The writer and social media

May 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some months ago, a writer, speaking at a self-publishing event, took a very negative view of Twitter. As some people tweet, along the lines of, ‘home now just putting the potatoes in the oven’, she had no time for it.

We all know that means of communications are used in different ways. To the  farmer in Africa, without any landline, a mobile phone is a lifeline. Londoners may say ‘my life is on my phone’ but their livelihoods do not depend on their phones in the same way an African farmer’s does.

We can tweet trivial things and we can tweet serious things and we can do both.

Mel Sherratt, best-selling writer on Kindle, had a social media presence before she self-published Taunting the Dead. She wrote a blog High Heels and Book Deals, and she was on Twitter.

Initially Mel Sherratt had not been that keen on joining Twitter. However, a friend persuaded her to sign up for an account (@writermel), and since then, Mel Sherratt has grown to love Twitter.

Writing can be lonely work. When Mel Sherratt takes a break from writing, she often goes to see what’s happening on Twitter. She might throw out a query to her followers: How would a frightened child call out for its mother? Would the child shout Mum or Mummy?  Her followers favoured Mummy.

Mel Sherratt stressed that her use of Twitter is largely social. Of course, she will let people know when she has posted an article, what event she might be speaking at, and she might retweet some news about a writer friend, but she will tweet about her dog too.

Tim Cooke, self-published author of Defending Elton and Kiss and Tell, was slow to join social networks; he felt they might not suit his personal style. But he started a blog (T J Cooke) and joined Twitter (@timscribe). Contrary to his expectations, he found that writers on Twitter could be very supportive of each other. And his attitude to social media changed.

Both writers were speaking in April at this year’s London Book Fair. At the question and answer session after their talk, one attendee told us that she had written books, cosy crime. (I think she had self-published but I am not sure in what form.) The books were selling but her being on Facebook and Twitter did very little to increase her sales. She wondered why.

Neither Mel Sherratt nor Tim Cooke could throw any light on that. Should you be fully engaged in all forms of social media? Will your presence on Twitter boost your sales?  Will you succeed just as well without Twitter ? You might. Mel Sherratt writes women’s fiction using a pen name and, despite having no presence on social media (in her pen name), these novels sell.

If only we had the answers!

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How much will people pay for an ebook?

May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

We all carry notional values for money. A pound or two is not very much, not enough to buy a coffee in most cafés, a second-hand book in Oxfam (average price £2.50) or a large loaf of wholemeal bread (£2.30) in Dunn’s, a fifth-generation bakery in Crouch End, North London.

Yet many self-published books sell on Kindle for 99p. Self-published author Tim Cooke believes that some people would not be too quick to spend even 99p on a book. The sum of 99p is not so inconsiderable that they will buy an ebook without a second thought.

You can search by price on Kindle, and see what is on offer for 99p. I have no idea if the cheapest books sell most. Daniel Cooper ( Head of Kindle Direct Publishing, EU) did not appear to think that the lower the book is priced, the better its sales would be.

When self-published author Mel Sherratt first made Taunting the Dead available on Kindle in December 2011, she priced it at 99p. It quickly became a bestseller and reached number 3 in the Kindle fiction category in 2012. Despite her success, Mel Sherratt has not increased the price above £1.99. Would her readers have baulked at paying £2.99?

Are writers, who have had their books professionally edited, selling themselves short when they price their books at 99p? Will potential buyers assume the quality is poor?

Daniel Cooper informed us that from one year to the next, Kindle sales of self-published books increased from 14% to 26%. Will self-published books continue to make up a quarter of the Kindle market? What percentage of those books was sold for 99p?

In some cases the low price will reflect the fact that the books have been poorly edited and written. In other cases you will be buying a book that has had as much professional attention, perhaps more, than a book that has been traditionally published. At 99p, authors, who have paid to have their worked edited, will have to sell many books to recoup their investment.

In other industries sellers have increased the price of their goods with no adverse affect on sales: sometimes their sales increased (See Yes! by Noah J Goldstein, Steve J Martin, and Robert B Cialdini). Could some writers selling ebooks for 99p, price them at £2.99, and possibly sell more copies?

