WordPress tells me I’m five this week! Not a message I expected to see when I wrote my tentative Welcome in 2016. Right now I’m very preoccupied by what’s best described as a Demanding Family Event so will keep this post brief (at last! you sigh). It’s a quick rundown of the posts you and I liked best every year. Thank you for travelling with me; do please revisit and return, and I’ll do my best still to be writing for you (and me) in 2026.
2017: Most popular post: The Best Independent Bookshop in London. Could be subtitled How to Bring up a Bookworm. If you are more or less raised in a good bookshop, your welcome to the world of words is assured. Runners up in my own mind are diversions into UK travelogue: an exploration of “my” corner of East London called The World in Four Short Blocks and Marsh Frogs Sing Loudly in the Ditches which came from a trip to the ancient Sussex town of Rye. I also wrote a little about cultural appropriation as I worried my way into The Magic Carpet. I wouldn’t dare start writing that book now, but it has its merits and I hope Getting It Right expresses the sensitive dilemma so many authors face.
2018: Most popular post: I was surprised but pleased for my German translator to find this was Sought and Found in Translation, after the publication of Der Infinity-Pool. But I also enjoyed exploring an unusual POV In a Nutshell, and was humbled and proud (if you can be both at once) to be asked to start a fortnightly books column for Smorgasbord, one of which is here. I kept that up for a year or so before asking to contribute more occasionally so that I could get on with my own writing. But I was so pleased to be asked and Sally and her crowd of co-bloggers have become good and supportive friends. Finally, although sometimes along with many of you I feel as though I Can’t be Bloggered, I did have a bit of fun giving a backward glance to Prologues.
2019: Most popular post: The Magic Carpet – Standby for Landing. This is one flight that hasn’t been cancelled so if you haven’t bought it yet… I also had the interesting experience of a blog tour in 2019, and there are a couple of posts about that. Not sure what I was doing otherwise, there seems to be a six month gap in blog posts.
2021: …when as I say an ongoing family event has taken most of my time and attention, and my most popular post so far is from people revisiting my Easter Eggheads quiz of a previous year. My post on a workshop with Sophie Hannah did well though, and if you look back through there are others on writing courses each year. I’ve learned a lot in five years. Please stay with me, even if we’re both erratic, for the next five.
In the 1980s, our bookshop had no computerised systems and often customer requests were vague (“It’s about history, and it’s green”).
Customer, irritable manner: Do you have a shelf on bereavement?
Me: Er, let’s try the General Non-Fiction or Psychology sections? (Self-help, even in Hampstead, didn’t have its own shelf then.)
Customer, impatient: That’s not what I had in mind.
Me (hauling volume one of British Books in Print from under the counter): I’ll look under B for Bereavement but do you know a title or author’s name…?
Customer, tearful: How could I know a title, I didn’t know I was going to need it!
A wiser colleague took over. I’m still ashamed of my insensitive response and not sure my youth was an excuse.
In this New Year without fireworks there are many more bereaved. Here’s children’s author Shirley Hughes on widowhood in the Oldie:
“(After 12 years it’s still hard), but I’ve kept working. I go to my studio every day at half past nine and I’m on deadlines. Working keeps your brain in your head. During the week I was holding it together but you can’t work all the time and weekends were, and still are, absolute hell without John. But I started writing a novel and… it kept me going. What really kept me going was my three grown-up children… and my seven grandchildren; I see a lot of them.“
But what about bereavement during a pandemic, without extended family visits? (What’s the right verb – do we negotiate/manage/undergo/suffer/survive bereavement?) My first read of 2021 was Good Grief, by journalist and activist Catherine Mayer and her mother Anne Mayer Bird. They were both widowed within six weeks at the turn of 2019/2020, supporting each other through the aftermath as Britain entered lockdown. Anne found herself writing to her husband John, telling him about current events and how she missed him, her difficulties and successes, setbacks (including falling victim to cruel fraud) and support, the government’s Covid failures and how John’s garden was pushing ahead into spring without him. Catherine wraps these letters with her own reflections on losing husband Andy Gill. She describes how his loss undermines her day-to-day functioning, notes how she can mourn, plan and celebrate, tries to eat healthily, exercise, work and maintain morale. It’s all additionally affected by lockdown. Anne and Catherine dislike the common “keep busy” advice given to the bereaved. I remember my father and the widower of a very close friend both swearing by it. accepting all invitations, travelling, theatre-going, having friends to stay. The Mayers couldn’t, whether or not they wanted to. Their memories of coping with previous bereavements are comparative studies of a different society.
