What authors don’t bargain for

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.

Clutter

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.

 

Quality

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.

Price

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.

Kindle 99p

 

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.

 

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’.)

Affordability

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.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

The right to write

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.

46195759Girl 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.

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.

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.

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. 3711Unlike 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.

41081373._sy475_
Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

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.

© Jessica Norrie 2020

A Post about Persephone

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.Persephone 5

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.

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

Publication Day!

Publication day has arrived – 22nd July –  for The Magic CarpetThe 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 previous posts 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).

MC diagonal frontNot 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!!!MC back coverI 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.

MC carpets 2
I wonder if any of these would fly?

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.

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

 

 

 

Paperback writer

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.

MC Pb cover jpeg

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.

But 420 pages. Blimey.

paperbacks 3

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

Hay ho, Hay ho, it’s off to words we go…

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.

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…

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.

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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.

Hay illustrators exhib
The book illustrators’ gallery

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…

Hay fairtrde shop - Copy

©Jessica Norrie 2018

A bookshop discovery

If Bah Humbug was a person they’d look like me, and yet even I was attracted by the signs of Christmas in this bookshop. I do like to highlight good independent bookshops, dead and alive. How can a small town like Great Malvern (population under 35,000) support a decent independent bookshop, in these days of discounts and globalization? This town has found one way to do it. Malvern books 3

Their bookshop is a cooperative, owned and run by its shareholders. The website tells me shares cost £50 each, and you can buy one, or two. It also tells me they pay their staff a living wage, whereas I’d been under the impression it was staffed on a voluntary basis by the shareholders. But so much the better (and more reliable probably) if it’s providing employment.

There are two rooms, one with a mezzanine, on this extremely steep hill – if after fortifying yourself in the bookshop cafe, you continue straight on and can walk perpendicularly up “Happy Valley” (I always wanted the chance to write that) you will find yourself on  top of the Malvern Hills. But it may be wise to stop and peruse the books, guides, maps and local author in the room on the right first. You may find a (slightly) less steep route.

Malvern books 1

The room on the left is the main bookshop area, with a good shelved and tabletop collection of contemporary fiction and non fiction, a colourful childrens’ section, the counter where the helpful assistant lets you browse in peace but is on hand if needed, and a jolly looking café with a good selection of high quality cards in support of various charities.  Somebody’s had fun dressing the window for Christmas and there was about to be a talk by journalist Matthew Engel when I was there. Another successful talk the previous night had depleted the stock – which is exactly what we want to hear happens when an independent bookshop puts on an event.

(Presumably they know they have a doppelganger in Texas? I found it when looking for their Twitter handle.)

Malvern is one of my favourite places. It’s a spa town half way up the extraordinary Malvern Hills, home of Elgar, with a theatre, an Abbey, a lovely park with a bandstand, excellent music events, and other places to buy books too – the Amnesty International bookshop, and the St Richard’s Hospice bookshop in Malvern Link which was the cleanest, best organised and most professionally run charity bookshop I have ever visited.

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Photo from the Hasting Pier website, July 2016

I was gladdened by the Malvern Book Cooperative because in the same week I was saddened by what’s happening to another community run project, one in which I do hold £100 of shares. My grandparents both lived in Hastings when I was little, and I have happy memories of visits to the pier. So I was grieved when the already unsafe structure  burnt down in 2010 and only too pleased when local people got together to rebuild and run it again. They made such a success of it – a new, solid, fireproof, elegant pier, with catering and entertainments, helping to regenerate the town, and sharing all it learned with other local projects such as Bottle Alley and St Leonards sea front. Alas, their application for a grant of £800,000 to cover becoming independent over the next three years has been refused, and the pier taken into receivership. The letter to shareholders was upbeat – jobs will be protected, the receivers are specialists in administering heritage projects and there are interested parties already. All is by no means lost. But it seems so sad, for the notional value of a three bed semi in London, that so much goodwill, good design, and regeneration could be again at risk. I’m using these photos from the Pier site, which are not my copyright, and hope they will not mind as it’s part of my response to the request to continue to support and promote the pier.

