considering, with the limited resources that I had, as well as most other POD authors anyway, but not that many are seriously prepared (or have the time) to do anywhere near the amount of work that I am now doing.

To go back to Tracy's question though - is it worth it all? Of course it is. Writers write not because they want to, but because they have to - it a compulsion that we have inside us that can no more be ignored than the impulse to breath. It is who we are, and what makes us tick, what makes us leap out of bed in the morning, what makes us shout at our partners to scribble down the ideas that always come when we are in the shower. It is the reason we are alive. For the truly serious writer, life and writing are the same thing and you simply cannot conceive of one without the other. It is the reason we are here to share that gift.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Anyone for non fiction?

Reading the various news articles on The Bookseller website this morning, I noticed one in particular on some of the peer review sites that have sprung up in recent months as a means of authors circumnavigating the slush pile. The best known of these is perhaps You Write On, which is sponsored by the Arts Council. Authors are asked to submit one or two chapters for review by their peers, with the premise that agents and those in the book trade regularly scour such pages looking for new and upcoming talent. Apparently several deals have been struck by such means. You Write On is by no means the only site, as there are quite a few of these projects now. Harper Collins plan to launch their own such site in February next year.

None of these websites though cater for non fiction and in fact, when you think about it, there are remarkably few resources for non fiction writers at all. The reference section in Waterstones and Borders (and no doubt smaller shops as well) is crammed full of books on how to write a novel, how to write a book proposal, how to do this and how to do that, but try finding a book on say research for non fiction writers and you are hard pressed (no pun) to find any. Some of the larger branches may have a small selection, but by and large you have to look elsewhere (which means the Internet) for such titles.

I find this incredibly irritating and frustrating for several reasons. Firstly non fiction has a much larger share of the market than fiction writing - around 80 percent in fact, and also because there are more different types of non fiction books - cookery, gardening, mind body and spirit to name just three, they tend to be given much more shelf space as well, collectively anyway. Go into a typical book store and you will see what I mean.

Writers who are trying to get their lucky break are told to do several things - read writing magazines, make contacts and attend writers workshops etc. How though is the non fiction writer supposed to do that when there are no such classes or books available to help them? And this is my point.

Some years ago I found a course listed in my local adult education prospectus entitled Creative Writing. It stated in the prospectus that it was suitable for both fiction and non fiction writers and so taking their word for it, I enrolled. It turned out to be an expensive mistake and with hindsight I should have demanded both a refund and an apology.

During the first class the tutor asked us to introduce ourselves and say what we wanted to get from the course. I was one of the only ones there who was not only a published writer, but also actually working on a book, and something therefore tangible. I was also the only non fiction writer in the room. I was then told that the course was predominantly for fiction writers, but we will do non fiction at some point, and was I happy to continue along those lines. I replied that yes I was, as long as it was understood that we would be covering non fiction during the duration of the course. Needless to say, we did not.

I persevered though and did my best to write the fiction homework that was set each week. I found it a struggle though as this type of writing does not come naturally to me - we all after all have different gifts and talents. After a while then I started to bring in parts of the book that I was at that time working on, and read them out in class. The comments were breathtaking in their rudeness and ignorance, with one lady having the audacity to say that I had no right to be there at all, as my writing was not what she thought of as creative. The tutor in the meantime stood there and did precisely nothing. Well after that I did write a very stiff letter of complaint and as a result they stopped advertising those classes as suitable for non fiction writers.

I personally believe that ALL writing is creative, for the simple fact that you are CREATING something - it doesn't matter then what genre you are writing, whether it is fiction, non fiction, horror, science fiction or whatever - ALL writing is creative.

