Sunday, 18 September 2011

What Does Anybody Really Know? by Catherine Czerkawska

Catherine Czerkawska

This is my very first post for Do Authors Dream of Electric Books? and I’m delighted to be a part of such an enterprising and interesting group. One way and another, it’s been quite a year. A writing career is a switchback of highs and lows. Just when you think you’re reasonably secure, a new editor or artistic director decides that you're no longer ‘marketable’ and you’re cast in the role of supplicant again, going cap in hand to the gatekeepers. A few years ago, when I was working as Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow in a Scottish university, helping students with their academic writing, a bright Commercial Music student remarked ‘You know, you writers need to do it for yourselves – as we’ve done with our music. It’s the only way forward.’ At the time it didn’t seem feasible, but only a little while later, the advent of ePublishing has revolutionised things in much the same way as iTunes and other sites changed music. And I think my student was right. The time has come for us to seize the day and do it for ourselves.

Let’s be clear about this: eBook publishing may not necessarily be a perfect solution to all the problems which writers now face in finding a publisher, since anyone who has judged any kind of literary competition will know how much badly written, unprofessional and entirely unedited stuff there is, out there. Truth to tell, most of us started off by writing this kind of thing ourselves, and are then embarrassed to find and read those 'bottom drawer' manuscripts, so many years later. But if writers risk the early release of an unready novel, is that such a bad thing? Wouldn’t it prove to be a steep learning curve for the writer-in-training? I think we have to get used to this brave new world in which nothing is set in stone, experiments can be made and editions revised.

But for the many experienced,  professional writers who are now struggling to find publication for widely praised and properly edited work, eBook publishing can be a blessing. My diligent agent is currently sending out a new historical novel called The Amber Heart for me, in the usual way, and back in April, he had high hopes for it, probably higher than I had myself. It’s an epic tale of love and loss, a sort of Polish ‘Gone With the Wind’ based on my own family history, and his initial response was that it was ‘wonderful’ which surprised me, since he isn’t given to rash statements of approval. I’ll admit that I’d be delighted to find a good publisher with whom I could work in the long term. But he hasn’t exactly been knocked down in the rush to buy it. There is more, much more, where that came from. I’ve spent many years as a professional playwright, but I wrote prose throughout that time, and I have numerous short stories and several full length novels which don't quite fit the mould of what my agent is currently sending out. And there seems little point in hanging onto all this work in the hope of some hypothetical jam tomorrow.

Ardminish Bay, Gigha

About a month ago, I put a toe in the eBook water with a trio of short stories: A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture. This was quickly followed by a Scottish historical novel called The Curiosity Cabinet. The novel is set mostly on a small Scottish island, and was inspired by the landscape of the Isle of Gigha (above) which we've visited and loved for many years. It had been shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, published in the conventional way, sold out within the year, was well reviewed, widely praised, but never reprinted. Scottish novelist John Burnside had called it 'a powerful story about love and obligation... a persuasive novel very well written.’ I reclaimed the rights and decided, with my agent’s blessing,  to publish it as an eBook myself.

eBook cover designed by Alison Bell

My friend and mentor, textile artist Alison Bell designed a beautiful new cover as a response to the book and as a reflection of the landscape which is so central to the novel. She and I have had many conversations comparing how we work and how we feel about our work, and it's a fascinating comparison. But there is one way in which our experiences differ. As an artist with a fine track record, she might discuss her work productively with a fellow professional, she might welcome informed advice, but she would never expect to be told to go away and comprehensively redo the work in order to shoehorn it into some perceived market. I would, of course, be the first to admit that, for a writer, a good editor is an asset. But I also think that with experience comes the realisation that - like my artist friend - you are professional enough to know in a general sense when something works and when it doesn't, when you mean it and when you may be floundering. All too often now, writers are expected to rejig their work to the requirements of a committee which consists of a miscellany of people with different notions of some hypothetical market, all of whom are convinced that their point of view is the norm. And what you get then is not the prancing pony of your imagination, but the proverbial camel.

There are no easy answers to any of this, but I sense that a great many writers are exhilarated by these new opportunities. It certainly – and refreshingly - means that we need to become more businesslike in our dealings with the industry that surrounds us, relinquishing our habitual role of supplicant, becoming proactive partners. It’s all precarious - but what writing career, isn't? We walk a tightrope between success and failure and we are much too afraid of putting a foot wrong, of falling into the abyss that awaits the midlist writer who doesn't 'break through' to the big time quickly enough.

