Saturday, 23 March 2019

Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self-Publishing VIII

Since last month's post started out as an intro to this one that grew in the telling, let's just jump right in to my selection for this month's great self-published book.

Jump in like Holmes and Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls

The Swithen by Scott Telek

I have been a fan of the King Arthur legends since I was old enough to read, so much so that I am writing my own version of them.  This series, then, is of particular interest to me. It is certainly the most ambitious.

As anyone who has studied Arthurian myth knows, what we tend to think of as "Arthurian" legend really comes from one book: Thomas Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur and one or two other related texts, usually Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and sometimes Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the King's of Britain or Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian poems.

However, Arthurian legends are much more than three or four texts. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of Arthurian legends that never made it into Malory. Not to mention these guys:

You didn't really think I'd let an Arthurian article go without mentioning them, did you?
Most authors generally pick one or two main texts and create their own riffs on them. And there's really nothing wrong with that. These books are often fantastic pieces of fiction. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon remains one of the premiere modern Arthurian novels due to Bradley's decision to tell the Arthurian stories only through the eyes of the women, voices that are generally silent in the original texts. Richard Monaco's Parsival series takes a decidedly postmodern look at Wolfram von Eschenbach's thirteenth century epic poem. Other modern retellings, such as Tennyson's Idylls of the King or T. H. White's The Once and Future King have themselves become canonized entries into English literature. But each of these writers have had to alter the original texts or stray far from the original legends in order to create their own unique visions of the Arthurian world.

Not so with Scott Telek.

Telek has taken as his objective to write a series of Arthurian novels that sticks only to events that happen in the original texts of the extant myths. While, like others, he does have to figure out a way to explain inconsistencies between different texts, Telek refuses to add any scene that is not at least implied by the original legend, though he will add characters and scenes rather liberally depending on the needs of the narrative. For example, the story of Merlin’s birth takes only a few lines in the original text, and his mother is never even given a name, so Telek must naturally elaborate on this. Additionally, he makes an effort to introduce gender equality into his retelling, but not at the expense of contradicting previously written legends. His method is to invent a psychology and background or connecting events that slot seamlessly into the existing legend without changing it. As he explains on his webpage:
The Swithen is a series of epic fantasy novels that honor the actual historic legends of King Arthur while re-examining the old, musty gender roles inherent to the tale, and giving women their rightful place as equal and important drivers of the story. Most Arthurian stories don’t tell the real ancient legends because they are too weird and the morality too outdated. This series is committed to keeping the stories intact, but filling in the psychology and re-examining the roles of men and women in way that brings the emotions and characters to life for modern readers.
And this is a herculean task. He has twenty five books planned that span from Merlin's birth two generations before Arthur's through Arthur's death. His primary source material ranges from such well-known texts as Le Mort D'Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to more obscure texts like The Prose Merlin and the Vulgate Cycle.

According to Telek, the title of the series comes from Middle English: “‘Swithen’ is a Middle English term from slash and burn agriculture that means the burning of a field to make it fertile for the next generation.... It refers to the grail quest, in which Arthur and his men are told that their way of life is ending and to make way for the new.”  He has completed the first three volumes of this epic undertaking, and I have to admit, it has the hall-marks of becoming one of my favorite Arthurian series. 

The first volume, Our Man on Earth, tells the story of Meylinde, a young woman in ancient Britain who finds herself at the center of the devil's plan to create an antichrist, a combination of demonic and human nature, to counteract Christ's blend of divinity and humanity. The result of this experiment will be Merlin.

Meylinde must find a way to protect both her own soul and that of her unborn child as she fights for her life against a legal system that requires death for fornication.

I didn't expect to enjoy the book as much as I did, but Telek manages to make the story intriguing, however, through his use of characterization, psychological realism, and a keen eye for how an ordinary person would react to such extraordinary circumstances. “These are ordinary people facing these overwhelmingly strange circumstances,” he explains, “and a lot of it so far has been dealing with Merlin, who is like nothing they’ve ever encountered before.

While there are some possible anachronisms within the pages, they do not detract from the story. In fact, one might read them as nods to the original texts in which anachronisms such as full sets of medieval armor in the Roman era are rampant.

