Regular readers will recall me flagging up the Books on the Hill project last year, aiming to publish quick reads specifically intended for dyslexic adults, to encourage them to explore and enjoy the great range of fiction available these days. I wrote about that here.
I’m delighted to say the initiative has been a great success! Alistair and Chloe are running a second Kickstarter this year, offering another tremendous selection of stories to give readers a taste of different genres. You can find Open Dyslexia: The Sequel here. You will note that names from the bestseller lists and TV adaptations such as Bernard Cornwell and Peter James are supporting this splendid initiative. I was naturally most honoured when Alistair asked me – or rather, my alter ego JM Alvey – to write a short history mystery (12,000 words) for this year’s line-up.
What you may well not know – because I certainly didn’t, and yes, I am embarrassed by my ignorance – is that making a read dyslexia-friendly is a case of formatting and layout and similar. For an author, the writing process is exactly the same. I’m aiming to challenge, entertain and intrigue with this new Philocles short story in the same way that I do with anything I see published. The only difference is more people will be able to read it – and I love the thought of that.
This project really highlights how much new technologies can do to make books more accessible for people with dyslexia. And that makes the absence of such initiatives by the mass-market publishers glaringly obvious. The book trade needs to take a long hard look at this situation.
Last night’s thoughtful and thought-provoking JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature by Rebecca F. Kuang is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel – along with previous years’ talks from Pembroke College, Oxford, where Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945. All very well worth your time.
I went into Oxford to be in the audience, and it was great to see established friends and to make new acquaintances. I used the Park & Ride – and on the way back, I really thought I was going to just miss the bus and have to wait half an hour in the rain for the next one. But no! There is a special place in heaven* for a bus driver who sees you start running as he’s driven past, and so waits at the next stop for you to get there, even though there are no other passengers waiting to board. (*or equivalent spiritual reward)
The Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have published a joint report looking into companies that charge writers for publication. You will not be surprised to learn there are a lot of shady goings-on in this area of the book business. For one thing, the sharks and charlatans like to muddy the waters with terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘indie’ publishing. They’re able to do this because these terms mean different things to different people.
‘Hybrid’ originally meant authors self-publishing alongside working with a mainstream publisher. ‘Indie’ used to mean small independent presses not owned by one of the multinational conglomerates. These days, ‘indie’ has been co-opted by self-publishers (not with any underhand intent), while what used to be called ‘vanity’ presses would have you believe that ‘hybrid’ now means the author putting in money up front for a project, as well as the (alleged) publisher.
Now, there are currently a whole lot of different ways to work with a publisher. At the moment, I have five separate agreements on the go, and the details of each contract are different. For one, I have chosen to commission and pay for editorial input and artwork myself and to then supply the complete package to the publisher rather than have them undertake this part of the publishing process. These choices I have made are reflected in the royalty rate I receive. All of this information is readily available to me, the whole process is transparent, and at no point am I paying the publisher for anything. This is a legitimate way to do business.
Compare and contrast the sharks and charlatans. When I’ve been judging genre prizes and books come in from a publisher I don’t know, I go and check who I’m dealing with. Legitimate small presses I just haven’t come across before are easy to identify , but when it comes to vanity presses, the tell-tale info is often very deliberately and well hidden on websites. There are weasel words like ‘contributory’ and ‘partnership’ as well as hideous rights grabs buried under layers of obfuscation, just in case they are handed some real gem.
Though that is unlikely. When it comes to the books, vanity presses are almost always horribly, wretchedly obvious. I mean 99.99% of the time at least! I recall one first person narrative which included the detailed description of a knife that had just stabbed our heroine in the back where she couldn’t reach it. So… how could she see it then? The whole book – okay, the 65 pages I read before I quit – was full of these basic creative writing errors. There had been no meaningful editorial input at all – though I bet the author had paid well above the going rate for that, from what I read on the website. Things like this might be funny, except these authors sometimes contact prize judges, wondering why they haven’t been short-listed (yes, really) and it’s painfully clear they’ve been fed wholly unreal expectations by, well, con-artists. It’s awful to be the person trying to explain what’s happened to them.
So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all to see from this report –
• 94% of respondents lost money, typically in the thousands.
• The average loss was £1,861 with some writers reporting losses as high as £9,900.
• The median cost of publication was £2,000.
• A median of only 67 books were sold per deal, resulting in royalties of only £68.
• 59% of writers said their book was not available to buy in retail outlets
Do spread the word, and bookmark the info, in case you come across another writer in danger of being bamboozled.
