Thursday, 30 June 2016

Proper Writers Have an Agent - Guest Post by Dennis Zaslona

"Proper writers have an agent."

So said a ‘Top Literary Agent’ (TLA) panel member during a Q&A at a recent international writer’s festival I attended. There followed an immediate low growl from most of the audience. So I guess according to the TLA that made them all, not proper writers. I was one of the growlers. So is TLA right? Am I not a proper writer?

If I don’t write, I become moody. Worse, I start to question the worth of my existence. So I suppose I must be proper in the sense that creating stories and characters is as essential to my well-being as breathing.

But perhaps my writing is too poor to be accepted by an agent. Perhaps this why is I am not proper. I can’t answer this question. I find it hard to judge the quality of my own writing and that is why I go to writer’s groups for genuine crits. What I do know is that I’ve had ‘near misses’, with several agents and the BBC and I’ve won and been short-listed in enough writing competitions to have confidence that my writing is not entirely crap.

Perhaps not being proper may have something to do with not providing the right material to the right agent at the right time. A more acceptable POV ? Not really.

So, I’ve had enough of agents. Nothing personal. They have to make a living and if they don’t see in my submissions the means to help them do that then okay, fair enough. But, how some agents present their rejections and make promises they fail to keep, well that’s another discussion for another time. Maybe under the heading ‘What Makes a Proper Literary Agent?’

So now I’m really going to put my writing to the test and go the indie route and see what actual readers think of my storytelling skills. I’ll give my potential readers the respect they deserve by:
  1. Having my book proof read and edited by a professional.
  2. Pay for a professional cover design.
And the scariest bit:
  1. Submit my novel to a target audience of middle grade readers to review and see what they think. I’ve been told the kids won’t hold back what they think. (gulp).
  2. Explore the mysteries of appropriate formatting and experience the daunting prospect of building a mailing list, platform etc. I’m not a natural salesman. I’d rather be writing than tweeting and blogging but if needs be then I will. I might even get to like it. Then there is who to publish with and asking for reviews. Aaaargh! One thing at a time.
Nos 1, 2 and 4 are in progress. No 3. I survived with scratches rather than scars. I even came out of the school walking taller and feeling good. In fact, feeling quite proper.

My novel ‘Secrets and Ghosts’ (working title) will be out in the autumn and I am currently working on the next novel in the series. Any tips from you guys who have already published would be really most welcome.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Not only but also ...

As the summer weather really hasn't been much cop so far, we have decided to attempt to spread a little cheer by extending the period in which you can buy an e-copy of our latest anthology Another Flash in the Pen until the end of July for the bargain price of 99p.
It is also available from Amazon in paperback if you prefer something a little more papery ...

We are also excited to be able to announce that this year we are publishing not just one, but two anthologies of short fiction stories ...
here's a sneaky little preview of what we have planned for October ...

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

UK Referendum, Anthologies, and Summer Storms, by Enid Richemont

It would be hard to ignore today's results from the UK's Referendum. Like most people I know, I'd assumed we would (and had voted for) 'Remain', but came down this morning to the news that the Farage tribe had succeeded. We now seem to be in bed with some very unlovely people - 'Approved by Trump' is not a sticker I'd want to flaunt, and as for Marine le Pen... I've just signed a petition to request a second referendum, which is gathering pace - apparently some of the people who voted Out are now regretting it. There's also a feeling that the Brexit team didn't ever expect to win this one, so making unrealistic claims was OK as they'd never be called on to implement them. My husband, David, used to say that there's an old Chinese curse: 'May You Live In Interesting Times'. Well, unfortunately, we do, we do.

'Another Flash in the Pen' came out recently. I'd already pre-ordered it, but forgotten, so its arrival came as a delightful surprise (oh, and if you haven't already grabbed it at its current bargain price, do so quickly, because it's a treat.) I love short story anthologies - they're like opening an exotic box of chocolates, each one with a different flavour and texture - yum! At present I'm hovering and picking, in no specific order, so I started at the end, with Nicky Browne's tongue-in-cheek 'The Sisterhood Of The Unseen', and then moved backwards into Susan Price's 'This Is Hell'. Later, I jumped into 'Mussolini's Hat', by Kathleen Jones, of whose work I never tire, and there are more treats to come. I think this is Authors Electric's best anthology yet.

It's been a very long, and often tedious, journey, but it does seem as if my first children's book: The Time Tree, might have finally earned itself a proper film contract (WATCH THIS SPACE), with legal papers etc to be signed in September, and work scheduled to begin in Spring 2017, but I will still believe it when I see it. So many authors have had film contracts dangled in front of them like fairy carrots, only to see them vanish, as objects from Fairyland have a tendency to do, but this one, at last, feels real. How the world has changed, though, since I dreamed up this story - for just one thing, the research my two young protagonists do would now take place online, although physical books might still come into it. Stories are still stories, though, and that doesn't change.

