Tuesday, 23 September 2008

B is for Book-Buyers

It is, of course, also for 'books', but I wasn't about to write about that. That would have been silly. We all know what books are.

Book-buyers are Very Important People. When I say book-buyers, I don't mean the book-buying public. Of course, retail customers are extremely important, and I am grateful to every single one of them. Without them, there would be no book industry. There would be no me sitting here bashing away at the computer every day. No, I'm referring to the book-buyers who stock the bookshops and supermarkets. The ones that pick out lists of titles from the dozens of catalogues they receive, and the many sales presentations they sit through. They are pretty much gods and goddesses.

Before I was published, this part of the 'book' process wasn't something that had occured to me. The way I saw it, writers wrote books, publishers edited and printed books, bookshops sold books. Essentially, that's all true, of course. But there are many chains of people in between these milestones, and one key set is the book-buyers.

I've met a few of them. Yes, I was let loose on book-buyers. Quite brave of my publishers, I thought ;-) Headline are extremely good - renowned, even - for throwing impressive parties and dinners - things that make their authors feel like, well, authors. So I was very excited to be invited along to a number of dinners hosted by my publishers last year before the paperback of BLOOD TIES was released. There were perhaps half a dozen authors attending, and the other guests were...? Yep, book-buyers. They came from all types of establishments. Some were from the big high street chains, some bought for the indie bookshops, and some were buying for the supermarket giants. And they all had one thing in common. They knew everything there was to know about books. Their passion for the business shone through the delicious food, the freely-flowing wine, and the clouds of cigarette smoke. And there was a lot of all that.

I was surprised at how young some of them were. Yes, it could be that I'm just getting old, and of course people in their late twenties/early thirties are perfectly capable of deciding what sits on the shelves of Tesco. Several owners of independent bookshops attended the dinners. They were responsible for their own buying, their own marketing, shelf-stocking, and quite possibly cleaning the shop too. They are dedicated to their businesses. They run book groups, kids' mornings on a Saturday, invite authors to sign and talk, and serve coffee and cakes. They exhausted me just telling me about it!

Other book-buyers in the big chains or supermarkets have a very specific job description. Buy books that are going to sell. Buy lots of them, and buy them cheaply. Publishers will present their season's list well in advance - like any retail industry, really - and I assume that stock orders will mainly be based around this and other hype/publicity/future marketing campaigns planned. Meeting with the authors at the dinner is a bonus for all. They get to meet the names behind the titles they're buying, and we can flutter our eyelashes...I mean, talk sensibly about our work and future titles. It's fun. It gets us away from the office/study/kitchen table/understairs cupboard. Oh, and I can wear a posh dress and stay in a trendy boutique hotel.

So, to sum up: Book-buyers are VIPs in the publishing world. They get our books on the shelves. They like nice food and wine. My daughters like them because it means, the next day, they get given little shampoos and sewing kits.

Sam xx

NEXT UP: There are a lot of things beginning with C. Copyeditors, covers, character...

Monday, 15 September 2008

A is for Agent

Look, it's going to buy me twenty-six posts, okay? That is, as long as I can find things in publishing that begin with V, X and Z. Actually, the X isn't hard at all. But you'll have to wait a while for that one.

So I thought I'd do my own publishing A-Z. Knock up a true-to-life, author's-eye view of the industry. Completely from my point of view, of course, which is going to be unlike anyone else's. And no apologies for omissions, errors, or differences. This is what's been happening to me in the business for...well, the last twelve years at least. Starting with agents. Even though A for Anxiety was a close second.

Love them or hate them...think of all those form rejections and nine month waits...having an agent, in my opinion, is essential for an author. Thankfully I love mine. I'm very lucky. (Actually, very persistent, as you will see.) Literary agents are worker-outers, and not just in the financial sense. They work out deals, problems, and make all those phone calls you've been putting off. And they take you out for nice lunches. And stop you drinking too much at parties.

But getting one? It's not as if you can go order one off the internet. Or ring one up and say please represent me. Other agents are willing to take their percentage - estate agents, financial agents, even secret agents are easier to come by than literary ones. So why weren't they biting my hands off?

I've probably written an entire novel's worth of submission letters to 'suitable' agents over the years. Not all replied. Some replied within minutes to email submissions. The average wait for a reply to a submission package of letter, short synopsis and about fifty pages of writing was, I'd say, about two to three months. I hit small, one man agencies as well as the multi-agent giants. And it was always no. No, no, no. If that email pinged back immediately, I knew it was no. How could they have read anything so quickly? A big fat self-addressed envelope through the door? Nope. Nada. Zilch. Always no. Before opening it, I'd kid myself that they'd taken a photocopy of the typescript and were politely returning this one with an immediate acceptance letter and agency contract. It's quite nice to place the envelope, unopened, on the kitchen table, have a cup of tea, and sit and stare at it. Not-quite-broken bad news. Still that hope.

