Showing posts with label Indie Publishing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Indie Publishing. Show all posts

How Not To Be A Writer - Part Four: Money Matters


This is a small diversion from the chronology of  previous 'How Not To' posts.  Whenever writers get together, we don't talk about what we're writing. We moan about money. 

It's worth pointing out yet again that, with a few starry exceptions, writers are at the bottom of the heap as far as payment goes. Full time professional writers earn, on average, £7000 a year. That means that vast numbers earn considerably less and payments are falling all the time. I wrote my last big project on a £500 advance. It took 2 years to research and write. 

If you look this up on Google, you'll be presented with wholly unrealistic salaries in the £35,000 plus range. Some deluded websites claim a staggering £45 - £55000. I don't know anyone who earns anything approaching this from their writing, even those you would think of as successful. Those who do, earn it from writing related work, such as teaching creative writing in universities, so that they can encourage more people to be poor. Or writing for television. (Lucrative, but also hard to get into.) Or specialised writing, such as technical writing, for large companies. Those who write for children can earn a living of sorts by doing schools visits and talks, but again, these are a diminishing resource. And as another writer friend pointed out recently, these are payments for actual work undertaken in the school or college, not for the books themselves.

As far as large publishing companies are concerned, creative writing and publishing is a massive pyramid scheme, with the writers beavering away for peanuts at the bottom, and literally everyone else being paid more than the people without whom there would be nothing to publish or produce. 

There is no real solution to this. The big corporations will always pay their top executives handsomely and the astronomical advances will always go to celebrities, who probably haven't even written the damn books themselves.  Those organisations that are supposed to represent writers can do little about the imbalance. Small or medium sized publishers struggle constantly with rising prices of resources like paper, which means rising prices of books, and a corresponding fall in quality of the end product.

Almost everyone who writes, and most of those running small publishing companies, have to find other means of earning a living. I have colleagues who lecture, who teach in schools, who are alternative therapy practitioners, who follow quite different full time careers and write on the side. Creativity will find a way. I deal in antique textiles and toys from an Etsy store called the 200 Year Old House. 

And now, I self publish on Amazon under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, eBooks and paperbacks, with some excellent professional design and formatting help from a company called Lumphanan Press. I make no fortunes, but there's always the faint possibility that something will take off and bring in some real income.

I'll leave you with three things to think about. 

Getting an agent doesn't automatically mean that you will get a publishing deal these days. Don't waste years of good writing time submitting endless query letters to agencies and waiting for them to respond.
Most books don't earn out their advances. The system is designed that way. It's perfectly possible for a publisher to profit from a book while the author, even from a mass market success, is paid sixpence a copy, as part of the deal. It's going to take a long long time to earn out even a modest advance at those rates. 
When people tell you that there is 'no money in the budget' to pay the creatives, what they mean is that there is, in fact, a budget. They just expect that you'll work for nothing. I still do sometimes work for nothing, but these days it's only for local organisations, small charities, good causes. Places where I can sell my own books. And seldom in winter, when I hibernate. But for big media corporations? Book chains owned by US Hedge Companies? I don't think so. Not any more.

Old Titles, New eBooks, Gorgeous New Covers


Late last year, I received some welcome rights reversions from my publisher, Saraband, mostly of my fiction titles. At present, The Physic Garden, The Curiosity Cabinet and The Posy Ring are reverted in all formats, with the Jewel only reverted in eBook form. Saraband still has my two non-fiction titles, A Proper Person to be Detained and The Last Lancer, as well as the Jewel in paperback. However, these things take time, as you can imagine, while the publisher runs down previous stock as far as possible, so with the exception of The Posy Ring, the paperbacks are still available in their previous incarnation.

Over the past few years, I've published a number of  my older fiction titles under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, so - among other things - I'm hoping to re-release all my reverted novels under the same Dyrock imprint before the end of the year. 

For now, I've published the above named four novels in eBook form, on Amazon, with the excellent assistance of Lumphanan Press in Aberdeenshire. I know this is something you may be able to do yourself - but like everything else in this world, it makes sense to use a skilled professional when you can. 

Although Saraband has kindly allowed me to use the old covers, it struck me that, for a couple of the novels at least, I wanted a change. It also struck me that The Posy Ring  - if not exactly a sequel to The Curiosity Cabinet - is certainly a companion novel, inhabiting the same small island world, with a similar structure, and with some of the same characters. I needed to 'brand' them together. 

Enter a Polish photographer friend called Michał Piasecki. This is one talented family! His wife, Iwona, had been incredibly generous and helpful with my research for The Last Lancer, doing some sensitive translation of family documents and letters, but she's a talented artist as well. Their son, Tom, drafted out complicated family trees for me, for the same book. When publication day came around last year, a dreich February day with no acknowledgment of the occasion, except from my lovely husband, not so much as a 'well done' postcard from anywhere else, Iwona and Michał arrived at the door with flowers and chocolates and we opened a bottle of 'bubbles' and had our own Polish celebration. 

Michał has his own Facebook page as Keen Photographer, and I had noticed how skilful and imaginative his landscape and night sky photographs were, but also realised just how good they might be as book covers. 

