Friday, 15 August 2014

Discussing success in writing before, after and during a Grim Gathering

It was a funny old Wednesday. You know how it is, you have no social engagements in your diary at all and then suddenly three come along at once.  (Well o.k. spending the morning at work is probably stretching the definition of social engagement, but I really don't get out much.)

The afternoon however, held an unexpected party, suddenly realising I could make it to my Dad's birthday celebration in Northwood and, by the miracle of the underground, get back to South Kensington in the evening for Fantasy Faction's Grim Gathering.


The Grim Gathering panel were as charming, courteous and amusing as any one could have wished for. However, they also had three full-time non-writing jobs between the four of them.  Well O.K. Myke Cole had two jobs so that means two of the panel Peter Brett and Joe Abercrombie were wholly supported by their writing.  However, we had in the room four giants of fantasy, as another blogger has commented, veritable Gods.  Only two of whom were wholly supported by their craft.

My jealousy of Joe has long been fuelled by an early tweet of his about a great morning dilemma - which poptart to toast before settling down to a day's work (?!) at writing.  But I remember being shocked at how low the proportion of authors making a living off their writing was.  The moment of realisation came when I discovered after reading Emperor of Thorns, that Mark Lawrence had a full time day job and lived next to one of the most impoverished wards in Britain. That shocked me almost more than the deliciously satisfying ending to the Thorns trilogy.

We assume that behind every book on a bookstore shelf there is an author dwelling in a mansion tapping out twitter witticisms with one hand and blockbuster best sellers with the other.  The reality is probably that 90% (ok it's a wild guess but bear with me on this) of the authors on the shelves have to have a day job that pays the bills.

This thought struck a particular chord in the gap between my Wednesday gatherings. My sister newly returned from a 2 year sojourn in Hong Kong also had an inner London appointment so we rode the metropolitan line together.  To be honest - what with me about to move to Belfast - it is a bit of a statistical anomaly for the two of us to be in the same country at the same time, let alone being in the same train.

However, it was a good chance to catch up.  The book I had bought for her birthday (Steven King - On writing) turned out to be one of the set texts for the creative writing course that she is starting at Goldsmith's in October.  Oh the joys of being able to go part-time - more sibling jealousy on my part.  The discussion naturally fell to writing.  Just as my Dad followed me into a career in teaching when he retired, now my big sister has taken the opportunity to follow me into writing.  I guess I should feel sincerely flattered.

One of the things she mentioned though, was her belief that writers in general needed support.  She has a friend who is a published poet and through her she knows other published poets and writers.  The most successful amongst these are one couple who, alone of this group, can make a living from their writing.  Despite many awards and a healthy reputation in their crime writing genre, it is not a living which is earth shattering by any means.  These two successful writers together could scrape together a joint income of £30,000. (equivalent to about what a big bang theory actor earns for about a minute of onscreen time).

My sister asked me what would be the best way to support the craft of writing and the work of writers. If someone ever wanted to throw money at writing, rather than opera or any other Cinderalla of the arts, where and how should one throw it for best effect?

And I have to say I was stumped.  It's a good question, also according to my latest typo it's a god question which brings me back to the authors at the grim gathering.

At the after event drinks in the pub I got to talk briefly with Mark Lawrence and others about publishing and promoting and the huge pool of people with good or even great books that did not hit that sweet spot of timing necessary to make the best seller lists.  We also talked about some less well written books (a half century of variations between white and black for example) which nonetheless were phenomenally successful.  Such a work can still drag on its trails a string of similar works into the realms of  moderate success.  But like some ponzi pyramid selling scheme the effect must get more dilute with each generation of imitations until one is left with nothing more than fan-fiction (which after all is where that saga started).


But in general, like the village Hampden in Gray's elegy, there are doubtless some great books languishing in the graveyard end of amazon's ranking lists.  How can readers find such books and authors and how best can would be philanthropists support them?

