July 24, 2014

Writing for Children – The Easy Option

If you spent much time in the world of publishing, you might at some point start to wonder if the people who work in children’s publishing had an inferiority complex. Or if they didn’t, they must surely be on their way to developing one.

The main reason for this, in my opinion, is the perception that writing for children is the easy option. And it is fair to say, that children’s books are, in general, shorter, use simpler language, involve simpler scenarios and simpler plots and often feature less nuanced characters than books aimed at grown-up audiences.

When referring to these different audiences, I have to choose my words carefully here, as ‘adult books’ can imply something entirely different and actually, a lot of adults read children’s and especially YA books. In fact, in some cases, more adults are reading more young adult fiction than the young adults themselves.

But the point about our stories having to be simpler to understand is true enough. There is also a lot of formulaic writing in children’s publishing. And though there’s plenty of it in non-children’s publishing too, it’s assumed to be worse in children’s books. Easy Option-FartEven the word ‘childish’ – to be like a child – is a negative term, referring to the things children like or the ways that they behave, as if they are automatically inferior to adults. Which begs the question, where did all these sophisticated adults come from and at what stage in their development did they become separate from, and superior to, their younger selves?

I don’t want to make any particular points about the quality of the different kinds of writing here, except to say, from over ten years experience of making a living as a writer of fiction, it’s harder to write well, simply and clearly, than to write in an obtuse and complicated way. After all, it’s not about the beauty of the language you use, or the complexity of the emotion you wish to convey, but whether your thoughts are received and understood by the reader. And the more complex or nuanced the idea, the more inventive you have to be to get it across in an understandable and emotionally engaging way.

It is communication and, in the end, it’s the effect on your reader that counts.

Now, there are people who might point out that older readers are more sophisticated, more informed, better educated, that they have years of literary reference, a more worldly perspective, that they have seen more, experienced more, have higher expectations and will recognize work that is unoriginal or clumsy or superficial. Which makes it more challenging to write for adults. And they’d be right about most of that stuff, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned that sets a children’s writer apart from others – at least one who wants to sell enough to make a living from it for any length of time – it is that they must have an awareness of, and curiosity about, a reader who by definition, is not like them.

So . . . writing for kids. The easy option, yeah? Let’s have a look at that.

You might be the most significant writer of the century, with a timeless story to tell, and profound lessons to teach the new generation, but if you can’t get them to turn the pages, it won’t count for anything. People have to put an effort into reading text. Unlike television, film or even audio-books, text requires active audience participation. Easy Option-Battery BrainA bit like bringing someone to hear an orchestra play . . . and handing them an instrument. One cannot read passively. It takes effort. It wears you out.

Now, imagine your reader isn’t very good at reading – that you can make no easy assumptions about their ability to decipher words or to comprehend them (which are two very different things). Imagine your reader has a short attention span, has tastes as arbitrary as any adult, has almost no terms of literary reference, they have an instinctive bullshit detector and are brutally honest with their opinions.

You’re also competing for these inexperienced and impressionable readers against films, television and games that offer visually spectacular and often well-written entertainment that are increasingly easy to access, the like of which the book industry has never faced before. So you have to grab your reader’s interest from the start and hold onto it for dear life.

You’re trying to reach the same minds as the ‘grown-up’ market, you’re just trying to reach them earlier in their life, in a more raw, less developed state, when they’re every bit the individual they’ll be as an adult, they’re just less capable of meeting you halfway in the storytelling, so you have to work that little bit harder. Easy Option-Book BlastBut it does mean you’re reaching those minds at a stage when they’re more receptive and you’ve far greater potential to blow their minds with a book.

If you’re writing books for young readers, you’ll either need to be an illustrator yourself or put your trust in someone else to illustrate your story – to help tell it. So, having written your story, you then have to weave it together with a completely different art form in order for it to be complete. And no, it’s not just a matter of using pictures to decorate or act out your story. They are not just stabilizers for the bike of a weak reader. Done well, illustration should tell a side of your story that doesn’t appear in your words. So how do you write with that in mind?

Now imagine that your readers will always be growing up, so that once you’ve won them over, they will, in a matter of a few years, grow out of the books you’re writing for them, and you’ll have to win over a whole new audience. Your market is in a state of constant turnover.

Welcome to the life of a children’s writer.

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, now try getting your head around reading levels. Reading levels are often a subject of debate in the children’s books industry. The single biggest controversy I’ve experienced in my time as an author was the attempt by some UK publishers (including one of mine) to put ‘age guidance’ on the covers of their books. This sparked off a massive dispute over whether publishers should be dictating who should or shouldn’t read what books, and raised the question of what ‘reading level’ even referred to: the difficulty level of the language and story in the books, or the nature of the subject matter.

So a few of our own publishers were trying to place limits on who should be reading our books.

Most writers – and indeed, publishers – want as many people as possible to read their books, are pretty opposed to prescriptive practises and normally scathingly intolerant of censorship. The market itself tends to regulate the subject matter in books – up until our readers hit their teens, we write for kids, but we have to sell through several filters of adults. And a reader’s own ability will quickly decide if a particular book is too difficult to read. As far as I’m concerned, any kid who wants to read a book that is below their reading level should be allowed. Nobody’s going to fall in love with reading if someone’s trying to force them. I still read young kid’s books, and I can read just fine, thanks.

But if you want to be a professional children’s writer, or even if you’re pitching to a publisher and you want to show you understand the industry, you need to have an idea what level of reader you’re writing for. The publisher might disagree about your text, or you might find that during the editing process, you want to change tack, but because children’s ability and tastes change constantly, you need to be able to refer to the different stages for practical reasons.

‘Cos then it comes to marketing and selling our masterpieces.

There are thousands of children’s books published each year in Ireland and the UK. And they’re big sellers – they account for more than a fifth of the total UK book market. If you’re familiar with the literary supplements in any of the mainstream newspapers or magazines, have a look and see what proportion of their reviews are for children’s books. Do they enjoy a fifth of the media’s literary attention? Well, no. Not even close. Most newspapers don’t even have weekly reviews of children’s books.

Like other types of writers, children’s writers are expected to be the main advertisers of their books, setting up their own online presence and doing events in festivals, libraries and schools. Take note: the ability to do schools groups is one of the big advantages for a children’s writer. But while other types of writers do events too, as a kids’ writer, an interview format or doing a bit of reading and taking questions doesn’t cut it these days. You’re expected to be a full on children’s entertainer because, frankly, that’s what it takes to hold kids’ attention.

For the difficulties in running a kids’ session, see the problems above when writing for them, then imagine a horde of them is sitting in front of you, waiting expectantly, with each temporarily focussed mind on the verge of wandering in a different direction to the others. Easy Option-Dodging SidewaysAll the techniques you use in your writing to grip your reader have be brought into play here too. You have to be an oral storyteller as well as just writing that stuff down.

Despite these extra skills you have to develop, I’ve heard from a number of sources (including one festival organizer) that children’s authors are sometimes paid less for festival events. They are certainly often treated with less prestige than their grown-up-market counterparts, even if their sales and audience numbers are greater. The children’s events schedule in a festival is normally a separate part of the programme and it is invariably at the back of the brochure, after the ‘main’ events.

Some events organizers will try and get you to do events for free – that is to say, work for free, for an event they’re often charging admission to – in return for the publicity and the huge numbers of sales the event will presumably generate. I’ve posted my thoughts on this already.

And while we’re on the subject of money, despite the dizzying sums you hear in the headlines (and I’m never sure how many of them are actually true), advances for writers of children’s books tend to be pretty small and certainly smaller than those for the adult market, which is surprising, until you realize your books are sold for lower prices than non-children’s books.

