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Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Why we all need English Pen

I have just signed a contract with Unbound. This contract should actually have been signed months ago but there have been delays. Most of these have been due to a general failure on all parts to deal with boring admin. But there have been some more substantial discussions as to the terms of the contract as well. Unbound and the whole crowd funding approach is so new that there is no standard contract which anyone can lift off the shelf. I'm very glad that I have had the support of my agent and my husband who happens to be a lawyer.

One of the issues we have had to discuss is the question of libel. On this matter, the debate has not been specific to crowd funding and Unbound. All that Unbound have done is put in the contract what ever publisher puts in the contract. But the problem is that, as many authors have discovered, these standard terms relating to libel mean that the writer really takes all responsibility (and bears all the costs) if anyone decides to sue. My husband was certainly worried about me signing up to this. I don't expect trouble but there are plenty of nut cases out there.

Both my agent and Unbound suggested that I contacted the Society of Authors and I did that. They have a deal with an insurance company who are able to offer cover to writers worried about libel. But when I enquired I discovered that the premiums are around £700 a year. I'm not suggesting that this is not in line with the market rate. I'm sure that it is. But the reality is that most writers simply can't spend that kind of money.

So really you just have to hope that you don't get sued. And give thanks to the Powers That Be for English Pen. They campaign tireless on issues relating to libel and have recently managed to get the law changed slightly. In the past complainants were winning libel cases just because they didn't really like the things that had been written about them. Thanks to changes in the law anyone taking a libel case now has to demonstrate that some real damage has been done to them. This is an important change. It supports writers who want to say things which, although true, are unpopular.

But for English Pen the battle always continues. A recent case has caused particular concern. The publication of a book has been halted to protect the rights of a child. The book was written by the child's father and contains information which his ex wife deems to be too upsetting for the child to know. It's an interesting,complex and worrying case. It shows that we definitely need English Pen to keep on fighting for us.

(This photo has nothing to do with English Pen but it is the last photograph in my memoir Dead Babies and Seaside towns which will be published on 2 July. It shows my TWO children heading off the school together, not something I ever expected to see).

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Michael Rosen and the boomerang apple – Nick Green

Recently my elder son Oscar got stuck on a piece of homework. He moaned, ‘Our teacher wants us to write out a list of homophones and I can only think of one.’ His mum went over to help him and found that he’d written, at the top of his sheet of paper, ‘Nigel Farage’. She frowned a moment before exploding into giggles. ‘No, darling,’ she explained, ‘he’s a homophobe.’


Oscar has from time to time struggled with the demands of English lessons. I can’t say I’m entirely surprised, when they often involve the taxonomy of words into nouns and verbs and adverbs and adjectives, which even my wife (who is far better read than I am) admits to muddling up. But what has puzzled me is that Oscar has to date shown little or no interest in reading. We’re told that we must read to our children, that we must fill our houses with books and let children discover this wonderful world… mate, you’d sprain an ankle on all the books in my house, I have to be bullied and kicked into remembering to care about anything except books. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but in the case of Oscar it has sometimes seemed as if the apple bounced, rolled and then got kicked by Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey right out of the orchard (Oscar is into football instead).

Michael Rosen

Until, that is, his class started reading Michael Rosen’s poems. Oscar fell head over heels for Michael’s zany readings on YouTube of poems like ‘Strict’ (where the teacher forbids breathing in class) and ‘Chocolate Cake’ (in which a young Michael accidentally eats a whole chocolate cake). So I was delighted when Oscar told me he was going to do a similar performance himself in his class assembly. He showed me the poem he was going to perform and I read it, chuckled at its typical zaniness, vintage Rosen I thought - if a little more bizarre even than usual. I asked Oscar, ‘Did you choose it yourself, or did the teacher choose it for you?’ He looked at me as if I was stupid. ‘I didn’t choose it,’ he said. ‘I wrote it. This is my Michael Rosen poem.’

