Get Up, Stand Up

Last Saturday, I joined up with Sarah Webb, along with writer and performer, Mia Gallagher, to speak at the ‘Stand and Deliver’ seminar, organized by Tom, Mags and the gang at Children’s Books Ireland. This is aimed at newly published authors (although some veterans showed up as well) who want to pick up some tips on running a children’s session.

For most of us who’ve been doing it for a while, it’s been a case of trying different things – and learning from our mistakes – as we went along. But at CBI, we figured some people might find it a big help if there was a course to learn the basics. Judging by the demand for places, we weren’t far wrong. The day went really well – I learned a few new things myself – and I’d say it’s something we’ll be doing again soon.

Mad Grandad SessionFor any writers who haven’t been getting themselves out there, I’d say to you that the days when you could be a reclusive author are over. If you want to make a living – unless you expect to benefit from some stunningly unlikely piece of good luck – you need to get out there and start pushing your books. It’s a painful fact that nobody else will do it for you – and that includes your publisher. These companies, particularly in Ireland, do not have the budgets or resources for promoting all their books, so what little they do have is spent on the books they are sure they can sell. And as anyone can see, they still get it wrong on plenty of occasions.

So not only will you have to do it all yourself, but how you go about promoting your books will be one of the things your publisher judges you on, even after you’re published.

It means doing tiny schools in the middle of nowhere and public library sessions where you might get three people showing up, but it all adds up in the end. It’s a hard slog, but it’s worth it. And given the culture of events we have in Ireland, you have better chance of getting sessions in schools and libraries here than in any other country I know of.

Unfortunately, last Saturday wasn’t an entirely positive day.

Talking to David Maybury and a few others at the seminar, I learned that Mercier Press have had to make major cuts to their list due to a 40% cut in their grant from the Arts Council. This includes effecting people who, like David, had just got their first publishing contract.

These grants are vital for Irish publishers, who are trying to compete in a market dominated by much bigger UK publishers (who, because of the scale of their market, still can’t afford to promote most of their books properly). Without these grants, most Irish firms could not survive. And without those publishers, Ireland would be reading whatever Britain chose to send our way.

These cuts are a painful blow for anyone, but particularly for new writers at a time like this, when publishers are freezing up, afraid to try anything – or anyone – new in a tough market.

The WriterI can only imagine what’s like for these authors at the moment. As a writer, you get used to having your work turned down at the start, but once you’re published, it’s easy to forget the ache of having one rejection after another. And then, when you do get turned down again (and it has happened to me more than once), at least you have a track record. You’ve done it before, you can do it again.

To get your first publishing contract and then have it fold on you after you’d got used to the idea? That must be gutting. And it’s not just first-time writers that Mercier is having to let down.

There was a blossoming of hope in Irish children’s publishing over the last few years, which had long been served in a proper commercial sense only by the O’Brien Press. They were the only ones giving the UK publishers a run for their money in the Irish market. And even they were glad to see Mercier pitching new blood into the mix.

My advice to anyone faced with the loss of their contract, the loss of their dream of being published, is this: Things in the market are tough right now, and it may seem hard to start going through it all again. But don’t quit. Keep writing, keep trying. Don’t quit. Publishing will always need new blood. Like anyone else, publishers need the hope of finding that next big thing, but more importantly, just about everyone in this business is in it for the love of it. They want to produce good stuff. Only a complete eejit would get into it for the money. So don’t quit.

For anybody looking for information on the children’s book industry in Ireland, including tips for budding writers and illustrators, you should check out cb-info on the CBI website. And we’re constantly looking for other ways to improve the environment for creating children’s books in this country. Keep writing. Don’t quit.

Seizing the Means of Production – Part 2

The issue of what, and more importantly how children will read in the future is a battle – not just for hearts and minds, but also for attention spans. In this, the second of this three-part post, I’ll outline how I believe this change in reading will shape publishing as we know it, and how those of us working in publishing now should be taking the initiative.

I was in Eason’s a little while ago and took this picture. It shows the display stand for children’s comics and magazines. The magazines cannot actually fit on the shelves because of the sheer volume of bulging blister packs stuck to the fronts of the mags, containing cheap plastic widgets. Kids' MagazinesIn many cases, the mags have to come in plastic bags to contain all the stuff that come with them.