Good Grief is a thematic but not a chronological account. We meet two funny, clever, kind men several times, and they are repeatedly taken away. Two funny, clever, sad women celebrate them during and after bereavement. Some of the (welcome) humour is laugh-out-loud funny, some wincingly awful – the condolence message sent through a courier service that kept Catherine awake with postponed delivery alerts; the unbelievable crassness of an aeroplane passenger’s remark to the suddenly widowed woman in the next seat. But most of the humour here is humour in the old-fashioned sense – an imbalance of body and mind. Bereavement is a physical and emotional upheaval, no matter how expected and even when a “blessed release”. Those left behind change inside and out; they experience heat and cold differently, their digestion alters, their reactions slow and may be inappropriate; their thoughts take surprising paths. There are questions, what-ifs, guilt, regret, memories galore. Grief’s ambush can’t be quelled; it just bursts out elsewhere.
These are two very personal takes on becoming a widow. Some reactions will resonate more than others, as Anne’s worry did with me: how, without John, to reach the top cupboards and master the TV remote? Meanwhile Catherine creates the hashtag #lovelydead to celebrate Andy. Using social media may support many and let’s hope they’re not trolled as she has sometimes been. Some potential comforts disappoint: Anne wants to revisit the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, whose laconic hero (Alan Rickman, himself now among the #lovelydead) haunts a mourning Juliet Stevenson. This time round, Catherine and Anne find it mawkish, fictional grief that can’t comfort real grievers. (I think Stevenson’s acting could illuminate a shopping list and was disturbed by their dismissal of my favourite scene, but then I’ve been lucky, my own 2020 more frustrating than grief-filled.)
The Mayers struggle with what Catherine calls “sadmin” and “dread tape”. So, everybody, please: write and update your will; make your funeral/memorial wishes known; tidy your financial affairs and tell someone you trust your passwords. These loving acts reduce the practical burdens of death.
Faced with such pain, why “Good” Grief (apart from the professional journalist’s knack for a punning headline)? Welcome it, was the message I received. Grief discards trivia and reminds us what really matters. Grief puts the dead centre stage and celebrates them. If they hadn’t been so loved, we wouldn’t be so sad. Without grief, we can’t continue living.
It so happens my third novel describes bereavement from the point of view of the dead. My main character can’t RIP until problems are resolved and conversations finished. I’m still hoping she’ll find a publishing home in 2021. Meanwhile, or as well, if Good Grief had been available in the 1980s, I’d have suggested it to my customer, to perhaps reflected some feelings, help her pause for breath and support her moving forwards.
People in England do grumble; it’s a national hobby. For example, I wear my Remoaner badge with pride. One grumble leads to another, as here when I meant to write about not writing and found myself on Brexit by my second line.
This blog post grumble is cheaper than a therapist and may find friends among the online rumble of grumbles about books not selling, authors uninspired, authors unappreciated. One author started a recent Book Connectors thread with: “I’m sure I’m not alone, but boy, I feel alone right now”. Respondents described “terrible inertia”, “terribly demoralising times”, “soul-destroying hard slog”, “disappointing book sales and no vigour to promote”. Publishing a book in a saturated market is like “screaming into a din.” Twitter too is full of moans, not only from authors. It’s a great place to bellyache, beef, bitch, bleat, carp, cavil, chunter, complain, create, find fault, gripe, grizzle, groan, grouch, kvetch, mither, pick holes, protest, sound off, whine, whinge. (That’s my riposte to writing teachers dictating you must only use the verb “said”.)
