Tag Archives: publishing

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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Hero tips from inspiring publishers

zero-to-heroWhat do you get when you take 11 publishing pioneers and put them in a room full of people who want to know how they did it? The Literary Platform‘s event From Zero To Hero was packed full of hard-won insights, tales of bravery and belief, and innovative ideas.

Held in the hip Rich Mix cultural centre in Shoreditch, the day featured three panel sessions with Q&As afterwards. The first focused on print start-ups, with Miranda West of Do Books, Martin Usborne of Hoxton Mini Press, Kirsty Allison of zine Cold Lips and Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books. They represent four completely different businesses, united by masses of passion from their start-up founders.These were my take-home tips:

  • Write (and publish) with one person in mind (MW)
  • It’s about building a community, via social media, events, festivals…(MW)
  • If you’re not sure who your audience is, know yourself – what you enjoy, what you want to read or buy – and have faith that others will love it too (MU)
  • Offer something unique to an under-served audience (VB, KA)
  • Get the production values right for your audience/price point – a punk DIY look is spot on for zines , but high production values establish you as a publisher to be reckoned with.(VB, KA)
  • It’s not cheap and finance is hard to come by. You may need to self-fund or crowd-source funding. Print costs for 3000 copies can be £4000 – and then you have 3000 copies to sell or store. (MU, MW)
  • Cover and title are what sells, so don’t skimp on those.(MU)
  • If you believe in your idea, go for it! (MU)

Finding the right model is crucial, and the “commission book, print 3000 copies, sell book” model is no longer the only game in town. Michael Bhaskar of Canelo talked us through how to “do digital publishing properly,” with lots of love for the mid-list authors so apparently unpopular with the traditional publishers. Anna Jean Hughes of The Pigeonhole talked about moving from publishing new content to providing a service to existing publishers, via their “fitbit for your book” app; and David Cadji-Newby of Lost My Name explained the appeal of the print-on-demand personalised book (stressing that you have to ‘do personalisation properly’).

The final post-lunch session was a dizzying whirl through the world beyond words, with sessions from Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen of Visual Editions, whose work stretches from books in boxes to radio stories; Dorothea Martin from oolipo giving us tantalising glimpses of their yet-to-be-published smartphone projects, and Crystal Mahey-Morgan of Own It! stretching the boundaries of what a story can be – a teeshirt message, animated film, song, a book packaged with all of the above. After all that, it was a relief to hear her tell us: “Don’t let the tech get in the way of the story”.

Stories are the one thing guaranteed to take us all from zeros to heroes, after all.

Image: Charlotte Aston, @cjmaston.

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Because all writing is re-writing…

Remember how I said, back in April, I’d finished my novel? I meant ‘finished’ as in, the draft I was working on was complete and I was ready to start showing it to agents. So I did that, and a couple of agents said nice things. Guess what? Now I’m re-writing it.

Back to the notebook

Back to the notebook

Showing the novel to people in the publishing industry was both bracing and encouraging. Encouraging, because just about everyone I talked to was interested in the story, liked my protagonist and were complimentary about my writing style. The people who read my first couple of chapters wanted to read more – and to me, there’s no greater compliment than that.

Bracing, because the agents who read the full draft spotted the weak points, the bits that didn’t quite add up, the characters that needed further development. Unerringly, they asked the questions I’d dodged. They were like super-readers, immediately identifying plot inconsistencies or places where I’d stretched probability a wee bit too far. It’s possible I could have worked this out for myself, given more time and experience. But this is my first novel, and I was way too close to it. I no longer felt confident that I could tell which bits worked and which didn’t.

When I began, it was because I wanted to see if I could actually write a whole novel. It was an amateur undertaking, a bit of fun. By the time I finished, I wasn’t sure what I’d come up with. Now I know this has potential – it’s a ‘proper novel’ as one reader put it. But it’s not the best novel it could be. Not yet.

This feels like the point I move from writing fiction as a hobby, to becoming a ‘proper’ writer. I’m lucky enough to have editorial critiques from professionals who know what they’re talking about. I’ve organised my life to enable me to spend daylight hours on fiction, as well as journalism. I have requests to submit my next draft to some serious, respectable literary types.

Which is why novels two and three are on hold. Unlawful Things needs another draft – and this time I feel like I know what I’m doing.

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Seven things I learned at Winchester Writers’ Festival

Writers relax outside Winchester Writers' Festival

Writers relax outside Winchester Writers’ Festival

This was my first writers’ festival and I came home fizzing with ideas. For anyone who didn’t manage to get there, here are my top lessons from the best brains in writing and publishing.

1: Madeleine Milburn, literary agent, on pitching: Get your pitch right, and get it in the cover letter. This is your one chance to grab the agent’s attention. Terrifyingly, Madeleine Milburn gets 80 or more submissions a day. Unless your cover letter is spot-on, your carefully crafted chapters are likely to go unread.

2: Orna Ross, author and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, on author publishing: Approach it as a business, with a team. You are the creative director, but a good editor is indispensable. You’ll also need a designer for the cover and must be prepared to spend a significant amount of your time on marketing.

3: Joanne Harris, amazing author and storyteller (keynote speech), on stories: ‘You don’t have to go out into the world to locate stories – you just have to look at the people around you. In the very best stories, we recognise ourselves. That’s why myths and fairy stories are so powerful.’

4: Joanne Harris, as above (I wish I could replicate her whole talk, which was terrifically inspiring): ‘Writing is like a walk in the woods. I may know roughly where I’m going, but what I find along the way is unquantifiable’.

5: Emily Benet, author and blogger, on social media. A blog should be well-written, regularly updated, consistent in subject matter and deliver against expectations. Ask yourself what do you want to achieve? What do you know about? Does it excite you – and will it excite anyone else?

6: Simon Hall, crime writer and news reporter: The golden secret to becoming a successful, published author is persistence. Practice writing like you’d practice the piano or football. Keep at it till you’re really good. And don’t give up.

7: Julia Churchill, agent, and Jenny McLachlan, author: Dreams do come true! The fairytale of Winchester that we all wanted to hear was how début author Jenny met agent Julia at Winchester 2013. One year later, they came back to tell us about her newly-published book – Flirty Dancing – and four-book deal with Bloomsbury.

I also met hundreds of lovely, welcoming, enthusiastic writers writing in every genre you can imagine, talked until my throat hurt, dared myself to stand up and read my work at the Open Mic night, and came home with requests from two of the agents I met during my one-to-one sessions to send them the full manuscript of Unlawful Things. Winchester more than lived up to my expectations. Here’s to 2015.

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