And finally, to impress upon you how writing for children requires more expertise, not less, than writing for adults, let’s take a look at a parallel: teaching. To teach students in college or university, it is assumed that you’re dealing with self-motivated adults, so when hiring a lecturer, the emphasis is on their qualifications in a given subject. Teaching skills are a distant second. To teach in secondary school, you specialise in a couple of subjects, but you know you’re dealing with teenagers, so a specific qualification in teaching techniques is required. You have to have studied how to get information into young brains.

By the time you reach primary school teaching, the range of subjects has become much broader, requiring greater versatility, allowing for less comfortable specialization and critically, the teaching itself has become the most important element. No matter what other expertise you have, the ability to communicate ideas clearly has taken priority over the subjects themselves, because without mastering the skills of teaching, none of those subjects will get taught. And if those primary teaching techniques fail, those adults-to-be will struggle through secondary school and never make it to third level.

Children’s writers are not teachers, but we face a similar challenge. This is why writing for children is not only as demanding as writing for adults – we have to craft more carefully how we write to communicate our stories clearly – it is actually more important, as it comes with a greater responsibility. One that many children’s writers, publishers and others in children’s book community take very seriously.

Because if we don’t do our job right, those kids won’t read, so they won’t grow up reading, so they won’t read all those other books people are writing for when we’re ready to pass those readers on.

And that’s why writing for children is not the easy option. But if you fancy getting into it, it is a lot of fun.

January 10, 2014

Not Suitable for Children

I recently read a blog post by Clara Bennathan on the effect porn is having on teenagers’ expectations of sex – especially boys’ expectations. The article is a disturbing, but not very surprising, read and raises a related and difficult issue for children’s book publishing in general . . . and boys’ attitudes in particular.

I’m not one to shy away from violence in my books, partly because it adds drama to a story, but also because it is one of many different challenges to the protagonists that help create perspective. By imagining fictional lives and worlds that are very different from our own, we can look at some of the uglier aspects of life, and make judgements about them, without having to experience them. And I know boys like violence, so that’s another incentive to have it in stories, because I want boys as well as girls to read and I especially want them to read my stories. But I think there’s a responsibility here too. The more realistic the violence in my stories, the more serious I make the consequences for the characters – something my readers are unlikely to see in the violent games they play, and often in the films they watch. It’s one of the advantages of a book. You have the time and depth of field to show consequence.

Those consequences are key – and they can be handled in books better than anywhere else, because the reader is already halfway there, investing their own imagination in the creation of the story. They have created an empathic link of their own.

But in the real world, violence is something most people avoid at all costs and it’s certainly something we hope our children don’t experience firsthand. Sex, on the other hand, is something we hope they’ll get round to once they’re old enough. And yet, as we all know, anything that might have anything to do with sex is a far more delicate subject to broach in children’s literature – much more so even than violence.

This is mostly because any discussion of sex in relation to the word ‘children’, raises the ugly head of paedophilia. Something else that threatens huge damage from the untamed jungle that is the web, and yet – like teenage access to violent porn – the attempts to combat it always seem to be struggling to catch up with the horrific reality of it.

Anyway . . . ours is a strange industry, where it is far more acceptable to show someone killing someone else in a children’s book than to show two adults fondling each other.

Which is odd when you ask yourself, which of these two activities do we want kids indulging in when they’re older?

Which do we need them to be knowledgeable about if they’re to have healthy relationships and lead happy lives? How are we to do something as fundamental as propagating our species without knowing how best to do it? And it is these earthy fundamentals that appeal to boys . . .

Well, and girls too.

Why are we so reluctant to show naked people in young children’s books? Why is it we can’t show body parts the children have themselves and see every day in family life? Writers and illustrators don’t even try most of the time, because we know what the answer will be. I once had a disagreement with an editor over a scene in an illustrated book for confident readers, where two boys have a pissing contest – something boys do from the point where they can stand up and aim (or not). Not Suitable 1-Pissing ContestBoth boys had their clothes on in the illustration, there were no willies in view and there was a girl with a suitably disgusted look on her face to provide some balance. The editor was an open-minded, very liberal and easy-going person, but her job demanded that she worry about the reactions of parents and teachers. And their expectations of what one should, or should not, see in a children’s book. She was just representing the views of the publisher, and the publisher was effectively bound by the conventions of the industry.

In the end, the scene stayed in (as did the illustration), but it left me feeling frustrated about those conventions, and what they do and do not allow.

We really need to ask ourselves when the portrayal of our bodies, and more especially our bodily fluids and where they come out, became such a distasteful subject. Surely, being able to talk openly and frankly about these things is vital for our health and well-being. Instead, discussion about our bodily parts – and what springs from them – is considered rude, disgusting and many younger children seem to be of the opinion that the anatomical terms for these things are no different from the swearwords that have been derived from them. There are even adults who think the same way.

I’ll be doing another post sometime soon on swearing.

We have made this, most important of subjects, a dirty joke, a taboo subject and in doing so, have made it almost impossible to broach with children in a reasonable and mature way before they actually start finding out about it for themselves. And what’s worse, is we’ve effectively forced them to go online, hoping to find out what the adult world refuses to tell them. These things are either dealt with as a subject of toilet humour in our entertainment, or cold biology in education or as ‘social issues’. We rarely treat them as if they’re just normal.

I can really only speak from a boy’s point of view here, but then as far as the teenage obsession with porn is concerned, boys are the real problem. Speaking as someone who, as a young man, once believed nothing in his life could ever be more important than sex, I can fully understand the mind-altering urges lads get and how they can lead them astray. I do find most porn distasteful, not because I don’t like watching sex – I absolutely do – but because of the way the porn industry treats human beings in general and women in particular. And their stories are usually rubbish, which really breaks the spell. Thankfully, my imagination was better than most of the photos or films I saw as a young man (and still is).

But back when I was teenager, there was only so much a boy in Ireland could access. Things have changed. Now the really hardcore stuff is out there, it’s viral, it can be got for free and it’s far more extreme and abusive than anything my generation would have been likely to encounter. And what’s most troubling, is the attitude towards women and the violence that is associated with this stuff. And some boys are becoming convinced that this is normal – and are now trying to get girls to reproduce this crap and even record it for themselves.

But what has all this got to do with children’s books? I mean . . . come on, Oisin. I mean, books that aren’t aimed at teenagers. I mean, books for younger kids? Really? It’s not like we’re going to start putting adult sex scenes in those, is it?

Well, no. For the simple reason that it’d be really hard to get right and it would probably be commercial suicide.

But . . . we all know the average boy becomes fascinated with his penis long before he knows anything about sex. He has his first erection long before he knows what he’s supposed to do with it (it is, quite frankly, a bizarre experience when you become aware of it). And given that his body is all there is of him in this world, it’s only natural that it fascinates him. Not Suitable 2-Picking NoseSaliva, sweat, blood, urine, faeces, flatulence, mucus, vomit, semen – whether it disgusts you or not, this is the stuff of life. It’s what we’re made of. We are hardwired to react to each of these things in a different way, because our very survival may depend on it. The most complex part of writing – understanding and provoking emotions – starts with the basics. Biology. To get anyone reading, a writer must provide something that sparks their interest, and like the majority of us when we were young, the average boy is most interested in himself.

And the parts of himself that he is most fascinated by are the tangible, physical bits. The things he can see, hear, feel, taste and smell. The things that provoke the strongest emotions for him, are those that stimulate or threaten these parts of him, and they are the base emotions: disgust, anger, fear, satisfying a physical need, or sexual arousal. So the stories boys seek out most often are those that appeal to their base instincts – at least at the start. And the fact that these things are often considered disgusting or unsuitable or even immoral just makes stories about them funnier, more interesting and more exciting.

But it also convinces children that these things are socially unacceptable, so if they’re curious about finding out more, they’re going to have to do it in secret. That’s where the real problem lies.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, in the children’s book industry, we don’t acknowledge children’s earthy appetites enough. When we’re not ignoring the subject outright, we treat it with distaste and disgust, we don’t do enough to sate it and what little we do, we do too late. We are not honest with our children. In a sincere attempt to protect their innocence, we make them ashamed of their bodies. We leave them with too narrow a perspective and too uninformed, ill-equipped to deal with these issues when they begin exploring for themselves.