Thunderstorms have vandalised our little local fete, and I weep for all those small traders who turned up this morning and set up their stalls. Somehow, this situation feels classically British ( or maybe it was all those pesky foreigners who caused the weather in the first place...) There's an interesting article in the current edition of The Author about writing and the weather - it seems academics prefer working through the summer months, although there are practical reasons for this, too. I find dark evenings and bad weather more conducive to creative thought. Sunshine keeps nagging me to come outside and smell the roses.

Lastly, and at the risk of being labelled a dream bore, I had a curious one during which, already inside a dream situation, I fell asleep, dreamt and woke up - so a dream within a dream. I'm still trying to get my head around it. 

Monday, 27 June 2016

40 Years Earning a Living as a Writer - Andrew Crofts

I first published a version of this article in the Guardian on-line, so please forgive me if parts of it sound familiar. 

I left school with a burning urge to lead the life of a writer; travelling like Byron, fĂȘted like Wilde before his fall, creating laughter like Wodehouse and crafting sentences like Nabokov. I had no professional contacts so I wrote my masterpieces speculatively and every path I went down ended with a rejection slip or total silence. The perceived wisdom then, as now, was that earning a living as a writer was about as likely as winning a lottery.

Then I discovered the secret of marketing. Instead of writing things and trying to persuade people to buy them, I would find out what writing services people needed and offer to provide them. So, at the same time as begging publishers and editors for commissions, I made myself available to anyone who might want to write an article or a book but did not feel able to do it for themselves.

I have just finished a three year stint on the management committee of the Society of Authors and therefore know how hard it is for many writers to make a living, but it was never easy. I have now spent just over 40 years as a freelance author and ghostwriter, during which time I have kept a meticulous record of every penny earned and can with hindsight see exactly how my personal experiment has panned out.

Although it was about ten years before I could support myself fully from my writing, in the course of those 40 years I have earned around £4-million. Obviously there were some feasts and famines along the way but by and large the graph has travelled upwards year upon year. From a starting point of about £1,000 a year, I hit six figures for the first time twenty years later and for the last ten years the annual figure has wavered between £150,000 and £200,000. That puts me roughly on a par with the Prime Minister, (but no free accommodation), which is a level I am more than content with.

The vast majority of that money has come from ghostwriting, some from fees paid by wealthy individuals and some in royalties from books that became bestsellers. Every time I agreed to a split in royalties instead of a fee I was taking a gamble and sometimes I would end up writing a whole book for virtually nothing. Looking back now, however, I can see that it was projects where I took a gamble that paid off the most handsomely. One book, for instance, has earned me more than half a million and quite a few have earned me more than £100,000. It is possible to ghost four books a year, although three is more comfortable, which means that most years the ones that earned nothing have been compensated for by the successes

By making my primary living from selling writing services I have been able to risk taking the time out to write speculative “passion projects”, (as they are called in Hollywood), in the form of novels. Two of these novels have ghostwriters as narrators and all were inspired by people I met and places I gained access to as a ghost.

In Pretty Little Packages the narrator is plunged into the world of people-trafficking and sex-slavery, while Secrets of the Italian Gardener is set in the palace of a Middle Eastern dictator who is telling his story to a ghostwriter during the outbreak of the Arab Spring. The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride is set in the world of instant celebrity, a place where most ghostwriters spend at least some of their time.

Last year I published a memoir, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, which looked back over the last 40 years and I wonder how many palaces, brothels and VIP areas I would have had privileged access to if I had stayed in my garret and written the books I dreamed of writing as a teenager, and whether I would ever have been able to earn a living and support a family.

So, what would I say to the young person setting out to be a writer today? First I would ask if they want to write for their own pleasure and fulfilment or whether they want to use writing to support themselves financially. If it is the latter then they must furnish their brains with something that they can write about, gain access to information that other people are willing to pay for or provide a service that others need to buy. The odds that your passion projects alone will ever make enough money to support you in any decent style are about the same as when you buy a lottery ticket, so you are inevitably going to have to do something else to earn money in the coming years. The more varied and interesting your life and experiences, the more likely that you will have something worth writing about. The more time you spend honing your writing skills through crafts like journalism and ghostwriting, as well as by producing speculative passion projects, the sharper those skills will be when the time comes for you to try to sell your passion projects to an understandably uninterested world. 

When we get to the later years of our lives it is good to have some stories, adventures and interesting experiences with which to regale our grandchildren, being a writer can provide as many of those as you care to take up. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

By the Time You Read This I'll be in Bits by Ruby Barnes

Last Thursday, while Britain was busy voting on its EU divorce, I managed to indulge two of my passions - writing and martial arts - with a fundraising launch of the Zombies v. Ninjas series in Stonehouse Books, Kilkenny, Ireland.