Here are two of them - perfect for pairing two titles that belong together. Read The Curiosity Cabinet first, and move on to The Posy Ring, to see what happens to some of the characters next, and to meet a whole new set of people. I love both these images, and for me, they seem to reflect something of the quality of both novels: dual time novels, where nobody goes back in time, but where in some strange way, the present reflects the past within this small Scottish island world. 

Michał created the perfect magical images, while Duncan at Lumphanan made them into gorgeous covers. 

We're not done yet. I'm about to publish a collection of my own poetry, Midnight Sun, spanning many years. This will be in paperback form with another Piasecki cover image. (I began my writing career as a poet, and carried on, intermittently, writing poetry.) And a little later this year, I'll be changing the cover of an older novel, using another perfect landscape image by Michał - just because I couldn't resist it. More as and when it happens! 

Why You Shouldn't Boycott Amazon

Old and new: teddies and Kindle
As Christmas approaches, I've been encouraged by a few colleagues and even one or two friends to boycott Amazon. They've called it a monster, a parasite, and a few other nasty names besides, some of them (oddly enough) while making enthusiastic use of it as a distributor.

Do they realise, I wonder, that in calling for a boycott of Amazon, they are in effect, calling for a boycott of the small cottage industry that is me and thousands, perhaps millions of people like me? Literally cottage industry in my case because I live and work and file my tax returns from a cottage. But I distribute - among other places - on Amazon.

If they don't like Amazon's tax arrangements, then they need to lobby politicians to change the law, but they are going to have to do it for all those other mega corporations that do exactly the same kind of legal tax avoidance. As the director general of the CBI says, if the government wants a different result from the tax system, it must change the rules. Mind you, we should be very careful what we wish for.  The latest EU changes to VAT on digital downloads are certain to have the presumably unintended consequence of driving more and more small businesses away from distributing their product themselves and into the arms of the big companies. One can only assume that they were drafted by a bunch of elderly and ridiculously well-paid denizens of Brussels who have no idea how the internet works. Unless there is a change of heart, from 1st January, not only will eBooks cost more, (apologies to my readers, but since my prices are quite low anyway it won't be too draconian) but most EU based digital businesses - people selling everything from knitting patterns to training manuals online - will either have to decide to trade exclusively via the likes of Amazon or not trade within other EU countries at all. The alternatives, for a micro-business, will be so costly as to be utterly unrealistic. On the whole, I've been a supporter of the EU, but when they make cross border trading this stupidly problematic, you've got to ask yourself what's the point? This is the first time that I've genuinely started to think that in any referendum, I might well vote to leave!

Amazon is my main distributor for my self published work. And one of the distributors for my publisher too. Other distributors are, of course, available and I use some of them, but the truth is that at present, nowhere sells as well for me as Amazon, and no other distributor pays me the monthly sum of money that allows me to carry on writing fiction and occasionally publishing elsewhere.

The garden of my 'cottage industry'.
All the same, I don't actually 'love' Amazon although I may joke about it. There are precious few people in the world I love and I can't think of a single company or organisation that merits that kind of affection although I'll admit that T K Maxx gives me a bit of a buzz.

But I do respect Amazon. They sell books for me all the time. And they pay a decent share of the proceeds on the nail, every month, with great efficiency.  Even in the middle of the recent VAT hideousness, they have done what they can to make things easier for the small trader.

There are thousands of people like me in all kinds of businesses, large, medium and very very small. If you want to boycott Amazon for Christmas, that's your prerogative. But don't then kid yourself that you are supporting small businesses, cottage industries like mine.

Because you're not. You are damaging them. Damaging us all: the writer, the chocolate maker,  the coffee roaster, and the fabulous loose leaf tea blender I've just discovered while researching this post, as well as the artist, the crafter, the toymaker and the herbalist. I don't expect they're supporting an Amazon or an Etsy or a Google boycott either.  Many of them have nice little 'high street' or rural shops that are also supported by online selling  Because that's the way it works these days. Even small shops sell online as well. They sell in as many ways as they possibly can. Except to other EU countries, from their own websites after January. That's one boycott I'd be willing to support.

Meanwhile, I'm off to buy some tea. From a small business, a cottage industry really. Probably via Amazon.

August is a Busy (Festival) Month

Your Own Skipper

This is a time of year when most of my friends are off on holiday - or just back from it. It's shaping up to be one of my busiest months of the year!

First things first - this week, I'm 'mid-list' Writer in Residence, over at the Edinburgh eBook Festival. There's a regular schedule of posts, but if you can't be there all day (and who can? - it's a little like ANY book festival with a huge range of possibilities) - you can click on the Catch Up tab to the right of the home page and see what you've missed - and go to the post and read it at your leisure if you want!
Here's the link to my first mid-list writer post - but you can catch up with them at any time or read them all of a piece at the end of the week or later on.
Meanwhile, if you find anything you like, all the participants would be very grateful if you could spread the word even in a small way  - especially since there is so much which might be of interest to readers and/or of use to writers, whether indie or hybrid or traditionally published, new or experienced. There's comedy, ghosts, crime, life writing - you name it. And it's ALL free.

