In which I change agents

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My agent Rob is moving out of agenting.  He’s sorry to go and I’m sorry to lose him. Perceptive and thoughtful, Rob picked my book from the slush-pile and got it to fly.  Who knows if Cory would have been published without him? (At least not as quickly or as well.)  He’s taught me a lot and I’m grateful.

It prompted some philosophical musings on publishing, but first the facts.

Fortunately, Rob can still give me his feedback on the next draft of Our Child of Two Worlds, so I will have that continuity.   Check out his latest books, The Toymakers and Paris by Starlight.

Rob is not one to leave you in the lurch.  I have a new agent, Alex Cochran of C&W, one of the larger agencies (and as it happens, the outfit who already partner Rob in handling my film rights).  Alex was on my top agents to try list, both for my unpublished novel, and for Cory. He likes the book, and its cross-genre appeal.  I’m optimistic Alex can help me navigate the strange waters ahead.  Getting the second book finished is the priority and then, Next Big Thing.

And the moral of this is, that publishing is a rum old game.  So many people assume that it’s all slog finishing that book and sending it out, but once you get the agent, all is plain sailing.  A book a year and the fifth book will win the Booker, the Hugo, or be in the Richard and Judy Bookclub. 

Real writing careers are more complicated. Famously George R R Martin wrote three books which were successes and the fourth, Armageddon Rag in the eighties, flopped.  He moved into TV and editing anthologies for a decade. 

Agents and editors move on, or fall out, there’s a merger or a start-up.  That brilliant idea doesn’t come off, the sequel doesn’t come off, or indeed, there is suddenly a nasty little virus. Many old hands say it’s harder now to have a steady career than in their youth.

That’s why I guess three things for authors I’ve come to realise, catching up with the wisdom of more established writers.

  • Write for joy. There will be days you hate it, but overall if you don’t enjoy it, there are other things to do.  In fact, people who write primarily for themselves can be very happy authors.
  • Make each work as good as you can.
  • Don’t define your self-worth purely by the financial and critical success of your work. 

Becoming a writer, by Dorothea Brande

This small classic book was published in 1934 and is bang up to date.  That is, if you don’t mind that the piece of tech she recommends is a typewriter (as opposed to longhand).

Brande directs you to other works to study the structure of plot, how to write grammatically, and so forth.  What she teaches is how to understand the creative process and she recommends disciplines to help you be more creative and productive to order.  She argues that the process of writing combines the anarchic creative free flow that is in part coming from the unconscious, and a more rigorous detached intellectual self.  Both need to be firing on all cylinders but not necessarily the same amount at the same time.    Exercises include writing on first rising, and writing at a fixed time, as a discipline to generate initial pages, without undue concern about quality.

If you like, the metaphor of write drunk and edit sober, or the adage to write the first draft as if no one is watching.

I can’t claim to have followed her method, but in so far as I understand my own process, it seems sound enough.  Interesting that many other writing books don’t touch on this.

Brande has plenty of bugbears.  She doesn’t like group discussion of student work, as unfocused and prone to pile-ons – though she doesn’t call them that.  What listening to public criticism of your work does is teach you to receive feedback and learn how to be selective in what you act on. Some is just wrong.

The book is short, practical, and focused on areas which many other books skip over.  Indeed, Brande would argue by doing so, they are actively unhelpful. 

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

…Two Worlds making progress

September is probably my favourite month, for weather, foliage, and oddly a sense of a new start. 

The crucial news – I believe the draft of OUR CHILD OF TWO WORLDS has really come together.  It will only be one more sweep through – strength, consistency, etc – and it goes to Jo the Mighty (my editor).  Hopefully we will be moving to proper edits, a series of successively quicker to and fros…

For punctual updates, and in due course an original Cory short story… subscribe to my newsletter.

Interview with Suanne Schafer

Suanne is an American author who runs a regular author interview slot on her blog.  It was fun to do. We covered a lot including message fiction, whether SFF has to be political, and what makes a good book.

Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel? Do you consciously ensure all of these are in place?

SC: Characters that leap off the page and that you care about, situations that do not feel contrived. For me a world which acknowledges the dark and unfair side of life but addresses it with hope and humour. Voice. The sort of writing that takes you by the hand and says, Trust me, this will make sense in the end. This will be worth the journey.

