Never Knowing

I want to talk about uncertainty, and how it is both a blessing and a curse for artists. It is the cause of our doubt, our frustration and insecurity, but it is also the abyss we choose to venture into, that we mine for treasures and attempt to fill with our art. Without that open space, we couldn’t do what we do. It is something most people try to avoid at all costs – hell, the fear of it is the basis for every religion – and yet artists have to spend much of their time seeking it out in order to explore it. I think it’s the biggest factor in people steering clear of artistic careers, or giving up on them after they’ve tested the waters.

There is a mistaken perception of an association between creative people and mental illness, where it’s assumed that, at the very least, you must be an eccentric or a prima donna to be a good artist. There’s little evidence to back this up, and in my experience, professional artists tend to be pretty well balanced, mentally healthy people, at least in part because of what they do – though we are all somewhere on the same mental health spectrum, and it is certainly the case that creative work can help people with mental health problems, so they can well be drawn to it for that reason. One of the main reasons creative people’s behaviour can often be perceived as odd is simply the extent to which they are compelled to explore areas with no clear paths or boundaries. They must deliberately seek out uncertainty on a daily basis. Of course, life itself is full of uncertainty, everyone faces it to some degree or other, it’s just that for most people, they do so reluctantly. People tend to crave security, or at the very least, narrowly defined risk. There is no clear career path for a professional artist, no obvious ladder to climb, so they have to be enthusiastic about their future, while never knowing what’s ahead. This is rarely regarded as ‘normal’ behaviour.

I’m a writer and illustrator, so these are my terms of reference, though I think most artists will recognise the states I’m going to describe. Let’s talk about the uncertain nature of an artist’s work first. As a writer, I stare at a blank page and think about how to fill it with words that will a) make people want to read them, and b) have something worth saying. As an illustrator, even if I have a brief from someone else of what to draw, I have to choose where to put the pencil to paper for that first stroke and how I’m going to create a picture, in what style, with what materials. When I worked in advertising, our creative director – a man who matched the stereotype of an artist; chaotic to deal with, though he had a brilliant mind – once said that he thought the most creative thinking was to be found in advertising agencies, because of the range of areas they often had to produce ideas for, on subjects they didn’t get to choose. Working in that industry had never been my ambition, and I fundamentally disagreed with him, making one simple argument: Every ad has a starting point with the product it has to sell. Art has no clear starting point at all. When I’m setting off on a book, I look at a blank page and there’s no obvious place to begin, no clear objective to achieve.

Every word you write for a story has meaning; each new word you add to the text is a variable that can change the direction and meaning of the narration – it’s an option that, in turn, leads to a range of almost limitless other options that can lead you in an infinite number of directions. And in every word you write, is the hope that people will find something that appeals, that it will make them want to read it, and to keep reading. It’s all questions with no right answers. It is the contemplation of this gaping abyss of potential that scares the shit out of inexperienced writers taking on their first novel, even as it might excite them.

This is the kind of uncertainty that I haven’t feared in a long time. I enjoy it now, I look forward to it. I savour the anticipation of the special moment when I write the first line. It’s a treat. I learned long ago to plan ahead, how to prepare for it and how to tackle each new question as it’s asked. Even so, the nerves are always tingling a bit when I’m setting off.

Drawing or painting has a different flavour of uncertainty. These are practical skills that demand the manipulation of physical materials – your ability to convey your thoughts is limited to what you are capable of showing directly, leaving less to the viewer’s imagination. The clearer the picture, the less open it is to interpretation, but it’s also more accessible, as it is not constrained by the limits of language. Anyone, whether they can read or not, can understand a picture if you’re communicating clearly – visual art is the only truly universal language we have. But you don’t automatically begin at the top of the page in the left-hand corner, so where on the page do you choose to start, and how? Which direction do you move the pencil? And where next? And where after that? Leaning heavier or lighter changes the quality of the line. I can use a harder or softer pencil. What if I use a brush, or dip-pen, or charcoal or a technical pen? What if I do it on screen, rather than on paper? And these are only the most basic questions. A different shape of eye or mouth, the slightest tilt of an eyebrow can change an expression, change the meaning. More blue than red in the depths of a shadow can suggest a different atmosphere. Again, decades of doing this has made this a pretty normal experience for me, and yet there’s still so much I can’t predict at the outset. You either embrace this uncertainty, learn to craft within it and love it for what it is, or you’ll run a mile from it.