The second novel, The Sons of Constance, is even better than the first as it is here where Telek begins to play in more familiar ground. It tells the story of Vortigern's rise and fall as king of Britain, and skillfully combines historical fact with legends and myths so that Vortigern's witnessing the fight between two literal dragons seems just as realistic and believable as his treaty with the Saxons to provide muscle for his subjugating the land. Again his use of psychological realism in this book is exquisite. Through our knowledge of Vortigern's thoughts, the audience is able to see him less as the traditional villain of pre-Arthurian times, and more as the victim of his own moral failings. He becomes a sympathetic character by the end of his life, so much so, that I almost felt sorry for him as he watches the army of Uther and his brother surround his tower.

While I have not yet read the third volume, The Void Place, I am anxious to get started on it. It tells the story, apparently of Uther's affair with Igraine, and will end with Arthur's birth.

In short, Telek's The Swithen series is well worth your reading time, and each novel is fairly short, not enough to feel rushed, just enough to feel satisfied when you end it. The first three books of the series are available separately or as a bundled trilogy.

We'll see you in Camelot, though it is a silly place.

Friday, 22 March 2019

In praise of social media for writers. Ali Bacon tells us what Facebook has done for her

Social media in general is getting a bad press these days and for very good reasons. But writers would be unwise to distance themselves entirely, as this post (adapted from shows.

Over two years ago, while despairing of my then work in progress (now fully fledged as In the Blink of an Eye) I stumbled on a newspaper article describing the St Andrews Photography Festival.
St Andrews, what's not to like?
This was so germane to my languishing WIP I was immediately intrigued and also a bit cross there was no official website to tell me more. However there was a Facebook page - a poor relation to a website perhaps but as I ran my eye over it, I mused how wonderful it would be to be involved and I found my fingers adding a post about my photography interests and my writing and inviting the still rather mysterious festival to contact me.  Afterwards this struck me as ridiculously brazen. I was an 'unknown' writer with a novel lying around in fragments - what exactly could I offer? I comforted myself with the knowledge I was unlikely to hear back!

I didn't hear back for quite some time and had almost forgotten about it when a message popped up from Alan Morrison who I don't think will mind my dragging it out from the archives:
Hi Ali. Thanks so much again for sharing the news and your links. Will you be able to come to this at some point? It's on Aug 1- Sep 11. We'd love to have you be part of it and have a cunning plan for an awesome event featuring you and your stories.

At the St Andrews Photography Festival 2016*
I got this late one night and had to pick myself up from the floor. Alan was the festival PR guy and he  directed me straight to the festival organiser. I asked her who else would be involved in this event. As it turned out, no one. In a matter of hours I had gone from a writer with a moribund  project to  planning a 'one woman show.' I've described that trip elsewhere but let's just say it in terms of my work and the book that ensued, it was a game-changer.  And all it needed was a two-line message on Facebook.

You see, where a website contact form will often disappear without trace and even an email contact can be out of date, a social media message is highly likely to get a response and a quick one. (Look out for that Messenger indication of 'usually responds within ...' although I have also had responses on Twitter after quite a time-lag).

I had a similar - if less cataclysmic - experience last year when a friend alerted me to a local literature festival.  All I had to go on  - again - was a press article. But I also found a Facebook page which I messaged, still with low expectations but a bit more optimism than previously. And this time I was a bit better prepared for a positive response. Again, it worked!  A few days later I met Mark Lloyd, of Cotswold Edge Events and we went on to organise a showcase event for a group of local published writers.

There's always a degree of luck in these things. I happened to catch both these organisers  just as their programme was taking shape. And yes, a degree of self-confidence or even effrontery is necessary. But leaving a note on a Facebook page takes less courage than a phone call and can have just as exciting and immediate a result. And really, what do you have to lose?

So this is not just about the speed of social media but how it is developing as a business tool. I know there are a lot of Facebook refuseniks out there who worry about privacy and/or the sheer waste of time it can be. These are legitimate concerns, but I suggest that writers who want to engage with communities, events and ultimately readers, ignore this  platform at their peril.