Read it here.

A million pounds or a million readers?

A genie offers a writer a choice.  Would they rather have a million pounds, or a million people read their first book but for no money at all?

It’s an interesting question.  Do we write to be able to keep writing, or do we write because we want to share the story?

To write solely for financial security is a mugs game.

If you have faith in your book, a million people reading it will produce enthusiasts.  Say 5% of people who read it become fans. (By which I mean only someone who is super likely to buy your next book.)  50,000 fans is an excellent base for a career, you might become established.

Conversely, a million pounds frees you to do only that work you want to do.

Of course, in the real world you are not offered this choice.

This was prompted by news that my publisher has remaindered some of my paperbacks to The Works, a company which runs 450 discount shops across the country.  You can currently buy a copy of Our Child of the Stars at £2, less than a coffee.  Three books for a fiver.

It’s a common sense move to shift copies you won’t sell otherwise. I hope the Works sell all these copies to build fans of my work.

Many people think this is the devil, and that my publisher should burn unsold copies in their furnaces. Many book people want to go back to prices fixed by the publisher.  Another debate for another time.

When you look behind this, there are other considerations.

For example, WH Smiths, the Works, and the supermarkets can reach people who rarely use bookshops.

One Year On: Influences and cutting up frogs

A dear friend asked if the character who ‘disliked cutting up frogs at school’ was a reference to a reference to the biology lesson scene in ET.  That led to a long think about influences.

At one level, the answer is no.  I did not consciously use that phrase thinking of ET.  Molly is a nurse, not at all squeamish about the bloodier side of nursing.  Although, she likes her meat and fish not to remind her they came from living beings. For her, inflicting suffering is different. Molly subconsciously links the danger to her alien son Cory to cutting up frogs, in part because he reminds her a bit of one.  (Long limbed, hairless, loves the water…)

But there is a link.  With a deft touch, ET presents dissecting the frogs as cruel, and Cory is sometimes very confrontational about human cruelty in all its forms.  Cory is often seen as other, and as fair game, a means to an end.  I think the link was Cory’s appearance, not ET, but the subconscious is not straightforward.  It’s my view that ET confronts human frailty cruelty and power less than Our Child of the Stars does, but my friend’s question shows a counter-example.

Some references in Our Child of the Stars are deliberate, even knowing (‘Easter Eggs’).. Some I made and only later recognized the origins.  The Meteor for example I knew was a lift from Superman/ Smallville, although there are also major differences. And much of it swam into my head ready formed.

One of the most amusing things is the long list of influences, which are books and films I haven’t seen, or saw after the book was written.  After all, a helpless child turns out to have strange powers goes back to Hercules, if not before.

There is an increasing tendency to reduce a book to the author’s biography.  People do borrow from their lives and interests – there is a tapestry of these in my book – but often emotional truth rather than hard facts. And an author subjects it to the comic book transforming radiation of the imagination.

One Year On: Is Our Child a Fantasy?

The British Fantasy Society just reviewed Our Child of the Stars warmly.  I wrote it in part as a love letter to science fiction, but also to fiction in general. I really want to bring in a broad audience, and certainly the audience has been broad, if not vast.

I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I would manage to alienate both SF readers and general readers.  But I had considered less the SF v fantasy argument.  The marvellous pair Sue Tingey and Juliet McKenna who blurbed my books, and in Juliet’s case reviewed it for SF magazine Interzone, are fantasy writers.

Many people like both, and most people accept the boundaries are a matter of opinion. Attempts to produce rigorous definitions flounder, in part because some things like time travel machines and faster than light travel are not currently believed possible but look ‘sciencey’ enough to pass.

Ray Bradbury’s books are full of things which include star ships, Mars colonies, and time travel.  Yet he claimed that all his work was fantasy except Fahrenheit 451.  I’m amused to see genre powerhouse Forbidden Planet list Our Child of the Stars as fantasy, and I can see their point.

I think some of our choices are based on the aesthetic.  Bradbury’s dreamy prose, and limited interest in the nuts and bolts, makes his work more like a fantasy.

