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.

 

 

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?

Building a Relationship with a Community that Can’t Pay

If you’ve had any interest in all the developments in the publishing world over the last ten years – and if you’re in the publishing business, it’s pretty unavoidable – you may already have watched Amanda Palmer’s recent talk on TED about how she built an audience, a community of fans. And then asked them to voluntarily pay for her music, both live and recorded, instead of enforcing a price.

It’s a challenging and inspiring talk, and one that everybody in any entertainment business should check out. It’s all about creating a connection with fans, building trust – a trust that your fans will value your art enough to want to pay for it, without being forced to. Some people, particularly businesses who live off artists and the rights to their work, might find this hard to swallow, but Palmer has most definitely demonstrated that it can be made to work, though it takes serious personal investment from the artist. If you want to look at this from a publishing point of view, you can check out a good article by Publishthings here.

But I need to make a point from my position as a children’s writer and illustrator, and from the point of view of others in the same position. Because those of us who produce work for children face a unique problem.

Most of our audience can’t pay, even if they want to.

Children’s writers put more work into creating a link with our audience than any other area of literature. Most of the professional children’s writers I know are constantly on the road, doing events, or working to build their profile online. It’s not enough to write – you have to effectively become a children’s entertainer. We’re more akin to musicians in that, for some, nearly as many kids will hear us speak live as read our books. If there’s one huge barrier people in my profession are constantly trying to overcome, it’s our reliance on the gatekeepers – not just the reviewers, teachers, librarians and booksellers, but also the parents of the children we’re trying to reach.

This is something I twigged to when I first considered trying something like a Kickstarter project.

For younger kids, they will never buy a book without a parent’s or other responsible adult’s input and assistance. With older kids, they can buy those things in a shop, and may not want an adult’s input, but they cannot contribute directly to a writer using any online system, because they don’t have credit or debit cards. And speaking as a parent, my kids aren’t going to be doing any online transactions, alone, any time soon.

So we find ourselves, as ever, in a position where the people whose emotional involvement we seek – so vital in creating that connection that convinces your community to support you – are not the same ones who are paying for our work. Instead, we’re back to trying to appeal to the adults who are not so emotionally invested in our work, and in many cases, may not like, understand or even approve of it. And bizarrely, they seem to exercise their judgement in relation to books, far more than they do with television, film or games. Or maybe it’s just the parents who actually buy books regularly who do this. Which is worrying for a whole other reason.

Anyway, I believe that this community-driven approach to the arts represents the future for many artists who can’t or won’t reach for the dizzy heights of corporate representation. Frankly, I think it’s foolish to rely completely on any publisher for your income, and the vast majority of writers can’t make a living that way anyway.

But how do you build an income based on community involvement, if your community can’t pay?

It’s not actually a new question. Making a living solely as a writer of fiction has always been tough, even from the time that people were able to do it, which isn’t that far back. In fact, it might well be an act of arrogance to assume that it’s possible in all but the most favourable of circumstances. And yet some of us do persist at it.

What it comes down to for kids’ writers, I think, is to face something I’ve been convinced of for a long time. We must not think of ourselves as children’s writers, but as universal storytellers, able to appeal to a range of ages, in a range of ways. Children’s films have been doing this for some time. We can provide something that is becoming increasingly precious; a link between parent and child at any age. From reading a story with your young child, to having a conversation about a YA novel with your older kid, we are capable of producing work that parents and children can enjoy together. Books like ‘Harry Potter’, ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Twilight’ weren’t huge because kids read them. They were huge because EVERYONE read them.

I’m not suggesting we try and write every story for everyone. That would, of course, be an exercise in pointlessness and frustration. We have to write the stuff we know we can write.  I think, instead, we need to recognize that different types of audience will access our work in different ways. And not all of those ways will involve reading . . . and not all of them will involve paying. I don’t believe in using quotes very often, but this one from Cory Doctorow gets to the heart of the matter:

‘I don’t need to get paid by everyone who reads – I need to get read by everyone who pays.’

