Out and about: an author’s tale

“…you can’t sit around and wait for someone to discover you…” Olafur Arnalds, composer.

As an independent novelist, one of the major dilemmas – rather like the young Arnalds seeking to get his compositions played having not followed the traditional channels for a would-be composer – was that her novels only made sense if they were (widely) read. An ‘unfortunate’ corollary of which was that she couldn’t just bask in the pleasure of writing, but had to step out and get people to read them.

There were so many novels out there, some brilliant, others less so, begging to be read. She didn’t want to join the hoards clamouring to sell their wares. Not that she thought her novels were unworthy, on the contrary, but mercilessly plugging them would not only belittle her, she reckoned, it would devalue the books she had worked so hard to write and publish.

She had tried several times to court an agent and go down the traditional publishing route, but she’d had no success. So few authors were chosen and the curt replies, if ever she got them, were demoralising. She didn’t want to be discouraged from writing. It was her biggest joy in life. She told herself she’d be better off without an agent. She didn’t want to have to shoe-horn her work into pre-defined formats or toe the line to anticipated market trends. What’s more, she was impatient. Going through an agent and a publisher would mean delaying the release of her books for several years.

She maintained an eager online presence, as all aspiring authors were encouraged to do, and she was proud of what she’d achieved, but it rarely sold any of her books. In reality, she came to realise that platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter were stacked against her. They were only interested in locking users in while garnering as much saleable information about them as possible. Understandably, when every other post was a disguised promotional message, people’s engagement was rarely more than superficial as they shied away from all attempts to sell.

She sighed. The whole prospect was so gloomy. Whichever way she turned, the path was blocked. Suddenly she gasped, slapping the flat of her hand against her forehead with a resounding clack. She’d taken her experience of publishing at face value. What if she were telling herself a story? ‘Just’ a story. The thought had her feeling giddy. If it were a story, that would mean she could rewrite it…

Growing in the cracks in the publishing system

Growing in the cracks in the publishing system
Source: The Guardian. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The Guardian reports that French booksellers have called on the judges of literary prizes to ignore self-published books available only on Amazon. What sparked such a reaction? Marco Koskas’ Bande de Français is one of the contenders selected for this year’s Prix Renaudot. The Guardian article states that the book has been self-published using CreateSpace, a print-on-demand service which is a subsidiary of Amazon, ostensibly making it unavailable to bookshops. The booksellers campaign lays bare the cracks in the publishing system.

On the one hand, bookshop owners are angry because Marco Koskas’s book is available only on Amazon, although, as it is printed by Createspace, it could be made available to bookshops. When Payot in Geneva wanted to stock my novel, Boy and Girl, they had no problem ordering copies even though it was printed by CreateSpace. On the other hand, no editor wanted to take Kostas’s book, so self-publishing was the only avenue for the author. Note, he is no beginner. He’s already had a number of books published by the ‘traditional’ channels.

By petitioning to have this book removed from the long list for the Prix Renaudot, bookshop owners are saying that only those writers published via agents/editors should be considered for prizes because including self-published books would be tantamount to granting Amazon exclusive rights to the book (*). First of all, this is not necessarily true. Secondly, commercial models in other industries, like that of films, do have distribution players with a monopoly on some prize-winning films. Just think of Netflix.

What’s more, agents and mainstream publishers, as gatekeepers to ‘traditional’ publishing have a great deal of power already. For example, self-published or indie-published books are generally barred from getting reviews on most specialised websites because they have not been granted the approval of agents and established publishers.

That Kostas chose to use print-on-demand is not a ploy of Amazon. It is a dynamic of the publishing industry in which CreateSpace and Ingrams offer a viable alternative to traditional publishing at a time when that gateway to readers is getting ever narrower. If anything, bookshop owners should be looking to include the best independent books in their selections for customers. That would contribute to providing a rich diversity of books. In addition, it would fuel a demand for quality reviews that would encourage sites to review independent books.

On the other hand, that bookshops want to do battle with Amazon is understandable. Having an independent bookshop, not only as a place to find books but also to attend readings or to meet other readers, is a clear enrichment of a local community. But it’s an uphill battle. The plight of bookshops is also part of the shifting landscape of publishing. Those changes require a rethinking of the role of indie bookshops. One promising avenue might lie in reconsidering the place and role of the bookshops in the local community. How can they offer an enriching face-to-face experience that Internet-based services cannot rival with?

