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!

Friday, 30 January 2015

Serendipidity and Green Sheep by Diana Kimpton

Serendipidity is one of the delights of being a writer. It’s the name given to making a fortunate discovery by accident, and I’ve found that it can help with my research or point me in a completely different direction. More importantly, it gives me the feeling that fate (or whatever else you like to call it) is on my side – that the book I’m working on really wants to be written.

I met serendipity for the first time more than 20 years ago while I was working on my first book, A Special Child in the Family. I was umming and aahing about whether to include school issues in this book for parents of children with special needs when a couple I had never met before turned up on my doorstep. They were on holiday in my area and, having read about my research project in a women’s magazine, they hoped I might be able to help them.

As they sat in my living room describing their son’s school problems, I watched the wife nervously twisting her hankerchief in her fingers and heard the anxiety in their voices. Their information helped me and I hope some of mine helped them. But most of all, they showed me that I needed to include a whole section in my book about education.

Time passed and I wrote many more books. Eventually, after concentrating on fiction for the under 9s, I decided write a horse book for pre-teens. I didn’t want to create a story about winning rosettes so I chose to concentrate on horse whispering and natural horsemanship. There was just one problem: I knew very little about it. So I dived into research.

I started by reading about one of the best known famous horse whisperers of all: Monty Roberts. Then Amazon pointed me at another horseman I had never heard of before – Mark Rashid. As soon as I read one book by him, I was hooked. Here was exactly the flexible sort of approach I was looking for. So I read the next and the next until I had worked my way through everything he had written.

Stuck for where my research should go next, I searched his name on Google and serendipidity struck. This Colorado-based cowboy was on my side of the Atlantic, running workshops in the UK. Better still, one of them was going to be in my area in just two weeks time. When something that amazing happens, I know I’m on the right track. So I went to the workshop and learnt a lot. Then I bought a less-than-perfect horse so I could try out his ideas for myself and eventually, after even more research, I wrote There Must Be Horses.

In both the above cases, serendipity happened during the research phase. For The Green Sheep, it came later. That’s hardly surprising. I couldn’t do much research into what happens to an alien who arrives on earth disguised as a green sheep because the transmogrification machine is on the blink. The only fact I needed to check was how many sheep there would be in 28 days if he duplicates himself every time he goes to sleep. (check it out –the number may surprise you.)

For this book, the serendidity came after it was published. That was late in 2014 which was so close to Christmas that I’m only launching the actual publicity now - in 2015. And, to my surprise, I’ve found that 2015 is the Chinese Year of the Sheep. Better still, the colour for the year is green.

So 2015 is the Year of the Green Sheep. That’s definitely a fortunate discovery made by accident. What better omen for my book could serendipidity provide?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Flirting with the devil: N M Browne

Recent events have got me thinking about self censorship. I am hardly alone in that, nor are my thoughts particularly insightful, but bear with me if I share them anyway.
As the product of my largely liberal education, I am in favour of free speech. There are inevitably a few politicians I would love to gag, a couple of radio pundits, and pretty much everyone on day time television who would greatly improve the quality of my life by never speaking in public again. ( This goes for a few people, I actually know too.)  
I hate everything that suggests that a woman should only be concerned about her hairy underarms, wrinkles, cellulite, and ‘greys’, that suggests that without shiny straight hair and perfect toned physiques we are somehow failures, that we are less competent, more emotional, manipulative and hard to understand than the other half of the human race. If I were a person of colour, disabled, gay or transgender I would no doubt be as sensitive to any speech which denigrated me, belittled me, made me a butt of jokes, suggested that I was somehow less than human, less worthy of respect and consideration, as I am of the many kinds of anti women discourse which currently lights my fury fuse.
 Yes, I hate quite a lot of speech, particularly the online kind that makes your eyeballs burn and your blood pressure rise like some cartoon steam engine about to blow. Yet I reluctantly accept that it would be unreasonable if only my voice and that of others I agree with were free to speak our minds. To control and censor speech is the first step in a brisk walk towards totalitarianism, towards oppression and thought control. Moreover words are too powerful to drive underground. If they are out there, they can be refuted, ridiculed, reduced, if hidden they become special, sacred, inviolate.  A culture that cannot cope with ridicule, that cannot refute a false argument that cannot use words and stories to persuade and mock,  is one that lacks any kind of confidence in its own prevalent values.
 I firmly believe that a writer, even a children’s writer, can write about anything.  I tell my students so. Yet in reality, I self censor all the time and this is the heart of my problem. I want kids of all shapes,sizes, colours, abilities, gender and orientation to feel that they could be the hero of their own narrative. In consequence I try to excise anything from my text that would suggest otherwise. I would like to include more diverse characters in my narratives. I have written about an overweight female warrior, black fairies, self doubting were wolves and Welsh freedom fighters, but I’m not sure they count as culturally diverse.  I am fearful of inappropriate cultural appropriation, of getting things wrong, of making anyone feel less and being criticised for it  and I think this hinders me.
 Over the last few weeks I have come to believe that this second guessing of the imagination is perhaps a mistake. My father’s daily paper espoused views that were in diametric opposition to his own: he got a little bit angry every day. Maybe he was ahead of his time. In this internet era where  unexamined search engine algorithms personalise the news and views we see, it is more vital  than ever to expose ourselves to antithetic views, to raise our dander, to be obliged to defend our own prejudices.  Maybe we all grow a little from having our sensibilities affronted and our world view challenged. Self censorship is a form of condescension: I can deal with this idea, but my readers can’t and where it isn’t condescension it can be cowardice: people might not like me if I say this.                               I’m not sure either vice is to be encouraged. A writer who cannot cope with criticism probably should not be a writer at all. So, from now on, I might just ‘publish and be damned.’