Much author grousing is justified. The disrespect for the time and effort taken to produce a book, the hoops to jump through to get it published, friends and families all wanting free copies or buying one between twelve, with their first question “What are you going to write next?” Then there’s the stranglehold of genre; the expensive, sometimes formulaic creative writing industry; piddling advances and low royalties; piracy; gatekeeping from trade publishers; too few stockists; Amazon dominance; the difficulty of getting noticed/reviewed; the high cost to indies of (often excellent) editing and design; the scams from fake services… The assumption that all self-published authors write crap – this blog post was delayed as I fired off a response to a smug thread on the Facebook “Extreme Pedantry” group.
I blame my own current inertia on recent rejections from trade publishers. I do understand rejections are a rite of passage, even a badge of honour, and mine are “improving”. They’re now increasingly detailed, thoughtful and almost wholly positive. Novel 3 is currently garnering rejections in this vein:
“…what an original idea. I am glad to have seen it…she does write nicely”
“I have finally had a chance to read (NOVEL 3) and admired it very much… I did enjoy its emotional range and vivid setting… Hope you find it a great home.”
“I thought it was so unusual, and for someone who doesn’t LOVE (this kind of) book I was absolutely hooked! The writing was particularly lovely in places and I enjoyed it very much as a reader.”
“I found it really original with an extremely interesting premise, and thought Jessica was really successful in accomplishing what she set out to do. The mother’s physical distance but emotional intimacy with her children… is really well realised and very evocative. I enjoyed the lyrical quality to the writing, and like I say it was very different to all the other submissions I have considered recently.”
“I think that this novel has a brilliant message…”
“…all the best with finding a publisher for Jessica – she is a very strong writer with brilliant ideas.”
And since going to press:“I was intrigued by the premise and the themes – which Jessica explores with great tenderness – and I think the writing is excellent.“
On bad days, “good” rejections feel no different to someone saying “Call this crap a book?” Of course they are, but you do find yourself wondering just how good your package has to be to jump through the acquisition committee hoops and remain true to your own voice. I take my hat off (some days with more grace than others) to those who write multi-volume crime series and romances but that’s not my skillset. I write standalone fiction. The worst any editor’s said about Novel 3 is: “it’s slightly didactic”. It’s an overtly feminist novel, for Goddesses’ sake. Do editors find fault with Margaret Atwood for being didactic? (Virago were sent Novel 3, but haven’t responded – yet.) Also – as of yesterday – “It’s too diffuse“. Fair enough.
I managed 14,000 words of Novel 4 and have sent them to my Zoom writing group for their opinions. I’m happy to wait for their response, as I haven’t opened the file since August. It seems rather pointless. Novels 1 and 2 were both well received when self-published after trade publisher rejections, but sales have dwindled. I don’t want to send Novel 3 down the same path. And if I still can’t get a publisher to risk an advance on me – any sum, however modest, would be acceptable – why bother with months of back and eye strain, revisions, self-doubt, rejection all over again?
Yet, what to do with my retired days? The choir can’t meet; the clothes shops can’t open their changing rooms; I can’t Zoom all day.
So I understand the grumbling authors online. The responses from the writing community are fantastic, ranging from virtual hugs through practical encouragement and pep talks. Spare me those last; I don’t need to hear about other people’s six figure incomes from churning out five books a year and embracing the marketing side. But the empathy and sympathy (never could understand the distinction) – are great: long may they continue. When I’ve been sufficiently hugged, I’ll be back in a position to use the practical advice. Thank you all for that.
The rumbling grumbles surely reflect creeping poor mental health among the general population, as the evenings chill and second wave Covid lies in wait. Everyone has trials – my son who’s self-isolating two weeks into a new teaching post with no tests available; the shop staff afraid to ask customers to wear masks; my daughter whose possibly fractured foot wasn’t x-rayed for months (yes, months); the elderly man in town this morning who showed me his “cancer card” and asked if the public toilets were all closed. When does a grumble become a legitimate grievance?