Books on the Hill is a dyslexic friendly, independent bookshop in Clevedon, North Somerset, run by Alistair and Chloe. They are both passionate about books of all genres, and about getting as many people as possible reading. Alistair is dyslexic himself and so is always on the look out for ways to help people who have dyslexia, or any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. For instance, he advised me and Cheryl on fonts that would suit dyslexic readers better in the Green Man books – I had no idea that something so simple could make such a difference!
As a bookseller, Alistair has long been aware of the Barrington Stoke books for dyslexic kids, but hasn’t found any equivalent for adults. So he’s decided to do something about that, and has recruited a group of very fine writers specifically to write stories for a new publishing project, funded by Kickstarter. As of this morning, the first funding goal has been reached inside the project’s first week. So the first three books will definitely be happening. Now let’s see the stretch goals reached, so more books will be available. This should be the start of a long term initiative.
Do take a look, and definitely spread the word to whoever you know who’ll be interested. Given up to 10% of the population is dyslexic, there’s sure to be someone.
I was talking to one of my sons, and I commented that life felt stuck in an endless holding pattern these days. He likened it to treading water, and the more I think about that, the more apt it feels. Repetitive activity that gets tiring without actually moving on, and no sense of solid ground under your feet.
Thank goodness for things to break up the monotony!
First up, the Irish National SF Convention Octocon is happening online this weekend. Participation is free and should be a lot of fun! At 1pm on Saturday, you can join me and other writers discussing the uses of myth in our work and I’ll also be doing a reading at 4.30 pm on Saturday. You can see how much longer my hair is now…
Next week, the 15th October, sees the publication of my alter-ego’s third murder mystery set in classical Athens. Philocles is looking forward to the Great Panathenaia – until one of the poets due to take part in the dramatic performance of Homer’s Iliad is brutally murdered. The authorities want this cleared up quickly and quietly. Philocles finds himself on the trail of a killer once more…
You can find out more here, including preorder links. If you do NetGalley, you can find it there.
In other unsurprising news, publication dates and acquisitions continue to be delayed and pushed back as the book trade continues to try to navigate the current chaos with varying consequences for writers. Those books that do reach the shops – bricks and mortar or online – have to compete in a scrum where the big names and lead titles are getting pretty much all the promotion and shelf space. I think we’re going to see the shift to independent and smaller press publishing accelerate, with greater online engagement direct between writers and readers. I’m seeing more Patreons and Kickstarters appear, alongside a growing realisation from fans that these are an increasingly good way to get the books they want.
As for my own work, The Green Man’s Silence is selling well, and gathering very good ratings and reviews. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who is sharing their enthusiasm for this, and the previous books. Thank you all. I am getting some ideas together for Dan’s next adventure… and I have a couple of short fiction pieces to write, as well as a few other things to do. Then there’s the shared world novella I wrote earlier this year – as soon as I have a release date, I’ll share it.
I’m also amused by a recent review of The Green Man’s Foe, where the reader includes the very minor spoiler that THE DOG DOESN’T DIE. To be clear here, I’m not making fun – when these things matter to a reader, they matter, and it’s not for anyone else to say they should feel different. Thankfully, this reader enjoyed the book, even though they found their concern over the dog’s fate distracting. All I can say is, hand on heart, it never occurred to me to put the dog in danger!
Whatever social media you use, you doubtless see regular polite/pleading reminders from your favourite authors about how important online reviews are these days, and reviews on Amazon most of all.
This isn’t just needy writers looking for some ego boost. Publishers tell us authors time and again how reviews drive vital visibility when their numbers reach the ever-shifting tipping points that trigger different promotional algorithms. How even readers who don’t shop at Amazon use the site to see what other people think of books that interest them, as they decide to buy. How publishers can even use a title’s level of reviews as one measure of a writer’s popularity and a possible predictor (among others) of interest in a possible future project.
So please support your favourite authors with Amazon reviews. As long as you are allowed to. This is where all this starts to get problematic. A pal thought to do me a favour by leaving a genuinely favourable review on Amazon only to have it rejected because their spend on the site over the last six months didn’t reach the required threshold. I went to see what was what and found this on Amazon UK –
“To contribute to Community Features (for example, Customer Reviews, Customer Answers), you must have spent at least £40 on Amazon.co.uk using a valid payment card in the past 12 months. Promotional discounts don’t qualify towards the £40 minimum.”
Since I remarked on this on social media, various other people have confirmed that the same thing had happened to them. Though what that qualifying spend might be clearly varies from time to time and place to place. That doesn’t surprise me. We already know that Amazon regularly tweaks their algorithms’ review number trigger points as they look for the best way to maximise their revenue. Other things also became apparent. You don’t have to be buying books to qualify, just stuff, because this isn’t about books, it’s about Amazon making money. Indeed, when some people found they were unable to post reviews they were told that their Kindle purchases didn’t count because the spend had to be on physical goods. Whether or not an Amazon Prime subscription counts seems to vary as well.