In Ireland, I believe the pledge Catholics take at their confirmation to not drink alcohol until they’re eighteen has done untold damage, because it encourages secrecy. Teenagers don’t avoid drinking, they just avoid drinking in front of adults who could promote a mature attitude to it. As a result, they plough in unprepared, they binge drink and that’s where the real damage is done.

We’ve done the same thing with our attitudes to our bodies. Long before they strike out on their own, kids have started contrasting the normal bodies they see around them – the ones they’ve been taught not to look at, not to talk about – with the bodies they see displayed in magazines on racks in every newsagent and on millions of websites.

And they start learning about sex on the web, because what little they’re being told – often in school – is factual and it’s done in a class situation where they can’t express themselves as openly as they’d like. And frankly, it’s just not entertaining enough to engage them emotionally.

Schools do their best, but by the time they start teaching this stuff, children’s attitudes to their bodies have been cemented by the awkwardness of the grown-ups they know, who are reluctant to discuss it, the frustrating lack of it in children’s entertainment, and the saturation in the wider media of images created by grown-ups who neither know nor care who’s looking at the stuff.

We have, in effect, turned over the sexual education of our children to disinterested strangers whose motives vary from the fairly harmless to the downright abhorrent.

I’m not suggesting that we need to start loading children’s books with graphic sex or try to compete with what’s on the web. I just think that the depiction of the human body in children’s books should be kept in step with children’s knowledge of their own bodies and those around them. They need to see images of ordinary, flawed human bodies and learn to appreciate them for what they are. And they need to see it in a normal context, without making it a Carry On-style joke, or a serious social issue. Children need to develop emotional maturity about nakedness and body parts in preparation for the complicated demands that will be placed on them as they become sexually mature.

The other, darker side of the issue, the treatment of women in porn, is obviously a harder one to address in children’s books – and books already promote positive attitudes between opposite genders, because it’s something the industry is very conscious of. But if we can encourage boys to read more, empathy will be the happy by-product and it’s the only thing that will convince them how awful some of the stuff that’s out there really is.

And as teenagers do become sexually mature, they need to have some idea of where to look to find easy, well thought-out and unembarrassing information on sex, on the web or elsewhere – how to do it right and have fun in the process.

But it all starts with the body and how it’s portrayed. And the earliest and best place to start, is in books.

September 30, 2013

Getting Into Character

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Children’s Book Festival in libraries and schools across Ireland. For people like me, it’s easily the busiest time of the year for events, and this year I’m booked up for just about every school day (and a few weekend days) between now and the mid-term break.

This month, I’ll be a in few different places in Dublin, as well as Ardee and Drogheda, Skerries, Cashel, Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea, Ballywaltrim and Bray, Castletymon, Manorhamilton, Cavan, Galway, Ashford and a few different places in Meath.

It’s a weird time, when you’re often exhausted but buzzing, and a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece to try and capture that feeling in the morning when you’re setting out, having already spent about two weeks on the road to different places.

This was a piece I originally wrote as a guest blog for the Children’s Book Ireland blog in 2011. It’s a bit dated, as I haven’t changed anything, but basically it’s an accurate depiction of the feeling mid-festival:

An early start. It’s dark, but the kids are already up. Our youngest, just turned one, isn’t sleeping. So neither are my wife and I. October is mental for both of us – a different kind of day every day. Our two toddlers are confused by our lack of routine. I rise like a zombie. Shower myself into something more human.

Try to remember where I am today. Monaghan? Louth? Leitrim? For places that are further away, I’ll wake in a hotel. A travelling salesman. As our two-year-old says: ‘Dada’s going to tell the girls and boys about books!’. I’m a couple of weeks into the month (which starts for me in September). Early in the morning, the exhaustion feels like it will never lift. Coffee. The kids help me wake up, but often I’m gone before they can jump-start my addled senses.

I have my two cases. One for the novels; one for the easel, the drawing materials, the Mad Grandad story-sheets. Always packed and ready to go. Sometimes I don’t even bother taking them out of the car. Notebook in the pocket of my combats. I’m almost always wearing combats. I like having that pocket.

Get into the car. A chance to sit in the quiet before I go. Take a couple of minutes to look at the map. Recheck the route. Then drive. The radio is always on, or some of my music, or an audio-book, helping eat up the miles. Get there early. Know you’re there, then pull in somewhere nearby and chill for a while. Have a coffee at a garage or in a café. Maybe a sandwich if breakfast was a long time ago. I’ll buy grapes if I can find them in a shop, if they look good. A good compromise snack for travelling.

I have a lap-tray in the car. I can work there if I want, or read, or listen to the radio. I always give myself some time, but that’s time to think about what’s coming. How many different places have I visited? Hundreds, anyway. How many individual sessions? Oisin McGann at Ennistymon LibraryAnd still the little edge of dread, the tension. A bit of a knot in my stomach. It’s not a reading, or a talk. It’s a one-man show. Time to get into character.

Every visit is a first impression. Every session for me, is the one and only time this particular bunch of kids is likely to meet me. You get one chance to have an effect – the right effect. The same applies when meeting the staff. Be nice to everybody. Remember names! Even if it’s just till you leave. Hundreds of new names every year. Staff rooms and cups of coffee. Turning down offers of scones or biscuits (most of the time). They add up. I used to treat myself to a fry-up any time I travelled. I gave that up pretty quickly.

It’s almost time. Always try and walk in about ten or fifteen minutes early. Time to say hello and shake hands. Use the loo. A bit of time to have a look at the place if I can, before I meet the kids. Check that things are set up right. Sort them if they’re not. But sometimes I’m just walked into a packed classroom and I have to wing it. Looking around and picking out the best place to set up.

Still in the car. I’m dawdling now. Putting it off. Time to go in. That turning in the pit of my stomach. I open the door and get out. Take my cases from the back. The air’s got a chill to it.

I look at the outside of the place. Trying to get a sense of it. Maybe there’s already some faces at the windows, looking out. I’m not so tired now. Almost ready. Meeting the kids, seeing their expectant faces, will kick me into gear – it always does. It’s a privilege to be here, to do what I do. To be the reason they’re having a special day. And yet, you can’t take their respect for granted. If you don’t get their attention in the first five minutes, you may not get it at all. But I’m fine with that – it’s part of the deal. I might be knackered, but I know I’ll be charged up, wired by the end. They have that effect on you.

With a case in each hand, I walk through the front door. Time to tell the girls and boys about books.

September 23, 2013

It’s a Festival, Jim, But Not as You Know It

This post is for people in the children’s book industry who’ve never been to a sci-fi/fantasy convention and for regular attendees of those conventions. I think it might be of interest to both, centred as it is around the strangeness and peculiar charm, not of the attendees, but the way in which cons are organized.

And if you’ve never been to one of these conventions, you should give one a try. They’re not as off-the-wall as people think, as I’ve written about in the past, and more often than not, they’re a lot of fun. In some ways, they have a lot in common with festivals celebrating children’s and YA books. Humour, passion, intelligence, progressive thought and stimulating discussion are all there in abundance. In terms of understanding the digital revolution, they can be an excellent place to find out what’s on the horizon and who’s doing what about it.

But there are some very striking differences between the way the sci-fi/fantasy people run an event, compared to that run by the children’s/YA crowd (or anyone else, in fact).

I read a blog post by Cheryl Morgan yesterday, about the problems of running one of these conventions – in her case, Worldcon, one of the biggest – and was surprised at the amount of aggravation and stress that seemed to be involved.LONCON3 (Worldcon) Logo I’ve come across vague controversies about Worldcon online, but have yet to hear anything specific – and to be honest, I’m not that interested. I’ve been to one Worldcon, years ago in Glasgow, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll be going to the one in London next year (also known as LonCon 3 – I don’t know why there are two names), and I’m really looking forward to it.