Just to make life more interesting (if a bit hectic) for myself, I'm back from the Inverness Book Festival where I was doing a seminar on Digital Publishing with the amazing Lin Anderson and the equally amazing Sara Sheridan. We do an occasional triple act for the Society of Authors in Scotland advising people about the possibilities for eBook publishing and marketing and  we always seem to get a great response and good feedback from the audience. Truth to tell, Sara is so good on the marketing aspects that I always learn something from her whenever we do one of these sessions. And this time, Lin was wonderfully eloquent on the democratizing effects of eBooks and online publishing, comparing these changes to the early days of libraries, when there was a certain amount of angst about ordinary people having access to books - how on earth would they cope without the intellectuals to tell them how to think?

Next week, I'm doing another session on digital publishing - a panel at the Edinburgh Book Festival this time, with Maggie Craig, and Mark Buckland with Lin chairing it. It's all go in the Czerkawska household and as if that wasn't enough, I'm working on revisions of my Canary Isles trilogy, aiming to publish the first book, Orange Blossom Love, by the end of this month. We'll see.

Oh, and there is a piece of bigger news to come - but I'll be posting about that soon!
And before I forget - I have another little trio of short stories out on Kindle right now. Your Own Skipper. These are a bit dark though. You have been warned!

List Making for Beginners: How To Organize Your Writing Life

I'm taking a little break this week from my Canary Isles Odyssey, mainly because I'm so obsessed with my Canary Isles novel, Orange Blossom Love, that I can't find creative space for very much else. Instead, I'm going to be writing about another obsession: lists. A recent excellent blog post by Laura Resnick all about the writing process and how we work as individuals (I can recommend it, especially if you've ever found yourself not so much 'blocked' as 'stuck') mentioned her liking for lists and I immediately thought 'that's me, too!'

I'm a compulsive list maker. A few years ago, I had a conversation with my lovely laid back sister-in-law, in which she mentioned, quite casually, that she 'never ever made lists.' It was my own response to this that fascinated me. I imagined doing without lists and instantly felt queasy. Then I felt a spasm of envy. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, to be free from the tyranny of the list?  So I tried. I really did. I went cold turkey, tore up my lists. (Sneakily left them on my PC though, just in case.) I lasted about five days. Then panic set in. Just one little list, I thought. But you know how it is? One thing led to another and soon I was hooked, back in full list making mode again.

I sometimes go away for a few days and deliberately leave my lists behind. It's very liberating and I enjoy the break but I can only do it for so long and in specific places. My beloved Isle of Gigha is a pretty good place for doing without lists, a place where mañana is a concept with altogether too much urgency about it. But once I get home, I'm back on them again.

Gigha: a good place for doing without lists.
On the other hand, list making may be a virtue rather than a vice. I'm so reliant on mine that I'm phased by people who - in a professional situation - seem to forget to do the urgent things while concentrating on the unimportant. Don't they ever make lists? Don't they know about organizing and prioritizing? Well, perhaps not. So in case you're a list making novice, and especially if you're a writer and a list making novice, let me give you a few tips from the depths (and believe me they are very deep) of my own experience.

One of our big problems as writers is that we often have an embarrassment of ideas, but don't know which to choose. Or we have said 'yes' to too many proposals and don't know which to work on first. Or we simply have too much to do and find ourselves trying to do everything at once, in a panic. We need to prioritize and the easiest way to do that is by means of a list. Or several lists. Ongoing, organic lists where nothing is fixed. And the easiest way to manage this is on your PC, because you can shift things around. Although I'm a compulsive printer-outer as well. I like to see my lists on paper! You should take a conscious decision to divide your lists into at least two kinds: work and life. If you try to amalgamate the two it will all go pear shaped. Writers love displacement activity and including 'mow the lawn' or (in my case, at the moment) 'sort out the flower pot mountain at the bottom of the garden' on the work list is inadvisable. Work lists are just that - professional projects which involve your business. And if nothing else, the list habit might encourage us all to be more businesslike.

First and foremost, I have a Mega List of planned projects. This includes all kinds of proposals and ideas, everything I may or may not be working on over the next few years, everything from the novel I'm working on right now to the tenuous ideas that intrigue me but may come to nothing. This is a long but fairly uncomplicated list, by the way. I keep detailed notes for each project, not just on the computer but in folders too. I'm paranoid that way. At the moment, my Mega List consists of brief descriptions of fiction, long and short, with one or two non-fiction projects. If I've promised an article to somebody, it might be on there too, but not blog posts like this one. They belong on a different list altogether. I revise the Mega List often and I use it mainly to prioritize but also to sort out my own thoughts about the work. The projects at the top of the list are what I'm working on right now. And they are important to me. The projects at the bottom of the list are interesting but non urgent. I may never work on them, and some of them will almost certainly fall right off the end but that's fine. If I grow bored with an idea, I shouldn't be working on it anyway. Also, outside factors will influence this list. If I find that I have a potential project which is pretty high on my list, and has suddenly become flavour of the year for reasons beyond my control, I can push it up the list. If I'm reluctant to do it, then that tells me something about my own commitment, so I'll think again. I will often add projected dates, but I do try to be realistic. And often - especially at the top of the list - there will be projects which I know will run in parallel with each other so this list will allow me to allocate time to each and to see where I'm overstretching myself. Most of all, this list allows me to focus, set some things aside but remember them and think about them from time to time. And sometimes, for no particular reason other than my own preoccupations, a project will leap over everything else and find itself at the top of the list.

