Saturday, 24 September 2016

Am I selling books or cornflakes? - Lynn Michell

I first heard about Lynn Michell and Linen Press when artist, writer and friend Susie Nott-Bower's debut novel, The Making of Her, was published in 2012. Lynn and I recently found ourselves part of the same virtual conversation and, happily, she accepted my offer to write a personal post about the world of publishing from an independent perspective. I think this thoughtful piece adds to the great publishing debate and I invite you to both add your opinion in a comment and to check out the Linen Press, whether you're a writer or a reader. 

Am I selling books or cornflakes? Lynn Michell

As the director of Linen Press I’ve seen the book trade change over the last ten years from an open space for experienced, emergent and experimental writers to a closed shop in which only the famous, the celebs, the major award winners and writers with a golden gift for self-marketing can be confident of ending up on the shelves of Waterstones, W H Smith and Tesco.

The language of publishing reflects those changes. I’m hearing online presence, marketing, niche, social media platforms and branding. Reporting from a recent writers’ conference in Brighton, Sally-Shakti Willow of the Contemporary Small Press writes: ‘branding’ was definitely the buzzword of the day with every speaker stressing ‘the importance of marketing yourself like a packet of cornflakes.’ Writers were told ‘your novel is a piece of fruit’ so make sure publishers know to place you with bananas or kiwis.’ Sally concluded: ’what I saw through that shop-window was not bananas or kumquats or cornflakes but something rotten, and potentially toxic.’ (

So authors need to market themselves like cornflakes. They must build websites, set up Twitter accounts, give talks in libraries to three people sheltering from the rain, and push a copy of their book into the few remaining indie book shops. I hate to force this on Linen Press authors, not because for many it goes against the grain to chase the limelight but because I’m not convinced that their efforts will bring them recognition or sales. All the evidence from six years of Linen Press’s strong social media presence suggests that there is no correlation between activity on our social media sites and sales. Here’s the reality check. UK publishers released 184,000 titles in 2013. Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown described the figure as “either a sign of cultural vitality or publishing suicide. Of course, it is utter madness to publish so many books when the average person reads between one and five books a year.’ Jamie Byng at Canongate agreed: ‘I think we publish too many books, Canongate included, and I think this impacts negatively on how well we publish books as an industry. It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully. ( So it’s from inside this avalanche of yearly publications that an author must carve out a niche for herself. How many niches remain?

And published authors have to shout over the sales pitches from the self-published book mountain. It’s hard to find recent, accurate figures but between 2014 and 2015 self-published titles rose from 16% to 22% of the digital market. 

In 2009, 76% of all books released were self-published although the average financial return was only £500. ( As Derek Thompson says in an email to me: ‘Much as self-publishing has democratised the route to seeing work in print, it has opened the flood gates without a quality filter.’

It may be that the sheer volume of published and self-published books sends readers to the security of the Top Ten in Waterstones and the other chains. They can sit on public transport reading the same novel as the person next to them. Call it Girl on a Train syndrome.

My authors ask why their books aren’t in Waterstones. The Big Five can throw £100,000 of marketing budget at a few chosen titles leaving the rest to fall by the wayside. Waterstones takes a minimum of 60% of the RRP which makes it prohibitive for small presses who work with costly small runs. We’d be paying Waterstones to sell our books.

As a small indie publisher, it’s a growing challenge to sell the books on our list. Ten years ago Childhood’s Hill by Marjorie Wilson, Linen Press’s first publication, was accepted by Blackwells in Edinburgh and sold so well that for one week it beat Ian Rankin in their Top Ten. Later books also managed a toe in the door because managers, not central sales offices, still decided whether or not to take a risk on a book. 

Jump to 2016. Sometimes A River Song, one of the best books on our list, received a dozen rave reviews and its Costa prize-winning author, Avril Joy, attended three book fairs shortly after the launch, yet still we struggle to sell copies and Waterstones won’t look at it. I sense a further seismic shift towards a limited diet of mainstream-published crowd pleasers.

The three routes to publishing have split and gone their separate ways. Think cornflakes, brand yourself, find a vacant niche and you may hook a mainstream publisher. Go down the self-publishing route if you know how to stand head and shoulders above the self-marketing crowd. Or go with an indie press which occupies the space between the other two. This year three out of six books on the Booker short list come from indies, one a tiny Scottish press. Success is possible. And, as Sally-Shakti Willow says, even without the rainbow end of best seller status, small presses are ‘committed to freedom of expression, artistic risk, literary innovation, and championing new and exciting writers.’