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Dictators, little gods, laughter, and Virtual Weapons

I'm opening this post with a seriously silly Christmas image of my totally anarchic Cornish family, very expertly photoshopped (they don't actually look like this!) There's something Lizzie Borden and rural America about it, and I do feel that one of the adults might be about to run amuk with an axe! I haven't yet played with Photoshop, but must, one day.  The possibilities it presents for serious mockery, or even libel, are endless.

 The subject of serious mockery inevitably leads to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. We lived in Paris for two years, and have good friends there, so it felt very personal. Ruthless dictators, and the nastier of the invented deities, have one thing in common: they cannot bear to be laughed at - which is why we have cartoonists brave enough to do it. What a murderous, unfunny thug Hitler was, and such a gift for another Charlie - Charlie Chaplin.  Charlie Hebdo picks on everyone, not just Islamic extremists, and its style is brutal - not a style I warm to, but I wouldn't commit murder to stop the magazine. I'd just not buy it. However, the extremists needed the publicity, which is precisely what they got. They also love the word 'spectacular', which we normally apply to musicals, or firework displays - how in love with 'celebrity' they are.

My totally inoffensive book for very young readers came out this month - the story of a spider's increasingly frustrating attempts to construct a web, with delightfully funny illustrations by Gabriele Antonini. And, once again, this month, I'm working to a brief, which is always challenging - I much prefer setting my own agenda.

Back to murder - the fantasy kind. I do have a couple of (nameless) publishers on my hit list. There are the ones who never respond, no matter how impressive your track record, and even having an agent seems to make no difference. There are those who, due to delicate feelings, or, more likely, forgetfulness, cannot bring themselves to say 'no'. One of mine, a very major publisher, put a novel out of print, and then proceeded to republish it in a tiny, low-quality version. They are big, and I am small, so no point in pursuing it, but I do have a large arsenal of virtual nuclear weapons some of which I'm more than happy to donate to any mistreated author.

Finally, there are the small presses that get taken over by slightly less small ones, and who, in the process, seem to lose a book entirely. The fate of this one, I think, I shall never know, which is rather a shame because it's good. Indie authors may have their problems, but at least they are in charge of their own work. And, happily, none of my re-published ebooks will ever go out of print.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Secrets of Claudia Winkleman's Charm - Andrew Crofts

A couple of months ago I wrote about the hiring of Midas PR to launch “Chances”,  the erotic memoir which I had ghosted for an anonymous European lady who was going under the names of Penny.

Last week the mighty Midas machine picked up speed and I found myself writing articles and doing a succession of interviews to promote the book, culminating in an encounter with Claudia Winkleman on her late night Radio2 arts show.

Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was going to be meeting Miss Winkleman I always received the same response - “Oh, I love Claudia Winkleman”.

It didn’t seem to matter what age or gender the person was, or whether they were likely to be fans of reality shows like “Strictly” or cultural offerings like “Film 2015”, her puppyish glamour had somehow worked on all of them. It appears the woman is fast-tracking towards being a national treasure. What, I wondered, could be the secret of this magical spell she was casting over the nation?

Listening to so many paeans of adoration rang alarm bells too. How could the reality possibly live up to this awesome reputation? Was I going to have to report back to all these devoted admirers that in reality the woman was a monstrous confection of insincerity and vanity, propped up by armies of sycophants, hangers on and make-up artists? Could she possibly live up to everyone’s heady expectations?

I have to report that fifteen minutes in a studio with Miss Winkleman is like being enveloped in a particularly cosy nuclear explosion, flattened by a steamroller of charm and wit so overwhelming that you barely notice the pain when she skewers you with an unexpected stab of journalistic enquiry. All in all it was the most exhilarating and enjoyable quarter of an hour I can remember ever spending with a total stranger. I felt like we had been friends for ever and that, I suspect, is the secret of Miss Winkleman’s magic.