I like to use stories to explore ideas, particularly big meaty ideas I have lots of questions about; I have a need to pull them apart, and particularly in my novels. But the bigger the idea, the harder it is for people to get emotionally engaged with it, so making a gripping story out of that involves an extra dimension of difficulty. It adds to the uncertainty, but I enjoy the challenge. However, the point of art is to get something that’s in your head into someone else’s head in such a way that they willingly accept it. They have to invest themselves in the experience. No matter how good you are, that other person’s interpretation of what you’ve made is completely beyond your control. You do your best to make yourself clear, but this is a different mind, that sees the world in ways you can’t anticipate – which is why every writer needs an editor to tell you if you’re making any sense to outside of your head.

This is another level of uncertainty and unlike your piece of art, there’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to let go and accept it – much easier said than done. You can never know what’s going to happen to your creation once it’s absorbed into someone else’s imagination, mixed in with all the other stuff going on in there. Now their opinion of your work – and, inevitably, of you as a person – is being influenced by their own views and experiences. You are subject to subjectivity. And in the age of social media, anyone can publish their opinion of you and your work.

Just about everyone’s job is subject to the opinions of others, where there can be differing views over even the most straightforward task. In art however, every goddamn stroke you draw or paint, every word you type, can be argued and debated over, with no clear resolution. Every mind has a different view of that work’s effect, of its quality. Two equally expert critics can judge your work, one considering it nonsense, the other a masterpiece. It’s impossible to have a clear right answer in art. In fact, even reaching the point where people actually will discuss and argue about your work can be a major struggle. Being the subject of an argument can seem a strange thing to which one should aspire. And how, in the end, do we judge that quality? By sales? By critical acclaim and awards? Weirdly, in publishing, one is often seen as an alternative to the other. Go figure. Me, I want both.

Moving outwards again, let’s look at the very nature of a creative career, which is prompting the thoughts I’ve been having lately, because this kind of career seems to be getting increasingly difficult – and certainly harder for new writers and illustrators to establish an lasting career. Art is valued less while being spread further; artists, paradoxically, are doing ever more work for free in the hope that they might be valued more. Publishing is a prime example of this occupational uncertainty, because though self-publishing is becoming an ever more realistic alternative, most writers and illustrators seek access to their audiences through the distribution provided by traditional publishers, believing they’re not ‘proper’ writers until they’ve found this, often arbitrary, approval. Few of those hopeful souls realise how insecure and unstable a life still lies beyond that approval, if you choose to devote yourself full-time to writing, and how many new skills you will need to become the kind of entrepreneur you must be to make this art your career. And it starts with not knowing, surrendering control of your career entirely to someone else’s judgement, with you pitching your book and waiting, pitching and waiting, pitching and waiting . . . that’s only the earliest stage of the uncertainty that begins with the completion of a manuscript.

If, as an illustrator, you find a single style that provides you with a reliable supply of work for the duration of your career (I haven’t), if as a writer you achieve the kind of wealth from sales of a particular book or series that means you’ll never have to worry about money again (I haven’t), then you’re one of a tiny few (I’m not). To be fair, I probably haven’t done myself any favours on either front; I’ve always wanted to publish a wide variety of books for different ages, and illustrate in a range of styles and as a result, perhaps I’ve spread myself very thin. But still . . . I’m having a good time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that having doubts about your life or your future makes you a better artist, or somehow stimulates creativity. Frankly, having to worry about where the next mortgage payment comes from or paying the electricity bill is not good for your head and I need my head in good working order to get stuff done. I’m creative enough without having mundane shit to worry about, thanks very much.