Why are Amazon doing this? The obvious answer is it’s a countermeasure against bots and review spam. That’s fair enough, but it’s a very, very blunt instrument. It does nothing to stop astroturfing (faking ‘grassroots’ support) by someone with a lot of pals who buy sufficient stuff online. But that’s not Amazon’s concern. They’re in business to make money, first last and always.
So what can we do? Well, the reason that reviews matter is what sells books is word of mouth recommendation. That’s been the case for ever. All the Internet has done has enabled us to tell each other about a good new book in a whole lot of new ways. So carry on doing that – but now, please try to remember to look beyond Amazon when you want to support an author by boosting a book and when you’re looking for recommendations. If you have the time and inclination, check out Goodreads maybe, and/or look for the bookbloggers that share your particular interests.
Whatever social media you use, whenever you can spare the time for a quick mention, even just a line or so, it all adds up and it all helps to boost the signal, and that’ll help keep your favourite authors writing. Thanks.
There’s a thing going around on Twitter, from a US small press saying that they only work with unagented writers now, and any agented writers they accept will be required to drop the aforementioned agent.
My guess is this outfit want to tap into the ‘real indie authors go it alone and stick it to The Man by making a fortune’ mythology that never mentions the millions of writers with shattered dreams to set against the very few high-profile successes.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, this is a huge red flag, as umpteen people have pointed out, and has more usefully, started conversations about literary agents.
Are they essential? No. Are they extremely useful? Most definitely. Are the majority of writers well-advised to work with one? Absolutely. This is one reason why publishers who take on unagented writers usually recommend they get an agent at that point. It works out best for everyone in the long run, in most cases.
I did my first deal without an agent but I knew a fair bit about contract law from a professional qualification, plus I had back up from The Society of Authors. Anyone with a contract offer should get advice from them or a similar professional body.
In passing, I’ll just mention that I walked away from a publishing contract I was offered about a year ago, when SoA advice confirmed my misgivings. It was a perfectly legal and legit offer – but a lousy one in terms of who would earn what, and the backing the book could expect. If you’re working unagented, you need to be ready to walk away.
Back in 1997 I replied to that first offer letter/contract with 3 pages of clauses to add, clauses to amend and clauses to strike. This is not typical debut author behaviour. This is where most new writers find having an agent is essential, because if publishers can get away with minimising their obligations, they will. This is business and authors need to understand that. Agents do understand that, and that’s why reputable publishers are happy to work with them.
As my career progressed, I got a literary agent to handle all the more complex stuff like foreign rights etc to free up my time to write. That decision earned me far more than paying the agent’s commission cost me. It’s good business sense.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve worked succesfully without an agent and with different agents, as has suited me at the time. That has always been my choice. I will never work with a publisher who insists I drop an agent. There can be no good reason for that.
Yes, there are crooks and charlatans out there calling themselves literary agents, just like crooks and charlatans calling themselves publishers, Authors must always do their research and be alert for scams or bad deals. That’s a different conversation.
I’ve had a productive week writing and while I’ve been doing that, a couple of guest posts by me have appeared elsewhere.
Marie Brennan is asking various authors about that moment when a book idea really ignites. This Must Be Kept A Secret is my contribution to her ongoing Spark of Life blog series, looking at the rather different experience I had with Shadow Histories, compared to the Einarinn novels. Incidentally, if you haven’t already come across Marie’s ‘Lady Trent’ books, do take a look. I adore them.
In other writing related posts I’ve spotted this week
Jacey Bedford on writing and being edited from the writer’s perspective. Another writer whose books you should check out.
Looking at the business side of the book trade, I wrote a guest post for Sarah Ash’s blog. The Bugbear of the ‘Breakout Book’ for Readers and Writers alike – Juliet E. McKenna
I also noted this piece by Danuta Kean – not another ‘self-publish and get rich quick’ piece but an interesting look at another facet of the changing book trade, including the pitfalls for the naive author. ‘Show me the money!’: the self-published authors being snapped up by Hollywood
Okay, that should keep you in tea or coffee break reading to be going on with.
Two things happened on Monday 24th October. News of Sheri S Tepper’s death spread – and a lot of people on social media wondered why isn’t her brilliant, innovative and challenging science fiction and fantasy writing better known?
Then the BBC broadcast the second episode of Andrew Marr’s series on popular fiction, looking at epic fantasy.
