Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Price is right?

Speaking as an author, who is a member and regular poster on several reading and writing sites, there is one subject that is guaranteed to be a good discussion and that is Katie Price and her books. Love her or loathe her, Katie and her books always spark controversy, with plenty of differing views.

Two articles have been circulating around the national press this week regarding this very same subject, one in the Daily Mail and one on the blog of author and ghost writer Andrew Crofts.

The article in the Daily Mail, which is written by Lionel Shriver, bemoans the fact that Katie's books are selling faster than JK Rowling's, which is no mean feat. Gone are the days when writers were seen as shy retiring sorts, who were slightly eccentric, as they are now ego drive celebrities who are willing to court publicity at any cost. If the best sellers charts are to be believed, then in order to become successful in this game (as a woman anyway), you have to have large breasts (preferably surgically enhanced), be married to or in a relationship with someone famous, or go on some meaningless reality TV show. In Katie's case, she has done all three.

In some ways you have to admire her business sense, and you can hardly blame her for cashing in on others appetite for the gory details of her private life (and some details in her book really are private), but it does not mean that it is right. I am not sure if I would reveal anwhere near what she has for any price, let alone the £17 million, which she is reportedly worth.

The fact that her books are ghost written only adds to the controversy, for how can she really be called an author? It somehow does not seem fair that she earns all this money from books that she has not written, when others who do write struggle on so little, with no recognition at all.

Andrew Croft makes the point that every so often (not that I ever see it) there is a burst of indignation within the media about how little serious authors earn (although he fails to define what a serious author is). Figures are bandied about and comparisons are made, such as the fact that Katie makes more money from the books that she puts her name to than the entire Man Booker shortlist put together. Given her 'celebrity' status, and the mentality of the average 20 something who reads this stuff, this is to be expected. The boss of Waterstones makes more than the people who write the books that they sell, and the Chairman of our company more than the factory workers in Korea, where we obtain our televisions from. The fact that this happens does not though mean that it is morally or ethically right.

Andrew goes on to say that the average earnings of members of the Society of Authors are often brought up to illustrate how poorly writers are rewarded, yet we are able to exercise some form of control by working harder. It is true that if you write just one book a year, then you are not likely to get rich, but you have to have the time to do this in the first place. It is all very well saying that writers should work harder by writing eight hours a day and doing this that and the other, but how are we supposed to pay our bills while we do this? Sitting at home writing all day does not put food on the table and coins in the gas metre.

It is true that the most successful writers are the most versatile, and the most marketable, but we don't all have rich partners or parents to fall back on. We have to work outside the home (and this means outside of writing) in order to support ourselves. It is catch 22; you have to be out there promoting your work and creating the next one, but do not have the financial means to do this.

The best way to be succesful (apart from having a rich someone to support you, or relying on benefits) is to have a varied portfolio of different types of work and a long list of contacts. Both have to be worked at and do not happen overnight. The most successful writers are the ones who are continually promoting themselves and their work (or brand), as indeed does Katie.

It is easy to deride her for marketing so blatantly (and you don't get much more blatant than she did on Spanish TV - giving far too much detail about the reason for her sore throat - so I was told by an expatriate friend), but she would not be where she is had she not done this (marketed that is). Sad as it is, in many ways, her success can be seen as lesson for all of us, in refusing to take no for an answer, and making the most of what we have.

I may not like her or what she has done, but I have to admit that she has had to overcome an awful lot of snobbery to get to where she is today. Five years ago she was a struggling glamour model whose career was in decline, with what Andrew refers to as 'a tabloid reputation'. When she approached publishers with the idea of writing a book about her life, she received a less than enthusiastic welcome. Only John Blake, a man famed for his open mind on different subjects, was willing to give her a chance. He bought her book 'Being Jordan' for about two per cent of the price that Katie and her people had initially asked for. The book turned into a resounding success, and the rest as they say is history.

Those who turned her down must surely be kicking themselves, as those who turned down JK Rowling (and June Austin!) before them. By teaming up with Blake, Katie was able to appeal direct to the general public over the heads of the publishing elite who have traditionally set themselves up as the gatekeepers of what the public should or should not read (a subject I know all about). Having got to know her via exposure on television (I'm A Celebrity and the truly awful Katie and Peter certainly helped), the public responded by buying her books by the cartload. She appealed particularly to young women, through her obvious love and concern for disabled son Harvey, and penchant for wrong men.