Next is my Things to Do This Week list. 'This week' is a little ambitious, I'll admit. 'This month' would be a better title. This is also a work list, and again the trick is to be realistic in what you can achieve. (I give myself some very good advice but I don't always follow it!) And once more, you need to prioritize. At the top of mine, right now, is 'Short story proofs to be read and sent back' as well as 'Orange Blossom Love, onscreen revisions.' Everything else, including 'For God's sake do your tax returns' can be shuffled down the list a bit, because my accountant has gone on holiday for a few weeks. But he'll be back by the 21st July, so 'You have really GOT to do your tax returns' will probably be top of the list by the end of next week, and I'll bite the bullet and do them.

Finally, for work, I have a Today list and that really is all the things I need to do today in order of priority, including meetings, phonecalls etc. I sometimes allow other things to intrude on this list, but only if they're genuinely urgent and even then I always try to prioritize the work above the household tasks.

Because I sometimes sell antique textiles on eBay to help the budget along, I have an occasional 'Listings list' but the more I self publish, the less I trade on eBay and this is a fairly simple affair. Come October, though, when people turn to eBay for their linen tablecloths for the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday seasons, as well as quirky gift items, it might grow longer and more complicated.

Besides these, I have a House list and a Garden list and a Shopping list. (I told you, I'm compulsive) The House list involves all the biggish jobs that need doing. This changes - sometimes it's in order of urgency and sometimes, like now, when I'm having a bit of a clear-out, it lists jobs from room to room. It's a very static list! The Garden list is always in order of priority. And yes, sorting out the pot mountain at the bottom of the garden is definitely top of that list. So is the weeding. But even with the weeds it's quite a pretty garden, so the garden list can run and run and run, like the bindweed.

The garden manages quite well on its own!

Recently, I introduced another list. Ever since I started self publishing, I've been uneasily aware that I should be wearing two hats: my publishing hat and my writing hat. My Mega List is a writing list. But this second big list is a sort of Promotion and Publicity list and at the moment, it's in the form of a dialogue with myself. What exactly do I write? What do I want out of the business? What do I want to work on right now? Can I market everything at once? (NO) What's the solution? This has turned out to be the most useful list of all. I don't know where the answers to those questions are coming from, but they have helped me to organize the publishing and promotion side of my business, balancing it with the need to spend the majority of my time on the writing. And it has influenced my Mega List in all kinds of unforeseen but useful ways.

Now it may sound as though I spend all my time writing lists, but I don't. Honestly! Once you've set this up, it only takes a few minutes each day (or the night before) to adjust the To Do Today list, while the Mega List and the Promotion List are only revised once a week - if that. Once a month would probably be enough.

The benefits are considerable - but only if you like lists! You don't forget urgent things. You consciously send non-urgent things to the bottom of the list and stop pretending you have to do them now and using them as displacement activity. You can clarify things in your own mind and get on with what you need to do first. Best of all, you can tick things off!

I do have a small confession to make. I have been known to write things on the list after I've done them, just so that I can have the satisfaction of marking them as done. But I suspect I'm not alone.

So go on, are you a list maker or not? If you are, what's your system? I'd love to know. Why not post a few of your own ideas below!

Support Your Local Writer

Cover art by Michael Doig
An arts magazine to which I subscribe dropped through my letterbox yesterday morning and sent my blood pressure sky high. This is a little publication which focuses mainly on art and artists. But the current issue devoted a large chunk of its available space to an anti Amazon, pro bookstore rant with the now wearily familiar exhortation to us all to support our local small businesses and shun those giant corporations like Amazon, Starbucks and Google. I'm assuming the editor doesn't use a PC or a Mac to construct his copy, but I wonder what he uses instead? Pencil and paper? One of those old printing sets you used to get in your Christmas stocking?

There was, however, a significant omission from his rant in favour of small businesses: the thousands of small business people without whom there would be no books whatsoever. 

You've got it. Writers.

It amazes me how often certain commentators speak and write lovingly about books (their smell, their feel, their physical form)  independent bookstores (struggling local businesses worthy of our support) and publishers (under threat, under pressure, under the cosh)  but relegate the one small business person without whom NONE of these would exist, to the sidelines.

A nice little hobby?
Part of the problem is that only a certain percentage of writers think of themselves as professionals, as people running a small business. But isn't that the same with any 'creative' pursuit? Back when my husband was wearing himself out (quite literally as it turned out - he now has serious arthritis) on huge woodcarving projects, people would watch him at work and remark on what a 'nice little hobby' it was for him. So for every writer who sees him or herself as a professional there will be a dozen happy dabblers - and why not? It's a good thing to do. But the knock-on effect of this is that assumptions are made, assumptions which we sometimes have to challenge.

I've had a long and interesting career but like all writing careers it has been a bit of a switchback. And I've learned that it is never a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket. But right now, somebody is actually facilitating my business, distributing my books and paying me on a regular basis and that somebody is Amazon. Those by no means large but wonderfully regular payments are what allow my own small business to support many other small businesses, like the variety of young, self employed digital artists who have worked on my eBook 'covers' with me and the local company  Paligap, which built my Wordarts website for me. Not forgetting our village cafe  and pub to which I escape to from time to time. 