Ali's book In the Blink of an Eye is out in paperback and e-book from Linen Press
Reviews on Amazon UK 

*Photo courtesy ASM Media and PR

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Why I still want to be a paperback writer... Katherine Roberts

In 1966, the Beatles famously sang about wanting to be a paperback writer. I was only four at the time so just starting to read and write, but I must have thought it sounded like a good idea because a few years later I started typing out my first science fiction 'novel' on blue and yellow paper. It was just about long enough to count as a novella, but I never sent it anywhere because the year I finished it I got a place at university to study mathematics. Probably just as well.

By 1987, I was programming computers (think huge mainframes filling whole rooms with massive tape reels you had to change halfway through running a program) and writing fiction secretly in my spare time. I completed another novel - a much longer one that became a fantasy trilogy. I sent it off to a publisher, and the now legendary editor John Jarrold wrote back with a personal note explaining why it was not quite right for them. I forgot about writing for a while, escaped computers at the end of the 80s (when half the department was made redundant), got married and ended up working with racehorses.

Song Quest
(Element Books)
Around 1992, I fell off a young horse into a hedge, had two weeks off work with an injury to my back, and decided I couldn't work with racehorses forever. I started writing again in my spare time, only this time not so secretly. I joined a local writers' group, and with their encouragement published several short stories in magazines. In 1999, after seven years of submitting manuscripts to publishers, I finally became a paperback writer with my debut novel Song Quest, which was released in paperback in 2000, when it won the inaugural Branford Boase Award for an outstanding debut book for young readers.

(Chicken House 2000)
More paperbacks followed, but eventually sales fell off as publishers started letting them go out of print. In 2010, amazon opened their KDP (then called the 'Digital Text Platform') to UK authors, and in 2011 I became an ebook writer with my second novel Spellfall, which had been my bestseller in paperback. More out-of-print books followed, until I had my whole backlist available in ebook format.

For a couple of years, ebooks were hot - or cool, depending on your point of view. People read Kindles instead of paperbacks on the train but the mainstream publishers were over-pricing their digital editions (apparently afraid of losing paperback sales), and as a result reasonably-priced indie ebooks pretty much sold themselves. I'm not a big name by any means, but in 2014 my earnings were almost $1,000 from US ebook sales alone, and the UK and European digital markets were catching up fast.

It couldn't last. My share of the ebook market shrank over the years to around half of this, despite working on better covers and pushing the books out more widely across the other digital platforms... it seems people still want to be paperback readers! Finally, in 2016, I got around to tackling print-on-demand editions for my backlist titles, which I uploaded at Createspace (now part of amazon) and put into extended distribution. This means you should be able to order a copy from wherever you want, just like any other paperback that isn't on the shelf of your local bookstore, and the book will be printed and posted to you, literally hot off the press. Although my ebook sales have dropped off, paperbacks happily seem to have picked up the slack. In 2018, for the first time, my indie paperback income in the US exceeded my ebook income by a fair margin, and the total comes to more than the original $1,000 I earned from my indie ebooks in the early days.

Which brings us full circle. It's now 2019, and I'm a paperback writer again! Here is the current (print on demand) edition of my debut novel Song Quest.

SONG QUEST (paperback)

So if, like me, you write for younger readers and some of your books have gone out of print at their publishers, then I hope this will encourage you to get them back out there as print on demand. Paperbacks are easier than before via amazon's KDP, and one day you might just find they start selling themselves... and then you'll be a proper Beatles-style paperback writer!


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers. Find out more at her website

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Joys of Football and Shipping by Sandra Horn

Before my next brother was born and we were allotted a prefab, we lived with my mother’s family in an old stone-built house with three stories and a basement. It’s still there, now called Wealden College, a centre for psychotherapies. At the time we lived there, the family comprised my Great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and my mother’s siblings; three aunties and four uncles.  After the birth of my brother we still went to the old house every day. It was a magnet for all its nestlings, long after they’d flown to places of their own and it was near the local primary school so all the children had their mid-day meals at Nan’s and were collected from there after school. There were too many of us to eat at the table at weekends, so the children sat along the big old sofa in the window bay to have their fish and chips (from the shop across the road). Toast was made over the open fire, with long brass forks. White bread from the local baker – we were lucky if we managed to brown most of it, in between the burnt and raw bits. Delicious, and dripping with butter! 

