March 11, 2013

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.

March 7, 2013

Never Forget

This wasn’t the picture I was going to put up. To mark the publication day for ‘Rat Runners’, I was going to post the cover again, but I’ve done that a few times so I’m going to give it a rest for the moment.

Instead, I’m putting up this. When I finish the manuscript for a novel, I draw up a black and white cover for it. This was the one for ‘Rat Runners’. Like the others, this was not intended as a concept for the final cover, or even an internal illustration. I draw these for a few reasons, but mainly, they’re to remind me of something.

When I was a kid, I used to fill copybooks (that’s ‘exercise books’ for you folks in the UK) with stories and pictures. I fantasized about being a writer and illustrator. Sure, I wanted to be loads of other things, but it was always really this thing. I never really felt like I had a choice in the matter.

So here I am, twenty-five books later. This is the dream. But people who aren’t in the business must sometimes be surprised at how cynical full-time children’s writers can become, and I’m no exception. I can be quite the belligerent fecker at times. To people who are still waiting for their shot, this attitude must seem churlish and even ungrateful considering we’re doing what we dreamed of doing.

We don’t mean to be negative about it, and deep down, I think most of us feel really privileged. But making it in this job can be a REALLY hard slog, unless you’re exceptionally lucky – it can lead you to be frustrated, stressed and downright exhausted from constantly trying to break through, and then you start making a living from it, and you find there’s rarely any let up, unless you reach that tiny, TINY golden percentage at the very top.

But I do not consider myself a ‘struggling writer’. I am not a tortured soul, writing to fill a god-shaped hole, or to overcome my neuroses. I am not oppressed by the demands of my muse. I write and illustrate stories to make sense of the world, to connect to something greater than myself, but when you get right down to it, I’m still just the kid making stories with pencils and markers in his copybooks.

And that’s why I draw pictures on the the fronts of my manuscripts.

I hope you’ll check out ‘Rat Runners’, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

February 19, 2013

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 . . .

January 9, 2013

The Making of an Icon (39 of Them, In Fact)

This is a post about the small ‘icon’ illustrations I’ve done for the heads of the chapters in my latest book, ‘Rat Runners’. I do pics like this for all my novels – or at least the novels I haven’t been commissioned to do by somebody. Partly because I want the inside of the book to look distinctive as well as the outside (quite difficult with a novel) and partly because some things are best described with a picture . . . and partly because I just like pictures.

I start this process in the first read-through of the galley proofs – where the pages are first laid out as they’d be in the printed book. As I read, I note down the kinds of snapshots of images that would make a good icon for each chapter. The trick is to choose something in each chapter that will be eye-catching, distinctive, different from the other chapters and helps describe something in the story. You also have to be able to tell what each one is when it’s very small – these illustrations are only couple of centimetres squared when they’re printed, and I draw them at about five centimetres squared, so they’ve got to be clearly recognisable.

The first drawings are little more than scribbles, ‘thumbnails’ as they’re called in the trade. I do these on the proof pages themselves normally, trying to figure out what will work and what won’t. Then I move on to the proper pencil drawing. I have a standard template I work into when I start, which suits the head of a chapter; a wide rectangle marks the absolute margin for the picture, but the circle is the main frame, allowing for a bit of breaking out of that frame in most of the pictures.

I’ll use photographic references for some of these pictures – you can only find appropriate pictures about half the time, and even then, there’s a lot of adapting and simplifying.

For the Wildenstern books, I used an old-fashioned style with a lot of linework and cross-hatching. Because of the modern setting for ‘Rat Runners’, I changed the look just a little bit, using a lot more solid black with some linear pen shading, more like the very blocky black style I used in my earlier novels.

Each picture represents an image from that chapter – sometimes just a object that features, one that may not be vitally important, but gives a flavour of the text.

There are frames on these icons, though I haven’t used frames for the last few books. I do up a single frame separately (which, in this case, suggests a camera lens) then place it over each picture in Photoshop, once the drawings are scanned. Then they’re ready to send to the editor.

This is often the last piece of work I do for any book, bar the odd little text revision, and makes for a nice sign-off. It marks the end of the book and time to start on the next which, incidentally, is well underway.

November 29, 2012

If You’ve Nothing to Hide, You’ve Nothing to Fear

So I recently finished the copy edits for the next novel, ‘Rat-Runners’. I’m starting on the icon illustrations today – those little pictures I do for the chapter headings for every novel. I’ll post a few when I’ve got them done. The cover is finished, but I’m not allowed show it yet . . . although they never said anything about showing pieces of the cover, so I’m sticking a couple up here – part of the front and the WatchWorld logo from the back. It’s the story of four very different young criminals working in a surveillance state, run by this organization called WatchWorld. The story is set in London in the near future. Their strapline: ‘If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.’

The kids are given a task by a scheming gangster, which rapidly goes sour, leaving them caught in a dangerous power struggle between two powerful enemies, each trying to get hold of a case belonging to a murdered scientist.

I’ve been letting people have sneak peeks of the cover – and later the proof copy – at my sessions, but we’ve a few different promotional ideas to bring into play before the release date in March, including a short prequel we’ll be releasing online, so keep your eyes peeled. And remember, if you’ve nothing to hide . . .