Coach Gary (left) and author Ruby (right) at the launch of Zombies v. Ninjas
Coach Gary (left) and author Ruby (right) at the launch of Zombies v. Ninjas

It was a great event, well-attended and raising a good few euros for the club, Evolution Martial Arts Academy. The whole thing turned into a signing fest when we came up with the idea of club members wearing their outfits. Readers were encouraged to ask anyone in karate regalia to sign their newly purchased books as the trilogy features all the club members. It was a unique experience for everyone.
Members of EMAA as featured in Zombies v. Ninjas

The launch had been greatly anticipated. My ZvN trilogy was a rapid project, first chapters being penned in February 2015 and the final edit of the third book completed in May 2016 (they're only 40k words each). This project served several purposes - to have some fun writing really crazy stories, to see if I could produce some commercial work to a short timescale, and to keep my mind firmly fixed on the world of karate. The last is significant as, if you read this post on Sunday 26th June 2016, I will at that same time be enduring the extreme physical ordeal of my 1st Dan Black Belt karate grading. This is the culmination of five years of training for the oldest ninja in town. The fun starts at 10:00 a.m. and will finish (after my fellow ninjas have all taken turns to attack me with full force) several hours later when I'm in Primo restaurant that evening, holding a cold pint of Peroni in my trembling hand. Pass, fail or fall over (one doesn't necessarily preclude the other) this has been much harder than writing a novel. So then what? Write some facebook or blog posts about the Brexit? Revive my ambition to become a ballet dancer, scale Everest or just run naked into the sea?

Ex-pats head home after the Brexit vote
Ex-pats head home after the Brexit vote

On Monday 27th June (or whenever I'm physically able to raise a hand to the keyboard and cast a bruised and battered eye at the computer screen), I will launch myself at the next writing challenge. A series of murder mysteries, laced with dark humour, a natural spin-off from Peril and Dodge. The first of these is 22k words in so I'm optimistic about completion of that one in 2016. Maybe the occasional Zombies v. Ninjas release will be thrown in between those murder mysteries. The karate, however, will not take a back seat. At Evolution Martial Arts Academy we maintain our preparedness for the Zombie Apocalypse. We will survive.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Goats, Goats And More Goats - by Susan Price

It was about a year ago that my brother Andrew said, "How about
The Troll gets a look in
doing something with the Three Billy Goats Gruff?"

         He knows I'm a sucker for that story, that I've often said it's a master-class in suspenseful story-telling. So I said, "You're on!" and the Goatstravaganza started to roll.
       First we set up a story-board: a large sheet of plywood leaning against a bookcase, on which Andrew stuck sketches as he made them. I would scribble lines on bits of paper and tack them to the board. The pictures influenced the writing and the writing influenced the pictures. It was enormous fun.

 Pencil sketches from the story-board

       We wanted to publish it as a paperback with CreateSpace. Ah, but how to persuade CreateSpace to publish a picture book with speech-bubbles and explosive, coloured 'Ka-pows!' and pictures that bleed right to the edge of the page?
     We researched, and all the smart money said that making it into a PDF with a PDF writer was the way to go. We needed Adobe Acrobat Pro with which you can create a PDF rather than just read one.
      Adobe Pro is expensive. But there was a month's free trial. So we downloaded it and gave it a go, carefully following instructions. We loaded it up to Createspace's previewer and found we'd failed. So we tried again. And failed. We tried and failed again and again.
      No matter how many times we looked up 'how to do it,' no matter how many times we meticulously checked over what we'd done, when we ran it through the Create Space previewer, it was a disaster. Tiny pages pushed into one corner. Half the image missing - oh, there were endless variations of wrong, but they were all wrong.
          Life did seem to narrow down to Goats, Goats and yet more failing Goats.

          I even lashed out a whole £1-99 on 'How to Format Your Picture Book For Createspace and Kindle Without The Frustration.' The author has obviously been there.
     We carefully followed Olson's  instructions for making a PDF. Failed.
       Wrath and despair. 

        Then, while the brother chewed the rug, I turned to the part of the book which tells you how to format using Microsoft Word. Hmm, I thought. Worth a go.

         You go to the Word's Layout menu, to Size. You make a new Word file, to the size you will be using in Createspace. You add an inch all round to allow for bleed. So, as were using the 11" by 8" Createspace size, we made the Word file 13" by 10".

The book was so thin that the gutter in the middle made no difference. Our pictures were going to flow right across it.

Add a great many blank pages to the Word file, far more than you need, because it's easier to delete pages than to add them, once they're filled with images. (If you try to insert an image between two other images, the new one almost always ends up in the wrong place. Don't ask me why. I just know from experience that it does.)
         Remember that your book has to have at least 26 pages or C/S won't upload it. This differs from the traditional picture book format - but also gives you more freedom.
         When you have your Word file at the required size, turn to your images, in whatever graphics programme you use. Make sure your text is embedded - that means it's saved as a graphic image rather than as text. This allowed us to have speech-bubbles and coloured words that go 'Zoo-ooo-oom!' They're actually pictures of words rather than text.
     Save your images in a format acceptable to Word. We saved them as jpegs. The  resolution needs to be at least 300 dpi (dots per inch.)
          Then use the Insert menu on Word to 'insert picture.' Insert your jpegs, page by page and centre them. Pull them at the corners until they fill your 'page.'
          If you have a double-page spread, cut it in half and insert it as two pages.

