Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Family Book Goes Online by Eleanor Updale

One of the great things about stumbling into the world of electronic books is to be freed from the lazy categorisation imposed by publishers.  I know it's not entirely their fault - the chain bookshops and supermarkets started it with their need for products that could be heaved onto the 'appropriate' shelves by staff devoid of knowledge or interest - but (as with discounting) late 20th century publishing houses yielded without a fight, and it is now so normal for a book to be a narrowly 'targeted' commodity that writing for a diverse readership seems downright perverse.

For years I have been running a spectacularly unsuccessful one-woman campaign for 'The Family Book'.  I truly believe that there is a place for writing that can be enjoyed by anyone, of any age, at their own level.  It's not really such a mad idea, surely?  We all know what a 'Family Film' is, and the best of them are among the greatest movies ever made.  But books?  Since the end of the last century they have been divided up into Children's/Young Adult/ Chick Lit/ Women's Fiction/ Literary Fiction/ Romance/Sci Fi/ Fantasy/ Magic Realism etc, etc, etc...

There's no doubt who is at the top of the heap.  It's the 'Literary' authors, who have, as a group, pulled off the spectacular feat of making us all think that if we don't like their books it's our own fault.

Then there's a steady descent through Crime, Sci-Fi, etc, till,at the bottom of the heap, you hit 'Children's', which despite being a real money-spinner is, in most publishing houses, the area with the least flashy offices, the most exhausted PR staff, and the most underpaid editors.

In bookshops, it's the unstaffed area at the back, with some fading mobiles of fluffy ducks dangling over many of the best written and substantial novels of our day.  At literary festivals, 'Children's' authors - even the most elderly and successful - are often treated like children.  They are the ones paid the least (if anything) for their appearances, regarded as useful for bringing in Council subsides under the 'educational' or 'outreach' banners, but often seen as a variation on party entertainers,childminding for an hour while their parents go to the 'real' events.

I'm exaggerating, of course.  [I don't think so: Sue Price.]

But now we have the web, and our books can go straight up there, for anyone to find.  And it turns out to be a great way to expand your readership.  I have been lucky.  So-called 'grown ups' have always been enthusiastic about my books (having been introduced to them by their children) but now, more than ever, they are buying them in their own right, and without the embarrassment of having to to slither into the pink and fluffy section of a shop, pretending to be after a present.

I recently took back control of my Montmorency series of historical novels, added a new one, and put the whole lot back on sale directly on the net. 

It's such a joy to feel closer to the books, which have better covers, paper and print than their UK publisher ever gave them.  And it's lovely that they repay me with money on a regular basis, and bring me new enthusiastic emails from people of all ages.  It helps that this has coincided with the release of all five books in audio editions, read by Stephen Fry and John Sessions.  Do look them up and download them!

There are some things I miss.  In the conventional publishing world I have been blessed with gifted and friendly editors over the years, and I still enjoy the collaborative side of working with 'normal' publishers.  But I don't miss that time after the final proof-read when a book goes on its 'gap year' at the publishers, only to return wearing unsuitable clothes, with few of the old mistakes corrected, and new ones inexplicably inserted and set in stone.  I don't miss the way that, by the time a book comes out from a conventional publishing house, most of the people who worked on it have either left, are on maternity leave, or are up to their eyes in next year's big thing (which may even be your own).  Writing a book is a bit like having a baby.  You need a midwife (the editor), but you also need a Health Visitor after the birth.  Publishers don't seem to have developed anyone to fill that role.

Obviously, going it alone has its downsides.  To be honest, I just can't be bothered to tend to my babies as devotedly as I should - (perhaps there should be a social worker too - poised to take the books into Care).

But at least I only have myself to blame about that.  I'm not wasting emotional energy getting all bitter and twisted about the shortcomings of a corporate marketing department machine.  Everything is my own fault.

What a liberation!




3 comments:

madwippitt said...

Gap year! Yes, that is about the measure of it ... :-)
Like the idea of the Family Book too. We had some of those when I was growing up - To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit, Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion, Don Camillo, TH White ... although never labelled as such, they had a reading age from me at 8/9 years old up through my sisters to my parents. When I was a kid the librarian scowled at me for daring to raid the adult section (I'd read my way through everything in the junior section) and tried to herd me back to the 'more appropriate' books ... and now I'm an adult I get stared at when I dare to look round the children's section for the new titles ... S'not fair. Why shouldn't I enjoy kid's books without being censured for it? There are a lot of very fine ones out there!

julia jones said...

Hi Ellie! Lovely to see you here and YES I couldn't agree more. So there's another recruit for your campaign. And three cheers for Montmorency who we enjoyed, all those years ago - as a family.

Dennis Hamley said...

Ellie, a week late - computer problems in NZ mean I've only just read it. Wonderful that Montmorency is now free to go wherever he pleases. As you know, I think they're wonderful books. And I know exactly what you mean about 'family books' and I enthusiastically champion your cause.