It was a pretty free-and-easy household and children were indulged up to a point, but there was one solemn ritual we were not allowed to interrupt. It was sit still and be quiet, or go outside when the football results were being read on the wireless. Coupons were spread out on the table to be filled in, pens fished out from the dresser drawer, and we did not dare make a sound until it was over and the pens were thrown down, usually in disgust, and loud comments from the menfolk battered our ears. For years I had not the remotest idea what was going on, except that it was something very important, and also very delightful to listen to. I could sit through it happily, listening to the exotic words: Accrington Stanley, Heart of Midlothian, Tottenham Hotspur, Preston North End, Aston Villa... all very mysterious and poetic. 

The other thing we listened to religiously was the shipping forecast. We were 25 miles from the sea and had no connection to ships of any kind, yet could not turn the wireless off until it was finished. As with the football teams’ names, it was meaningless to me, yet hypnotic. The strange exciting words followed by, as I later learned, the wind speed, visibility and prevailing conditions.  

I now know that there are thousands of other landlocked people who listen in too, for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s like a litany in an exotic language, the words not understood but comfort drawn from the sound and rhythm of it, and its regular occurrence four times every day at the same time. Apparently, according to the delightful book by Charlie Connelly, it has even been requested as a Desert Island Disc and worked into a poem by Seamus Heaney. I’m not at all surprised. 

It has also inspired artist Peter Collyer to produce a stunning book of paintings of the sea areas from the forecast:

After those early years, I didn’t listen again for decades, except by chance, so I didn’t know that Heligoland had been replaced by German Bight (Bite? How could you tell, on the wireless?). What a loss to poetry! Then there was the shock of the Utsires. What? Where did they come from? How did you even spell such an outlandish word? I was enraged. ‘They’ are even mucking about with the shipping forecast now. What next? Well, what next was the replacing of Finisterre, the End of the Land, with Fitzroy. Bleugh! Of course he deserved the posthumous honour, it was his idea in the first place and over all the years he must have saved countless lives with it, but I still wish they’d just added him in rather than take away lovely musical Finisterre. Have they no souls, these people?
Here it is, just the names of locations as I remember them. Sorry, Fitzroy, North and South Utsire and German Bight; I’m on a nostalgia trip.
Viking, Forties, Cromarty, Forth
Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, Heligoland,
Humber, Thames, Dover,
Wight, Portland, Plymouth,
Biscay, Finisterre, Sole,
Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea,
Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides,
Bailey, Fair Isle, Faroes,
South-east Iceland.

Bliss. (That’s not a shipping area, it’s my prevailing condition).

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Garden Effect, by Elizabeth Kay

I love my garden, and I find gardening is a very good way of mulling over ideas whilst doing something worthwhile. There are so many parallels – weeding out irrelevant characters. Cutting plotlines. Pruning language. Planting the seed of an idea. I know my garden very well, but even so something unexpected can appear, presumably the result of a nut buried by a squirrel, or a seed stuck to the foot of a bird. But it’s when I visit other gardens that I really get the ideas. I’m lucky, in that I live close enough to the RHS gardens at Wisley to be able to visit them quite frequently. Last year they had exotic butterflies in the huge tropical glasshouse. Just before Christmas they had an event they called ‘Glow’,which consisted of enormous lighted sculptures of flowers. 

As these beautiful creations towered over you, you felt your sense of scale go haywire, and it was easy to imagine yourself as one of The Borrowers. This spring, they’ve had a Lego safari. I didn’t expect anything much, but I was pleasantly surprised, as I always seem to be at the things they choose to display. The sculptures of the different animals were really impressive, particularly set against the cacti in the hothouse. The larger the sculpture, the more effective it was. I started thinking about Lego animals coming to life once the gardens had shut for the night…

The gardens I have seen abroad have been inspirational in different ways. The orchid garden in Borneo was where I saw Nepenthes rajah, the biggest pitcher plant in the world and one capable of devouring rats. Plants that eat animals are a bit disturbing. I have a much smaller pitcher plant at home, which is currently flowering. And those flowers are extremely odd, too. This giant pitcher, which was so big it rested on the ground, was the image that gave me the idea for the malevolent jinx box, a shape-changing entity in Jinx on the Divide.