Her writing career has been nothing less than a phenomena, which no one could have foreseen. It is not confined to her own memoirs, as she also puts her name to children's books about horses and riding, one of which was nominated for a prestigous book prize earlier this year. Her success contains several lessons for would be writers. Firstly, not to be out off by rejections, and secondly to settle for a modest advance in order to get started. Once this had happened, she did not sit around waiting for people to buy her books, but got out there and actively promoted them, bringing herself into the public eye to spark peoples interest.

On occasions I have been accused of jealousy regarding Katie, and I must admit that some of my comments have been less than charitable. I do not like her personality or her approach to fame, and there is no way that I would want that sort of lifestyle (just give me the fortune and forget the fame), but I have to admit that she has made some pretty astute business decisions and worked damned hard to get where she is. Her fame though comes at a price, and for me that price is just a little too high.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Fingers and toes crossed

I have just spoken to Paul, the amateur publicist for works on behalf of Richard's authors, and boy do I wish I had gone to that Winchester Book Festival. It seems that there were representatives there from Amazon, Booksurge and Authorhouse and Paul ruffled the feathers of all three - which is probably not difficult to do! When Amazon admitted that they are planning to implement their controversial Booksurge policy in the UK, Paul's words were "over my dead body", or words to that effect and promised them one hell of a fight (he has a lot of contacts in the media that he would not hesitate to use). He compared the quality of Booksurge books to one of his own, printed by Lightning Source and was able to prove that the LS, which is five years old and has been handled by well over 100 different people, is far better quality, since unlike the Booksurge one, the pages are all intact and not coming away from the spine.

As for Authorhouse, well my opinion of them is well known. It seems that Authors OnLine have a growing reputation within the POD world for turning out good quality books, which is making them a wee bit jealous. Authors OnLine as a company are really going places, with their X-Books website, and many other innovative ideas that are helping to raise their profile. They have had several major successes this year, including I am proud to say, my own work.

Paul's new book has just been published and is making inroads in Waterstones stores. He has 4 book signings already lined up, and is trying to work out a deal with Waterstones to get the book into more of their stores. Peter North, the new independent author advisor at Waterstones Head Office, has looked at Richard's site, and from what Paul says, he is very impressed with the range and quality of titles. He tells me that they are looking at stocking (this will be core stock, buying direct from Richard) several of Richard's titles, including my own, which is of course already stocked and selling well in almost 90 of their stores.

I always knew that it was only a matter of time before this book began to get noticed, and it seems that it may finally be about to happen. Fingers, toes and everything else then crossed to see what transpires.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

An insult to our nearest relative

A funny thing has happened these last few weeks, considering all the angst that I have been through this past year - I have found that I am thinking less and less about books and more and more about what non writing friends refer to as 'the real world', so much so, that I hardly think of myself as a writer at all anymore. I am not sure whether this is a good thing or not.

We all need to work to pay the bills, and I am no exception to this. For quite a time I had my head in the clouds, thinking I could make a full time living from what I love, and became very fed up and depressed even, when I found that I could not. I blamed the job for a lot of the problems that I had, which mostly stemmed from my non acceptance of this situation. A symbiotic relationship has developed, where I use my experiences at work to feed what writing I do do, which lately has been confined to this blog. It will not have escaped readers notice that the majority of posts in recent months have been more about my work than what is going on in the book world, and I have to make more of an effort each week to keep up. I am not alone in this struggle, since the majority of writers are in the same boat. There is no easy answer, and all I can do is make the most of what time I do have, and have a sneaky look at publishing websites when the boss's back is turned!

I write then for the second time today, about some recent developments in publishing ...

I wrote on here some time ago that Borders were undertaking a restructuring of their buying team, with buyers being asked to re-apply for their jobs (sounds familiar). Now that this is complete, eight of them are to leave. Four will leave at the end of September. Of the remainder, some are being made redundant, while others are moving elsewhere. I wish them all luck.

The new fiction team will be headed by senior fiction buyer Michael Jones, who has been appointed acting books category manager. He (The Bookseller refers to him as a she I notice!) replaces Caroline Mileham who left Borders last month to join Michael will be supported by fiction buyers Ruth Atkins, Radcliffe Harris, John Packard and Sarah Cahill, who has been promoted from assistant airports buyer to real time airports buyer.

The non-fiction team will be led by senior non-fiction buyer Richard Humphreys, who continues in his responsibility for the history section. Guy Raphael will be in charge of lifestyle, biography, travel, film and TV; Rob Hughes will buy current affairs, academic and reference, and popular culture books; and Emma Carter will have responsibility for food, gardening and art and design, as well as managing the bargain books section. I am not sure who will be in charge of my subjects of mind, body and spirit, popular science or religion and philosophy, not that it makes a difference, since hell would have to freeze over (not that I believe in hell anyway, but you know what I mean) before any of them would deign to even look at a POD book, let alone talk to its author. Perhaps one day I will phone up pretending to be from Random House and see what happens - it might be interesting !