A while back, I suggested to the publishers of my novels in the UK, Random House, that we release ‘Rat Runners’ in installments, free online. The entire book. My idea was that, while plenty of people might get to read it for free in these episodes, it could create an audience for a potential series – a new audience, some of whom might prefer to read it in print. Random had actually tried this themselves with a romance story. They attracted a readership in its millions, but then they couldn’t figure out how to sell it online. My take on it was, they shouldn’t have bothered. Anybody who wanted to read it online, already could. But a proportion of those readers might have preferred to buy the book. Even if it was only one in hundred, it would still be a bestseller. Yes, you’d have given it away for free, but you’d also have gained sales you’d never otherwise have, and could have been well on the way to building the kind of fan base that can provide that lovely profit.

Needless to say, ‘Rat Runners’ did not get released for free, and I can fully understand their reasons. It simply doesn’t fit the model of selling the publishing industry has always had, and seems to threaten the precious copyright that makes reproduction of art a workable business. But with electronic formats, the attempts to enforce copyright on every piece of text you produce is pointless. We have to sell to those who will pay, to trust that they will – because those who can take it will anyway. We have to do away with Digital Rights Management, but also anything else that stands in the way of readers getting access to our books.

Libraries are based on this principle, and pretty much every writer supports them, right? And some of the payback is that we get paid to come to libraries to do events which promote our work.

We have to offer the most loyal members of our audience access that is enhanced or more personal, so that some of those readers will choose to pay for it – the ones we really need, who can provide the artist with an income.

But publishers can only do part of this, and then have to let go. After that, it’s up to the writer to get out there and make that connection with the audience, as so many children’s writers already do. We have to go to our audience, rather than hoping they’ll come to us – both online and in the shape of events. We have to offer our stories up in different ways, appeal to our varied audiences in different ways, but most importantly, for children’s writers, we need to provide ways to empower kids to find and access our work without adult help, without doing it in a way that parents find threatening. And that means accepting that kids can’t pay for stuff online without supervision, so we have to work on the assumption that they can’t pay at all.

We can’t rely on others to do this for us. Our publishers can’t and won’t do it – though they could help – our audience will only come looking for us once we’ve developed that loyalty and shown we will reward it by getting involved with them in a way that means more than just telling them stories. It was never how I thought it would be when I set out in this career, but this is where I find myself. And yet, as I’ve found over the years, creating this connection can be as enjoyable as it is rewarding. The work outside the books becomes a fun and rewarding experience in its own right.

Yes, I want to make my living writing and illustrating stories. But I’ve had to redefine that ‘living’ a bit slightly. And it keeps changing on me. It’s still an experience I’m relishing.

Valuable Intelligence

Here are a few really useful articles I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks, all of which have to do with developments in the business. I’ll stick them in here in the order of the events they refer to:

Eoin Purcell’s written an interesting article on who he sees as the winners and losers in the ongoing relationship wrangles between the publishers, Apple and Amazon, as the nature of publishing changes.

Charlie Stross predicts the end of Digital Rights Management and explains quite clearly why by giving us a rundown of how Amazon do business – which is quite frankly, astonishing (and disturbing) in its ambition.

Not long after Charlie posted his article, Tor announced it’s ditching DRM. For those who don’t know, Tor (Tom Doherty’s imprint, along with Forge, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen) are one of the world’s biggest sci-fi/fantasy publishers. They also published ‘The Gods and Their Machines’ in the States.

Basically, this is the first move by a major publisher away from trying to cement readers into using a certain type or brand of reading device, or to stop them from copying their books from one device to another. It’s a realization that the main defence against piracy is not to restrict the readers who buy the real books, but to make it as easy as possible for them to get hold of them, and use them the way they want to. A positive move, one that gives people less reason to buy pirated material while also reducing Amazon’s (or Apple’s) attempts to create a monopoly.

The New Arrival

I have to admit; even after twenty-one books, I still get excited seeing my latest one fresh off the presses. I get a box of author copies when the production run’s done and they’re all being packed up for distribution, but I normally get a couple as soon as my editor can send me them, maybe one or two weeks ahead of the ‘official’ ones.

It may seem odd, but it’s not the text I have a look at first in a book – it’s the illustrations. In this case, there are just the cover and the chapter icons, but I examine each one in turn to make sure they’ve come out okay. Before I can really enjoy the new arrival, there’s a short period of suspense as I search for flaws. It’s rare that I find any worth mentioning – I have the good fortune to work with people with a thorough knowledge of their business.

There were a few last minute changes before we went to print: the blurb got shortened down, I added a couple of bits to the background piece at the end, as well as a scatter of other minor alterations.