Encouraging customers to support one particular local business is all very well - especially if that business is well loved and is serving its community in all kinds of interesting ways. And I love indie bookstores. Especially the ones with cafes, the ones where local writers and book groups hang out, the ones which encourage readings, the ones where the owners are welcoming - unlike the indie bookshop which had better remain nameless, to which I delivered a small box of my very much local interest books on the explicit instructions of my publisher who claimed to have arranged the visit in advance, only to be met with something verging on hostility!

Sailing to a bookshop?

There are a few excellent independent bookshops which might loosely be described as local. Those in Wigtown - a beautiful place - involve an hour's drive along winding, hilly, country roads, pitted with potholes that might better be defined as craters and made horrible by log lorries, bouncing along the middle of the road at high speed. I shop there from time to time, but not often. The other involves an hour's drive in the opposite direction and 45 minutes on a car ferry. Forgive me if clicking on the great Amazon in the clouds so often seems like a much better option when I want a book right now, especially if I can get it for my Kindle and be reading it instantly. Good for the writer. Good for the reader. 

Asking people to boycott a system which demonstrably benefits producers and customers alike seems illogical and unfair. And as Hugh Howey wrote in a recent blog post, the real story is NOT him. (Although his is a wonderfully inspirational story for all of us!) No. It's the thousands and thousands of writers like me, writers who were told by their blinkered industry time and again that no matter how excellent their product, nobody wanted it. The midlist was dead. Well, turns out it was only taking a nap. Now that it has woken up, it's alive and kicking. And here we are, small business people, managing to connect directly with our real customers - our readers - and finding out that there is an appreciative market for our products after all. 


I used to sleep like a baby. These days, I sleep like the baby I actually had, about twenty six years ago. Charlie didn't like to sleep at all, really. That was the problem. He was a lovely baby, but he could stay awake and then some. Hardly ever napped in the daytime and didn't even seem to want to sleep for too long at night. I got used to sleeplessness back then, so when he started being able to amuse himself with books until he fell asleep - that was after we'd read countless stories to him - I went back to restful nights again.
Not now. Now I wake up in the middle of the night and I'm wired. It's as though my brain has been working away - on novels, stories, articles - while I've been sleeping and dreaming, and after a while, it gives me a nudge, saying 'Wake up, wake up. I've got something to tell you.  DON'T YOU WANT TO WRITE IT DOWN?'
Sometimes it's because I'm in the middle of working on a novel or a play. Sometimes it's when I've been reviewing something. Or got so involved in reading a book that I wake up and want to get on with it. (See review of The City and The City, below!)
I don't think it's doing me a lot of good. I'm tired pretty much all the time these days, and keep making resolutions to get more sleep or better sleep or - let's face it - any kind of deep sleep at all.
I have this fantasy of going away for a week or so, to stay in some nice hotel with meals and drinks on tap and with absolutely nothing to do. No laptop, and not even very much sightseeing. (Our holidays usually involve complicated itineraries, visits, doing things, PLANS)
I'll take my Kindle and catch up on my reading. Or watch a bit of television. Or just look out of the window.
I'll read for pleasure, read for fun, read the things I want to read rather than the things I feel I ought to be reading.
I won't do anything I think I ought to be doing.
Not a single thing.
Meanwhile, here's something I woke up thinking only the other morning. Very early morning. Just beginning to get a little bit light, here in Scotland. And with the birds in the garden just starting to sing again after a long hard winter.
I didn't wake up thinking about the birds though. I woke up thinking this:
It isn't so much a problem of the numbers of not very good eBooks out there. I can avoid those easily enough. I have a sample facility on my Kindle.
No. It's the vast numbers of really, really good eBooks out there. My Kindle is currently stuffed with them. (Which is why I want that holiday.)
These are good reads by any standards: entertaining, original, engaging.
And you know what? Most of them were turned down by traditional publishing. Many of them were turned down many times over by industry 'experts'. Many of them were written by people who had once been traditionally published but were given what is commonly called the elbow, by those same  experts. These were industry insiders who claimed to know what they were doing. They said it often enough. They are still saying it.
Which is a scary thought.
It's enough to give you insomnia, isn't it?

Bird of Passage on Kindle - Disturbing to Read - and to Write.

Cover art precisely reflecting the themes of the novel - by Matt Zanetti 

If you're reading this on 10th or 11th May 2012, you can download my novel, Bird of Passage, free to your Kindle or Kindle App, here in the UK or here in the USA.

To be honest with you, although I'm very fond of this novel, very fond of its central characters, Finn and Kirsty, even I don't know what particular genre it belongs in. So I don't think I can complain too much that mainstream publishers couldn't seem to place it either. It's a mid-list novel, for sure and it's on the literary end of the mid-list. But that doesn't mean it's difficult to read. I hope the story is strong enough to carry you along.  It's contemporary fiction, but the story spans many years. It's a love story, but it also deals with the shocking realities - and the aftermath - of state sanctioned physical abuse in 1960s Ireland, which makes it a serious and challenging read.