We authors must put our grumbles into perspective. But I’ll spare you a pep talk. Please consider yourselves hugged instead.
Last year I was asked to contribute to the Writers and Artists Guide to Self-Publishing. To be more precise, the publishers asked self-published authors to contribute case studies, I responded and they kindly included me. The pandemic delayed my author copies. My thanks now go to Eden Phillips-Harrington, Assistant Editor of W&A yearbooks at Bloomsbury Publishing, who’s written a useful chapter on how publishing – traditional and indie – actually works.
Like others, I didn’t plan to self-publish. But after not quite making it past the editors/gatekeepers of trad publishers despite my agent’s best efforts, that was how my first and second novels appeared and I’ve been learning how to go about it ever since. As for my contribution to this guide, I felt as Groucho Marx did about his club – any book that included my advice wouldn’t be one I’d want to read. Now I realise the guide is a readable mix of useful reassurance, information and “next steps”. Even my words of wisdom may help someone somewhere.
All such information is available online, notably at ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) but I did like holding it in one volume, reading from start to finish how the process works, and scrawling pencil notes rather than trawling through linked web pages. W&A is a highly reputable brand and this guide has a practical, no-nonsense approach from a bevy of well qualified and established experts (apart from me). A good general introduction for absolute beginners to the self- publishing world, it also contains information still unfamiliar to me after five years, explains concepts I was pretending to understand and signposts old and new tasks I must get around to (website! Email list!)
The very clear chapter on editing explains, with checklists, what different types of editor do, in which order, with timescales and tasks. Using an editor is non-negotiable. Self-published books have a rotten reputation, partly a hangover from vanity publishing days and still sometimes deserved. It follows that self-published authors have a responsibility to all colleagues and readers to ensure their product is of blameless quality.
As a contemporary fiction author who doesn’t need illustrations, tables, photographs etc, I’ll admit the detailed chapter on design made my head swim! It’s maybe best read after the chapter which explains both physical and ebook production. Providers include firms that undertake every aspect of production for you, including editing, design, manufacture, distribution and marketing, specialist services you can dovetail (you hope) together, and market giants like Ingram Spark or Amazon. Together these chapters start you off whatever your project, establishing when you can go it alone and when you’ll need to pay for professional input.
The distribution model, sales and royalties to expect (or aspire to) are outlined next. These differ widely according to decisions you take at the production stages; bullet pointed lists assist you. Two factual inaccuracies in this chapter highlight the drawbacks of a paperback guide to a constantly changing subject: since it went to press Bertram UK wholesalers, sadly, went into administration, and UK ebooks are no longer subject to VAT.
I HATE MARKETING MY BOOKS! Fortunately, a sympathetically written marketing chapter has made me more receptive. I’m almost basking in the sentence Put the readers’ needs first and you won’t ever feel uncomfortable or like a salesperson. I’ll never write “I love marketing my books” but the checklists, practical suggestions and myth-busting do help. However, fourteen printed links to online sources is too many for one chapter. That’s fine for ebook readers, but…it would have been better to summarise what they say.
The authors’ case studies show the enormous amount of mutual help authors provide. I cannot stress this enough. It’s only human to envy others sometimes, but by and large self-published authors form a supportive and generous community, especially online. It’s also nice to see book bloggers recognised. These mostly unpaid reviewers and publicists give invaluable service and should be treated with care and courtesy at all times or they’ll give up and then where will authors be? Most people needn’t cover every item on the TEN PAGES of to-do lists, but they do mean you won’t leave anything out. As the guide says, “enjoy ticking them off”. The further information sources and glossary at the back should come in useful too.
Occasional statements beg for expansion. Some strong independent publishers prefer to deal with authors directly, says the Introduction. Since most self-published authors don’t by definition have agents, I imagine readers screaming “Who? WHO?” Although I do understand, in the present climate, how quickly details change.
