Want to Make a Living? Let’s Stop Undermining Our Own Profession

I was approached recently by a reputable company who asked me to contribute a piece for an anthology of contemporary Irish writers. There was to be no fee. They expected me to to provide the work for free, because of who they were and, presumably, the exposure I’d get for it. They were a commercial business, not a charity, though they said any profits would go towards supporting emerging writers – as if established writers don’t need ‘support’.

I said no, because I don’t work for free, but I gather enough other people have said yes for the project to go ahead. I don’t want to name and shame this company, because I do have a lot of respect for them (which is probably why others have said yes), I’ve done things with them in the past and probably will again. But it highlights a problem that’s as much to do with writers themselves, as it is the businesses they work with.

While writing as a career has become increasingly professional, with writers taking on more and more of the promotion of the work, we are also expected to pitch far more finished products to publishers, put up with smaller advances, less thorough editing, shorter shelf lives and income from our books eaten into by discounting in an online race to the bottom. Alienate 1-New RulesWe have to live with the fact that experience and expertise are valued less than a fresh face or a social media presence, that celebrity deals will put money in the pockets of people who, most of the time, do not write, and consider books sideline merchandise, depriving other books of marketing budgets and professional writers of income.

In the midst of all this, writers are allowing our expectations of what our industry owes us to be lowered, instead of raised, as the demands on us increase. Because people think it’s okay to ask a writer for free, we assume we have to accept this as normal. Do try this on any other profession whose services you pay fees for.

If you are a newly published writer, and you’re asked to write for free, I know how keen you might be for a chance to show what you can do, but I’ve been there, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can assure you, publishing works on a ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ basis. If you work for free, you’ll just end up getting more jobs that pay the same amount – not a great foundation on which to base a career. It simply isn’t worth it in the long run. If you want to be taken seriously, take yourself seriously.

If you’re a well established, even an A-list author, please think about the environment you’re helping create and sustain for other writers. If you do work for free for a commercial business, because you caStealing Books-Printing Pressn afford to make the grand gesture, you undermine the ability of others to earn money from their work. If you don’t take a stand on this kind of thing, nobody else will and nothing will change.

I’m not anti-tech or against all the progress publishing has made, nor do I think there was some golden age when art was universally respected and considered a rational career. But even as writing becomes increasingly commodified and distributed with greater ease and less cost, the money made from it is being drawn away from the people who create it. Look at everyone else who works in the book industry: Editors get paid. Designers get paid. PR people and admin people and marketing people and receptionists get paid. Printers get paid. Distributors get paid. Booksellers get paid. Librarians get paid. None of these people would have anything to work with, if not for the those who create the stuff in the first place. Writers (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) are the only ones who can’t realistically expect to make a living in publishing.

Please, please, please, I’m asking you this not just for yourself, but for our profession, PLEASE DON’T WORK FOR FREE. If we don’t value our own work, how can we expect anyone else to?

The Wrong Kind of Attention

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

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

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

No, it was nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

Now, what exactly is a ‘dirty bomb’?

Let me Google that . . .

Strangled Silence Down Under

I was sent these pictures by professional book-dude Tom Donegan, showing a copy of ‘Strangled Silence’ in a bookshop in Australia. This was, I’m sure, after he had kindly put it facing out – another recruit to my team dedicated to interfering with bookshop shelves. Tom had just returned from Sydney, where he had a fine time dawdling, dossing, and mooching through their impressive collection of bookshop cafes (he has a tough life altogether).

There are pluses and minuses about working with any type of publisher – and there are definitely some advantages to being published by a small but dedicated outfit. However, having your books appear on shelves on the other side of the world, without signing additional foreign rights, is one of the characteristics of being distributed by an international publisher like Random House. While my agent sells individual language rights, RHCB hold the English language rights for almost everywhere except North America . . . including, of course, Australia.

Basically, if I want to be published in places like Germany, Russia or . . . I don’t know, Namibia . . . in their own languages, I have to find a publisher in that country. But Random House hold the rights for my novels published in English, in well over a hundred countries around the world, from Jordan to Jamaica, France to the Falkland Islands.

Now, just because they can distribute them like that, doesn’t mean they do – although I think it’s standard operating procedure to release them in Australia and New Zealand. When I get my statements every year, there is very little on them to tell me where in the world my books are being sold. Also, I have no idea what kind of marketing these books get out there (seeing as I do most of the marketing for my books here and in the UK, and I don’t spend my time travelling the globe). Still, it is gratifying to know they’re getting out and seeing the world.

