Weeping Crocodiles: The Great eBook Debate

The backlash against eBooks has been rumbling along, sotto voce, for some time - but recently, there have been a few loud howls of anguish. The end of civilisation is nigh. Franzen was crying 'woe, woe!' This morning, it had even spread to BBC 1, where Ewan Morrison, less angst ridden, but still fairly negative, debated the issue with Louise Voss who has done rather well from indie digital publishing. It reminded me of an edition of a programme called Imagine, shown on BBC TV late last year, which proclaimed the virtues of traditional publishers as honourable gatekeepers, there to nurture, protect and promote writers. Would that they were. Would that they did.

This would all be just a little more believable if the last decade or so hadn't seen conventional publishers presiding over the slow decline and eventual death of the mid-list, that wonderful, huge, fertile, centre ground of publishing, encompassing everything from well written genre fiction to literary novels, with all kinds of fascinating stuff in between. And for a very long time, they have managed to con mid-list writers into thinking that it was all our fault. This centre ground used to be the seed bed from which the occasional (usually unexpected, almost always unpredictable) blockbuster success would spring. Sometimes - if the publisher got lucky - it might be an author's first or second book - but much more frequently it would be their fifth or sixth or seventh book. The others would have reasonable, albeit not massive sales, but would have been growing a staunch readership. And if a book did become a bestseller, some of those profits would be ploughed back into nurturing the other seedlings in the mid-list.

Then, slowly but relentlessly, everything changed. No matter what big publishers may say in their own justification, (and I exempt the small, frequently more caring independents here) the experience of most writers - even those with agents - is that editors are now almost wholly ruled and overruled by their marketing departments, and those marketing departments are looking for instant gratification in the shape of a quick and easy bestseller.

They find those quick and easy bestsellers in ghost written sleb memoirs or autobiographies of sportsmen and television chefs. And cookery books. Lots of those.

It ill behoves them, therefore, to wring their hands and weep crocodile tears over the death of the book, when they have effectively spent a decade or more kicking it in the teeth. Just about every writer of my acquaintance - and I know a lot of them - would tell of deeply frustrating rejection letters all essentially saying the same thing: 'I love this, I think it's wonderful and well written, but in the current climate, we can't publish it. Our marketing department doesn't know how to sell it.'

That being the case, how dare they scream blue murder when writers are empowered by the rise of the eBook and allowed to get the work out there themselves? To suggest 'regulating' this movement is to suggest putting power back into the hands of a set of gatekeepers who have proved themselves to be somewhat less scrupulous than St Peter. Moreover, to suggest that the rise of the eBook will stop people reading, flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary. People are reading more on their Kindles and IPads and Nooks than ever before. And to suggest that indie publishing will somehow limit the ability of writers to make a living from their work, is to display an astonishing ignorance of how most writers - even well published writers - find it almost impossible to scrape any kind of living at all from their craft.

A single example will serve to illustrate the advantages:  eBook publishing often involves a 'slow burn' with sales taking off - for a variety of reasons, too complicated to go into here - some time after publication. By contrast, conventional publishing now demands the launch, the immediate and astronomical rise in sales and the ridiculously swift slide towards the remainder pile. Most writers - with a few lucky exceptions - will have been made to feel guilty about their inability to meet the wholly unrealistic targets set by their publishers - and this with well written, well reviewed and popular books - just not instantly popular enough.

So what if there is a lot of dross out there? In a virtual world, shelf space is unlimited and people are already hammering out ways of finding what they want. Besides, your dross might well be my good read, and who is qualified to make those judgements?

Speaking personally, I've had a long career which has involved a frustrating switchback. It's no surprise that many of indie publishing's most enthusiastic proponents are older writers with a good track record (and a big back list) who have encountered obstacle after obstacle - as opposed to youngsters who have not yet had time to become jaded with a decaying system.

Above all, eBook publishing gives writers the power to sell the products of their own talents, themselves. It would be far more helpful to 'beginning writers' to debate grown-up topics, as so many US authors do on their remarkably helpful blogs: the desirability of honing your craft and thinking about your readers, the importance of your cover image, the possibility of engaging professional editorial help in a businesslike way, the need to get your head down and keep writing, rather than resting on your laurels after one book - all these things are useful. Elitist hand-wringing is not.

