Thursday, March 06, 2008

If it ain't one thing its another ...

I really have had an absolute gut full today, having faced it seems one setback after another, and really do once again wonder whether this is seriously worthwhile. The problems have been exacerbated by the fact that I have had very little sleep and am just dog tired and really do feel fit to drop. Coran had a bad migraine last night and so neither of us have had much sleep at all, as we had to call the Doctor out at 1am, and then sit up waiting for them to call us back for over an hour until 2.15 am. When they finally did, they told him to take some paracetamol and just let things take their course, which is not what we you want to hear when you are in pain, both physical and emotional, in the midst of a panic attack, and suffering from severe sleep deprivation.

This may sound selfish, but it is not what I needed at all, since now I am working four days a week, and have 71 books to shift from home, I need to utilise every single moment of my days off in order to sell these things, and cannot afford to take days off and take my eye off the ball for even a moment. The universe at the moment does not seem to want to help me at all, as I seem to be continually coming up against all sorts of problems and blocks that hinder my progress. It is almost as if having come so far, I can go no further and seem to be continually coming up against a series of brick walls, which seem to be obstacles in my path. I am just so tired though of this continual battle for acceptance and to get anywhere, and when one repeatedly comes up against this stuff and is given conflicting advice by people who actually work for a certain chain store, well, it just breaks my heart to once again feel that I am getting absolutely nowhere and letting everyone down - including myself. I really do not know what I can do to get past this, and wish I could just wake up on 22nd December 2012 and find it was all over and done with.

First thing this morning, after I had had a strong cup of tea to wake myself up, I started to ring back all those Borders that I spoke to last weekend. I should have realised I was wasting my time when every single one of them told me that the person I needed to speak to was not available and could I call back later on as they were on late shifts.

Undeterred, I rang Blackwells in Aberdeen, as the first of their stores whom I also emailed over the weekend. As it happens, their Manager was a lot more helpful, as she explained to me that although the book did have potential, it would not in her opinion sell without either endorsement from one of the University Professors or as part of a campaign via the buying team. I had to agree with her, as what she had to say made a lot of sense. I just cannot afford though to send books to every Professor in the country, and as she expalined, they would expect that I do. She understood this though and so gave me the name and email address of Katharine Fry, their Trade Buyer, whom I have emailed. I await her reply with interest and bated breath.

I then telephoned Paul and gave him the news, and he in turn gave me the address for the new and soon to be launched X-Books site which he is working on with Derek Reece, Richards business partner at Authors OnLine Ltd. This exciting project, which was discussed at the Authors OnLine 10th anniversary celebration at St Neots in October, is like an X-factor for books, run over the Internet rather than on television, the difference being that the judges are not celebrities, but members of the public.

Authors will download their work to the site for free, and members of the public will then pay £1.50 a time to vote for their favourite work and add comments in the form of a kind of review, thus proving that there is a market for this work. The winner will win a contract with Authors OnLine, whereby a run of 5000 books will be printed (it will not then be print on demand) for distribution in the normal way both online and through book stores. Those who have posted to the website will also be able to buy copies of the books direct at 40 percent discount, the same terms that the stores themselves get.

Derek, whom I also spoke to this morning, chose the £1.50 figure after it came to his attention that more people paid this amount to vote on the X-factor than actually turned up to vote at the last General Election! The site seems to be getting some heavyweight support from what both Derek and Paul have told me - with The Times and The Guardian endorsing it, as well as Writers News (it is set to be featured in the April edition, due out any day now). Jonathon Clifford of course thinks it is a waste of time, but only time will tell. As far as I am concerned, any publicity for Authors OnLine Ltd is also publicity for me, as the more people that go to their site, the greater their profile becomes and the more potential there is that people will find and hopefully buy my book.