But for most professional artists, uncertainty is a constant companion, one we have to learn to accept. On the negative side, it is a destructive force. It undermines your confidence, demanding huge self-belief to keep going. It often means financial insecurity and the stress that accompanies it; despite your best efforts, you can appear unreliable and both antisocial and attention-seeking. What are often characterised as the eccentricities of a creative professional are merely the visible manifestations of the demands of your work. It takes extraordinary discipline to keep at something that might take months to complete with little immediate reward – or possibly no reward at all – working your ass off in a way that can mean thinking for hours at a time, while wondering what the hell you’re doing with your day. Doubts about your future can get under your skin and eat away at you like acid. It’s hard to find your ‘Off’ switch, because there’s almost never a point where you can say, ‘Right, that’s me sorted for the next year or two’. It’s hard to relax. You don’t like taking days off work, or taking holidays – like any self-employed person, if you go away on holiday, you’re paying twice, once for the holiday and once for the work you’re missing. You only take a sick day if you physically can’t get out of bed.

More than anything else, it can be exhausting, not knowing what’s ahead, what’s best to work on next or constantly trying to come up with ideas for which there is no clear objective, no easy standard to measure it by, or set criteria to be met. Never knowing wears you out. There have been a few periods in my life when I had a job where I earned regular wages, and while there were downsides, it made structuring every other area of my life much easier, even when there was my own work to do on the side. Working as a self-employed artist is quite different.

There’s no such thing as a normal day, a normal number of hours to work, a normal amount of money to charge or to expect. There’s no such thing as ‘normal‘ at all – nothing to measure your career against, to say ‘This is where I should be at this stage, what I should be doing. This is what it takes to be a success’. A book could be worth everything to a publisher or nothing at all. Nobody’s sure about anything at the outset. Even the most successful artists can suffer bad luck, their careers can run out, or they can just produce a turkey. Publishers and agents will often talk about what they’re looking for in a fresh new book, what’s going to be the next big thing, what the year’s trends will be, but the longer I work in this industry, the more ridiculous and self-aggrandizing these predictions sound. The truth is that nobody knows. Nobody knows what readers will seize upon, so much depends on the environment of reading, as much as the material itself . . . and by the time they do know, it’ll be something else before they can reproduce that success.

I always find myself sighing with resignation when I have to fill out an official form. It is hard to find a place for us in the official structures of society. Banks, public services, institutions, utility companies . . . in fact, any organisation that deals with large numbers of people, demand certainty. They can make little accommodation for the lack of it. They base their decisions upon, and operate upon, the assumption that people earn weekly or monthly, that they earn the same every year, have completely predictable work costs, that their careers have established paths, that they work set hours, drive set distances . . . None of these things are true for an artist. Nor are there any universally recognised certificates or professional qualifications to establish your expertise or state what level your career is at. I don’t have a third level qualification and not once in nearly thirty years have I ever been asked for one when looking for work. Official forms often fail to provide us with boxes we can fill out with any real assurance. And if you can’t, you are given extra hoops to jump through, often costing added time and/or expense. To get a mortgage years ago, I had to pay an accountant to go through three years of my accounts, to assure the bank that I earned as much as I claimed. Which would be fair enough – except this was the same bank I’d had my accounts with since I’d finished school. They had twenty years of records they could check; my income was just too varied for them to make a judgement for themselves. Now I have an accountant do my tax return every year, which, after fuel for the car, is often my single biggest business expense.

The phenomenon of uncertainty affects how you look at the future. Ironically, having loosened up enough to acknowledge the hard fact of never knowing for certain, you can become conservative in your choices, scared to take chances. If you don’t know what money you’re going to make next year (or next month), you don’t just avoid spending money, you avoid situations that might put you in a position where might have to spend money – resisting social pressure on this can take excruciating effort. Paradoxically, you can also end up trying to avoid starting things that might provide new opportunities, but will definitely cost you time, effort, money and possibly some of the good will of those around you. It might drop you in embarrassing situations, as risk so often does. This is when your career can really start to tighten in about you, constricting you, where you’re limiting your choices rather than expanding them. Sometimes this is necessary for survival, the occupational equivalent of battening down the hatches in a storm, and I’ve found myself in this position any number of times, but it takes real strength of will to stop it getting to you and deciding to just leave those hatches shut for good and going off and finding some other way to make a living. Sometimes, having a vivid imagination isn’t such a great thing, when you’re staring into that storm.