But of course, that would mean treating the writer as an aspiring or seasoned professional, rather than a humble supplicant. All of which helps to explain why, for so many of us, the publishing industry has lost all credibility as the keeper of culture it still fondly imagines itself to be.


Five Pieces of (Possibly) Useful Advice for Writers

A trio of ghost stories, now on Kindle
I'm increasingly reluctant to hand out any writing advice at all these days - mainly because there is just TOO MUCH of it out there, and so much of what there is, is completely contradictory. And - moreover - being handed out by people who don't know enough to know how little they know. In fact I've realised that although I still love to do talks and readings, and although I'm happy to answer questions to the best of my ability, I don't even like to do 'workshops' any more. There you are with a group of people of wildly differing abilities, all with completely different aspirations, trying to squeeze your own experience into some inadequate one-size-fits-all box- ticking activity. But all the same - it IS possible to give some general advice and I've realised that all my years of experience can be boiled down into about five principles - things that, if I had known, really known about and absorbed and tried to remember, way back then - my writing life might have been made a little easier. Only a little though. When I was starting out, an older, wiser (and very successful) writer said to me 'The only way to learn to write, is to get your head down and do it.' He was right. There are no shortcuts. But for what they are worth, I'm happy to share these five little pieces of advice in the hope that some of them may prove helpful.

1 Play About 
This is especially relevant in these days of formal creative writing courses where students seem to feel (however misplaced that feeling may be) that they have to 'get it right' with an assignment in much the same way as they would have to get a factual essay or dissertation right. Unfortunately, this is never the way most creative writers work. You start with an idea of some kind and then you play about with it until you find out what it wants or needs to be. Play is absolutely essential to the creative process.

2 Allow Yourself to Fail
A brave attempt which fails is better than no attempt at all. And once again, the more we formalise the process, the more the prospect of failure becomes the big bogeyman, to be avoided at all costs. I think it's one of the reasons why I find Creative Scotland's current emphasis on the word 'investment' so worrying. I know they don't intend it to mean that investment is invariably financial and always demands a financial return - but investment and support are two different things, and even if you take the idea of monetary investment or grant support right out of the equation, you are still left with the sense that investment always assumes a return of some sort, whereas support allows for the possibility of trying and failing. The doing is  more important than any end product. It's more important to travel hopefully than to arrive. As a writer, you will start out on far more projects than you will ever finish, and this is as it should be. Trying and failing means that you are learning something along the way.  

3 Make It Real
People are often told to write what they know about, but my qualification to that is that you know more than you think, and if you don't know, you can always find out. Making it real, though, involves more than just research and it's almost impossible to show people how to do it. (If I could, I would be richer than I am right now!)  You can be writing the most wild, off-the-wall fantasy and still make it so real that your reader believes everything, implicitly. Think of Ray Bradbury. He could write about a woman who played the rain on her harp and I still believed in it. Hell, I could see and hear it! Conversely, you can be writing the most everyday domestic story and discover that your readers don't believe a word of it. Beginning writers will often say 'but it really happened like that' to which the only possible, albeit a little rude, answer is 'so what?' You're the writer, and you must be in charge of your own material. Give yourself permission to shape it. Get inside your characters' heads. Above all, inspire your reader with confidence. The answer always lies with you, the writer. If you have created a fictional world which seems as real to you as the world outside (and sometimes even more real than that), then your readers will believe in that world as well. But the only way to achieve that is... well, you could start by paying attention to 1 and 2 above!

Being curious about everything helps!

4 Story Is King
I resisted this for years. But over Christmas, I heard Andrew Lloyd Webber saying it and although I have a few reservations about the ALW bandwagon, I found myself in agreement with him. I wish somebody had said this to me years ago. Forget about the formal intricacies of plotting, forget all those prescriptive pieces of advice about structure. Just tell the story as engagingly as you can. If you get that right, whether you are writing in a particular genre or experimenting wildly, everything else will fall into place. William Trevor's short stories are truly wonderful not only because they tell us so much about what it is to be a human being - which they certainly do - but because they are always very fine stories as well! Make it live, shape it, craft the raw material of reality into something better. Every truly enthralling novel, film and stage play I've ever seen, literary or popular, difficult or easy, has an enthralling story. Kids know all about story. Even when publishers in droves were telling writers that fantasy was dead in the water and sending polite rejection letters to JKR among others, kids were still demanding a magical story. When Harry Potter was first published it was kids who spread the word about it being an enthralling read. They know a good story when they read one and there's no fooling them. (Yet still so many of our critics seem to think that writing for children is a soft option! Nothing could be further from the truth. And I don't write for children. But I certainly admire those who do.)