What then is the non fiction writer to do? Network with other non fiction writers (not as difficult as it seems, and most of them I have discovered are more than willing to talk) and then look for the nearest course in Journalism. This is the closest thing you will ever find to a course that will help you - as I have discovered since I began editing my village newsletter.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tea and book shops

My legs are really aching tonight, and I think I may have overdone things at the gym this morning. I burnt off 200 calories by rowing for 10 minutes and then cycling 9 kilometres in half an hour. I am not surprised then that my poor leg muscles are screaming out for a rest!
It was such a beautiful day as well that Coran and I decided to go a walk this afternoon after lunch, and take some photographs of our new surroundings. We parked near the bottom of the main road and walked up a very steep hill (not dissimilar to The Pyramid on Lundy) to the next bend in the road. The colours were spectacular with the afternoon sun shining against a backdrop of brilliant blue skies with just a smattering of cloud.

We are off to Glastonbury on Friday for a long weekend, staying three nights at the Chalice Well. It has been a while since we had a break together, the last time being the somewhat ill fated trip to Forest Mere at the beginning of the year, when we had some major decisions to make about the future of our relationship. For a while I thought it was touch and go, and we may have to go our separate ways, but we thankfully managed to iron things out. I think than when you have been through all the things that we have experienced together in the last ten years, the relationship is worth working on and persevering. All couples after all go through their sticky patches, and we are no exception.

I had a surprise phone call from Paul at lunch time with some exciting news. I will not divulge quite yet what it was, but wait and see what the outcome it. I have you all guessing now I expect. All I will say is that he is negotiating with a major book chain regarding actually stocking my book - by this I do not mean that they will say yes, it fits our criteria and then leave me to do all the hard work of phoning them all up, but rather that they will roll them out themselves on a national basis. He is also going to speak to some independent reviewers who work for certain other national newspapers that I have not yet spoken to myself. I will not at this stage then mention names, except to say watch this space.

I had a lovely email yesterday as it happens from Stu, one of the Managers at Tonto Press, a small press based in Newcastle upon Tyne. I read about them a few days ago on Grumpy Old Bookman and from there journeyed to their blog site, where I saw that they had linked to my own (this) blog, recommending it as a source of information for would be self published authors. I made some comments of my own on their own blog, which I guess Stu must have seen, so it was lovely to hear back from him. They seem to be a company who are really going places, but also have the same difficulty that I encountered with the rather snooty Manager at Borders (Boreders !) in Birmingham, i.e. that people assume that because they are based in Newcastle, they publish only books of local interest and then stick them on the wrong book shelf.

Thankfully Paul managed to sort that little problem out for me by ringing the relevant Buyer at Borders Head Office and getting them to change the category. I suspect that Tonto need to do the same.

After we got back from our walk then and a delightful lunch at our favourite tea shop, I set to work ringing yet more book stores, and managed to secure an order from Waterstones in Cardiff. I am now stocked then in 60 book stores, and that is just the ones I know about - I suspect there are more that I don't know about. With any luck by the time this weekend is over there will be a few more in Glastonbury as well.

The up to date list of stockists is then as follows:

London - Borders - Kingston-upon Thames, Uxbridge, Wimbledon, Whiteley's (Bayswater)
Waterstones - Barnet, Covent Garden, Kensington, Kingston-upon-Thames, Leadenhall, Piccadilly, Putney

South East - Borders - Croydon, Lakeside
Waterstones - Andover, Basildon, Bluewater, Bournemouth, Brentwood, Brighton, Chesham, Crawley, Dorking, East Grinstead, Epsom (High Street), Folkestone (Sandgate Road), Godalming, Horsham, Ilford, Reading (Oracle), Redhill (signed copies), Romford, Southampton (Above Bar and West Quay), Slough, Staines (signed copies)

South West - Waterstones - Barnstaple, Bath, Dorchester, Exeter (Roman Gate)
Chalice Well Book Shop, Glastonbury

Midlands - Waterstones - Boston, Coventry (Lower Precinct), Lowestoft, Market Harborough, St Neots

North - Waterstones - Blackpool, Derby, Liverpool, Manchester (Trafford Centre), Scarborough

Scotland - Waterstones - Aviemore, Braehead (Glasgow), Inverness (Eastgate), Oban, Stirling

Wales - Waterstones - Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Llandudno

Northern Ireland - Waterstones - Ballymena, Belfast

Not bad for a book that no one wanted to publish and I was told wouldn't sell ...