Mel Sherratt, Tim Cooke, and Daniel Cooper spoke in the Authorlounge, The London Book Fair 2013.

How can I support my writing habit?

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Tick tock! Tick tock! Over two years have gone by since I started entering writing competitions. About six months ago, I considered giving them up altogether. But I changed my mind and entered three: one in February, and two in March.

I didn’t make the shortlist of either Myriad’s or Cornerstones’. This month, May,  the results of Mslexia’s Short Story Competition will be announced.

When I entered these competitions, I told myself that if I got nowhere in all of them, I would have to change my strategy. I could not continue to enter competitions. Competitions take time, and time, once spent, is gone forever.

Initially, when I discovered two afternoons ago, that I had not made the Cornerstones’ shortlist, I remained in a reasonably buoyant mood. That evening, I went to a literary event. There I met a writer who told me that she worked for a literary consultancy. She mentored other writers. In this way, she earned money when writing did not pay. Does it ever?

She talked about writers having sometimes to review their aims, not to make publication their ultimate end. I nodded at this: I was still philosophical. She also said that writers do not always feel as validated by being published as they anticipated. Presumably their sense of validation depends on the critical reception of the book, and its sales. Most writers must feel very validated if their books are critically acclaimed or sell in great numbers.

After returning home, I felt I could not bear the load: the notion that I would write for neither publication nor money. We all have to make adjustments along the way. It is hard enough to accept that writing may not pay as well as stocking shelves in a shop but I could never write for my sole satisfaction. If I wanted to do that, I could keep a diary. I write to be read by other people. For me, a writer or artist must have an audience.

If mentoring were an end in itself, what would I be then? Not a writer but someone with a writing habit. How would I find money to support my habit?

What would Henry James, that most pure artist, say to the idea of writing for writing’s sake? I know of no writer who was hotter after the dollar than James was, or who was more of a conscientious artist. (Flannery O’ Connor, ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’). I imagine most writers, great or minor, are with me on this: we want  at the very least to be published, and we would very much like to be paid as well.

All the same, I am going to change my strategy. My next step will be to pay to have my children’s book professionally edited.

Mel Sherratt and Tim Cooke talk about self-publishing on Kindle at the London Book Fair 2013

April 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Where should we begin Mel Sherratt’s story?

We could start it here. In December 2011, Mel Sherratt published Taunting the Dead on Kindle. In one month, she sold 40,000 at 99p a copy.

It went on to be a number 1 Kindle bestseller, in three different fiction categories, and ultimately a number 3 bestseller in fiction. Not bad at all. However, when this one month comes after 12 years of writing, part time until 2010, it’s not such a great story for those seeking instant success.

Mel Sherratt nearly secured a traditional publishing deal. She had an agent, and her book Taunting the Dead had got to acquisitions stage: then everything fell through. What had she to lose by publishing Taunting the Dead on Kindle?

Publishing on Kindle was not Mel Sherratt’s first choice, nor would it be today. In a way it was a last resort, or perhaps the only way she could see herself being published quickly. And despite her success, she still wants to be published traditionally. Why? Because that was her goal when she set out. All the same, she would rather self-publish on Kindle than not publish at all.

Three books of Mel Sherratt’s ‘Estate’ series (psychological suspense) are also available on Kindle.

Before self-publishing, Tim Cooke wrote for television. Tim Cooke published Kiss and Tell in October 2012, and his second book Defending Elton this month, April 2013. Although Kiss and Tell was the first to be published, it was not the first to be written. Tim Cooke wrote a draft of Defending Elton first. So no, he did not whizz off a complete novel in six months.

Three top literary agents had worked with Tim Cooke. Yet even with their help, Tim Cooke did not secure a publishing deal. His books had been professionally edited (by agents). Like Mel Sherratt, he had gone far down the road to a publishing deal.

We, unpublished writers, know how hard it is to interest agents. Is it comforting to know that getting an agent will not necessarily lead to a publishing deal?

For neither writer did things happen quickly. And it seems likely that neither of them would have been as successful on Kindle if they had got to it sooner. In the time they were waiting to secure publishing deals, they were able, with the help of their agents, to improve their books.