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Epub is Open! Mine's a Pint, Please by Ruby Barnes

When it comes to e-books I'm definitely a Kindle kind of guy. I read on my old basic Kindle, on my iPhone Kindle app and sometimes on my laptop Kindle app. When it comes to e-book formatting of new releases (the bulk of that sort of work at Marble City Publishing Ltd falls at the door of Mark Turner who is me anyway), I use the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) process to proof e-books. Those kindle editions of the Marble City books are as clean and shiny as I can get them. Hyperlinked contents pages (when they are needed), back matter with links to other titles, hyperlinks and QR code to the publisher social media platform etc.

But wait! There's a whole world of people who don't worship at the altar of Kindle. The ePub file is their staple diet. Nook, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play and a bunch of others all fire up on ePub files. Their readers deserve just as much care and attention put into the finished ePub product.

For indie-authors and independent publishers there are several ways to convert a manuscript from (what is usually) MS Word to ePub. The popular distribution hubs such as Draft2Digital and Smashwords have conversion software built into their process. There are also standalone software programs such as Calibre that offer ePub conversion.

The problem for me is how to view these ePubs to proof them. And also how to read ePub editions if a book I want to read is presented in that format. I do have an e-reader that takes ePubs - a Kobo Touch that I won online a couple of years ago. But it's not great to use, to be honest. I have an iPhone and various apps but that means side-loading onto my iPhone or emailing to myself. Not easy as I use a laptop which doesn't recognise the iPhone when I connect it. And my primary laptop has security restrictions that prevent me from installing e-reader apps on it (yes, it's a day-job machine). So proper review of ePub editions has remained a challenge. Until now.

If you use Firefox-Mozilla internet browser you may have periodically noticed the program telling you that it is "updating add-ons". My recent discovery (and forgive me if I'm the last to know) is that there is a new updated EPUBReader add-on for Firefox Mozilla. And it's great!

EPUBReader add-on for Firefox-Mozilla
Figure 1 - the EPUBReader Firefox-Mozilla addon

Once installed (and it installs without Administrator privileges!) it will add an ePub-Catalog entry to your browser Bookmarks. Any ePub file you download with your browser or click to open in your browser will feature in that bookmarked catalog.

 the EPUBReader ePub-Catalog in Bookmarks
Figure 2 - the ePub-Catalog in Bookmarks

The on-screen appearance of e-books with this add-on is similar to other apps I've used on our other computer (which I can't get near because the kids use it for gaming) but somehow clearer. If the e-book has an index then this is shown clearly to the left with a double page display to the right (these are the standard settings but you can set preferences).

layout of the EPUBReader add-on
Figure 3 - layout of the EPUBReader add-on
There's a save function which allows for saving of the opened ePub to a folder (local, cloud etc.)

While this is great for me when I'm reading an ePub for recreation, it's brilliant for the ePub formatting process. Currently I'm using Draft2Digital for all ePub markets. [Previously we've gone direct through Apple (needs a Mac), Kobo (horrible results) and via Smashwords (sometimes nightmares with their Meatgrinder) - and Barnes & Noble still doesn't give Irish residents a direct option despite Nook Press reaching Europe.] This Firefox-Mozilla add-on allows instant checking of the ePub file. Those intricacies of layout, style, spacing etc can be checked within seconds.

EPUBReader The Sadness of Angels by Jim Williams
Figure 4 - checking the formatting of The Sadness of Angels by Jim Williams

This is very helpful for texts which are relying upon layout to give a custom "look and feel".

Converting manuscripts to e-books can often be quite a challenge. Fonts and styles may disappear, white space in the original MS gets eaten up, page breaks don't occur where they are supposed to. Draft2Digital, for all its other benefits of ease and speed, is a particular culprit in these things. The EPUBReader add-on provides instant visual feedback on the success or otherwise of formatting efforts. This is particularly important if you want to add front or back matter in a controlled and managed fashion. (D2D hint - feature a section title in the Index in order to force a page change).

Marble City Publishing back matter on EPUBReader
Figure 5 - checking back matter in EPUBReader

So there you have it. A great way to read ePubs. A quick and easy way for authors and publishers to check their progress with ePub formatting. Maybe you knew about it already. Maybe you know of a better solution. Let us know.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Call Me Big-Headed - by Susan Price

     "In the Ghost World, beyond Iron Wood, lay all that was
Ghost Dance by Susan Price
left of the Northlands; and in that timeless Northlands' forest there is a gyrfalcon. It has been a gyrfalcon so long, it has almost forgotten that it was once a mortal baby, and then a shaman's apprentice and a shaman, and a Czar's black angel.

