‘Astonishing Travellers’ in St Malo

I spent the 11th to the 13th of June in a place called Saint Malo, on the northern coast of Britanny, in France. I was there to take part in a fantastic book and film festival, but used it as an excuse to get a family holiday in as well.

The festival is entitled ‘Etonnants Voyageurs’ – which loosely translates as ‘Astonishing Travellers’. It happens every year and this year boasted names such as Alexander McCall-Smith, Robin Hobb, Hugo Hamilton and Jonathan Stroud among its international guests.

It took place in a hotel and conference centre outside the historic walled part of the city (as seen in the picture above), as well as a row of marquees on the waterfront, and pretty much dominated that part of town. If you’re wondering why this huge fancy conference centre has a temporary banner up, advertising a kilo of ‘Moules + Frites’ (mussels and chips) for 11 euro, I’ll go into that later.

Saint Malo is a lovely place, an historic city with a beautiful walled town looking out off the coast. Our hotel was right in the middle of this little labyrinth of lofty high-sided buildings and narrow streets. So we could walk straight out onto the cobbles – very attractive, but a bit bumpy for buggies, and hazardous for anyone in high heels (no, it wasn’t a particular problem for me). Much of the old part of town isn’t original, as we found out, having been enthusiastically bombed during the second world war. But they did a fine job of rebuilding it.

My mother came with us, to help with the kids, seeing as I was going to be working for a lot of the time we were there. She speaks French pretty well, which was big plus, even in a tourist area like this. Maedhbh is a vegetarian, which seems to be a surprisingly unfamiliar concept to French culture, considering they do food so well. And like a lot of people over here, the staff in some French eateries think that things like fish or chicken count as vegetarian. For anyone who’s in any doubt, they don’t.

The language barrier wasn’t the only problem with ordering food while we there – between Mum and the secondary school French Maedhbh and I wielded, we were able to understand most things. St Malo was stuffed with restaurants, but most of them were either creperies or purveyors of the ubiquitous moules et frites (there were signs for them everywhere) and other seafood, with the occasional pizzeria thrown in. There was plenty for me and Mum, and we could adapt for the kids, but Maedhbh ended up having pizza three nights in a row – which she liked, but a bit of variety would have been nice.

I had dinner with the people from Mango on one night. Audrey (who had also brought her husband and wild toddler son), Sarah and Sylvaine were fine hosts throughout my few days there, and that evening, I also met fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson and his wife. He has taken on completing Robert Jordan’s massive ‘Wheel of Time’ series. A tall order indeed. Some of his books are published by Mango too, and he was over doing the festival as part of a European tour that included Amsterdam and Norway. A nice guy, though he seemed taken aback at the extraordinary lengths of time the French spend eating dinner.

Fantasy and science fiction seem to be much more mainstream in France than they would be in Ireland or the UK, and English-speaking authors are apparently considered by many to be the ‘mainstream’ market of fantasy and sci-fi. Walking around the football-field-sized book fair, a large proportion of the books were from these genres, and of course, comics and illustrated books are taken much more seriously there too.

There was a such a huge range of books that I’d naturally never seen before, and I was told that compared to some other book fairs in France, the spread in this exhibition hall would be considered quite modest. I loved the varied array of designs and illustration styles.

The French taste in fantasy even stretches to the souvenirs on offer in some of their major tourist attractions. I had half a day to spare not long after we got there, and we went to check out the world-famous Mont-Saint-Michel, a stunning fortified town rising out of the sea, less than an hour’s drive away. It’s a stunning place, and I could have wandered around, taking photos there for days (I’ll talk about it a bit more in another post), but I was struck by the fact that in a couple of the gift shops, there were weapons for sale that looked more like they hailed from ‘The Lord of the Rings’, rather than having any connection with French culture. Our ten-year-old regarded them with greedy eyes. He’s getting to that age – and I remember it well. But it’ll be a few more years yet before he’ll be allowed to buy his first butterfly knife, orc dagger, replica gun, or indeed a samurai sword . . .

As he has said on a couple of occasions, we are ‘the strictest parents in the world’.

My duties during the festival consisted of three stints doing signings at the book fair, and two panels with writers and illustrators such as Nicolas Fructus, Serge Lehman, Jeanne-A Debats and David S Khara. One of the talks was on pulling science fiction back from the far future and the other on building imaginary cities.