I hope Oscar won’t mind if I share his poem with you. Yes, I can see now it’s by a nine-year-old, but for a few moments there… I don’t know how Michael Rosen made such a massive impression on him, but it was certainly something to see him perform it in assembly, from memory, with all the expressiveness and actions that he’d mimicked from Michael’s performances. He’d still be a footballer rather than a writer any day, he reminds me.

April Fools  - by Oscar Darvell-Green (after Michael Rosen)

On the first of April,
I got a Christmas present,
And another and another.

I don’t know why,
Was it my birthday?
So I opened the first present,
And inside was…
A chicken nugget.

My parents shouted.
After that I got furious,
And stomped upstairs,
To make plans for revenge.

Two minutes later…
A bird flew past our house.
Ten minutes later …
And I had a plan.

I made lunch.
My Mum wanted bacon on toast,
And my Dad wanted big-sized beef burger.

I went to get chilli from the cupboard.
For Mum’s order I put chilli on the toast,
Then put bacon on the toast,
Then chilli on the bacon.

“That’s all done” I thought.
Now, my Dad likes chilli,
(He basically likes everything)
Apart from paper.

I made paper bread,
And put a paper beef burger inside,
Now, that’s it (my brother, Apple, was round Banana’s house)
So I said “April f… oh! Lunch time.”

My dad came in and had a big, huge bite
Into the burger,
My Mum however put her face
In the food.
“April rules!“ I shouted.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Getting it right vs. getting it 'out there' - Mari Biella

Where we'd all like to see our books, eventually ...
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons
One piece of advice that is frequently aimed at today's self-publishers is that we ought to write, and publish, at a pretty high velocity. Conventional wisdom (insofar as conventional wisdom can be said to exist in a movement that’s still in its infancy) suggests that momentum is everything. A single book is worth little; two or three books represent just a fraction of what has to be done. We need, in short, to have a vast personal bookshelf, stuffed full of multiple titles.

I can see the logic of this viewpoint, too. After all, if a reader has read and enjoyed one of your books, then they’ll be altogether more inclined to pick up another. However, I’d add a small caveat: this is only likely to work if the books in question are any good.

Over the past few years I've read a lot of self-published books. Many of them, of course, have been wonderful: well-thought-out, well-written, ambitious in scope and beautifully executed. I've often been tempted to seek out more from the authors of those books. They represent all that is best about self-publishing: the strong, interesting, brilliant voices that, for whatever reason, have either been bypassed or abandoned by the traditional industry.

However, a handful of those books have been stinkers: poorly-written, unedited, badly-formatted, riddled with typos and grammatical errors, and sometimes literally nonsensical. Frustratingly, I could sometimes see the germ of a good story beneath all of that mess: a story that, if it were honed and sculpted, could have been very good indeed. But a good story, while a significant advantage, is not all that it takes; a lot comes down to how that story is told. Needless to say, I won’t be in a hurry to pick up any more books by the second group of authors, regardless of how much they've published.

Books, books, and more books...
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

I should stress at this point that I don’t expect perfection in a self-published book. No self-publisher has the resources of a major publishing house. I don’t object to the odd typo or mistake. I do, however, prefer books that are at least reasonably well-written. Above all, I like to feel that the author has given his or her all to the book, and has taken the time to get it right – even if, in the process, that all-important momentum was slowed down a bit.

This is not just a hypothetical issue for me. I currently have a novel sitting on my hard drive. I've been working on it, on and off, for about five years. It's been through numerous drafts, and has been polished to a reasonable degree. It currently runs to about 106,000 words, more or less, which makes it a veritable doorstop by my standards. There’s much about it that I like, too: I think that it’s an interesting story with an engaging protagonist. The standard of writing, I think, is reasonably good throughout. It’s not perfect, but I could, theoretically, publish it tomorrow.

‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ the momentum-is-everything crowd would no doubt be shouting by now. ‘Get on with it! Get it out there! Build your bookshelf!’