The fact that most of these ‘gifts’ are pure unadulterated shite and will almost immediately be discarded, is disguised by announcing them to the world with words like ‘Mega!’ or ‘Wicked!’ or ‘Awesome!’ in large, colourful print. Bejaysus, those people in marketing are an awful cunning bunch. The cover of one issue of my stepson’s favourite mag used the word ‘Mega! no less than five times to describe their various gifts, competitions, posters etc.

I am somehow reminded of the Europeans buying the American continent off the natives with trinkets and alcohol (and ethnic cleansing).  Not that I’m suggesting that the publishers of these mags are subjecting our innocent little darlings to cultural extermination. The business and consumer relationship is a symbiotic one. They are a constant influence on one another. I just think it’s a very clear indicator of where reading – and the absorption of information in general – is headed.

I posted a blog a while back about the difficulties bookshops are facing. Things have changed a lot in the last ten or fifteen years. I spent a lot of time looking at the new stuff in bookshops when I was a kid, but I bought hardly any new books. Most of what I bought came from secondhand bookshops, where marketing didn’t exist and categories were much more general – in fact, books were lucky to be categorized at all. And, of course, because they were secondhand, the authors saw none of the money I spent. Chapter BookstoreThere are very few of these kinds of shops around any more, except for the limited ranges in charity shops and places like Chapters on Parnell Street, who have become a kind of a hybrid of both kinds of selling.

I was also a regular at the library; a dark, musty place with a limited selection for children, but I didn’t know any different. Today’s libraries would put it to shame. I’m not indulging in nostalgia here – nor is this a ‘you don’t know how good you have it’ rant. My main point is the limited access I had to text of any kind. Books cost more in proportion to your income. The newsagents had less to offer.There were no mobile phones, very basic home computers and no world wide web.

Everything was printed on paper. It was stored and accessed in specific locations, in limited numbers, in a static state. Once printed, it did not change, it did not update itself. If you were seeking information, any reference one piece of text made to anything else had to be accessed through another piece of printed material, which you might or might not be able to find or reach. The ability to access the world’s information was dependent on who you were, where you lived, and how much money you had.

And, of course, your education, your ability to read – to know how to choose between different texts, interpret different styles of writing, and to be able to read at length.

Now our lives are flooded with text – coded information that you have to be able to read to survive in the modern world. Search engines provide an astoundingly efficient way of finding whatever information we want. Young people are growing up thinking of text, not as something printed on page, but as something that is fluid, changeable, something they interact with and can affect. A link to other things.

They are becoming adept at surfing, reading across a wide surface from one subject to another.  But, as a result, many readers are investing less time in diving into this sea of information to any great depth. It’s hard to blame them. There’s so much cool stuff out there to distract them.

Them? Hell, I’m as bad myself. I try to research something for a story and end up, several hours later, fascinated by something that has nothing to do with what I was originally looking for.

As a writer, trying to make a living by feeding into this ocean of text, I’m affected in two ways. The first is the way I have to write: As a writer of books, I’m not just competing with other books. Digital Pub Cartoon-BedtimeMy potential readers have to be dragged away from magazines, websites, social networking sites, blogs – never mind games and the telly. So I have to do a Dan Brown, trying to produce stories that protrude with so many hooks you can’t read them without snagging your sleeves. It’s not enough to grip your readers, you have to cling desperately to their leg as they walk away from you. Soon, we could be reduced to the literary equivalent of sticking plastic widgets to our text.

The second way I’m affected is that I’m . . . well . . . getting on in years. At the ripe old age of thirty-six, I am substantially older than most of the readers my books are marketed to. It’s true of most writers for young people. They are not, by and large, young people themselves. Except now they are.

Books are, by nature, longer than the average post on Facebook or a blog (even this one). They take time to write and are therefore, like most published writers, old by the time they are finished. They can take a while to read too. A book does not tell you about your friends and family, it doesn’t interact with you. Professional writers are not just competing with each other. We’re competing with our readers. They are writing for each other. The newspapers discovered this problem some time ago.

Facebook LogoThe wondrous connectivity of the web has created a text that offers communication with people you can relate to, who speak your language. There is an immediacy, an excitement and sense of techno-cool that is easy to read and easy to access. Something you can share with your friends. Text hasn’t just become part of your social life, it is actually replacing parts of your social life.

But more to the point, the mass production of text, which was once the sole territory of print publishers, has become available to the masses. These advances have allowed the readers to seize the means of production. The nerve of them.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because text is starting to lift off the page and come to life. Audio books are becoming increasingly popular. The Amazon Kindle has text-to-speech software that will read the book to you. It’s like having Stephen Hawking speaking in your ear, but it’s an interesting start.