The story of Finn and Kirsty begins in 1960s Scotland. Young Finn O’Malley is sent from Ireland to work at the potato harvest and soon forms a close friendship with Kirsty Galbreath, the farmer’s red-headed grand-daughter. But Finn is damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories slowly. What happened at the brutal Industrial School to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there, and what became of the mother he lost. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. 

The novel is as much about the crippling psychological effects of physical cruelty as anything else. I've realised that even I, as a writer, found myself reluctant to tackle these aspects of Finn's story. (And even since publication, I realise I've been reluctant to talk and write about them.) I knew that I didn't want to turn this into a 'misery memoir'. But Finn, as he presented himself to me right from the start, seemed like a profoundly damaged individual. And it was quite a long time before I could bring myself to get inside his mind and find out exactly what had happened to him. It became even more disturbing when I found out what really had happened to so many people, when I found out - distressingly - the stories that lay behind those men you sometimes see in UK cities, Irish construction workers or older men now that time has passed, solitary souls, unable to form close relationships and sometimes reliant on alcohol to see them through each evening. Strangely, this reluctance of mine seems to be mirrored in the character of Finn himself who can't remember exactly what happened during his childhood, having buried it so deeply, because it was so damaging.

If this makes it a disturbing read - and I think in many ways it does - then it also made it a disturbing book to write. I found the character of Finn and his history so absorbing that I would constantly wake up in the night, thinking about him, trying to figure out why he was behaving in this way, and what might have happened to make him like this. It strikes me that writers don't always, or even often, manipulate plot and character. Sometimes our characters manipulate us. Finn was relentless.

From some of the  UK reviews, I can see that men have appreciated this novel as much as women. It has an island setting in part but much of the story of Bird of Passage also takes place in Ireland and on the Scottish mainland. It has a rural setting, but many key events take place in cities.

My friend and colleague, Dr David Manderson, of the University of the West of Scotland, reviewed it in these terms: It's not just a cracking read, it's a genuinely powerful one, and once you stumble over the great love story at its centre you won't be able to put this book down. There's real pain here and many different kinds of healing, few of them nice. A story that like Wuthering Heights has as many harsh and knotted bits as deliciously sweet ones, you will be taken to a different world by it, but one as real as your own.'  Writing in the Indie eBook Review, Gilly Fraser says 'There are no pat answers in this story and no neatly contrived solutions. Endings are jagged, situations remain unresolved. Yet at the end of the book, there is a feeling of satisfaction that things did work out as they should - at least to some extent.' 

There have been other reviews, most of them by people I don't know at all, one of them calling the novel,  'A breathtaking read.'  To which I can only say, thank-you, whoever you are - and I'm so glad you enjoyed it, if enjoy is the right word! As writers, we tend to write for ourselves. How else could we spend so much time absorbed in the world of each book or play?  But very soon after completion - if we're honest - I think that most of us want desperately to communicate with other people, our readers. We want to show them the world we have created, to introduce them to the people who have become so very real to us. And we love to hear that they too have become absorbed in the world of the novel - even when that world is by no means a comfortable one.  Finally, when I was looking for a cover for the eBook, I discussed the story and its background with digital artist Matt Zanetti. After a little while, he produced the cover above. It wasn't what I expected. It wasn't quite what we had discussed. But it took my breath away in that it so precisely reflected the themes of the novel: the lonely corncrake, the themes of solitude, imprisonment and a yearning for something better. 

Catherine Czerkawska 

Piracy and Pricing: A Hot Topic. (And I don't just mean Johnny Depp)

I've been thinking about opening this particular can of worms for some time, but have held back, mostly because some of my friends have very definite views on the topic, and I know it's contentious. Some of the arguments on Facebook become so heated that the screen practically explodes. Also, I can see both sides of the debate.

Somewhere online, there's a BBC Radio Play of mine which has been streamed by a pirate site. It's a play called Tam O' Shanter, and it was broadcast to mark a Burns Anniversary. You can download it for free, if you like. People occasionally get indignant on my behalf but I find it very hard to get hot under the collar about it. I've been paid for it, the BBC are never going to repeat it and if they do decide to repeat it on 4 Extra, my share of the dibs will be unbelievably tiny.

When my son's video game development company, Guerilla Tea, recently released their new game, The Quest, onto various platforms, they remarked that it was being pirated almost as soon as it was released. They didn't seem too bothered about it. Not half as bothered as most writers are when their books are pirated in foreign parts. Not half as bothered,  if I'm honest, as I would be if my novels were pirated.

Now most writers seem to think that the comparison is bogus, since a small and inexpensive video game download is easily made. They've bought into the media's fondness for tales of the geeky - but mythical - teen working alone in his bedroom, to develop a prizewinning game.  In truth, it takes several people many months or even years of hard work and is almost certainly the equivalent of a novel, perhaps more than a novel, since the developers need expensive software in order to be able to release the game onto certain platforms. So why are the GT lads far more laid back about piracy than me and my writer friends?

'There's no way it equates to lost sales,' one of them told me. 'The people who are downloading pirated copies are never going to buy it anyway. If they were, at this low price, they would just buy it. And it certainly helps to spread the word.' I'm told that developers have been known to contact the pirates to say 'cool - but if you play it and like it, give us a positive review.'