         We gave this method a go, somewhat gloomily, expecting it to fail as all our other attempts had.
         It worked, almost perfectly, first time. Andrew, a perfectionist, did a lot more work to get the details to join up across the double-spreads but never mind, it worked!
         When we proofed it on Createspace, we were told it was wrong because 'the file was a different size to the one expected' and because 'live elements went over the page border.' But we expected this. We wanted the pages to bleed right to the edges. Andrew had designed it so that there was nothing important in the areas that would be cut off.
       So we ignored Createspace's warnings. There is a button to click which actually says something like, 'Ignore and go ahead anyway.'
         We followed Karen Bush's advice and paid for a proof - and made more changes because of it. On some pages, the text, which had seemed fine in the previewer, was actually too close to the edge of the page, so we went back to the master-image and changed it.

 The Story Book              UK                    US
 The Colouring-In Book   UK                    US

        And when we'd done it, it was Andrew who had the bright idea of turning it into a colouring-in book. "We've got all the pictures," he said. "The outlines and the colours are on different layers. All I have to do is remove the colour layer and we've got a book of black-and-white outline drawings."

Some of the words and letters have fallen out of our book!

         That reminded me of talking about how children learn to read with my cousin, Alan Hess, who until recently taught special needs children. I emailed him and asked, would it be a good idea to remove some of the words and letters from the text of the colouring-in book, so children could practice their reading and writing skills by filling in the blanks?  "It's an excellent idea," he said.
          So our Three Billy Goats Gruff story-book is accompanied by the colouring-in book, with 'closed' exercises to help children with reading.

         But here's the good news for picture book writers. You don't need incredibly expensive programmes like Adobe Pro and Photoshop. You can use Word, which you've almost certainly already got, and free graphics programmes such as Gimp.
         We're already at work on our next opus, which will be The Musicians of Bremen and I love the images Andrew has already sketched.

The 'Bremen' storyboard

The donkey gets the idea of going to Bremen
The donkey and the dog meet the cat


Friday, 24 June 2016

Thank goodness that's over, now I can get back to writing.

I've no idea where our readers are. But some of those in the UK might be preoccupied today. For we had a referendum yesterday in which we decided our future place in the European Union. The media has been overwhelmed with arguments (I call them arguments - some not much more than appealing to primitive suspicions and beliefs about people who are different) for months. I confess I reached the point of turning them off. I couldn't bear watching yet another rich white man pontificating and making promises he can't possibly keep.

However, it has absorbed my thinking. The implications, for myself and my family, are huge. We can't reverse this decision. It's not like an election; if we elect a bunch of tossers we can vote them out in another five years. We have to get this 'right'. (Today we find out what 'right' might look like).

Then came the murder of Jo Cox - there's nothing to add to the millions of words that have been written about this. But I can't have been the only one who never knew her but but still spent hours thinking about the senselessness of her death. Do I really live in a country where people kill other people who don't agree with them?

What's this got to do with writing?

Possibly not a lot. Because writing needs headspace. I have a Work-In-Progress lurking on my computer. I'm used to parking this in a corner of my mind when times are busy, knowing that it will talk to itself occasionally provided I give it a little attention (often in the form of a walk, when I allow myself to think about nothing else), and then it will re-emerge with solutions when I have time to get on with it.

But these last few weeks have been different. The combination of a full diary and political uncertainty has overwhelmed my capacity to contain the WIP in its safe corner. I've had to give up, admit that there is simply too much going on. I have given myself permission to let the writing go for a while, knowing that this will pass and I can pick up it again when things settle.

Today we get the results of the referendum and I shall be absorbing the implications. There will be no energy for writing - again. But you, can you put huge world events to one side and settle to writing? Or do you, like me, allow yourself to give up occasionally?

If you've got any headspace to think about writing today, you can find some on my website,

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Brown River by Lev Butts

It seems that just can't help screwing over indie writers. I don't mean to imply that Amazon has it in for indie writers. It would be self-defeating to set out to undermine such a significant source of revenue for one of your important subsidiaries. After all, without indie folks, Amazon's CreateSpace program, one of the primary venues for self-publishers and many smaller independent presses, would essentially be dead in the water.

No, the problem lies in Amazon's perhaps overzealous pursuit of quality control. More particularly, trying to ensure that its merchandise is not offensive, its book reviews are relatively unbiased, and royalties are obtained honestly.

Maybe Amazon should consider this as a motto for its quality control.

This is not a new thing, and we here at Authors Electric have certainly discussed Amazon's problematic relationship with independent authors (and with traditional writers, too) before. However, I'd like to take a closer look at the problematic methods Amazon has used to address the three concerns above.

1. Non-Offensive Merchandise

I've written about this issue before, but not with an exclusive view towards how it affects indie writers.

As an initial reaction to the Charleston, SC Killings, many retailers, including Amazon, declared a moratorium on selling Confederate flags, extending to portrayals on other products regardless of historical context. While Amazon eventually relented on the issue of book covers, so long as the flag was displayed in a historically accurate or culturally appropriate manner, the fact remains that for a while there, books were removed from the virtual shelves, and many wound up having new covers designed before the world's largest bookstore came to its senses.

