Sunday, 29 January 2017

C is for Celebrity

     If you saw J.K. Rowling pushing a trolly round Sainsburys would you recognise her? Neither would I. That's the difference between fame and celebrity. Famous people are known for what they do. Celebrities are known for who they are or for the image they project. They are public personalities. The cult of celebrity essentially began with the development of visual communications media. The movies made stars. But they could act. Television has created 'celebs', people of modest talents or none. It's not one of the more admirable characteristics of our society. It has certainly done authors no favours. It has flooded the bookstore shelves with books by, or ghosted for, celebs.
     If I were tempted to adumbrate a golden rule for aspiring authors (of course, I'm not because there's no such thing) I might suggest 'Get yourself on the telly'. It's a strange phenomenon that people will buy books if they recognise the author pic on the jacket. Publishers, of course, know this full well. That's why they hand out generous advances to writers who have no literary pretensions. It is part of an author's responsibility to maintain the quality of the written word. It should be part of a publisher's concern to foster those who are trying to do just that. Every penny they expend on paying and publicising the written ramblings of TV game show hosts or self-glorifying politicians is a penny not spent on maintaining standards in the book bizz.
     Is there anything we authors can do about this? Not really. We are, in effect, anti-celebs. We spent most of our time, not in the public forum, but in virtual purdah. Our interaction is with the page or the computer screen. Or, rather, it's internal as we struggle with words, metaphors, images and emotions in order to externalise them in ways that will inform, move, amuse, delight readers, most of whom we will never see. If we are successful it's not because people admire our looks, our quirky behaviour, our dress sense. Any success is down to the words which allow readers access to our imagination, our knowledge, our humanity. It is a privilege to be able to influence them and, in some measure, to enrich their lives. But it is also a frustration to know that we could contribute even more to the public weal if we were better known.
     This frustration tempts some aspiring authors to dissipate their time and efforts building up 'followings' via twitter, facebook and youtube. I'll have more to say about that under 'S is for Social Media'. For now I'll just comment that, in my view, this kind of self-promo is speculative and time-consuming. To end on a more up-beat note, there are other ways of getting better known, word-based ways (See J is for Journalism and N is for Niche Markets). So, my 'D' will be not for Despair but Discipline.

Friday, 27 January 2017

B is for Bookshops

     One of my simple pleasures in earlier times was to spend an afternoon meandering along Charing Cross Road, browsing in the almost door-to-door bookshops. Some of them still remain, with their stuffed shelves spilling out onto the pavement but this street is no longer the bibliophiles' Mecca it once was. Times have changed and their impact on bookshops is a microcosm of the metamorphosis of our civilization. Am I embarking on a nostalgic rant about the book bizz going to the dogs? Absolutely not; but I do want to make a few observations, from a writer's perspective, about how things have changed for good or ill and what that means for us.
     Let's start with the good news: the book is not dead. Despite the appearance of the 'entableted' word, all surveys show that most readers still prefer to turn the pages of a real book. Not only is there a tactile pleasure to be derived from this but it is, actually, easier to 'move around' between the covers - back-checking previous passages, using the index, making individual marginalia. We can still build up relationships with our favourites and recognise them by their size, colour and dog-earedness.
     That said, we have to face the fact that the book has become a commodity, and this is something every writer and particularly every fiction writer needs to take on board. The main objective of the marketing departments of the major publishers (and it only applies to the big boys; others don't get a look-in) is to have a new novel taken up by one of the big supermarket chains. They are the retailers who place the big orders. One in every five books bought is taken off a supermarket shelf. What can the aspiring author learn from this? That it's worthwhile looking at the bookshelves in Tesco or Waitrose. Like it or not, the supermarket bosses know what sells. So, am I suggesting that you prostitute your art by churning out wordage aimed at the lowest common denominator of public taste? No, but it's certainly helpful to know what the current public taste is. If you can support your latest pitch to a publisher with evidence that Asda are currently selling Roman history novels or political thrillers or whatever 'just like mine' you stand a better chance of getting taken seriously.
     Savage commercialism has impacted on booksellers (and therefore, authors) in other ways. Shops used to be places where writers could meet their potential readers. Many of them hosted signings and talks. Few now do so. That is because hundreds have been forced out of business by the chainstores and their discount policies, and few of those who are left can afford to put on social events. Of course, there are brave exceptions. It is well worth authors establishing and sustaining relations with booksellers, particularly if they can make local-interest connections with their books. However, to all intents and purposes this marketing opportunity has been closed to us.
     Going back to where we came in, Foyles in Charing Cross Road, in its glitzey new store, puts on some excellent author events. So do some Waterstones branches. But don't imagine you'll get a look-in there. They are not interested in honest-to-goodness writers. They only want big name speakers who will put bums on seats.
     That brings me to my next topic. C is for Celebrity. Watch this space.