Excuse this final bit of branding. Linen Press, the only indie women’s press in the UK, does read unsolicited manuscripts and we are looking for beautifully written books. Send us your manuscript.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Only writers know it feels...

Only writers know how it feels...

- To submit a piece to a magazine, have it summarily rejected and then find that said magazine has added you to its email list. And then proceeds to email you every week about its other content.

- To get feedback from an editor, pointing out all the plot holes and errors in your book. And rather than feel peed off with them you're actually grateful they showed such diligence and peed off with yourself for not doing a better job in the first place.

- To get to the end of a manuscript and then realise you've left some really important loose ends untied.

- To toil for years over an idea that won't go away, only to find - somewhere near your book's completion - that someone else has just been published with a similar idea.

- To spend a day or more in mental torture over the fate of an imaginary person that you made up, when either you can't understand how they get out of the situation or they don't like what you've written for them.

- To have only two pages remaining in a notebook. Too few to write a lengthy piece and too many to discard in favour of another notebook.

- To move through the world like a thief, collecting memories and stories from those who may appreciate their true value.

Shadow State, the fourth Thomas Bladen novel in the Spy Chaser series, is available later this year through Joffe Books. You might find something here to read while you're waiting.



Saturday, 13 August 2016

bird by bird - Anne Lamott

Many writers know the tyranny of the blank page - and not just at the start of a piece of writing. It's a strange and magical trick to conjure up something seemingly from nothing, and then believe (that's one of the most important parts) in its reality so much that you stick with it and eventually it will become real to other people too. Small wonder then that writers are always on the hunt for inspiration, both in terms of ideas for writing and ideas about writing. 

Every writer worth their salt knows of Stephen King's book On Writing, but recently a poet, Penny Shutt, introduced me to Anne Lamott's bird by bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. 

You can - and will! - find oodles of reviews on life. I'll sum up what I feel are Anne's key messages in a few bite-sized pieces:
1. Write what's true for you. Bleed it on the page if necessary.
2. Writing is not a cerebral process, not entirely. It involves sweat, angst, effort and those master tricksters, joy and sorrow.
3. Writing won't give you whatever you feel life has denied you. Its purpose is to give you a means of discovering what's true for you, finding it within and out there in what passes for 'the real world' and then making magic with it on the page. 

What seduced me about this book was the very material that some critics loathed.* All that 'life' and 'God' and 'emotional' stuff that are universal themes and also intimately personal ones for the author. If you don't like her truth? Tough. That's the point. We can only write our own words our way and then see where they take us. Anne Lamott is both an author and a teacher / lecturer, and both come through the text. She may have earned the right to tell it her way, but that right is bestowed by all of us upon ourselves.

She writes about death and loss and elation and jealousy and all that good stuff that makes us truly human. (Show me a giraffe who's jealous of another one and I'll concede the point.)

It's a book about the process of stringing together words and not only what brings you to the writing desk in the first place, but also how what happens next can affect you.

Here's a link for bird by bird.

* When we start out as writers it can be tempting to look ahead to the validation of publication bidding war, or all those approaches from the film industry. However, writing isn't a substitute for life and nor is it a passport to a different self. That may happen, over time, if we work at our craft, and even then my personal opinion is that our potential is capped by a number of things (life experience, character, time, education, opportunity, connections - yes, for most of us that is a major factor, etc.) that are less malleable to our will than we are comfortable with. But...writing and reading will give depth to ours lives and deepen our understanding of the world around us and the people who inhabit it. When every stranger is a possible character or inspiration, if we're paying attention, how could it be otherwise.

If you are a writer who's stuck, who maybe feels robbed of their dues, or who wonders what the heck they'll do if their latest book gets no further than a hard drive, bird by bird may be the book to seduce you with writing all over again.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Daylight - finishing a new novel

Light at the end of a celestial tunnel.
I know; why a 'new' novel and not simply a novel?'s different. Not better or worse, just a changed experience - like my parents must have felt with a second child. You feel you know the ropes a bit more and you swear that you won't make the same mistakes again. No, you'll make different ones.

