The Beholder’s Eye

We’re told beauty is in the beholder’s eye, but awful book covers exist and, for a peculiar reason, a high proportion of poor art has appeared on romance books. I’m glad to report this trend is shifting and, as with the content, many covers reflect a discerning audience; good news for writers and readers.

If you’ve not read a romance in a while, they have changed. Aside from classic literature from authors such as Bronte or Austen (my first literary introduction to a romantic heroine was Jane Eyre), most young girls of my generation had their first taste of romance in the form of a Mills and Boon’s book. At age fourteen or fifteen, this gave girls a perverse view of romance and of what men expected of women. For those that love such books, I’m not knocking them. There are many good examples and they are intended to be fantasies.

I’m referring more to a sign of the times and of how things have evolved from when I was a teenager. As a friend exclaimed there was never an erection in a Mills and Boon’s when she was young, and while I am sure that despite our feminist backbones, many women appreciate the image of a handsome man sweeping them off their feet, these days it’s more a case of mutual support. Today’s heroines are as likely to pick up a baseball bat, or gun, or sword, or high-power laser particle whangamado gadget in defence of their man should the need require they take action. Heroines and their heroes now stand together (or a hero with a hero, and a heroine with a heroine or whatever combination one wishes), as, in an ideal world, love should conquer ‘all’. In love, both parties fall at the feet of the other. Equality is the key and, even in surrender, both can stay equal.

This new era of romance crosses age, class-distinctions, social taboos, even universes, for it crosses genres. If you look for the animal in your man or woman, you will find them in the form of vamps and shape-shifters of every description. Whether you read sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or westerns, if you can think of it, likely there’s a romance to suit your tastes. These stories now contain adventure, danger, excitement, and a soupcon of erotica.

What has this to do with the cover? From the writer’s point of view, one of promotion. People often ‘do’ judge a book by its cover. What caught my attention was during an author chat someone raised the question how do authors ‘choose’ their covers. The simple answer is that they don’t, and this goes for all genres. Sometimes, an author may even face having their beloved title changed, either for better promotional purposes, or, in a case of a publisher having two books with the same title, a wish not to confuse readers; they will ask the second writer to choose another option, but I have heard cases of publishers doing so without consultation.

The same applies to book covers. many publishers will do their utmost to create something pleasing to both the author and the expected readership. Others… well, even with the best of intentions mistakes happen, and, depending on the company’s policy, the author may have no say, no comeback, not even see a preview of the work before publication, which can lead to proofreading errors that are beyond the writer’s control.

Fortunately, many reputable publishers consider their authors’ feelings. A poor cover is terrible news for everyone — the publisher wants a book to sell as much as the author does. Mostly, yes, a good cover can be a good indicator, but, making a decision purely on what the eye sees is risky. I’ve discovered treasures hiding under awful wrapping paper and some dreadful works presented with spectacular artwork.

My Emotional Arsenal

I may surprise many people by saying I’m not listing talent as the most important writing skill. The topmost item on my list is an Emotional Arsenal.

There’s an advert doing the rounds in the UK at the moment staring Claudia Winkleman promoting her use of Head and Shoulders Shampoo. In this advertisement, Claudia reads out some tweets including one that refers to her as an annoying personality vacuum. She jokes this off as if it means nothing. Maybe the tweet hurt, maybe it didn’t. I don’t care what shampoo she uses and I refuse to address any issues people may or may not have with her personality. I would like to think the tweet meant as little to her as it appears to in the ad because that’s the foremost skill anyone who does a job that draws public attention needs to learn. James Scott Bell refers to it as Rhino Skin.

Seriously, every writer must grow a thick skin. If rejection and harsh words are upsetting the publishing world may not be worth the grind. If the potential writer is a person who can only moderately handle criticism, then the thick skin required may develop, but the sooner the better is the only true advice. The writer will always face criticism at every stage—from editors, from readers, from critics and reviewers. One thing I admire J.K.Rowling for the most was saying she wasn’t taking dictation. Critique (as opposed to criticism) can be invaluable, but it’s best to learn to temper feedback with one’s own judgement. The writer should not allow every negative comment to influence the work. Train one’s reaction to meet negativity with determination.