In the opposite direction, voice recognition software has left its awkward, fumbling days behind and is becoming ever more practical. Nexus 1Google’s Nexus 1 phone boasts that many of its applications can be voice activated. With voice-to-text, you can speak into the mike and see a text write itself before you eyes. The phone can even censor swear words – a feature I find a bit scary.

How will this affect the next generation’s ability to read and write at length – or even do these things at all? I don’t believe that text is going anywhere, but what about the ability to interpret it? At the moment, it’s certainly not the publishing industry who will decide. We may have hardly any influence at all.

Publishing is no longer something that is done and then finished – handed from one small group of people out to another, larger one. It is an ongoing process in which anyone can take part. Which I think poses a couple of questions.

The first has been faced both by publishers and readers ever since manuscripts started being reproduced in large quantities as books: Faced with such a quantity of text, how do we choose what to devote our valuable reading time to? The more sources of text, the harder that question is to answer.

The second question is: How does a professional publishing industry survive in an environment where anyone can publish and access text for free?

And if it doesn’t survive in any recognizable form, what will happen to the quality of the material that continues to be published?

I’ll have a look at that in Part 3.

Seizing The Means of Production – Part 1

I’m going to post this in three parts – blogging is meant to be an exercise in short, sharp writing and I’m tackling a complicated issue. That brevity in writing will be part of what I want to talk about. In this post, I’d like to put forward an outline of what publishing has been up until now, and in the second part, have a think about the nature of reading and how it’s changing. In the third part, I’ll have a look at how those changes are affecting publishing, and where I think it might be going. And why all of us working in children’s books should be taking an active role in helping direct these developments.

I’m going to start with a question I’m often asked by kids – and some aspiring authors. This bit is largely taken from my FAQ section.

What does a publisher do?
A publisher turns stories into books and distributes them to a mass audience. Digital Pub Cartoon-PrintingThere are different kinds of people who work in a publishing company and they all have an important role in getting a book to the people who will read it. First, they find a story and read it to see if it will make a good book. If they don’t like it, they won’t publish it. Publishers receive thousands, even hundreds of thousands of submissions every year. Because of the sheer amount of time it can take to deal with all these, many publishers will now only accept submissions from agents. Agents also receive thousands of submissions every year.

If the publisher decides to publish the story, an editor takes the text in the form of a word processing file, and reads it to check for any mistakes and to ensure that the story makes sense and whether it can be improved (always a touchy subject). When the text is ready, they decide if it will need illustrations, photos, etc. Each page is then designed and typeset so that it is attractive and easy to read. Sometimes the designer does all of this on computer themselves, but with novels, the typesetting is often done separately by the printer.

This is all put on a printing machine, which makes thousands of copies of each page . Print RunThe pages are normally laid out in large sheets with many pages per sheet. The designer also creates the cover of the book using illustrations, photographs or computer graphics. In novels or other less illustrated books, the cover is often printed separately to the rest of the book. When all the internal pages of the book are printed, they are cut or folded down, bound together inside the cover, using stitches, staples or glue, and trimmed on a guillotine.

Once your book is printed, it is the job of the marketing and public relations people to come up with ways to tell everyone about it, including sending it to reviewers. Then the salespeople have to take the books to shops and libraries and persuade them to show the books on their shelves where readers will see them (really important). Then, if all of that works out and people like the look of your book, they might actually buy it and read it. And that’s all that most writers want.

So, to boil it all down, what a publisher traditionally does for a writer is first, they take that story on. That approval is, in itself, a recognition that the story is of a reasonable quality. Then they hone it into something they can sell, produce the printed matter and distribute it to reviewers and the shops. National Print Museum ShopShops treat books  from well-known publishers far more seriously than they do self-published books.

In this way, publishers have always exercised great power. As ‘filters of quality’, they have decided whose writing reaches the market. Obviously this is all relative; the more powerful and influential the publisher, the bigger push it can give to a book.

I found an excellent film a while back on Very Hungry Caterpillar. It shows how books were once printed. And apart from things like the fact that we no longer use molten lead to create blocks of type, not a whole lot has changed. This short piece of film is a must for all bookworms. It is a great demonstration of the basic process that has, for hundreds of years, formed the focus of the whole publishing world.

National Print Museum KidsIf you want to see a more detailed demonstration of how printing has developed over the centuries, check out The National Print Museum in Beggar’s Bush Barracks on Haddington Road in Dublin.

