Monday, 17 March 2014

The Future of the Book is Authors

The Spring issue of The Author, the invaluable house journal of The Society of Authors, is out and the opening article – “The future of the book is you” – is by Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at the Random House Group.

Being unquestionably one of the leading thinkers in digital publishing, Franklin admits that he occasionally gets asked to comment on “the future of the book”.

“The answer is simple,” he says, “The future of the book is authors. Or rather, the future of the book is whatever authors want it to be: ‘the writer leads, (s)he doesn’t follow'.”

He ends the article concluding that he sees a space continuing to open up in which publishers can play “an important part”, although he doesn't know exactly what it will be.

He puts a key question to authors. “Where do you want to go, and what experiences do you want to create? And,” he continues, “can I come with you, to help you get there?”

Is that the politest and most respectful request any publisher has ever proffered to the writing profession? I would certainly like to hear if anyone has heard anything more heartwarming.  


Thursday, 6 March 2014

The People who Keep the Secrets of the Rich and Powerful

Clustered around the rich and powerful are those who hold their secrets.

The bodyguard of the Sultan of Brunei’s ex-wife allegedly knew her employer was losing a million pounds a day at the gaming tables and helped her to sell jewels to cover her losses. The personal assistants of Nigella and Charles Saatchi revealed uncomfortable domestic details in court when put on the spot. Somebody knew how many pairs of shoes Imelda Marcos was storing up because it was their job to align them correctly. A select few knew exactly what was happening within the palaces of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.  No doubt there are many who know the secrets that lie buried in the palace of newly ousted Ukrainian dictator, Viktor Yanukovych.

These trusted retainers have the real stories that the rest of us, including the media, can only ever speculate about. They know the truths that lie behind the media distortions and the propaganda put out by both the supporters and enemies of their employers. As long as they hold the secrets they hold the power while at the same time being dangerous liabilities to those who need the secrets to remain buried forever.

The Italian Gardener might seem like no more than a wise old man working in the palace gardens, but he and the toppling dictator have a past together which means he knows exactly where the bodies are buried – everywhere.   



Wednesday, 5 March 2014

How Much Should Writers Worry About Sharing Credits?

The media rumour mill has it that director, Steve McQueen, and screenwriter, John Ridley, have fallen out over credits regarding their Oscar-winning movie, “12 Years a Slave”.

If that is true it’s a shame that something which should be a monumental life achievement for them both has been tarnished by what could appear to many as egotistical petty-mindedness.

 As a ghostwriter the twin subjects of professional credit and extreme ego-management are of particular interest to me.

Harry Truman is believed to have said “You can accomplish anything in life provided you don’t mind who gets the credit”.  


Monday, 3 March 2014

Why Most Writers End Up Starving



In The Observer this weekend Robert McCrum wrote a fascinating piece entitled “From Bestseller to Bust: is this the end of an author’s life?”

Partly it is fascinating because nothing much really seems to have changed. To be financially successful as a freelancer you need to be entrepreneurial and most creative people are not. The exceptions, from Dickens to Archer, Rowling to Blyton, are blindingly obvious.

Most writers, like most designers and most musicians, need someone else to take care of business for them. Sometimes that person will be an agent, sometimes a traditional publisher, sometimes a lawyer. It might even be Amazon or a freelance publicist.

Finding the right person and being able to make it worth their while to put in the necessary hours on your behalf, has often been a matter of serendipity. If Rupert Thomson, one of the authors that McCrum cites as falling upon hard times, had had a business partner they would probably have advised him not to hire himself a work space in South London, for instance – rule number one for any freelancer must be to keep the regular outgoings down because you are never going to have regular in-comings.

Yet again, however, we are left at the end of the article not really knowing what figures we are talking about. I wanted to know exactly how much these writers have made each year of their careers. Would it be comparable to the lifetime earnings of a nurse or a doctor? A teaching assistant or a headmistress? These sorts of figures are particularly instructive when you have authors who have been working for a long time, so that blips like occasional large advances or arbitrarily cancelled projects can be ironed out. If we knew those figures we could judge better whether the rewards or the sacrifices of a writer’s life might be deemed worthwhile.   



Friday, 28 February 2014

Our Never-Ending Fascination with the Rise and Fall of Tyrants




The world – or at least the world’s media – are now transfixed by the hunt for Viktor Yanukovych, newly deposed President of the Ukraine, and with exposing the extent of his corruption and extravagance while in power. The rises and falls of tyrants and autocrats always make fascinating and satisfying storylines.  

I confess that the first, (and sometimes only), criterion that I apply when deciding whether I want to take a ghostwriting assignment is whether I find the author and the story “interesting”. The most “interesting” people, however, are not always the ones you would trust to care for your children, your grandmother or even your favourite puppy.  To me, “interesting” still means people the like of which I have not come across before, or people who have lived lives that I do not yet know anything about.

Had a charismatic young German leader contacted me in the nineteen thirties and asked me to help with a book he was planning, tentatively entitled “Mein Kampf”, I might well have skipped over as naively as a Mitford sister to see what the fuss was all about. Lord knows how long it would have been before the penny dropped and I realised the full horror of what this strange little man was actually talking about and I would then have ended up as deep in the soup as the unfortunate P.G. Wodehouse. I might have been equally tempted by a ticket to China to volunteer to help young Chairman Mao knock his thoughts into shape for the infamous Little Red Book.