     And that is the end of this story (says the cat).
     If you thought it tasty, then serve it to others.
     If you thought it sour, sweeten it with your own telling.
     But whether you liked it, or liked it not, let it make its
own way back to me, riding on another's tongue."

This is from the ending of Ghost Dance, the third book in my Ghost World Sequence. I've just finished turning it into a paperback, so now all three books are available as paperbacks again.

I wrote these books a long time ago, and it's been a rather odd experience, going back to them.

When you first begin a book, and the idea is alight in your imagination, it's a wonderful, exciting time. New ideas and images spring into your head, seemingly unplanned, from some other place... They jostle and fight for attention, almost too many to get down on the page.

Then tying the images together and making the plot work becomes difficult and frustrating, a chore...

By the time you've finished rewriting it several times, you're sick of it. There are no longer any surprises in it for you. Passages that were meant to be beautiful seem merely mundane and dull. Surprising revelations are anything but - trite and well-worn. You lose all judgement about the thing.

With conventional publishing, the book may be taken away from you for several months - and then the proofs are suddenly sprung on you. With luck, this is rather cheering. The break from it has renewed your interest. You've forgotten some of the details, so it seems fresher. Your faith in it perks up a little.

By the time it makes it into the shops, you've usually moved on to some other fantastically shining, wonderful new idea, and you've done with the old book. If it gets reviewed well, that's rather nice - if it sells well, even better, because then you have some money to live on while you write - but you're really not that interested by then. Or so I've found.

But let twenty years go by... Then re-reading the book is like reading something written by someone else entirely. I was startled by Ghost Dance. The power of the occult scenes took me aback. I'd forgotten the chill of the descriptions of the dying Northlands. Did I really write this powerful book? - Well, that's my name on the title page.

Call me big-headed if you like. Maybe I am - but I'm being honest about the experience of re-reading this book, which I wrote a long time ago. I suppose it's one advantage of growing older.

    Paperback                                                                                            e-book

                    The Ghost Drum                                                                           The Ghost Drum

                        Ghost Song                                                                                     Ghost Song 

                        Ghost Dance                                                                                   Ghost Dance 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Sometimes we all need a plan B - Jo Carroll

Sometimes we need a plan B.

I'm travelling in Malaysia at the moment. The weather, though hot, has been thundery at times. But I am undeterred. I take the bus from place to place, potter down back streets and find stories.

I came with a sort-of plan. The Internet has brought great changes to travelling, and only the young and endlessly optimistic arrive anywhere with nowhere to stay these days. Which means I have a rough itinerary and some hotels booked.

And then I had the email to say the resort (an optimistic term for collection of huts on a river bank) in the rainforest is flooded. They have given me my money back.

I haven't realised how much I was looking forward to the rainforest until I knew I couldn't
go. There must be a way, another place to stay ... I googled but found nothing. It took a while for common sense to set in. I've been there before - my hut (I know I have to share it, but you know what I mean) is about thirty feet above the river in the dry season. I wanted to sit in the doorway and watch the boats potter up and down the river. Look for hornbills - I saw one last time I was there. But if my hut is underwater, half the rainforest is under water. There might, of course, be one little hut, isolated on higher ground - who would be willing fetch me in his boat? And the floating restaurants - they must be half way to KL if the river is in flood. I can't expect a local family to feed me.

Besides, local people obviously have more important things to do than look after one recalcitrant traveller. The nomadic Orang Asti have probably gone deep into the forest - they understand the trees and the animals and will be fine if they can stay dry enough. The Malays - what of them? The hoteliers? The restauranteurs? Their livelihoods as drowned. I don't expect they have much in the way of insurance.

And so I've given myself a talking-to. Because sometimes we all need a plan B. Whether we're writing or travelling or wondering what to have for supper, rigidity helps no one. Just as the world is full of words and we can combine them in countless creative combinations, there are thousands of other places for me to discover.

So I think I'll have a beer and thumb through my guidebook. Find a plan B.

And know that my dilemma is insignificant besides those who make a living looking after travellers to the rainforest.

Friday, 23 January 2015

And Now A Long-Distance Dedication from Lev Butts

Please don't hate me.
Dear Casey Kasem,

I was supposed to reveal the last two books in my "Lev's Top Ten" list this month, and I had every intention of doing so except that I was struck down this past weekend with what others have told me was the flu, but I am certain was some kind of mutant/zombie virus.

Seriously, I looked just like this
I fought bravely, and it was touch and go there for a little while (I was at one point reduced to eating an unholy mixture of canned chicken noodle and cream of chicken soup), but I pulled through.

Three days later.

Just in time to return to work.