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Photo from the Hastings Pier website, June 2016

As the website says: “The pier will remain open to the public whilst the administration takes place, and the pier will be fully operational and staffed for 2018….Hastings Pier Charity encourages you to keep visiting and supporting the pier, and look forward to the next stage of the development of Hastings Pier.”

Please visit and use it!

There was more cheerful news from the Herne Bay pier when we visited last month: the local knitting coop had decorated the railings with these eccentric crafts for Halloween and Armistice Day while the beautiful bronze statue of Amy Johnson looked out over the sea nearby. Local people and businesses raised the funds for and commissioned this statue, installed in 2016, which is also significant for being “one of only about 17% of statues listed in the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) of a woman as a lone standing statue”.

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Here’s a last minute addition to this post: the wonderful Dalston Eastern Curve Garden where we sang carols last night, drank mulled wine and enjoyed the light show. Thank you to the Boilerhouse Singers for keeping us warm with some lovely music.

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The Boilerhouse Singers at Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

If you have a brilliant local community project, bookshop, building or activity, do support it. These are the things that give our towns character, conscience and individuality. I’d be fascinated to hear about any that you’re involved in – and who knows, maybe it would spur me to plan a trip and support it.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

A patchwork of King Penguins

Please ask your parents and grandparents if they remember King Penguins. I put a whole set in order last week in my pre move book sort out. My father collected them because they were beautiful and he thought they might one day be worth something. He didn’t use the Internet so sourcing them was a labour of love. It meant paper correspondence with antiquarian book dealers and occasionally going against his natural instincts to root around second hand bookshops (as a man who’d made his living selling new books, he was ambivalent about the second hand trade).

Ian paid between £2 and £8 for most of them, although I found a couple with £35 written inside and Egyptian Paintings (1954 first edition, with dust jacket) was £40. But the set as a whole turns out not to be worth much, which is great because there’s now all the more reason to keep it.

In keeping with the original ethos of Penguin books, King Penguins were designed to be educational, affordable, and portable. They’re like a written form of evening class, that endangered species that used to give so many people so much pleasure. There were 76 of them, published between 1939 and 1959, with hard covers and sometimes dust jackets, and they cost from 1/- (now 5p) to 5/- (you can work that out). The format was simple at first: text at the front, for about three quarters of the book, and then well reproduced colour plates to illustrate it. Later on illustrations appeared among the text as well.

The authors were at the top of their game: taking them down at random Tulipmania is by Wilfred Blunt, then Head of Art at Eton; others are by university professors of Zoology or Art History, or by Keepers at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Somehow Dickens sneaks in with A Christmas Carol although the rest of the list is non fiction.

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Volumes 21-24

There’s fun to be had from the juxtapositions: Garden Birds (no 19) next to English Ballet (20), Spiders next to Balloons at 35 and 36; and I think I can see why Magic Books from Mexico might segue into Semi Precious Stones (64 and 65).  Why does Romney Marsh get a book to itself when the Isle of Wight and A Prospect of Wales are the only other regions covered? Misericords and Russian Icons, Highland Dress and Early British Railways may have been Christmas presents for difficult uncles (ending up in charity shops, but I like to think they were carefully studied first). The text is serious stuff, thoroughly researched, didactic in a “come on this journey of discovery” way, sometimes opinionated and designed to be used on the most earnest of field trips. Were the subjects commissioned, or offered? Did they reflect the editors’ interests, or the persuasive powers of a professor lunching an old school chum at his club?

There’s just one for children: A Book of Toys (1946) with perhaps less colour in the overall design than many of the others. Perhaps it wasn’t a success as there were no more, but it’s a very clear account of the history of toys through many lands and epochs. As an ex infant teacher, I did sigh at the use of upper case to make it clear to children though. It’s so hard to unteach them that!

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From “A Book of Toys” by Gwen White, 1946

But what I love them for most is the design. I’d have it on wallpaper, fabric, tea cups any day. You want vintage? THIS is vintage. Here are my favourites – do you agree? Or to see the ones I haven’t shown, look up this list, select and comment below and I’ll add them. Enjoy the show!

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

The best independent bookshop in London!