And seeing as, unlike half of the Irish people my age, I never did the ‘Year in Australia’, it’s nice to see my books are doing it for me, in their own small way. Thanks for the pictures, Tom.

The Uncharted Territory

On the 10th of October, Phil Hogan, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, announced that the Library Council (An Chomhairle Leabharlanna) was being dissolved. Bad as this news was for the council, it was a far worse omen for the future of the nation’s libraries. Particularly given the burnt-earth policy that is causing libraries to close all over the UK. In my view, the dissolving of the Library Council suggested that Mr Hogan, and the other people responsible for this decision, may not fully comprehend the value of public libraries. Perhaps this lack of comprehension is a result of the clumsy tools used when those in power attempt to assess and document that value.

My wife, Maedhbh, is a librarian – one who loves her job, and the whole idea of public libraries. One of her convictions is that every member of staff in a library should have to do a ‘niceness test’. It sounds like an obvious quality to look for in people who will be dealing with the public. But one can only imagine the complex psychological analysis that would result should Human Resources ever attempt to put such a test into effect.

And yet, treating people decently is such a fundamental issue, and a key element in the success of any library (or, one would assume, in any service or business). The problem is, being decent to people is difficult to measure on a chart, or with statistics. So this post is devoted to those qualities that are almost impossible to quantify, but whose effects are tangible, and undeniably important. That Uncharted Territory.

It would be a mistake to label any public library as a mere lender of books, or even one that has expanded to music, films, games and other products. It is more than a drop-in centre for people looking for information on education and training, local services, or for free use of a computer. A library, for me, first and foremost, is one of the few branches of the public service that not only supports everyday life, but enriches it.

One of the key ways it does this is in the way it offers a public space, where people can make contact – with the public service, with the state, and with each other. As shopping centres take over from town centres, as we lose the seating in our streets, as larger shops take over from local businesses and we build over the natural places people congregate, that public space is becoming all the more important.

We need to feel that the public service is still there for us, instead of being made to feel – as we increasingly do – as if we are there for it. As if our lives are constantly steered down channels gouged out between business and state. There must be a branch of the public service where we don’t begin our participation by taking a number, or a seat in an impersonal waiting room; where we don’t have to speak through a pane of glass, or have a form filled in before we reach the counter. We need a place where our participation is not merely facilitated, but is encouraged and welcomed. Where it’s okay to just come in and spend some time, to sit and read the papers all day, if you want.

There are some who would argue that the internet has put an end to the library’s reason for being – an information resource that is free to all – and to its staff as guides to help you find your way through that information. Now we have iPhones, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Amazon and Google. People who believe this are missing the point.

Where else will you find a venue in the centre of a town, that is as comfortable holding a traditional music session, as it is hosting events for Science Week? A place where parents can bring their toddlers on a Saturday morning; where teenagers can congregate round computer screens, safe, but unsupervised. Where a local artist can hold his first ever exhibition, or a knitting group can meet every week over a cup of tea or coffee. A place where you might have a children’s book group, followed by an adult one. A place where you can come and study if you can’t find the space or the peace and quiet at home.

Think about that for a minute: a publicly-funded, well-resourced place, complete with expert advisors, where a person has room and time to sit and think. A place where you can better yourself, but at your own pace. A place to sit and work out ideas; where someone might study for college, or plan a project, or start a business.

A library is a public space where things are allowed to happen, where new events and projects can be encouraged and supported in a spontaneous, organic, community-driven way that does not require previous experience, or qualifications, or pages of forms, or a grant application, or a marketing strategy, or a business plan. It is a place where a community can develop and grow, and engage with the wider world. Like many public servants, librarians are there to help, but their role allows them to be flexible in the ways they can help. A public library means different things to different people, and a good librarian can find ways to enable people to do things that they otherwise could not.

That librarian can provide a venue for cultural events, for education; they can provide the headquarters for some community organization . . . or they can spend more time than is necessary chatting to some old woman, because they know that might be the most human contact that woman has all day.

Libraries are one of the very few branches of the public service that inspire loyalty, and even love in the people that use them.