My sister had in mind supporting internships, funding people to take a short sabbatical from their work and to have the time and space to write.  Certainly time is a precious resource to writers.  Time to be free from cats in your kecks - which seems to be Mark's current distraction. A colleague of mine and fellow self published author, G.R.Matthews commented on two contrasting weekends of productivity.  At home with children = 400 words, at home without children 4000 words.  Life does have a habit of getting in the way of writing and ever since I started writing (at 13) those slices of uninterrupted holiday writing time were so precious and productive.

So, I am sure every author would appreciate a month in retreat to thrash out the masterpiece.  Whether their abandoned families would be so appreciative is another question.

But would that be the best way to support writing, and how should someone select the lucky recipient of such largesse from the many who would claim it?

And this was the point Mark and I ended up discussing.  There is a plethora of writers out there all clamouring for a readership.  Writing the book is only half the battle, marketing it is a separate and significant challenge.

I am shouting out for readership myself though obviously trying not to be too loud and waiting for my turn in the shouting queue. I am British after all.  Nonetheless one of the great unexpected pleasures on Wednesday was getting to sign the back of a kindle on which someone had stored my (only available electronically) book, while we both stood in a queue to get our physical books signed by more illustrious authors.  

I am sure that many of the other gatherers at the grim gathering had their own work in progress that they wished to share.  And why not, great writers inspire writing.  I started writing because I loved Hornblower stories and wanted to write something similar, and I read Bolitho stories and thought I could match that.  But what this means is that there are a huge number of books available, mostly e-books and growing daily.

In that swelling crowd of books, being noticed is the key to success.  Never mind the hockey stick curve for global warming, there is an equally sharply curved graph for authorial success.  Success breeds success, it brings better product placement, higher author profiles, more numerous reviews, in more widely read media.  It is inevitably a snowball effect.

However, how do you kick start the snowball? (and it's not as easy to do as mixing your metaphors). How can you improve your chances to be noticed and, if my sister or anyone else set out to help foster writing, how would they help authors be noticed?  Dammit, how would you even decide who to help get noticed?

The advent of self-publishing has moved the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts out of the publishers' back office and onto the electronic shelves of amazon and kobo.  There is a huge range of works and there will be undiscovered gems within them.  It is now not simply the publishers who get to sift and sort through the totality of writing in search of talent. It is also the readers direct.  And readers may be more inclined to take a risk in their book choices than publishers, after all, a duff book read on a kindle costs a reader a few pence, a duff book launched can cost the publisher thousands.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, there is still a stigma associated with self publishing.  I have read of many assertions that only the big publishers know best, that they are the true gatekeepers of quality and that self-published books must surely be the ones that couldn't get a mainstream deal because the work was too poor quality.  I didn't try to get a deal for Lady of the Helm.  I had not the time to chase one, I did not want the delay in going to market, and self-publishing was cheap and easy to do and it paid excellent royalties.  But you can see in a couple of my reviews how even people who really liked my book approached it with a certain trepidation because it was "self-published"

Mark himself is in effect a hybrid author.  Besides the traditionally published Thorns trilogy and Prince of Fools he has a self published Jorg short story on Kindle "Sleeping Beauty." There has been talk of a selection of short stories about the back stories to Jorg's uncouth band of brothers a kind of "Rike - Origins"  I am sure there would be a strong market for that.  

Is Mark's self-published work of a lesser quality ? No of course not, it is Jorg in all his charming socioopathy. For Mark I would guess the convenience of self publishing is just as appealing as it was for me. After all he cut his teeth in self-publishing with Celyn's book "Wheel Mouse and all the Crazy Robots" which had the added complication of illustrations.

Is all traditionally published work brilliant? No.  I have just loaded an entire oxfam book collection bank with books we have discarded as part of our move.  In that mix are many books I bought and could not finish. Publishers can make mistakes and they are fundamentally businesses interested in marketability of books.  Marketability is not the exact same thing as quality.    

