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.


Penny Dolan said…
Thanks for letting us "hear" your sensible and positive talk, Sue. I'm sure the SCBWI audience really appreciated it.

But how that arrogant lecturer got out of your RLF door safely, I do not know.
Jan Needle said…
Great stuff, Sue. Thanks. Tears n laughter all rolled into one.
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes Sue, a wonderful post which rang more bells than I care to think about. And I especially liked - or was repelled by, I'm not quite sure which - your story of the lecturer and his inept novel. It reminded me of a novel I was asked to read by a Headteacher (Penny, you'd recognise the name if I told you!) who clearly thought my function was to be awed by it and recognise fully-fledged genius. My opinions were treated in much the same way as yours were, so I volunteered to send it to Pam Royds for an opinion, which he reluctantly agreed to take notice of. Her reaction was devastating and I've never heard of him or his blasted novel since, thank God.
Bill Kirton said…
A great read, Susan, charting my own learning curve (only without the Carnegie Medal etc.). It also confirms a 'truth' that struck me when I was writing my own first novel, The Sparrow Conundrum. I'd been a playwright and had no idea why I started writing a novel but, as the little pile of typewritten sheets on the desk began to grow, I realised that one of the qualities required of a novelist is stamina. Of course, as your lecturer and Dennis's Head Teacher prove, you need other skills, too. But your persistence in the face of that baffling ignorance on the part of the publishers demonstrates the value of having enough self-belief to stop the buggers getting you down.
Susan Price said…
Thanks to all. It seems our 'Self-Publishing Nuts and Bolts' talk - with Karen Inglis, illustrator Roxie Munro and app-dynamo Sarah Towle - was a bit of a hit and Sarah has been asked if we'll repeat it in Edinburgh.

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.
Anonymous said…
I love Philip Pullman's response to somebody asking if his next book would also be for children: 'Yes, if it's good enough.'

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!
Enid Richemont said…
My first children's novel came out in 1990, and from then on I was adopted by Walker Books who published me regularly. Wendy Boase, who was one my my editors, once offered me a contract for an unwritten/untitled novel, so much confidence did she have in my work.

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.

Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you Susan, for so charting this writers' voyage into the indie e-book seas. I know the feelings you describe and share many experiences. As a semi-newcomer to this group, I also appreciate the context you provide and am all the more delighted to be part of it. I feel our explorations, though significant, have barely begun.
Susan Price said…
SCBWI spans the Atlantic and in some ways seemed like AE writ large - the same enthusiasm (even if occasionally flagging in some members, like me), the same willingness to share, help and support others.

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.
Linda Strachan said…
Excellent, thanks for sharing your journey. Can't wait for January and A Sterkarm Tryst!
Sandra Horn said…
Oh, brilliant! Thank you for this on a flippin' cold grey day.
What everyone else said! This is awe-inspiring and terrific, and I may well end up following in your and Kath's footprints. Also can't wait for 'Sterkarm Tryst'!
Leslie Wilson said…
Excellent post from one of the best writers I know.
Anonymous said…
It was so wonderful presenting with you, Susan. You gave a great, and personal, talk. Everyone loved it. Hope to see you in Edinburgh in2017, and if you get to New York in the meantime, let me know and you can maybe visit my studio.
Dennis Hamley said…
Suye, I'll be buying Sterkarm Tryst the moment it appears. Did you know Paul Coiinvaux died in February? The annual college revue arrived yesterday and, as is usual now, I turned straight to the obituaries. Having just taken in the fact the four contemporaries of mine had obits on the same page, I then, to my surprise, saw Colinvaux's obituary below them. I didn't know he'd gone to Jesus (I mean, of course, the college.) It's a short, factual account, but gives a good book list. As far as achievements go it seems most interested in the fact that when he was professor at Ohio State he actually introduced rowing as a competitive sport, with some success because a crew of his won a cup at Henley!
Susan Price said…
Gosh, 17 comments now. Thank you to all who've added theirs.

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.
Loved this post. Very real :)
Brian said…
My journey started in 2008. I had had my book (on theatre training) turned down by the first of the three major UK theatre book publishers because it was 'not technical enough' (which meant that they hadn't read the second half of the book, which is purely technical; the second then took nearly 18 months keeping me dancing on the end of a hook, ending in finally turning it down because they already had 'several other similar books' (they didn't, but I won't go into that now); and the third one never even bothered to reply to my three emails.
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!
Elizabeth Kay said…
Bit late in thew day to add my two pennyworth, but a great post Sue.
PS. I can see authors of the future having a mixture of indie-published and traditionally published work, depending on the type of book and its readership. I don't see why it has to be one path or the other.
Heather Dyer said…
Inspiring, Sue. You are generous with sharing your experience, as ever. I'm going to do it too one day soon...
Nick Green said…
I've often wondered if the precocious shaman Chingis in The Ghost Drum is somehow an analogue of the precocious young Susan Price, especially with the spiteful professional jealousy she attracts from the older, male, 'used-to-be-the-best-at-this' shaman.
Susan Price said…
Nick, you may think so but I couldn't possibly comment!

Brian - thank you for your very interesting post. I shall certainly be checking out Reedsy.

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