Stories exist.  Genres are helpful, by hinting what the ground rules are, and when to shelve it.

Launch Friday Sept 20th and Signing Sept 21st

Launch of the All Good Bookshop, Friday Sept 20th.  Gather from 5pm.  Also the launch of my book in paperback.  It is Blue Harbour Yard, three minutes from Wood Green Station.  BAB/snacks.  I wrote about why this new bookshop matters here.  Support independent bookshops!

I am also doing a signing at the ever-supportive Waterstones Enfield, from 12-2pm, Saturday 21st Sept.  Support Enfield’s only substantial bookshop!

You can order a copy from either and I will sign if you like…

Paperback Writer 19th September

It’s a month till the UK launch of the paperback of Our Child of the Stars. (Thursday 19th Sept.) Anyone who wants one can pre-order it now from all good bookshops and the usual online retailers.

I’ve been blown away by the support and interest I’ve had from family, friends, and colleagues. I’ll take a little bit more of your patience if I can.

Pre-orders count towards the first week of sales, helpful for the charts. And also, not every shop will have it in, but most shops can order it.

The oddity of the way publishing works is that having devoted masses of effort to promoting the e-book, audio-book, and the hardback – despite the paperback being crucial to its commercial success – the paperback often gets less of a push. Although my publishers are doing some good things, which is more than some people get.

If you are on good terms with a bookshop or in a book group which might like it, let me know. The paperback has Readers Notes which I can share.

Word of mouth – or its shiny new friend, sharing on social media – really helps. If you feel moved to share the details I will be pushing out, I’d be grateful.

And the national press has been very generous to the book. In this anniversary of Woodstock and the Moon Landings, exactly why I decided to write about a childless American couple adopting an alien in 1969, remains a bit of a mystery. But most people who read it are not disappointed.

‘heartfelt, richly imaginative and gripping’ (SciFiNow)

‘sympathetic characterisation and fine storytelling’ (Guardian)

‘compelling… the same combination of science fiction and heart-tugging tenderness that Stephen King does so well.’ (Grazia)

‘An out of this world winner’ (Weekend Sport)

‘This strong and generous first novel wears its heart on its sleeve and embeds all the thrills and chills in credible human, and non-human, emotions.’ (Daily Mail)

‘A pleasing, big-hearted read’ (Financial Times)

‘Wholly fresh and intensely gripping’ (Interzone)

‘a wonderfully emotional, heart-warming journey of what it really means to be a parent’ (Los Angeles Times)

Thank you for listening.

Why do I have to wait for the paperback?

 

A friend doesn’t understand the logic behind issuing the hardback, e-book, and paperback in the way publishers do.  She points to all the successful reviews and publicity at the start of the year, then says – will people remember that when the paperback comes out, say eight months later?

Here’s my thoughts.

The book trade is dealing with the effects of various changes

  • Discounting – supermarkets, Amazon, and discount specialists sell books at very low prices
  • The growth of the e-book (sales may have slowed a bit depending on who you believe – still massive)
  • Audiobooks are growing fast
  • Bookshops on the high street suffer the same pressures everyone else does – high rents and combating online retailers (who sometimes dodge taxes)
  • Book piracy, which is stealing.
  • And there is just more interesting content viewable at home than there was

A big publisher must try to juggle different markets.  For some genres, hardbacks are still more likely to be reviewed in print media, and there is a market for big beautiful object books. And the hardback is to some extent the flagship product physical bookshops try to sell. Yet, those who read e-books are likely to read early and to review online.

I’ve seen pundits argue we need to make people see buying physical books is ‘best’.  (Financially for authors, that’s a moot point.)  Most authors of physical books need buy-in from local shops to get visibility.

I’ve seen other pundits argue we should publish the paperback soon after the hardback, riding on its coattails to build a larger market in size for authors.  They argue a bigger push on paperbacks would allow middling authors to reach more readers and more sustainable income.

(Fun fact: With professional authors, on average their writing is only 20% of their household income- ALCS 2019)

I don’t have a simple answer for what strategy publishers should follow.  What I do propose is to let fans of the book know how they can help in the run-up to paperback publication.  Sub to my newsletter or follow me on Twitter etc!!

(Pix annie spratt, Unsplash)