A thrilling ride at the fair…

The London Book Fair finished yesterday and I spent two days there with my writer friend Mel Sherratt. Mel and I were invited to take part in a couple of panels in the ‘Authorlounge’, an event which judged by the turnouts is rapidly gaining in popularity.

There was a time when the London Book Fair was totally trade dominated, but with things changing so rapidly in the publishing industry authors are beginning to play a larger part. This is no doubt a reflection of what is happening out there in the big wide world, as authors take advantage of new trends and opportunities.

The two panels we took part in were ‘the author’s journey’ and ‘the future for authors’. During the former I was asked how I had come to write my two novels ‘Kiss and Tell’ and ‘Defending Elton’ and why I had chosen to publish them via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing [for ebooks] and Create Space [for paperbacks].

When I chose to publish via Amazon, my quest to secure what is usually referred to as a ‘traditional deal’ hadn’t come to an end, indeed, even as I write this my agent is seeking an offer. However it really doesn’t matter what stage of the writing journey you are on, the option to get your work ‘out there’ rather than have it languishing on your hard drive gives writers a new chance to find and build a reading audience.

It was good to have an opportunity to share my journey with others, and I know that Mel felt the same. There is a definite sense of community amongst writers, and the vast majority of us are quite willing to share our ups and downs. Though the pitfalls do shift a little over time some things remain pretty stable. Both Mel and I pressed home the point that before a writer goes anywhere near that ‘submit’ button they must make sure that their work is a ship-shape as it can possibly be.

Put all subjective issues to one side and concentrate on the basics. All novels benefit from a solid narrative structure. It doesn’t mean the structure has to follow any given template but it must be able to convey the story. Proper formatting is crucial, as is careful spelling and grammar, copy editing, proof reading and a decent cover. These are basics that everyone can address, and without them you are giving readers and other interested parties an opportunity to ‘pick’ at your book.

Even traditionally published books have proof reading errors in them, as I’m sure we’ve all discovered, but they are few and far between. The standards are generally very high and independent authors can just as easily reach them, albeit with a little professional help along the way.

If I were to choose any two areas where outside help is best sought I would say in copy/proof editing and cover design. Readers will soon get annoyed if there are a series of daft mistakes, and they may not even be attracted to the book in the first place if the cover seems shoddy or lacking in intrigue.

It was a pleasure to meet so many writers in and around the book fair. I know from the feedback we received that the vibes were mainly positive. These are unparalleled and exciting times. During the panel debate Amazon’s Daniel Cooper announced that this year over a quarter of their best sellers were now written by independent authors. If nothing else that is surely testimony to just how rapidly things have changed, and it clearly gave an added impetus to all those who wondered if success could only be secured by the old tried and trusted methods.

So why should authors continue to suffer the long and bumpy road of literary agent and publisher rejections? It’s a good question, and one I was asked by the audience. I don’t doubt that there may come a time when nobody will bother to ask it, should things continue to change at such pace, but I don’t think that time has yet come.

I’m going to skip the literary agent question because I believe that whatever happens in the future writers and agents can continue to forge valuable partnerships. For reasons outlined below the role of the agent might change a little, but essentially the relationship can stay intact.

It’s a different issue though when it comes to publishers. The stigma stain attached to direct publishing has largely been mopped away, but it’s still visible. Literary ‘snobbery’ is fading too, but it still remains, and as Mel pointed out even the most successful independent authors still get refused when they apply to join such establishments as the Crime Writers Association. They also find their books aren’t submitted for major honours or prizes.

If you do run a blog or website and feature writers and reviews etc then please do consider all work on its merits. Nobody is asking for special favours, just equality of opportunity, surely something we should all support? The vast majority of course do, but from time to time you still find some who say ‘sorry we only consider traditionally published work’. In doing so they are ignoring over a quarter of the public’s favourite reads… perhaps they should ask themselves why?

Despite this, the barriers are coming down, and the Berlin wall moment may be closer than some think. Meantime, both Mel and I will continue our quest to secure a traditional deal, in one form or another, but only because that tipping point has not quite been reached. For my own part I would appreciate a publisher who believed in my work and was prepared to back me. It doesn’t necessarily mean that more of my books would be sold but it would give me peace of mind at a vital stage of my writing journey – a touch of added security in a precarious world.

In future times though this might not be necessary, as the more success independent authors have, and the more literary agents stick with their writers however they get published, then the less the traditional gatekeepers will hold sway. The model of the ‘hybrid author’, who may have a traditional deal for some aspects of their output and a direct deal for others might well speed up change even faster.