We live in a country where a sense of community is more vital than ever. We are governed by leaders focused on bleeding their citizens dry to reinvigorate zombie banks run by failed businessmen. There is so much emphasis on what we must have less of, but thinking small is no way to solve our problems.

If the government is serious about coming up with smart solutions, with a smart economy – if it wants to convince its citizens that its purpose is to do things for them, not to do things to them . . . then until it comes up with some wondrous institution that does more and does it better, it needs to leave our bloody libraries alone.

Just What the Hell is a ‘Young Adult’ Anyway?

If you’ve been to any of my talks, you may already have heard me say that, for me, the definition of a ‘Young Adult’ book is something that appeals to both young and adult readers. Looking at it this way, you could say that most of our entertainment – whether it’s written down or shown on-screen – is ‘Young Adult’.

I’m not the only who thinks so. The Library Journal in the US ran a recent article discussing YA literature, and who read it. And the answer to that, it seems, is pretty much everybody. . . . . . . .

There has also been an outcry about the desolate wasteland that children’s publishing apparently threatens to become, due to the lack of interest young people today have for books. Y’know, what with their minds being poisoned by electronic entertainment devices of every kind – though Sam Leith in ‘The Observer’ takes much the same point of view as me, arguing that these are just new ways in to reading.

But surely these new kinds of media are pulling our newest batch of trainee adults away from books? I certainly would have thought so. However, according to an article on Timothy McSweeney’s site entitled ‘Young People are Reading More Than You’, it seems this isn’t the case. Thanks to the Inis blog for pointing the article out.

‘Are You Sure You Want to Shut Down Your Computer?’

This post is a tribute to my Power Mac G4, a machine with which I have had a long and tumultuous working relationship; a machine I have cursed almost as often as I’ve admired. Hold onto your hats, ‘cos this could get a bit nerdy.

Despite the numerous break-ups (and one or two break-downs) this Mac and I have endured, I have listened with bemusement to other people who have bought PCs and found themselves replacing them a year or two later. It’s hard to fathom anyone tolerating a situation like that. Whatever faults this stubborn git of a computer might have had, quitting wasn’t one of them.

For anyone who recognizes this model and is gaping at its venerable age, yes, I bought it new, and have been using it constantly as my main computer ever since. Yes, it is the Quicksilver model (the 733 MHz one). Yes, that model was released in 2001. And yes, it was getting painfully slow towards the end.

After nigh on ten years, I’ve finally given in and retired it from active service.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve met another machine – the inevitable newer model (not completely new; refurbished and upgraded, but new to me) one that can offer me some mystery, some excitement and . . . dare I say it . . . a smoother ride. I’m writing this post on that new Mac, as my old workmate sits disconnected in the corner of the room, awaiting a new life as a back-up drive.

There were times when I wanted to take a hammer to the old ****er, but when it comes down to it, it has served me well. It’s taken me from a career in freelance illustration and design, into one as a writer-illustrator of more than twenty books. We’ve done a lot of late nights together, moved house/studio four times, worked on painted artwork, digital art, websites, speeches, online teaching courses, workshop materials, research, books and any number of other tasks. We never played games together (except for the psychological ones) – it was always strictly business. But then, this is a passionate business.

I handle the minor maintenance stuff myself. The G4 has failed me completely only once (the result of a power surge I failed to guard against), and I’ve had the RAM and hard drive upgraded just the once too. On both those occasions – and when it came time to transfer everything on the hard drive onto the new computer – I went to the lads in Back From The Future, on Aungier Street in Dublin. Combining just the right mix of expertise, friendly service and character, they sell a great range of new, refurbished and end-of-line technology. And best of all, they don’t just fix computers, they fix Macs – and with a minimum of fuss. A rare breed. They’ve been a main street business for nine years, they now have a second shop open in Dun Laoghaire, and Colin, one of the owners, does technology reviews on TV3. So despite competing with big-name retail branding power, they’ve well and truly staked out a place for themselves in the market. And as the publishing world goes increasingly digital, we’re going to need down-to-earth people to make sense of the ever-increasing mass of technology that our industry will depend on. If you have a computer problem, if nobody else can help . . . sorry, that’s the wrong eighties screen phenomenon. Anyway, Back From The Future – they’re good.

Which is just as well, because when you have to disconnect the machine your whole business is running on and leave it in someone else’s hands, it can be a bit unnerving. Backing stuff off is all very well, but not having my work computer just leaves me feeling so exposed. Maedhbh warned the kids to tread carefully around me for those few days. But now I’m back! And I still have all my books and files and everything.

