The challenge ahead

So the wheel has turned and another year is upon us. Already 2019 is shaping up to be a busy one: I can see the challenge for me is to be one of balance. Three great gods are jostling for supremacy: the gods of creation, of maintenance, and of prosperity are limbering up as we speak, readying themselves for the unholy smackdown that lyeth within the darkest recesses of my mind.

The need to maintain

Maintain

I can’t track down an artist for this. If it’s you, let me know and I’ll attribute you properly

When I envisioned this answer I was going to write about the pressures of producing this blog. But I realise it’s more than just that; it’s all the background of life. It’s keeping my environment from descending too far into the foetid swamps. It’s about maintaining existence at a basic level of tolerableness.

But yes, mostly it’s about producing my weekly status reports that make up this blog. This matters to me; it’s a constant challenge but also a constant accomplishment.

I’m past thinking I’m going to change the world with it, or suddenly pull in dozens of new readers all eager to get their hands on my writing. It’s just nice to have my own little corner in which to ramble, into which I can pour the whimsy I have to surgically remove from my books.

Any help to anyone, any actual information or practical assistance to you, the reader, is entirely coincidental.

The need to earn

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Official paid employment takes up a dozen or so hours a week. But I have recently lucked into a potentially long-lasting stream of freelancing work. This is brilliant. The money’s not, in itself, that great but it has the compensation of being a) something I decide when to work on (within deadlines), and b) interesting.

I get to read next year’s novels now. More, I get a (tiny) say in how they appear. I get paid to read, and to learn.

It also helps arrest my descent into primitive barbarism by helping put food on the table, clothes on my back and nappies on the Smolrus. So it’s mostly a win.

The need to create

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St Matthew from the 9th century Ebbo Gospels

Yeah, so there’s this. I need to make sure I can get on with my own writing; if there is such a thing as ‘the point’ it’s this. I’m a writer. I need to write.

I need to please my publishers by giving them a sequel to reject. I have ambition to do something with some of the short stories I’ve scraped together. I have Brave New Ideas to try and corral into a telling.

One should always be writing. I get the feeling like I’m at a juncture where, in some universes, I’m going to abandon my writing career to move firmly into editorial work. I don’t want it to be this one.

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There is, of course, a lot more things going on than this. More opportunities to push Night Shift might arise. There will doubtless be family crises and maybe even holidays. But, writing-wise, these are the three main avenues I’m looking down.

The challenge is to walk down them all at the same time. The need to earn in many ways comes first as I have to hit deadlines and, with the work being unreliable, be prepared to drop everything when a new opportunity arises. I have to build a reputation and that means doing the job well, on time, and to budget.

But coming first isn’t the same as being the most important. What matters to me as a human being is the act of creation and refinement of my own work. I must ensure that the writing I do for myself doesn’t get squeezed out. Time must be ring-fenced.

My challenge for 2019 is to find a way to control my own destiny. To keep all these balls in the air so that none of them get lost down the back of the sofa of life.

And to make sure the gods don’t sort out their differences and decide I’m the real problem.

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Chasing sales

MB1

In case it passed you by, I’ve been doing a bit of self-promotion recently. Night Shift came out (available from all good bookshops and some really rather dodgy ones too) and I had not one but two launch parties to celebrate/shift some books.

Both these events went well. Better than I could have hoped, really. But there is a truth that we should address before we get too further, and it’s this: they’re not going to help me at all.

Reason the first:

I was given an advance upon signing my contract. Any copies that are sold on the back of my efforts – appearances, interviews and the like – will go to the publishers, not me. Not until I’ve earned out my advance, which isn’t going to happen overnight – and, indeed, most advances are never earned out. Most authors never see a penny in royalties.

Reason the second:

No cash from my efforts is going into my pockets. It’s all going to bookshops and, through them, to the publishers, to staff, taxes, bills and the like. But the money I spend on travel, accommodation, sustenance and the like – that’s coming straight from me.

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The frank truth is that you are going to spend more on an event then you ever see back. Even if you self-publish, and at least a share of the takings is going straight to you, you’re likely going to have to spend on refreshments and maybe split costs with the venue*.

Don’t think that inviting the local press will help either. I mean it will help – you might get the odd extra sale that way. You’re unlikely to get the tens of sales you’d need to cover all the wine you’ve drunk to give you the courage to do the event in the first place.

Besides, despite the best efforts of my publicist – yes, I do have such a thing, I’m slightly embarrassed to say – no local press turned up at either of my events. Apparently journalists don’t like working into the evening.