November 15, 2012

And . . . . Breeeeathe!

Okay, so October’s over and I’m winding down events in November, so I thought I’d run over what I’ve been up to and where I’ve been, along with a few other bits of news.

Children’s Book Festival brought its usual hectic schedule. I’ll keep just to that month, where I did (deep breath): an Ideas Shop event with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Tallaght library, then four different libraries in Meath, Skerries Community College, I interviewed Anthony Horowitz in the Solstice Theatre in Navan, had to miss the Octocon convention in Dublin, four different libraries in Kildare, two more Ideas Shop events in Tipperary, St Molaga’s NS in Balbriggan, Bailieborough and Cootehill libraries in Cavan, St Colmcille’s Junior School in Knocklyon and Kishogue Travellers’ Community Centre for South Dublin libraries, Loreto College in Foxrock . . . and finally, two sessions (one with Derek Landy and Will Hill) in Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin for the Bram Stoker Festival.

So, I was thoroughly knackered by the beginning of November. Add in the fact Maedhbh’s been very ill, and the kids have been conspiring to ensure we never get a full night’s sleep, and my brain has been in danger of losing its higher functions.

I’ve also just wrapped up a night course I was teaching in a local college, and did a weekend course for the Irish Writers’ Centre at the end of September. I did a talk for Irish PEN on YA fantasy last week, with Celine Kiernan and Conor Kostick, I was in Tallaght again today with Sarah Webb, and tomorrow I’m in St Michael’s College in D4, talking to the first years. On Sunday, I’ll be back in Smock Alley with the ubiquitous David Maybury (author of ‘Frankenkids’) doing a Nightmare Club Event. That’ll be it, for the moment . . . I think.

October also marked the launch of my book for Little Island’s Nightmare Club series, ‘Wolfling’s Bite’, and my sister Erika’s excellent new book, ‘The Demon Notebook’. Like my other sister, Kunak, Erika seems to have knocked out a cracking read just to prove to their big brother that this publishing lark is a piece of piss, really.

I’m going to post a bit about my upcoming book, ‘Rat-Runners’ when I get a chance, but I’ve also started work on a TOP SECRET PROJECT that I can’t talk about (yet), except to say that it’s going to keep me busy writing for the next few months. The deadline’s ridiculously tight, which actually suits me for the moment – I do love the events, but a bit of enforced sitting-down-and-writing will be nice. And the dog will start getting proper walks again. Oh, and the painting I was meant to do for Maedhbh’s birthday is REALLY late, so I need to get that finished too.

Right, I’m off to bed. Wake me at the end of the month.

July 15, 2012

And the Winner is . . .

A massive thanks to everyone who entered the ‘Merciless Reason’ Competition! And now I’m delighted to announce the winner and runners-up:

The runners-up will all receive inscribed copies of each of the three Wildenstern books. They are:

Alice Maciejowska

Rhoda McNamara

Damilola Adeniji.

And the winner, who will make a cameo appearance in my next novel, ‘Rat-Runners’ is . . .

Caragh Boland!

Congratulations to all of them, and thanks again to everyone who took part!

May 29, 2012

Stopping to Look Around

One of the challenges of being self-employed is maintaining all the stuff you have to manage day-to-day, while still making time to stand back and take stock, planning for the future. I’ve been doing a lot of reacting to stuff lately, and getting pretty wound up about it, so I needed to stop and catch my breath a bit. I needed to take a look around at where I was and figure out what was coming next.

As it happened, I ended up with some time to kill in Edinburgh. I was over there for a meeting of the panel deciding the shortlist for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards; I was helping pick the contenders among the books for 12-16 year-olds. The gang at the Scottish Book Trust haven’t released the shortlists yet, so my lips are zipped for the moment. This trip did mean I missed the CBI Book Awards Ceremony, but I still (heavy, reluctant sigh) managed to enjoy my visit to Edinburgh. Big congrats to Celine Kiernan on her win, for her novel ‘Into the Grey’. It also won the Junior Jury prize, so a popular choice all round. Congrats also to Paula Leyden, Mark O’Sullivan, Oliver Jeffers (again!), and our former Laureate na nÓg, Siobhán Parkinson, for scooping the category awards.

Edinburgh is a fantastic city. It’s the third time I’ve been, although they’ve all been short visits. It was hot when I arrived on Sunday, walking through the streets in the final hours of a big marathon event. This was actually quite handy, as my back’s been a bit knackered lately, but now I wasn’t the only one in the crowd walking like I’d two wooden legs. They all had a better excuse, that’s all. And they had t-shirts with ‘Marathon’ on them to make that excuse clear. Fair play to them, it must have been some struggle in that heat.

The meeting took slightly less than two hours on Monday morning, so I had Sunday afternoon and evening and Monday afternoon to kick about town. Walking actually helped my loosen up my back, so I spent a fair bit of time on my feet. Normally, when I’m away, I’ll do a lot of work in the notebook in the downtime, or sometimes bring my laptop. Instead, I tried to take my brain out of gear for a while, and figure out where I was going next.

