Saturday, 19 December 2009

As One Little Goldmine Closes

Just over twenty years ago I decided to take a modest advertisement in The Bookseller magazine – “Ghostwriter for Hire”. At the end of this year I am told the magazine will be closing the Directory page which has carried that ad almost every week since.

I owe The Bookseller a huge debt of thanks for all the fascinating people that little ad has steered in my direction over the last couple of decades.

When Zana Muhsen went into her local library to enquire how she could make contact with a ghostwriter, it was a copy of The Bookseller that the librarian pulled out to consult. Four million or so copies of the resulting book, “Sold”, have since been sold and many other authors, publishers and agents have been led to my door along the same route.

There were many months when the ad produced no results at all and other writers, following my lead and buying space themselves, would come and go, often disappointed not to be able to see instant results for their outlay. But every few months another opportunity would find its way through to me from that calling card, which I left permanently in the publishing world’s equivalent of their Post Office window.

I have no idea how the economics of the magazine’s advertising pages pan out these days, but I’m guessing they have done their sums before deciding to close this particular window.

Is it one more small brick in the bridge leading us all away from printed media, across choppy and uncharted seas to a totally digital world? Probably.

Whatever it is, taking that ad twenty years ago was quite possibly the best business decision I ever made – closely followed by the decision five years ago to ask the wonderful folk at Wordpool Design to build me a website.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A Golden Age for Writers

Stephen Covey has shown us what the future might hold for writers.

If there is one thing that everyone in the publishing world can agree on amidst the current chaos, it is that everything is about to change. Insecurity is all around us as the big players all try to work out how the business is going to develop; are e-books finally going to take over the world? Will Kindles and the rest soon be as ubiquitous as mobile phones and laptops? And, if so, who the hell owns the rights to what?

As all the big corporations rush to their lawyers, it may be that this is about to become a golden age for those of us who have remained hungry and nimble and are used to living by our wits.

It is beginning to look as if in the long run none of these changes should trouble writers too much. We are used to insecurity. We are used to never knowing if we are going to be able to sell our work. We are used to not knowing how much we will be paid for it or when that money will ever actually arrive. We have never had regular salaries or pensions or subsidised canteens to lull us into a false sense of security. We have always known just how much of a jungle it is out there.

We have always been forced to accept that we have little or no control over our careers or our work, that we have to write as much and as well as we can and then basically hope for the best. We are used to being promised the Earth and then somehow not quite getting it.

We are also familiar with the exhilaration of a sudden triumph; a book that tops the charts, sells all over the world, creates a buzz and brings unexpected amounts of money pouring in. We know that those moments, and the dreams we have of those moments, make all the struggles and uncertainties worthwhile.

In this new age of e-books, self-publishing and print-on-demand, it is beginning to look as if we won’t necessarily have to rely on the patronage of publishers to help us reach our readers.

The writing life will still be a struggle, as it has always been, but it may just be that we are going to have more control over our destinies in the coming years than we have ever had in the past. It is possible that we will soon be actively choosing who we want to hire to edit us, design our covers and help us to market our wares.

Is it possible that we are about to enter a Golden Age for writers?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Cactus TV to the Rescue of Book Publishing

Cactus, the television company that brought us Richard and Judy, have devised a new book programme in which celebrities will talk about books - Thank God for that!

If there is one thing the publishing world needs it is spokespeople who will help the general public to discover what a joy books can be and to give them some guidance through the maze.

We have seen how effective this can be with Oprah and Richard and Judy, both of whom are apparently retiring from their roles as ambassadors to the publishing world- we desperately need a renewed sprinkling of stardust. Let's all pray that Cactus continue to choose their celebrities and anointed books as wisely as they have in the past.

Celebrities are possibly the most powerful marketing tools ever invented - let's recruit as many of them as possible to the great cause!

Monday, 30 November 2009

Virtually all Top Twenty Bestsellers are celebrity titles

Articles keep appearing in the press claiming that the fashion for celebrity books is now over, just as the fashion for “misery memoirs” was reported to be over a year or two ago. In fact, celebrity books make up virtually the whole of the Top Twenty Non-Fiction Bestsellers.

While I can see that the current crop of titles are not achieving the same enormous sales figures as some of their predecessors, (perhaps because they are not such interesting or commercial stories), it seems from looking at the bestseller charts in The Bookseller this week that the celebrities are still totally dominating the non-fiction hardback charts and the “miseries” are still showing strongly amongst the paperbacks.