And, in a way, I’d like to do just that. I like the feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing that something is finished. I like the curious feeling of resignation and relief that follows publication. I’d certainly like to build an impressive bookshelf. And yet . . .

There’s something about this book that isn't quite right. Infuriatingly, I’m not absolutely sure what exactly is wrong with it, which makes fixing it an extraordinarily laboured task. Something about it just isn't entirely convincing. The plot creaks a bit in places; one plot point in particular really doesn't make a great deal of sense, but for the life of me I can’t think how to change it. If I can see these flaws, I’m pretty sure that readers wouldn't be blind to them; and my strong feeling is that readers deserve better than that. I can’t promise them that they’ll enjoy my book, obviously, but I can have the satisfaction of knowing that I've given it my all and made it the best book I possibly could.

In short, I want to publish this book, but I won’t. Not yet, and possibly not ever. Not until, or unless, I can be sure that it represents my best effort.
I made this one as good as I could. Even if it took a while.
The freedom offered by self-publishing – the freedom to publish what you want when you want – is intoxicating, but I'm always wary of letting it go to my head. That wonderful freedom, after all, comes at a cost. The buck stops with me. There’s no one else to blame. If my book is bad, or not as good as it could be, that’s my responsibility, and mine alone. One of the merits of the traditional publishing model, perhaps, is that a book has to be vetted by objective, if not infallible, judges before it sees the light of day. In self-publishing, that’s just another task that is devolved to the individual author-publisher, and it can be the hardest task of all. Seeing your book in an objective light is hard, and perhaps impossible - but we have to try, don't we?

Sunday, 1 March 2015


Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits - oops no, hares hares hares as it's 1st March.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been driven as mad as two March hares, beginning the process of putting my Kindle ebooks on all the non-Amazon platforms I can find. Encouraged by other AE luminaries, I’ve gone with Draft 2 Digital for most of this, and I can announce that my Kindle comedy novel LYDIA BENNET'S BLOG is now on Nook, Kobo, PageFoundry's Inktera, Scribd and Tolino (links below). However the process hasn’t been totally straightforward even with D2D who have a simple to follow method, and Apple/iTunes is a whole other vale of tears not yet put behind me. My AE colleagues have had to put up with my howls of anguish on Facebook and I don’t see why any of you should be spared so here is the tale of occasional woe.

Lydia Bennet, shameless as ever, now more widely available.
So I scrubbed and polished a nice clean version of LLB in Word. D2D supply front and back matter, but I added an updated ‘also by’ page at the end. They also supply the hyperlinked Table of Contents but actually, removing these from a ts already formatted for Kindle can be a lot harder than adding them. They are the digital equivalent of ghosts, haunting a document after their corporeal letters and word forms have been deleted, even after you've chased ‘hidden bookmarks’ and right-clicked to ‘edit/remove hyperlinks’. You can’t see them but they make strange things happen…
Sheet of paper haunted by hyperlinks! Ooooohhhh...
Uploading the resulting Word doc and cover image to D2D, I then filled in all the usual metadata, the ‘product description’ ie blurb, including a few glowing editorial reviews, and D2D showed me the TOC their algorithms had picked up. Sadly, LLB being in diary form, it picked up every single date heading and the TOC ended up being a novella in itself, so back to the formatting board to change it all. D2D (whose Style Guide online is very simple and clear) then send you three file versions of your ebook to cover all eventualities, (including Createspace which is currently in Beta), before you have to choose which ones you will do through D2D (who take a cut) and which you’ll do alone. They give you a pdf, for possible paperback conversion: a Mobi, and an Epub. You then check these over and if they pass muster, D2D then put them up on all the above platforms. I left ‘Apple’ unchecked, intending doing it myself. Possibly a huge mistake…
D2D, a way to get ebooks on non-Kindle ereaders
I was able to read the pdf and the Epub file on my iMac, the Epub file via Apple iBooks which is connected to iTunes. The Mobi file I sent to my Kindle to check using Amazon’s brilliant personal documents service. So far Lydia B looks delightful on all her dedicated pages on all these other selling platforms, despite a small hitch when the blurb on the Nook (Barnes & Noble) site appeared sans editorial reviews and in an altered form. My emails to long-suffering Tara at D2D eventually identified the problem which introduces another consideration. Had Lydia Bennet, she asked, been on Nook before?

