July 19, 2013
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 schools 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, in 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.
March 7, 2013
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.
January 9, 2013
This is a post about the small ‘icon’ illustrations I’ve done for the heads of the chapters in my latest book, ‘Rat Runners’. I do pics like this for all my novels – or at least the novels I haven’t been commissioned to do by somebody. Partly because I want the inside of the book to look distinctive as well as the outside (quite difficult with a novel) and partly because some things are best described with a picture . . . and partly because I just like pictures.
I start this process in the first read-through of the galley proofs – where the pages are first laid out as they’d be in the printed book. As I read, I note down the kinds of snapshots of images that would make a good icon for each chapter. The trick is to choose something in each chapter that will be eye-catching, distinctive, different from the other chapters and helps describe something in the story. You also have to be able to tell what each one is when it’s very small – these illustrations are only couple of centimetres squared when they’re printed, and I draw them at about five centimetres squared, so they’ve got to be clearly recognisable.
The first drawings are little more than scribbles, ‘thumbnails’ as they’re called in the trade. I do these on the proof pages themselves normally, trying to figure out what will work and what won’t. Then I move on to the proper pencil drawing. I have a standard template I work into when I start, which suits the head of a chapter; a wide rectangle marks the absolute margin for the picture, but the circle is the main frame, allowing for a bit of breaking out of that frame in most of the pictures.
I’ll use photographic references for some of these pictures – you can only find appropriate pictures about half the time, and even then, there’s a lot of adapting and simplifying.
For the Wildenstern books, I used an old-fashioned style with a lot of linework and cross-hatching. Because of the modern setting for ‘Rat Runners’, I changed the look just a little bit, using a lot more solid black with some linear pen shading, more like the very blocky black style I used in my earlier novels.
Each picture represents an image from that chapter – sometimes just a object that features, one that may not be vitally important, but gives a flavour of the text.
There are frames on these icons, though I haven’t used frames for the last few books. I do up a single frame separately (which, in this case, suggests a camera lens) then place it over each picture in Photoshop, once the drawings are scanned. Then they’re ready to send to the editor.
This is often the last piece of work I do for any book, bar the odd little text revision, and makes for a nice sign-off. It marks the end of the book and time to start on the next which, incidentally, is well underway.
November 29, 2012
So I recently finished the copy edits for the next novel, ‘Rat-Runners’. I’m starting on the icon illustrations today – those little pictures I do for the chapter headings for every novel. I’ll post a few when I’ve got them done. The cover is finished, but I’m not allowed show it yet . . . although they never said anything about showing pieces of the cover, so I’m sticking a couple up here – part of the front and the WatchWorld logo from the back. It’s the story of four very different young criminals working in a surveillance state, run by this organization called WatchWorld. The story is set in London in the near future. Their strapline: ‘If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.’
The kids are given a task by a scheming gangster, which rapidly goes sour, leaving them caught in a dangerous power struggle between two powerful enemies, each trying to get hold of a case belonging to a murdered scientist.
I’ve been letting people have sneak peeks of the cover – and later the proof copy – at my sessions, but we’ve a few different promotional ideas to bring into play before the release date in March, including a short prequel we’ll be releasing online, so keep your eyes peeled. And remember, if you’ve nothing to hide . . .
November 15, 2012
Okay, so October’s over and I’m winding down events in November, so I thought I’d run over what I’ve been up to and where I’ve been, along with a few other bits of news.
Children’s Book Festival brought its usual hectic schedule. I’ll keep just to that month, where I did (deep breath): an Ideas Shop event with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Tallaght library, then four different libraries in Meath, Skerries Community College, I interviewed Anthony Horowitz in the Solstice Theatre in Navan, had to miss the Octocon convention in Dublin, four different libraries in Kildare, two more Ideas Shop events in Tipperary, St Molaga’s NS in Balbriggan, Bailieborough and Cootehill libraries in Cavan, St Colmcille’s Junior School in Knocklyon and Kishogue Travellers’ Community Centre for South Dublin libraries, Loreto College in Foxrock . . . and finally, two sessions (one with Derek Landy and Will Hill) in Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin for the Bram Stoker Festival.
So, I was thoroughly knackered by the beginning of November. Add in the fact Maedhbh’s been very ill, and the kids have been conspiring to ensure we never get a full night’s sleep, and my brain has been in danger of losing its higher functions.
I’ve also just wrapped up a night course I was teaching in a local college, and did a weekend course for the Irish Writers’ Centre at the end of September. I did a talk for Irish PEN on YA fantasy last week, with Celine Kiernan and Conor Kostick, I was in Tallaght again today with Sarah Webb, and tomorrow I’m in St Michael’s College in D4, talking to the first years. On Sunday, I’ll be back in Smock Alley with the ubiquitous David Maybury (author of ‘Frankenkids’) doing a Nightmare Club Event. That’ll be it, for the moment . . . I think.
October also marked the launch of my book for Little Island’s Nightmare Club series, ‘Wolfling’s Bite’, and my sister Erika’s excellent new book, ‘The Demon Notebook’. Like my other sister, Kunak, Erika seems to have knocked out a cracking read just to prove to their big brother that this publishing lark is a piece of piss, really.
