Thursday, 30 March 2017


I finished my first book seventy-six years ago. I offered 
it to every publisher on the English-speaking earth I had ever heard of. Their refusals were unanimous: and it did not get into print until, fifty years later,
publishers would publish anything that had my name on it.
                                                                        George Bernard Shaw

   Shaw's experience strikes a chord with most published authors. We may not soar to the heights of GBS's fame but we have all proved the truth of the old dictum, 'Nothing succeeds like success'. Back in the early days of my efforts to become acknowledged as a serious writer with something valuable to say, I received a series of rejection slips. Then I was approached by an educational publisher who desperately needed an author for a school text book. The project had no connection with what I had written earlier but there was a captive market for it and, inevitably, the book sold well. The interesting thing was that when I approached other publishers with MSS that had originally been rejected, they were now favourably received. I had a track record. The risk factor of taking on this novice author had been diminished.
   Does such a tale make for cynicism and despair among those still waiting for their lucky break? It should not. We need to take on board four basic facts:

1. Publishers are people - or, rather, they employ commissioning editors who are people. They have their own preferences and areas of expertise. Anything you can find out about the editor you wish to approach will help. This is where an agent comes in handy but  you can often learn about editors from their online profiles.

2. Publishers have to publish to stay in business. Editors have to find promising propositions to work on if they are to avoid redundancy. So keep on submitting.

3. Publishers receive far more MSS than they can, with the best will in the world, give detailed consideration to. Some have been sent to the wrong place by writers who haven't done their homework properly. Some have been sent by complete novices. Some have been sent by agents with their recommendations. Some have come from 'celebs' or writers already known to a wide public. Some have been sent by authors who already have been published. Which do you think will be considered first?

4. Editors are accountable to their marketing departments. They have to persuade the money men that the books they want to take on will show a profit. Always stress to editors that you have considered carefully the market potential of your masterpiece.

   No industry has changed more drastically than the publishing industry over the last few decades. When I began to write commercially the main London publishers occupied small offices in West End back streets and their staff were dedicated to the maintenance of high literary standards. They relied on the sales of well-established authors to enable them to back new writers of promise. Now most have been gobbled up by conglomerates operating out of glitzy office blocks and are primarily committed to keeping their shareholders happy. They do still care about finding and promoting new talent but the emphasis has moved decidedly towards 'safe' projects - T.V. tie-ins, celebrity biographies, cookbooks and genre fiction (such as romance, crime and fantasy) which will sell in supermarkets. One response to changing market realities and the development of new technology has been the emergence of a swarm of new, small-scale publishers. Their appeal is to the hopefuls who have been unable to interest mainstream houses. They can offer to see your work into print without close scrutiny as to its quality because (a) they print on demand, (b) they don't pay royalties and (c) they don't employ a host of professionals covering the many aspects of editing, production, promotion and marketing. They rely heavily on internet selling and expect their authors to do the lion's share of online promotion. The end results tend to be books that are more expensive and of  more variable quality than those produced under well-established imprints.
   Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. You are much more likely to get your MS printed by one of the smaller operators but that's only the first rung on a long ladder leading to public recognition and you may well not climb higher (even if you are ready to invest hours of time in tweeting and all the other methods of self-promotion recommended by the publisher). To be taken on by a well-established publishing house is hard (particularly if you do not have an agent to fight your corner). If you are offered a contract you will be in for a long, exacting editorial process designed to hone your work thoroughly. But your book will be made known internationally through the intercontinental publishing grapevine. You will be in the hands of an imprint which has cachet with reviewers and bookshops and will be assisted by an army of expert editors, proof-readers, designers and promoters. And you will be paid a royalty (usually with an advance element).
   Whatever publishing route you choose there will be hazards along the way and no guarantees of success. One service 'old fashioned' publishers offer to the reading public is to turn down MSS. This may sound harsh but there are too many mediocre and downright bad books published. This has a degrading effect on the book bizz in general. If you are a born writer with a genuine gift that comment won't put you off. If you are not ...

