Reculer pour mieux sauter

December 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

Novelist and political powerhouse Hill Kemp and I had a conversation about how interesting it is that writers scorn something so commercial and practical as marketing, but when they sign with a fine traditional publisher (or any other publisher!) who doesn’t  market their books they are most put out. Carolyn Howard-Johnson writes in The Frugal Book Promoter (page xvi).

I could well imagine myself taking this contrary attitude to marketing. As it is, personal relations, marketing, publishing and self-promotion are tainted words. PR: presenting an alluring and false image of yourself; marketing: trying to palm off unwanted goods on someone; publicity: making people interested in your work by sensationalising it; and promotion: indifference to everything except raising your own profile.

The trouble is, as an unknown writer, I shall have to get on well with people (public relations) come out from behind my desk and let people know my book exists (publicity and promotion) and talk about my book (marketing). Now that doesn’t sound so bad. There is nothing wrong with any of that.

Writing a book is a great achievement, getting it published is another but if you do not market your book, the writing and publishing of it will go for very little.

As an unknown writer, self-published or otherwise, you have no choice but to market your book. If you cannot agree with yourself that you will market your book or pay someone else (and that someone else will need your active help to be effective) then you should think twice about being self-published.

I have had to think about it. I have seen how I have gone wrong, shrunk from availing myself of opportunities for marketing my book. I was not only far from willing to do my own marketing but also neither able nor ready to do it. The French say reculer pour mieux sauter, “go back to jump better the next time”. This is what I am doing: I am taking a step back so that I can present myself better on a future occasion.


French manners: One word that makes the whole world kin

December 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

On my first visit to Paris in 1989, French shop-assistants initially disconcerted me by saying Bonjour when I entered shops. They further surprised me by saying Au Revoir when I left without buying anything. It soon became clear that this greeting was nothing more than an acknowledgement of my presence in the shop: not a preliminary to forcing a sale.

Why was I so disconcerted by a greeting? Because I was used to something else. In Dublin, it was not customary for shop assistants to call out Good Morning or Hello. Assistants, in a clothes shop, might ask if they could help you but in a newsagents shop assistants were unlikely to proffer any help. There was no occasion to speak until you went to the counter to pay. So it was awkward, if I browsed but did not buy. Then, and the same applies today, I felt furtive leaving the shop. The shop assistant might have thought I had stolen something whereas if we had exchanged a greeting, we could have been at ease with each other.

Bonjour said the shop assistant, and Bonjour I said in reply.  And later: Au Revoir said the shop assistant: Au Revoir, I said in reply

These words defined our relation. We both acknowledged each other but did not impose on each other. Going back to Irish shops, I missed this politeness.

The English and the Irish have not formulated a way of behaving towards strangers. For most of the time, strangers are merely strangers. But in lifts (elevators), strangers are uncomfortably close. We try not to catch their eye; we don’t know what to do: we wish the lift were empty.

One word is all it would take to dispel the tension.

Back in Autumn 1989, Marx Dormoy was where I lived. Marx Dormoy was no tourist’s idea of Paris. (I have recently seen it described as: Marx Dormoy, the real Paris of the people.) Did any native French people live there? I recollect mostly immigrants or Afro-French, hanging out in the streets, wearing casual clothes, more cool than chic, and life played out to the sound of Ghetto blasters. I might have been in a poor suburb of New York, so far did I seem from the world of the Sacré Coeur Basilica.

The flat I occupied was on the sixth, or perhaps the eight, floor of a block-like building without any beauty. One October day, I stepped into the lift, and wished straight away that I had not.  I had been in bigger more crowded lifts (Covent Garden, London) but never in one where I was the only white female.  An only female shut up, in a private lift in an obscure building in Paris, surrounded by tall African men.

So tall and similar did the men look to me that I wondered if they were as much strangers to each other as I was to them. Anything could have happened to me, and no one would have known. I hadn’t a friend in Paris. Who would have missed me?

The doors closed behind me. There was no getting out then. Had my apprehensions communicated themselves to those young men that loomed around me?