Both were really good experiences, not just because of the people and their ideas, but also because I had to work through a translator. It wasn’t simultaneous translation, UN-style, it was more a case of the translator summarizing to me what was being said, then me talking and then waiting as she did the same for everyone else there. It meant that I had to be very concise, and give statements, rather than really joining in a dialogue, which was a bit awkward. But despite my inability to communicate directly (although many there actually did speak English) the other guests didn’t try and crowd me out, which was gratifying.

Ian McDonald was there for the talk on building cities. I’ve met him a few times at conventions now, and he’s always got interesting things to say. He needed a translator too, so for that talk we had five speakers, two translators and a stimulating – but talkative – writer named Jean-Claude Dunyach acting as moderator. I think I got to talk four times in the hour-long panel. But I firmly believe that what I did get to say was fascinating.

Normally, if I’m going to be signing at a shop or book stall, I do one stint, sign for whoever shows up, have a chat with the staff, then sign some stock and leave. This time I was scheduled to be at the book fair for three sittings of a couple of hours each. Seeing as I’m really just starting off in France, and there were dozens of other authors around and tens of thousands of other people’s books on sale, I didn’t exactly expect the punters to be queueing out the door.

So I sat down with some paper, pencils and pens, and started drawing. And it worked pretty well. People are generally intrigued by seeing drawing done ‘live’, and it seems that this is especially true in France. I’m well used to talking while I’m drawing – I do it all the time in my sessions – and since I couldn’t talk to anyone who didn’t speak English, I was able to concentrate on the sketching a lot of the time, so I drew up all sorts of things I wouldn’t normally do in a session. Sarah, one of the editors, and Sylvaine, a designer, (standing behind me in the photo) provided translation services while I gestured and made various attempts to butcher the French language.

I met all sorts of people of all ages, including three hardcore and very chatty fantasy-sf fans, one of whom writes a blog entitled ‘Imaginelf’. Most of the people who bought my books were adults, and wanted them signed to themselves. As in Ireland, the UK and the States, it appears that ‘young adult’ can mean just about anybody.

At one point I looked up to find Jonathan Stroud standing there, grinning at me. We’d hung around together a bit at the Cheltenham Literary Festival a few years back, when I was launching ‘Small-Minded Giants’. I knew he’d be in St Malo and I had been hoping to run into him. He’s a thoroughly sound guy, and his Bartimaeus trilogy is one of the best YA series I’ve read. We went off and had lunch and I got to ask about what he’s doing now, including a comic version of the trilogy, and a prequel novel, ‘The Ring of Solomon’. That’s another one to add to my every growing ‘to read’ list, goddamit.

The family and I left St Malo on the Monday, after I’d finished my last signing session. Ahead of us, a three-hour drive to a tiny town on the west coast where we’d be based for the rest of our stay in France. I wish I could have gone to more of the events at the festival, as some of them looked brilliant, but I loved having the family there to savour St Malo and all it had to offer. It was a real pleasure to take part in the events that I did, and it was an honour to be invited. A big thanks to the festival organizers, and especially to Audrey, Sylvaine and Sarah from Mango, for making the experience such an enjoyable one. I had an absolute ball.

The British Library – Now Available from Google

In its ongoing crusade to make as much of the world’s information available online (an act that is not entirely altruistic), Google have teamed up with the British Library to release 250,000 books online, from the library’s stock.

‘The Telegraph’ reports that the books will cover the years from 1700 to 1870, so the copyright issues  that Google has had with other aspects of its library project won’t be a major concern.

About 40 million pages will be digitised, meaning anyone who’s interested, can read books by writers who witnessed the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the invention of rail travel and the abolition of slavery.

When people look back at the revolution that’s happening right now, I wonder will they be reading about it on paper or on-screen? And which will offer the most ‘authentic’ experience? Or will they even be reading at all?

In Transit

I’m only just back from France, having attended the Etonnants Voyageurs festival in St Malo, and then gone on to take a week with the family on the west coast of Britanny. I’ll do separate posts on those two, when I get a chance.

Unfortunately, I didn’t win either of the awards I was up for; the Prix Imaginales went to Cornelia Funke for ‘Reckless’ and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire went to Arthur Slade for ‘La Confrérie de l’Horloge’ (‘The Hunchback Assignments’ in English version). Congrats to both!