In a way, I’ll stop thinking much about ‘Merciless Reason’, as I do with all my books once they’re done. I’m about to start editing the next one, and I’m getting on with some other sideline projects, so that’s what’s going to occupy my mind for the next while. But I’ll still pick this up from time to time over the next few weeks. It still feels good.

Thanks to Lauren, Sue, James and everyone at Random for all their work.

Here’s the new, shortened blurb:

‘There’s no escaping this family. I’d have an easier time shaking the plague.’

It has been three years since Nate left Ireland, and his ruthless, feared family, behind. But the Wildensterns are not finished with him. When he discovers that his treacherous cousin is still alive, he is drawn back into their world of plotting, betrayal and murder.

At home, Daisy and Tatiana are among the few who are trying to stem the damage the Wildensterns are doing. The family has become even more hated by the people it treads upon in its thirst for power.

One thing is for certain – the Wildensterns are back. Violence will ensue.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Long-Term Commitment

Caroline Horn has an article in ‘The Bookseller’ that tells a sobering story about the current state of the children’s publishing industry in the UK – one that can obviously be applied to Ireland as well. Many well established children’s authors and illustrators are really struggling to make a living, partly due to a reduction in sales, partly due to the decreasing value of the books that are sold (children’s books are priced lower than other books, often despite higher production costs) and partly because publishers have grown extremely cautious, and are publishing fewer books, further apart.

What’s interesting about the article is not just the piece itself, but also the barrage of comments that come after. It’s a good snapshot of a cross-section of the publishing world. If you’re an up-and-coming writer, you should check it out – it might be educational. If you’re an experienced writer, chances are, you know a lot of this stuff already.

If you’re an illustrator, you’ll already be well used to trying to strike the balance between the work that you love, and the stuff that pays.

As I’ve said before, this is a tough period in the market, and I’d hate to be starting now, but it’s not quite time for new authors to be taking the toaster into the bath. It’s never been a simple matter of just pitching your line out there and sitting waiting for someone to bite. This has always been a tough industry to get started in, and in which to maintain a career. It’s easy to look back over the early part of this decade, see the headline acts, and think that’s how it’s supposed to be. But browse your way back to the dawn of publishing and you’ll find many of the names we hold up as shining examples now just did not make a living from their books.

Things are tough compared to a few years ago, but it was never easy, and in some ways it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. I’m not just talking about the digital media that are supposed to be solving all new authors’ problems, or the greater disposable income people have (even in these raw times – though they might not be spending it on books). These days, it’s automatic for professionals in the industry to immediately go from a book deal, to considering other means of output; foreign rights, newspaper syndication, comic adaptations, audio-book, radio, television, film. These are all much more accessible than they used to be, and the movement between them is more fluid.

Writers have so much more information at their fingertips about how to hone their skills, how to get published, what it’s like to be published and making a living from it. In Ireland alone, we have access to resources such as the Children’s Books Ireland support site at cb info, the Irish Writer’s Centre, the Irish Writers’ Union, Irish PEN and any number of other writers’ centres, workshops, courses and seminars, as well as all the sites supporting writers on the web. We can get funding for projects from the Arts Council. We also have access to a lot of the resources in the UK too.

As far as making the most of the market is concerned, I still believe that there are a lot of opportunities that publishers are missing because their thinking is stuck in a rut. But it’s a hard fact that this weird, passionate and bizarrely hit-and-miss industry works in certain ways, and you have to work with it. I posted a while back about the importance for authors to take the long-term view, but we also have to take responsibility for our careers. If you want to make a living from this malarkey, it’s not enough to be a writer. I am a self-employed businessman, and it’s really down to me to make it work.

This is a long-term commitment. This is my career, and I don’t rely on one publisher, or one stream of income, or one market. I do all I can to promote my books, to put myself in the way of opportunity and I try to be as prepared as I can for when opportunities arise. I’ve published twenty-one books – with more coming out – I’ve had some pretty big sellers and some critical success . . .

And I still can’t count on any kind of security from this line of work . . . but that’s how it is.

In return for working my arse off and taking some pretty big risks – and this unstable career path is one long series of risks – I get up in the morning to a job I absolutely love, and one I feel privileged to have. Getting published was just the start. Now I’m having to earn my keep, and I can’t count on any publisher to do that for me.