One or perhaps more of the young men said, Bonjour. Bonjour was not what I had expected, but it was what I wanted to hear more than anything else in the world. Bonjour in the lift meant the same as Bonjour in Paris shops: it was a golden word.

When the tall young man said Bonjour, he aligned himself with civilised members of society. He had acknowledged me but would trespass no further. Bonjour was a beginning and an end. No signed agreement, nor written guarantee could have given me the same sense of security as that greeting. I said Bonjour in reply. We all knew then where we stood. A world of civilisation was contained in one word: Bonjour.

Jane Austen proposes Emma to her literary agent

December 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

We could imagine literary agents of today finding very little to their liking in an outline of Emma. What other writer would have contented herself with such unpromising material? What heroine’s life is narrower than Emma’s? How thinly peopled the book is. And how few people are young. We are tantalised with talk of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, but a long time elapses before they appear on the page.

No reader need feel oppressed by Emma’s life. True she is rich, but an Emma who had to worry about money could never be Emma Woodhouse. Her riches do not add any dash to her life. There is no social whirl: Emma’s life could be described as dull beyond endurance.

Yet what an interesting tale is made of Emma. Can we fail to be amused at Mr Elton’s comical proposal in the carriage (Chapter XV, Vol. I)? Does not Harriet Smith’s giving up her sentimental treasures ( court-plaister and pencil end which Mr Elton had used, Chapter IV, Vol. III) make us say “So girls were like that then too.”  We would not swap that scene between Emma and Mr Knightley (Chapter XVIII, Vol. I) where they disagree about Frank Churchill’s duty to his father for a more dramatic one. Life at Highbury is as rich and full as ordinary life, and as dull too. But for a reader Emma is not dull.

Literary Agent:  How does all the action start?

Jane Austen: Her governess (Miss Taylor) has just got married, so Emma is at a loose end.

Literary Agent: Is there a romance in the offing?

Jane Austen: Well a stranger, Frank Churchill, is expected but he cancels by letter.

Literary Agent: In the first chapter?

Jane Austen: No, in Chapter XVIII, Vol. I.

Literary Agent: Does she have sisters and a terrible mother?

Jane Austen: There’s just her father, and a married sister who does not live locally.

Literary Agent: He’s funny, isn’t he?

Jane Austen: Rather a bore about his imaginary ailments. His philosophy is ‘The sooner every party breaks up, the better.’  (Chapter VII, Vol II)

Literary Agent: She has a few friends?

Jane Austen: There was Miss Taylor, now Mrs Frank Weston, but she makes a new friend at the beginning called Harriet.

Literary Agent: Just one friend?

Making the commonplace into something compelling is a great art. Jane Austen weaves something wonderful out of the dullness, the trivialities and the annoyances of daily life.  Is there another writer who can make as much out of as little?

Kingsley Amis on the King’s English

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

An exciting film used to be so called because of the shoot-ups, car-chases, etc. it contained; now a film is said to be exciting if it contains what are thought to be innovations in technique, setting, etc. In fact, a person from the quite recent past might expect whole populations to be in a state of nervous collapse, so exhausted must they be by ceaseless exciting dishes, exciting drinks, exciting styles of dress or adornment, exciting new offers, exciting suggestions about anything and everything in their lives. A comparable person of our day, however, has learnt that exciting is just another advertiser’s word used of a product that with luck will catch people’s fancy and in sober language turn out to be mildly interesting or pleasurable.

Having ridiculed what was then a newish absurdity in a novel of 1968, I had started to hope that exciting in this sense had passed its sell-by-date (to use another shopworn  novelty). No such luck. This very morning I get a letter from somebody calling herself a Customer Service Manager informing me that ‘so far, this has been an exciting year for Cable London customers.’ I doubt whether the two excitement-engendering events quoted, the launching of a new Travel Channel in April and of Sky Sport 2 in August are quite enough to do the whole job between them . . Kingsley Amis in The King’s English (1997)

A few weeks ago the local council sent out details about the exciting improvements to a busy High Street near me. I am not sure if the proposals themselves were exciting or what was proposed. In any event, something was considered to be exciting. So for more than forty years, advertisers have been tantalising us with exciting things.