Friday, 24 March 2017


not to be a
success, but
rather to be of
- Albert Einstein

         Question:  When is a book not a book?
           Answer:     When it's a marketed product.

   There is a basic disconnect between authors (or artists in general) and marketeers. Very few (if any) writers are comfortable as salesmen. We have a gut feeling - and rightly so - that our task lies in employing our skills to express as effectively as possible what we feel passionate about. That consumes all our energies. Conveying the results of our labours to the book-buying public is someone else's responsibility. That's why we have agents and publishers. Selling what I write is a full time job. It involves mastery of numerous techniques from jacket design, to cataloguing, to advertising, to co-operation with professional and other bodies, to multi-media expertise, to negotiating with festivals and other interest groups, etc., etc., etc. etc. I lack the skills and the time to get involved in this sort of activity.
   But there's a more fundamental reason why creative and business activities should be kept separate and it's succinctly stated in Einstein's dictum, 'Strive not to be a success but rather to be of value'. That stands in contradistinction to all the slick one-liners thrown out by entrepreneurial gurus, machine-gun firing get-rich-quick mottoes. Maintaining distance between creating and marketing is important because otherwise we face the temptation of modifying what we want to say in order to make it saleable.
   But you may say, 'Ah, but the internet has changed all that; today's authors must maintain an online presence'. Certainly the new and constantly developing information technology has made a difference to the book bizz. There is a veritable sm√∂rgasbord of ways to communicate with each other and with interest groups but sm√∂rgasbords have their problems. The choice is so large that we might not know what to sample. Each item is presented attractively and we might try some only to be disappointed with the taste. Then, again, we might load our plate and end up with indigestion. So, if you are going to put yourself and your work 'out there', how should you go about it. Well, here are a few tips.
1. No novice author has achieved instant fame and fortune by courtesy of the internet. A reputation can 'take off' thanks to twitter, youtube, and facebook because what they can do well is build momentum but the basis will always be the relatively slow business of word-of-mouth recommendation.
2. Totally ignore all internet experts who offer to launch you to bestsellerdom.
3.  Set up and maintain a lively blog. This is your personal shop window. As people hear about you, this is where they can come to 'meet' you.
4.  Back up the blog with a flow of tweets but don't use them to tell potential readers how marvellous your work is. That puts most people off. Blog-tweet feeds are most effective when they invite people to share some topic (preferably of current interest) about which you have something informative/amusing/unusual to say.
5.  Enjoy mutual interest groups but don't spend a lot of time on them. Most have a comparatively small membership and you could find yourself preaching to the converted.
6.  Don't let marketing the last book get in the way of writing the next one. Building your reputation depends on developing your skills and building up reader expectation for what's coming next.

  Only the quality of our work will attract the enthusiastic and loyal fans who are the building blocks of our reputation.