5 Once You're An Experienced Professional - Behave Like One.
This is possibly my most contentious piece of advice. We writers are notoriously bad at treating ourselves as professionals, even when we are seasoned and experienced, with an excellent track record. I've just been reading a piece about teachers which posed the following questions:
'In what other profession is the desire for competitive salary viewed as proof of indifference towards the job? In what other profession are the professionals considered the least knowledgeable about the job?'
The answer to that would also be writers.
People who wouldn't get out of bed without payment often expect writers to work for nothing. I'm not talking about the freebies we all do from time to time where nobody gets paid, or where you work for a profit share. I'm talking about those gigs you're sometimes invited to do for large commercial organisations where everyone else is on a fair (and sometimes a very fat) salary but where you're told there is 'no money in the budget to pay the writer.' And when you're feeling nervous, watch this and take heart.
If you're going to work for free, do it for yourself, work at something you love, or for whatever worthy cause you subscribe to. For the rest, be aware that a whole industry has grown up which is happy to cast the 'talent' in the role of humble supplicant, grateful for any crumbs of recognition. But only you can do something to remedy that.

Oh - and I've one last piece of advice, which is to treat all advice with healthy scepticism. Even this blog! But do feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section!

Catherine Czerkawska

List Mania

I don't know about you, but I'm a great maker of lists. In fact I have a folder on my PC titled Catherine's Lists. It contains documents such as a To Do List (work) a To Do List (other) an ongoing Shopping List and a Gardening List.  Before Christmas these were joined by Gift and Card lists. After Christmas, these were replaced by lists of all the little things I hadn't done over the holidays, but now needed to tackle. And now that most of these are out of the way, I'm about to embark on a massive promotion list for my eBooks. And then, of course, there's a publishing schedule to consider as well. Arguably, the most important of the lot.

There's even - I kid you not - a Mega List, which is a sort of list of lists.

And while I'm in confessional mode, I have to admit that I have been known to ADD things to my lists that I have already done, just for the pleasure of being able to cross them off!

My sister-in-law told me last year that she never ever makes lists and never has done. In fact it was plain that she couldn't understand why I would need to. Which makes me wonder - is the world divided into list makers and - the others. And how on earth do they manage?

There have been times when I've decided to go cold turkey and do without the torture and tyranny of my To Do lists. On average, I've lasted about two days. The only time I really do without them is when we go away on holiday. This doesn't work if we're going abroad, because the week before departure is spent in such a frenzy of list making and checking that I need a few days to recover. And before I know it, I'm making a list of all the things I'll need to do when I get home again. But if we're having a few days' blissful break here in the UK, I can manage to be relatively list free, and the relief is exquisite. Unfortunately, by the time we're through the door the lists are crowding my head again.

Yoga helps. Still your mind, our teacher says, and I find that I can and do. And  I once bought a book on Time Management which was so list obsessive that even I baulked at dividing my day into ten minute segments and listing what needed to be done in grids. So maybe I'm not that bad after all.

I did consider making a New Year's Resolution to cut down on my list-making, but by the time I had added a few more ideas,  I actually had a list of resolutions, top of which was not making too many lists.

So do they help, all these lists?

Well, I get a lot done. I feel organised.  And when I'm in the middle of a writing project, a book or a play, it seems quite important to make some kind of schedule and try to stick to it - otherwise it's all too easy to let other things get in the way. You have to learn to prioritise when you're a writer and making lists is definitely one way of working out what's essential and what's not. Although I have to say that when you're on a roll, deeply absorbed in writing or revising, all the lists go by the board, and you do almost nothing else but write, eat, drink and sleep!

Meanwhile, it's rather nice to find yourself on other people's lists sometimes, like this one, by Brendan Gisby on Amazon, and this one as well ! Thank-you Brendan!

Writing Resolutions for 2012: Just Do It!