After that the photographer from the local paper called round to take some photographs of me looking suitable mournful by a big pile of books. After he had gone I rang the reporter whom I have been dealing with and who is writing the piece, to let him know and confirm the details re the competition I have decided to run. I am offering a free copy to the first reader to contact me and £2 off a copy with free postage to everyone else. After that I had some lunch and went to sleep.

I woke up around 2.45 pm and set to work ringing all those Borders back, and it was then that the problems really began .... They all back tracked on what I had previously been told - namely, that they only order books by local authors and everything else has to go through Head Office. Their Head Office though will not stock books by unknown authors without a sales history, and you cannot get a sales history if they refuse to stock your books .... This is what I mean about hitting a brick wall ...

After this happening with around half a dozen stores, in desperation I rang their Head Office and somehow or other got through to the Buying department, a minor miracle in itself given that they normally only deal with authors and publisher via email and snail mail. Again I was told conflicting things - that books are ordered for the most part centrally, but that authors can contact stores direct and talk to them if they wish (Books Etc stores are often more open to this, as like Ottakars they are traditionally more used to dealing with authors). Stores can make decisions at local level re stock, but the orders have to be passed to Head Office for them to actually carry out. They were able to tell me that 3 stores have stock - Kingston, Lakeside and Llantrissant in Wales, but Kingston are the only store to have sold copies - a total of 9 of them, since I happen to know that they ordered 20 for my talk there in January 2007.

The Bookseller in the meantime, I noticed today, have an article regarding both Waterstones and Borders which states that Paul Smiddy, an 'influential' market analyst from HSBC believes that Waterstones are better placed to capitalise from a loss in market share by Borders, especially once their centralised warehouse starts to be rolled out towards the end of May.

According to the article, the report states that the current retail supply chain is "more akin to the 19th century than the 21st". I think I, and most other self publishers and small presses would agree with that! Smiddy believes that the Waterstones distribution centre, due to go live later this year, could lead to other parties trying to simplify their own supply chains. He told The Bookseller: "Waterstones is in the vanguard of what could be a change that impacts the whole retail industry." Change that in my opinion is long overdue and can only be a good thing.

From my experiences at trying to get my book into both of these chains, these 2 companies could not be more different in their attitudes towards authors. Waterstones are a delight to work with, with Managers who are not only willing to talk, but also listen and take the trouble to explain things to you, and also perhaps more importantly, don't fob you off, but tell you the truth. They have clear buying policies which are easy to understand and work with, and even have an independent author advisor, who like their Managers, for the most part at least, is very approachable and listens to the needs of independent authors and publishers, helping them to get into the stores and giving support where needed.

Borders on the other hand are a nightmare - the buying team do not talk to people at all, but all business is done by mail. There is no information on the website re buying policies, meaning that you are forced to either guess as to what the polices are or deal with answerphones. They do they told me though, plan to publish guidelines on their website soon. The stores themselves give conflicting advice - some are happy to talk and will order copies, but the majority do not have a clue and simply refer you back to Head Office, insisting that everything has to go through them. The left hand then does not know what the right is doing - I have had staff blatantly lie to me, telling me that they are buyers and managers when in reality they are just weekend staff and students with part time jobs who don't have a clue. My point is though, that if you cannot talk to a person on the phone in the Buying Department, how can you build up a relationship with the company - this is not communication, but wanting things all their own way to the detriment of those that provide them with jobs and a livelihood in the first place.

As I said before, it is catch 22 - they will not stock your book centrally without some healthy sales figures, but you cannot get these if the stores will not talk to you and act like human beings. I have given up even trying now then and will concentrate on those who are willing to talk and do not insist on ridiculous discounts either. It's about time in my opinion that they realised that without authors like me there would be no books for them to sell in the first place, and they would all be out of a job ! What a way to run a book shop !

It seems a pity to me that they don't take a leaf out of Waterstones book, or some of the independents, like the Big Green Bookshop which is due to open this Saturday at 11am. I wish I could be there to cheer them on, but it would be the one Saturday that I have to work, so it will have to wait for another time.