Here are some of my rejections. Just little snippets from letters over the years. I have a thick folder of them.

'I'm afraid that after careful consideration, our editors have decided it's not right for our lists.'
'I am sorry for the negative response but do feel that an agent must be wholeheartedly and unreservedly behind a work if he hopes to sell it to publishers.'
'Don't be too disheartened by this letter. Due to the huge pressure of work, we have to be very selective. We receive 200 submissions per week.'
'We are taking on extremely few new clients at the moment.'
'I'm afraid I don't love the material, so I will have to pass.'
'I wish you better luck elsewhere.'
'I would not be able to place this on my list.'
'I found your material promising but not quite right for my list.'
'I am not confident I could attract the interest of a publisher.'
'It's a dark story, in my view perhaps a little overwrought.'
'I don't feel this is something I could take further.'
'Thank you for your query letter and synopsis, which we have read with interest. We would like to request the first three chapters.'
Thank you for sending us the first three chapters. Unfortunately, it is not up to publication standard.'
'Thank you for sending me the pages. I will be in touch when I have read them.'
'I have now read your pages. I think I am missing something. I was initially stumped by the opening...but then I began to connect...anyway, I will wait to read some more.'
'Thank you for sending me the rest of your typescript. Sadly, I do not feel this is something I would be able to represent.'
'I started to read this with the same enthusiasm I had for your writing first time round...But I found this novel somehow out of date...'
'Clever writing but not my kind of thing, sorry.'
'As explained, I am taking on so few new clients I have to be very enthusiastic before committing.'
'I do very much like your writing but, alas, I don't like this book quite enough to feel I can offer to represent you. But someone else will, I feel sure of it.'

Sound familiar? These are a tiny part of my collection. I'm very proud of them. Many authors say they can wallpaper their living room with rejections. I could wallpaper my entire house. And next door.

Assuming you have a spark of interest from an agent, what happens next? They've read the first fifty pages and liked it, so it's highly likely they might call you up and request the rest of the manuscript. Speaking to an agent on the telephone is a bit like having god pop in for a chat. You're convinced it won't ever happen, even if you do believe.

The first agent I ever spoke to wasn't actually on the phone. It was in Real Life. Face to face. Breathing the same air as him. I'd approached this agent - actually recommended by someone I'd previously met 'in the business' - and he kindly read my work. He invited me to come to his office. This was a very big deal. And I knew, just knew, that I was going to blow it. And I did. I'd been given this opportunity, literally an angel-sent invitation into the inner sanctum of the literary world, and I completely and utterly crumbled. And he sensed it, too.

What did I do wrong? Loads, and it's all too cringeworthy to write about. Probably, if I'm honest, the biggest mistake was that I never followed up successfully with the kind of ideas he was after. At the time, my writing was too experimental for his liking. He represented commercial fiction as well as some very well known TV names. My little offerings weren't for him. He said he saw me, ultimately, as a psychological thriller writer. That was back in 2002. Astute chap, eh? Towards the end of our meet, he asked me: Will you write a novel about a paedophile? I said No, I won't. Go figure.

The next time I met an agent was at a writers' convention. I was writing horror and fantasy, convinced it was where my heart lay. After all, I'd been writing in this genre since I was ten years old. It was a genre-based get together of fans, publishing folk and writers. There were workshops and panels and interesting people. I made some nice friends and good contacts. Plus, highlight of all highlights, I'd booked myself a 'Pitch to the Agent' session. I had ten minutes or so to tell her why she should take me on as a client. She'd already read my material prior to the meet. Nothing scary then.

In fact, it wasn't scary at all. She was very nice. And I don't think I made a tit of myself this time. She even said, if the novel continued in this way (it was an unfinished novel!), then she'd be very interested in representing me. It was as good as a 'yes' for me. I left with a handshake, a smile, and the extra oomph I needed to write the remaining eighty thousand words. A year later, I delivered my manuscript. She remembered me. She read it. Then she rejected me.

That was in 2003. Much writing 'stuff' happened subsequently, including more of the letter-based submissions . But agent-wise, nothing positive kicked-off again until early 2006. I been writing for Virgin Books - two novels - (see future posts for this - probably V and X!). I'd also been in touch with an editor at a big publisher via an 'industry contact' and she was teetering about my book. In the end she said no, but recommended me to a well-respected literary agency. I worked closely with them for a month or two, changing and re-shaping my novel as per their suggestions. They were very good suggestions and the novel was much better for it. I re-submitted and they re-read. Then they rejected me.