More than once, Tim Cooke said that a book should be as good as it could be, before you self-publish it.

Mel Sherratt found, after hours of searching online, an image, a rose for Taunting the Dead. Before Taunting the Dead was published on Kindle, a writer friend of Mel Sherratt’s put the finishing touches on the cover.

The designer that Tim Cooke asked to do the cover for Defending Elton agreed because he had liked the book. He also designed the cover for Kiss and Tell; he did not charge his usual fee. Tim later learnt that the designer had done covers for Irvine Welsh and Stephen King. (Books will advise you that knowledge is power, but if Tim Cooke had known of the book-cover designer’s prestige, he probably would not have asked for his help.)

Taunting the Dead had been structurally edited but not copy edited when it was first published. So there were mistakes. Mel Sherratt has had her other books copy edited as they were published (she’s since had Taunting the Dead copy edited too). She wouldn’t recommend that any writer omitted this step. You can’t copy edit yourself, she told us.

Publishing on Kindle appears easy. You can self-publish, but will your book sell? Buyers of ebooks seem to look for the same things as buyers of hard copy books, a well written book, and a good cover.

We hear great success stories in self-publishing, of ebooks that have not been edited and of readers who (happily?) point out all sorts of mistakes to the writer so that she can correct them. Collaborations between readers and writers? How long can that last for? We can only presume that such writers are lucky. If becoming an ebook bestseller were that easy, who could resist self-publishing a book?

I heard Mel Sherratt and Tim Cooke speak at the Authorlounge  (The London Book Fair on 15th April 2013).

The Authorlounge in Earls Court 2 at the London Book Fair

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

My first taste of the London Book Fair, yesterday, 15th April 2013 was the wrong one; I went in the Earls Court Entrance that was visible from West Brompton tube station (there was no train going to Olympia that morning). I went up the escalator into an area that was largely filled with rows of tables. Was this the extent of the London Book Fair? It was a little dim and bleak. Of course it wasn’t! I was soon looking down on the illuminated ground floor, filled with hundreds of stands.

As a visitor, I should have gone through the West Brompton Entrance which is just a hundred metres or so up from the Earls Court Entrance. Then I would have orientated myself better. Of course, you can plan your day in advance by looking at the London Book Fair site. I had done a little of that but not enough; I never thought there would be so much.

The London Book Fair is divided into Earls Court 1 and Earls Court 2. If you have navigation skills like mine, you may well find that your allegiance to one of them proves to be permanent. If you start out living in North London, you may never venture to live in South London.

For a first-time visitor the London Book Fair is overwhelming. What business does an unpublished writer have at it? Where is she to spend her time? She has no need yet for international distribution solutions or much to say to the hundreds of stand holders.

Having been given The Love Learning Onsite Guide by the London Book Fair team, I thought I would start the day attending seminars. As seminars were being given in the AuthorLounge (Earls Court 2) that lasted for three quarters of an hour and, with fifteen minute intervals, went on throughout the day that seemed a good place to start.

I was there before ten and was able to secure a seat in the second row easily enough. But by the time the first seminar was underway, the lounge was filling up and there was soon only standing room. If you wanted to keep your seat, you needed to stay on it. The audience overflowed the lounge. Some had to be content with standing outside the booth.

There were other events at the Pen Literary Café (Earls Court 2), and other seminars too in Earls Court 1 that I would have like to have attended. However, unless you are blessed with powers of bi- or tri-location, you have to plump for something and hope it is the right thing. Do you really want to stand outside the AuthorLounge when you can sit at the front and ask questions? At the end of each seminar was a question and answer session.

The seat, after three hours, became increasingly uncomfortable. When I left it at lunchtime, I lost it and had to be content to listen to some parts of seminars from without.

For the seminar on ‘How to Get a Literary Agent’, I was back in the lounge but not on a seat; my seat was on the floor which I discovered was more uncomfortable than the seat I had deserted. People hovered, ready to pounce when a seat became vacant.

For authors of any kind, published and unpublished, who want to find out what is happening at the moment in the world of books, the AuthorLounge is the place to be.

One attendee commented that even as recently as two years ago the AuthorLounge was not much of a draw. It was evident to her that authors were more important today.