Having said all that, I will contradict myself a little. You don’t ‘have’ to read reviews for your book. You’re allowed to take a break from the outside world and its influences. A negative review can be a good learning experience but if you find one particular place online has a habit of being a cesspit of negativity not only on your book but on others, it may not be the best place to hang out. If you receive nine glowing reviews but a tenth accuses you of being talentless and your book as best used as toilet paper, keep in the mind the internet is peppered by trolls—people who thrive on giving other people a day as black as their souls. Common sense is key here. Don’t take everything to heart and learn to recognise what is truth and what is not. That which is personal bias. Bigotry. And that which is plain meanness.

That’s another requirement on my list. The writer needs determination. Also, patience. These three things may be the most important for the writer’s Emotional Arsenal. Make that four. I will add discipline. The writer must make time for writing, and in an already busy life that can seem impossible. Writers face deadlines.

However, the writer who constructs an unbreakable emotional barrier may risk cutting themselves off from facing their work with honesty. Although I said grow a thick skin, in a way only practice and experience can teach the writer to deal with negativity and change it into something positive. It’s taken me time to learn how to flip a switch in my head from a writer to an editor, and it’s an ongoing process of learning, but I face my draft as a writer, my manuscript and all that comes after as an editor.

Be willing to learn—from courses, from writing know-how books, from reading material, from editors, and yes, also readers…. all to a point. Don’t get so wrapped up in these things they become more important than writing itself, but don’t dismiss them. In a flooded market there are as many ‘how-to’ books as wannabe writers, but there are good volumes out there. Be willing to study and to learn, always.

The Passive Argument makes me Tense

I’m back from a week away and my workload is overflowing so for a quick blog this week, I thought to draw attention to a brilliant ‘rant’ on the often abused word ‘was’ and the mistaken disuse of so-called passive voice. Incidentally, the ‘rule’ on passive in the UK is not to overuse, but no one EVER tells a writer to eliminate it here precisely for these reasons: http://pcwrede.com/blog/misunderstanding-grammar/

The ‘To and Fro’ of Writing

If the dream of being a published author includes the ‘hideaway’ at the bottom of the perfect garden in full bloom on a summer’s day with bees buzzing between the flowers, think again.

When the vision is of a long desk with a deep leather chair set in front of a panoramic window showing the view of the beach and a long stretch of sand leading to the palest blue water ever seen, my advice is to reconsider.

If the picture is of the writer tapping away at the keyboard, making notes on paper, taking the occasional call from his or her agent and smiling in ill-disguised pleasure over a glass of wine at the end of a writing day while reading the latest heartwarming review over the last release, alter those ideas.

Most published authors still need to work on a part-time if not full-time basis. Even if they can write full-time, life isn’t all roses and champagne.

I haven’t blogged about writing for a while so thought this was an apt post. My teenage dream was not as fanciful, and mostly composed of finishing a single work, sending it away, having it edited, published, and while…yes, maybe having to attend books signings, working on the next novel. I never envisioned the back and forth, to and fro, hop from one foot to the other, mental swings and roundabouts of working on several stories at once.

I’ve edits on one work and have to return the galley proof to a deadline, trying to write a full novel (to a personal deadline), trying to write/edit a short story that’s needed ASAP, and trying to draft a proposal for yet another idea for a potential novel. Oh…and I’d also like to be working on a few short stories I’m considering sending out and/or putting together in an anthology. There are many pitfalls linked to the dream of becoming a published author, many of which no one warns about, and working on more than one project simultaneously is one.

I’m not even going to pretend to enjoy it. On the rare and fortunate occasions when the work flows the last thing a writer wants is to have that stream interrupted, to throw a mental switch, and to perform a intellectual feat of dexterity. That’s what makes leaving a story at long last nagging to be written to rest, to work on something you’ve possibly read and edited thirty times, so torturous.

Sometimes I read something I wish I’d written myself. Often it’s a book. This time it’s a blog. No one can express what I’m trying to put across more than this post by author Kate Douglas. It’s an oldie but goodie so I’ll let her speak for writers everywhere:http://lisapietsch.com/2010/04/20/kate-douglas-delivers-the-essential-author-101/

Why order direct?

On a weekend when I’m removing my Loose Id books owing to the publisher closing, a post on book sales is timely.