As I write this, it is 11:38 PM on January 21, 2015, which means over there across the pond, it's roughly Oh-My-Frakking-God-It's-Early O'Clock January 22, 2015. I have just quit getting ready for bed because I realized that my post is due in just a few short hours. About three hours before I get home from work tomorrow, in fact. So my countdown is going to have to be delayed, I'm afraid.

I'd like to take a few minutes, though, to thank all the fine folks at Authors Electric for allowing me to be a monthly contributor. I want to thank Reb MacRath for recommending me to the group; without his good word, I never would've gotten this chance to share my ideas outside my immediate circle of friends. I'd like to thank Susan Price for being so helpful, especially in my early days, with helping me learn the ropes of the blog site.   I want to also thank those of you who log in every month and comment on my posts, especially Bill Kirton, Madwippet, Dennis Hamley, and a whole slew of others whose names have escaped me.

I couldn't ask for a better, more supportive group of writers to share ideas with.

You people rock.

Casey, would you please dedicate "Rick the Kasbah" by The Clash to all these fine folks because apparently there is no such thing as a thank you song that isn't overly saccharine and cheesy (a taste combination that will surely make me sick again), and because The Clash are awesome?



Author's Electric, here's "Rick the Kasbah"
because "thank you" songs all kind of suck.

Next month, I promise. We finish this thing.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

D is for Dementia, by Ali Bacon

Sometimes it feels as if the modern age is defined by health problems, conditions that stem from our living longer, or in a different kind of society, or sometimes it’s just a case of being able to use technology to redefine something that always existed. And so we now have anorexia, depression and obesity,which had different names or no names at all in previous generations. 

After my granny had lived with us for a few years, she began to be ‘wandered’, a state that progressed to confused, difficult and eventually downright aggressive. We knew here was a physical cause but could not have explained it. Now it's called dementia and we know a great deal more about the many forms it can take, although there's still not much we can do about it. And as a modern concern it's cropping up more and more in memoir (my moan about this one was nothing to do with the subject matter) and in fiction.  

In fact the first novel in which I saw this addressed directly, Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enoughis over forty years old now but I suspect if I reread it I might still think it’s the best. The Scottish Granny is an unforgettable character in her own right as well as the catalyst for a family crisis. If you're at all interested in this topic do check it out. And for those who don't know Forster or would like to be reminded,  Kathleen Jones has written a useful and interesting overview of her life and work

But the last year has seen a spate of new interest. In Kirsty Wark’s The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle (feels like a Scottish theme is developing!)the heroine’s mother Anna has just got to the point of needing looking after and this situation and its effect on the family make a poignant sub-plot to the main theme of the book. (Elizabeth Pringle is a comparative stranger who bequeathed her house  to Anna). In fact I did wonder if Anna's dementia began as a plot device to give her daughter the power of decision-making, but if so it still worked in terms of the family conflict it provokes. Maybe the solution to caring for Anna is found a bit too easily and the ending has a rosy glow, but this isn't a hard-hitting kind of a book. The main story of Elizabeth Pringle is very touching, though, and the locations had me itching to go to Arran.

Hard on the heels of this one, I read Costa first novel winner Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. It’s very much in the modern vein of combining mystery with psychological drama but Healey’s trick is to put us in the head of Maud, the dementia victim, and to show us how everything she does makes sense from her point of view, although to any outsider – including her daughter - her memory lapses and aggressive behaviour are frustratingly incomprehensible. Maud’s quest to find out what has happened to her friend Elizabeth is intercut with an episode involving her sister which she remembers in vivid detail from the post-war years. I found this a convincing - and unsettling - portrayal of dementia, and although there is a kind of resolution, there’s no shying away from the fact that Maud is not going to get better.

And finally .. over Christmas I spotted Quartet on the box, a beautifully produced and acted ensemble piece about the residents of an old-folks home. From the trailers I expected some light relief, but what struck me most was Pauline Collins' portrayal of, you guessed, a woman on the threshold of dementia. Maybe it's just my age, but despite the presence of Billy Connolly I found it more sobering than  'wickedly funny'. But then it is a sobering subject. 

Ali Bacon
Up to now our knowledge of the disease hasn't produced any cure and maybe it never will, but as time goes on we are beginning to see ways of halting its progress or ameliorating its symptoms. Meanwhile we are at least acknowledging its existence and the impact it can have on so many of us. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On Useful Shorts and Fillers by Pauline Chandler

Writing takes up so much time, doesn’t it? You spend hours creating your novel, then, unless you’re a best seller, you wait months for a publisher’s decision.

Even if you catch the editor’s interest, you still have to wait for the marketing department to say ‘Yes!’ 

I’ve never been good at waiting, nor taking publishers’ advice: ‘Write something else,’ ‘Get on with the next thing’, ‘Plan your next novel!’  All very well, but it all takes so much TIME! And there are no guarantees. For every novel I’ve had accepted, I’ve had another turned down. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. So much time wasted on more piles of paper, abandoned, left to languish dustily on the shelf.     