Goddammit, always the bridesmaid, never the bride . . .

But no sooner was I back in Ireland, then I was heading down for three days of events in primary schools in Tipperary, organized by the library service and Poetry Ireland. Yesterday I was in Ballyporeen and Burncourt, today was Clogheen and Ballylooby (great name!) and tomorrow it’s Birdhill NS, Newport Convent and Rearcross NS. I’m back again on Monday to visit Mullinahone.

I’ve got some kind of throat infection and it’s making things really awkward – anybody who’s been to one of my sessions will know how rowdy I can get. I’m running a workshop in the Irish Writers’ Centre over the weekend too, and tomorrow night I’m attending a launch of an art exhibition I’m taking part in as part of the Pink Ribbon campaign, in Kells, and it’s hard to see when my voice is going to get a chance to recover before next week.

After a very long couple of months, I’m absolutely knackered, and really looking forward to the summer and staying put for a while. I love my car, but I’m starting to feel as if I’m becoming car-seat-shaped. I’ve got a few events lined up in July and August, but I’m finally going to get a chance to do some writing – and not talking – as well as getting on with the editing of ‘Merciless Reason’, which has been on the shelf for way too long. I’m reading back through it now, not having worked on it in ages, and I’m pretty happy with how it’s going. The designer has started work on the cover now too, so I should have something to show before too long. I love James’s work, so I’ve got high expectations. Seeing the reception to the first two Wildenstern books in France, I’m eager to get the third one out there – hopefully some time next year. ‘Merciless Reason’ is scheduled for release in Ireland and the UK in January.

Coming soon, posts on Etonnants Voyageurs, the holiday, and word from Conor Kostick on his new book, ‘Edda’, the conclusion of his epic trilogy, ‘The Avatar Chronicles’. I’ve just finished reading it, and it’s got all the winning ingredients of the first two, including some theories that are liable to wreck your head if you gave them too much thought. Thanks Conor; as if my brain wasn’t overloaded enough at the moment . . .

Fine Young Cannibals

I’m just finishing up two separate residencies for Poetry Ireland, in primary schools in Drogheda and Balbriggan. These two particular courses are what are known as Development Education residencies – all of which have some kind of social justice theme. The theme this year has been ‘Starvation’. I run a project that produces a collection of illustrated stories at the end of it – one by me and the rest by the kids – all of which have to deal with starvation in some way.

The way I approach this is to encourage all the kids to write whatever type of story they want to write . . . on one condition: all the stories have to take place in the same setting. In this case, it’s an Irish city in an alternative world, where most of the population is starving. The story doesn’t have to be completely realistic, and it doesn’t have to be about finding food; there are lots of other problems the kids’ characters can be facing. Starvation makes people desperate, and desperate people do some mad things.

The classes were 5th and 6th – that’s ten, eleven and twelve-year olds for any of you folks outside of Ireland. Interestingly, it occurred to the kids in both classes that, in such dire circumstances, there might be people who would resort to cannibalism. A number of the kids actually had some of their main characters being devoured in their stories. One kid had all of his characters eaten at the end.

When the topic came up in one class, I jokingly asked how many of the kids would consider eating human flesh if they were dying of starvation. They all laughed . . . and then about half of them put up their hands.

We seriously need to get out of this bloody recession. If this is how our kids are thinking, we’ve got to be careful we don’t start running low on food . . .

It’s Not About the Money, Money, Money

I read an article in ‘The Irish Times’ recently that told of the massive advance for a two-book deal for first-time novellist, Kathleen MacMahon. In the article, the deal – with its £600,000 advance – for This Is How It Ends and a follow-up book, is hailed as: ‘brilliant news for debut novelists. It’s proof that there’s an appetite for great first novels’. The book will be published some time next year by Little Brown on this side of the Atlantic and by Grand Central in the US.

It is good to hear that new names are still getting a look in, as the publishing world goes through a pretty rocky period, but I’d question the wisdom of advances like these or even, in some cases, how accurate the figures really are.

For anybody who doesn’t already know, writers normally get paid in two different ways for their books. First, there’s the advance, which is basically a non-refundable loan (though you may have to pay back some or all of it if you somehow breach the terms of your contract). This a lump of money up-front to recognize the work you’ve already put into the book, and to help pay your way through the work that will still have to be done to get it into production. The amount is based partly on how much money your publisher thinks your book is likely to make, and partly on how much they want it and whether they have to bid against other publishers to get it.