Last year I posted to celebrate what would have been my mother’s ninetieth birthday and this week it’s my late father’s turn. Ian Norrie was what used to be called a “bookman”. He wrote novels, book trade history, and guidebooks, edited, ran a small publishing imprint, wrote for the trade press such as The Bookseller, served on the committees of trade organisations like the National Book League or book prizes, lectured on bookselling and publishing, helped set up an archive of book trade oral history, and worked tirelessly through lunchtimes, evenings and weekends to maintain the bon viveur traditions of publisher wining and dining.

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My mother Mavis and my father Ian at a High Hill bookshop party for author E. Arnot Robertson in 1958

The jewel in the crown was the High Hill Bookshop. In 1956 after jobs including journalism and in Foyles, he went to work in a run down shop in Hampstead High Street. From a literally collapsing building they sold new and second hand books, artists’ materials, and greetings cards, adding records and an art gallery after the company went into receivership and my father and friends formed a partnership to buy and rename it. I think the business cost them £10,000 plus £1,300 annual rent. It became the best independent bookshop in North London. By 1988 when it closed, High Hill sold only books, from three shops knocked into one. Hardbacks, art, travel, history and the university departments were on the left, children’s, sport and religion in the middle, and paperbacks on the right.

 

Working in a bookshop was every student’s dream, but it was harder than it seemed. I did it in university holidays. You have little time to read, and books are heavy, dusty and not always inspiring. The ones that sold best in Hampstead tended to be high quality and well produced, but we also made a good profit from what Ian called “Irene’s crap table” – Irene Anderson ran the paperback dept and had an eye for books you could pile high and sell cheap. The customer is not always right, and in Hampstead could be arrogant too. Some were just vague. In pre computer days, identifying what someone wants when all they know is “it’s about history and it’s green” took knowledge and imagination (although “there’s a poem about daffodils” didn’t.) Ian despised calculators, so his staff had to add everything in their heads, not easy when a famous politician or psychiatrist is glaring at you as you do it. He didn’t like plastic bags either so we wrapped everything in orange and white striped paper. People would spend a small fortune on books and then proudly tell us they reused our paper as gift wrap.

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Ian’s book about the shop, featuring our wrapping paper and cartoon by Nicholas Bentley commissioned for the 1958 Christmas catalogue

There were many famous local customers, not then called celebs. Peter Cook was in most weeks, as were Michaels Foot and Palin, RD Laing, Margaret Drabble and Melvyn Bragg. Then there were the nobility, peeved if you asked for ID when they wanted to pay by cheque without a card (anyone else remember cheque cards?) “You see, there are so many of you about,” sighed Perry who worked in hardbacks, when a haughty grande dame objected: “But it’s a Coutts’ cheque! And I’m a Lady!” Meanwhile you could spot the less well known local authors a mile off; they came in on a daily basis and moved their books into more prominent positions.

My father enjoyed writing adverts and did his own inexpensive window displays, which gained a reputation. One was for a new coffee table book about roses, by Harry Wheatcroft (think Monty Don equivalent). For this he plundered my mother’s garden, so the beautiful tomes were surrounded as she pointed out by blooms complete with greenfly and leaf spot. One year he simply wrote in his terrible handwriting: “Give SKOOB this Christmas!” on a big poster and the staff were plagued by customers asking what on earth it meant. (Not all Hampstead residents are as clever as they think they are.) During the 1966 general election they did a big display for Whitaker’s almanack . That was the year Hampstead elected its first Labour MP, Ben Whitaker.

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Ian’s view was that customers, as well as staff, needed training.

Of course not all customers were rich and/or famous. High Hill had the account for Camden libraries and a number of schools, and Ian always maintained it was well worth opening just after Christmas because of the trade done through small denomination book tokens. When his shop began trading as High Hill, there were hardly any other bookshops in North London, but they began to open in Kentish Town, Muswell Hill, Highgate and elsewhere. High Hill was the grandee, with Ian to his delight being called a “bookseller tycoon” in a TV documentary about Hampstead. One reason was the excellent staff who stayed because although they worked long hours, they received good pay, holidays and pensions, were given autonomy and respect, supported through illness and allowed to play to their strengths. Sheila Judd and Ros Wesson could find a book to answer any child, au pair or parent query, whether for a “hyperactive teenager who’s…er… going through a phase” or “the most intelligent two year old you ever saw” (a claim made for most Hampstead children). A significant child of the shop’s own was the High Hill Press, which published around thirty titles about Hampstead, London and literature.