Does anyone write only for the love of it, content to write without ever being read? Can writers actually exist without readers? I don’t think so. The thrill for me has always been that someone has read and enjoyed my writing. It’s about contact, isn’t it? Communication. To elicit that magical elusive 'oh, yess' moment, where someone's full attention is caught by your story. 

I think it was Wilkie Collins who said, about writing: ‘Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait,' in other words a writer's task is to provoke a response. Then there's E M Forster's 'Only connect.'

When I started writing for the market, I did take some useful advice, about a way to ease the tedium of waiting for a decision on my grand oeuvre. Write shorts and fillers! In other words, short pieces for magazines, that are constantly on the lookout for short stories and fillers, entertaining pieces to fill a gap in their pages. Wow! Fast writing. Quick decisions. Cheques!

I began simply with readers’ letters. Most magazines have a letters page and some pay well for your contributions. I was paid £10 for a recipe and another £10 for a humorous account of a funny thing that happened when I was on a bike ride with my son. 

Gosh!  Wonderful.  Then £25 each for pieces based on family anecdotes, such as my husband’s flying lesson and moving house to Cornwall, when the cat escaped from the cat carrier as I was driving in the fast lane on the motorway.

Next, I was submitting short stories to magazines and competitions. Hooray! I danced round the house when I got a three figure cheque for one of those. 

There’s nothing like success to keep you going. 

I’ve written seven novels for children, with four published. That’s three I’ve not been able to sell. It’s tricky when your novel is turned down and you’re not sure why. No one in publishing mentions sales. They all talk about stories and talent and wonderful writing, but what I’ve finally realised is that if your current books don’t meet sales targets, your next book slips out of consideration. That’s difficult to live with: two or more years’ effort down the pan.  

So, what you do is keep writing your book, as a labour of love, and meanwhile earn a crust with shorts and fillers, if you have the time and inclination. Don’t quote me, but I believe you have to have about 70 fillers circulating to make a decent remuneration from this kind of writing. That’s a lot of short pieces, but it’s great fun, with swifter responses from editors and cheques in the post.  

Pauline Chandler    

Pauline's latest book is a new edition of 'Warrior Girl' from CybermouseMedia.

Set in 15thc. France, during the 100 Years' war, 'Warrior Girl' tells the story of two teenage girls caught up in epic events, who face love and loss together. 

When Mariane, left mute after her mother's murder, is sent to live with her Uncle d'Arc in Domremy, she is mystified by her strange cousin, Jehanne, whom we know as Joan of Arc.  Jehanne says God has commanded her to crown the next king and lead an army against the English invaders. Is she serious? Or quite mad? Has she told her parents?  When her mother's killers pursue Mariane too, she leaves Domremy with Jehanne, to face her own challenges. The girls part for a while, then meet again, after Jehanne is captured. 

Available from Amazn:
Signed copies available from the author at a cost of £10.00, to include p&p 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A Paean for Books by Sandra Horn

It was a good haul this Christmas! As I added another book to the tottering pile(s) by my bed –
Sandra Horn
(waiting to be read, read but not finished with, books I read and re-read and re-re-read) (and heaven forefend I ever get so ill I have to stay in bed and someone calls the doctor! They’d have to be moved! They’d get jumbled up! Aaargh!!)

Where was I? Oh yes, as I added another book etc. I thought of my dear Little Nan. She was Little Nan because there was a Great Nan for many years, and even when there wasn’t any more, we couldn’t get out of the habit. Little Nan was born in the workhouse at Madron in West Cornwall; the illegitimate child of a tin miner. She grew up in appalling poverty and, I believe, the  squalor that sometimes comes with it. She had lost all her teeth to gingivitis by the time she was fourteen. She was severely anaemic and was treated with raw liver. I don’t know how effective it was, if at all, but half a century later the mere thought of it made her gag. In a way, she was lucky in that she was taken up by a couple who made their money in property development. She worked for them one summer, and when they moved on, they took her with them.

I’m not sure how she ended up in Sussex and met my Grandad, but at some point she ‘worr a skivvy’ as attested by a photograph of her in her black-and-whites, looking as miserable as a wet fortnight. If skivvying didn’t suit her, it was a shame, because that’s essentially what most of the rest of her life was. She inherited, with Grandad, his parents and six brothers, until they married, and then had eight children of her own. She was up before dawn making breakfasts, putting up packed lunches, making beds, laying fires, black-leading the range and coaxing it to life and washing, washing, washing, before cooking great mounds of food for the evening meal for everybody. If ever there was a little spare minute, she fished in her pinny pocket for a BOOK! A BOOK! A little thin twopenny romance, most likely. A story to be lost in, to take her to another place, where there was glamour and sweetness and a rose-tinted life.