(*) As Matthew Wake, owner of Booksbooksbooks in Lausanne, points out, bookshop owners “… do not want to support Amazon because it poses an existential threat to their livelihood. ‘Amazon…wants to become the market itself by eliminating its competitors, organising unfair competition, avoiding tax and replacing publishers, distributors and bookshops in one fell swoop'” He goes on to say, “As far as I can see they are not questioning the worthiness of the book.” I agree. Unfortunately, the person who gets harmed is the author, who might merit that prize, not Amazon. I question the bookshops’ strategy, not their motives. It is not because a cause is ‘just’ that the methods employed are adequate or have the desired effect.

Article first published in a shortened form on the Geneva Writers Group Facebook page.

Coming out of the publisher’s closet

Promoting Boy & Girl

I wrote a book called Boy & Girl in which Peter discovers that dressing like a girl is not at all akin to being in a girl’s head. Writing the novel was a real joy. Publishing it was tedious, but not so difficult. However, promoting it was much more of a headache. Till now…

As with all my published books, it is Secret Paths that publishes Boy & Girl, using Createspace to provide on-demand print copies through Amazon, in bookstores as well as from Secret Paths website for those living in Switzerland. Ebook format is provided by Smashwords, Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore.

So what about promotion? Secret Paths has a rich collection of websites covering both my books, but also my short stories, my artwork, book reviews and political and social commentary. There’s also a Secret Paths Facebook page along with accounts on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Despite this web ‘presence’, promoting an English novel when based in Switzerland, with a very tight budget, seems an impossible task. A common reaction here is, When will you translate it into French. Groan.  Yet I am convinced there is a considerable audience for the book. People who have read it are full of praise. One person writes, This book is brilliant. I’ll be thinking about these characters and this plot for a long, long time. Another writes This book was a wonderful read. (…) I read it as a parent of a child who is considered “different” and found it great for many reasons… So how can I reach my audience?

It’s still early days, and time might prove me overenthusiastic, but I may have found a possible solution. Facebook ads. Now I know Facebook is getting a lot of heat at the moment both for the algorithms that drive it and how the data collected and the algorithms used have and can be abused. There is clearly an urgent need to address those issues and the future evolution of the platform. See Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk. However, concentrating solely on negative aspects fails to see the advantages the platform offers. 

When trying to reach multiple communities concerned with issues raised by Peter’s story, having a Facebook page is not enough, even if you have a relatively wide circle of acquaintances. Using Facebook ads for my books connects me to those people worldwide in one convenient place. Without it, I would have no feasible way of reaching them. It does so in a way that draws the attention of people potentially interested in my book but leaves them free to move on, should they wish, or buy it and discover the story.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Stories People Tell – Galley proof

Stories People Tell

Just received the galley proof of Stories People Tell. This is the sixth of my novels to be published. In the next few days the new novel will be available on Amazon around the world and the electronic version will be posted to Smashwords, Apple, Kindle etc…. Four sample chapters and more details can be found here: stories-people-tell.com








The Book of Dust

Delighted to learn from the Guardian that Philip Pullman is to publish a new trilogy set in the same context and with some of the characters from his earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials. The new trilogy will be entitled The Book of Dust and the first volume is due out in October 2017. Looking forward to rediscovering more of the magic and the thought-provoking writing of Pullman.

If it fits in a box, sell it!

In an article published Oct. 11th entitled Publishing risks ‘becoming irrelevant’, warns Penguin Random House boss, the Guardian quotes Tom Weldon, chief executive of Penguin Random House UK, as stressing the need for greater diversity in the origins of books being published.

While I hail the call for diversity championed by Penguin Random House in their new #WriteNow project, it seems to put people into recognisable boxes the same way the industry has done with the books it publishes. Just like sci-fi, fantasy, crime, YA, etc are convenient saleable categories, so LGBTQ or BAME (black, Asian, ethnic minorities) or people with disabilities are also marketable packages.

The Guardian article recognises that it is not because you are black or from Scunthorpe that you necessarily have to write in a way that is directly identifiable with your origins or ethnic background. In other words, it is the writer that fits the category and not the writing. Although the journalist does underline that origins will necessarily influence the writing, suggesting a coherence between an author’s books and her origins. In addition, Weldon insists that such a shift in policy will require a change in staff, no longer requiring employees to be university graduates and reflecting the type of authors being targeted.