But in the last few years, the nature of reading and accessing information has changed. As a result, the key roles that publishers have played in bringing writing to the masses have also changed drastically. And that affects writers and illustrators in a big way too.  I’m going to have a look at that in Part 2.

Showing Signs of Stross

Charles Stross is one of the UK’s leading sci-fi writers, and is also a major computer fanatic (the two often come together). A recent post on his blog talks about the difficulties of making money by publishing online. Halting State CoverThere has been a deluge of feedback, leading to a very interesting discussion about where digital publishing could be going and how us poor hacks are ever supposed to make any money out of it.

In his post, he outlines the problems newspapers have faced and how book publishers – and writers – are now hitting the same wall.

As well as being the type of guy who writes (and talks) with informed passion about anything that lights his fire – especially books – Charles has worked as a tech reviewer for various publications. So he knows his stuff, and his fan-base is littered with like-minded people. If you’re interested in digital publishing, this discussion is a must-read.

Death of a Sales Outlet

I was reading Eoin Purcell’s post on the problem bookshops are faced with as they lose more and more customers to online booksellers, both for print and digital books. Actually, he was passing on a point made by another blogger, Seth Godin (Is this all we do in blogs now – talk about other people’s blogs?), but it amounts to the same thing.

The point was that bookshops are losing the biggest book-buyers to the online retailers. And that’s the core of their business, right there. The comparisonHodges Figgis Window was made with music shops, which have been crippled by online sales.

I’ve written about this issue before, both in this blog and in a few different articles and talks. I think that bookshops (as well as publishers, writers and illustrators) are facing a steep learning curve. We need to learn how the nature of reading is changing, in order to understand how the market for reading material is changing. My mother-in-law bought a Sony Reader for my father-in-law for Christmas. I had to help them set it up. It was a PRS 600, one of those with the touch-screen. My parents-in-law were busy discussing how different it would be to read books on it, the advantages and disadvantages.

But they were still talking purely in terms of books. I don’t think the future of eReaders lies in offering a new way of reading books. Nor do I think that the future of books is necessarily in eReaders, or that technology is going to render print obsolete. The beauty of reading on a digital device is not that you can carry loads of books around with you, or change the size of the type, or even cross-reference stuff. These are merely convenient, offset by the fact that an eReader needs power to work – power that runs out (and why, oh why, can’t you use a Sony Reader while it’s plugged in?). The beauty of digital devices is to be found in things like the iPhone, where you can read every kind of material on the one device, plus do a range of other things as well. The Swiss army knife of the digital world. It doesn’t do any one thing brilliantly, but it does loads of things well.

The iPhone doesn’t offer all the solutions either – it’s not pleasant for reading off for any length of time. But given the way we now read on the web, the text on phones, we read newspapers, magazines, books, the documents we create ourselves and all sorts of other media – we need a means of organizing it and unifying the delivery system.Digital Publishing Cartoon

I’ll never give up reading off paper;  I just love it too much. But if someone offers me a cheap and comfortable means of accessing all the other things I read in my life – including a place to access and read my own documents easily – I’ll jump at it. And so will most other people. If bookshops want to stay in business, they are going to have to change form. Loads of printed material on shelves can only be one aspect of their business.

Can they still operate on the high street, with all the related costs, and compete with Amazon? No. They need to become something more, something else.

I think libraries offer a pretty good model, but taking that high street space and making it more social, more service-oriented, more informative, isn’t enough. Perhaps giving it a more commercial twist might produce something libraries don’t or can’t offer. All of us in the book industry are going to have to change the way we think, but first to be affected will be the bookshops. They need to become people places again, rather than just big brand locations for displaying stock. That’s my thought for the day.

Hard Times

It’s always been tough to make a living in the arts in Ireland. It gives us plenty of character and much material for moaning. But it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do a job you’re passionate about, as well as contributing to your community and to Irish culture.

To help us out in this strange and unforgiving career, we have things like the Arts Council, the Artists’ Exemption and excellent arts organizations like Poetry Ireland and Children’s Books Ireland. A lot of people work very hard to maintain a culture of creativity in this country, so that all of our best writers, painters, musicians, film-makers and other artists don’t automatically say: ‘Hey, let’s get out of this little backwater bog of a country and head off across the pond to where we can actually earn enough to pay the rent!’.

Which is why it’s so important to sign up for the National Campaign for the Arts. The government, faced with an economy that is looking more and more like a disaster movie, is threatening huge cuts across the arts. We’re often seen as a soft target, because nobody will die from lack of painting, or from being deprived of a theatre visit – which would be a fair argument, if those in charge could run the more vital services properly as a result, which they seem unable to do.