So is my advice is for you to shun all such opportunities for appearances and remain solely a keyboard-warrior? Hold on there, youngster! Be not so hasty.

First, though you may not get immediate rewards, the more books you sell the more likely you are to get a second book published. You may never earn out that advance, but the closer you get the better.

Second, appearances are fun.

You’ve worked damn hard to get a book out. You’re entitled to a celebration. There aren’t many times in your life when you’re the centre of attention**. Why not make the most of it?

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Sales come from word-of-mouth recommendations and repeated mentions; in my A-Level General Studies course (my only A grade, fact fans) I learned that you need to hear of something five times before you’ll consider checking it out. This may or may not be true but it’s not a bad way to think.

So do events; get out there and be seen.

But don’t do it to chase sales. Do it for the sheer unadulterated hell of it.

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*Okay, I’m sure it is possible to run an event that costs you nothing; maybe a local bar will host in exchange for drinks sales. But the point stands. Even if you have an event in your own front room you’d best provide nibbles

**I realise that, to some people, this might sound like hell. If you’re one of these people – and I oscillate wildly between loving the spotlight and loathing it with a fiery passion – then you don’t have to do it. Don’t let anyone – least of all me – tell you that you must make personal appearances

Money, money, money

Last Thursday I attended a most enjoyable evening at Mostly Books, my friendly neighbourhood book store. It was in the company of some good wine and Ben Jeapes (benjeapes.com), author of Phoenicia’s Worlds, and Jonathan Oliver, Editor-in-Chief of Solaris (solarisbooks.com).

One of the things that’s become increasingly aware to me is the importance of attending this sort of thing, and indeed keeping up with the publishing industry as a whole. Thus my new twitter account is loaded with editors, authors, publishers and the like. Just like maintaining a blog, it seems that in order to make it as a writer today you need to do these things, to be prepared to schmooze, to be forward and assertive.

Which is fine. I’m not the best at this – doesn’t come naturally to me, pushing my weight around – but I can do it. At least on good days. I do worry about what it does for people with more social constraints.

I’m sure – in fact, I know – that there are many good, skilled writers out there who deserve to be published but are unable to do this circuit of self-promotion. Either for reasons of shyness or physical or mental disability or cyberphobia, they can’t push themselves like I can.

And let’s not forget that it costs money to attend events. Maybe not much in the grand scheme of things, but a fiver for the bus/train/entry might as well be a million pounds if you don’t have it.

Case in point: I have a submission package all loaded up and ready to go. Unfortunately I won’t be able to send it off until I get paid in a few days. Now this example is pathetic, really. I know it’ll get sent when I can afford it – no big deal. But there are many, many writers who struggle financially. Should they have less chance of publication just because they’re poor? Isn’t the starving writer one of the most stereotypical images in history?

I worry that writing, like music, like possibly all the arts, is becoming increasingly about money. Obviously, it’s always been so for the publishing houses – fair play. But I fear that we may be seeing an increasing split between those who can afford to play the game and those who can’t.

Back in Winchester, Julian Fellowes’ plenary speech was called ‘We don’t know any more than you’, and its basic theme was that most writers achieve success through good fortune, through plugging away and hoping that your lovingly crafted manuscript/poem/whatever will fall on the desk of the right person at the right time. Later in the day someone (I forget who; it might have been agent David Headley, but please please don’t quote me on that) disagreed, saying that he believes that talent will always shine through.

I really, really, hope this is the case. But even in allegedly ‘free’ set-ups, like making your work available through Amazon’s e-book service, money helps. Don’t people who can afford to go on writing courses have an advantage? Can you afford to have your work proof-read by a professional?

I’ve never taken writing classes beyond GCSE and I don’t have much money, but I think I’m doing okay. So doesn’t that invalidate my own point? But I’m bolshy enough to put myself forwards and – hopefully – make a first impression that isn’t one of abject desperation. Yes, I managed to slip Jonathan Oliver a pitch for Night Shift. So no complaints on my own behalf.

I suppose I’d better come clean and say that a lot of this column is written with a specific person in mind. She’s an excellent writer and for as long as I can remember she’s been trying to get her fiction published. But she’s not one to keep up with the industry and doesn’t have the money or the time to attend events or write a blog. I desperately want her to achieve what she’s been working so hard on all her life.

But I worry. I worry for her, and for all the excellent writers out there who are sick of seeing badly-written trash earning their authors millions.

And with that I’ll bid you au revoir. Until next time…