I racked what was left of my brains. Smashwords! When I first put the book on Kindle, I also put it, and myself, through the notorious ‘Meatgrinder’ for Smashwords. I must be fair here and say many people are happy selling books through them, but I was not, O reader. My book, after much formatting and nit-pickery, ended up in the Smashwords ‘Premium Catalogue’ but in fact it was only featured on the Smashwords site. When I went to Nook, Kobo and the like and searched for it, it was not to be found. If I, wot wrote it, couldn’t find it, the chance of any reader finding it was slim to none, which might explain the sales figures, I mean figure, of ONE via Smashwords.

However, for some odd reason, Nook now recognised my book and used the old Smashwords blurb for it automatically, despite having never shown any signs of noticing it before. Anyway that righted itself. So a nice collection of pages for Lydia B to find some new readers. At least I feel I’ve put her out there, somewhere she’d be quite comfortable to be. But you know how people tend to be Morrisons or Sainsbury’s people (I’m a Sainsbury’s girl myself), well I’m now a D2D person rather than a Smashwords person, though credit where due, the Smashwords downloadable pdf ‘Style Guide’ makes a very handy free formatting guide for any ebooks, with a bit of tweaking.
An Amazon in her Prime, a Select soldier, off to Sainsbury's.

But one thing I’m sure of, I’m very much an Amazonian! I’ve a new appreciation of their relatively clear, simple, well thought out Kindle site and process now. My attempts to navigate the Apple iBook maze have given me the pip – shaken me to the core. I’m off Apples, though I still like a nice big hard Cox. In fact I’ve just had one, and who can blame me? It’s taken over a week to find out how to fill in the personal information, bank, tax, contact details, before getting near the actual book formatting bits. What a badly designed, needlessly complicated, unclear and horrible set of forms to fill in. They refused to recognize my bank branch, despite my bank being one of the most well known in the UK, and didn’t allow me to put the info in. Several polite but almost tetchy emails were exchanged, until eventually they told me that as they only recognized my bank’s branches in Manchester and Birmingham, I had to pretend to bank in one of those despite them being hundreds of miles away. I can only be grateful I have the US tax number business down, or I’d be gibbering by now.
Getting through the Apple iBook process... we're going to need a bigger worm. And a machete.
So next week I’ll be attempting to actually upload an Epub file of LLB to Apple iBooks. Because Apple iAuthor, which I downloaded, produces iBooks you can only read on an iPad, apparently. Yes they have two versions of iBooks, confusingly. Googling and searching for how to upload an Epub file, I found a page where Apple provide four or more downloadable pdf guidebooks on how to do it! Maybe I should have let D2D do the Apple for me too. Time will tell, though I’m not sure how much longer I can cope with it. News on Apple will be forthcoming if I get through it, like a Very Hungry Caterpillar with a machete.
My first crime novel, about to be Kobo'd, Nook'd, Scribd'd, and Appled.
In the meantime, my first crime novel THE ROTTING SPOT is going through my own meatgrinding and teethgrinding process to upload to D2D. And I’ve been reminded by this, how my existing Kindle books are in some ways out of date. I’ve no teaser page at the end of TRS to tempt readers to buy the sequel, THE OPERATOR. My ‘also by’ is out of date, my website address has changed a bit, my About the Author is also in need of fluffing. I’ve put TRS through the ‘nuclear option’ to strip out any formatting I don’t need, and it’s now being painstakingly edited for D2D and an update of my Kindle file. But at least we can now update our books, change them or their front and back matter (that sounds a bit Carry On Nurse, come to think of it), so bring on the Ebooks, iBooks, Nooks, Kobos, Scribds, Kindles, Mobis, Epubs, or just perhaps pubs.