Friday, 17 March 2017


   When you pitch a proposal to a publisher you may very well get the response, 'Who's going to read this book?' It's a fair question. If you want someone to invest good money in your brainchild he/she will need to be convinced that there's a market for it. It's also a question every author ought to ask him/herself before investing hundreds of hours into creating a new piece of work. You may be excited about a wonderful plot that has occurred to you or feel strongly that an issue on your heart should be aired to the world at large but unless you have some idea of the potential readership, you could be wasting your time. It's a sobering fact that most new books have a shelf life of three or four years and are only reprinted on demand. It's true that there's no easy answer to the question, 'Who will read this book' but that doesn't mean that the question should not be asked. So, how do you identify your niche market?
   (1) Assess what similar books are already out there and selling. Amazon Books are useful here because they display lists of titles under the heading 'Customers who bought this item also bought'. Have you anything to add to the contributions of others? If you are simply hoping to clamber aboard the bandwagon, it won't work. Aficianados know what they want. My Treviot novels are sometimes compared with C.J. Sansom's Shardlake stories. We cover the same period but my yarns, unlike Chris's, are tied to real unsolved Tudor mysteries. That's the 'twist' I employ to interest readers looking for something new in their favourite field of historical fiction.
   (2) Share your enthusiasm with others online. This can be a good way of identifying people of similar interests. But be warned, on-line chatting can be a terrible time-waster. Not all interested parties are avid book-buyers.
   (3) Keep a list of major publishers who sell 'your' sort of books. They have established a viable market. Analyse their catalogue entries. You might spot a subject gap they've missed.
    (4) Read magazines. There can be few specialist subjects that are not catered for by regular periodicals. These can often provide starting points for original research.
    (5) Meet real enthusiasts as often as possible - in clubs, special events, book fairs, etc. There's nothing better than one-to-one sharing. Whether your passion is saving the whale or collecting 1st period Worcester porcelain you'll find soulmates at such gatherings. They're not all twitterbugs.
   Every market is a niche market - but some niches are bigger than others. The Harry Potter books were written for children and young people with a love of 'magic' stories. They 'hit the spot' with millions of young readers. The bigger the niche, the more crowded it is and, therefore, the more difficult it is to elbow your way in. However, fans are always on the lookout for a fresh take on their favourite subject. For example, if your interest is in World War II espionage, has anyone majored on events in Turkey? I don't know the answer but I like the sound of 'The Istanbul Connection' (Yes, I know it's an old jazz number).
   Today's book market is vastly overcrowded. While there will always, thankfully, be startlingly new books that take the world by storm, most readers have limited tastes. The trick is to cater for a particular taste, while, at the same time offering the 'old hands' something they haven't come across before.

Friday, 10 March 2017

M is for MAD

The only things you can take with you are those you've given away 
                                                             - Frank Capra

   In 2009 a Pakistani girl, still not in her teens, wrote a blog describing what life was like for women and girls under Taliban oppression. Malala is now famous worldwide for her campaigns for female education, is a Nobel Prize winner, the subject of numerous magazine articles and has co-written her autobiography. And she is still not twenty years old! Her path to fame was as costly as it was unexpected. Not only did she and her family have to leave their homeland, she narrowly survived assassination. Undoubtedly, Malala is MAD - she Makes A Difference. Any writer worthy of the name aims to do the same.
   A writer is someone who has a love of words, an affinity with language, a skill in describing, with unambiguous clarity, things and concepts, an ability to convey powerfully emotions, ideals and beliefs. A writer is a professional; someone with a calling, a vocation; not someone like W.S. Gilbert's 'lady from the provinces ... who doesn't think she dances but would really like to try'. If I found myself one day not very busy (if only!) I wouldn't think, 'I'll have a go at designing a bridge'. Well, our role in the great scheme of things is as distinctive and important as that of the engineer. We are here to make a difference and if we are remembered after we have died it will be because, somewhere along the line, we changed the life of an individual, a group, a community, a nation or the world. So many 'how to' manuals promote an introspective attitude, as though being a writer was about being personally fulfilled or - heavens preserve us - just making money. Anyone who in all honesty, would describe their motivation in those terms would be well advised to put less strain on the rain forests and find something more creative to do with his/her brief span on earth.
   What does 'creative' mean in this context? It means whatever enriches mankind. For writers that means extending a reader's awareness of his/her humanity. It has been traditionally associated with the 'humanities', the study of philosophy, history, religion, art, music and language but creativity can be achieved through almost any genre of fact or fiction - humour, history, biography, crime, sci-fi, social comment, adventure. It tells us things we didn't know about ourselves and things we did know but didn't know we knew. A book will enthrall us as long as it touches something deep in our psyche. Books have the power to excite or calm, to inspire us to new thinking or underpin our fast-held convictions, to deepen our sympathies or fire up our indignation, to bring out the best in us. Or the worst. We only have to think of Mein Kampf's rabid racism, Machiavelli's endorsement of political amorality in The Prince or the unbridled libertinism of the Marquis de Sarde's 120 Days of Sodom to realise that books can engender bad change as well as good.
   We writers have the power to choose. We have the gifts that enable us to influence people. That carries responsibility. Neutrality isn't an option. Because we are who we are we translate ourselves to the printed page. The results will depend on whether we speak truth or falsehood. Falsehood is not restricted to that which deliberately appeals to the salacious, distorted or unprincipled mind. The glib, the flabby, the sentimental, the sensational that wallows in violence, lust or deceit for its own sake - all such books cheapen their authors and demean their readers. Lydia Languish in Sheridan's The Rivals is the archetypal dupe of romantic fiction, determined to make her fantasy love affair a reality: 'I projected one of the most sentimental elopements! So becoming a disguise! So amiable a ladder of ropes! Conscious moon! Four horses. Scotch parson! ... Oh I shall die with disappointment.' The novels she read were certainly not the kind of books Thomas Carlyle adored: 'Of all the things we can make here below the most momentous, worthy and wonderful are books'.
I know what kind I must write - or try to write.
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Friday, 3 March 2017