So how does this affect independent writers? Well, cover design ain't cheap. A good cover can sometimes cost the publisher hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you self-publish or publish through a co-op house, that means the money comes from your pocket. Since most indie writers are not going to make enough money in royalties to cover such a cost once, much less twice to remove an offending image, this means that once a book was banned, it was gone, at least until the prohibition was lifted.

Others such as our own Reb MacRath went ahead and had new covers created, but that essentially became an extra cost to their revenue that they would not make back until years down the road, if ever.

That the new cover (right) was actually a superior cover
doesn't negate my original point that it was an unnecessary
financial hardship to force on the author.

2. Unbiased Reviews

Amazon has, what looks on the surface, like an understandable if fairly strict review policy. In it, it states clearly that "family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items." Look, I get it. It's important that book reviews, which help drive sales, be as unbiased as possible. Obviously a spouse's review of their significant other's book is going to raise questions over whether it's an accurate depiction of the book's quality.

However, Amazon is a little vague about what constitutes a "close friend": a close friend, apparently is, they explain on their Frequently Asked Questions page, anyone who has a "direct or indirect financial interest in a product, or [is] perceived to have a close personal relationship with its author or artist."

Again, on the surface this sounds perfectly fine. Except for the word "perceived." How can Amazon "perceive" a review came from such a person? While answers are not forthcoming from the company itself, evidence points to online surveillance of your social media. There are anecdotal reports of reviews being dropped because a reviewer and an author corresponded a few times on the author's website/Facebook page. I myself have had a review of a Neil Gaiman book denied once because we "knew" each other, and to the best of my knowledge, I've never met the man but once at a book signing, and he once replied to a comment I made on his webpage page about ten years ago.

I'm sure my lost review did nothing to harm the sales of American Gods, mind you, but this is Neil Fricking Gaiman we're talking about. The man could publish his grocer's list and make the New York Times Bestseller List.

Hello, I am Neil Gaiman, and this is a ledger of all the shits
the markets didn't give about Mr. Butts' lost review of my book.

For independent authors, though, every lost review counts. We struggle to get every review we can to make that minimum number of reviews that will allow Amazon to out our books in rotation on the "Others have read" and the "You might also like" and the ever popular "Frequently bought with this" lists. If we lose reviews simply because we once said "thank you" to a nice comment on our blog, or someone happened to "like" the picture we posted of our dog doing something cute, that has a direct palpable financial impact.

Though my dog is, to be honest, incredibly cute.

3. Honest Royalties

Recently, Amazon decided to pay Kindle Unlimited authors by the pages of their books read as opposed to a flat fee for whole book borrowed. There are all kinds of problems with this pay model, that I will let others discuss. The main thing from the two articles I've linked is that some folks have found a way around Amazon's page counting metrics, and they have found ways around Amazon's original solution to the scammers.

Again, I'm not saying that the scammers should win here. Far from it. I'm mainly concerned though, with the salt-the-earth policies that Amazon has enacted both for this and other perceived breaches of Amazon rules. Essentially, they can drop your books and ban you from publishing with them without so much as a token query to you.

If you write books that are "fast reads," and people finish them quickly (like overnight, because none of us have ever stayed up late nights to finish a book), Amazon may think you have paid a "click-farm" or 'bots to borrow your books and click through the pages to the end without reading them.

Amazon, stop me now!

Think it can't happen? It can and it does. It happened to Pauleen Creeden. Yes, her books are still available in paperback, but for most indie authors, the real money is in ebooks. Just as paperbacks became a cheaper and more portable alternative to hardbacks in the mid-twentieth century (thus making books more accessible to the poor and middle class), ebooks have become the new cheaper and more portable option for readers. With her access to ebook publishing removed, Creeden has lost a significant portion of her writer's income without so much as a chance to defend herself.

So what can we do?

In a word, not much. We can't delete our social media to ensure more reviews. Doing so only limits our access to the readers who may write them. We cannot prove a negative when it comes to employing click-farms or purchasing reviews, especially if we are not given the opportunity to even try to.

The main thing we can do as authors is try to lobby Amazon to institute a better appeals process to allow authors and reviewers to defend themselves before having their work summarily deleted.

How one does that, though, is beyond me. Perhaps someone in the comments has a clue.

We're sorry Mr. Butts, but we can't publish a new review on your book. It turns out
the reviewer's cousin was a caterer on a movie set where the director had once
worked with Kevin Bacon, who was in Footloose, which starred John Lithgow,
who was in The World According to Garp, based on a novel by John Irving,
who once wrote you a letter.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Waving or drowning? Ali Bacon reviews her social media situation

I don’t know what it takes to fall in love with social media (warped personality? lack of real social life?) but for a while I was head over heels, first of all with my blog and then with Twitter.