Maybe online publishing will help to take that fear away, to persuade us that, as committed professionals, we can assume control of our working lives. If it all goes wrong, we can chalk it up to experience and move on. But we won't be left with the frustration of being told over and over again that we've written something wonderful which isn't commercial enough 'in the current market.' Of being advised to revamp the plot, dumb it down a bit or (conversely) make the language more experimental and less accessible. Unbelievably, I was once told this. All of these things are distractions from our true business as writers, which is ... what?

I think for me, it's to tell interesting and well crafted stories about believable characters, facing life choices that - in one way or another -  we all recognise, even when those characters lived at a different time and in a different place. I want to tell those stories in the best way I can, but in a way that excites me, without somebody trying to get me to replicate last year’s big success and ignoring the truth that in the world of fiction, next year’s big success is invariably unexpected and – at first - unsung. In the words of William Goldman, a fine screenwriter, writing brilliantly about film, 'nobody knows anything.' And isn't that exciting?


Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hi Catherine
I really enjoyed this post. I was at the Society Of Authors Conference in Scotland yesterday (if you were there I am sorry I missed you!). A lot of what you say here was echoed there. It was an inspiring day with some great speakers who were both successful writers and self e-publishers. It was also interesting to note that when the agents and publishers had their say, they appeared to be running scared!
Has the worm turned?

Joan Lennon said...

That's a stunning cover! Thanks for your post.

I was at the conference too and was able to let people know about our new name (at least in the break off session) and saw many diligently writing it down - here's to a spike in visit stats!

Chris Longmuir said...

Very thoughtful article, Catherine, and I agree with the comments made. The SOA conference was great, looked for you but you weren't there. It was interesting that the publishers were pushing the idea that you really needed a publisher to do epublishing, which I didn't agree with. I think Marianne is correct when she said they seemed to be running scared. And so they should because, as authors, we are now taking the control back. They've been knocking us down long enough.

Susan Price said...

Catherine - I've just read, and loved, your Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture. Especially the Butterfly Bowl! Were there really bowls like that? I'd love to think there were, but find it hard to believe.

Linda Gillard said...

Great blog, Catherine. (Loved the Goldman quote!)

When I attended the Romantic Novelists' Association conference earlier this year, it was the same story. Some publishers are trying to persuade authors that e-publishing is so complex and the marketing so time-consuming that they need a publisher to do it for them. When asked for his advice to authors who were thinking of going down the indie e-book route, Simon Petherick of BEAUTIFUL BOOKS said (with rather more honesty), "Get a good agent."

There are some things I can't do for myself. My agent has already had 2 enquiries about translation rights for one of my e-books, HOUSE OF SHADOWS and she sent the pdf of the same book to the BBC drama dept after she managed to pique someone's interest there.

We still need agents. I see publishers more as an optional extra. ;-)

Linda Newbery said...

That's a beautiful cover for THE CURIOSITY CABINET, Catherine!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks for all these interesting comments - didn't make the conference, for various reasons, even though I was supposed to be there, but wish I'd been able to come. And I agree about the cover, but that's down to my lovely friend Alison Bell! Yes, there really were bowls like that - seemingly - though sadly I've never seen one! But I've read about them. And I do get the impression that publishers are running scared as well. I was at an event earlier this year in which they were trying to persuade a room full of writers how difficult and expensive e-publishing really was and I don't think anyone believed them. An agent is a different matter, but the big question is, I suppose, can we carry the agents with us, because it means a change of role, or at least a change of perspective for them too. A quote to come out of the Edinburgh book festival this year involved, as far as I remember, a publisher saying that e-books had to be expensive because didn't readers realise that they were 'paying for content' which would be all well and good, if we didn't know that so many conventional publishers haven't exactly been keen on paying for content themselves - other than the massive advances to the favoured few!

Nicola Morgan said...

That is a stunning cover!

Yes, I also thought the publishers seemed to be "protesting too much". Same thing happened at the SoA event on ebooks at the EIBF. I also remember the publisher on that panel talking at length about the vast amount of publicity and marketing that publishers do. No, frankly - WE do that. In some cases we do all of it - for example my Write to be Published book had a zero marketing budget. I even paid for review copies to be sent out - paid the postage and did the sending. So, doing it ourselves is often the only way we can recoup anything for our efforts and skill in writing.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Well said, Nicola. My impression is that writers are being asked to do more and more of the publicity and marketing, even as far as organising all their own library tours - or at least that was one example quoted to me recently! I certainly did vast amounts for TCC when it was conventionally published.