But what of those who don’t fit into categories? Those whose identity lies in straddling boundaries. Those for whom convenient boxes are a nightmare everyone tries to shoehorn them into. Those who are subsequently rejected because they don’t fit other people’s categories. Those strange people who can’t do otherwise than flirt with limits and often suffer greatly for it. Their necessary fluidity, what is seen as a stubborn refusal to fit, makes others uncomfortable if not angry. Yet it is these misfits, in daring to stray beyond the confines of rigid communities and god-given categories, that afford the possibility of change and innovation for everybody.

The role of the editor

The Art of Editing is an interesting podcast from the Guardian in its books series that is well worth listening to. For someone who lives abroad in voluntary linguistic exile, like myself, the mix of voices and the variety of accents is refreshing; so unlike the schooled tones of BBC Radio Four news programmes or the seasoned actors who narrate the audiobooks I enjoy so much. 

Particularly of interest in this podcast is the idea that a multiple skill set is required of editors these days that goes well beyond what was traditionally seen as an editor’s role, i.e. getting the manuscript of a book into shape for publishing. The podcast hints at the historical evolution of such work. With this expanding role of editors, not all have the various skills necessary from that skill set. 

This dilemma can be found in many other professions where a move away from specialisation requires the individual to be proficient in a range of skills, even when those skills don’t necessarily fit together. An author, for example, is nowadays expected to also be a saleswoman, a marketing specialist, a public speaker and a businesswoman. Yet running after an audience is time consuming, and shifts an author’s preoccupations away from words and story and characters, making inspirational writing all the more difficult. Why? Because such writing requires the author to plunge herself in the world she is creating. Business and marketing are unwelcome distractions. This move away from specialisation and the demands placed on the individual to master a multitude of skills invariably leads to frustration and a loss of quality.

Perching on the publishing pinnacle


Yesterday I attended Polly Nolan’s workshop organised by SCBWI Switzerland at the International School in Lausanne. Polly Nolan (photo above with Joy Manne) is a literary agent at the Greenhouse Literary Agency.  The detailed portrait that Polly gave of the publishing process and how that could affect the would-be writer was stimulating. Her answers to our many questions were clear and coherent but also often heartfelt. At the same time, the goals and limitations of the mainstream publishing process portrayed were challenging for me as an author.

As I struggle to make sense of what I heard (and felt), one thing is clear – and excuse me for stating the self-evident – despite Polly’s refusal of the word ‘product’ for a book, the publishing industry is about selling and preferably selling big. The more time goes on, the bigger the targets the industry sets, the higher the returns they expect. Although clearly many of the books chosen for publishing will only reach middling results, the bar below which a book is deemed a failure continues to rise.

Those of us who write novels in the hope of getting published via traditional channels might do well to factor that quest for blockbuster success into our plans and dreams. It colours not only the types of books publishers are prepared to take a risk on, but also the way they are written. It was personally reassuring to hear Polly insist that a good story will always win out. My whole quest in writing is about telling a story as best I can. But in terms of form and length as well as in terms of content, not to mention personal taste, the criteria for what constitutes a successful book limit the story that can be told and the form it can take.

Despite the growing interest in alternative channels of publishing, traditional book publishing is still viewed as the pinnacle would-be authors should aspire to. All print media and most on-line review sites refuse to review indie or self-published authors. While this may be essentially aimed at stemming the overwhelming tide of submissions, it also tacitly reinforces the vision that only those who traditionally publish their book are worthy of interest. But then media and most review sites are also driven by readership and ratings and big numbers.

If the threshold of success continues to rise for the publishing industry, the author has to ask herself what level of ‘success’ suits her. The video artist Bill Viola talking about installations said that they were never complete without a spectator standing in the middle of them. As authors, we clearly want to be read. I certainly do. I write stories for people to read. Apart from those who aspire to or dream of making a full-time living out of writing novels, us other authors need to ask ourselves what is our measure of success and how (and if) we can reach that, including whether the effort required is such that it causes us to cease writing.

In writing all this, I in no way seek to demonise traditional publishing, but rather, thanks to Polly’s presentation, try to see it for what it is and what it can do (or not) for me as an author. As I raise the question of what size readership will satisfy an author’s need to be read, a more fundamental question arises: in a society that increasingly measures all value in terms of monetary considerations, what financial return should an author legitimately expect from her work?