Because of the novels I was writing for Virgin books, I'd joined the Society of Authors. Membership includes vetting of contracts. I was at a regional Society meeting and bumped into a writer that I'd met a couple of years before. We got chatting and he said that he'd mention me to his agency, see if they'd perhaps take a look at my current novel. Writers are nice like that.

Three months later, I was sitting in a restaurant in London with my new agent. She'd read my novel (taking only a weekend!), decided she liked it, decided I was right for her list, decided I probably had more novels in me, decided I wasn't an idiot (because now, agent-experienced me didn't act like one) and decided to offer me an agency agreement. Then I got sick and ended up with a heart monitor, which actually recorded on its trace the skip of my many palpitations as my agent rang me to say she'd got me a two book deal. The news is officially recorded in my medical records. The doctors said I wasn't going to die, which was also good.

I should add that my lovely first agent decided after a while that a change of career was in order for her. (I don't think it was anything to do with me.) I was sad to see her go but also delighted to be represented by another wonderful lady at the same agency. In actual fact, it was an agency that I'd approached years before with some of my more 'experimental' work. They sent me a very swift and personal response, encouraging me to approach them in the future.

So, you can see, 'A is for Agent' is very closely related to 'A is for Anxiety'. The moral of this very long tale: Try and get a good deal on discount postage and never give up. They get worn down in the end.

Friday, 12 September 2008

No Spitting

I'm going to start this post with something that will probably single me out as the most obsessive person in the entire world, but writers notice these things. Hopefully at least one other person will comment and say yeah, that really bugs me too. Then I won't feel quite so odd.

So...it's carrier bags. Yes, I know we shouldn't be using them and I'm very responsible and have a large assortment of reusable flowery shopping bags. (Tasteful ones.) And the reason I began using my own? Not entirely to save the planet single-handedly, no - although that is very important. Someone needs to keep the reusable bag factories belching out CO2, don't they? No, the main reason for taking my own bright pink bags to the shops is so that I don't get someone else's spit on me. What's with all the cashiers at the checkout slobbering on their hand before they pluck a plastic bag off the rack? Didn't come off first time? Hey, let's spit on our fingers again and smear some more of my bodily fluids on this obsessive writer's shopping.

I'm sorry. I don't like it. And I told a rather spotty youth who was full of cold (he had the nerve to add snot to the carrier-bag-opening mix) that I didn't want him leaving traces of himself on something I was going to put my food in. Anyway, I held up my own bag proudly while he stared at me, unable to comprehend that I'd even commented on such a thing. And if anyone works on a supermarket checkout, I know it's hard to open the darn things if people insist on using them. But perhaps a little dish of water, one of those spongey things like they used to have in the Post Office, might be more hygienic?

So, let's rise up against spitting on bags. I would start a Facebook group if I knew how (I've been trying to get to grips with it). SASOB - Shoppers Against Spitting on Bags. I mean, it's wet when you pick it up. Please tell me it's not just me that thinks this.

On a far less OCD note, (really, I'm not OCD. Not that there's anything wrong with being OCD of course. I'm just not. I was discussing similar things with a friend recently - you'll know who you are if you're reading this - and I just want to let you know that the towel thing is fine. Quite refreshing for a man to think that way. You keep right on arranging them) Anyway...as I was going to say...I'm still answering lots of brilliant questions over at the Book Club Forum. Every month, they invite an author to come and chat with their members, talk about their writing, how they got started, what they like reading, what inspires them etc etc... and so it's me this time hopefully sounding all authorly and like I know what I'm talking about. And they're a jolly nice bunch of people too. I will certainly be visiting the forum once September is over. And they're going to be running a competition with my books as prizes - so go and join in :-)

School's finally back and the house is oddly quiet during the day. Things stay where I left them; food sits in the fridge uneaten; there's no thud-thud of the kids' music shaking the floors. No one asking me for a lift to the cinema. No one asking for money. So it's full steam ahead and then some on the novel. I so desperately want to let on what it's about, but I won't for now. I had a lightbulb moment about the title recently and my agent liked it too. Fingers crossed that my ed will go for it. She has a knack of knowing what's just right, and she's always honest. Always spot on with these things. I would imagine there'll be a teaser in the back of the Unspoken paperback when it's out...maybe the first chapter or so...more will be revealed in the next few months.

Finally, a bit of clever fun from the blog of Caroline Smailes, author of recently published Black Boxes. Click the thingy below - it takes you to other places. Guaranteed no spit.