I’m not a regular visitor to conventions, but I have been to quite a few. And though I’ve enjoyed all of them, I can understand how easily disputes might arise over the details of how they’re run.

I’ve been published for ten years as an author and worked for an additional ten years on top of that as an illustrator. Since my first book was published, I’ve probably done a couple of thousand individual events in hundreds of different venues, festivals, conferences, seminars and conventions in a few different countries.

So when I tell you that sci-fi cons do things a little differently to every other type of festival or conference, I’m speaking from experience. Actually, ‘sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’ are misleading terms where these cons are concerned, as the topics that are covered can often include genres from fantasy through to historical fiction, crime to horror – a swathe of stories all wrapped up in the umbrella term ‘Genre’.

I’m not sure what ‘non-Genre’ is, though it tends to be what other people call ‘literary’ writing. Although ‘literary’ writing to me, just means a story told as well as it could be, which is not necessarily the type that wins the Booker Prize . . . anyway, let’s not get started on that.

I posted a few weeks back about the whole thing of how the creators of books are sometimes asked to do events purely for the publicity, and why it was so wrong. But then I give you . . . the science fiction or fantasy convention.

In most cases, these are set up by volunteers, passionate fans who often endure a seat-of-their-pants process as far as funding is concerned, where the audience pays a membership of the con, instead of buying tickets for talks. It’s this approach of treating the attendees as members rather than a paying audience where the big difference lies between conventions and other book festivals. Pocket PlannerThey also treat guests as a kind of higher rank of member – which includes not paying them a fee or expenses.

I like going to cons, but it can be a bit hard to justify. To give you an idea, here’s the kind of conversation I’d have with my wife, Maedhbh – who knows a thing or two about running events. She organizes the Children’s Book Festival for Meath every year, this year featuring nearly ninety separate events in libraries across the county.

Now, let me preface this by saying two things:

Firstly, for anyone on the con circuit who may not know it, most full-time children’s authors (and many part-time ones) do a lot of travelling around the country to promote our books, doing sessions – sessions that we are paid for. We’re expected to be able to stand up, from cold, in front of a room full of kids (or indeed, adults) and speak for anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour or more, and be entertaining, educational, knowledgeable, insightful and, eh . . . entertaining.

Secondly, Maedhbh is not what you’d call a die-hard sci-fi or fantasy fan.

So . . .

O: ‘I have to leave you on your own with the kids this weekend. I have to go to a sci-fi convention.’

M: ‘Is this for work?’

O: ‘Oh, yes. Definitely.’

M: ‘Are you getting paid for it?’

O: ‘No.’

M: ‘Are they paying any travel expenses? Covering parking fees? Are they buying you lunch?’

O: ‘Eh, no.’

M: ‘And you’ll be gone for the whole weekend? You must be getting loads of publicity out of it. Will there be a lot of media coverage?’

O: ‘No, probably none. Well, somebody’ll blog about it, I’m sure. There’ll be some influential bloggers there, I’d say.’

M: ‘Is there a big audience at this thing?’

O: ‘Maybe a hundred at the whole thing, although there’ll be more than one stream of panels, so probably less than fifty at each panel. Maybe less, ‘cos some people will just hang out in the bar of the hotel. Or just talk outside in the corridor.’

M: ‘And you’re not getting paid for this? How many panels are you doing?’

O: ‘Probably two or three each day. I might try and get in on an extra one if it’s interesting.’

M: ‘And which of your books do they want you to talk about?’

O: ‘Actually, we’re not really asked much about our books. Mostly, we talk about Genre-related topics set by the organizers.’

M: ‘You’re doing three panels a day, but you’re not talking about your books? Will any of these people have met you before? Do they know your work?’

O: ‘I’m not sure. It’ll probably be most of the same people as last year, so they’ll know who I am.’

M: ‘Are these hardcore fans of yours?’

O: ‘No, they’re just people who read this kind of stuff. We have really interesting conversations.’

M: ‘Really interesting conversations? Excellent. Will you be selling your books?’

O: ‘I don’t know, they don’t always have a book stall.’

M: ‘So let me be clear about this. You want to leave me on my own with the kids for the weekend, so you can go and do some events where you don’t get paid, you don’t get expenses, you don’t get to talk directly about your books, you get almost no publicity or media attention, you’re speaking several times a day, but to the same audience – a small audience – and one full of people who’ve heard you speak before and have probably already decided if they’re going to try your books or not. But you get to have really interesting conversations. Have I got that right?’

O: ‘Eh . . . yeah.’

M: ‘And this is work?’

O: ‘Eh . . .’

M: ‘Unfortunately, I’ve got a work commitment on this weekend. I have to go to the pub to watch the Meath match on Saturday. Then we’re going back the next day to talk it over again. So if you want to go to this convention thing, you’ll need to find someone who can take the kids for the weekend.’

Which is why I don’t go to more conventions.

But this is not really a gripe about not getting paid to be a guest at conventions. I’ve had that rant already. Nor do I want to try and get at any one person who runs festivals. I’ve met Cheryl Morgan, and I don’t know her well, but when I hear of her and others like her – the ones who do all the work – taking a lot of grief over what someone did or didn’t like about a con, I think of our 13-year-old and his football.

He plays GAA and soccer, and the days and times of training are always changing and we hear about upcoming matches at very short notice. It’s a pain in the ass. But we can’t really complain too much about it, because these teams are run by dads who are doing it for free, for the love of it. They’re the ones doing the time and putting in all the effort, so it would be churlish to criticize things when we’re inconvenienced sometimes. It’s easy to stand back and make comments when someone else is doing all the work.

But it’s the membership versus audience tickets thing that I think really needs looking at – and most conventions are run along these lines. Conventions are effectively festivals. They are run to bring people together to celebrate a certain type of book, comic, film etc. But there seems to be a determination to run them as if they’re a sports club. There’s a real amateur ethic – where it’s frowned upon by some to have paid staff working on a convention. In many cases, there is minimal sponsorship. I find this bizarre, particularly with the huge amount of work needed for bigger conventions, especially given the increasingly professional approach to running other kinds of book festivals.

And once you reach a certain scale, you’re expected to be professional whether you’re getting paid or not. Once you’re charging a hundred quid a head membership and you’re taking people’s credit card details, you need to be well organized, contactable, responsible to your audience. If I’m handing over my credit card details to you, there’s only so much slack I can cut you because you’re a volunteer. But running a professional festival is very hard to do unless someone’s manning an office somewhere with regular hours. Convention organizers have to take this responsibility on themselves, at great cost to them in time and expense. Why shouldn’t they get paid for it?

But where’s the money going to come from? These things are often run on a shoestring and I get a definite impression from con organizers that they’re constantly stressed about balancing the books.

I think that comes back to the ‘sports club’ mentality. Granted, it does make for a very warm, friendly atmosphere. Members are treated as people who are expected to get involved, help spread the word, to show loyalty – to be invested in the process. What this means a lot of the time is that there is a lot of interaction between the organizers and audience members who are already on board, and not enough time and effort put into reaching people outside of the club. You don’t get many new members in every year; you’re preaching to the converted. This approach also means that members who’ve been around a long time have opinions about how it all should be run – and expect to be obeyed – even if they don’t do any of the work. And I know I might seem to be doing just that here, but it’s not the people, it’s the whole system I wonder about.

Guest speakers, to a lesser extent, are treated with the same familiarity. If you’re running a smaller con and you don’t pay a fee or expenses (you may even ask the guests to pay membership), then the guests you have are most likely local authors who are there because they’re into it and they know the crowd, or someone who’s new and eager, but not a known name, or a more serious mid-list author whose publisher has covered their costs (which is becoming less and less likely), or who forks out their own money to visit conventions a lot, which means that your audience may well have seen them a number of times before.