Genre and cost are two elephants in the room. I think genre is within the guide’s scope as the closer a book fits a genre, the more likely a self-published author is to succeed. My own sales have fallen foul of not being crime, romance, horror etc. How did I fall into the quagmire of “general fiction” and is there a helping hand out there?
Producing my first novel cost nothing. A friend supplied the cover photo, a designer friend put it together, we uploaded everything to KDP and off we went. It sold 4000+ copies. Well done me, but I squirm now. Professional editing would have made a good debut better. Second time round I bought design, editing, proofing, a blog tour… maybe £2,500? Your budget is very important! You will be covering all costs yourself and you need to be clear what these are! says chapter 4. But the guide is coy about the sums involved until you reach some of the author case studies which – gulp! – give food for thought to would-be millionaires.
So – helpful, practical, a very good start or waymarker for any self-publishing journey. Now would W&A please publish a guide to using the updated WordPress Gutenberg Block Editor. It has about the same speed and flexibility as its namesake, a printing press designed around 1440. Apologies for any swearing that’s leaked while attempting to write this post. See you next time, unless I give up in despair.
Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. A fool and their money are soon parted. Money talks… one thing money says is, “I want my books cheaper”. This recent post in a respected online book group page isn’t untypical.
“Today’s ebook offer includes ‘Fludd’ by Hilary Mantel. I absolutely loved her Wolf Hall series, has anyone read Fludd, is it worth buying? I know it’s only 99p, but I have so many of these 99p books cluttering my Kindle I only want to download highly recommended ones.”
Where do I start?
Value for money
The Wolf Hall trilogy comprises approx 1,888 pages depending which editions you buy/borrow/steal. The Kindle UK prices currently add up to £17.97/$23.60, the paper editions approx £29/$38). The three audiobooks offer 77 hours and 41 minutes of listening, from a service costing approx £7.99 per month after the first month which is free. On that basis the entertaining and educational experience Hilary Mantel provides, that the reader above “absolutely loved”, cost them 0.0095p per page on Kindle, £0.015p in book format, or less than the price of a cinema ticket as an audiobook for 74 hours more entertainment. If you want to convert those into fractions of US cents, be my guest.
Now this reader wonders about forking out 99p ($1.30) for another book by an author s/he knows s/he enjoys. Fludd, in paperback has only 186 pages. Well, it IS more expensive – around a halfpenny per page or .69 of a US cent.
Can you clutter a Kindle? This nerds’ paradise article suggests a basic entry level Kindle holds approx 1,100 books and a top of the range Kindle Fire HD a whopping 26,992. I suppose you could argue the books get lost if you download too many, but since this reader knows the title and the author, s/he should be able to retrieve it easily.
Other book related problems – shelf space, dust-gathering, fire risk, mildew, weight the floorboards can support etc – don’t apply to Kindles.
Before spending a paltry sum on something requiring no storage this reader wants “high recommendations”. God help any authors and publishers hoping a reader might take a punt on an unknown newcomer. I believe readers can get refunds if they don’t ultimately agree with the recommendations others make, even though reading is a completely subjective experience. I don’t know the procedure, it’s too unethical for me, but I’m told it’s possible.
99p ($1.30) is considerably less than a coffee, less than one sock in the cheapest pair from Primark and what use would one sock be to most of us? You wouldn’t know whether the coffee tasted good or the sock was comfortable until you’d drunk it/worn it for a while, but most people risk that without requesting recommendations, clearing stomach or sock drawer space (yet socks are real clutter) or worrying they’re overspending.
The author’s position
Hilary Mantel doesn’t need this particular reader’s money. Her “net worth” as calculated by grubby celeb websites is between $100,000 and $1million (£761,000). The broadness of the estimate says all you need to know about the precision and fact checking of such websites. Let’s assume her assets are at the upper level, easily achieved in the UK not by selling books but by annual property inflation of approx 7% since a now 68 year woman probably signed her first mortgage application.