Sales are down. Not just my sales. Author sales. Book sales. There’s been many recent reports revealing the average income for a writer to be low. This one from the Guardian dated 2016 reports British authors’ annual income below minimum wage. For many it’s much lower, and nothing has improved. Dear Reader, if you thought writers were in this for the money, you’re mistaken.

What can help is in-house sales, but they are down the most. Print books tend to go out to distribution, a.k.a. shops. I’ll be simplifying here so figures will not be accurate but to provide a basic idea, let’s say the author gets a usual 7-10% on a print book. Often that’s not even on the cover price; not unless sold through the publisher. (Don’t forget possible taxes but that’s another subject I won’t throw into the equation for this post.)

As a rough example, let’s say we’re walking into a high street shop that sells printed books. In my imaginary store I’m setting the cover price of all the paperbacks at a cosy £5. Now if the shop takes £2 of a book’s cover price of £5, this means the profit (£3) shared by the publisher and writer is 90% to the publisher and 10% to the author. My maths may not be wonderful, but even I can say that’s £2.70 and 30p respectively.

To many this likely sounds like a lot less per book than they were expecting, but what if we’re talking about an £18 hardback? These figures get a lot larger as does the discrepancy between them.

If my father were alive, he would say a million x 30p is a lot of money but he was under the mistaken assumption authors automatically sell books in these kinds of numbers. In reality, many books never sell more than 500 copies or fewer.

I’m not saying don’t buy from bookshops. I’m saying do. I’m one of those who hates the disappearance of the high street bookshop, and these shops may well take £6 (often more) of an £18 book, but they have heavier overheads and can’t discount the same way as supermarket chains.

Electronic books tend to earn the writer a larger cut, anything from 25 to 50% is average with some markets. For our purposes, let’s set the author’s cut at the highest end of the scale at 50%.

If sold in-house this means on a £5 e-book the writer and publisher split the price so a nice £2.50 each. A big difference for the writer, though maybe not so great for the publisher, but, don’t forget, on a lower percentage, the split might be £1.25 to the writer and £3.75 to the publisher. A big difference to both. Still, don’t overlook the fact, if electronic books are sent out via a distributor the company will still take their cut the same as any bookstore would, and this can vary tremendously.

On an e-book the online retailer may take 35% or more. £5 – 35% = £3.25. Divided by 2 = £1.60 each to the writer and publisher. Right away both parties have lost 90p profit on a book had it sold in-house.

If the percentage taken by the retailer is higher, the potential ‘loss’ on the cover price to the writer AND the publisher can spell disaster, particularly when you take tax and other expenses into account. I know I said I wouldn’t mention those, and I won’t, but I will add books sold abroad will also be subject to the potential loss of earnings based on the exchange rate. For me, a book sold in dollars has on occasion suffered another hefty 50% chop on exchange.

In that scenario, you’ve got 100% minus 35% to the distributor, equals 65% divided 50/50 between writer and publisher, equals 32.5% to each, minus the exchange means my 50% is down to 19 to or 16% of the cover price.

Switching dollars over to pounds to make this more accessible: $5 – 35% = $3.25 divided by 50% = approximately $1.62 each to the publisher and writer, with a 40 to 50% lost on exchange = 97p to 81p earned by the author on say 500 copies means the writer may earn approximately £400 on one title or less. Divide that by the amount of man hours put in to write the book let alone go through the editing process and the hourly rate is pitiful.

To those who say e-books cost nothing to produce, they are wrong. To those who question why many writers at least consider ‘going it alone’ (not without its problems) there are reasons I’ll address another time.

Almost all e-book sales going to a certain one-click online retailer is putting publishers out of business. Buying direct helps keeps these publishers and writers afloat.

And here is where it becomes necessary to point out to anyone who owns a reader suitable files are available direct from most publishers now for all types of readers and tablets, and you receive the actual ‘file’ rather than rent it. Please bear this in mind next time you reach for your reader and buy with a ‘click’ because sales are down and in-house sales the most. This is why Loose Id and many other mid-range publishers have closed or are set to. For many, in-house sales are a sweet memory of a better past.

Not so Warm Bodies

The other week I read a post by Isaac Marion. He’s the author of the best-selling WARM BODIES, made into a film. He’s a success. A writer who has ‘made it’ in the world of the book industry, right? With a film (somewhat based) on one of his books, how could he not? Alas, being a writer is rarely that simple.