When I first travelled to Haiti Baby Doc would be ensconced in the white folly of a presidential palace for only a few more years before he was overthrown and fled into exile on the French Riviera. The palace now lies in ruins, as uninhabitable as the rest of the city around it, but then it still gleamed like a heavily guarded wedding cake amidst the squalor as I stood outside the gates staring in, trying to imagine the domestic life of the tyrant and his family, wondering how they managed to justify their actions to themselves and to one another. It was a curiosity which would later tempt me to accept invitations to the palaces of a variety of other rulers, wanting to see what made them different, wanting to understand how they had found themselves in such extreme situations, able to exert their will over whole populations.

I was invited to take tea with Mrs Mubarak at her husband’s palace in Cairo, just before the Arab Spring broke through and brought hope to a city darkened by storm clouds of popular resentment. Inside the palace Mrs Mubarak, who is half Welsh half Egyptian, was a gracious hostess. White coated waiters dispensed cakes, which she assured me were home made. The tranquillity inside the gilded salon was reminiscent of our own Queen’s garden tea parties – where they also provide excellent cakes – completely insulated from the boiling stew of hatred festering in the hot, overpopulated streets outside the heavily guarded walls.

It was that contrast, which I had experienced in similar palaces all over the world, that started me writing “Secrets of the Italian Gardener”. The initially peaceful revolutions that erupted at the beginning of 2011 seemed to promise something wonderful for the world, but it proved to be as brief a moment of optimism as the hippy “Summer of love” in 1969. Now Egypt is plunging back into the familiar cycle of violence and hatred and it is like nothing has changed, except that someone new is no doubt now taking tea in Mrs Mubarak’s elegant palace quarters.

When my agent at United Agents first read “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” he told me it was, “a contemporary re-casting of Ecclesiastes, a story about the vanity associated with the desire for power and possessions and ultimately about the cycle of birth, growth, death and re-birth".

As we see yet more rulers being dragged from power and more corpses piling up in the streets we remain riveted by the endless cycle of ambition and hubris.
 




Thursday, 27 February 2014

Exactly How Much Does a Self-Published Book Earn?

Why is everyone so secretive about how much they are truly earning from their books?

I believe it would be helpful for the many thousands of authors venturing into self-publishing if those who have gone before would be a little more open and transparent about how much they are actually earning for their efforts.

Authors are traditionally evasive about their earnings, either out of modesty or embarrassment, so it is almost impossible for a newcomer to get a true idea of what rewards are likely to lie in store.

So, in the hope of encouraging others towards greater transparency, here are some actual figures for my novella, “Secrets of the Italian Gardener”, which went up on Amazon about six months ago as part of their “White Glove Service”, in conjunction with United Agents, one of the biggest and most successful literary agencies in London.

After a month or so the money started to dribble in at about £50 a month, but much of that was from purchases which I had made of POD copies that I could hand out for promotional purposes.

The reviews started to build up, (on Amazon there are now eighteen with five stars, four with four stars, two with three stars and one with one star), on various blogs, writers’ websites and a variety of news sites. That meant that anyone coming across the book could feel pretty confident that they would not be wasting their money, but the problem still remained of how to alert people to book’s existence in the first place – (the all-encompassing problem of “discoverability” which dogs ninety nine per cent of books ever published).

Once they could see the reviews building, Amazon included the book in a promotion which instantly raised it from around 150,000 on Kindle’s charts to being in the top thousand and number one in their “political books” and "political thrillers" categories. Most of the sales were in the UK, but some also came from the US and Germany, (even though it has not yet been translated).

So, the actual money coming from Amazon in February has been just over £850, from which United Agents deduct their well-earned fifteen percent. Since the costs of the cover design and the initial purchase of copies was covered with the earnings from the previous few months, this is now clear profit.

If the book was a plant I would say it is now firmly bedded in and starting to spread its roots. Once the sun warms the ground it should be able to thrive and blossom with time and continued tender care.






Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Mighty Power of the Digital Promoters

All authors have now got the message that they need to “create a platform” for themselves. We understand that the bulk of the marketing burden for any book will lie on our shoulders until we are a big enough brand for the publishers to be able to justify on-going advertising or public relations budgets for us.

No one is ever going to give us or our careers as much thought and attention as we are - why would they? - so no one who wants to earn a living from their writing can hope to escape the responsibility of being their own marketing department on a day-to-day, year-on-year basis.

Having said that, when the big boys do wade in with some promotional help the power of their clout can be stunning.

This month Amazon put the price of “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” down to .99p in a promotion negotiated through their White Glove Service and the book went straight to number one on Kindle’s political books list. Whenever Wattpad puts “The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride” or “The Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer” on their “featured” pages, the number of hits soars from hundreds to thousands per day.

The only individual authors who could hope to rival this sort of promotional power would be celebrities with millions of followers on Twitter, or people, like J.K. Rowling and E.L. James, who manage to become front page news stories.

Authors once longed for their books to be picked as Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 or to be selected by their publisher for window displays in Waterstones, but the potential power of the great digital promoters now bestriding the globe makes such efforts seem quaintly parochial.