But here’s the thing about having a job this weird, this uncertain. Mingled in with all that uncertainty in this nutty career, is tantalising possibility, just as there is in the art we produce. Never knowing what’s there can be a good thing, as well as a bad thing. Take up a more reliable career and you’ll find a clearer path, but that also means a path with less potential for the unexpected. For the extraordinary. No matter who you are in life, what path you choose, there is the chance to explore if you’re that way inclined. Choosing to make art your daily occupation however, to commit yourself to a career in it, means you’re allowing that exploration to shape your life, to shape you as a person. You will retain that sense of wonder many people lose as they grow out of childhood. It means embracing that uncertainty and all the shit and thrills that come with it. Like believing in a religion, (or completely rejecting it), you have to surrender to a certain amount of acceptance – of the insecurity, of the things you can never know, of your lack of control over how your work is perceived, and of the future itself. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling and it can threaten ruin and promise glory and make you look really bloody bonkers at some times, and be embarrassing or hugely frustrating at others, but it makes for a passionate life. I know very few people who’ve thrown themselves into it and regretted the experience, and many more who’ve never taken the risk and constantly regret it.

Some people are lucky enough to have careers where they can get to do what they’re passionate about as a normal, reliable job. Art is rarely that kind of career. My question would always be: What’s it worth to you, to be able to spend your time doing what you love? We have one life, and apart from death, the only certainty is uncertainty. I think we should get stuck in and make the most of it.

 

 

Stealing Books

The illegal copying and distribution of digital books. We knew this was coming – in fact, it’s been possible for a while. Ever since book production went digital, and distribution went online. But thanks to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and some handy pieces of dodgy software, any git with a smidgeon of computer savvy can now rip off somebody else’s book and sell it as their own . . . in industrial quantities.

This is what publishers have been gnawing away at their nails about for the last few years. Margins in the book industry are small enough without someone nicking your stuff and copying wholesale.

You can get DVDs showing you how to do this. There are online courses.

Amazon has been marketing itself as an easy means for writers to publish themselves – angling to become a producer as well as a distributor. On one hand, it’s a smart move, and a real boon for writers (albeit one that offers no filter of quality). But the internet giant is facing a serious problem with what has become known as ‘book spam’.

Online cowboys are getting hold of content through what is referred to as Private Label Rights. This is where you buy text, including the right (a rather arbitrary term in this case) to use it, reformat it, change it or even claim it as your own. People are copying-and-pasting what is often poor quality content in forms such as a cookbook, a diet plan, a get-rich-quick scheme or a travel book into an ebook format which they then put up for sale cheap online, using platforms like Amazon’s and programmes such as Autopilot Kindle Cash.

As far as I know, this isn’t technically illegal – it just means Amazon and the like are publishing a wave of garbage that book-buyers have to wade through in search of anything of value. But some pirates are actually pulling the content from existing books, removing the author’s name, changing the cover and passing it off as their own work. This takes very little work, so even a few sales can make it worthwhile. I’ve heard different figures, but apparently Amazon pays between 30%-75% of the price of the book to the author, depending on the size of the book. And it seems you can even just add irrelevant or repetitive text just to bulk it out and make it look like the book is better value.

Amazon and other distributors can use software to detect when two ebooks have exactly the same text, just as search engines can detect when the same piece of text has been used on more than one website and filter it out during a search. But some book pirates use a process known as ‘spinning’, where they use a piece of software – an ‘auto spinner’ – to alter the text, changing and replacing words, so that it looks just different enough to fool the search engines.