Besides the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, since 1985 Mantel has published 9 novels, 2 books of short stories, and a memoir. Without counting journalism and articles and assuming (ridiculously) she doesn’t own any property to contribute to her putative net worth, very crudely dividing £761,000 by 15 books we find each has contributed an average £50,733 ($66,622) across 35 years. My source for these statistics is so dubious I’m not even admitting what it was. But we could double (triple!) these earnings and a prize winning author, whose work is televised, studied and admired worldwide, would still not be earning in the super rich league. She may be the Roger Federer of her field, but she has far less need of a Swiss bank account. I bet Mantel’s accountant keeps a beady eye on those 99p sales.
What about others? The “i” newspaper says last year UK authors, writers and translators earned on average £31,153. This is odd because according to the Society of Authors, “median earnings for primary occupation authors (writers who spend more than half their working time writing) are £10,497 a year… the highest-earning 10% taking home about 70% of total earnings in the profession.” That £10,497 has to cover living expenses before any becomes “net worth”. 40% of us rely on a second source of earnings.
hard to make a Kindle look interesting
whatever you do with Photoshop
Earnings per year
Some good professional authors of adult fiction churn out a book a year. Most take longer. There’s research, redrafting, muses that run dry or scamper in the wrong directions, beta readers and agents to consult and editors to pay. I’m getting faster…. my first book took five years, the second three, the third (not yet published) two. Mantel completed her 1,888 page trilogy in ten. How long did that coffee take to pour? How many minutes to run up a sock on a machine? (Perhaps an unfair comparison. I prefer my working conditions to the knitting machinists’.)
In the UK thousands live below the poverty line, after appalling economic policy over the past decades, especially right now. Readers who genuinely can’t afford 99p for a book, please know my comments don’t apply to you. I hope there’s still a functioning public library in your area, where you can freely access all the books you want.
Are books a licence to print money?
The market makes most fiction available at some point, in some form, for 99p. Subject to affordability, you’re free to buy or not. But never express your doubts whether the product is worth it to anyone – writers, readers, bloggers, reviewers or Auntie Ethel – unless you actually want some poor author to rant a blogpost from their garret, a post that should have been a constructive book review or some sensible writing advice. You can always support public libraries you know.
My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:
Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?
There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).
1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.
2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.
3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.
Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.”
I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.
I didn’t find as many African writers on my shelves as I should have.
The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban, African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:
The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”.
We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.
I need to update my library of black US writers
When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.
Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.
For a black author to write of homosexulaity in 1957 was doubly brave
I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.
Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.
Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared, the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.
What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.
Readers of this blog, gentle and otherwise, may remember that I do appreciate distinctive editions that champion forgotten or out of favour books. I went to Persephone books last Tuesday, for a talk about Richmal Crompton. Crompton created William Brown, although she labelled him “a loathsome child” when she realised his fame eclipsed her forty one (yes, 41) novels for adults. Persephone publish one of them, Family Roundabout, and it was this that Dr Sara Lodge from St Andrews University was going to talk about, focussing on women wielding what influence they could in restricted circumstances; on neglected children and on bad writers. I’m glad women are less restricted now even if life still ain’t perfect, and of course I care about neglected children. But what really made my heart leap was the prospect of discussing bad writers. Who hasn’t had fun with the Bad Sex Awards and men writing women? Who can forget the lady novelists who come to live near William and express an anthropological interest in the doings of the Outlaws, or the pompous, detached male and female authors who claim personal hotlines to the souls of their unrealistic child heroes?
The talk was accessible and interesting, but I must admit my attention wandered once I knew the bad writers would feature at the end. My excuse is that the distractions at Persephone are hard to ignore. It’s the prettiest of shops, with framed posters and light wood bookshelves stacked with elegant books in trademark pale grey or with fine art covers (introduction and bookmarks part of the package). There are vases of flowers dotted among the vintage fabrics or in corners warmed by reading lamps. “You’ve just entered the 1940s,” said my friend when I arrived.