First of all, let me wish a very happy and productive 2012 to anyone reading this blog - and I know that includes a number of writers of all ages and stages. (Don't you just hate the term 'budding writer'?) so let's hope at least some of that productivity relates to writing and publication, indie as well as conventional.

I finally published my new novel Bird of Passage to Amazon Kindle, between Christmas and New Year. I'd fully anticipated getting it 'out there' in time for Christmas, but in the event, a string of minor edits, and then the Kindle formatting, meant that it proved even more time consuming that I had anticipated. But then, where writing is concerned, just about everything does!

I was amused to see somebody on a book forum the other day, blithely pointing out that since it should be 'easy' to write a thousand words a day, it should be equally easy to finish a novel within three months. Well, it's possible, and some people manage to do it. They tend to be experienced writers who are very sure of the genre in which they are writing - and sure of their own skills in that genre. (Or complete beginners, who are too inexperienced to know how little they know!) But when it's the former, the results can be very good indeed. However some novels take years to write and those results can be very good indeed too. As usual with writing, there are no right or wrong answers and the only certainty in this business is that anyone who tells you that there are, is certainly wrong.

Still, at this time of year, it's worth pondering the value of writing something every day, or almost every day, even if it's not a thousand words. The truth is that sometimes it will be much less or nothing and sometimes it will be much more - three or four thousand words if you're on a roll - but the one thing that you can be pretty sure of is that if you want to 'be' a writer, you have to - er - you know - write something. I know this sounds daft, and I'm pretty sure that none of the followers of this blog will be culprits, but I have - over a long writing career - met a surprising number of people who are forever claiming that they 'want to write' but when push comes to shove, they don't actually do it. I don't mean writing well. I mean the act of putting one word next to another on paper or on a screen.

They will have many excuses, but lack of time is always number one. I know this because it's an excuse professional writers use all the time - I do it myself. 'I didn't finish this or that project because I didn't have time.' It's not true. It usually means that I wasn't committed enough to the project in question, or got bored with it, or realised it wasn't going anywhere. If you really want to write (and you have to want to write something, whether it's poems, stories, novels, plays, or a blog,) then you will beg, borrow or steal the time from somewhere. I have friends who have worked full time at the 'day job', brought up children, looked after sick relatives and still managed to grab a few hours each day to devote to their writing, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, sometimes very late at night, sometimes by just pulling the occasional all-nighter and soldiering on through next day's fatigue.

Many years ago, when I was 'budding' myself (yeuch!) a distinguished writer replied to one of my fan letters that 'the only way to write is to write.' He was right, of course. The only way in which you can call yourself a writer, whether in bud, or in bright green leaf, is to DO it.  It's only by doing it that you can actually find out what you want to write, what form you want to write it in, and whether you actually have anything interesting to say. You may start by 'wanting to write' poems, so you do it, and find that actually, your poems are more like short stories. So then you write short stories. You may try your hand at writing short stories and find them full of visual images and dialogue, and wonder if you could write plays as well. The truth is that most writers play about with different forms, seeing where they want to go.

But in order to come to any realisation about the form that might suit you, as a writer, you have to give it a go in some shape or form. I think for many people, though, there's an element of fear involved and I suspect that the internet, which is crammed with opinionated people (like me, so sorry!)  has hindered rather than helped. Being judged for something so personal is scary. Being told what you ought to be doing by screeds of people is singularly unhelpful. Our first ventures into writing are generally quite tender little seedlings and it's all too easy for them to be trampled under foot.

As with so many things in life, a great many people prefer to say 'I could have been a contender' rather than having a go at something, and - possibly - failing. But I've news for you. Nobody who attempts any form of creative endeavour, ever believes he or she is good enough. Every single writer, including highly successful professionals, goes through agonies of self doubt. And we've all failed. Often. It doesn't make us stop writing though. We write because it's a kind of compulsion. An addiction. We can't help ourselves.

But if you make any New Year resolution about your writing, let it be not to put yourself down before you've even started. Ignore your own doubts. Get yourself a nice notebook and doodle in it: poems, ideas, words, phrases. Or set up a blog (here on Blogger - it's free and easy!) and resolve to write something, anything, once a week.

Above all, just do it. You know you want to. As Mrs Doyle would say, 'Go on go on go on go on go on!'