One of the authors I have on my TBR pile is Anthony Ryan.  His story is proof again that the range of quality in self published works certainly has a significant area of overlap with the range of quality of traditionally published books.  And also his story serves as a reminder that social media is a key marketing tool.  I have had messages from facebook friends recommending Anthony Ryan's books; a repetition in miniature of the internet interest that first propelled him from self-published to an author with a contract.

We are in the middle of a paradigm shift in how readers find and access writers.  I am not clear in my own mind how it works now, let alone how it will work in the future.  In the absence of those certainties it is difficult to identify
a) how a writer should set out to be noticed,
b) how a reader should find a new author, or
c) how a would be patron should find and support undiscovered talent. or even
d) whether readership is growing in total - or are these ever increasing authors subdividing a finite cake of readership into every dimminishing slices.

We can still go and browse in a book shop, see a cover that makes us pick up a book, glance at the blurb, skim the first page and find we are hooked.  After all that is how I found the Prince of Thorns. One of the grim gatherers did mention how she opens the book in the middle to sample the style and quality of writing, a cunning if incidental means to bypass all the agonised effort that authors put into that all important first line and first page.  But that browsing we readers do may not lead to a physical sale.  Much as it might pain them, bricks and mortar bookshelves are fulfilling a hybrid role between selling hard copies and serving as a 3-D advertising space for electronic copies.    

However, most of the books I am reading now are ones that I have heard recommended on the internet.  It may be by facebook friends I have not yet met in person, by discussions on reddit, by goodreads reviews from people I follow. Twitter is not just an agent of revolution in totalitarian states, it is a vehicle for disseminating opinions. It is the place where the flapping of one butterfly's wings can, sometimes, trigger a hurricane of interest in a topic.

So, the internet is the place to be for would-be authors.  The only trouble is, everyone else is already there and who is to pluck a reader from obscurity within the crowd?  Would be authors will pursue the patronage of the high profile internet presences . The blogspots and the twitter feeders and it will fall to these people to be the gatekeepers of quality, in a world where there is too much information, too many books, for individuals to filter.  And that is why publishers too will have to court such opinion formers.

It reminds me (as many things do) of the Royal Navy in the 18th century (bear with me on this).  To an uninformed eye it was a system ridden with nepotism and patronage.  Admirals on distant stations had huge powers and independence to promote, to make or break careers with barely a word of dissent from the admiralty.  However, look a little deeper and you see that the system worked generally because the admirals respected it.  They promoted quality, they recognised that their lordships in London had not the access to information about the young officers that they had. They disbursed their patronage wisely.  And those Admirals who didn't, those who allowed naked nepotism to drive their decisions, found those decisions were overturned to their humiliation.

In the same way, I expect we will see those internet patrons having more clout with the public and in turn being given more clout by the industry.  There are some excellent thoughtful bloggers out there.  They are giving our humble fantasy fiction as much careful consideration as any PhD student pouring over some work of classics to wring a drop of as yet undiscovered meaning from it. And why not, fantasy faction as Peter Brett and Myke Cole were saying at the Grim Gathering is not the escapist refuge of children.  It is the serious stuff of grown up writing, testing our understanding of people and behaviour through the rigour of a different setting.

So just as those long ago Admirals had power through patronage, so too will the bloggers and high profile internet users, but only so long as they make good recommendations.  Recommendations, which sustain a strong and satisfied personal public following.  And as for those, like my sister, who wish to support authors, find someone you like, review their books and talk about them  - a lot.

(I would just like at this point to say that Mark Lawrence's books are all brilliant as are Joe Abercrombie's, and Peter Brett's, while Myke Cole's are soaring to the top of my TBR list on the back of many recommendations and a personable performance at the Grim Gathering.  I would also add that anytime Jane Johnson would like to send me an Advanced Reader Copy of absolutely anything I would be delighted to receive it.)



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