The programme featured discussion of the work of seven, perhaps eight, major writers – six men and one, perhaps two women if you include the very passing reference to J K Rowling .
Four male writers were interviewed and one woman. Please note that the woman was interviewed solely in the context of fantasy written for children.
If you total up all the writers included, adding in cover shots or single-sentence name checks, eleven men get a look-in, compared to six women. Of those women, three got no more than a name check and one got no more than a screenshot of a single book.
It was an interesting programme, if simplistic in its view, to my mind. There’s a lot of fantasy written nowadays that goes beyond the old Hero’s Journey template. There’s a great deal to the genre today that isn’t the male-dominated grimdarkery which this programme implied is currently the be-all and end-all of the genre.
But of course, I can hear the justifications already. A general interest programme like this one isn’t for the dedicated fans, still less working writers like me. For mass appeal it must feature authors whom people outside genre circles have heard of, and whose books they’ll see in the shops. If these books just happen to be mostly written by men, well, that’s just the way it is.
Am I saying these aren’t good books which have a well-deserved place in the genre’s origins and evolution? No, of course I’m not. All these featured and interviewed writers are deservedly popular, their books widely read, and their work is illustrative of points well worth making about fantasy.
But those same points could have been made just as effectively while featuring a more balanced selection of writers, from the genre’s origins to the present day. So what if that means including less familiar names? Do you honestly think readers interested enough to watch a programme like this will object to discovering a new author to enjoy?
When such a programme has a marked gender skew, it matters. This selection guarantees these are the books that’ll get a sales boost from this high-level exposure. So when the next programme maker comes along to see what’s popular, maybe with a view to a dramatisation or to feature in a documentary, he’ll see that same male-dominated landscape. So that’s the selection of books that will get the next chance of mainstream exposure. Thus the self-fulfilling prophecy of promoting what sells, thereby guaranteeing that’s what sells best, continues to entrench gender bias.
If you’re wondering how the work of writers like Sheri S Tepper and so many other ground-breaking women writers is so persistently overlooked, you need look no further than programmes likes this.
I spent the past weekend at the annual St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference, and as always, came away with a broad range of interesting notes and thought-provoking questions. This year, the papers explored the question of genre: asking just what is crime fiction? So here are just a few things that came up, necessarily in brief.
The conference opens on Friday evening with drinks, a dinner and a guest speaker. This year that was Ted Childs, the TV producer who brought ‘Morse’ to the small screen. It was fascinating to hear how that all came about, back in the day when ITV was still very much a collection of regional broadcasters. As well as an affectionate and nostalgic reminder of John Thaw’s talents, among others, his talk was also a reminder of just how ground-breaking the production was back then; two hour episodes on film rather than video, recruiting writers and directors from stage and movie backgrounds. Without Morse, it’s fair to say the TV landscape of today would look very different, and not just for detective dramas.
On Saturday morning, Elly Griffiths looked at the changes in domestic life, particularly domestic interiors from the Regency to the Victorian era when crime fiction first emerged. As her slides showed, the Victorians surrounded themselves with stuff in a way their forebears never had. In this age of uncertainty, as science challenged religious certainty, as new philosophies challenged political certainties, the home became a sanctuary, filled with all this stuff holding emotional resonance and value of its own. Thus invasion of this home, in an age that could feel so threatening, becomes all the more shocking and transgressive? The home itself could become claustrophobic and tyrannical, provoking extreme acts and emotions. There’s a lot to think about there.
Jane Finnis proposed various lines to be drawn between fairy tales and crime fiction and not just the restorative justice aspects, though that is certainly important. Consider how many fairy tales involve looking for clues and solving a puzzle. Once you start looking, you can find a lot of fairy tale themes that crime fiction has retold, reinterpreted and developed for the modern, mass-reading audience. Issues of trust, deception and self-reliance. Then there’s the formula of ‘a long time ago, in a land far far away’ which removes the threat, the abominable acts, the violent retribution, to a safe distance while still allowing the reader to see the value of using one’s wits and challenging evil. Consider how many people who read mystery fiction really do not like true crime writing and how many writers feel uneasy about drawing too closely on real atrocities and tragedies. ‘Far too close to home’ is a telling phrase.
This was of particular interest to me given I’m increasingly convinced that folklore and fairy tales are an undervalued precursor to epic fantasy fiction in its current form. Especially when you look back to the original tales as collected by Grimm, Perrault etc, rather than their subsequent sanitised forms. Where, incidentally, female characters can have a lot more agency than later versions allow them, as was remarked on at the weekend.