Griffeen ValleyBut cutting the funding to the arts will affect everyone from schoolchildren to film studios. These cuts mean there will be less books published, less art, less music and film and theatre. We’ll have to import it all instead. And since our kids could well end up paying off the huge debts we’ll have run up by the time they finish college, they’re going to need initiative and fertile imaginations to succeed. Assuming, of course, they don’t immediately head off to all the other countries that are, by then, providing all of our culture and entertainment for us. That’s where the arts come in.

For some reason, Arts, Sports and Tourism are all run by the same government department. I’d love to know who thought that was a good idea. Martin CullenIn case you didn’t know (and there are many who don’t), the minister in charge of this bizarre mix of responsibilites is Martin Cullen – him in the picture. We need to show the government how many people these cuts are going to piss off. If you are one of those people, please click on this ‘I Am Really Pissed Off’ link right now and sign up.

Another major issue in the book industry is digital publishing. It’s happening big and fast and anyone involved in, or with a passion for, books needs to educate themselves about the positive and negative aspects. You can see an article I’ve written about it here, or get the December issue of Inis Magazine, which has a number of articles devoted to digital matters (including my one).

CBI Digital Publishing ForumChildren’s Books Ireland are also holding a one-day seminar on digital publishing, with speakers such as Eoin Purcell, Susan Carleton, Ivan O’Brien and Vanessa Robertson. It promises to be an informative session.

I was also recently sent a link to an excellent article in the Guardian on Waterstone’s, who have come to dominate the book market. It describes how the retail giant’s competition with the likes of the supermarket chains has created a culture of massive discounting on books – a culture that is constricting what kinds of books publishers can publish and driving independent booksellers out of business.

Discounting the prices of books has become a massive problem in publishing, causing no end of tension between publishers and authors. Authors normally get a percentage of the recommended price of the book – or in rare cases, a percentage of the final price the book is sold at. But as contracts get increasingly complicated, the proportion of books sold as part of some special discount deal or other is getting steadily larger, so authors (and publishers) are being paid less and less for each book. There is also no set standard for ebooks in contracts – so that’s a whole other can of worms that is only now being levered open.

As it stands at the moment, you could have a bestseller every year in Ireland and still not make a living. The market is just too small. Let’s hope that after the government and the retailers’ race to the bottom in the price war have done their worst, Ireland still has a native publishing industry worth talking about.

Real Life Science Fiction

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of science fiction. If you’re reading this blog, you’re living in a sci-fi world.

What’s your favourite kind of reading? Which way do you read most? Think about it – do you really spend most of your reading time on books? Or maybe  you read more emails, or posts on networking sites, or magazines, newspapers or comics. Or maybe you read cereal boxes or DVD boxes. Maybe you spend most of your time reading road-signs. It’s all reading, and whatever type of reading you do, it’s probably important in your life. I’m fascinated with the different ways we have of feeding on text.

It seems that the Amazon Kindle is finally going global, having been restricted to the US since its release. This is good, because it’ll give Sony and Google a kick up the arse. I like seeing the giants sweat a little, I like seeing them butt heads. They can’t be allowed to have too much control over what and how we read and the way things are going, they could.

If you don’t know what the Kindle is, or you’ve never heard of eReaders, you should check them out. I don’t think there’s going to be a single format that text will be consumed in the future – instead, everyone’s going to have a favourite way of reading, and publishers will have to become more dynamic in providing these different formats.

I still read books. I also spend a lot of time reading websites, online articles, blogs and, of course, emails. Juliet CartoonBut my favourite type of text is stories, and most of the best stories are told in books. And on the web, pictures are respected more than they often are in publishing, and I love good pictures.

I can now browse the web and even read books on my phone  – I also have my events schedule,  a dictionary, a thesaurus and the entire Irish phone directory on this one small device, which has more processing power than the first spacecraft to land on the moon. It also has the usual camera, alarm clock, calculator etc. I can access the astounding wealth of knowledge that the web offers with a device that’s smaller than my hand. And I have to be careful of that information, because now anybody can just put stuff out there. Nobody’s checking it for me. It’s up to me to make sure I’m not getting fooled.