As I had already discovered, Warm Bodies is now the first in a trilogy. I read the second title, THE BURNING WORLD, this year after discovering its existence. I include my thoughts on both books below but what I didn’t know until more recently is that the third title, THE LIVING, is burning a hole in Isaac Marion’s hard drive, the author having finished it almost a year ago.

Although the first book was on the NYT bestseller list, book 2 hasn’t done so well, and, unless it does, there may be a no go on the third title. If it comes to that, I can only hope the author will find another publisher or go the route so many writers have to and self-publish (if contracts allow, mind). I won’t go into the pros and cons of that in this blog but I’m using it to illustrate one of the many reasons ‘why’ authors turn to self-publishing and why the perception that indie is purely amateur hour is false.

Not everything is as elementary as writers or readers would like to believe. This is a perfect example of the struggle writers face, of how ‘every’ book is as good as starting from scratch. Akin to an actor reading for a role, writers audition every time they submit a manuscript, and, if expectations aren’t met, the writer may have to climb a proverbial ladder again even if they’ve notched up a bestseller on any of the rungs close to the top.

That’s the truth, a simple, not-so-pretty fact about publishing. Unless the writer is a huge, well-known, consistently best-selling name (brand) often seen in the top 10, their next title will not automatically get snapped up. Even if under contract ‘to be published’ it may get pushed back or off a publisher’s list and, depending on the contract clauses, end up in limbo with the writer in purgatory. And I’ve known more than one writer to be in this position.

One thing I have to add is that I hadn’t heard a thing about the release of the second book or that even one existed. This leads into one of the biggest battles writers deal with every day — the need for marketing, something too often left to writers in the present climate. Most publishers do not have huge marketing budgets; many have none. Writers have even less but the expectation falls on them to get the word out. I only came across the second title because the question, ‘I wonder whether Isaac has written anything else’ popped into my head.

As to those books: I first read Warm Bodies about 4 years ago. With my hands on the novella prequel and the novel sequel I dipped in again. First, a word on the film of the book. It’s not bad, but it uses the more humourous parts to convey the author’s much more visceral idea in a too-light way. When I first saw trailers I imagined the book to be a Young Adult ‘popcorn’ story, a jokey hoot. Do yourself a favour; if you’ve seen the film, regardless of whether you liked it, DO read the book. It’s a decidedly different experience.

With the characters of ‘R’ and Julie, the setting is a modern twist on Romeo and Juliet set in a dystopian future where zombies outnumber the living. Even many of the survivors seem dead inside, imprisoned as they are behind their safety barriers. Like many zombie books this is a story that questions and reflects society, but in a skillful way. An unexpected read the first time around, and no less pleasurable the second. The book contains threads of something dark and disturbing, yet enlightening, will speak to some people though not all; I hope it speaks to many. This is not a gory horror novel, not a teen rom-com spoof. Hidden within its pages the tale celebrates life in all its messiness. The story is a metaphor for so many things, the state of the world, the meaning of life, civilisation out of control. It imparts the essence of almost every zombie story and life itself. It’s a book about living.

Where Warm Bodies stopped, the Burning World continues, and the story seems to speak on a wider basis reflecting society, the way we view authority and vice versa, the way countries are run. Maybe because Warm Bodies felt like a complete read I didn’t enjoy this as much, which isn’t to say I disliked it. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, earns maybe one star less than the full score of the first title. I’ll be interested to see where the author is going with this series. Warm Bodies is a book about living. The Burning World reflects more on ‘how we live’, on the quirks of society and how it’s governed.

If you read Warm Bodies and are interested in following further chapters in R’s world then it’ll be worthwhile to help Isaac out by buying The Burning World (and no, I do not personally know the author before anyone asks, but I loved the first book, enjoyed the second, and long for the third).

Amazon Shenanigans

This week I’m simply highlighting some more Amazon Shenanigans. I, too, was fooled by cheap books in the beginning, but this steamroller is now out of control, and is no less damaging. Alas, some writers and even publishers have to rely on Amazon these days, but they’ve done nothing for writers or the book industry overall. I’m not telling anyone what to do, or where to buy, and in some cases there is literally ‘no choice’ but, please, open your eyes. Search online for more related articles.