I’ve never lived in poverty or had to drudge. There are no such romances by my bed.  There’s The Bone People, Flight Behaviour, The Fish Can Sing. There are the re-re-reads: Rebecca West, Diana Paton Walsh, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Alice Oswald, Ahdaf Souief, Mrs Henry Dudeney (what is it about that impossible, irascible woman that keeps drawing me back to her diary? I have a sneaky feeling I’d be more like her if I had the guts or became sufficiently disinhibited).

New presents: Angela Carters’ Fairy Tales, How to Be A Victorian, My Brilliant Friend and A New Name, Blue Lightning  (detective novels? When did that start? I wouldn’t have even opened one a few years ago and now I’m hooked. Chris Longmuir is waiting on my Kindle). The Kindle is also home to books by a growing collection of other AE authors, waiting to be re-read because I’ve realized that on first reading, I don’t take things in properly! Is it just me?).  There’s also  Nail Your Novel because this is the year, Oh Yes! When I really seriously get down to it). That’s just a sample. So, there are straightforward narratives, twist-and-turn stories, fantasy, mysticism, factual, true-life, intrigue, love, death, funny, horrific…and the rest. Where, on this earth, could you find such riches, except in BOOKS?
So I’m preaching to the proverbial, but it’s a New Year and I’m fired up with enthusiasm and optimism and happy expectations, so here’s to books and all of us!

Monday, 19 January 2015

EU VAT Changes Are Doing My Head In – Chris Longmuir

Apologies for taking a UK perspective, although the EU VAT rules apply to everyone who sells electronic downloads to the EU, irrespective of where the seller lives, and I’m not too sure that sellers in the US, Australia, or anywhere else in the world have woken up to these changes yet.

Let’s get one thing clear from the start. I’m a writer, I’m not an accountant, and I’m not a tax expert, plus it takes a major effort to supply accounts to my accountant when that time of year rolls round again. As for doing a self-assessment tax form, that is beyond me. But my accountant is a lovely man and he does all that for me, after I’ve supplied the accounts, that is. So, why on earth would I want to do a post on the new EU VAT rules on electronic downloads?

Well, I think I’m reasonably aware of what is happening in the writerly world of writing, publishing, and selling ebooks and paperbacks. So, when the first rumbles of this new VAT system reared its head as recently as November 2014, I sat up and took notice. Big business may have been alerted to what was going on in respect of these changes, but it was glaringly obvious that all the micro-businesses and individual sellers didn’t have a clue.

I had assumed that other writers as well as those involved with electronic downloads in any shape or form, would have noticed as well, but over the past few days I’ve seen comments on social media from writers who are mystified because the prices of their ebooks have increased. And, of course, big bad Amazon is getting the blame! But irrespective of how you view Amazon, this time it isn’t their fault. It’s the EU to blame for implementing VAT changes on all electronic downloads. This includes ebooks, software, music, apps, etc. Here is a list provided by HM Customs & Excise:-
“The rule change applies to ‘e-services’ that are ‘electronically supplied’ and includes things like:
  • supplies of images or text, such as photos, screensavers, e-books and other digitised documents eg, pdf files
  • supplies of music, films and games, including games of chance and gambling games, and of programmes on demand
  • online magazines
  • website supply or web hosting services
  • distance maintenance of programmes and equipment
  • supplies of software and software updates
  • advertising space on a website”
However, because I’m a writer, I’m mainly concerned with ebooks, although anything I say can be equally applied to anything else on that list. But, a note of caution, I’m no expert, I’m just giving you my interpretation and understanding of the situation. By all means check things out for yourself.

One thing I do know is that the new EU VAT regulations have caused a storm on social media. Do a Google search for EU VAT and it should pull up loads of information.

The changes in force are that the VAT rate is now dependent on the buyer's country instead of the seller's, and there are 28 different VAT rates, maybe more, in the EU. So you have to pay VAT according to where your buyer lives. It is now 20% in the UK instead of the 3% (Luxembourg rate), but the EU countries vary between 4% and 27%. This is something to be aware of if you sell directly to the buyer through your website etc. You will be liable for the VAT due and you are responsible for charging the customer the relevant VAT, and you are also responsible for paying the VAT charged to the appropriate Government, and the rules state you have to keep all records of these purchases for 10 years.

However, these changes only apply if you sell to the buyer direct, you're OK as long as you sell through Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, or any similar platform, because they are the sellers and therefore liable for the VAT collection and payments, and as long as you sell through them you aren’t liable. I know one thing. I won't be selling directly to the customer any time soon. Too much hassle.

