Category Archives: Books

London Book Fair: the view from Author HQ

20180410_123947I’ve had one thing drummed into me by publishing friends: book fairs are not for authors. They’re for publishers and agents, the ones with the cheque-books, to do the grown-up bit about contracts and deals, rights and publicity. Authors, with their dreams and stories, just get in the way.

Well, I have news for them. I spent two days at London Book Fair, met loads of fellow-authors and had an absolute blast. The book fair had an “Author HQ” where they tucked us away with a brilliant programme of seminars, talks and networking events. Organisations for authors, from the august Society of Authors to the engaging Alliance of Independent Authors, had stands, alongside those keen to offer us “author services.”

The talks I attended were excellent and I learned a heap about successful self-publishing, trends in book-selling and buying, audio-book production and marketing. I also discovered how friendly, encouraging and helpful most authors are – just about everyone I approached was happy to chat and to share their ideas and experience. They say authors are introverts, but put us all in one room with a glass of wine in our hands, and it’s hard to stop us talking.

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Indie author rock stars Joseph Alexander, Mark Dawson and LJ Ross

In that spirit, here are the top things I learned at London Book Fair:

  • It is possible to make a living as a self-published independent author, if you write enough books, market them well and engage with your audience. If your plan is to write one literary masterpiece and retire to your ivory tower, it’s probably not for you.
  • Yes, audio books are the fastest-growing sector of the book trade at the moment. But they still represent only 4% of book sales, and they are expensive to do properly. I’ll be focusing on reaching the other 96% for the time being.
  • There’s not just one way to market a book. Although pretty much everyone I spoke to said you need a good email list to drive readership, sales and reviews. That’s high on my (ever-expanding) list of things to do.
  • Around a quarter of book sales are now e-books, and that figure has stabilised over the last few years. Sales of e-readers may be down, but that’s because people read on tablets or phones rather than dedicated e-readers. Did you know that 22% of e-book downloads in 2017 were of books by self-published authors? Me neither.
  • One thing is true – London Book Fair is probably not the place to go if you want to nab an agent or publisher. They’re all meeting each other in the big zones downstairs, fuelling their ridiculous schedules with caffeine and brownies. I’m glad I didn’t go with that aim – it would have been dispiriting and counterproductive.

How else to get the most out of the fair? I enjoyed listening in to some great interviews, notably Kit de Waal being interviewed about her new novel The Trick to Time, which sounds rather wonderful, and to children’s laureate and illustrator Lauren Child begging for children to be allowed to simply draw for fun. I downloaded the app before the show and ear-marked everything I wanted to see, which helped me organise my time better.

I also came back with a nice haul of free tote bags, magazines, pens and bookmarks! As a seasoned journalist who’s attended many vast medical conferences, I knew to take a sandwich lunch rather than rely on the over-priced and average food on offer at the catering outlets, and to ensure my footwear was up to a full day’s walking from one end of the exhibition to another (although I was rather astonished to see I’d clocked up 17,000 steps by the end of Wednesday).

Is London Book Fair a place for authors? I think it is, so long as you approach it in a spirit of  discovery and enthusiasm, rather than as a way for others to discover you. As a one-stop shop to find out all you can about the vast publishing industry, it’s unbeatable.

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In the deep midwinter

It doesn’t feel like winter really gets going until the end of January. December is too jolly, and often too warm. It’s the last week in January that I start to feel winter seeping into my soul.

By February, we’ve had three months of getting up before dawn and heading home after dark. At our rickety office, we huddle around the convector heater, drink tea and eat biscuits to keep warm. This morning, as I gazed out of the window hoping for some kind of inspiration from the same old view of a leafless tree and a street lamp, snow started its soft fall, a teasing flurry that drifted away like a dream.

20171210_093625.jpgI have three survival strategies for winter: books, food and friends. Christmas brought a windfall of the first of these, books to curl up with, food to lay down hibernation layers. I supplemented Ali Smith’s wonderfully strange novel Winter, with Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles – a beguiling melting pot of recipes for the coldest days, traditions, folklore and musings. I also devoured Edd Kimber’s Patisserie Made Simple, dreaming of a day when I could whip up the lightest of French fancies at the drop of an egg. True to form, the first thing I made from Patisserie Made Simple was a short story about lemon tart.