Exciting has long lost its novelty. It is surprising that people haven’t discarded exciting in favour of a word that is more exciting than exciting. For example, once people were interested in things, then (1980s) they were into or really into things, and a decade later they were passionate about things. Now, people (on a personal level) are obsessed with things. However, business people are usually just passionate (though some may be obsessed) about what their company makes or the services it supplies.

Would advertisers lose all credibility if they tried to tantalise us with thrilling offers or offers that would send us into paroxysms of ecstasy?

Self-publishing: when white looks blacker than black

December 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

During the first interval in the Self-Publishing Summit, I spoke to a very nice lady who had recently retired. She asked me what sort of writing I did. I told her. She said I should be proud of myself and my accomplishments (which were nothing to do with writing). Then she posited the question: Did I have to be published? Wasn’t it privilege enough to write?

She had created her own book on a photocopier, and presumably had bound it in some way. She had distributed copies amongst her friends and relations. And they had liked it.

Somehow the combination of its being a privilege to write (not to be published and sell) became involved with the photocopy machine. Was I deluded? Had I lost so much perspective that I dared to imagine that I would, one day, be a published writer? Ought I get down off my high horse and content myself with a future whereby I would cobble together a book out of photocopied pages and give such books to my friends and family for nothing?

It was because this lady was so well-meaning that I found her ideas so devastating. If she had been negative, I could have dismissed her by saying she was just a negative sort of person. But she wasn’t being negative, she was being positive, talking about the privilege of writing. Yet she made me feel more down about my future than the ghost of self-publishing future did. There are times when white is blacker than black.

The Ghost of Self-Publishing Future

December 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

At the Self-Publishing Summit, my neighbour told me that he had thirty years’ experience of trying to be published. He had, I believe, been published by an independent publisher and had then turned to self-publishing. He was an artist: to prove his statement, he showed me some of his books. His covers were based on his own paintings. And, as far as I could see, the paintings were the work of a competent artist.

His was a depressing story, eight books published in thirty years but no name (as a writer) made. I knew what I had to do: I had to block him out. He was negative. And I am negative enough not only to recognise negativity, but also to want to avoid becoming even more negative. I could ignore his story. I had to.

He asked me during the first panel discussion, if I was learning anything. I nodded. I was learning a great deal. How could I not? I knew almost nothing. He let his hands, raised palm-upwards, fall apart in a gesture of defeat. He was learning nothing. He continued to learn nothing throughout the day. And he left before the last event, a question and answer session.

I sympathised with my neighbour. Who would not? But I didn’t want to end up like him. When the ghost of self-publishing future visits you, you ignore him at your peril.

What Mary might have said

December 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

We were rehearsing our nativity play. The girl who was playing Mary had recently joined our school. She had been abroad, perhaps in Hong Kong. She had the lustre of the uncommon thing. Those were the days when people did not travel as they do today.

So in Muckross Park Junior School:                                                                                                 The angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was going to have a baby.                                         ‘I am afraid it is not convenient,’ said Mary.                                                                                    The teacher hurried towards her to quash this fiction, and to reinstate the real Mary’s words.

‘I am afraid it is not convenient,’ seemed to me, then, an improvement on what the real Mary said. An answer that no other girl in the class would have devised.

We must assume that the angel Gabriel’s announcement that Mary was going to have a baby wasn’t at all convenient. Theologians, I understand, maintain that the angel Gabriel’s announcement was intended for just one girl (Mary), in all time. If Mary had answered other than she did, God’s will would not have been done. Because there were no other girls lined up to take Mary’s place.

Many of us know Mary’s true answer: we have heard it so many times that we hardly listen to it, let alone contemplate it. When we hear ‘I am the handmaid . . . ’ words as familiar—and perhaps as meaningless—as a nursery rhyme, our minds run on to finish it. We forget the significance of the words. We forget that only one woman could have put aside all considerations of herself, and have answered as she did:

‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’                   Luke 1: 38 (The Jerusalem Bible)




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