Friday, July 17, 2009

At long last - proof that writers are indeed mad !

I have long maintained that you have to be mad in order to consider writing as a career, and now it seems that science has proven a link between a genetic mutation linked to psychosis and schizophrenia also influences creativity.

The team, headed by Szabolcs Kéri, a researcher at Semmelweis University in Budapest, examined a gene involved in brain development known as called neuregulin 1, which previous studies have linked to a slightly increased risk of schizophrenia. A single DNA letter mutation that affects how much of the neuregulin 1 protein is made in the brain has been linked to psychosis, poor memory and sensitivity to criticism (just think of all those rejection letters and bad reviews). About 50 per cent of healthy Europeans are thought to carry this mutation, while 15 percent possess two copies.

Kéri genotyped 200 adults who responded to adverts seeking volunteers. The volunteers took part in two tests of creative thinking, and devised an objective score of their creative achievements, such as filing a patent or writing a book.

People with two copies of the mutation – which turned out to be about 12 percent of the study, scored notably higher on these measures of creativity against those with one or no copies of the mutation. Those with one copy were judged as more creative, on average, than those without. The mutation explained between 3 and 8 per cent of the differences in creativity, the study found. All is not roses however, as those with two copies of the mutation were also more likely to experience traits such as paranoia, strange speech patterns and "inappropriate emotions", whatever that means.

Kéri speculates that the mutation dampens the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls mood and behaviour. Intelligence could also be one factor that determines whether the mutation affects creativity or contributes to psychosis. Kéri's volunteers did tend to be more intelligent than average (as writers of course also are, strictly tongue in check you understand - especially those who write non fiction!). In contrast, another study of families with a history of schizophrenia (which mine has - my sister suffers from the disease) found that the same mutation was associated with lower intelligence and psychotic symptoms (it must have skipped the youngest sibling - guess who that would be).

A Kéri says, "My clinical experience is that high-IQ people with psychosis have more intellectual capacity to deal with psychotic experiences, it's not enough to experience those feelings, you have to communicate them." This has always been the problem my sister has had, the inability to express what she is thinking and feeling. This is one of the reasons that writing is so important and beneficial to me, for it has always provided an outlet, from childhood for me to write about my innermost thoughts and feelings, many of which I was unable to share with anyone (until that is I met my partner).

Other scientists concur with the suggestion that the genes effects may be linked to intelligence, but this doesn't mean that the two go hand in hand, and psychosis and creativity are the same thing, for madness is madness, which I personally feel is linked more to nurture than nature.

The full article can be read here.

Plans for the future of Borders

Following the announcement yesterday of the Borders management buyout, further information has since emerged regarding the new teams immediate plans for the future.

Chief Executive Philip Downer said that among immediate plans was a fresh injection of working capital and further borrowing to extend the company's cash flow. This will help to ensure range, systems and processes are in place in the run up to Christmas. Staff will be reassured to hear that there are no plans for further store closures "in the near future".

Downer has refused to discuss the financial aspects of the takeover, including his own personal stake in the business, but most within the industry are simply relieved that the company has survived. The parent company in the US retains a 17 percent stake in the business, so ties with the US have not been completely severed.

Downer was nevertheless stark about the issues facing the company, admitting that the next few months will be extremely challenging. Downer plans a conference with General Managers, Head Office staff and suppliers within the next few months.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Borders subject of management buyout

Following months of speculation, it has been confirmed today that Philip Downer, Chief Executive of Borders UK and Finance Director Mark Little have led a management buyout of the troubled chain, for an undisclosed sum, backed by Valco Capital Partners (VCP). This follows the sale of leases from five of the company's stores to fashion chain New Look earlier in the week.

This is the second time in as many years that Borders has changed hands. The business was bought by the Luke Johnson backed Risk Capital Partners in September 2007.

In a brief statement Downer said: "We are delighted that we have been able to secure the future for Borders in what are exceptional times for UK retailing and the global economy. The Borders management team looks forward to continuing to develop our innovative approach to bookselling, driving sustained growth and success in the future, and strengthening our unique position in the UK book market."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

You pays your money, you takes your choice ...