On a rather fitting note, the first TED talk I checked out on the new Mac was this one, about using Google’s reservoir of millions of digitized books – an unprecedented historical record – to look at the changing trends to be found in that ocean of text. Some are profoundly important, like proof of rising sea levels and a demonstration of the effects of censorship in Nazi Germany. And then some are downright silly, like the levels of frustration demonstrated by the word ‘argh’, from those with just one ‘a’ to those with eight. Intriguing statistical information, delivered with comedic timing.

Facebook as a Book Publisher?

A few posts back, I mentioned a guy named Mike Matas and his new company called Push Pop Press. A former Apple employee, he and his team are developing some fairly snazzy interactive books for the iPad and iPhone. They’ve been getting a lot of attention, and it seems it has served them well.

I found a link to this New York Times article while browsing Irish Publishing News, which reports that Push Pop Press have been bought by Facebook. So does the networking giant want to get into publishing?

Given the massive quantity and range of information they have to mine regarding the tastes and interest of their millions of members, they have a huge advantage over the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google. Talk about being able to target your advertising.

Facebook have already branched into online gaming, and are exploring the possibility of streaming films too, in partnership with Warner Brothers, so selling books online wouldn’t be too much of a departure at all. But then, in some ways, Push Pop Press’s books are almost more of a game or a film than a book. Once it’s online, why would anyone restrict themselves to just text?

Which begs the question of the publishing industry: What is a book? Where does that definition end? I think we’re still in the process of finding out.

Gearing Up for October

Children’s Book Festival – in terms of events, it’s the busiest time in the year for most children’s book authors (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) in Ireland. Officially, it runs from the beginning to the end of October, although it tends to bleed into September and November too. Libraries, schools and bookshops all over the country will be running all kinds of events to celebrate children’s books. There are also bigger gigs, staged in theatres, run by the libraries or by Children’s Books Ireland. CBI produce Bookfest, collating reviews on the latest books, as well as the posters and other marketing material. They also act as hub for the festival, helping connect up the country and make this a national thing.

For any writer or illustrator who does talks, workshops or shows, this is the time everybody wants you to come and visit. World Book Day in March is the next busiest part of the year, but it’s just not the same as facing into the marathon month that is CBF.

I’ve had a few events since the beginning of September, but in October, it’s going to be a bit mental. I can start getting inquiries for CBF as early as March or April – sometimes earlier.

I normally need a few sessions to get me warmed up after the summer break. So far I’ve done the Monster Book Lunch in Dun Laoghaire for the Mountains to Sea Festival, I’ve been to Bush Post Primary near Dundalk and Skerries Educate Together. Yesterday I gave a talk to student teachers in Froebel College in Blackrock. All four of these were different types of events, so I should have well and truly shaken the rust off by the time I kick off CBF with two days in libraries in County Clare next week.

Over the next month, I’ll also be travelling to Tipperary, Cavan, Kildare, Monaghan, Kerry and Leitrim.

I don’t get much writing or illustrating done in October.

I’m grateful that the invitations are still coming in, because libraries and schools are having a really tough time of it. But it’s a testament to the importance given to children’s books that in many counties, they’re making a real effort to keep their part of the festival running even though they’ve got much less money to do it with.

So now I’m making sure I’ve sharpened my pencils, I’ve got my drawing materials, my easel and my books packed in my sessions case. I’ve a few new t-shirts and  some new notebook-enabled combats in the wardrobe. The roadmaps sit ready in the car – which stands cleaned out and scrubbed up, as it’s going to be my mobile command centre for much of the next month. I keep promising myself I’ll learn some voice exercises to keep my throat in order through the month – which I have yet again failed to do.

I’m taking on a few different things this time round too, so I’ve some more prep work to do yet: some comics workshops for primary school kids in Meath; ‘The Ideas Shop’ theatre show with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Bray and Navan; a workshop on plot and structure, in the beginning of November, at a seminar run in Swords by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I find that, most of the time, I have to think just few days ahead at any one time. I have to deal with October in manageable chunks.