In the top ten non-fiction hardbacks we find Ant and Dec, Peter Kay, Jeremy Clarkson, Frankie Boyle and Patrick Swayze, plus another Top Gear book and titles from Andrew Marr and Delia Smith, both of whom can link their success partially to their television presences. That leaves only two other books, one of which is the Guinness Book of Records, the other is Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” book of amazing facts.

Amongst the next ten top bestsellers we find JLS, Chris Evans, Jo Brand, Katie Price, Jamie Oliver, Ozzy Osbourne, Jack Dee, another Top Gear book and a Football Annual. That leaves one more place for “Simon’s Cat” a cartoon book which started life on the Internet.

On what planet can this be described as “the end of the celebrity book genre”?

I could make a similar case for misery memoirs amongst the paperbacks, (some of which double up as celebrity books by the likes of Jade Goody and Coleen Nolan).

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Good Samaritan Wins Publishing Deal

Here’s a story to bring hope to the hearts of everyone struggling to win a publishing deal.

Ex-soldier and international banker, Mark Powell, had written an action thriller, “Quantum Breach”, and was suffering the long agony that we are all familiar with, having racked up over a 100 rejections.

One evening he was driving home from work in Singapore when he spotted a damsel in distress attempting to heave a spare wheel out of the boot of her car. He stopped to help and once the wheel had been changed they got talking. She asked what he did. He told her he was an author and she told him she was a managing partner in a law firm that acted for the publisher Marshall Cavendish.

A few days later the Good Samaritan found he had a publishing deal for “Quantum Breach” and his second book, “Deep Six” is now close to completion.

The moral of this story? Never give up trying and never pass up a chance to do a stranger a favour.

Heart-warming tale, no?

Monday, 9 November 2009

Should Books Be Shorter?

Why are books so hard to market? Is it possible that the main stumbling block to purchase, (and to consumption), is the sheer amount of time required to read them?

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the average book is 80,000 to 100,000 words long and requires six hours of fairly sustained attention from the customer.

In some situations that will be precisely why the purchase is made, because the customer has ‘time to kill’ on a beach holiday or a long journey, in a sickbed – whatever. Sometimes the pure beauty of the author’s prose and the languor of the storytelling is the reason why that title or that author has been selected. But what if the motive to purchase is that the reader merely wants the information contained in the book and wants it as quickly and painlessly as possible?

Am I the only person who has seen a book that they really want to read in the shops, or read a review, and then simply failed to find the time to read it – or at least failed to get beyond half way? Most people have a colossal number of calls upon their time once they have put in the hours required to earn a living, bring up their family or clip their toe-nails. Given a choice between a quick flick through a newspaper with a cup of tea, an hour in front of the television with their supper, or consuming one sixth of a difficult book, how often does the poor consumer give in to one of the easier options?

So many books could do with severe editing to remove extraneous material, repetitions and all the rest – “kill your darlings” as any creative writing tutor will tell you - but if the final manuscript then comes in at 30,000 words, or less than a hundred pages, it will not look like good value for money, and the publishers will have another marketing hurdle to overcome.

It seems likely that the printed book will never escape from this trap, any more than the average sit-com will escape the traditional half-hour format or many feature films will be allowed to come in at less than ninety minutes. The audiences have historical expectations of the formats which cannot be lightly dismissed.

But if electronic books take off, might we see something altogether different evolving? If people can’t see how ‘thick’ the book is when they buy it, might they be less daunted by the long ones and less likely to dismiss the short ones? Might publishers then be able to stop buying writing by the pound?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Publishing Industry exactly like The X-Factor

The publishing industry is exactly like the X-Factor. You start with tens of thousands of hopefuls, all certain that they are talented and deserve to be made into stars/published. Their friends and family are equally convinced, or at least have to say they are out of loyalty or blind love.

These thousands of people turn up to auditions/send in their manuscripts, and the gatekeepers of television/publishing have a limited amount of time to try to spot the ones that the public will like and want to get to know better. Sometimes it will be obvious that someone has enormous talent, or is exceptionally attractive, usually it is not that obvious.

The majority,through sheer weight of numbers, will then be sent home/have their manuscripts ignored or rejected. Even those who get through to the show/publication, will still be ignored by the public/voted out and will end up disappointed not to have had their dreams come true and angry with those who have succeeded where they have failed.

Someone, of course, has to win - just as with every lottery. On the X-Factor it will be Alexandra Burke and in publishing it will be J.K. Rowling, and then there will be the people who simply gain public attention because they are different and make people smile - John and Edward in the X-Factor, Katie Price in publishing.