Monday, 23 January 2017

1967 - 2017

     How best to celebrate a 50th anniversary - apart from over eating and drinking? Well, one way is to try to pass on whatever 'wisdom' you think you've acquired. It might be ignored, even resented, but there's just a chance that it might help someone. That's why, after five decades and 70+ published books I thought I'd share my observations about writing for a living. I can honestly say that there's not much I don't know about the frustrations, disappointments, mistakes, as well as the euphoric successes that are the lot of all professional authors. And I know, because they often ask me, that there are many wannabe bestsellers out there, eager for any advice that might help them to get published and stay published. So over the next few weeks I will be presenting an A-Z of Successful Authorship. But first a word of warning. This is not a 'how-to manual'. I have nothing but contempt for unscrupulous writers of 'how to succeed' books, who prey on the hopes and dreams of would-be J.K. Rowlings, John Le Carres or Wilbur Smiths by offering sure-fire formulas. There are no quick-fix solutions. There is no one-size-fits all procedure. Every writer is on his/her own and must blaze his/her individual trail. What follows is just some of the things I've picked up while hacking my way through the undergrowth of the book bizz. So here goes.
A is for Ambition
     Why does anyone want to be a full-time author? Why would he/she choose to spend every working day in solitary confinement putting words on a page? No-one should embark on a writing career who has not faced up to the question, 'What's in it for me?' Am I attention seeking; so insecure that I need proof that what I think, feel, believe matters to others? Do I see writing as a way to megabucks or celebrity? Would a writing career validate my reclusive nature, freeing me from the need to deal with bosses, colleagues and customers day after day? If the honest answer to any of these questions - or just about any other question we might think of - is 'yes', then the best advice is 'don't do it'. There's only one answer that really matters to the question, 'Why should I become a writer?' That answer is, 'Because I already am one.' I don't believe any sane person ever woke up one morning and thought, 'Do you know what - I think I'll become a concert violinist, or a trail-blazing artist or a brilliant inventor or a captain of industry.' So why should we imagine that it's possible to decide, out of the blue, to become a crime writer or an author of children's books or sci-fi novelist? Writing is not something I do; it's something I am. I can't remember the time when I did not work out my thoughts and feelings on paper or on a keypad. I need to 'enflesh' the abstract processes of my mind; to find the most precise or expressive words; to arrange impressions in a sequence that gives them meaning and power. This is how I communicate with myself and how I learn to communicate better with other people. I write something every day and I would obey that compulsion even if not a single word of mine had ever been published.
     We are probably all familiar with the quip 'Everyone has a book in them and in most cases that's where it should stay'. Well it's true. Most educated people are reasonably competent in using their native language for all necessary communication with others, but letters, memos and - heaven help us - tweets have nothing to do with the writing of effective fiction and non-fiction. There are many reasons why some books should not be written. Here are just a couple: (1) Poor books clog up the publishing machine and dissipate the time and energy that should be spent on helping talented authors, (2) Poor books debase the writing business. One thing that makes me want to throw something at the telly is when a retiring politician or sportsperson or an actor between films, when being interviewed, is asked, 'What are you doing now?' and replies, 'I'm writing a novel'. The likelihood of the celeb producing something of literary worth is remote but he/she will get published - and be paid a handsome advance - because a publisher wants to cash in on his/her fame (or notoriety). 
     In all of this I am not referring to the one-off book that certainly should be written because it contains information of interest to a large audience - the political memoir, the expose of crime or corruption, the biography of some too-long-overlooked person, etc. Nor am I discounting the well-researched tomes which fuel the academic process. My only concern is with offering such insights as I have gained to those who aspire to membership of that profession which is one of the important pillars of our civilization - or, indeed, of any civilization at any time.
     The next blogpost will be B is for Booksellers, a moving tale of the good, the bad and the ugly.