This is fast becoming a big business. According to Reuters, 302,000 conventional books were released in the US in 2009, versus 1.33 million non-traditional books, including ebooks. Contrast this with 2010, when 316,000 traditional books were published, compared to almost 2.8 million non-traditional books (quoting Albert Greco, a publishing industry expert at Fordham University’s business school). That’s a massive jump in one year, and it’s just going to keep growing. If book pirates can grab even a small percentage of that with little effort, especially if a lot of the work is automated, they can make a fortune.

This is a big deal for authors too. I publish about a novel a year (the publisher’s schedule, not mine), along with a few other different projects. Even after I’ve finished writing the book, it usually takes about a year before it reaches the shops. Someone else can dump a load of content into an ebook in minutes, with the same title, even sticking my name on it, and put it online. Worse still, they can just rip off my story and publish it under another name. Then they can switch to automatic fire, replicate it over and over again, just slightly differently each time, and blast it out there as often as they like.

Amazon are not sitting still on this – after all, it’s bad business and it’s doing serious damage to their brand. And it threatens to do the same to others who’d like some of that business, like Barnes and Noble, and no doubt Google at some point too. Companies like these are determined to offer this self-publishing service – and who can blame them, when you consider most of the people who read books would love to be able to write one? But these firms  are quickly going to find themselves in the same boat as the film and music producers.

This uncomfortable trend for ripping off books could quickly become a hoard of spammers and pirates armed with spinners and PLR and all manner of other dastardly devices. Filtering them out will mean proper detection systems (that’s a link to the best article I’ve seen so far on this subject), but also human resources – real live people, sifting through this stuff and getting rid of the randomly-generated garbage, and the scale of that job is going to increase exponentially.

I’ve been all for this digital revolution, but I’ve been saying for a long time that the publishing industry needs to take the reins, rather than letting our futures be decided by the people who design the technology (see ‘Seizing the Means of Production’ Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

‘Waiting to see what happens’ is not a strategy. And approaches such as Digital Rights Management (which controls access to a given file), holding ISP’s responsible and copyright breach lawsuits are next to useless if we don’t get the consumers on our side. It’s no point trying the punish ‘wrong-doers’ if everyone is doing wrong, because they can get the same quality product quicker and easier for free from an illegal source. Here are a few points to think about, just from the production point of view:

  1. With the mass of both quality and garbage on the web, people want their choices made easier. Publishers need to hold themselves up as filters of quality. At the moment, most people don’t know or care who publishes what book. Publishers need to be become more aware of how to use their brand, so that consumers will look to them as trustworthy producers of quality.
  2. Digital Rights Management should be carried out in a way that makes it easier to get hold of the right stuff, rather than making it more difficult. No reading device should be restricted to reading one type of file, or locked in to one supplier. I don’t want to be dictated to about where I buy my books.
  3. Perhaps, as things lean more and more towards the online aspect of publishing, we should look at subscribing to a service, rather than buying a product, particularly for mass market stuff we don’t necessarily keep on our bookshelves once we’ve finished with it. Think on-demand television rather than buying the DVD – but with no need for a schedule. And yes, sometimes you do want have those special ones to keep. It might be a case that booksellers and libraries would have to merge functions in some areas, or draw firm lines between each other’s turf.
  4. And finally, a point especially relevant to children’s books: We need to come to think of publishing as producing content in a range of forms, not just a printed book, or an electronic version of that printed book. Even as the manuscript is being turned out, and the design is being conceived, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What other formats do we need to think about? How many other ways can this story be told, can it be presented?’ Hook readers in by producing a more comprehensive product – not every aspect of which is sold as a complete unit such as a book. There can be online, interactive elements, involving social media, clubs, book forums, access to imagery, short stories or research materials, possibilities for fan-fiction and the like. Readers can be encouraged to take part in something, rather than just buy it.

We can produce this stuff far better, and offer far more, than the pirates. And it should be much easier for us to earn our readers’ trust and loyalty. But to do this, we need to convince them that we can provide them with these books in a way that is substantially better than the one which might offer those readers the same books much cheaper, or even for free.

We won’t beat piracy by focussing all our efforts on punishing the criminals who are beginning to steal our books. We have to beat these pirates by stealing their customers. Selling books is our business. Let’s show them how it should be done.