 

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Eventually there was a threefold blow: the leasehold costs soared, the policy of ratecapping reduced Camden’s purchasing power so losing the biggest customer and Waterstone’s opened up the road to offer serious competition at last. The property was worth more than the business. High Hill was on its final chapter, but all the staff were head hunted for jobs in bookselling or publishing. Characteristically Ian saw it as an opportunity, and in “retirement” continued for another quarter century to write and travel, frequent the publishers’ table at the Garrick Club and play the part of Hampstead, London, European bookman.

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High Hill signing party 1988: Bridget Clements, Michael Foot and Ian Norrie.

I’ve concentrated here on Ian’s bookselling achievements but, as I said at his memorial celebration at Burgh House in 2009, he was also a loving son, husband, father and brother, reader, writer, sandcastle builder, traveller, entertainer, host, quizmaster, ham actor, cricket umpire, tennis player with a sense of umbrage to out McEnroe McEnroe (when his son in law beat him 6-0, 6-0 he complained Andy hadn’t played properly), wine drinker and to many people a very good friend. How he would have enjoyed blogging and the chance to show his many photographs as well as his words, even if, trained on typewriters, his heavy fingers did break more keyboards than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Ian is still sadly missed, and Mavis too – we’re toasting you both in Chablis tonight as we browse the Booker prize list and make our own travel and writing plans.

Next time 2

©Jessica Norrie 2017 and estate of Ian Norrie

A day in the life of Agent X

Agent X stretched after a poor night’s sleep. She really ought to get more exercise…spend less time staring at screens…eat more sensibly.

But a new day beckoned. She had a fascinating submission to read – she’d requested the full ms after tearing through the first three chapters and was looking forward to finding out what happened next. She wasn’t entirely sure how to place it, but the writing was so good and the premise so original, she was expecting competitive bids from several publishers. If, of course, another agent didn’t snap it up first, like the author she’d been slightly too slow to respond to last year who ended up with a six figure advance.

Agent 4Her existing authors were clamouring too. There might be answers to their questions among the 112 new emails in her inbox. She made coffee, cut a crisp pear into safely unsticky wedges and took them to her desk.

 

Dear X, Lovely to see you at the Book Fair. I’ve now had time to read The Pontoon Bridge by Amos Fearsome and I agree the writing flows beautifully and the plot has some interesting twists. However, I couldn’t quite identify with the main character, and so, with regret, I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline this one.

Dear X, Thank you for reminding me I’ve had Pull the Other One by V. Erbose since last year. Sorry about that! It’s a great idea, but I’m afraid this one isn’t quite right for our list. I wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Hi X! Just to let you know I really enjoyed The Darkening Sun by Omar Zafiq, and will be taking it forward for consideration by the acquisitions committee next week. I’ll keep you informed on the outcome.

Dear X, Peter Plainman, Accountancy Services Ltd, is able to offer you a special offer of only £YYY for 12 months insurance against the additional cost of responding to any HMRC investigation during the tax year 2017/18.

Dear X, Please find attached the contract for Above and Beyond as agreed for signature by yourself and author Martin Middleman. Please sign and return…

Dear X, Please join us for drinks at the Globe on … This is a farewell jolly for all our associates over the past ten years. Regretfully we are winding up the company as the pressure on small publishers has become unsustainable. But we ‘d like to go out with a traditional publishing bang!

Dear X, Please join us at Amazon Towers for the Kindle Self Publishing Awards on….

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to The Bookseller is now due…

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to our worldwide publishing database is now due…

Dear X, I submitted my ms Tedium Dismissed! last week and I’m wondering whether you received it as I have had not a response from you as yet…

Agent 2Dear X, I am emailing speculatively as I appreciate from your website you dont deal with dystopian fantasy.  However I’m sure your going too feel differently when you enter my world! In 140,000 amazing words I explore landscapes no one else could possibly imagine, with my heroine Alexandra the Greatest who’s battles against the greatest evil the universe has yet known are inconceivable! I am a stay at home dad and would be available to meet, subject to childcare duties, at any time convenient to you within easy reach of Basingstoke…

X tapped keys, forwarding, deleting, commenting, replying, congratulating, ignoring. (But it wasn’t really ignoring, as deciding whether to ignore in itself took time and thought.) She remembered to roll her shoulders, a few random yoga moves her nod to preventing back ache. She highlighted sections of a trade press article about the legal ramifications of digital royalties – essential but dull information she regularly digested on behalf of her authors.