It is all quite fair because everyone has the same chance to lay their goods out on display and there are only a limited number of hours that we can all watch television or read books, so most of us will inevitably be knocked back.

There has been a spate of complaints in the media recently from published authors about the state of the publishing industry and how hard it is for new writers to break in and how unfair it is that the bad stuff gets published and the good stuff gets over-looked. But wasn't it always so? Is it possible that millions are transfixed by the X-Factor because it is a giant metaphor for life? Publishing is also exactly like life - everyone who goes into it has ambitions, most will be disappointed.

What to do about it? How do you beat the odds?

Well maybe, like Alexandra Burke, the secret lies in (a) having enough talent to start with (b) working ceaselessly at your craft and (c) coming back for another go every time you are knocked back, (she only won on her second time of appearing on the X-Factor).

Young talent is often knocked back and discouraged, but in the long-run persistence will always pay off - in publishing as in life.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Puzzle of Creating Best Sellers

Trying to judge which books will catch the public imagination doesn't get any easier, however long you struggle on in the publishing world.
I was pretty certain as I wrote "Cry Myself to Sleep" with Joe Peters that it was a story that people would really want to read, but follow-up books are always hard to pull off. We had had a number one success with "Cry Silent Tears" and it seemed almost too much to hope we could do it again, however much Joe might deserve it.
The second book picks up his story from when he ran away to London at sixteen to live on the streets. It is all about what happens to damaged kids once they grow up and go looking for a place in the world. Joe is an incredibly inspiring character.
Thankfully, my gut feeling has been proved right and the book is already at number three in the charts, battling it out with Jade and Barak and the rest. But then I was equally sure that "For the Love of Julie" which I wrote for Ann Ming, would soar straight to the top of the charts. Everyone who reads this story of a mother fighting for justice for her murdered daughter, (whose body she herself found,months after the killing), tells me that they sobbed almost all the way through it. Ann is another inspiring person who has achieved the most incredible things in getting the 800 year old law of double jeopardy changed, but the book has not soared as fast as Joe's.
I'm confident that word of mouth will result in big sales for Ann eventually, albeit at a slower and steadier rate, but it is a puzzle why the one title has taken off so much faster than the other.
In between these two lies "Disgraced", which I wrote for Saira Ahmed, telling of how she ended up on the game after escaping from her arranged marriage. The book went into the charts, and is selling well around the world, but did not go straight into the top three like Joe.
I guess if we could predict accurately who the big winners were going to be, some of the excitement would have gone.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Blake Publishing Buys Autobiography of Steffi McBride’s Mother.

Blake Publishing has bought the rights to the autobiography of notorious but fictional ex-vice-girl Maggie de Beer.
Maggie, who ran away from home at the age of fifteen in search of fame and fortune, was one of the original ‘Page Three Girls’. The actress and singer became well known for her hard partying, rock and roll lifestyle, and for the many insights into the jet set lifestyle that she provided for the public as the all-time ‘Queen of Kiss-and-Tell’.
More recently she became a household name as the estranged mother of soap star Steffi McBride. The moving tale of their reunion was told last year by Steffi herself in her book, ‘The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride’, (also published by Blake).
Fifteen year-old Maggie became an infamous fixture on the glamorous London social scene soon after she arrived in 1970, emerging as a regular pin-up girl on ‘The Benny Hill Show’ and in the many West End farces and sex shows staged by Soho show business king, Paul Raymond.
In ‘The Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer’ Maggie will be talking for the first time about what really went on in the steamy world of international nightclubs and hotels and revealing the secrets within her family that shocked even her.
‘Every teenager dreams of running away from home at some time,’ says ghostwriter, Andrew Crofts, ‘but not many of us have the nerve to actually do it. There are so many traps waiting out there for the innocent and the reckless. Maggie is one of life’s great survivors. She made a pact with the Devil for the chance to follow her dreams and paid the ultimate price. Her extraordinary adventures make for compelling reading; a parable for our media and showbiz-obsessed times.’

Thursday, 26 February 2009

A Glimpse of the Future

I spent an interesting day in Oxford this week visiting the James Martin 21st Century School as I set out on the job of researching and writing a biography of James Martin, a man who became the biggest ever single donor to Oxford University a few years ago when he pledged $100m of his own money for the founding of the School. What an incredible achievement the place is.

Born into a poor family in Ashby-de-la-Zouche, James rose to prominence with his writings and teachings about technology and the future of the planet. By founding such a distinguished school he has put his money where his mouth is and is actually doing something about the many problems that face us and the planet we inhabit.