Conference Guest of Honour Lee Child went even further back. He proposed the thriller as the original fiction that everything else has stemmed from, thanks to its original evolutionary purpose. If you want to know more, you’ll be pleased to know that this was livestreamed at the time and you can watch the recording here.
And all that was just Saturday morning! After lunch, Martin Edwards looked at the resurgent interest in and fashionability of Golden Age crime fiction – principally those books published between the World Wars. He’s involved in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics now being republished, editing their anthologies and consulting on the series as a whole. A closer look at those writers, their themes and their villains does give the lie to the ‘snobbery with violence’, ‘Downton Malice’ interpretation based on partial knowledge of Christie, Sayers, Allingham et al. He drew on a good few parallels with concerns then and those of our own times, most notably distrust and disillusion with politicians and rapacious money men as villains and unsympathetic victims. Carol Westron explored the various ‘Rules’ for detective fiction that contemporary writers produced back then and once again, closer examination shows that the genre writing of that era was considerably more complex than a glance at these supposed guidelines might suggest. Most of the successful writers broke them wholesale.
Something both speakers touched on was the ‘No Chinamen!’ dictum of the time, which can and has been held up as a symptom of that era’s endemic racism polluting crime fiction. Except… looking at contemporary discussions of that point, a great many more interesting angles arise. ‘The Yellow Peril’ was the bogeyman of the age, to such an extent that at one point, no fewer than five West End plays in production were blatantly sinophobic, not to mention the on-going hostility and shock-horror stories about ‘orientals’ in the popular press. Genre commentary at the time warned crime writers off pandering to such ill-judged and unsubstantiated prejudice – and of the dangers of bad writing in doing so – by so lazily seizing on the villain of the moment. The parallels with contemporary islamophobia are striking. Of course, views on race and ethnicity nearly a century ago remain a world away from our own but this is a salutary reminder that the past is a good deal more nuanced than we might be tempted to think.
Further papers looked at the development of various sub-genres within crime and mystery fiction, from past to present. Andrew Taylor looked at historical fiction, while Shona MacLean considered the challenges of writing such books from the professional historian’s viewpoint. Kate Charles reviewed the origins and growth of clerical detectives as a niche while Chris Ewan looked at humorous crime fiction. Sarah Weinman reviewed the originators of domestic suspense – because these books were being written decades before the current slew of ‘Girl in/on/who’ best-seller titles as the ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ collections make very clear. Lastly but by no means least, Marcia Talley looked at murder least foul – the ‘cosy’.
I can’t attempt to summarise these papers as they were all wide-ranging and came with copious examples of writers laying the ground work for such varied writing as far back as the 20s and 30s. Many of them were women asking questions of women, which has now somehow been airbrushed out of popular memory. Looking at the ways in which each sub-genre is still reflecting and testing the core tenets of crime fiction, its central themes and archetypes was and will continue to be fascinating for me.
The frequently under-estimated skills required were mentioned more than once. The challenge of making historical characters both of their time and accessible to modern readers is significant. Using humour not to make light of the awful reality of murder but for example, to hold up the corrupt to ridicule alongside grim events, is no easy trick. Similarly there’s considerable craft in achieving the necessary suspension of disbelief to make an amateur sleuth work in this day and age without tipping over into the ridiculous. And given the protagonists and primary market for cosy mysteries are mostly women, it’s hard not to conclude there’s quite some misogyny in the disdain those books so often attract.
Regular readers here will be seeing the echoes and correspondences with ongoing debates within SF&Fantasy that I did. I found many of the same concerns we have about our own genre with regard to retail and publishing trends. This is primarily a conference about the fiction but you won’t be surprised to learn I had a few shop-talk conversations with other authors. Publisher mergers and restructuring have caused similar carnage of late, especially among the mid-list. Editorial decisions seem to be driven by marketing and retail assumptions based on highly debatable reasoning about what will or will not sell, with scant consultation of actual readers. Frustrating levels of risk-averseness were mentioned, all infuriatingly familiar.
But I shall try not to dwell on that. Instead, I shall start working my way through the list of authors and titles now added to my To Be Read List. Thanks to the magic of ebooks I can do a bit of that this week and next as I am currently in Holland, thanks to the demands of my Husband’s work colliding with our holiday plans and seeing us both head out here a week earlier than our planned trip to the Ardennes. So bear in mind I’m only going to be online intermittently – I’ll be very interested in your observations in comments here but won’t be replying or answering questions in a particularly timely fashion.
Do raise a hand in comments or somewhere online if you’re interested in details of next year’s conference. Then I can pass on the information as soon as I get it.