The shop will stock 8,000 titles, which will include a multicultural section to reflect Wood Green's diverse population. The children's section will be age-ranged between pre-school, primary and secondary. They also plan to focus on science fiction, which was it seems a very popular genre at the old Waterstone's branch that Tim and Simon, their new managers used to manage together.

For the moment though, dinner is calling, and I have written quite a tome, so it is time to sign off and find the nearest brick wall to bang my head against ....

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

They times they are a changing ...

I was at work this morning around 11am when the phone began to ring. I had the strangest feeling that it was the reporter from the local paper whom I spoke to on Friday afternoon, so it was no surprise when I answered and it did indeed turn out to be him. Strange how one gets this feeling sometimes ... Anyway, the reason that he was ringing was because they wanted to come and take some pictures of me with the stack of books to go in the paper with the piece that they plan to write!

He was hoping to come to the house on Wednesday, but unfortunately I will be at work. I have Thursday and Friday off though, so we have arranged to meet up on Thursday morning instead. It means that I will miss the deadline for this weeks edition, which comes out on Thursday, but it can't be helped, and actually gives me more of a chance to get into the following weeks edition anyway. They are quite willing to print my email and web address so that readers can contact me for their reduced price copies, so I think what I shall do to get the ball rolling is to offer a free copy to the first person to contact me and take it from there. Hopefully that will encourage people to contact me for what could be the read of their lifetime. I will see then what transpires.

Going back to the idea of fair trade for authors, noble as it may be, there is of course much more to fair trade than using sustainable paper and ink. The definition of fair trade is actually to ensure that those involved in the production as opposed to sale of goods, get a fair price and honest treatment. The crux of the matter is that in the majority of cases, when it comes to books, this just does not happen. The big five publishers still have a stranglehold over the market, dominating around 75 percent of it in fact, not just in Britain, but also in North America.

If one looks at the history of publishing, it was traditionally printers who were the publishers rather than these huge conglomerates, and they sold their wares direct to the book stores without all the middle men that we have today. The idea of sale or return did not exist, so the books either sold or stayed on the shelves until they did. Writers were paid fairly on books that were actually printed (i.e. that they had to pay for) rather than sold. The situation that I am in simply would not and could not have occurred. Sadly though, all that has changed.

My writing buddy from across the pond, Domenic Pappalardo writes, that there is a huge tax advantage to publishers with sale or return, as they can claim tax relief against these losses. This is not so for the author, who is left to pick up the pieces and carry the can. We even have situations where publishers are giving books away for free or as loss leaders (which amounts to the same thing anyway), as a form of advertising. The writer is powerless to do anything to stop this denigration of his or her work, which may have taken them years to complete, and which as a result of these actions, they will earn not one single bean from.

Left to their own devices it seems that the industry will not act honourably and do the right thing. It is then up to us as writers to do it for ourselves, and the only way to achieve this is through the Internet, which publishers now see, quite rightly, as the biggest threat to their livelihood. This is the real reason for the change of heart on their behalf and their softening attitude towards digitisation, not just in the form of e-books, but also through print on demand, for they realise that if they do not embrace these changes and run with the tide, then they will be swamped - it is a case quite literally, of sink or swim.

Everything though has it time and in a way, this is just another symbol of the rise in feminine power, as the old ways give way to the new. The old way of publishing is very tied up in the masculine, where the publishers had almost total control of the end product and how it was promoted and sold, the new way though where the author is in control is very much enmeshed in the feminine. This then despite the apparent chaos and all the challenges that it brings, is actually very exciting, for there has never been a better time to be self publishing.