The key here seems to have something to do with price. Cheap mobile games are the norm. Overly cheap books tend to signal 'amateur'. And perhaps the markets are simply smaller. The evidence within the games industry suggests that if you won't buy a download for 69p, with the possibility of upgrades and support, ('added value') you're not going to pay for a download at all. With conventionally published eBooks often sold at such high prices, piracy may well make a difference. Although the same logic may apply. Piracy will have no effect on sales since those who pirate would seldom if ever pay £9.99 for a download. Which leads me to another thought. Neither would I.  £5.00 is my cut-off for a download. I've paid more than that but only very occasionally.

Publishers can talk till they are blue in their collective faces about the associated costs, but the fact remains that in a world where you can download a complex game which has had to meet certain criteria, for a couple of pounds, and an album for a fiver, very few people are going to be persuaded to pay more than that for a book. Indie publishers have taken this on board. Actually, many indie publishers do charge too little. The 99p book - unless it's obviously short, or very light - a novella, a handful of stories, a guide to something or other, a small collection of essays - is beginning to stand out as the work of a rookie. £2.99 or £3.99 is low enough for an impulse buy - not much more than the price of a latte - not so steep that you back off and think about it. (Which generally means that you won't buy it.)

But there's no use in us digging in our heels, taking a moral stance, screaming 'death to all pirates' and refusing to engage with the world as it is. They may well be thieves and vagabonds but when you're in the middle of the ocean with no gunboat in sight, you'd better have an alternative strategy, because shouting at them to go away is never going to work.

One possible solution may be to add value, just as video game developers do. There's a fashion for wailing 'but authors can't do this!' But if you stop and think about it, authors can and already do engage with their readers. They write interesting (and free) blog posts about the background to their books, they have Facebook pages, they give readings and talks, they do reviews and make recommendations and tweet about all kinds of things. These are the extras that will make your potential reader click on the purchase button. If they prefer to download from an illegal site, with all the added hazards to their own PCs or laptops, then they were probably never going to be a paying customer anyway.

What do you think? But let's have a nice clean fight, shall we?

eBay and the eBook Revolution

About six years ago, when I was working as Royal Literary Fund 'Writing Fellow' at a university in Scotland, (helping students purely with their academic writing) one of my students, studying Commercial Music, remarked, 'You know, you writers should be doing what musicians like me are doing. Forget big publishing. Just find some way of getting the work out there yourselves.'
At that time, eBook Readers were available, but not yet the phenomenon they would soon become. After a writing career so checkered with success and failure that you could have made it into a board and played a game of chess on it, I agreed with her, but I couldn't see how to do it. It wasn't just that musicians could do gigs and get paid - in fact it wasn't even that, since as any musician will tell you, they don't get paid very much and besides, I already did get the occasional 'gig'. My RLF Fellowship was an extended and wonderfully supportive gig.
But although there were all kinds of ways for musicians to get their music 'out there', I didn't yet see how the same might apply to writers. 
Back then, I had just read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail (if you haven't read it, go and get it now!) and it made sense to me. But I had become frustrated at being cast in the role of humble supplicant by my own industry, an industry that seemed to have grown complacent over the years, an industry that increasingly disrespected the talent upon which it was forced to rely.
My 'day job' - the work that bought me time to write - was, and still is, an eBay shop called The Scottish Home, mostly selling antique and vintage textiles. I had always had an interest in such things, and had started out by trying to sell them at antique markets, but it was a thankless task. Then I discovered eBay and realised that here was a technology company providing me with the tools to do the job, worldwide. Soon, I was selling embroidered tablecloths to Australia and vintage linen sheets to fashionable New York addresses. Over time, I built up a nice little business and it's one which I can manage so that it fits in with my writing. When I'm snowed under with writing work - like now, when I'm deep into final edits on a new novel - I can wind it down. When I badly need some extra income, I can work like a Trojan and increase my turnover. I can take advantage of seasonal spikes, such as Christmas. But most of all, I think, my eBay experiences gave me a sense of how to run an online business, how to become friends with my customers, how to add value, package nicely, enclose pretty postcards, and write a blog to give people the extra information they enjoy.
It was only when I tried to apply these same lessons to my writing business that I found myself meeting a brick wall of indifference - not from readers, I hasten to add. When I could interact with them, they were appreciative. But from the layer upon layer of gatekeepers who seemed to have interposed themselves between me and those same readers.
I had an agent, I had a decent publishing and production track record, I had work waiting to go, but in spite of all kinds of praise from editors, my work was generally rejected at the 'sales' stage. I was routinely told that it was 'not linguistically experimental enough to be literary' but 'not quite fitting any genre, so we don't know how to market this.' God help my innocence, I even approached one or two Scottish publishers with the suggestion that a more businesslike relationship should be possible. This met with a disapproving silence. Not the way they worked at all. How dare I?
Until Amazon came along and brought technology to bookselling instead of vice versa.
The parallels with eBay are irresistible. You'll find the shysters and the incompetents on there - of course you will. But you'll also find millions of efficient small-to-medium sized businesses, from sole traders to online incarnations of known names, most of them giving excellent customer service, backed by a superb search facility.
Here's a very ordinary example.
Recently, we realised that the wheels on our shower doors had worn away. A plethora of local bricks- and-mortar businesses shook their heads, with that loud indrawn breath that is peculiar to sales people, and suggested that a new cabinet was the only option.
Five minutes on eBay, one digital picture sent to a seller - and a packet of new wheels arrived by the next post.
Last night, I came across a superb essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, characterising the way in which publishing is changing. It's called 'Scarcity and Abundance' and it should be required reading for publishers and writers everywhere. Essentially, it's a piece about mindsets. And the analogy could be extended to include the way in which our High Streets function (or increasingly don't function.) My local 'bathroom supplies' shops,with their beautiful glossy showrooms, were in a 'scarcity' mindset and sliding door wheels did not loom large for them. eBay, on the other hand, with its unlimited shelf space and abundant individual small businesses, could allow me to find the handful of suppliers in the UK who specialised in such things and - moreover- an individual who knew his stock well enough to be able to identify my requirements from a single digital picture. The wheels were not cheap, and I'll bet he's making decent profits - but they were a hell of a lot cheaper than a new cabinet and I was one happy customer.
All of which makes me think that the young literary writers who choose to see the eBook revolution as some kind of capitalist plot to ruin publishing couldn't be more wrong. One is lead to the inescapable conclusion that what they really can't stomach is the democratisation of publishing. They seem to feel that our gain is somehow responsible for their loss. John Carey was right when - brilliantly dissecting literary snobbishness in The Intellectuals and the Masses - he argued that the élite who felt their position threatened by the 19th century increase in literacy, invented new forms which would deliberately exclude the lower orders. A plethora of recent Guardian pieces (and - with a few notable exceptions - their comments) have all taken this remarkably superior stance. For a more balanced picture, you have to go to the technical pages. No doubt the bathroom showrooms feel exactly the same about eBay, even though it is entirely open to them to embrace digital, and set up an online store as well. But that would also mean embracing the mindset of unlimited shelf-space, of abundance, of trusting the abilies of people to search for what they want, coupled with the benefits of good - really good, not just adequate - programming.
A coder friend once told me that when most conventional businesses go digital, they don't understand the difference between an excellent programmer and a merely adequate programmer. All programmers are the same to them. The results are potentially disastrous and you can see them every day in clunky websites that are frustrating to use. Technology companies such as Amazon, eBay, DropBox and so on, always realise this and employ the best.
Above all, embracing the digital revolution means trusting the customer to know what he or she wants. And for most traditional publishers (although not, it seems, for writers) that seems to be a bridge too far.
Of which, more in my next post.