I guess ‘change’, by definition, can be a scary thing to some. We tend to rest more comfortably with the status quo. Writers though have nothing to fear from this change, quite the contrary, and literary agents can easily adapt. It’s really the larger publishing houses who have most to lose because for so long they had exclusive rights over what we, the reading public, could access.

I’m not going to second guess the future. After all very few successfully forecast the dramatic changes of the last few years. I tend to think though that in the future traditional and direct publishing will happily exist side by side, as indeed will ebooks and paperbacks. There may be a transitional period of give and take, and that may not suit some, but the two chief beneficiaries will be writers and readers, both of whom will have more choice, and surely that can’t be a bad thing?

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HALT, WHO GOES THERE? [friend or foe at the London Book Fair]

Tuesday 16th April – London

Whilst the progressive and ever expanding Authorlounge at the London Book Fair was vibrant, a matter of yards away some were still debating the same old thing… and the ‘friend or foe’ in question of course is Amazon. There seemed something very reactionary about the debate, with the fear of change itself being as much an issue as its nature.

Few would doubt that Amazon remain vulnerable to attack, though much of that relates to the understandable fuss over their tax affairs. In terms of Amazon’s role in the literary world however who exactly are Amazon’s foes, and what are they afraid of?

The London Book Fair has been a hive of activity this week, and much of the buzz was emanating from the Authorlounge. A series of panel debates on a whole range of publishing issues and trends were brim full, and remained so throughout the first two days. Many were packed several deep at the back, in fact so much so that a couple of slightly bemused security men were posted specifically to keep the crowds from blocking the aisles. There was a clear sense that this is where things were ‘happening’.

Many of the panels and seminars focused on the direct publishing revolution, where, as the main player, Amazon were well represented. Now I’m duty bound to declare an interest, in that I was invited as their guest along with fellow indie author Mel Sherratt. But that ‘interest’ wasn’t in the company, but in their drive to deliver platforms for writers… platforms that didn’t exist up until a few years ago.

There was a time when self publishing was a dirty word, but so much has changed, and so quickly. It’s a fact that surprises many, but the reality now is that over a quarter of Amazon’s best sellers are now written by independent authors. That would have been unthinkable as little as two years ago. It’s making some publishers nervous and only goes to highlight just how difficult it is to predict the future.

A few years back if the writer/agent/publisher relationship didn’t gel, and no deal was forthcoming, it would be the end of the road for all three. The publisher would look elsewhere, the agent lost a client and the writer had no means of finding an audience for their work.

These days however things are very different, and constantly evolving. Whilst many are still clinging rigidly to their traditional roles some of the more progressive folk in the industry are moving with the times. We are all entering new territory, and writers are leading the way in this publishing ‘wild west’. However, some literary agents are also discovering that there may be ‘gold in them thar hills’.

It was often the case that if an agent couldn’t secure a traditional deal for their client their journey together would come to an end… sometimes a rather abrupt one. However, rather like the way some music industry A&R folk adapted to change, some literary agents are now continuing to back their judgement, thus venturing beyond the old frontiers imposed by publishers.

In doing so, some independent writers are now succeeding in a domain which was exclusively occupied by the big publishing houses… and there perhaps lies the rub. In effect, all Amazon have done is provide vehicles for an alternative journey by offering writers an opportunity to publish ebooks direct via KDP and paperbacks via CreateSpace. Some of the larger publishers bristle at Amazon’s ‘nerve’, but only because they are a potential threat to their vice like grip on the great reading public.

For many years the books we read were strictly controlled. Decisions on what was made available to the public were in the hands of a few. If a publisher thought a particular writer wouldn’t sell, or a particular genre was ‘out of fashion’ they could dramatically affect the literary output. These days however readers not only have a far wider choice of material but a largely uncensored one. This has given them the chance to find independent writers, many of whom are writing what they want to read.

So be careful when you find yourself taking an automatic stance on the ‘friend or foe’ debate. Yes Amazon have some issues, and ones which need to be addressed, and yes a rise in online sales is bound to have an impact on bookstores, but as far a publishing in general terms is concerned Amazon are a company who are at the vanguard of change, and that change is as progressive as it is liberating. For writers there is certainly nothing to be scared of, and if agents adapt to change with them they too have little to fear.

The larger publishing houses held the keys to the doors for many years, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they haven’t taken kindly to someone turning up and barging those doors open. Many writers have taken advantage, and the fact that some are now outselling their own cherished charges has led to a good deal of head-scratching.

How publishers adapt is a matter for them, but spending their time bad mouthing an easy target is unlikely to bring them much joy. The foe, if there is one, could be their own lack of vision. With things changing so rapidly it may be that those who stand still and throw stones will end up with the largest bruises.