There is a great feeling of anticipation in the air when you log on to any of the writers sites and forums to discuss these issues being battled backwards and forwards, which is fascinating to observe from a detached perspective. In five to ten years time, the industry will have changed almost beyond recognition as authors are the ones much more in control of their work and their destiny. You can see the signs everywhere you look, and even the book buying public acknowledge that change is needed, as today The Bookseller reports that the majority of people when asked, stated that writers should be paid fairly for downloading their work. What an exciting time it is then all round, and how pleased I am to be part of this revolution and to know that I and the company I chose to publish my book with, are at the forefront of this change.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Always look on the bright side

Having thought about things all day and made the decision to go to church tonight, for the first time in about four months, I am so glad that I did. Monty Python's 'Always look on the bright side' is playing in the background as I type this. A day or so ago I was listening to this and could not see the funny side - it was simply to help me wallow in my own self pity - now though I listen to it with fresh ears and eyes, and am laughing along with the words - remember that the last laugh is on you!

What then has brought about this change I hear you ask - as always a wonderful channelling from my friend Margaret, whose wisdom I have greatly missed. I cannot remember the exact words, but it became apparent as I listened to her words just how enmeshed in the 3D (third dimensional, material) world I have become, where it is almost fashionable to moan and see yourself as the victim.

I have become aware of how I have been giving mixed messages to the universe, and so it has not known how to respond. On the one hand, I have been telling people in real life and on the Internet, how well my book is doing and how great it is to be in all these book shops, yet at the same time I have done nothing but complain about what an awful card authors are dealt, and all the hoops we have to jump through in order to be taken seriously. To the outsider then I looked successful and happy, but inside I did not feel as it I was. The universe then reacted in the only way that it could - it was almost as if it was saying to me 'well thanks for nothing then, we have given you all this help and you don't want it - so therefore we will send some of your books back for you to deal with!'. Who can blame them.

So starting tomorrow, things will change and I will moan no more - I can't promise that I will never moan again of course, because let's face it, we all sometimes need to, but I will do my best not to, and to see the good, or perhaps the God in all things. I will smile simply because I am alive, have a man and friends who love me very much, have a successful business (yes, I do!), a job that I enjoy and am good at, a roof over my head, food on the table and clothes on my back - what else could I ask for other than this?

Fair Trade for Authors !

I think when something like a large amount of book returns happens to an author, it is like any other type of grieving process - you go through many different stages before reaching acceptance - the angry stage - how could this have happened, what could I have done to prevent this, the let down stage - I have let myself and everyone else down etc, before one finally gets to the stage where one just surrenders to what has happened and tries to see it in a positive light instead.

Over lunch today, Coran and I watched an episode of Babylon Five, an extraordinary science fiction television series written and created by J Michael Straczynski - the episode we watched was entitled 'Whatever Happened to Mr Garibaldi'. There is a scene in that episode where one character Delenn, is watching a film of her lost lover whom she is pining for. It is a long story that will be familiar to fans of this series. I won't go into full details here, as it would take too long.

She blames herself for his disappearance, as it is her actions that led him to take risks. In the footage of him speaking that she is shown, he states "this is the hardest thing we've ever done, and frankly, it scares the hell out of me. But it has to be done. The job is to turn this around and make it into something positive. My dad always told me, that's the only way to deal with pain. You don't surrender, and you don't fight it. You turn it into something positive". This is what I now intend to do.

Yesterday then, I sent an email out to all those on my mailing list, and have had some wonderful responses and messages of support. One lady has offered to put the book on her new online shop and try and sell some copies at her local flea market; another chap in Australia has put me in touch with one of his writing pals whom this also happened to, and whom I am waiting to hear from. It was so lovely to hear from Malcolm, whom I hadn't heard from in over a year. His wife died just over a year ago, and we shared some quite personal correspondence and got to know each other very well for 2 people who live on opposite sides of the world. It was lovely then to hear from him after all this time. Good things then can come from adversity.

Yesterday though was a busy day. I spent an hour or so on the phone in the morning ringing various branches of Borders, and managed to get at least some interest. Bournemouth are definitely ordering one copy, which is a start, and the rest asked me to email them with further information. Will keep an eye on the number that Gardners have in stock over the next day or so and see what happens. I am sure I will the first to know when they need more copies, and have got some quotes from DHL in case!