All speakers at the AuthorLounge made it clear that there is a revolution or renaissance (as one speaker called it) in the world of books, and no one quite knows the direction to take. But few would deny that all concerned must adapt, change, and evolve to survive.

Authoright is curating the Authorlounge at the London Book Fair.

Is the road to self-publishing too long, lonely and expensive?

February 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the last week or so I have been reading two books The Naked Author: A Guide to Self-publishing by Alison Baverstock and The Insider’s Guide to Getting your Book Published  by Rachael Stock which includes some information about self-publishing. (In a work of fiction, we would have to alter one of these surnames.)

Alison’s book depressed me, not that the author was depressing but her comprehensive treatment of self-publishing shows it can be long and difficult. On the other hand, Rachael’s book made me feel that I need not abandon the notion of being published, as opposed to being self-published.

The totally DIY route to self-publishing is impractical and likely, for most of us, to be impossible. If Noble Prize winners have editors, what makes us think we can dispense with them? Do we know all there is to know about designing a book cover? And what about the illustration for the book cover?

I have mentally lumped the book cover design and illustration together but now realise they are two different things. Can you draw? Are you a graphic designer? Will you spend £300.00 on a photograph for your cover?

Who will you sell your book to? You will need to convince would-be buyers that you have a marketable product. If your cover design is poor, you won’t get very far.

You don’t need to be that good at arithmetic to quickly work out that self-publishing can be very expensive. You will have to sell quite a number of books to break even. How long will that take? Then you will have to sell many more to make a profit. A job paying only the minimum wage, by comparison, begins to look lucrative.

Although self-publishing is no longer viewed as a desperate measure, it is still for many a last resort. That being said, I do not think that even insiders have the last word to say on self-publishing. There are always people, enterprising people—I hope to evolve into one—who succeed because they believe there has to be another way.

The slush pile, a slippery slope?

January 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

One of the most basic jobs in any publishing house—usually reserved for junior editors or outside readers who come in once or twice a week—is sifting through and sampling the ‘slush pile’: that tidal wave of novels and memoirs and diatribes about the pyramids or intergalactic travel and conspiracy theories and poems from the school of Ella Wheeler Wilcox  .  .  . It is, almost invariably, dispiriting and unproductive work, though an essential part of the publishing process: most of the offerings are irremediably bad, and instantly recognisable as such, . . . writes Jeremy Lewis (Kindred Spirits, page 63)

Editors know when they are reading the work of a literary incompetent. Jeremy Lewis (page 65) instances some give-away turns of phrase that herald a hopeless case (‘I’ll never forget the day’ or ‘What a character Jack was!’ or ‘How we all laughed!’).

Slush piles seem such a joke. If editors are so unlikely to come across anything good on  slush piles, why bother about them at all? In more leisured days, Charles Monteith read tatty submissions like William Golding’s—what was later called—The Lord of the Flies. Charles Monteith took a tolerant view of the manuscript which was yellowing at the edges and contained, I believe, rejection letters from other publishing houses (see John Carey’s William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies).

Today, a typographical error in a submission might be excuse enough for the editor to cast it aside. How nervous we, unpublished writers, are when we package up our submissions. We don’t feel we can use an envelope that, although unused, is creased. We certainly can’t send out a submission for a second time because it is slightly dog-eared. Oh no, we have written the editor’s address aslant. Should we write it out again on another envelope?

Never before has so much advice on how to write been given to so many who have paid so much for it. And yet all the advice, the master classes, and the MA courses do not result in publishable material. And these unpublished writers persist in learning nothing and continue to inundate editors with stuff that belongs more on a manure than a slush pile. Can this be true?

Are all these writers really so hopeless and so unteachable? Are there so many of them? If I am competing with people who write: ‘She bit her lower lip and licked her upper lip’*,  why aren’t editors delighted to see something as sane as my sample chapters?

Seeing is believing. Would any editors dare to allow me to look at their slush piles?

*‘She bit her lower lip and licked her upper lip’—cited in publishing parody ‘Happiness’ as an example of a typically awful slush pile line. Anna Frame (Acting Head of Publicity at Canongate) on Twitter  (@annaframe,  3rd January last)

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