But, like most people, I spend a lot of time using these technological miracles  for entertainment. I am a member of South Dublin County Libraries’ Download Zone, where I can download ebooks and audio-books for free (and legally).  I do a lot of long walks and I can now listen to audio-books on my phone. I also do a lot of long drives. My phone can connect to my car stereo using Bluetooth, so the same audio-book I was listening to on my walk can continue playing in the car.  If a call comes in, the audio-book pauses while I answer the call, and my stereo acts as a hands-free system.

I take a call from someone asking me to send a photo, or a document, or a piece of video. I can do that and go straight back to listening to my audio-book. All while I’m stuck in traffic. If I lose my way, I can look up a map on the phone (but I still prefer the type that fold out nice and big). It’s a little unnerving though, when I go to the maps section, and IT ALREADY KNOWS WHERE I AM. I decide to turn off that function. But there’s no escaping the fact that I am living in a science fiction world.

It would be easy to get used to all this, and in a way I have to, if I’m to manage my life in an increasingly complicated world. But I wonder if we’ll ever reach a point where we’ll be helpless without this stuff? Where, if you detach us from our access points, our flow of information and stimulation, we will be unable to survive? Will there come  a day in the distant future when, if I lose my phone, and I’m away from home, from familiar surroundings, from internet access, I could be lost forever? My God, what if I just forget my dozens of passwords?

Suddenly, my luddite brain is muttering suspiciously to me about the little piece of plastic, metal and silicon in my pocket.

Disney Books Go Digital Big-Time

An interesting piece I found on Eoin Purcell’s blog. He’s been keeping a close eye on digital developments and posted this announcement from the New York Times recently:

‘In what it bills as an industry-defining moment — though rivals are sure to be skeptical about that — Disney Publishing plans to introduce a new subscription-based Web site. For $79.95 a year, families can access electronic replicas of hundreds of Disney books, from “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” to “Hannah Montana: Crush-tastic!”

‘DisneyDigitalBooks.com, which is aimed at children ages 3 to 12, is organized by reading level. In the “look and listen” section for beginning readers, the books will be read aloud by voice actors to accompanying music (with each word highlighted on the screen as it is spoken). Another area is dedicated to children who read on their own. Find an unfamiliar word? Click on it and a voice says it aloud. Chapter books for teenagers and trivia features round out the service.’

Let’s Get Digital

I was chair at a talk on digital publishing today, in Navan Library. It was part of their Readers and Writers Day and I was joined by Georgina Byrne from South  Dublin County Libraries (who are running Ireland’s first online library service), Robert Hughes from Ulverscroft (publishers who specialize in Large Print and Audio Books) and Samantha Holman from the Irish Copyright and Licensing Agency, (possibly the only person in Ireland who really understands what Google are trying to do to the publishing world). Due to highly ironic technology difficulties, we started late. My laptop wouldn’t connect to their web, their laptop couldn’t read my USB key and my laptop couldn’t read another key that we tried. A perfect illustration of why books aren’t going anywhere just yet.

I made things worse by starting off speaking like a DVD on fast forward because I was conscious of the lost time, resulting in some very bemused faces in the audience. It ended up being a very interesting discussion in the end though. For those who don’t know much about the panic caused by the Google Library Project and the digital publishing revolution in general, see the pieces I’ve written in the Articles Section of my website, or my article in the upcoming issue of Inis magazine. Suffice to say that storytelling text is going the same way as music and films and we need to be ready for it.

Libraries are a perfect place for this to start happening. Kids come in to use the computers as much as they do the books, audio books have been available there for ages, you have helpful staff on hand to guide you through what’s there and libraries offer the only places in most towns and cities where a comfortable social space can be combined with facilities and expertise and all with a community ethic. And you don’t have to BUY anything to sit down.

This is a time to transform our libraries, not starve them of funding. They can be used to show how serious this country is about investing in our kids’ futures and the ‘smart economy’ the government keeps harping on about.

Got to hear a frank and entertaining talk by Trish Wylie, a writer for Mills & Boon. Yes, Mills & Boon. If ever there was a publisher that knew how to sell books, it’s them. And they’re investing heavily in ebooks – most of their range will be available online soon. And if my other genres ever stop providing me with a living, you might see me going all ‘Love Actually’ and starting to write romances for a living. It’s the biggest selling genre in the world. Lads, that says a lot about our lack of appetite for reading. Mind you, we do like instruction manuals and they normally don’t get sold on their own, so they don’t get counted. Maybe if we read more romances, we’d figure out how women’s minds were put together. RTFM and all that. But probably not.

On Friday, I’m off to Dingle to teach a writing course for the weekend. Suppose I’d better go an figure out what I’m going to say to them . . .