Agent 7
A range of agents are listed in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

It was wonderful working from home (the business couldn’t afford office overheads), but she missed the daily walk to the station, the water cooler banter and opinion exchange. Thanks to some recent successes she didn’t worry about losing touch – her existing connections kept her informed, as did social media and the trade press. For every promotion, move, retirement, or redundancy there was a new appointment, a new intern, or a regretfully slimmed down company to build productive relationships with, and weekly trips to meet editors and authors. She arranged these for coffee or tea times to avoid the cost of lunches – her accountant would only swallow so much – but they made for a change of scene. When she wondered if she wouldn’t be happier commuting all week, maybe to a desk in the foreign rights department of a glamorous trendsetting agency in Camden or Islington, she consoled herself that her one woman operation saw so much variety, personally dealing with each author right through from submission to post publication. Agent 1

Now to be inspired: the new ms! She settled on the sofa with her laptop and more coffee. Chapter Four…

It didn’t grab her as the beginning had. But it was definitely worth pursuing. Three hours later, she’d decided, impressed by the well produced text (no attention tripping typos). The middle sagged, and would need some robust structural editing, which she hoped the author would welcome, because the end more than compensated. What an exciting find (overall)! She emailed straight away to express her strong interest and suggest a meeting. It was important to meet authors, face to face or on Skype, because her role was to take care of their baby. She needed to know if they were open to suggestions, confident, adaptable, able, eventually, to help market their work. If you got on well it helped so much. Ideally there’d be more books later, so this could be a relationship lasting years – she checked. Yes, this author mentioned a sequel in preparation, and had a self published backlist that looked respectable enough to bring to a publisher’s attention.

She’d still eaten only a pear, but decided to tick off some admin before an early supper. (She ought to continue her line edit of a revised draft she’d been sent – it could be sent out once the author had agreed the corrections. But it would be better left to tomorrow; she was getting tired now.) She dumped a pile of unwanted paper submissions firmly in the recycling box. It felt less terrible to do that than it had when she first set up the agency, because she did state clearly on the website that she only accepted work  electronically…Although sometimes the only human being she saw all day was the postman, ringing the doorbell with the latest vast packages.

Dear X, Please would you clarify the position on my royalties for Celebration at the Pierhead. I have been chasing the publisher without success and wonder if you would be able to resolve this…

Agent 3Dear X, I’m very disappointed with sales for Going, Going, Gone. What are your thoughts, going forward, for promoting this? I didn’t realise, when you advised me to self publish because you felt you had submitted it to all possible publishers, that the onus for marketing would be so fully on my shoulders. Also I am wondering whether, if I had it translated, it would do better in the Latin American market. Can you suggest a translator who would be willing to undertake this? I would suggest we share the cost…

Dear X…

But it was time for supper. And to start the debut novel everyone was raving about – always worth trying to identify the spark that had inspired a record advance.

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Dear readers of this blog post/story. If you are an agent, please consider this a submission. Please advise whether it would be better if my heroine was a private detective rather than a literary agent. Please suggest whether it should be set in London or the Outer Hebrides perhaps? Please advise whether I’d have more chance of publication if I submit it under my own name (white middle class middle aged straight UK female) or give myself the nom de plume Fatima Begum or Leroy DaCosta? On the other hand bearing in mind the successes of McEwan, Faulks, de Bernières, and Barnes should I go for John Smith? And btw would I stand a better chance if I considered transitioning before or after publication? 

If you are an editor, edit away! I welcome critiques.

If you are a reader, please review it!

If you blog, do comment, reblog, share…

Note: Agent X is an entirely fictional character drawn from a composite of observations made to me by literary agents big and small over the last few decades. Her head’s just above water, and she’s on the verge of a big, big breakthrough (maybe). Or she may become a private detective. I invented her in response to this blog post which started a lively thread last week in the Facebook group, Book Connectors.

© Jessica Norrie 2017