The shop was closed for the talk (I think), and crammed in nearly thirty of us on this cold day. “I knew the coats would be good!” someone remarked, examining the audience’s well chosen colours, natural fabrics and print dresses. The embarrassed lady who arrived late was found a place so graciously that I almost wanted to be in her sensible shoes. On the shelves at my elbow, leaving just room for our glasses of wine or fruit juice, were stacks of books by Elizabeth von Armin (my mother’s favourite), Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I discovered Amy Levy, “the Jewish Jane Austen”, recommended by Oscar Wilde. To my great joy there was Noel Streatfield, and having loved A Vicarage Family I was delighted to find a work for adults I hadn’t read. I rediscovered Marghanita Laski – if you have never read Little Boy Lost you have a powerfully poignant treat in store. I remember Laski as a customer when I worked at my father’s bookshop and am so pleased Persephone have brought this and other books of hers back to life.
Half listening and half inspecting the room, it was no time before headmistressy* hands were clapped and we were asked to form a line for lunch (no need to ask this audience to make it an orderly line). And what a lunch! Delicious healthy mixed salads, fresh baguette and good cheese, chocolate pudding, more wine or fruit juice, and tea served in bone china cups with, of course, saucers. I almost wish I sweetened my tea, as I’m sure there must have been sugar tongs.
*A much loved headmistress, I think.
Once we were suitably replete and had digested, Dr Lodge’s talk continued. The pathos of the neglected children who recur in Crompton’s work was explored, the little girls dressed up as accessories to their mothers but not loved, the children whose parents forget their birthdays, the children whose needs and wishes are ignored and who are, occasionally, slapped. Oliver Twist it isn’t, but Crompton does criticise upper middle, middle class and nouveau riche ideas for bringing up children, or indeed leaving it to the servants and forgetting to check. The satire is gentle, but satire there is. Marriages are respectably unhappy, with cruel chinks in the polished face they present to the outside world, which mainly consists of suburbia. Crompton, a spinster, lived in Chislehurst, Kent and there were hints that in a later generation she might have chosen a female partner.
Then came the bad writers – Arnold Palmer from Family Roundabout apparently writes “tripe with a revolting veneer of literary virtuosity”. I can’t wait to learn more of him when I read my new copy properly instead of skimming it for quotes to give this blog post a veneer of authenticity. And finally questions, thanks to Sara (“So interesting! And not too academic!”) and a chance to browse and chat.
Persephone are interested in suggestions for forgotten authors they might republish (not only fiction). I see they already do one Ruth Adam but would love to see I’m Not Complaining reissued, and a book much loved by my mother and my 1970s self, glimmers to me from the past. This was Life with Lisa (1958) and a companion Leave it to Lisa, by Sybil Burr. I wish I still had them. They were Young Adult when teenagers had barely been invented.
What a discovery! If you’re in London, do visit, and if not they have an online catalogue of lovely ideas – they will post you a gift wrapped book a month, for example. I’d like to thank friends Gill and Sheila for inviting me along, Persephone books for their hospitality, their imagination, and giving me the chance to use the word “spinster”. And advance thanks too: as a poor selling but well reviewed lady author I’m hoping that in seventy years Persephone books of the future will rescue my own Magic Carpet and Infinity Pool, dress them in a grey jacket and make me a vintage star.
Publication day has arrived – 22nd July – forThe Magic Carpet. The ebook is £2.99 and the paperback is £9.99 and they are both available here. I’ve said a lot about the book in previousposts already, and if anyone asks I’ll write some reading group questions too.
So why am I feeling diffident? I should be saying: Roll up! Roll up! Your lives will be incomplete if you don’t read this wonderful book! Quit your jobs now, stop packing those holiday cases, stop pulling those weeds, forget the shopping and READ IT! I should be PASSIONATE (a word the book trade uses a lot).