This time around I've just completed Shadow State, the fourth novel in the Spy Chaser series. Author Susie Nott-Bower said to me recently, "You must be very fond of Thomas and Karl by now." It's true, and that brings its own challenges. 

Shadow State answers some thorny questions about Karl McNeill's past and Thomas Bladen's choices, and plays with that old chestnut: the same but different. While I'd like to think my thrillers can be read individually there are certain threads that run through them and I started the series with the clear intent that the actions of one novel could have consequences in the next. In the previous three books I've referred to the Shadow State and its goals; this time we get to see some of its inner workings and how it recruits. I have also played with some of the staples from previous books (no, not those kinds, silly). Expect the odd role reversal and false start. Some things remain - the humour, the espionage and the swearing. If you enjoyed Standpoint, Line of Sight or Cause & Effect - and preferably all three - I venture to suggest you'll appreciate Shadow State.  

As I type this Warren is wearing a beta reader hat and Sarah is waiting to find out what happens to the character she named: Theo Pritchard (she can explain that herself). 

Things I plan to do in this window of opportunity between beta feedback, teeth-gnashing edits and submission to Joffe Books:

1. Submit my standalone novel, Scars & Stripes to three agents and three publishers.

2. Reformat the PDF version of superhero club.

3. Look at podcasting.

4. Plan my next newsletter.

5. Smell the roses. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Water Babes - Norman Whitney

It's long been said - and repeated on social media ad infinitum - that every book written in the English language is just a combination of the same 26 letters. However, the divide between non-fiction and fiction has always seemed a robust one. Journalists and other professionals have been known to cross the border successfully, often fictionalising their work experiences and environments. 

Norman Whitney has gone one better by choosing a completely different setting and genre for his debut novel, The Water Babes. I caught up with him online and asked him what it was like to go in at the deep end. 

What was your inspiration for this book?

My inspiration was basically to see whether I could write a  novel, following my successful career in English Language Teaching (ELT), and as someone who is now in his seventies! I wanted to write a novel that was not peppered with violence and murders.

I also wanted to promote my main theme, which is how people – even those of very different cultures, faiths, and personalities – are interconnected, even though they may not think so. That is why surprises and shocks about such connections are such a feature of the story, especially towards the end.

How did you find the process of creating fiction, having previously written textbooks?

Textbooks, especially those in ELT, have to be written within the constraints set by syllabuses, which very from country to country. These constraints affect everything, including grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and types of illustration. Syllabuses were, and still are, subject to fashions in education, which publishers had to be aware of. 

My course books were for teenagers learning English overseas, and each country has specific interests such as guidance on how to study, how / whether to include guidance on study skills, self assessment, and cross-cultural issues. Also, the different weights given to the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening in each syllabus have to be taken into account. In addition, my books specialised in the study of English in different subjects, e.g. history and geography.

Novels are free of such constraints! So, writing without grammatical or vocabulary limits came as a great relief! But there are other constraints such as continuity, consistent characterisation, and in my case, plausibility of plot lines. Adapting to new freedoms meant adapting to new conventions. Sometimes, this was relatively difficult (textbooks have wonderful artwork support which novels usually do not), but sometimes relatively easy (in novels, you can use any tense you want to whereas text books of my sort have very strict limits and prohibitions and different levels).

What was your path to publication?

My path to publication was not easy, despite textbook sales of 25 million. I needed an agent, for the first time in my life. I tried 25 agents, but none were interested, save one or two, who were very complimentary about my sample, but nothing more. I came to the conclusion that unless one were extremely talented or very lucky (I was neither), or unless one were already famous in some other field (politics, pop music, sport) the chances of getting an agent were very slim. Interestingly, several agents (hedging their bets?) asked if the manuscript had already been self-published. My other problem is that, at the age of 73, I am clearly not an agent’s idea of a solid future investment!

So I took the hint and investigated self-publishing. I looked up one or two companies that offered help, and came across Troubadour/Matador, based in Leicester. They have always been helpful, prompt, and clear. From the start, I wanted to give my book every help, and to cover all the bases (marketing, promotion, sales) that I could, and which were offered by Matador. Inevitably, this has proved costly, but since I wanted to give the book every advantage, I consider the expense worth it, no matter what happens in the future.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Yes. One idea is a sequel to The Water Babes. The other is about the closed world of luxury cruising. But I am waiting to see what happens to The Water Babes before working on other ideas in earnest.