I’m going to post a bit about my upcoming book, ‘Rat-Runners’ when I get a chance, but I’ve also started work on a TOP SECRET PROJECT that I can’t talk about (yet), except to say that it’s going to keep me busy writing for the next few months. The deadline’s ridiculously tight, which actually suits me for the moment – I do love the events, but a bit of enforced sitting-down-and-writing will be nice. And the dog will start getting proper walks again. Oh, and the painting I was meant to do for Maedhbh’s birthday is REALLY late, so I need to get that finished too.
Right, I’m off to bed. Wake me at the end of the month.
October 12, 2012
I’ve just realized how long it’s been since I posted anything – thank you Facebook, for diverting my online attention elsewhere. It’s just been easier to stick bits and pieces up as I went, rather than writing something at greater length . . . you know . . . say a few hundred words. Who’d have thought blogging would end up being considered ‘long-winded’. And let’s not even talk about Twitter.
Anyway, time for a bit of catch-up as I’m sucked into Children’s Book Festival. This summer, I did a couple of sessions at the Electric Picnic – the two pictures of sculptures are just random choices among the weird and wonderful sights to be seen there among the various stages. It was a fantastic spectacle, and because I was starting early on the Friday (I only went for the day), I got to see a lot of the stuff being set up, which – nerd that I am – I found almost as interesting as some of the shows that were on. There was muck, but not too much of it, and the widest range of food I’ve ever seen at an entertainment event. There was a lot of music playing, but to be honest, I just kind of drifted between the different areas for most of the day, taking it all in.
You could indulge in spa treatments, heated jacuzzis, various relaxation zones, literature events, a small fairground, a large family area with plenty to do for kids and, of course, a wide menu of gigs, from small indie acts to international stars.
Maedhbh and I got to go with our twelve-year old to the London Olympics too, thanks to Maedhbh’s savvy approach to buying tickets. We stayed with a mate of mine over there, and got a morning of athletics at the stadium, and . . . wait for it . . . a morning session of women’s boxing, including seeing Katie Taylor in the semi-final! That was absolutely brilliant, as good an atmosphere as I’ve ever felt anywhere. There was a chance to catch up with my agent while I was in London too. With Frankfurt Book Fair – arguably the biggest book fair in the world – on this week, she’ll have been run off her feet, and I’ve a number of different books being pitched at the moment, so we had a lot of stuff to talk out while I was in the neighbourhood.
As far as work is concerned, the last few months have been hectic, in a varied, patchy way. It’s been a real reflection of what it’s like to be a professional writer – at least one who does well enough to make a living, but hasn’t reached the stratosphere of success that challenges you with problems like juggling international flights (okay, there was London, but it doesn’t count if it’s not book-related) and fighting off the paparazzi. The summer months are normally when I get time to write for prolonged periods, but that just didn’t seem to happen this time, so I’ve been fitting in the writing when and where I could.
Given that it’s now time to get stuck into Children’s Book Festival, taking me to places like Dublin, Kildare, Cavan and Tipperary among others, I should should really be further along with the writing, and things have been coming along. I’ll post a bit about what I’ve been up to in the next week or so.
August 25, 2012
Breaking news! I’ve done a book entitled ‘The Wolfling’s Bite’ for Little Island’s ‘Nightmare Club’ series. They’re quirky little horrors for young readers, and at about 2,000 words, they’re a little longer than my Mad Grandad books. Here’s the blurb:
‘Jessie was nuts about her cute little Wolfling toy. But her brother had heard rumours about Wolflings: they could move without being switched on. They could turn nasty. He even heard that they could bite.
‘Read it, if you dare – and hang onto your nose!’
The size and format of books in this series are the kind of thing I think we need a lot more of. There’s a little upstart named Annie Graves who claims the credit for all the stories in the series, but pay no attention to her . . . she’s an attention-seeking, conniving little minx who profits from the stories of her friends.
And I’m not scared of her ‘cauldron’ either. Not much, anyway.
There’s another book coming out next month, alongside ‘The Wolfling’s Bite’, which Annie says she wrote, but I just don’t believe her. It’s entitled ‘Frankenkids’, and I think she’s got the real author psyched out. While this is an great little series, sure to disturb and horrify innocent young readers, I urge you not to buy or borrow either of these books. That little cow Graves doesn’t deserve it.
July 15, 2012
A massive thanks to everyone who entered the ‘Merciless Reason’ Competition! And now I’m delighted to announce the winner and runners-up:
The runners-up will all receive inscribed copies of each of the three Wildenstern books. They are:
And the winner, who will make a cameo appearance in my next novel, ‘Rat-Runners’ is . . .
Congratulations to all of them, and thanks again to everyone who took part!
June 22, 2012
The lovely Sarah Webb and I will be flying by the seats of our respective pants as we hold an ‘Ideas Shop’ event for the Kilkenny Arts Festival – without the calming presence of Judi Curtin. The event takes place at 3pm on the 12th of August at the Barnstorm Theatre.
In this show, we take a light-hearted approach to discussing how our childhoods influenced our approach to coming up with ideas, how we build our stories from nothing, and how we go about reaching our audience once we’ve completed those stories.
If you’re down that way, and your that way inclined, we’ll see you there.
June 16, 2012
The deadline for entering the Merciless Reason Competition has now passed! A big thanks to everyone who entered! The winner of the competition will appear as a character in my next book, and will be announced on the 15th of July. There will be three runners-up who will receive inscribed copies of all three Wildenstern books.
Thanks again to everyone who took part!