Not my style. Marketing is the hardest part of book writing (say I and a thousand other writers: there’s nothing original about that sentence). The whole genre thing rears its Hydra heads again – see Anne Pettigrew‘s blog for a heartfelt take on this. Assuming I can get past that, there’s my own hmm... misgivings about my own book. And yet… The writing’s good. The content’s interesting and hopefully touching. The subject matter is universal, to any parent, carer, grandparent, teacher, child or adult who was ever a school pupil. It’s written “from the heart” (via the keyboard, obvs). The second half is quite dynamic and eventful, so it’s worth persevering through the first half. Actually come to think of it there’s a dynamic event in the first half too. It depends what you mean by dynamic really…oh ffs…Jennie Rawlings‘ cover’s wonderful!!!I write this to the smell of smoke. A nearby shopping mall is on fire, including the nearest Waterstones. No point visiting them to see if they’ll take some copies today. I hope everyone’s okay and think, poor Walthamstow, they’ve got so many building projects already and now this. But it’s the first London Borough of Culture and the spirited community will probably rise phoenix like and more vivid than ever.
I digress. Such a local disaster rightly puts my own doubts into perspective. (At one point I got so down on myself this whole publication announcement post turned into a long justification for why I’m publishing on Amazon, for the second time. But I’ll save that for another post. Hooray – a post in hand for a lazy blogger.)
As you see, if you’re still with me, my marketing skills are crap. I’ll keep things simple. Please buy it, see what you think, tell others and review it especially if what you think is complimentary. But also if it isn’t – we authors love to learn, albeit through gritted teeth. Story of our lives.
I just received the paperback specifications for The Magic Carpet. Four hundred and twenty pages?! I only wrote 87,000 words. My last book was 82,000 words and came out at 306 pages. So how has this happened?
The Magic Carpet is written in shortish sections. Five characters have a narrating voice. Some days all the narrators pitch in, others only one of them. Even written out like that it sounds confusing for the reader, so to make things as clear as possible I started a new chapter for each autumn day as the story unrolls. Within the chapters, I headed each section with the name of the character who’s narrating. The format I have to use starts each chapter on the right hand page (recto) with the left hand page (verso) blank. Each change of narrator gets a new page too. The added space differentiates each voice and I like it a lot.
Therefore don’t worry, dear reader. You will not be taking on War and Peace. The narrative doesn’t last years. It won’t take years to read either, and although there are five voices they are contemporary and informal – I make these comments with no disrespect to Tolstoy, by the way. The proof has now arrived and I see the font is a clear easy to read size, an inadvertent but happy choice, which must account for the number of pages. anyway, I calculate at least 30 of them are blank, 20 more have only a heading, and at least 40 will not be complete pages. That leaves 330 pages of conversational, familiar language, which sounds much more manageable.
Is 420 pages a problem in any other way? Well, it will increase the paperback delivery cost, except to Prime subscribers. On a Kindle, obviously, it makes no difference at all and the layout is certainly clearer than for my previous book. It wasn’t a problem in terms of adapting the cover – that outlay on a professional designer was money well spent as tweaking the spine was the work of an instant for her (and no, she doesn’t moonlight as an osteopath).
It will also increase the production cost. It’s up to me to choose a price, but Amazon set parameters. In this case the minimum for the paperback would be £8.17 and the maximum I can charge is apparently £250! I toyed with that – at least I’d discover any eccentric philanthropists out there willing to splash out ludicrous sums on a very minor author. But I’ve settled on £9.99 as that gives me slightly more profit on each copy sold and I’d like to at least cover my costs. £8.99 is more standard, but my royalty would be only 41p. Dear reader, I hope you understand? If sales figures prove you don’t we can always reduce it. Do comment below if you feel strongly.
(Like many people, I prefer reading physical books to reading on a Kindle, and as a writer I love being asked to sign a copy. But if you want to support an author, it’s worth remembering that for books independently published on Amazon, the ebook royalty can be up to 70%. My ebook is a standard £2.99. Go figure.)
Cream or white paper? Oh cream, no hesitation. Matt or shiny? I’ve always preferred matt. This format or that format? Choices have been made, boxes ticked. Now I’m only too pleased to hold the hefty tome in my hand.
Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.
The programme for tomorrow
Hay map shop
Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…
Sustainable cutlery at the food stalls
I want that coat!
A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.
After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.
The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?) was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.
But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…
Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…