So. You're A Writer, Are You? - by Susan Price
When Sarah Towle asked me to explain to the audience at our SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Catchy name) panel how I began as a conventionally published writer but am now, mostly, a self-publishing writer, I suddenly saw my career in terms of the three questions I've been asked repeatedly. This is the one that I started hearing as soon as I started publishing.
So. You're a 'writer', are you?
You see, I signed my first contract at the age of 16.
When people asked what I did, and I said, "I'm a writer," it caused cognitive disruption. Because, obviously, I was too young to be a writer, since writers are all at least 40. Or they're 80 and pickled in cigarettes.
Even after I stopped looking young, I still had a Black Country accent. Which, obviously, writers never do. So I couldn't possibly be simply stating what I did. I must be a fantasist. Somebody who scribbled as 'a nice little hobby' and day-dreamed about being published but never had been.
This is partly why I started answering the question, "What do you do?" with, "I work with a word-processor." Which effectively ended that conversation.
After the total reached 63, I lost count of the number of books I'd published.
In 1987, I won the Carnegie medal for The Ghost Drum.
And in 1997, I won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for The Sterkarm Handshake, a book full of fighting and bloodshed.
Here's the second question I'm always getting asked.
Almost every writer for children I've ever met is sick of being asked this.
What? Like Alice in Wonderland? When I worked in a university as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, one of the lecturers came to me with a novel they'd written. Very badly. For adults.
I tried to give some tips on improving it but was cut short and told: "You can't understand what I'm trying to achieve because you only write for children." It says a lot for my self-discipline and restraint that the lecturer left my office without a mark.
I often think I'd like to set people who ask this question an essay to write. Discuss, on both sides of the paper, how writing for children is less proper, or easier, than writing for adults. What part of the difficult craft of writing can you dispense with when you write for children?
Required reading, before writing this essay, is, 'The Mouse and His Child,' by Russell Hoban. And Gaiman's 'Coraline.' Perhaps even, The Ghost Drum, which one critic described as 'a child's primer in realpolitik.' But not proper books, any of them.
And then it was
The bankers did their stuff and the publishing industry suffered. Also, both my parents were ill around this time and died within a year of each other. As a result, I didn't write or publish anything much for four years. Just as an actor who isn't constantly on the TV is thought to be dead, if you don't publish a book a year, you vanish from the consciousness of the publishing industry - and, publishers assume, from that of readers.
A lot of my books were going out of print at about this time, too. These three, for instance.
I've often read The Wolf's Footprint aloud in primary schools, and the children always seem to be gripped by its tale of a brother and sister, about their age, who're abandoned in a forest as darkness falls and the wolves come... Ever since it went OOP, I've had email after email, from schools, parents and grandparents, asking where it can be bought. At public appearances at least one person would ask me the same question. But no new publisher could be found for it.
It was a similar story with The Ghost Drum. It had two sequels, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance. Emails asked me where these books could be bought. People at festivals and talks were disbelieving when I told them they were out of print. More than once I've been asked, "Why is a Carnegie winner out of print?" Well, it seems there's no demand.
I wrote a fourth book in the series, Ghost Spell and suggested to my then agent that we find a new publisher for all four books. Or, at least, for the new book and Ghost Drum. She was keen. She thought it 'a done deal.' But there was no deal to be had.
And The Sterkarm Handshake. Out of print. The same story. I wrote the third book, A Sterkarm Tryst and, again, my agent thought she could find a new publisher. She couldn't.
And then my friend, Katherine Roberts, sent me an email.
"Have you seen this?" it said, and when I followed the link, it brought me to-
Kath and I had been talking about how the internet was, inevitably, going to change the publishing business and wondering how writers could take advantage of the change, as musicians had done. Because of the expense of printing, storing, distributing and advertising books and because, like most writers, we were broke, we hadn't got anywhere. But here was Amazon, offering us a chance to create and distribute ebooks at no upfront cost. We were interested.
We both downloaded the Amazon Terms and Conditions, read through them carefully and compared notes. Neither of us could find any reason not to try it.
Kath is an ex-programmer and has a degree in maths (which as an innumerate I find all kinds of impressive.) She taught herself the basics and passed on her knowledge to me and several other people.
She also pointed out that, as there were already over 2 million books on sale on Amazon at that time (2011) we had to do something to publicise the fact that our books were available.
That's why we started Authors Electric. And what a good idea that was. We now have a lively little on-line community that can be counted on for help, advice, support and laughs.
When we started, I found the task of creating an ebook head-banging. But, as with everything I've learned, it turned suddenly from ^%£(*!!* impossible to, well, not easy perhaps, but close to it. And, as before, it was impossible to say where the switch took place. There never seems to be a gradual shading from impossible to possible. It always seems that, one day, you're rattling through the job and you think: Hey! Wasn't I finding this painfully difficult last week?