Life outdoors doesn’t stop, however. I took a glorious walk along the Chelsea Embankment one coldly sunny day in January, striding out to keep warm in the icy wind. There’s even work to do in the garden, keeping down the weeds, turning the compost and planning for spring planting.

We dug a few knobbly Jerusalem artichokes from the iron-hard earth in the community garden, turning pink with effort, then walked the beds, deciding – tomatoes did well here last year, runner beans didn’t get enough sun there. We made plans, imagined healthy leafy plants, ripening fruit, untouched by slugs and blight. Last year, we planted tomato seeds on windowsills, on a snowy day in February. Almost time to make that leap of faith again. I notice my autumn-planted broad beans have sprouted – and a day later, that something has started to eat them.

Late last year, I started writing what I hoped might be a novel. Prematurely, I realise – the roots were shallow, I’d spent too little time ruminating, feeding the idea, getting to know the characters. It needs composting with research, turning in my mind, to put out feelers in the dark before it emerges, blinking, in the light of the laptop.

Some of that mulling happened over tea, cake, wine and cheese, at the Battleaxe Brigade’s winter writing retreat. This year we headed for a picturesque cottage in Sussex, with white clapboarding and a log fire. We shared work in progress, enjoyed a few writing sprints, talked until we were all talked out and laughed till our bellies hurt.

Good food (and wine), a log fire, writing and reading, and friends. If anyone has a better survival plan for proper winter, I’d like to hear it.

 

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A midwinter ramble

WoodlandThis midwinter, I’m reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, along with the peerless landscape author Robert Macfarlane and thousands of others on Twitter (#TheDarkIsReading if you want to join in).

The children’s novel, which opens in a very English countryside, on the eve of midwinter’s day, is beloved of many but new to me. The opening chapter is a masterpiece of the uncanny, as ten-year-old Will Stanton notices ominous signs creeping into his familiar, domestic sphere.

Animals are suddenly afraid of him; his favourite rabbit startles away. Rooks wheel above him in the sky, a seething and unquiet mass, then swoop down to attack a strange, dishevelled old man. The farmer gives Will a mysterious gift and warns: “Tonight will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” A more chilling sentence is hard to imagine.

As Will’s family gathers for supper, the snow begins to fall. As one commenter on Twitter observed: “The snow settles. Everything else unsettles”.

This midwinter day in London is unsettlingly mild, although the white sky could presage snow in colder temperatures. Before starting work today, I set out to my local woodland, inspired by the book, for a midwinter ramble.

Ivy.jpgSydenham Hill woods was once part of the Great North Wood that covered this part of south London. It’s a domesticated suburban woodland now, but the backbone of the forest is still there; the soaring trunks of oak and hornbeam, straight and dark in the damp air, raising their bare canopies to the skies. Sombre holly hunches beneath (few scarlet berries this year), intertwined with glossy ivy.

I can hear birdsong – warbling blue tits and robins, fizzing starlings, the mournful coo of a wood pigeon.  More exotically, emerald parakeets squawk, newcomers to these English woods. Deeper in, I hear the insistent drill of a woodpecker, although I can’t spot him. The wood is alive with squirrels, bounding across the carpet of dead leaves and scuttling up tree trunks.

Alert for the uncanny, I notice cobwebs in the fissures of oak trunks, sudden showers of water from wet leaves, the soft mist shrouding the spire of St Stephens church, rising above the trees. I’m heading for the place where rooks gather.

They are there, a few of them, quietly perched among the bare branches, or taking a desultory look for worms on the grass verge. No swirling hordes, no swoops, no restless cawing. It’s quiet up here at the top of the hill. Traffic noise is muted, the mist softening the view towards London, where the glass towers of the city sometimes glitter in the morning sunshine.

Rooks

The shortest day, the longest night. There is no sense here of menace, of the rise of the dark. It’s a slightly melancholy day, a dim, muted day for working and reading. Back home, I’m glad to see the white lights on the Christmas tree, promising company and feasting to entice back the sun. Not long now. The dark may be rising, but the light will always return.

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Listening to Refugee Tales

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Rave in the nave, Kingston-on-Thames

I’m in a church in Kingston-on-Thames, dancing to the joyful sound of a steel band playing Bob Marley. The group I’m with laughs and claps, snaking in a conga-line around a politely-seated audience. I met these people only two days ago. How did I get here?