“Look at that pitcher, over there,” said Betony. “It’s absolutely enormous.”
Felix looked. It was so huge it had to rest on the ground. “What do you think it eats?” he asked.
Betony looked shocked. “Eats? What do you mean?”
“Pitcher plants are carnivorous. At least, they are in my world. Ours are much smaller than these; they catch flies, which drown and then get digested.”
Betony made a face, which quickly turned into an expression of horror as the implications hit home. “What do you think these ones eat, then?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Felix. “Some pitcher plants have been known to eat frogs. Perhaps this one’s big enough to tackle small birds?”
“And not necessarily that small,” said Betony, backing away. “I think you’re right about Rhino not being here. Let’s go.”
But Felix was overcome with curiosity. Although physics and chemistry were his favourite subjects at school, biology came a very close third. Insectivorous plants fascinated him, they were just so weird. Despite the lid of the pitcher plant being firmly shut, he couldn’t resist going over to peek inside.
“I wouldn’t,” said Betony, but it was too late.
As Felix lifted the oval green lid a voice said, “Well hello.” It was so sudden and so unexpected that he nearly jumped out of his skin.
“It’s not a pitcher plant at all,” said Betony. “Look, it’s not attached to anything. It’s the jinx box – and you’ve gone and opened it.”
Some countries have really bizarre plants, such the frailej√≥n, or Monk’s habit, which grows in the Andes in Venezuela. This could easily have been the inspiration for a triffid. Madagascar not only has a unique fauna – lemurs and chameleons predominate, but there’s also the carnivorous fossa, which, despite being the size of an ocelot, is pretty scary. Madagascar’s Spiny Forest, with its baobab trees, is also decidedly weird. 

And then there’s China.
Their gardens incorporate rocks as part of the overall design, and the whole concept is rather impressive. Their bonsai trees make you feel like a giant – scale seems to be a popular consideration in gardens abroad. And in Sri Lanka, the trees in their communal gardens can be completely covered with fruit bats...

I’ll end with The Chelsea Flower Show, which I attended in 2018. The sheer range of plants, and their perfection, is quite mind-boggling. But in the end, which gardens provide the greatest inspiration? The manicured lawns, trim shrubberies and giant oaks of stately homes, or the wilderness of the national parks like the one in Madagascar?



Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Not quite Route 66: the Great North Road - by Alex Marchant