CEO Philip Downer said the reorganisation was done in time for the business’ switchover to its new less centralised buying (in theory at least) systems next week. We shall see if it makes a difference (it certainly will for the Cornish economy), but I won't hold my breath ...

In the meantime, I see that another European country, Switzerland has moved one step closer to the reintroduction of fixed book prices, after the economic committee of the Swiss parliament narrowly recommended such a move. Fixed book prices were abolished in Switzerland in May 2007 after the Swiss government supported a court ruling that the Net Book Agreement (NBA) in the German-speaking region of Switzerland was an illegal cartel. They were abolished throughout the country, and not just the German speaking regions.

The vote was as expected very tight, with 13 in favour, 11 against and one abstention. The bill will now go before the Swiss Parliament, where it will no doubt be rigorously debated. It is of course by no means certain as to whether it will be passed, although I am sure that Swiss authors sincerely hope so. Observers, most of whom probably have no insider knowledge of publishing, are widely expecting another cliffhanger after a number of MPs declared their opposition to the bill. The committee concluded that past experience of retail price management for books in both Switzerland and other countries had shown a positive impact on the trade. To readers maybe, but not to writers or retailers, who in common with the electrical market in which I work, find themselves working harder and harder for less and less.

The bill, which was initiated by the late parliamentarian Jean-Philippe Maitre, is expected to go before the parliament in spring 2009. If it succeeds there will still be some room for discounts, since the bill does not completely outlaw them.

Discounting does not appear to as aggressive in Switzerland as in other European countries, most notably the UK, where it has led to a number of disputes. The majority of bookshops stick to publishers' recommended prices or offer restricted discounts on very few titles, but there is stiff competition from the Internet, with online booksellers offering discounts of up to 30 percent. This is probably what lies behind this move; the fear that what is happening here and in the United States, will happen there, and this from where I am sitting, is a fear which is very well founded. If the Swiss want to protect their publishing industry and keep it buoyant then they need to take action before it is too late. It is good then to see them learning from our mistakes. I just hope that we don't leave things too much longer before this is also debated here - in an open and rational manner that benefits not only those who sell the books, but also those who write them. It is after all, our livelihoods that are threatened, and with the rise in e-publishing, the need for debate is more and more acute.

The article that really caught my eye this week, was that regarding the memoirs of Cheeta the Chimp. I reported back in January that Cheeta had been commissioned to write his memoirs for Fourth Estate, and unfortunately this was no monkey business !

The book which is due for release in October, has now been nominated for a book award - The Guardians First Book Award! Readers from six Waterstone's book groups are to help select the final shortlist, following the announcement of the 10-strong longlist today on 29th August. The books selected on the longlist include the autobiography of Cheeta the Chimp.

The panel of judges includes novelist Roddy Doyle; broadcaster and novelist Francine Stock; poet Daljit Nagra (longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2007), historian David Kynatson; novelist, broadcaster and co-founder of the Orange Prize Kate Mosse and Guardian deputy editor, Katharine Viner. Claire Armitstead, literary editor of the Guardian, will chair the panel. Six Waterstone's stores throughout the UK – Bath, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, London and Oxford - will ask their reading groups to also vote. Stuart Broom of Waterstone’s will represent their views on the judging panel.

The shortlist of five books, to be agreed by the panel and Waterstone’s readers’ groups, will be announced in early November with the overall winner in December. The winner (which I assume will be the ghost writer and not the chimp!) will receive a prize of £10,000 and a promotional package across The Guardian and The Observer.

It goes without saying that this book must have been ghost written, since a chimp cannot speak, let alone write, English. I would hasten a bet that whoever this writer is, it is not their first book, as publishers usually use experienced people for this kind of work. I fail then to see how it can be nominated for a first book award, and take back what I said about this not being monkey business! Whoever nominated this book must think that we are monkeys if they seriously expect us to believe otherwise.

Comments on the Writers News Talkback forum, where I posted the news, were less than flattering. We are a lively bunch who pull no punches and like to tell it as it is ... One member commented that it was really no different to the so-called works of Jordan or Jade Goody being nominated for a literary prize. However, she went on to say that the chimp book was probably more interesting and better written! She then added that the Guardian is probably run by chimps anyway, but took that back as it was in insult to our nearest relative! Say no more ...