He is basically investing in ideas, something which he has been immensely successful at for many years. The School’s fifteen interdisciplinary institutes and more than a hundred fellows across the collegiate university are studying potential global catastrophes like climate change, bio-engineering, pandemics, mass migration and the possibility of human extinction before the end of the 21st Century. At the same time they are trying to harvest the incredible opportunities arising from new technologies and innovations, as well as social change and improvements in understanding how to deal with systemic risk.

We expend so much of our academic energy studying what has gone before, it is cheering to see such a concerted and intelligent effort being made to understand the future so that we can prepare for it better.

James Martin must be one of the most interesting men currently at work on our planet and this School may well provide some of the answers that will save us from destroying ourselves and maybe even help move us closer to creating a real Utopia.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Winner of Steffi McBride Competition

The winner of the Steffi McBride short story competition is fourteen year-old Nicole Hendry with her piece, “Do You Think It’s Fair?”. It was just as hard a choice as I had thought it would be but there were a number of reasons why I eventually plumped for this one over the very strong competition.
To start with, of course, there is the standard of the writing. Phrases like “the ache was unbearable, like someone tightening the gears in her face with a spanner” and “she heard her mother’s irritated footsteps ascend the stairs” seemed to sing off the page.
The rules of the competition were that it should be about ‘modern celebrity’ and the subjects of anorexia and of fame being forced on people too young to handle it both seem particularly relevant. The fact that they are being written about by someone who is still the same age as the protagonist also strikes me as important, providing a contrast to us older authors who would naturally see things from a different and perhaps more objective perspective.
I must also confess that Nicole’s story rings some personal bells for me as well. Soon after I left school, many years ago, I worked in a modelling agency and school in Bond Street. I may even have worn a ‘pin-striped suit’, certainly many of my older colleagues did. Even then, when I was still young and hungry, and the instant celebrity business was also still in its infancy, I wondered what was going on in the heads of the girls, many of whom were as young as fourteen, who flocked through the doors in search of fame and adoration in much the same way as X-Factor contestants do today.
I can’t wait to see what Nicole comes up with next.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Paris Hilton Paparazzi Circus

I enjoyed a delicious collision of cultures over lunch on Tuesday. Joining the other distinguished judges from last year’s Biographer’s Club Competition for a reunion at Mon Plaisir brasserie in Monmouth Street, I was startled on arrival to find an absolute scrum of paparazzi on the pavement outside, like a real life scene from The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride.
Opposite the restaurant was the Covent Garden Hotel, a hostelry I know quite well having spent several days locked in a suite there with the colourful Pete Bennett and his mum and entourage, when he was writing his autobiography after winning Big Brother.
Mon Plaisir is a delightfully traditional French restaurant and seemed to be crammed with other publishing dignitaries that day, (you know who you are). Distinguished biographer, Richard Davenport-Hines, had managed to get us a table in the window. So, as the four of us, (Nicola Beauman, mastermind behind Persephone Books, and Anna Swan of the Biographer’s Club making up the party), gossiped and gawped Paris Hilton emerged from the hotel and the street erupted, just as I’m sure her entourage hoped it would, with the paparazzi surging forward, fighting one another for prime position, climbing onto the roofs of their cars.
The elegant Persephone Books is well worth looking into, specialising as they do in the re-publishing of good books that have slipped out of print. Their great success at the moment is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and I can’t help thinking that Paris Hilton could very easily be a modern equivalent of Delysia, the dizzy, glamorous night club singer and socialite who provides Miss Pettigrew with her chance to ‘live for a day’.
What a glorious and varied world it can be some days.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Celebrity Short Story Finalists