Bird of Passage, on Kindle

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.

New Website - and a very Happy Christmas!

Just launched my nice new website, here, designed and built by Ayrshire company, Paligap  I'm delighted with it, although it has certainly taken me long enough to get around to commissioning it! And I'm well aware that an out-of-date website is worse than no website at all.

Paligap built my first site many years ago, when they too were just starting out - I remember visiting them, two pleasant and enthusiastic young men, in premises tucked away down a little back street in the town of Ayr. I was very happy with that first website, but as time passed, my work changed. I thought about changing the site too, but I couldn't justify the expense to myself, in view of the fact that I wasn't at all sure any longer what I wanted it to say! So I concentrated on blogging, while I thought about it, and wrote, and then thought about it all some more.

Paligap, meanwhile, expanded and grew. They moved to nice new premises, and then - more recently - to even nicer premises in an old but very distinguished part of the town. And they gained some very distinguished customers in the meantime. (They are still a very pleasant, friendly company to work with though!)

And I went through a succession of changes in my working life, what I wrote, what I wanted to do with it, where I wanted to go with it. The single biggest change, though, was signalled by two things - the collapse of the mid-list as far as conventional publishing was concerned - and the advent of 'indie publishing' - the possibility of publishing work directly onto Kindle and other platforms, avoiding the increasingly complicated strings of gatekeepers which had interposed themselves between the writer and his or her readership. Suddenly, there was a very definite possibility of getting the work out there instead of spending years and years rewriting it to the demands of an increasingly prescriptive industry - and that came like a wonderful breath of fresh air.

I've written about that change more fully elsewhere, especially in the Scottish Review, here - where you can read a longish essay about the concept of the mid-list - what it is and what has happened to the writers who belonged there. Just as I was assembling ideas for my new website, I read a wonderful little book called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months (I know, I know, we should all be so lucky!) - but it's a lovely, entertaining, useful book, full of bright ideas. And the biggest, brightest idea of all, the best piece of advice - although there's a lot more, you should buy it - is that the writer should spend time thinking about/focusing on/building a relationship with his or her readers.

It was a moment of enlightenment. I don't know why, because it's kind of obvious when you think about it - but over the past few years, writers have been concentrating so hard on the long and difficult hunt for an agent, and then the equally long and difficult hunt for a publisher - that they/we seem to have neglected the person who really matters - the reader.

Fortunately, enlightenment came just in time for me to make a few changes to my new website (thank-you John Locke!) and it's now aimed fairly and squarely at readers, or potential readers. Which is just as it should be.

Meanwhile, this will be my last post before Christmas - so let me wish all of you a very happy and joyful holiday season - and a very successful 2012.