Links to LYDIA BENNET'S BLOG, now on non-Kindle e-readers, HERE 
and also on Kindle US and UK
My Amazon author page is HERE for other books on Kindle, soon to be on other ereaders.
Visit my website
Follow me on Twitter @ValerieLaws

Saturday, 28 February 2015


 Going round the local charity shops with my daughter recently, I picked up a copy of Donna Tartt's "THE GOLDFINCH". I'd read the reviews when it first came out, but never got round to buying it. My daughter, grand-daughter, and their close friend Jon Welch, the playwright, all loved it, so I bought it (couldn't get a higher recommendation that). It is dauntingly long, and physically cumbersome, so I'll probably replace it with the ebook version. I'm also finding it, initially slow, which is my fault as a reader - certainly not hers as a writer.

'Slow' has been the main criticism of the BBC's production of "WOLF HALL", too. I think we're all being conditioned to respond to fast action, and the first episode of "WOLF HALL" was complex, especially for viewers not familiar with the book, and yes, slow. Since then, I've become more and more impressed by it, and will be sad when it reaches its final episode (only temporarily, I hope - there are two more books, one of which we are still waiting for). Slowness is a quality the media actively dislikes - it would prefer us to spend little or no time in the contemplation of what we have seen or read, so that, even if we've just finished watching an amazing and thought-provoking programme, it has to butt in to tell us what's coming next. Sometime I wonder if fast/junk food and fast reading/viewing aren't directly related.

    Recently I've been going through old work, some of it dating back to the time when there were no computers. Reading one's own work again feels odd - like coming across it for the first time, as a critical reader. Much of what I discarded were, inevitably, multiple hard copies - I find that, however much I write online, it still has to run through that final (and often not so final) print to paper test. Among the very old and irreplaceable stuff, I found a short story I'd had published in a magazine, with a photocopy of the accompanying, and quite stunning, line illustration by Barbara Anne Taylor. It was quite hard to photograph, as the paper had browned and was curled, but here it is.

The actual story grew out of my experience of working in a Rudolf Steiner school, and involves a very odd, intense friendship between two adolescents with learning difficulties - a boy and a girl. I'm now playing with the idea of re-writing it as a one-off drama. It's a Romeo and Juliet story, so not a happy ending, and set in a rather grim 50s mental hospital.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Agents Becoming Publishers and Keeping Books Alive - Andrew Crofts

Fifteen years ago I was ghostwriting books for the most disenfranchised members of the global community; victims of enforced marriages, sex workers, orphans, victims of crimes, bonded labourers and abused children. Out of those experiences I wrote a novel, initially entitled “Maisie’s Amazing Maids”. 

The book did okay but then slipped onto the back shelves and from there into the obscurity that envelops all but the lucky few in the book world. In the past that would have been the end of the story, but now, of course, there are a number of options for breathing life back into books that are no longer in the first flush of publication.

The book has now been re-launched by Thistle Publishing as a sumptuous paperback and e-book entitled “Pretty Little Packages”.

Thistle is an enormously successful imprint set up by London agents Andrew Lownie and David Haviland to keep books alive and available when the more traditional publishing organisations are no longer willing or able to do so. While there have been some grumblings in the industry about the possible ethical problems of agents acting as publishers, and the Society of Authors recommends careful scrutiny of the contracts, Thistle has shown exactly how an agent/publisher can fill this gaping hole in the market, providing another potential stream of revenue for authors.

Electronic developments mean that publishers like Thistle, like self-publishing authors, can operate with minimal capital outlay, able to be nimble and responsive to the demands of both authors and readers in ways that are impossible for organisations that have invested in vast, glass, riverside tower blocks and mighty wage bills.