Behind the blog
     Blogging came about because of a work remit (I must be one of the few members of the human race who did a course on it!) and shortly after I was offered a paid blogging opportunity on behalf of a golf marketing company. Since I played golf, this was fun, and as long as I churned out a couple of posts a week I was sent a modest but satisfying cheque at the end of each month.
     Nice work if you can get it.
     And by the time the Rather-Be-Golfing goose had stopped laying its golden eggs, I had put together my own writing website using the free Wordpress facility which I knew would provide ‘static’ website pages as well as a blog, enabling me to feel like a) an IT whiz-kid and b) a proper author with a proper website.

Let me say again, all of this was fun, and for a good three years I blogged every week without fail.  I made connections with a quite a few other bloggers (not all writers, just anyone who liked taking their thoughts to the world without having an axe to grind). As time went on my occasional book reviews attracted the attention of publishers and book marketers who offered free review copies – more fun!

By this time Facebook had emerged from its academic and yoof origins but although I signed up (purposes of research, obviously) I steered clear – mere chitchat and gossip – not for me! Twitter on the other hand approached me by stealth. After I signed up (research ..!) it cheekily searched my email. The only two people it came up with already on Twitter (a local author and my niece’s husband) happened to be people I considered to be Quite Interesting - as they did turn out to be. A few followers and followings later I was chatting with a collection of people – a few of whom I knew in real life or had met on my blogging travels – on a regular basis and in a most diverting way. I crafted my tweets to fit the 140 characters and comforted myself with the thought that surely this was a good writing skill.

So what went wrong? Well nothing really because I had a novel published and my group of chatty friends turned into my social media platform – just what I needed!  Or was it?

Sell, sell, sell!
In what seemed like a piece of good timing, I had come across an authors’ collective (not this one) intent on (amongst other things) harnessing the power of social media to sell books.  I applied, I was accepted. Result. I now had a bigger band of followers/friends (FB could no longer be ignored) to have fun with. The only thing was that I was also duty bound to tweet and share on their behalves. No problem – a bit of time management was all that was required. I joined Linked In and discovered Hootsuite – a platform which will post for you across social media and schedule posts for different times of day. I dabbled in Triber too. Magic!

Hootsuit: notification, notification, notification!
 But somehow there was a subtle change in my social media activity. Basically it had become work, not play. Also, the Hootsuite interface – which I used instead of Twitter - gave more emphasis to mentions and retweets (i.e. my own profile) but discouraged me from reading the massive amount of stuff appearing in my news feed. 

Great, why read all that when it’s the mentions that count? But the overall result was that I lost interest in my old love, using it as a publicising tool rather than a chat room and transferring real socialising into Facebook. Of course the other reason I lost interest was that I was mostly reading other people’s publicity. I began to wonder if I was as annoying as they were!

Twitter - who's out there? 
Help – or sanity – arrived in an unexpected form. I took on the role of blogging and tweeting on behalf of my writing group (as no one else had the time or interest) and to save myself from confusion I restricted that activity to the original Twitter interface. After initial annoyance at its comparative clunkiness, I realised I was forming more interesting connections there than in my own account. By starting afresh I remembered Twitter could be fun.

Of course in the meantime there were notifications and new interfaces on phones and tablets just to add to life’s rich social media tapestry, but by then I had left the writers’ collective for other reasons and I’ve now divested myself of my Writers Unchained tweeting at least for a while. I’ve also for the most part ditched Hootsuite and returned to my spiritual Twitter home where I am assiduously unfollowing (sorry guys) anyone who throws out only promo material. And I am congratulating myself on never having taken up Pinterest – yes I know it’s great but I’d never be off it - although I am a little curious about Instagram …!

And my old friend the blog? I joined Authors Electric because I like the company – and could see that a shared blog makes far more sense. I use my old place for the occasional update or venting opportunity, but it’s due for a makeover of a fairly radical kind, and with so many other places to scatter my writerly seed, it may become what it was always meant to be – just an author website. 

Still afloat - just!
One or two things I have learned: - social media involves many things, including discipline, but also being yourself, whichever profile or identity you are using.

So how are the rest of you coping? Probably better than I am!

Fee free to wave to me as I keep afloat 

on Twitter @Alibacon

And of course I also have a story in Another Flash in the Pen anthology. 
Don't miss the 0.99 p introductory offer!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

What the EU Referendum means for authors - Katherine Roberts

On Thursday, UK voters will be making a decision to REMAIN or LEAVE ("BREXIT") the European Union. I'm writing this post a little ahead of time, but already I have been bombarded by so many different 'facts' from both camps (mostly speculation and educated guesses, it seems) that I am becoming quite confused. So without trying to change your mind in any way at this late stage, I'm writing this post to try to decide what the referendum means for authors like me.

'Fact' 1: Authors are self-employed. This means we do not benefit from any kind of minimum wage, holiday or sick pay, workplace pension, or other employee sweeteners. So far I've heard that Brexit might cut wages by £38 per week, but also that Brexit could mean a rise in the wages of low-paid workers. Both of these headlines seem to be based on educated guesses working from Britain's GDP (Gross Domestic Product) forecasts, and as far as I can work out neither outcome will directly affect the self-employed author's income. Combining the rather scary "households will be worse off by £4,300 a year" forecast (also based on GDP forecasts) with the median average income from the latest survey of UK author earnings (£11,000) would leave your average single-income author household with just £6,700 a year, but I think that is misleading since the first figure comes from the UK's GDP divided by the number of households, and I am not sure how much of the country's GDP finds its way into authors' pockets anyway... anyone know?