'Computerization eliminates the middleman'
                                 - Isaac Asimov

   If he were around today I wonder whether Asimov would want to modify that assertion. For writers the internet has stirred up a swarm of middlemen offering to publish or promote our work. Since there are a multitude of hopefuls wanting to get their MSS into print and since it's difficult for beginners to make the breakthrough, it's not surprising that there should be hundreds of slick operators hungry to exploit them. Now, the book bizz has always had its middlemen. They're called literary agents. Are they any different from the johnnie-come-latelies buzziing around in cyberspace? And do we need them anyway? 

   Basically, 'yes' and 'yes'. A good agent is invaluable to an author - and that for three reasons - Contacts, Contracts and Critique.

(1) Contacts: The adage, 'It's not what you know but who you know that matters' works in all branches of the media industry just as much as in most other businesses. Networking sells book ideas, just as it advances company careers and gives Oomph to popular protest movements. As an author with a MS to promote you can build up your own networks if you've nothing better to do with your time. The problem is that, as a writer, you do have something better to do with your time - writing. Building a fan base of 100,000+ readers is enormously difficult and vastly time-consuming. If that were not so there would not be hundreds of 'new middlemen' offering their services - for a fee. What's the difference between them and established literary agents? Well, just the fact that they are established, part of the book creating establishment. They belong to the network. They spend every working day in touch with editors, producers and marketing people round the world. Some publishers only look at MSS submitted through agents. They know what's 'in' and who's 'in'. The fact that my agent works in London means that I don't have to and can enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside, concentrating on my job - writing.
(2) Contracts: Publishing contracts are long and complicated and every year, thanks to electronic books, they become longer and more complicated. I can't keep up with all the legal small print about rights and penalty clauses, etc. These things matter. So does making sure that all payments due to me come in correctly and on time. My agency has an accounts office dedicated to doing precisely that. All this saves me many precious hours - hours I can spend doing my job - writing.
(3) Critique: My agent is an invaluable filter, straining my brilliant ideas and enthusiasms into the market. There are several reasons why a project I propose should be adapted or even abandoned. It might be that someone else has an almost identical book coming out in six months' time. It might be that the publisher I have in mind has had a change of editorial policy. It might be that a commissioning editor is planning a new series into which my book might fit - with a bit of tweaking. The market is constantly changing and I need help in remaining a part of it. I need good advice and I'm not too proud to take it. Working in harness with my agent is the best way I can do my job - writing.

   Of course agents are not infallible. Of course, there are good ones and less good ones. During my fifty years I've had two and they have both served me well. Occasionally I have disagreed over a decision but for the most part I have benefited from their inside knowledge. After all, it pays them to help me succeed. If I don't make money, they don't.

   I know, I know what you may be thinking: 'That's all very well but how can I get onto an agent's books?' If an agent is good, his/her client list is likely to be full. How to overcome that problem? I wish I had an easy answer. All I can suggest is keeping up with the the latest info in the  Artists' and Writers' Yearbook and being persistent. Knock on doors as often as you can. One day one will open. Then you will have someone in the bizz who is on your side, who wants you to succeed and will do his/her best for you - even down to offering a shoulder to cry on. And that is worth its weight in gold.
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