I remember when I first got published, and I had visions of me sitting in quiet contemplation all day, writing and drawing and painting. Happily shutting the world out so I could produce my masterpieces. Since then, I’ve seen more of Ireland, and the UK, then I’d ever seen before. It’s cool, and exhausting, and stimulating, and bewildering, and it flattens you, but lifts you onto your toes again. And it’s all to get kids to read books. My books, obviously, but any books too. To get them to look into other people’s heads and find all the brilliant stuff that lies within. And really, that’s what it’s about.

And maybe out there, just every now and again, some kid will see what I and others do and will say to themselves in that quite, resolved, determined way: ‘I’m going to do that too, some day.’ And that would be pretty cool too.

MS Readathon Launch on Telly

Back in August, I posted about the launch of the MS Readathon. RTE’s Elev8 were there to film it and the piece was broadcast yesterday. You can have a look at it here. The whole clip is twenty minutes long, and the Readathon bit is about fourteen minutes in, so you might want to skip on to it if you can.

What’s Happened to Armouron?

I’ve been asked this a few times over the last while – particularly by people who are dealing with the book distributors, and can see that my next two books ‘The Orphan Factory’ and ‘Dead-End Junction’, were scheduled for release this month.

The short answer is ‘I don’t know’. But I’ll tell you what I do know (and what discretion allows):

Unlike my other books, I don’t own the rights to the ‘Armouron’ franchise, so I’m not kept in the loop as much. The whole project started with a television production company that had taken on the film rights for a new toy range being released by Bandai. They approached Random House to handle the publishing side of things – starting with the production of a series of eight books aimed at confident readers; novellas about 25-30,000 words long.

Way back when I was first starting out as an illustrator, I worked on twelve ‘Power Ranger’ books, so I know how this usually works. A big franchise like this is normally led by the television series and the toy range. They’re established first, and then the books come along as merchandising. But at this point, there was no script for the television series (a live-action one, rather than one that was animated), and the toys were already in production.

Instead, it was left to Random to establish the world and the characters of ‘Armouron’, based on a rough set-up originally provided by the woman who had created the toys. So in this case, the books were going to come first, establishing the whole franchise. Random brought me over to London for a brainstorming session with the production people, and I was commissioned to come up with the setting, the characters, and the framework for the stories.

They contracted me to write four books in the series, including the first two. Even though I wasn’t to get creator’s rights (which is why I use ‘O.B. McGann’ on the covers) I was keen to get involved. I went through plenty of these kinds of franchises when I was a kid: ‘Star Wars’, ‘Action Force’, ‘Transformers’ etc. I’m not ashamed to say that I and the people I worked with chucked in every well-tried element we could think of to create the Armouron world. After all, we weren’t trying to be wildly original – although aspects of the toys, and stories, actually are – we were putting together something kids, particularly boys, of a certain age would love.

The first two of my four books, ‘The Armoured Ghost’ and ‘Lying Eyes’, came out last year, and are available in most good bookstores now. Another writer, Richard Dungworth, was to provide the other four. His first two, ‘Caged Griffin’ and ‘Prisoner on Kasteesh’ are also out now. Both of us have now completed all of our stories, but the final four haven’t been released yet, even though the toys are now also out there on the shelves (check out the big launch in Hamley’s in London). Ironically, this seems to have nothing to do with the paralysis that’s gripped the publishing industry over the last couple of years.

I haven’t been told anything about the television series in nearly a year. Last I’d heard, they were at the script stage, but I did produce a fair bit of the source material – based on the rights owner’s initial ideas – and nobody’s been in touch with me about any of it. That said, I’ve had no word that it’s been canned either. Armouron would be a major film production, being a sci-fi series in a futuristic city, with a lot of special effects, so getting the funding for it, and putting it together, will be no small task.

This is probably nobody’s fault. I’ve learned enough about the television and film industries to know that – despite the confidence of the producers in this case – projects like this get pitched all the time. They can be really difficult to get off the ground, and sometimes they can take years to get through the production pipeline. This is not something that’s likely to wind me up – I know how it is. That’s the nature of the film business and publishing works much the same way, albeit on much, much smaller budgets.

But it does mean that the release of my next two books has been postponed – and presumably, Richard’s too. I don’t know for how long. So even though the books came first, and set up the world that features this clever, multi-functional armour, they are now being treated like merchandise for the toy range (which they are, to be fair). While they are part of a franchise, these are solid, action-packed stories with distinctive characters, and are more than good enough to stand up on their own. And the remaining four books are ready to go.

If I hear any more about the release dates, I’ll let you all know.