If you don’t have a large enough audience, you can’t attract the big names. If you don’t even have enough mid-list names, you can’t attract the audience – or sponsors – so you don’t get in enough money to cover your costs. If it costs your speakers money to come to these things, when they get paid to attend other festivals, they’re much less likely to come to yours. WexWorlds-Science Gallery-4If you have the same guests every year, even your loyal members get jaded. And when you get right down to it, the success of anything like this is judged on the experience of the audience.

But in ten years of being published as a writer, most of those years spent working at it full-time, I’ve seen the culture of book festivals flourish. There are many more, in Ireland at least, than there have ever been before. Even with arts budgets being slashed, these festivals are professionally run, well promoted, supported by their local communities and they can often attract big audiences, proper sponsorship and big name authors. Some can now boast a dedicated full-time staff and a permanent office. Normally, they’re in league with their local arts office or library, both of whom have the potential to source a venue for free. And if con organizers think that these people are all less passionate or motivated about their work, then they’ve never been to one of these festivals.

There is so much ability and experience among convention organizers, and they have such a passionate audience, it seems strange to me that the process is so stressful that organizers often get burned out after a few years. And yet the model for doing these conventions differently is already being used and used successfully elsewhere. Wexworlds was the first attempt to combine the eclectic quirkiness of a sci-fi con with the energy and fun of a children’s festival and I thought it worked really well, but it was run by an arts office facing budget cuts and only ran for a couple of years. I’d love to see something like that done again.

There’s huge potential in combining the experience of con organizers with the resources of libraries and arts offices, while taking a more professional approach to sponsorship, promotion and audience building. I like conventions, but I’d love to see them run more as a festival, a celebration of the work they centre round, rather than as a club for fans, some of whom clearly don’t appreciate the work the organizers have to put in and whose work sometimes seems as if it’s something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

August 23, 2013

Getting the Picture

This one goes out to all you authors who’ve had to send PR photos or copies of your book covers in for a brochure, poster or a print publication of any kind – and stopped to wonder if the picture was big enough, high enough resolution or how you even judge these things.

And it seems that a lot of people are still wondering about this stuff.

I still take on the odd design job from time to time, and having just finished a festival brochure that required images from every performer involved, I thought I’d fill you in on the kind of thing that drives designers and printers BANANAS. I say this, not just for the sake of stressed designers everywhere, but because while there are some who will chase you for a decent image if you haven’t provided one, there are many more who won’t, because that’s time they don’t get paid for.

And this could be your face or your book cover we’re talking about here.

Let’s look at it from a purely self-serving perspective first. Like it or not, we’re in the publicity game, people. That image might be the first time anyone sets eyes on you or your work, so you want to make a good impression. Your author photo should make you look interesting and approachable, you should be recognizable from your photo . . . you should be in focus. If it’s a book cover, it should be clear, readable and striking – assuming your cover designer did their job right.

Assuming that you have decent images of yourself and your book, let’s proceed to what kind of file you send out for what purpose. For a start, I want to talk about the difference between size and resolution.

This can be complicated stuff (at least, I find it complicated), but the basics are straightforward enough.

 

Resolution: Dots Per Inch – The Level of Detail

Digital images on screen and in print are not solid swathes of colour, they’re made up of tiny dots. The key difference between images shown on a screen and images in print is the nature of the dots that make up that picture. On the screen, they are glowing points of light in a grid – pixels. The typical density of these dots on a screen is 72 dpi (dots per inch). Lean in closer to your screen and have a look those sweet little cuties. So if you want to look at a picture at actual size on a screen, 72 dpi is fine. The fact that they’re made of light makes them all blend together smoothly.

Strictly speaking, this ‘dpi’ should be ‘ppi’ (pixels per inch), but we were already using dots in printing when the process went digital and things were confusing enough for everybody, so now we all just use dpi. And the sooner we’re free of inches and feet, the better.

However, the dots used to print an image are a different type and they’re a lot smaller. Because they don’t glow – they’re just ink, after all – our eyes can see the individual dots easier, so they need to be much smaller to create the illusion of a solid colour. That size and number can vary depending on the type of printing and the paper, the ink etc.

So, to recap, the pictures on your screen are made up of dots. And anything that’s printed is also made up of dots.

The bad news is, they are not the same types of dots – you have to treat the two types differently.

The good news is, unless you work in the print business, this is not your problem.

The images you provide to other people are made up of pixels. That’s what you need to know. The dots with which they’ll be printed are the printer’s problem (whether that’s the device or the profession).

This dpi business onscreen is referred to as ‘resolution’. It’s crucial when it comes to referring to the quality of an image.

If a printing process used only 72 dots per inch, the dots would be clearly visible. It would look like a pointillist picture. Even your simple desktop printer prints at a much higher quality than this. Ever noticed how an image off the web looks okay on screen, but prints out looking like blurred mush? The reason for that is that you’ve taken one load of dots, and tried to recreate it with another, completely different set of dots.

The way you can compensate for this is to have your original image in a much denser, finer, more detailed form before you take it to print. It has to be a higher resolution.

In the print business, we generally look for images that have a resolution of 300 dpi. Getting the Picture-1Most illustrations would be supplied at this resolution – but they can also be much higher, depending on how they’re being printed. And at 300 dpi, you have to look really, really close to see those dots. That density also means that the dots can describe much finer detail. If you have two different photos that are the same area, one saved at 72 dpi and one at 300 dpi, the 300 dpi one will be a substantially bigger file because it has much more detail – more information.

All You Need to Remember About Resolution: So when we’re talking about resolution, we mean the amount of fine detail a picture can show. There are just two types you need to remember: 72 dpi for something you only want to look at onscreen. 300 dpi for something that you’re using for print.

On a loosely related storytelling note, you know how you see in all these cop programmes where they have a digital photo and they ‘enhance the image’ to get a better look at it? This is largely bullshit. You’re looking at a grid of pixels. The computer can’t zoom in there and find more detail. There isn’t any. It’s just pixels. You used to be able to do this with film up to a point, but a digital photo is a grid of coloured squares. Once you start tweaking the picture, you’re changing the information in it, not finding more.

Anyway, let’s talk about size. Although actually there are two types of size. There’s the area of the picture, the physical measurements, and the file size, the amount of memory needed to store it.

Let’s look at area first:

 

Area: Length and Width of the Printed Picture

Your digital camera takes every photo at 72 dpi – screen resolution. But those pictures will typically be very large in area. We tend to think of digital photos as the traditional 6 x 4 inch kind of thing, when in fact a normal camera might take images that would comfortably fill an A4 page or larger. You’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to print out a photo from a digital camera, at its actual size. It’ll print fuzzy, but big.

These dimensions are the actual ‘size’ of the photo – the area it covers – as opposed to the ‘resolution’. A low resolution file saved as a large image can be printed as a smaller, higher quality image. You can condense it down. It may be low resolution, but because of its size, there’s lots of detail there.

But if you try to increase the size of the picture with image software, you don’t get any more detail – you just spread everything out. There is no ‘enhancing’ the detail. A designer will always prefer a picture that’s bigger than they need, to one that’s smaller. They can take a large 72 dpi picture and drop it into a 300 dpi file to create a small, high quality image. It doesn’t work the other way around.

Getting the Picture-2The picture here shows what happens when you drop a 72 dpi image into a 300 dpi file. Both of these images actually have the same dimensions, but the one on the left is the resolution you need to print the cover out at its actual size.

The 72 dpi image is so much smaller, because when you put them side by side in the same window, the image software shows their size according to the number of pixels each one has. So even though they would have the same dimensions if printed out, the one on the left has far more detail. See why designers get pissed off with small files?

All You Need to Remember About Area: The dimensions are the physical size, the area, of the picture, as opposed to resolution, which is the number of pixels and capacity for detail within it. Both of these elements together decide how much information is in the picture. It is the amount of information that affects the file size of your image.