I found this information from a European Commission document provided by the Taxation and Customs Union and I thought it might interest you as well.
“From 1 January 2015, telecommunications, broadcasting and electronic services will always be taxed in the country where the customer belongs  – regardless of whether the customer is a business or consumer – regardless of whether the supplier is based in the EU or outside”
Example provided:
“Must charge VAT in the EU country where the customer belongs (not where the business is based).Example A Polish customer downloading an App on his mobile phone from a Finnish supplier. The Finnish company must charge the customer Polish VAT.”
The same example could apply to a US trader selling to a customer in the EU, all you have to do is change the wording from Finnish supplier to US supplier.

Not only that, but I understand that the EU VAT rules will extend to physical goods in 2016 and will therefore affect paper books in the countries that apply VAT to them. So far paper books are zero rated for VAT in the UK, but that is not the case in all of the EU countries, although I haven’t yet had time to identify a list of the countries that do charge VAT. I’ll think about that later.

Coming back to the differing VAT rates. They range from 4% to 27% depending on which country your buyer resides in. Here are a few examples:- 
UK 20%, 
Ireland 23%, 
Hungary 27%, 
Sweden 25%. 

To make matters worse, some countries have different VAT rates for electronic goods or services eg Italy’s VAT rates for ebooks depends on whether or not the ebook has an ISBN. The ebook with the ISBN will require a VAT rate of 4%, but the ebook without the ISBN has a VAT rate of 22%.

However, under EU directives there is scope for some exemptions, for example e-learning, but this does not apply over the board, and if one country decides to provide some exemptions, this will not necessarily apply to other EU countries.

What a confusing mess, no wonder the government’s solution to working the system VATMOSS (VAT Mini One Stop Shop), has been nicknamed VATMESS. As far as I can tell if you sell directly and don’t register with VATMOSS, then you will have to complete VAT returns for every country you trade with. You can avoid this if you register with VATMOSS which provides a centralised system to do this, however, as far as I can tell it evens out the tax rates, although I may be wrong. Oh, and did I forget to mention, that every sale counts, no matter how small, there is no threshold window to give the option not to comply.

Then there’s the little matter of penalties for non-compliance
  • failure to register or late registration;
  • non-payment or late payment of VAT;
  • non-submission or late submission of VAT returns;
  • incomplete or incorrect VAT returns; and
  • failure to comply with invoicing or accounting obligations.
You can see why many micro-businesses are worried, and why there is such a media outcry. The prospect of complying with the EU VAT rules on electronically supplied services is having an adverse reaction on many individuals and small traders to trading with the EU. Hundreds of them have already stopped trading completely rather than face the prospect. And many more have put a block on selling electronically to the EU. Not what I would imagine the EU had intended, and all because they wanted to hit the mega businesses who registered their companies in lower rated VAT countries such as Luxembourg.

The Facebook EU VAT Action Campaign Group has proved useful to me in keeping up to date with what is happening as it happens, because there is a lot of lobbying going on to bring the dilemma facing small and individual traders to the notice of the UK government and the EU. As a result of following them I have become aware of some ways round the legislation.

For example, under HMRCs interpretation of the rules, if you sell ebooks or any other download from your website by using a ‘Click to Download’ button, then you have a responsibility to charge your customer VAT, and pass this portion of the sale on to the appropriate government body, or VATMOSS. However, if your customer contacts you by email, and you supply the file as an email attachment (provided this is not automated), or on a CD or DVD and send by post, then it is no longer a digital download, and therefore not liable for VAT. But bear in mind the plan to extend the regulations to cover physical goods in 2016. When this comes into force, this workaround will no longer be legal. However, there is no guarantee that other EU countries will interpret the rules in the same way.

The ultimate aim of the group, as far as I can see, is to continue lobbying for a minimum threshhold which would have to be reached before a small or individual trader comes under the scope of the rules. At the moment there is no minimum threshold, so if you sell a book for £1, VAT is chargeable.

If you find the the new EU VAT rules concerning, I would recommend that you join the EU VAT Action Campaign Group, and also sign the petition calling for the suspension of the rules. This page will take you to a link for the petition You can also check out the EU VAT Action web site. Lots of good information there.

In the meantime, to prevent my head from bursting, I have resolved never to sell digital downloads from my website or anywhere else. I will continue to sell on Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Nook, and Smashwords, and let them take the pain. But I can’t help feeling it’s ironic that legislation intended to prevent the mega companies like Amazon and Apple charging the lowest rate of VAT they could, will have no effect on them apart from pushing prices up. That is because VAT is paid by the consumer, not the company, who only collect it on behalf of the respective governments. Furthermore, it is driving the small companies and individual traders into the arms of these companies instead of building their own businesses in their own countries.

It’s a mad, mad world.

Chris Longmuir


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