In a few days’ time, I’ll be setting off southwards for a few days with family.
Having been born in Surrey in the south of England, but lived for more than two decades in Yorkshire in the north, this is a journey I undertake several times a year. My parents still live in the house where I grew up, and my sister and her (rapidly increasing) family live half an hour away, so it’s easy to kill lots of birds with one stone, so to speak. This time I’ll be meeting a new addition to the family so there’s plenty to look forward to.
Not an East Coast train - the Flying Scotsman visits Haworth
Just a couple of years ago there were two options for the journey – either my partner would drive us down, or I would take the train (with or without my own children in tow). With ever-rising train fares in the UK, the latter sometimes seemed an expensive luxury – until I began writing again a dozen years ago, and discovered that the two hours spent in the ‘quiet carriage’ was the perfect opportunity to concentrate on my books. I estimate that around a third of each of my books has been written on trains.
The driving I left to my partner. I was a late learner – only passing my test a couple of months before my first child was born (I got the sympathy vote from the examiner when I struggled to put my seatbelt on over the enormous bump) – and then I did what I vowed I wouldn’t: avoided driving long distances and on motorways. My partner liked that sort of driving, so why did I need to do it? And there was always the train...
Gateway to Middleham Castle
Fast forward to 2013 and the start of research for my books about Richard III. The first is set largely in Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales – a relatively short, straightforward journey. The second moves south, to Northamptonshire, London, Leicestershire, Suffolk. Location research drew on visits in previous years and on targeted family holidays. (‘Oh no, not Richard III again,’ came the chorus from younger family members.)
The real turning point came when The Order of theWhite Boar was published, in 2017 – a year when, not only did I start travelling to book events, but both my parents suffered major illnesses. And I realized that, to be of any help to them, I had to have a car when staying.
So I set off on my first long-distance solo drive. All of five hours in total – not much to anyone used to distances in the USA or Australia, perhaps, but a virtual marathon for me.
A choice of two routes presented itself. Both led ultimately to the M25 orbital motorway around London, which I dreaded, but I don’t think my selection was ever in doubt. Why would I even consider taking the soulless M1 motorway when the alternative A1 was available?
The A1 – also known as the Great North Road. A name that has an undeniable, historical ring to it. A road I had heard of in my extreme youth, before anyone in my family even had a car (my dad was also a late-starting driver), the Great North Road’s place in our national history is iconic. As former Northern Echo journalist Alen McFadzean says in his ‘Because They’re There’ blog, ‘For many hundreds of years it’s been the main arterial link between the capital cities of two countries – England and Scotland. It is woven into history, folklore and legend. Dick Turpin galloped up it to his death. The Gododdin rode down it to theirs. Bonnie Prince Charlie got part way down, bottled out and turned back. The Leather Boys drove all the way up and all the way down in one day from the Ace Cafe on the North Circular.’ (
'Withnail & I'
The only similar event I can conjure for the M1 is the scene in Withnail & I where the main characters, desperate to leave London, go on holiday in the north ‘by accident’ – and get there by hammering up the newly built M1 to the strains of ‘All Along the Watchtower’.
Nowadays the A1/GNR is a mixture of two-lane dual carriageway and occasional stretches of four-lane motorway (A1(M)) and can be a frustrating experience when large lorries clog up both lanes of the former. But I’ve discovered I enjoy the variety of the drive and of switching from one type of driving to the other, rather than the monotony of three/four-lane motorways, slicing monstrously through often sterile-seeming landscapes.
One thing the A1 isn’t is sterile. It must be horrific for those whose homes front on to its thundering torrent of traffic, but as a driver on a long journey, I would far rather mark my progress by way of the towns and villages and buildings passed (and sometime by-passed). For many of those places have their own importance in history – and driving through or very near them, that history is often recalled to mind. As Alen McFadzean goes on to say, the road ‘was imprinted on the landscape by people like us... Pilgrims, soldiers, peasants, vagabonds, rebellious armies, drovers, geese, cattle, coaches, kings and clerics – in a nutshell, humanity and its larder – passed along its length.’  
Kings certainly did. And one in particular with whom I’ve been much concerned of late. (‘Oh no, not Richard III again.’) Richard will have travelled the Great North Road many a time between court and Parliament at Westminster and his homes in Yorkshire and other parts of the north. He will have journeyed along it on his way to war with the Scots in 1482 – when he oversaw the surrender of Edinburgh (at its northern end) and the border town of Berwick (which has remained English to this day).
Now the Angel & Royal Inn, Grantham
And he hurried south along its length from York in the autumn of 1483, when his post-coronation royal progress was rudely interrupted by the stirrings of rebellion further south. After a brief stay in Lincoln, on 19 October he received the royal seal while staying at the Angel Inn at Grantham – now bypassed by the A1 – and there signed the death warrant of the Duke of Buckingham, figurehead of that failed revolt.

Name after name recall events to my mind as I drive down that long road, and as I watch the changing styles of buildings that I pass, and the changing colours of stone and brick. But there’s always one that I look out for. Its coming is foreshadowed by the first houses and inns in the local honey-coloured stone. Past Stamford, past the RAF base at Wittering with its lurking Harrier jet, and past the signs for Peterborough and Leicester (‘avoiding low bridges’). It’s the turn-off for Fotheringhay, and all that remains of the castle where King Richard was born in 1452. His parents lie in tombs in the beautiful church there – reburied by their great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth I after their original tombs were destroyed by her father during the Dissolution of the monasteries – and a colourful stained-glass window commemorates Richard himself.
Fotheringhay Church
One further commemoration – of a sort – exists there. Totally unplanned. I discovered it on my first visit to Fotheringhay on my way down from the north. The turn-off from the A1 is at a tiny place called Wansford. Is it just a coincidence that, months before – before I even knew that place existed – I had given my main protagonist the name Matthew Wansford? He was named after the first recorded printer in the city of York – Frederick Wansford in the early 1500s, who makes an appearance in my books as Matthew’s elder brother. Given the millions of feet that must have tramped north and south on that Great Road, I guess it’s entirely possible that the original Master Wansford – or his forebears – lived in this small Northamptonshire village before making his way north to the country’s second city to make his fortune in the exciting new book industry.

Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year and submissions are welcomed from published and unpublished authors. Details can be found at Deadline 19 May 2019.

Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Gender Imbalance in the Publishing World - Bronwen Griffiths

International Women’s Day has just passed and I want to explore how books by women authors are perceived. Is there a bias in reviews towards men and against women? How do women fare in mainstream literary awards? Are women fairly represented?

The feminist arts organisation, Vida (based in the USA) has been examining the gender imbalance of both critics and authors whose books are reviewed, since 2010. They surveyed fifteen major literary publications and found that eight failed to reach gender parity in 2017. These publications included the London Review of Books at 26.9%, the New Yorker at 39.7%, the Times Literary Supplement at 35.9% and the New York Review of Books at only 23.3% - down from 46.9% the previous year.

Just two of the major publications surveyed published 50% or more female writers – Granta and Poetry – while five published between 40% and 49.9% women, including Harper’s, the New York Times Book Review and the Paris Review.

The dominance of white male literary critics ‘creates a dangerous lens through which the world is viewed’, VIDA states. The situation of gender imbalance in reviews and publications is even worse for Black and Ethnic Minority women, and for women published in translation.

Vida did, however, find that smaller literary magazines such as the New England Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review were ‘far more equitable’ than larger publications, with fifteen out of twenty-four publishing as many or more female writers as men.

The major literature awards also show a disparity – with the exception of the Costa Book of the Year.

Major award winners in the last 10 years
Male winners
Female winners
Booker Prize
Costa Book of the Year
Nobel Prize For Literature
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (NB no prize given in 2009)

In 2015, Almost 20 years after Francine Prose investigated whether ‘women writers are really inferior’ in her explosive essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink, the author Catherine Nichols found that submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym brought her more than eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name. Of course this is not a scientific survey but it would be interesting to repeat it.

Nichols reveals how after she sent out her novel to fifty agents, she received just two manuscript requests. But when she set up a new email address under a male name, and submitted the same covering letter and pages to fifty agents, it was requested seventeen times.

As for male authors recommending other authors, using The New York Times' "By the Book" column, which asks authors about the specific books on their nightstands, UC Berkeley Assistant Professor David Bamman's analysis shows that male authors recommend books by other men four times as often as they recommend books by women.

However, it's not just about the gender of the author, but also the gender of the characters - in 2015, author Nicola Griffith found twelve of the previous fifteen Booker Prize-winning novels had male protagonists.

But is the problem of published books in certain genres also partly due to women themselves? We perhaps expect our romances to be written (and read) by women. As Julie Crisp, Commissioning Editor for Tor books has written, there is a definite gender gap in science fiction and fantasy:

‘In the last few years I have seen numerous articles deploring the lack of female SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) writers, in science fiction in particular. And usually, the blame always comes back to the publisher's doorstep. Every time I've seen one of these articles I get a little hot under the collar because, guess what? I work in publishing. I work in genre. And here's the kicker - I'm a woman. Yes, a female editor commissioning and actively looking for good genre - male AND female. That means that every genre publisher in the UK has female commissioning editors and 90% of the genre imprints here are actually run by women. So you can imagine there's a slight sense of frustration each time I see yet another article claiming that UK publishers are biased towards male writers. And I do wonder if those writing the pieces are aware who is actually commissioning these authors? The sad fact is, we can't publish what we're not submitted. Tor UK has an open submission policy- as a matter of curiosity we went through it recently to see what the ratio of male to female writers was and what areas they were writing in…The facts are, out of 503 submissions - only 32% have been from female writers…(and) when it comes to science fiction only 22% of the submissions we received were from female writers.’

To sum up, things are improving for women authors, though still less so for BAME women authors and for female authors who do not write in English. But it seems like we have a way to go yet – though women can be their own worst enemies  by submitting less, or being more apologetic about their work. I certainly fall into the latter category.

As for men writing romance – well I think that’s like men wanting to work in the childcare and other caring professions –men have some walls to climb too.

 Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels, both of which feature strong, female protagonists. Her books have not had many reviews but whether that is due to her gender, or another reason altogether, is difficult to calculate.