 

File Size: The Amount of Memory Needed to Store Your Image

A rough idea of the quality of an image can be judged by looking at the file size. An A5 book cover at 300 dpi might be 15 or 20 megabytes. The same image at A4 might be 30 megabytes. These big sizes are heavy on memory, but a compressed file such as a jpeg – everyone uses jpegs, they’re like the MP3 of the image world – could reduce the storage size of that A5 file to 3 megabytes (it still kind of ‘unfolds’ to the full 15 or 20 megabytes when you’re using it).

However, that same image at a resolution of 72 dpi will be less than a megabyte in size – because it has less than a third of the information of the print-quality file. It’s made up of fewer dots or pixels.

And that’s just fine if you’re only putting it on the web (it might be relatively huge), but if you’re sending a book cover to a designer and it’s less than a megabyte, it’s not a file you could use to print your cover at its actual size – it has been reduced.

This is something to watch out for if you’re an author, as publishers don’t tend to send authors print quality files of their own covers. They keep a tight hold of the good stuff. Yours is most likely a reduced version, which might be fine for PR purposes, say a small inset pic in an article or brochure, but will be useless for a poster.

All You Need to Remember About File Size: The file size is dictated by the amount of information, which in turn is determined by a picture’s dimensions (area) and the amount of detail it can show (resolution). The file size is a quick, but by no means foolproof, means of judging the quality of your image. After all, it might have plenty of detail, but still be a rubbish-looking picture. But if the picture’s okay, and the file is a reasonable size, you know you’re pretty safe.

 

In a Nutshell

If you’re putting something up on the web, an image that looks okay on screen at 72 dpi probably is fine. If you’re sending something to a printed publication, a decent 300 dpi image or a big 72 dpi image is probably needed. Don’t ask a designer working on a print job to ‘just pull an image off the web’. This is lazy, unhelpful, self-defeating and is showing your ignorance.

Bear in mind that if they’re using images to make an attractive feature in their brochure/article/poster, they’ll do it with whatever high res images they have. If yours is a decent image, it’s more likely to be used to greater effect. If your image is crap quality, they might not even put it in.

Every chance to have a visual reminder of you or your work published is an opportunity to promote yourself. If someone asks you to send images for a brochure or article you’re playing a part in, send them high quality pictures, send them more than one and send them promptly.

Get the designer on your side and he or she is more likely to put your pics front and centre, where you want them to be.

 

 

 

 

July 19, 2013

‘Do It For The Publicity’

There’s been a lot of talk online about authors being asked or expected to do events for free, or virtually for free. So I figured I’d stick my oar in on this.

When I started out as an illustrator, I took crap jobs for crap money, because I figured it was the price of getting established. And it was. There was no back-up or support for illustrators, particularly in Ireland. You were on your own. I sometimes took even crapper money for good jobs, just to get those jobs to have in the portfolio. I don’t do that any more, because I’ve been at this malarky for a long time now, and I expect to be treated like a professional.

But one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that I had to sell myself as a tradesman. If you wanted my work, you had to pay me an hourly rate. If you wanted ideas, I would charge you for the amount of time I figured I could put into coming up with that idea, and what it was worth to you.

When I was first published as a writer, I had the good fortune to have a novel and a couple of young kids’ books come out in the same year, which gave me a very wide potential audience – something scGriffeen Valleyhools and libraries really appreciate. I had never done an event for children, but a few months after getting published, I knew for certain that if I didn’t push my books out there, they weren’t going to sell.

So I picked up a few tips and I started doing events. I didn’t know anything about doing an author session, so it was a steep learning curve. But I took a lot on – basically, I said yes to anyone who asked, for sessions for any age group – so I gained experience fast. And the more events you do, and if you do a half-decent job of them, the more you’ll get asked to do. I was working freelance as an illustrator, so I was able to fit my work around the events for the most part; something that’s very difficult to do if you’re employed.

As I did when I was an illustrator, I took on a lot of badly paid events, and free stuff and daft stuff, because I considered these the price of learning the ropes, getting established and getting publicity for my books. Most authors – particularly children’s authors – start off the same way.

I learned a lot. I learned how to manage a session, how to hold the attention of young kids for an hour or keep surly teenagers engaged for a two-hour workshop, how to handle the hecklers and attention-seekers and domineering teachers and adults talking at the back and people coming in late, the awkward questions and the librarian telling me the session was actually going to be half the time I thought it was. I learned how to talk while I drew a picture and I learned that audiences want to laugh, that they’re waiting to laugh.

I learned very quickly, the difference between a good events organizer and a bad one, and how often that can make a difference to who ends up in your audience.

The investment of time and effort was HUGE, but after ten years of this, I can now walk into a room and start talking from cold, and walk out an hour later leaving an audience – children or adults – smiling, stimulated, satisfied and curious about my books.

That’s not bragging. Any children’s author who’s done a lot of sessions can make the same claim. Part of my training was going and watching other authors whenever I could. Because being an entertaining speaker has become just another part of our job. I can assure you that it was never part of my plan, but it’s a fact of life if you want your books to sell.

If you’ve never done a session from scratch with a bunch of kids you’ve never met, try it and see how hard it is. And I don’t mean just reading them some well-known author’s story, because that’s somebody else’s work you’re reading, not yours, and if you think that’s all authors or illustrators do with their work, you’ve never been to a good session.

And while events are an essential part of getting publicity, if we were to do it for just the publicity, there would be almost no full-time writers, and therefore no one available to do these events, and certainly to do them to the standard that people can expect today.

Let’s say you run a festival, and you want a writer to do it for free – for the publicity. Let’s say they’re a typical mid-level, full-time author, so you’re confident you can get an audience for them: maybe fifty people. You could maybe get more in than that, but you don’t want to hire a bigger hall, in case you can’t fill it. Let’s be really generous – to keep the numbers simple – and say that the author gets one euro for every book that sells for ten euros (they often don’t) as a result of that session. If every single person in that audience bought a book, that author would get fifty quid for travelling to your event, and performing for an hour with skills and experience that take years to develop. Does that sound reasonable to you?

But of course, it’s rare for an entire audience to buy a copy of a book, and nowadays, authors are getting shafted by discounting along with most of the publishing industry. And because of the way royalties are paid in publishing, your author won’t see that fifty quid for about eighteen months. Yes, that’s the business they’re in, and they accept that. But you are in the festival business, and they are what your audiences are coming to see. The income for your festival depends on their delivery of an entertaining and stimulating session.

Granted, you might be a library running events, but you still need footfall. If you don’t get people through the door, that event is still a failure.

All the various people and organizations who build their businesses around books expect to get paid for the work they do, but it’s astonishing that writers, and to a lesser extent, illustrators, whose work is the foundation of these businesses, are expected to give their time for free, Reeve at Trinity–Me Drawingin return for royalties they may eventually earn after every other person involved in the sales chain – most of whom are employed full-time – has been paid first.

Do you work for a company or organization? Would you be willing to travel to another town or county to work for free, in the hope that you might get paid a little more somewhere down the line in return for this work . . . if you managed to excite your customers enough? Would you be happy to see someone else charge for your services, using your name and skills to attract people to your performance, but pocket the takings, telling you that you’ll get more business out of it? What? More of this kind of business?

Try taking that approach to payment with a builder, or a plumber or the washing-machine repair man next time you’re talking to them.

Yes, we are selling books, but our income is derived from that work in different ways. If you get a musician or comedian to put on a show, regardless of whether or not they have products of their own on sale, you pay them a performance fee, or a percentage of the admission fees. Because they are what people are coming to see.

If you run book events, and all you’re offering in payment is a bit of publicity, you may well get the people who are starting out, who are learning the ropes and still have to find their way. But if you want to draw audiences, you need professional authors who have proven they can deliver. And professionals get paid.