All the fun of the fair…

Very sorry it has taken longer than anticipated to post again. So much has been happening, and so quickly, that I haven’t got anywhere near catching up. If I owe you a reply, to an email or the like, I promise I will get there this week.

So, DEFENDING ELTON is now released, as both an ebook and a paperback. Exciting times, and with my invitation to the London Book Fair there is much to look forward to. I will be joining others on a couple of panels to discuss ‘the writer’s journey’ and ‘the future for authors’. I’m not sure at the time of writing this whether my blog in the Huffington Post has gone up, but that will give more of a clue as to where some of the discussion might be going.

I’m thrilled to be taking part, not least because writing can be a solitary business and though the likes of social media can keep you in touch with fellow scribes, and like-minded others, it’s good to have the chance to meet folks face to face. I know the Author Lounge is a big part of this year’s Book Fair and I’m looking forward to saying hi to a number of authors, plus many others connected to the literary world.

I know from mails and tweets I’ve received that my own writing journey resonates with some, and has inspired others to keep on track. Writing comes from within. It’s a drive that has its own energy, and I know how difficult it is when obstacle after obstacle is put in your way. Whether it’s a rejection letter form a literary agent or a ‘not quite what we’re looking for’ from a publisher, or even your own inner voice doubting you, it can be a troublesome path. Of course it always will be to an extent, but I really do think things are moving again, and in the right direction.

Yes it’s been tough, very tough for new writers, because fewer were being offered book deals, but the likes of Amazon have been forcing the industry as whole to take a good look at itself. A literary agent told me recently that she felt utter dejection when she was unable to secure a traditional deal for a talented writer. She had been working with this writer for six months, helping to polish drafts etc. The agent in question was, at first, unashamedly ignorant about direct publishing, but when she learned a little more she was soon delighted to be helping her writer to launch her excellent debut novel as a paperback, via Amazon’s Create Space. I don’t know what their agreement was, but at least it was an agreement, and at least there would be some reward for both writer and agent.

More and more new novels are seeing the light of day, and thank goodness writers now have such platforms. What’s interesting is that it seems to be the writer who’s adapted first, with some agents also beginning to follow on the yellow brick road…

Some will tell you that they are fed up with being bombarded by ghost written celebrity life stories or copy cat versions of well know novels across the genres. I tend to think that we’ve been through a ‘safety-first’ period, perhaps indicative of precarious economic times. It’s been a culture of ‘better the devil you know’ with writers nervous, agents apprehensive and publishers jittery.

Despite all this some fresh blood is now finding an audience. Direct publishing has helped, so too the digital revolution, and as the stigma dissolves an increasing number of people are both taking part and taking note. I read an article via twitter recently headed something like ‘Amazon – friend or foe?’ I don’t think there’s any need for anyone connected to direct publishing to be ‘the enemy’… far from it. Indeed, instead of casting the modern against the traditional many are now beginning to see that they might just be mutually beneficial.

Who knows how things will look in the publishing world in five or ten years time? Nobody could have guessed how things have changed these few years. Words and phrases such as ‘Kindle’, ‘ebook’, ‘direct publishing’ ‘Create Space’ ‘Kobo’ ‘hybrid author’ and many others were off the radar only a few years back. What is probably beyond doubt though is that when things are changing so quickly it tends to be those who stand still who lose out. Adapting to change isn’t really an option, it’s more of a necessity. In fact writers, agents and publishers will all have to adapt to some extent, just to survive, but they can, and I expect in time they will.

Anyway, it will good to listen to what a wide range of people think at the book fair seminars. Back to matters more personal. DEFENDING ELTON has only gone live this last week or so and I’ve already had some amazing feedback. Thanks for that, and I hope the book can reach as wide an audience as possible in the coming months. The process is always a bit of a slow burner, and perhaps even more so this time. As some of you know my priorities have been elsewhere recently since my partner’s cancer diagnosis, but I’m pleased to say that the future is now looking considerably rosier. Kate has a mega sore throat due to her radiotherapy but with just the one week left she’s getting there.

That reminds me, the chemotherapy unit at North Devon Hospital are currently trying to raise funds for a new unit… any donations most welcome! They have been brilliant. And maybe when that’s done we could raise funds for a radiotherapy unit at NDH too, so North Devon folk don’t have to do a 120 mile round trip for up to 30 consecutive days! I certainly know the various routes to Exeter now!

Well hope it’s not too long till the next post. If I get a chance I’ll do one from the Book Fair.