'Fact' 2: Authors are treated like farmers for tax purposes, in that we are allowed to average our profits over two years under HMRC's Literary Averaging rules to help smooth out the typical author's unpredictable and see-sawing income pattern. While the EU referendum vote should not directly affect the UK's tax averaging rules, it's interesting to note that the National Farmers' Union appears to be firmly in the REMAIN camp. So far, I have not seen any official Society of Authors advice on the matter*, although it appears they are campaigning to ensure that the vote does not affect current discussions about copyright and the Digital Single Market, which is apparently going ahead whether we remain in or leave the EU. Unlike farmers, authors do not get subsidies from the EU, so the decision is not so clear cut for us.

* EDITED 28/6/16: Following the Brexit result, the Society of Authors issued this statement to their members.

'Fact' 3: The majority of electric authors' royalties - and some of traditionally published authors' royalties - come from US-based internet retailers such as amazon. This means we get paid after the deduction of US withholding tax or (for ebooks sold in Europe) European VAT depending on the country of sale. The UK has a double taxation agreement with the US so we can apply to get our royalties paid with zero withholding, but there is no way of avoiding VAT on European ebook sales, except to campaign for the zero-rated status enjoyed by print books. European VAT used to be a flat rate for all European ebook sales, but was changed in 2015 to apply to the country of sale, creating something of a nightmare for authors selling ebooks direct from their own websites. Since VAT is a European directive, we could in theory be totally VAT free if we vote to leave the EU, which would mean no VAT on UK ebook sales... or we might not... if you can make more sense of this VAT article as it applies to authors, then let me know! However, depending on the type of trade agreement the government negotiates with the EU following a Brexit, we'd still need pay VAT on our sales to EU countries as we do now, so really this is an export issue - see below.

'Fact' 4: Authors get a proportion of their income from exports in the form of foreign rights deals with overseas publishers, as well as English language book sales in other countries as mentioned above, so a trade deal with Europe would on the surface seem a good thing for us. However, the majority of my overseas income has come from US sales, and my first foreign language rights sale was to Korea for my book The Great Pyramid Robbery... neither of these two countries are in the EU, or ever likely to be as far as I can see, so I am wondering how much Brexit would in fact affect authors' exports? The most important issue for export of rights to an overseas publisher seems to be withholding tax - I did have taxes withheld by Korea, but it is possible to offset withheld tax against UK tax on your annual return, and we already have a double taxation agreement with America.

'Fact' 5: Authors of print books borrowed from public libraries also receive income from the UK Government in the form of Public Lending Right (PLR). This annual payment has a cap (currently £6,600) for high-earning authors, but can form a significant proportion of a lower-earning author's income, particularly children's authors. However, library closures in recent years and the rise of volunteer-run libraries (which are outside the PLR system) have meant a fall in PLR across the board. Would Brexit mean more government funds to keep libraries open, maybe even to re-open the ones we've lost and some brand new ones too? It would be nice to think so! However, realistically I expect any spare cash from a Brexit vote to be quickly swallowed up by other ailing public services such as the NHS.

'Fact' 6: Low-earning UK authors can apply for working tax credits and other benefits. All authors are also eligible for a Government pension when they reach state pension age. In theory a Brexit vote with fewer migrants from the EU claiming their share should mean more money available for us in time of need... except it might not. All I know is that my pension age has already risen by 7 years (to a rather depressing 67 the last time I checked) without any help from Brexit, leaving a worrying hole in my long-term financial planing, and while working tax credits have helped to keep me afloat in recent years, it is not clear whether these will continue to be paid to low-earning authors under the new Universal Tax Credit rules.

'Fact' 7: House prices will rise and fall, regardless. Apart from the average wage and average household income forecasts based on the GDP already mentioned in 1, we have alarming headlines such as house prices may fall by as much as 18%  after a Brexit vote - which might be cause for celebration if you're a first time buyer, so probably depends if you're the renting type of author or equity-rich type of author. I own my house, but if house prices fall and I want to move then they'll all fall, so no real effect for me either way. The only time this would really bother me is if I need to do equity release in future (and with rising pension ages, this could be a real possibility), or if I win the lottery next week and immediately invest it in a second property. However, house prices crashed fairly dramatically in 1990, and again in 2007 with no help at all from Brexit, and the Daily Mail is predicting as much as a 30% fall regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

'Fact' 8: The last European Referendum in the UK was held in June 1975, when the people of Britain voted to join what was then the Common Market. I was too young to vote in that referendum, but it's clear the Europe my parents voted for in 1975 is not the same Europe we are voting for in 2016. Also, it's important to understand that a REMAIN vote this time will keep things as they are now, whereas in 1975 a JOIN vote meant big change, and changes are scary even when they are positive. An interesting way to look at this 2016 vote might be to turn the question on its head: if the vote on June 23rd was to JOIN or STAY OUT of the current European Union, what would you decide is best for Britain?