And if you’re running a big, prestigious festival that can draw audiences because it has a powerful brand, and you think you can offer little or no fee on the basis that an author should be grateful they’ve been invited, then bear in mind we’re all talking to each other a lot more these days. Word gets around fast. And the problem with brands is that once a company’s brand becomes tainted, everything they do and everything they’re associated with becomes tainted too. Negative values can become attached every bit as firmly as positive ones. There’s a lot more competition for festivals out there now, and more and more, popular authors are having to choose between events.

And those of us who’ve been around a long time, we’ve a funny attitude to all this. Because even though we came up having to do a lot of shit for free, it doesn’t mean we think others should too. Because we know what hard work it is, and we don’t like people taking liberties with other people like us.

Organizations like the Society of Authors, Poetry Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, Booktrust and the Scottish Book Trust all offer fees that could be used as a base for events organizers to work off, and we could really do with some kind of base standard.

If you want people to bring their time and expertise to events you intend to hold, and you are counting on those people to attract audiences and make your events a success, you can’t expect them to come for free. We’re professionals. And professionals get paid.

April 28, 2013

Why Fiction Writers Are Capitalists

This has been bugging me for a while, and I found myself with some time to spare today, so I figured I’d get it down. I need to explain why I think – contrary to received wisdom – most fiction writers are at least as much capitalists as socialists, and why I think that terms such as ‘capitalist’, ‘professionalism’ and ‘good business sense’ seem to have been subverted in the media.

When I made the very deliberate decision that I wanted to be a illustrator, and then later, to be a writer too, I didn’t know quite what I was in for, but I had a fair idea. I took a risk in setting myself up in business – quite a substantial risk, given that, as I now know, there could be less than twenty people in Ireland making a full-time living from writing and/or illustrating children’s books.

I did not believe in the even distribution of wealth – though I don’t think that’s the same as a fair distribution of wealth. I did not believe that the state owed me a living. I developed my skills to the best of my ability, I took risks and promoted myself because I wanted the emotional, social and financial rewards that I hoped I would achieve as a result. You don’t become self-employed if you believe that everyone is entitled to an equal share of those rewards.

I am a businessman, and like most self-employed people – and unlike most of those working for large companies – I face the rigours of business, of capitalism, firsthand. I reap the rewards and I pay for the failures. There is no corporate structure providing me with the former, oThe Writerr protecting me from the latter.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s what it means to be in business, as opposed to working for one. And my ability to stay in business is largely decided by my professionalism; how well I do my work, whether I do what I say I will, to a sufficient quality, in the time agreed.

So when I hear the media talking about companies such as banks as if they are cornerstones of professionalism in business, I take exception to their use of definitions such as ‘business’, ‘professionalism’, and ‘the market’, and how they relate to the behaviour of people who run these banks. They use them as if these people have ownership of these terms, as if they understand them better than others, who do not run banks or sit on boards.

And what bugs me most, is the apparent awe with which our politicians treat these people, and the way the rest of us are spoken to as if we are at some lower level of business, innocent onlookers in the world of ‘the market’.

If a bank has to be underpinned by government handouts to protect society from its collapse, this is a socialist move to support a badly run, unprofessional business. If that bank and a few others like it, find themselves in a market without competition, because every other ‘professional’ running these businesses acted equally foolishly, resulting in an implosion in the industry, the government that is now propping up this near-monopoly of monolithic institutions should not allow the perpetrators of these disastrously-led business entities to dictate the definitions of ‘business’ and ‘free market’ and ‘professionalism’, as they clearly don’t understand them.

If the people who run a business are not held responsible for the decisions that led to its collapse, are not forced to pay the price of that business’s recovery, and are in fact rewarded with increases in pay for victimizing the customers of that business – if they are not made to realize the financial consequences of their actions, then they are not ‘in business’. They are living in some kind of fantasy land – a fictional world, paid for by the work and professionalism of others. And unfortunately, it is this world to which most of their subordinates aspire too. Ironically, it is a fictional world that no writer of fiction, for instance, is ever likely to inhabit.

So when I hear people in the media say that public servants should work more, and more efficiently, for less money; that there is too much waste in the public sector; that the private sector is inherently more efficient; when I hear banks offering business advice to small businesses while at the same time cutting services and becoming unreachable to their customers; when I see big businesses lobbying government for ever more advantages while accusing the public sector of bleeding the country dry; when I am told that my business must pay yet another tax to dig the country out of a hole created by huge corporate entities, it makes me utterly sick.

And when I see the same people who have made life so much harder for every business in this country, still in their jobs, still being paid the same money, still receiving fucking bonuses for running their businesses so badly that their companies had to go on the dole, I think it’s time someone gave them a good slap and explained to them what it means to be ‘in business’.

March 11, 2013

Building a Relationship with a Community that Can’t Pay

If you’ve had any interest in all the developments in the publishing world over the last ten years – and if you’re in the publishing business, it’s pretty unavoidable – you may already have watched Amanda Palmer’s recent talk on TED about how she built an audience, a community of fans. And then asked them to voluntarily pay for her music, both live and recorded, instead of enforcing a price.

It’s a challenging and inspiring talk, and one that everybody in any entertainment business should check out. It’s all about creating a connection with fans, building trust – a trust that your fans will value your art enough to want to pay for it, without being forced to. Some people, particularly businesses who live off artists and the rights to their work, might find this hard to swallow, but Palmer has most definitely demonstrated that it can be made to work, though it takes serious personal investment from the artist. If you want to look at this from a publishing point of view, you can check out a good article by Publishthings here.

But I need to make a point from my position as a children’s writer and illustrator, and from the point of view of others in the same position. Because those of us who produce work for children face a unique problem.

Most of our audience can’t pay, even if they want to.

Children’s writers put more work into creating a link with our audience than any other area of literature. Most of the professional children’s writers I know are constantly on the road, doing events, or working to build their profile online. It’s not enough to write – you have to effectively become a children’s entertainer. We’re more akin to musicians in that, for some, nearly as many kids will hear us speak live as read our books. If there’s one huge barrier people in my profession are constantly trying to overcome, it’s our reliance on the gatekeepers – not just the reviewers, teachers, librarians and booksellers, but also the parents of the children we’re trying to reach.

This is something I twigged to when I first considered trying something like a Kickstarter project.

For younger kids, they will never buy a book without a parent’s or other responsible adult’s input and assistance. With older kids, they can buy those things in a shop, and may not want an adult’s input, but they cannot contribute directly to a writer using any online system, because they don’t have credit or debit cards. And speaking as a parent, my kids aren’t going to be doing any online transactions, alone, any time soon.

So we find ourselves, as ever, in a position where the people whose emotional involvement we seek – so vital in creating that connection that convinces your community to support you – are not the same ones who are paying for our work. Instead, we’re back to trying to appeal to the adults who are not so emotionally invested in our work, and in many cases, may not like, understand or even approve of it. And bizarrely, they seem to exercise their judgement in relation to books, far more than they do with television, film or games. Or maybe it’s just the parents who actually buy books regularly who do this. Which is worrying for a whole other reason.

Anyway, I believe that this community-driven approach to the arts represents the future for many artists who can’t or won’t reach for the dizzy heights of corporate representation. Frankly, I think it’s foolish to rely completely on any publisher for your income, and the vast majority of writers can’t make a living that way anyway.

But how do you build an income based on community involvement, if your community can’t pay?

It’s not actually a new question. Making a living solely as a writer of fiction has always been tough, even from the time that people were able to do it, which isn’t that far back. In fact, it might well be an act of arrogance to assume that it’s possible in all but the most favourable of circumstances. And yet some of us do persist at it.

What it comes down to for kids’ writers, I think, is to face something I’ve been convinced of for a long time. We must not think of ourselves as children’s writers, but as universal storytellers, able to appeal to a range of ages, in a range of ways. Children’s films have been doing this for some time. We can provide something that is becoming increasingly precious; a link between parent and child at any age. From reading a story with your young child, to having a conversation about a YA novel with your older kid, we are capable of producing work that parents and children can enjoy together. Books like ‘Harry Potter’, ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Twilight’ weren’t huge because kids read them. They were huge because EVERYONE read them.