The three finalists in the Steffi McBride Celebrity short story competition range in age from fourteen to sixty, which I guess just goes to show how all-pervasive celebrity culture is now, and also that the urge to write arrives early and does not dim with the years.
At fourteen, Nicole Hendry is probably a more typical Steffi McBride reader and the one who you would most expect to be wrapped up in the spell of celebrity culture, so much of which is marketed directly towards girls of her generation. Yet both the other finalists are linked in other ways; Veronica Ryder is a keen amateur actress and so understands the lure of the spotlight and Sue Clark is currently working as a writer for a consultancy which specialises in creating a marketing buzz through the use of new media – another link to the world of Steffi McBride.
In her story, “Do you Think It’s Fair? Nicole creates a real air of danger and potential evil with her sharp descriptions of how the forces of celebrity drive her heroine into the arms of anorexia. The incredibly sharp writing makes you long to find out more about the characters sketched in the background.
In “The Purple Peignoir” Sue Clark creates two very interesting characters, neither of which are obvious candidates for modern celebrity but one of whom, Eloise, may well turn out to be one of the founding mothers of the movement. If we knew more we would not only be able to enter the now relatively distant world of the Swinging Sixties, but we would also be able to see what happens to someone when their grip on the spotlight begins to weaken.
In ‘Losing Abby’ Veronica Ryder managed to surprise me several times with unexpected twists to the plot and being the father of an ingĂ©nue actress/singer myself I recognise all too clearly the mother’s description of how she feels she is losing Abby to the lure of spotlight.
Having to put aside the seven others from the short list was just as horrible as I expected. I feel sure that many of them could still be worked up into successful novels and I hope all the authors will feel sufficiently encouraged by their success to want to give it a go.
Interviews with the three finalists will be going up on the Steffi McBride website this week and now all I have to do is decide which of them should be the overall winner.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Battling with Barak

I know I’ve written before about my unhealthy obsession with getting to number one in the bestseller charts, and I think I have vented my spleen against such serial titans as Clarkson, Hammond, Bryson and Brand, who spend months crouched at the top of the mountain, swatting aside anyone who tries to dislodge them. Now we have to cope with books by the most powerful man on the globe – how annoying is that?

You’d think that being probably the most popular person in the world – ever, would be enough to satisfy the man. Whoever heard of a politician who could write books that people genuinely wanted to read anyway?

Not just one, but two of Barak Obama’s tomes are still sitting up there stopping “No One Listened”, which I wrote for Alex and Isobel Kerr, from reaching prime position. (Plus Andrew Franklin’s latest “fantastic facts” book, a whole genre which is another contender for raising my competitive stress levels!).

The Kerr siblings more than deserve a number one for their stoic tale of surviving on their own in the world after their father murdered their mother with a gruesomeness that would have left most children in therapy for life. The way in which they have supported each other and gone on to lead selfless and worthwhile lives helping others less fortunate than themselves is an inspiration to anyone who meets them or reads about them.

In all seriousness, it rather raises one’s hopes for the future to see that people like the Kerrs and Barak Obama are actually getting heard and read in large numbers. They are good people with good intentions doing good things. Long may it last – but I would still like to see the Kerr siblings get past him to the summit for one week at least.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Feeling Sorry for Cheryl Cole

I have spent most of today feeling sorry for Cheryl Cole, Dannii Minogue and all the other emotionally drained judges who have to weep their way through reality tv contests. I have been sifting through a huge pile of entries for the short story competition which I ran in conjunction with publication of my novel, “The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride”. The stories had to be less than 1000 words long and the subject had to be “modern celebrity”.

I have been trying to work out how those who work regularly as judges manage to maintain their sanity while dismissing and disrespecting the work and talent of others, deciding who will be encouraged and who will be disappointed. How come Simon Cowell looks so confident and carefree when he is breaking hearts with his highly subjective judgements?

Having read an avalanche of entries, the vast majority of which are extremely good, I am now a complete dithering wreck. The thought of discouraging any budding talent by excluding them from the shortlist simply on the grounds that there were other stories that struck me differently is horrendous, but I know it has to be done. I have received enough rejection letters during forty years of writing, (and listened to enough deafening silences), to know that it is the way of the world, and that the initial anger I felt at those low moments stoked the flames required to forge the steel that every freelance writer needs in their soul in order to survive and go on to enjoy the highs when they come.

The other blow of reading these entries is the realisation of just how ferocious the competition is out there. There are so many people with good ideas, so many people who write well, how can we all possibly survive? Where are we all going to find enough people to buy and read what we want to write? I suppose it’s the same feeling that would-be superstars experience when they turn up to the giant X-Factor auditions and realise that the talent they had until that moment believed to be unique, encouraged by doting friends and family, is actually not unique at all. We are all struggling together to make our voices heard and have our words read.

At least when I was a judge for the Biographers’ Club prize a few months ago I had two others to help with the ruthless task, one of whom was the chairman and therefore carried the ultimate burden. Now there is no one else to share the responsibility with.

I know I have to be strong and make the choices but every decision to put a well written story into the “no” pile is an agony. God knows how the Booker and Costa judges come out with their sanity in tact, or maybe they don’t.

I have bought myself some precious time by whittling the entries down to a short list of ten, (all of which I hope to be able to display on the website in the next few days), but maybe all I have done is prolong the agony for all of the entrants as well as myself. I hope not.