'Fact' 9: It's not about politics... although the political parties have, of course, hotly debated the vote and are all championing one camp or the other. From what I gather, the latest line up looks like this:

Conservative: Divided (Prime Minister: REMAIN; Boris Johnson: LEAVE)
Labour: Divided
Liberal Democrat: REMAIN
Green: Divided
Plaid Cymru: REMAIN
Irish parties: mostly REMAIN; Democratic Unionist LEAVE

Other countries also have an opinion on what Britain should do:
America: REMAIN... or else you'll be at the back of the queue for trade.
Europe: REMAIN... we need your cash.

So how should authors vote on Thursday? I think I've made up my mind now, but part of the reason this decision has proved so difficult for me is that an author's circumstances can change dramatically from one year to the next. And of course I am not 'just' an author. I am a daughter of elderly parents who both lived through the last war, the sister of an ex-Naval officer, and although I don't have any children to worry about, that doesn't stop me from worrying about everyone else's. I am also aware how important it is to view this vote as a long term commitment for my country, because I'm pretty sure there won't be another European referendum any time soon, whatever the outcome of this one.

In other words, we're talking about a decision we're likely to have to live with for the next 40 years (based on the period since the last referendum on Europe). Happy voting!

Katherine Roberts has a first class degree in Mathematics (which might explain her nerdy need to analyse things at great length), and won the Branford Boase Award for her first book SONG QUEST (which makes her an author). She writes fantasy fiction for young readers with a focus on legend and myth and historical fiction for young adults under the name Katherine A Roberts.

Her latest book is the long-awaited sequel to her 2001 novel SPELLFALL:

Find out more at

Monday, 20 June 2016

Weatherhouses and hearthstones by Sandra Horn

What is pc when writing for children? I was struck by the woman on a recent programme about children’s television who said that the early programmes were ‘too middle-class.’ They were certainly voiced by people with impeccable diction and no trace of regional twang. Now, one thing that seems to unite most TV presenters, whatever they are presenting, is an inability to pronounce the letter ‘t’. It has become a glottlestop. Oops, I’ve digressed into a personal gripe. Sorry. Where was I? Yes, this woman on the TV made me think about whether we should write from where people are (or where we think they are) or from where we would like them to be.  
          Aspirational, that’s the word. Is it wrong? The woman of TV mentioned Grange Hill as more appropriate to the needs of modern kids. Well, I’ve been there; spent two long terms in a local secondary school trying to interest and enthuse 14-year-olds in writing stories for younger children, while they surreptitiously played on mobile phones and plugged their ears in to MP3 players or similar. The teachers couldn’t hope to control it all. So, no, I didn’t start from where they were. I vetoed stories about Michael Jackson for a start – and anything else from that kind of pernicious, sexualised culture. Am I showing my age? I expect so. The stories they were working on were aimed at 5-year-olds, after all.
          In the end, 95% of the kids produced gorgeous, colourful , age-appropriate books and produced them with great thoughtfulness and care. We used a chunk of the budget to have the books colour-printed and bound and had an exhibition of them in the library. It was the hardest work I have ever done and by the end of each day I was so tired that I lost my way home twice (the school is about half a mile away from my house!). BUT what I hope and believe is that, for that one day each week, those teenagers were encouraged to come out of their cocoons and fly. Grow. Shine. Be proud. If this all sounds too, too middle-class, well, I didn’t start from there and I won’t apologise for wanting the same chances that I was given,  for those kids, so there. 

Now I’m going to write what I’d planned before the TV programme started me off on a rant. It’s not quite the same issue, but not entirely different either. Many, many moons ago, I wrote the first The Hob and Miss Minkin stories, set in and around my fictionalised home in darkest Sussex (dubbed Cold Comfort Farm by my husband). Someone in my writing group objected to the hearthstone where the cat and Hob meet each night, as ‘children in tower blocks will never have seen one or know what they are.’ 
Similarly, when I wrote the very first version of Rainbow! The response from a publisher was ‘children won’t know what a weatherhouse is’.  I’m not sure where or when I first saw one of those quaint little houses with two doors which were supposed to predict the weather depending on whether the man or the woman came outside. I do remember being enchanted by them. We were once given a ghastly version with a plaster ‘Red Indian’ wearing an apron bearing the inscription ‘Apron blue, sky is too. Apron pink, weather stink.’ Yuk.
          In the end, in my stories, the hearthstone stayed and the weatherhouse is there by implication in Samuel Sunshine and Rosina Raindrop’s world. DIY publishing – love it!

My latest WIP is about a silver cruet set in the form of a ship with a Phoenix figurehead. No, I’ve never seen one either.
          Children won’t know about X or Y or Z? They will after reading about them.  Isn’t that what stories are for?
          Lifting us from where we are to a new and different place – isn’t that what stories are for?