I’m not suggesting we try and write every story for everyone. That would, of course, be an exercise in pointlessness and frustration. We have to write the stuff we know we can write.  I think, instead, we need to recognize that different types of audience will access our work in different ways. And not all of those ways will involve reading . . . and not all of them will involve paying. I don’t believe in using quotes very often, but this one from Cory Doctorow gets to the heart of the matter:

‘I don’t need to get paid by everyone who reads – I need to get read by everyone who pays.’

A while back, I suggested to the publishers of my novels in the UK, Random House, that we release ‘Rat Runners’ in installments, free online. The entire book. My idea was that, while plenty of people might get to read it for free in these episodes, it could create an audience for a potential series – a new audience, some of whom might prefer to read it in print. Random had actually tried this themselves with a romance story. They attracted a readership in its millions, but then they couldn’t figure out how to sell it online. My take on it was, they shouldn’t have bothered. Anybody who wanted to read it online, already could. But a proportion of those readers might have preferred to buy the book. Even if it was only one in hundred, it would still be a bestseller. Yes, you’d have given it away for free, but you’d also have gained sales you’d never otherwise have, and could have been well on the way to building the kind of fan base that can provide that lovely profit.

Needless to say, ‘Rat Runners’ did not get released for free, and I can fully understand their reasons. It simply doesn’t fit the model of selling the publishing industry has always had, and seems to threaten the precious copyright that makes reproduction of art a workable business. But with electronic formats, the attempts to enforce copyright on every piece of text you produce is pointless. We have to sell to those who will pay, to trust that they will – because those who can take it will anyway. We have to do away with Digital Rights Management, but also anything else that stands in the way of readers getting access to our books.

Libraries are based on this principle, and pretty much every writer supports them, right? And some of the payback is that we get paid to come to libraries to do events which promote our work.

We have to offer the most loyal members of our audience access that is enhanced or more personal, so that some of those readers will choose to pay for it – the ones we really need, who can provide the artist with an income.

But publishers can only do part of this, and then have to let go. After that, it’s up to the writer to get out there and make that connection with the audience, as so many children’s writers already do. We have to go to our audience, rather than hoping they’ll come to us – both online and in the shape of events. We have to offer our stories up in different ways, appeal to our varied audiences in different ways, but most importantly, for children’s writers, we need to provide ways to empower kids to find and access our work without adult help, without doing it in a way that parents find threatening. And that means accepting that kids can’t pay for stuff online without supervision, so we have to work on the assumption that they can’t pay at all.

We can’t rely on others to do this for us. Our publishers can’t and won’t do it – though they could help – our audience will only come looking for us once we’ve developed that loyalty and shown we will reward it by getting involved with them in a way that means more than just telling them stories. It was never how I thought it would be when I set out in this career, but this is where I find myself. And yet, as I’ve found over the years, creating this connection can be as enjoyable as it is rewarding. The work outside the books becomes a fun and rewarding experience in its own right.

Yes, I want to make my living writing and illustrating stories. But I’ve had to redefine that ‘living’ a bit slightly. And it keeps changing on me. It’s still an experience I’m relishing.

March 7, 2013

Never Forget

This wasn’t the picture I was going to put up. To mark the publication day for ‘Rat Runners’, I was going to post the cover again, but I’ve done that a few times so I’m going to give it a rest for the moment.

Instead, I’m putting up this. When I finish the manuscript for a novel, I draw up a black and white cover for it. This was the one for ‘Rat Runners’. Like the others, this was not intended as a concept for the final cover, or even an internal illustration. I draw these for a few reasons, but mainly, they’re to remind me of something.

When I was a kid, I used to fill copybooks (that’s ‘exercise books’ for you folks in the UK) with stories and pictures. I fantasized about being a writer and illustrator. Sure, I wanted to be loads of other things, but it was always really this thing. I never really felt like I had a choice in the matter.

So here I am, twenty-five books later. This is the dream. But people who aren’t in the business must sometimes be surprised at how cynical full-time children’s writers can become, and I’m no exception. I can be quite the belligerent fecker at times. To people who are still waiting for their shot, this attitude must seem churlish and even ungrateful considering we’re doing what we dreamed of doing.

We don’t mean to be negative about it, and deep down, I think most of us feel really privileged. But making it in this job can be a REALLY hard slog, unless you’re exceptionally lucky – it can lead you to be frustrated, stressed and downright exhausted from constantly trying to break through, and then you start making a living from it, and you find there’s rarely any let up, unless you reach that tiny, TINY golden percentage at the very top.

But I do not consider myself a ‘struggling writer’. I am not a tortured soul, writing to fill a god-shaped hole, or to overcome my neuroses. I am not oppressed by the demands of my muse. I write and illustrate stories to make sense of the world, to connect to something greater than myself, but when you get right down to it, I’m still just the kid making stories with pencils and markers in his copybooks.

And that’s why I draw pictures on the the fronts of my manuscripts.

I hope you’ll check out ‘Rat Runners’, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

February 19, 2013

The Wrong Kind of Attention

This is something a lot of writers must wonder about from time to time, particularly those who write crime, thrillers, horror, dystopian science fiction or other variously dark, violent, paranoid or unpleasant stories.

I am always a little curious, when doing one of my many online searches, about what kinds of flags I’m raising in the hypersensitive, communications-monitoring headquarters of the world. To give you a flavour, research for my stories has included: terrorists; a wide variety of experimental weapons; more conventional weapons such as guns, bombs and knives; instruments of torture; pathology; crime scene forensics; aviation engineering; surveillance techniques; hacking; radioactive material; police procedures; confidence tricks; and details about a whole selection of violent injuries. On the other hand, I have actually pulled short of looking for sites that show you how to make a bomb, even though it would have been useful in a couple of my books. That just seemed like a tiny step too far.

If you were to believe some films, this blog post alone would be enough to get me black-bagged and carted away in an unmarked SUV with tinted windows. Hang on, what’s that outside? Wait a minute . . .

No, it was nothing.

Colin Wratten, producer of the BBC series, Waking the Dead (one of my favourite shows, like, ever) covers this topic in one of his blog posts. I also learned from his post that there is such a job as a fly and maggot wrangler. I’ll be Googling that before too long. But it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one indulging in a bit of idle paranoia.

My new book, ‘Rat Runners’, is set in a near-future surveillance state, so I did a lot of reading on that kind of stuff. What I discovered is that much of what a science-fiction writer might dream up to feature in the kind of state apparatus run by WatchWorld is actually already in operation somewhere in the world. The kind of stuff that the East German’s Stasi’s wet dreams were made of. The more I read, the more I started thinking about what I was typing into that little Google box.

In the end, I actually had to simplify some of the stuff I was putting into ‘Rat Runners’, because the real technology being used in surveillance was so pervasive and so sophisticated, that showing the ways of beating it would take pages to explain – not good for storytelling. And besides, I’m no Cory Doctorow. If you want to see proper anti-police-state hacking, check out his novel, Little Brother. It’s technical, but excellent. Doctorow knows what he’s talking about, and is passionate about the subject. He’s probably on some of those intelligence lists for real, the trouble-making sod.

Anyway, I didn’t want to write an entire story based on hackers, even if hacking was a necessary part of the storyline. It’s extremely hard to make a guy sitting at a computer sound dramatic, even if it can be in real life. It’ll only appeal to people who are into that stuff – people who most likely have heard a lot of it already.

So, there I was, researching surveillance so that I could write a story about a surveillance state, while becoming increasingly aware of how much surveillance I was under every day, and how much more could be applied to my life, without me knowing, if I attracted the wrong kind of attention. Observing something changes it. Observing the means of observing something – and realizing you could be the ‘something’, changes you a bit too.

Now, what exactly is a ‘dirty bomb’?

Let me Google that . . .