Secondly, there’s the royalties. This is the writer’s percentage of every book sold, which generally falls somewhere between about 8% and 15%, but there’s no ‘standard’ figure, and your cut can be affected by how the book is sold, and in what form. You don’t start receiving any money from your sales until the royalties have paid off your advance. So Ms. MacMahon will have to sell a lot of books before her advance has earned out. Until her advance has been paid off, her publishers will most likely be making a loss on her book.

My first doubt regarding this and other massive advances is this: Who’s making the figure known to the media? In general, publishers don’t like saying how much they’ve paid for a book, because they don’t want all of their authors thinking they can get the same generous sum. Agents don’t blab about figures for the same reason; they don’t want their clients asking: ‘Why didn’t you get me that kind of money?’. Which leaves the authors themselves, and in most cases, you’d think people wouldn’t want the world to know what they’re earning.

The only reason I can think of that any of the parties involved in the negotiation would want the figure known, would be to create hype over the book. As is admitted in the ‘Irish Times’ article, that tactic can backfire, leading to people talking about the money, rather than the book (like I’m doing), or causing expectations of the book to reach silly levels.

My other misgiving is that money spent on advances is not getting spent on the promoting of the book – or on other books. You would naturally think that if a publisher pays a fortune for a book, that they will give it a hefty marketing push – they’ll be keen to make that money back, right? But this isn’t always the case. In fact, the publishing industry’s approach to marketing is hit-and-miss at best. If you’re looking to make a career out of writing, and you get a big advance for your first book, you really better hope it sells, because you could end up being regarded as toxic by your publisher if you become a big red debt on their accounts. A sure way to get dropped, particularly in today’s climate.

I can’t help feeling that the culture of trying to create hype for a book based a big-figure advance is really short-sighted. With the fast turnover of stock on the shop shelves, a book tends to get one big shove – it’s lucky if it even gets that – and then the marketing people lose interest. But this just doesn’t reflect the way books sell. This is not the music or film industry. We have no broadcast medium spreading the word quickly, so for the most part, word about a book spreads slowly. ‘Harry Potter’ did not become a phenomenon because of marketing – it was first and foremost because of word-of-mouth. The marketing just jumped on the band-wagon of what even the publisher admits was a surprise success.

With the publishing industry in a state of near-paralysis for the last couple of years, resulting often in fearful and conservative decision-making, you would have thought we’d be leaning back to taking a more long-term view. There are so many people being given a start and then being dropped when it doesn’t work out, it must be incredibly disheartening. I’d hate to be starting out now. It’s not all on the publishers, though they really do need to give up on this big-bang theory of selling books. They will always need the ‘tent-pole’ books, to stay in business, but it’s never a good idea to put up a tent in a hurry. It takes time for a lot of people to read a book. And in most cases, it takes time for a writer to establish themselves.

New writers need to be realistic too. Anybody working in publishing will tell you not to hang all your hopes on one book. The most successful writers, the ones who have careers that span decades (the ones I most want to emulate) have built their audience up over time. Once you’ve got your first book published, get the next one lined up, and the next one. And try to have a good time doing it, so you keep doing it, even when you can’t make a living from it.

I’ve met a lot of writers, and I have one of the best agents in the business, and I can assure any budding authors out there that in the children’s book industry, advances just don’t reach into the six-figure range, especially not for first-time authors – not unless  you achieve overnight, worldwide success and can lump together the sale of rights in thirty countries and a lucrative film deal all in one pot. For a publishing contract in the UK, anything over ten grand would have been considered doing pretty well for yourself, even back in the boom, and the US publishers don’t tend to be that much more generous.

Instead of huge advances, I’d like to see the industry being a bit more practical, and showing more vision: tackling the challenge of engaging people who don’t read books – actually enlarging the market; coming up with a coherent strategy with a view to digital media. I want to see us coming up with an alternative to the savage discounting that has resulted in the fact that, despite selling more books, we’re making less money off them. I’d like to see how we can help bookshops adapt to a new market, rather than seeing them closing down.

Yes, you’ll still have to pay me a reasonable advance if you want me to sign a publishing contract – but if you want to buy my book, what I really want to see, is how you’re going to sell it.