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.