Until a book or author becomes a phenomenon, (step forward J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, Patterson, Donaldson, Walliams, Paddington et al), we authors are really more suited to the cottage industry style of production and marketing than the corporate. A book that can provide a good living to an individual author and an individual agent/publisher is often hard pushed to make any significant contribution to the bottom line of one of the mighty glass tower corporations - which is why books are so often cast aside if they do not achieve instant success.

Joe Tye, the ghostwriter protagonist at the heart of Pretty Little Packages, is definitely working at the “cottage industry” end of the business when he is approached by a girl called Doris, who informs him that someone has “stolen her beautiful new breasts” and asks for his help. Responding to her plea plunges him into the dark and dangerous worlds of people trafficking and modern slavery – his discoveries making the glass tower publishers suddenly eager to open their cheque books to him.

At the same time as dealing with the amorous advances of the sixteen year-old daughter of a gangster, who also happens to be his client, and navigating his way through drug dens and backstreet clinics from Brighton to Manila, Joe is trying to be a responsible, newly divorced father to a young son who constantly does the unexpected – and then things turn really ugly.

At the heart of everything sits Maisie, and her network of “Amazing Maids” – all called Doris and all having their breasts stolen. But behind Maisie lie much more powerful and sinister forces. People for whom other people’s lives are entirely expendable. People who do not want Joe telling stories.

Back in the real world; the more publishing companies there are like Thistle the more chance that stories will be told which the denizens of the glass tower blocks would otherwise allow to disappear – stories like Pretty Little Packages.   

One more reason to feel optimistic about the future of book publishing.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Wait a Minute, Mr Postman by Ruby Barnes

Letters coming through my letterbox here in Kilkenny are a rare thing. Bank statements - electronic these days. Payslips - electronic. I did recently have a cheque for €53.70 arrive from my previous broadband supplier, which was quite exciting.

Unfortunately Alfie the Dog has become unused to snail mail and thrusts his fangs through everything that postie shoves in the door, including hands. So the cheque had two teeth marks in it, and my bank wasn't happy with me. Their processing machines don't appreciate bent, spindled, twisted or chewed financial documents. I ordered a paperback book (remember those things?) for Mrs R recently, after her traumatic run-in with a herd of cows and a bull while collecting river water samples for analysis; Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan, naturally. Zombie cows, a very good read. Alfie the Dog appreciated the beefy taste, biting right through the packaging. Two tooth dents in back and front covers.

Well, one set of mail that my hound can't chew beyond recognition is my email inbox. These days it's mostly full of twitter and facebook notifications, with the odd review request and a whole pile of subscriber updates from mail lists for free, bargain and new release e-books. Here's a picture of a typical day at the receiving end of e-book recommendations:

advertising for free and special offer e-books
My daily selection of e-book offer subscriptions

I've subscribed to all these outfits and they fill my mail account every day. According to my proclaimed marketing strategy I'm supposed to be advertising my books on these websites, in these mailouts, but it's a bit bewildering to be honest. And if I'm getting fatigued by it all then I suspect readers are too. There are also many others that aren't listed but I do interact with them on and suchlike hangouts. The results from advertising? A bit hit and miss, to be honest. Unless your book fits smack bang in the middle of a popular genre, and you've selected a mailer who has a sizable and good quality list segment for that genre (e.g. BookBub thriller freebie yielding 30k+ downloads and follow-on full-priced sales of same book plus sequel), then it can be tricky to break even. The temptation is to go for a scatter-gun approach of every advertiser that will accept your book, but then the efficacy of each advertiser is difficult to judge (unless they provide some kind of tracking link that counts each time a recipient clicks). I'm not going to go into a detailed study of all the advertising possibilities because I'm far too lazy. But here's a chap who has done all the hard work for us -

Add on top of this promotional complexity the new Amazon author ad campaigns that have an entry-level budget of $100 but don't seem to be able to use up any money because almost no one is clicking the ads. I am well and truly Confused of Kilkenny. There are more questions than answers, and the more I find out ... all together now.