If the number in stock does not drop, I will ring those stores again next week, when I get my day off and catch up with them again to see what the interest is.

Later on in the afternoon I went through the list of contact details for Blackwells stores - an academic book chain based on university campuses, sending them a copy of that review from The Self Publishing Magazine that I had last year which said that the book was ideal as a companion for students of social sciences. Will keep an eye on what happens there as well, as this might be something that could open quite a few doors and lead to interesting opportunities all round.

It even looks like the local paper might write a piece and help me to shift some copies - they will ring me at work tomorrow, all being well, to discuss things further. I am then beginning to think that those books being sent back might turn out to be one of the best things that could have happened.

In the shower this morning like one does, I had the inspiration to write an article entitled Fair Trade for Authors. This seems topical at the moment, as we are in the midst of fair trade fortnight. I did some research of my own on the web and came across an article entitled Fair Trade Books which was posted on a site entitled Times Emit last October. Interesting reading it makes too.

The author, Peter Collingridge, makes the point that being green seems high on the agenda at the moment within the book industry, with moves towards firm sale and the use of recycled, or as least sustainable paper. There is though, to the best of his knowledge, only one carbon neutral publisher, Alasdair Sawday.

Each year, thousands upon thousands of unsold and returned books go to landfill sites and end up being pulped. Most of these are mint copies, which have never been opened, much less read, and this to my mind is little short of criminal. His colleague, James cited a Times Higher Education Supplement piece which calculated that what with production and transport, the average paperback eats its way through 4.5kWh of energy on its journey to the reader. This is equivalent to an extra 100,000 cars on our roads.

The answer lies partly in digitisation in the form of e-books, but this is not the only option, as print on demand also has a role to play. E-books are all well and good for educational text books and the like, but will never totally replace traditional paper copies. Nothing is like the look and feel of a real paper book, and e-books cannot come close to the experience of browsing in a library or book store. Enter then print on demand, as the obvious solution to this problem.

Both Peter and James make the point that book sellers use the returns system to facilitate their pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap attitude to literature. Returns are bad for the environment, and poisonous to literature, as they eat into publishers profits, meaning there is less money going into the system with which to not only pay their own staff, but also the authors. Let's not forget that without us to actually write the books, there would be no publishing industry in the first place.

Writing has never been one of the more lucrative professions, but authors have never been so badly paid, or so exploited, with most of the money going to the select few, who are either very well known or married to someone else who is! It is time then to consider the practise of Fair Trade Books (as opposed to Fat Cat Books), where authors are paid a fair price, publishers print using organic, sustainable, and ethically produced paper and ink, using local printers rather than overseas conglomerates, and where book sellers stop demanding huge discounts and sale or return, helping to promote local authors. Peter is not joking when he writes this, and neither am I, it is not a joking matter.

There has been a revolution going on in the publishing industry which began 10 years ago when Anthony Rowe first brought print on demand to the British Isles in partnership with Gardners. It started as a very gentle whisper, but has become a shout which refuses to go away and can only get louder. If publishers wonder why so many are choosing to self publish, they should take a look at the shameful way in which authors are treated - not as human beings, with feelings and lives and families to support, but as disposable commodities and cash cows to be taken advantage of and milked.

I plan then to expand on this article over the next couple of days, and see what transpires. I have already started the ball rolling by opening up a discussion on self publishing on a book lovers site (for those who read rather than write books) and it is making a few waves, and hopefully will begin to change attitudes towards those who write the books - this is the way to go, for if you can reach the readers and change their attitudes then it seems to me that anything is possible.

As they also say in Babylon Five "if you're falling off a cliff, you may as well try and fly. You've got nothing to lose." This girl has found her wings, and is getting ready to take that jump - to step into the abyss with eyes firmly open, and see what happens.