And there was a lot of help from various members of Authors Electric along the way, Most of us were trying to climb the same learning-curve and we helped each other.
My advice to anyone trying to learn anything is: Stick at it. Grit the teeth and stick at it, even if you're fed up to the back of those teeth. One day, without warning, it will suddenly become clear.
But there's no rest. As soon as we'd mastered ebooks, along came Createspace and the opportunity to publish paperbacks. I came late to the paperbacks, but Authors Electric were as full of help and advice as ever and now, when people ask me where they can buy The Wolf's Footprint or The Ghost Drum, I can direct them to Amazon.
But now, of course, I hear the third question
To which I can only reply:
The Sterkarm books have found another publisher in Open Road. The first two are now available in paperback and ebook and the third, A Sterkarm Tryst, will be published in January.
The Ghost World Books (The Ghost Drum, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance) are now all available as paperbacks and ebooks.
This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference on 20th November, 2016. My fellow speakers were Sarah Towle, Karen Inglis and the writer-illistrator, Roxie Munro.
But how that arrogant lecturer got out of your RLF door safely, I do not know.
I knew that 'you only write for children,' story would strike a chord. I've met so many writers for children who've met with this same attitude.
And Bill - and all of us - let us roll our self-belief together in one ball because we're going to need it.
Your publishers clearly had no business at all in letting your books go out of print. How frustrating and depressing. Thank heaven for self-publishing and the chance for new generations of young people to discover you.
And I'm delighted this panel went down so well at SCBWI, whose ideas about self-publishing definitely needed updating!
Fast-forward to 2001, when a novel which had been turned down by Walker was taken by Simon & Schuster who gave me a book launch to die for. At the same time, I learnt that most of my Walker titles had gone out of print, and the following year,the book launched with such over-spending and acclaim was to follow them down the same dismal route. I haven't written a serious, full-length middle grade or Young Adult novel since, but managed to keep head just above water by writing for an educational publisher and pblishing two picture books. Never won the Carnegie, Sue, but otherwise, mine was a similar success story.
In the last few months there's been an extraordinary development which I've already blogged about here, but about which I'm not yet allowed to reveal a great deal - serious film involvement in one of my first published books. At the same time, I received a 31- yes, 31! - page 'brief' from my ed publisher guaranteed to kill off any remaining creativity, and possibly inspired by Mr Gove - it would seem to bear his grey fingerprints. A weird contrast( can't spell that w word so feel free to edit).
I am hopeless at epublishing and worse at CreateSpace - David, my beloved late husband, was the IT whizz in this family. Never signed up for SCWBI - should I? Sue - to my great loss, I've never read you, but will correct that right now. And if you're in Winchester, do you ever come to London? If so, you're more than welcome here.
Its members are enthusiast for the craft of writing and for all that children's books, in particular, can do - inform, stimulate, entertain, feed and free the imagination. Some members are published writers, some aren't - and although Sarah Towle thought they needed to be informed about self-publishing, our panel was attended by some seriously well-informed self-publishers.
I'm not a member myself, but I am seriously considering joining.
Roxie, I don't think I'll ever make it to New York, but certainly will to Edinburgh - and I very much enjoyed your company, especially at the party! Where, folks, we were surrounded by pigs, dark angels, mad hatters, cats in hats, Wallies, elves, goblins etc.
Dennis, I didn't know Colinvaux had tired, though I realised he must be getting near to the end of the twig. He wrote some terrific books. Fate of Nations you know of - it gives you a whole new view of everything that happens in the world. 'Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare,' is also excellent.
So I went down the Kindle route, struggling through the steepish learning curve of HTML coding, and the convoluted way of adding a ToC in Word for CreateSpace. The book has now sold 1200 copies and steadily rising, which is very respectable for a technical book on theatre.
Eight years later I have just published my fourth book. This time I tried not to cry with joy all the way through the incredibly simple and free Reedsy Book Editor process (I started off using Scrivener, but this is soooo much easier). It's not for anything more complicated than straightforward fiction or non-fiction, but that's ok for me. I'm now teaching all my writing students to use it.
A friend of mine had a book on theatre training in a slightly different field by the first publisher that turned me down. He has sold 4,000 copies. He asked me how much I had earned from my book. 1200 copies= approx £2200. He turned a whiter shade of grey. From his 4,000 copies he has earned about £1800. On top of which this respected publisher waited for a year to publish the Kindle Edition (which is what most savvy and poor theatre students buy), then charged only 80p less than the print edition, AND, to add insult to grievous bodily harm, seriously screwed him on the Kindle royalties, giving him only 25% of the 70% they are receiving.
I am happy where I am; preparing my next book on theatre the easy way, and not having any publisher to mess me around.
All hail The Digital Age!
Brian - thank you for your very interesting post. I shall certainly be checking out Reedsy.