My story is simple: six months ago I saw a tweet about something called Refugee Tales. It sounded interesting; I went to the website and signed up. I more or less forgot about it until it was time to head for Runnymede (site of the signing of the Magna Carta) for the start of a winding walk along the Thames to Westminster.

For many of my fellow-walkers, this walk was part of a much longer journey, which started much further away, on other continents. Many of them had been through barely-imaginable hardships and dangers, and carried with them the grief of losing country, family, friends, the future they had planned. Their treatment on arrival in the UK was in some cases soul-destroying.

Except their souls had not been destroyed. Indeed, their souls were in fine shape, as witnessed by the laughter, singing and dancing all around me in that Kingston church.

Refugee Tales is a walk in solidarity with those held in indefinite detention by UK immigration services, while seeking refuge in this country.

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Reflecting in a garden in Walton-on-Thames

It’s a profound and simple way of offering a welcome and perhaps forging a path through what has become hostile territory, creating our own welcome for those who have been denied that basic human dignity. Some of the walkers were detention visitors; some were people who had themselves been held in detention. Some were supporters of the cause, or people like me who’d simply heard about the event and liked the sound of it.

We walked together along the river Thames, getting to know each other, hearing each others’ stories, enjoying the tranquil surroundings, the freedom that comes from making our way unimpeded, on foot, to our destination. We ate together, and after the evening’s events, unrolled sleeping bags to fall asleep together in church halls offering hospitality.

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Blue-shirted Refugee Walkers on the move

Patron of the charity, writer Ali Smith (one of my favourite authors) puts it beautifully, when she says: “The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality.” She describes storytelling as an “ancient form of generosity” – and to emphasise the point, when she met us en-route, she read from the Odyssey, one of the oldest of old tales, describing how the lost and weary traveller was met with hospitality when shipwrecked on an island. There are many people shipwrecked on islands these days, including our own. The welcome is not always so generous.

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Ali Smith reads from The Odyssey

One of the many things I learned on the walk was that the UK is the only country in Europe to hold those seeking refuge in indefinite, arbitrary detention. It’s a flagrant denial of their humanity, and one that directly contravenes the rights set out in the 13th century Magna Carta, let alone the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Refugee Tales project is an offshoot of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, a tireless and dogged charity that visits, supports and campaigns on behalf of people being held at in detention at Gatwick by the immigration service.

As well as organising the walk, Refugee Tales engages writers including Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Helen Macdonald and Neel Mukherjee to work with detainees to write stories based on their experiences. The stories are collected in two volumes and are wonderful. They are even more electrifying when read aloud, by the writers or by actors, as they were during the evening events.

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Dinner over, time to chat

In Kingston, I had a chat over dinner with a gentle and courteous young man whose story was being told that evening. Later I tried to imagine how he had survived the shocking experiences relayed in his tale, and remained so gentle. The previous night, an amazing young man told us his harrowing life story directly.

Both of these men wanted, above all, to finish their studies and be able to work – one as a social worker, the other as a doctor. The UK is lucky to have people of this calibre in our country. It’s about time we stopped treating them like criminals.

The first step in recognising someone as a human being is to listen to their story. The second, perhaps, is to share your own. Stories break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Before you know it, you’re all part of the same gang, on the same journey.

If anything can save the human world, I think it will be stories.

To find out more about how you can help, see the website http://refugeetales.org/getinvolved/

 

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Take five

January passed in a blur of protests, marches, outrage, petitions and emails. Time to regroup for five bars’ rest, before returning to the fray. Here are five things I’m going to do in February to keep me fresh.

  1. Plant some vegetable seeds. Nothing says “hope” like tomato seedlings growing on the windowsill.P1040212.JPG
  2. Go book-shopping, in an independent book shop. I’m working my way through the excellent long-list for the Wellcome Book Prize, always stuffed with thought-provoking literature.G Heywood Hill window
  3. Explore the vibrant art of the belle of Bloomsbury. Dulwich Picture Gallery hosts the first major retrospective of Vanessa Bell, a pioneer in life and in art. Starts 8 February.
  4. Bake some cake. I’ve had the builders in, re-making the kitchen, since the middle of December, and I’m craving the warm, delicious smell of a cake baking in the oven. Which one? I think I’ll see which page falls open first in my well-used copy of Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook: Cakes.img_02135: Walk by the sea. For a clear head, wide horizon and lungful of breathable air, I’m heading out of polluted old London and down to the Kent coast.
    Dunes

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