I’m working on a couple of new things, including a kind of online prequel for my next novel ‘Rat-Runners’. I’ve just come back to the editing on ‘Rat-Runners’ too – we’re on the copy edits now, and the cover design is well underway. I’ve started planning the next novel too. But there have been a load of other bits and pieces demanding my time lately, and I’ve found myself reacting constantly, rather than planning any particular path – and that’s no way to go about things.

I’m not great at relaxing, but you just can’t push things all the time. I spent nearly three hours on Monday sitting in a park near the railway station in Edinburgh, making the odd note in my notebook, reading a bit, but mostly just looking around and thinking, letting my thoughts wander. When it came time to make my way towards the bus for the airport, I felt my thoughts were more ordered, I was a little more focused. I’m in Listowel for a few days later this week. I haven’t done any hillwalking in a long time, what with the kids and the workload, but I think I’ll try and get one in while I’m down there. I need to clear my head of all the complicated rubbish, and get some proper ground under my feet.

If you want to get an idea of the kind of stuff that’s been occupying my mind lately, check out my guest blog for Listowel Writers’ Week. I’ve written a longer article for Inis magazine on the topic, which will be in the November issue. I also came across a couple of other interesting titbits, one an ‘infographic’ on how a book is born (cynical, but pretty accurate) and a post on the ongoing push-and-pull between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, and how those lines are blurring. Catch you later.

April 23, 2012

Win the Chance to be a Character in a Book!

To celebrate the release of ‘Merciless Reason’, the third book in the Wildenstern Saga, we are offering one reader the chance to make an appearance as a character in my next novel.* Like a walk-on part in a film, except you won’t have to walk. To enter, you need to do two things:

1. Simply answer this question:
In the opening chapter of ‘Ancient Appetites’, the first Wildenstern book, Nate goes hunting for a wild motorcycle in the Wicklow Mountains. What do the local people call this creature?**

2. Send us a short written description of what you look like. Include some of your interests or hobbies. Use no more than forty words – no photos or attachments please!

Send your entry by email to: competition@oisinmcgann.com.
Please put your answer to the question in the subject line.

There will also be three runners-up, each of whom will receive inscribed copies of all three Wildenstern novels.

The closing date for the competition is the 15th of June.

*My next book is entitled ‘Rat-Runners’. It’s not a Wildenstern book, but will be a thrilling piece of work nonetheless.

**The first chapter of ‘Ancient Appetites’ can be found here. Hint: The name starts with a ‘B’.

The winner will be announced on or before the 15th of July at www.oisinmcgann.com.

For the Terms & Conditions, please refer to the ‘Merciless Reason’ page.

And on a final, related note, I recently did a guest post on the Falcata Times blog for their Steampunk Week. It’s a letter to Nathaniel from his father, Edgar, after Nate’s first attempt to flee from the family (before the events of ‘Ancient Appetites’). It is a note of caution from a ruthless old businessman to a son he considers gormless and impulsive. It won’t warm your heart.

January 2, 2012

Creating an Icon

I had a grand time in the two weeks running up to Christmas, partly due to the kids’ excitement, and partly because I got to spend most of my work-time drawing and painting. I was doing a painting for my sister as a present – both for Christmas, and for the apartment she got (after much ado) a while back. But before I could get onto doing that, I was working on the black-and-white chapter icons for ‘Merciless Reason’.

This is a kind of signature thing I do for all my novels – a small image at the head of every chapter. I figure you should do everything you can to make your books as memorable as possible, inside as well as out, and sometimes an image can set a tone or help the reader visualize something or even just act as a tease, a taste at the start of a new scene, in a way that words can’t. And besides, I’ll look for any excuse to get an illustration into a book.

The challenge with these is to find images that are distinctive and eye-catching; each one should be very different from the next and they must all work at a small size. I draw these no larger than 8cm by 6cm, but they appear at the size of a postage stamp. In ‘Merciless Reason’, there are thirty-eight of these little pictures. They’re a quiet pleasure to work on. For the Wildenstern books I do them in a classic brush-and-ink style to suit the era, though people sometimes assume they’re etchings or even wood-cuts. I’ve never done an etching, and only did a little wood-cutting in college. And due to the time involved, these types of techniques are used less and less in illustration, which is a shame really.

I originally wanted to do full-page ‘plate’ illustrations for ‘Ancient Appetites’, as you would have found in nineteenth-century novels, but the folks at Random thought that might make the book look as if it were trying to appeal to a younger audience (can’t old people look at pictures too?). They were very happy to go with chapter headers, however. Too many books just have a basic, graphic design repeated as a header. If you’re interested, you can see a sample of one of my proposed full-page illustrations here.

As the Christmas/New Year holiday draws to a close, it’s time to get back into planning for the next few months. I’m intending to hold a competition to promote the launch of ‘Merciless Reason’, and I’ve already got some events lined up over the next few months. Then there’s the production work on my next novel to get started on; ‘Rat-Runners’ – a very different story to the Wildensterns’ exploits. I’ll see what other projects I can come up with in the meantime. It pays to keep yourself busy these days.

Hope everyone had a fantastic Christmas, and Happy New Year to all of you.