The Book 2 Book newsletter that I subscribe to today has two snippets in the form of press releases from Authorhouse, the largest print on demand operation in the UK, if not the world. The first of these announces two new publishing packages for hard and paperbacks respectively, each of which includes professional one to one support, custom cover design, ISBN registration, online distribution, custom interior layout, and what they term as "more services". The hardback package also includes personalised back cover and 5 complimentary copies.

The second press release states that the company have launched a new and improved UK website. The new site, which they claim is easier to navigate (anything would be an improvement on the old one) will in their own words "improve the experience for the increasing number of authors choosing to publish a book with AuthorHouse UK".

New features include a special savings and offers section with the latest offers for saving money on publishing packages, marketing services, and books, an author resource area with tips and advice from fellow authors, plus an updated bookstore which makes searching for and purcahsing Authorhouse titles quicker and easier than ever before.

I went to the new site to have a look myself and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to find your way around and to obtain information (if not prices) on the various options available. The prices for the publishing packages are there for everyone to see, and at first look compared to my own publisher Authors OnLine Ltd do not appear unreasonable, but the service that Authorhouse provide, judging from what I saw at the seminar that I attended (which admittedly was three years ago), and from talking to those who have published with them, does not begin to compare. I remember when I first spoke to Richard, the boss at Authors OnLine Ltd and mentioned that I had considered Authorhouse, he said to me that everything they could do, he could do better, and probably cheaper, and I believe he was right.

The clincher for me is the Borders and Waterstones packages that they like to tout around. The sum of £999 buys you a basic Borders or Waterstones package whereby they guarantee that 3 copies of your work will be on display for 10 weeks in selected Borders or Waterstones stores (if the Borders ones are still there - one of those in the programme is Dublin). The books are displayed on a special Authorhouse stand - lumped together with all their other titles and therefore advertising to the world and his second cousin twice removed that the books are self published. This stand is not genre specific and is placed slap bang in the middle of the fiction area - fine for fiction writers but not so good for non fiction (of which the majority of self published books are). If you want to add either of these 2 options to your exisiting Authorhouse package you can do so, for £204 for Borders and £175 for Waterstones (why Borders costs more is not stated - perhaps because they demand a higher discount).

My point is though that you do not need to pay extra money for this service - all you need to do is prepare a few publicity materials (information sheet, reviews and so on) and a bit of professional sounding spiel, and ring the stores up. If you say the right things in the right way then they will order copies. It is as simple as that - these copies will be displayed where they belong, in the section that is relevant to your book, if they sell, for considerably more than 10 weeks.

Of course if you really want book stores to stock you, then the books need to be returnable, and this is where the Authorhouse returns package comes in - for the sum of £599 for the first year, you can buy an insurance policy that allows Authorhouse to place your book on sale or return with Gardners, the largest wholesaler in the UK, making it much more attractive to book stores. The problem is that very few if any self published titles make this kind of money - I would have to sell around 450 to 500 books to make this worthwhile - the same number that I have sold in the three years since publication. The sums for the majority of self publishers just do not add up.

Of course if the authors who are stupid enough to sign up to this package (which can be renewed after a year for a further fee of £249) had published with Authors OnLine Ltd and worked as hard as I did, then Richard would have put their books on sale or return for free. This is once again a lesson for would be self publishers to research the market and understand how things, in particular the supply chain works, which most that I encounter fail to do. You pays your money, you takes your choice - I know which one I would make, every time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The debate re author advances

Stories regarding dwindling author advances have been circulating around the Internet for a while, and Mick Rooney recently discussed this subject extensively on his blog. In many ways this is not new or even big news, but The Times newspaper has got hold of the story, and so now it is.

The article in The Times which was published on July 11th, states that in some cases authors are having their advances slashed by as much as 75 percent. Historians are some of the hardest hit, with some the article states, turning to historical fiction instead in a bid to earn more money. Some who have previously commanded advances of over £100,000 have seen these slashed to just £30,000 (which I have to say still seems an awful lot to me).

Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, said that she was avoiding a new contract because of the uncertain state of the market. “I would not be surprised if I were now offered half of my last advance,” she said. “A few years ago we got really handsome advances to write books that did indeed become quite good bestsellers, but never earned out their advances. Then the publishers started asking jobbing authors to write books that did annoyingly well, but they’ve dried up, too. Now, as far as I know, what has replaced us are books about the history of science.”