STOP PRESS NEWS: I've just seen that the new cover for UNSPOKEN is up on Amazon. Take a look and let me know what you think.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Author of the Month

That's me - over at the wonderful Book Club Forum. I'll be answering questions on the forum's 'featured author' thread throughout September so do stop by and ask me something. About writing. And nothing hard.


Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Happy Christmas

So, who enjoyed the summer?

Today I took the She-Devils shopping for new school uniform - winter uniform - but I also had to buy a couple of birthday cards. First thing I saw in the card shop? Christmas cards. Something is seriously amiss. Maybe there's nothing wrong with the weather at all...perhaps there's no such thing as global warming. All that's happened is retailers have surreptitiously changed the calendar, one day at a time over the years, so that summer is now aut...well, you get my drift.

Thankfully, during the holidays, we spent lots of time in a place of no rain. Andalucia - just outside a beautiful mountain village, away from the hustle of the coast although near enough to indulge in a few water sports, and with a welcome breeze each afternoon. Think al fresco dining, swimming, sailing, barbecues without umbreallas, tons of reading, happy She-Devils and a nearly-seventeen-year-old son who slept most of the time (to correct the deficit of the last year, he said), whether it be in bed, in the pool or on a sunbed. He did, however, stir rather early on exam results day. Bleary-eyed, he asked me to drive him to the nearest internet cafe. So we trundled off down the mountain along hair-raising dirt tracks clinging to precarious slopes only to find that the whole town's internet was down. We stood and stared at each other, wondering what the Spanish for 'well bloody get it working again' was. Not to be outdone by some hapless Spanish road-digger with a wayward shovel hacking through a cable, we blew about fifty quid and half an hour as Ben managed to log onto the net with his mobile phone. As the results filtered in, his eyebrows raised, a smile formed (quite hard to do after only eighteen hours sleep) and he began nodding, as if he might even be proud of himself. Quite casually he told me that he'd hit straight A* and A grades in all his GCSEs. Go Ben. And his English result was in the top ten in the country. Go Ben again. Proud? Me?

Anyway, what this means is that he must have been studying in the Easter holidays and not messing about on Facebook all that time. Maybe he actually believes me when I say it's...erm...a waste of time. But I suppose I only say that because I'm still not sure what it does. I try, honestly, to use it...but can't. I am officially FaceSpatially-Challenged. I just don't get it. I don't want everyone to see all my photos or know what I was doing today or if I'm interested in men or women or what my religious/political views are. Anyway, what's wrong with the phone? Or popping in? Or sending a card? Remember those flowery notelets you'd get at Christmas from a distant aunt and use them all up writing thank-you notes on Boxing Day? I liked them. Which brings me back to cards and the wretched Christmas display in the shop. This year I'm going to call it Deadlinemas. I will decorate the tree with Post-It notes saying 'Will you make it?' or 'Really? Another coffee?' or 'How many words a day do you call that?' or 'Haven't you even thought of a title yet?'. A black crow could sit in place of the star.

As you may have guessed, I have an end of year deadline for my next novel. Well, it's a little after actually, but I like to give myself a fail-safe. I'm halfway through writing this one and as wonderful as our holiday was, I was kind of looking forward to getting back behind the keyboard. It's another emotional thriller, as yet without a title, but it's all hanging together very nicely in my head - all plotted but with enough room left for the characters to throw in a few surprises of their own. I often wonder what the covers might be like for my books and, of course, having a title helps this visual process. Talking of covers, I received a nice surprise while in Spain when my agent phoned to ask if I could approve the new paperback cover for Unspoken. (Out in Feb 09.) So I went to the little internet place in the mountains when the cable wasn't broken, and I was blown away by what Headline have come up with. I knew it was most likely going have a different cover to the hardback and, while I love that cover too, the new one certainly packs a punch. It's very 'thrillerish', quite dark - visually and emotionally - and a big step away from the paler, perhaps more feminine covers before this. But a change of image is good. People do judge books by their covers and, initially, why not? A lot of thought, money, meetings and expertise go into producing them. It's the initial lure for a potential reader. It hints - no, actually, shouts (or should) - at what lies between the pages, and, like everything else in retail, there are trends and fashions that come and go. I love my new cover and it's actually making me look forward to Deadlinema...I mean, Christmas this year. Just two months after that and I'll see it on the shelves. Publishing schedules move pretty slowly - or rather everyone just plans very far ahead - and so I find myself wishing my time away just to see the next one 'out there'.

So, meantime, it's on with nameless novel and hopefully real soon now I'll have a shiny new website upon which to display my new cover. That is if I can still afford the designer's rates hint hint BJ :-) And get off Facebook, boy!