Professor Jardine goes on to say that print on demand technology, which has been around for some ten years now in the UK, has shaken publishers confidence in their existing business models, and is a huge issue, causing them to avoid risky authors.

This may or may not be true, but the fact remains that if Jardine and others like her did not earn their advances back, then they were obviously too high to begin with. An advance is just that, an advance against sales, which is offset against future sales. The author only starts to earn royalties once they have sold sufficient books to earn that advance - if they do not, then no royalties are paid. The advance is usually non refundable - and in many cases, is all the money the author will get. Claims that the industry are taking advantage of authors during the recession do not then stand up.

One unnamed historian states that she knows another female author in the same genre who is hawking a book on a very marketable topic and has been offered an advance of just £25,000, which represents three years work. This she says is pretty serious.

To me serious is when you spend five years writing a book (as I did), living off an inheritance and savings. At the end of those five years, after receiving countless rejection letters from agents and publishers, you self publish, only to be told that book stores will not stock you as the books are not returnable. This is the true reality of publishing for the silent majority, and I cannot help feel that many of these historians who are now complaining so vociferously are a bit precious - it is clear to me that they do not live in the real world.

Is cutting author advances such a bad thing - in fact, should authors receive an advance at all? Is it fair that the publisher takes all the risk, shelling out money upfront in addition to the actual cost of publication for a book that may or may not sell? The advance which is usually paid in three parts (a third on signing the contract, one third on delivery of the manuscript and a third on publication), comes directly from the publishers marketing department based on the projected profit and loss sheets which are drawn up when the publisher is considering making an offer. It would be nice if we all earned these mega advances, but the majority of authors are lucky to get more than £10,000 and a substantial number of these never earn their advances back.

These are many factors which decide the level of advance paid - sales of previous books, the authors experience and business acumen, their agents negotiating skills (if they have one), interest from other buyers - all these things play a part. The advance signifies the publishers belief in the author, and the higher the advance generally speaking, the higher the marketing budget.

It is easy to see with all of this that the odds are stacked heavily against the publisher, who is expected to shoulder all the risk, so why continue in this way? It makes no sense and is an outdated method of doing business which is no longer relevant or useful. If advances were abolished then good writers would still earn good money, and publishers more to the point would also make money - since less would be wasted propping up authors whose sales do not stack up. This would leave more to go towards nurturing new talent which the industry so desperately needs. As one commentor on The Bookseller, which published the story today notes, too many have been riding the gravy train for too long, that it has taken on an aura of normalcy, something which is theirs by right, when it is clearly not. To defend this institution is nothing more than protectionism, which keeps new authors out and the double whammy of the recession and new technology has revealed the gaping cracks which were there all the time.
Of course if advances were to be abolished, authors would need to be compensated with considerably higher royalties, and that is matter for the industry to debate and work out. It is time in many ways that the balance of power shifted more equally between author and publisher and this may be one way to redress the imbalance. It remains to be seen how and if this can be done, but if not I fear that the flood of authors choosing to embrace the self publishing route, when they realise that they can and often do earn more, will soon turn into a hemorrhage.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Further closures for Borders Stores

Following the announcement a few weeks ago that Borders in the UK were seeking "funding opportunities", a further announcement was made today confirming five further closures. The company's stores in London's Oxford Street, London Colney, Swindon, Dublin and Llantrissant (Wales). A huge clearance sale at each of these stores is due to begin this week and the staff at these stores placed under consultation. This latest round of closures will leave Borders with 36 superstores and 10 smaller ones, including 8 Books Etc.

Completion dates for the closures are yet to be announced, but CEO Philip Downer confirmed that the leases have all been sold to a fashion retailer.

This is a sad day for the book world, with potentially hundreds of staff affected. It is difficult to know what the reasons for the company's problems are - which were there a long time before the recession began. Out of town sites do not help, neither do problems with credit insurance or the closure of their distribution warehouse in Cornwall and move towards buying stock from wholesalers.

I hope that as many staff as possible can be re-deployed in other branches, but fear that this may be more difficult than it sounds, for those that remain will want to hold on their own jobs for as long as possible, at least until they can find something else. As I know from my own experiences, it is not always that easy to find alternative employment within the same field, yet if you are prepared to try different and new challenges and are not afraid to get your hands dirty, there is still work out there. I wish all those affected by these closures the best.