How do you go about balancing comedy and drama in your fiction?

It remains to be seen whether readers think that there is a balance in my book…!

But for me, it helps I think to have a sort of ironic detachment to the world about us. I have found that if I tell people that my novel is set around a ladies' aquarobics class, they already seem to sense the comic potential in the basic setting. It’s a bit like setting up a situation comedy.

Add to that a mix of themes such as separation, divorce, sexual shenanigans, and a farewell party, it isn’t difficult to see how life’s dramas and even tragedies might also have their place amongst the comedic moments.

What has been your biggest challenge in creating The Water Babes?

The biggest challenge was how to introduce each character. It is an ensemble piece, (unusually for most novels, I think) and so I didn’t want to have just one dominant central character. 

I had trouble making the opening scenes plausible, because I didn’t want to bombard the readers with lots of names or initial character descriptions too soon. I needed to make space for the introduction of each character’s motives for joining an aquarobics class in the first place. Then I had to combine what is initially a character driven story with what becomes a story driven more by plot, which darkens as the novel progresses. 

The Water Babes demonstrates the old adage that no man – or woman – is an island. 
On the contrary, the story shows that we are all in this together.

The ebook is available as a free download for an introductory period 

Weds 13th July to Sun 17th July

Where can we find out more about your book?

Author website:   

Twitter: @nwhitneyauthor 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Out of character?

If you're a fan of science fiction - and unless you've been living on another planet (without galactic wifi) - you've probably heard about the story / non-story about Mr Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek film series.

But just in case, it goes like this:
- Star Trek Beyond, the new film, will portray Mr Sulu as a gay parent who's in a relationship.
- George Takei, who played Mr Sulu in the original TV series and films, and who is gay and married, has called the character development unfortunate.
- Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script, as well as playing Scotty in the reboot films, is said to have written this development of Mr Sulu's characterisation as a tribute to George Takei*, who is a prominent LGBT activist.

The question being asked is whether this change is right for this character?

When a character is well-written readers and viewers make an emotional and psychological investment. Rightly or wrongly, they have set ideas about what is and is not acceptable, based upon the parameters the writer has set in place and the audience's own expectations of the genre and plot, and their own projections. In a sense, as a writer it's exactly what you hope for - that like Pinocchio your characters come to life.

One of my early reviews for Standpoint said that the protagonist, Thomas Bladen, was way too sissified and that the hero had the potential of being a strong character, but sissy traits just didn't fit the story line. I'd love to know what she thought about Thomas in the subsequent books but I think that ship has sailed. 

Any feedback about characters is useful for a writer - even in the development stage - because it shows that people are paying attention. A good friend of mine suggested Ajit might be more interesting as a Muslim character, rather than a Hindu. However, I chose Ajit's name deliberately because it means 'unconquered' in Sanskrit, as a nod to his essentially moral nature and in contrast to Thomas's ambiguous view of life. In Thomas I wanted a protagonist with his own moral compass that might not always chime with the rest of the world. (And let's face it, who needs a chiming compass?)

As a complete aside, there's a story behind most of the names in the series, but I'll save that for another blog post!

When a character crosses a boundary, whether it's cultural or ethical, or some other line in the sand, it changes them. Sometimes there are valid reasons for it - character progression, a response to a threat or opportunity, or even as an illustration of how much they have lost their way. Sometimes we've simply come to know them better.

One of the criticisms (or delights, depending upon your preference) of the James Bond films was the lack of continuity. Each film seemed to end with an invisible reset button. The Daniel Craig era has changed that now, perhaps influenced by the Jason Bourne series.

When I set out to write Thomas Bladen I knew from the beginning that he had more in common with Harry Palmer than James Bond or Jason Bourne (I enjoy all three by the way). As writers we have to know our characters intimately so that we can write confidently about them. In a sense, the character that the readers encounter is partly their own creation too.

For Thomas Bladen surveillance has always been a way of life.

Find out more about the Spy Chaser series here:

Coming soon (once I get through the edit!)....


He lifted the envelope from his pocket and felt along the wax seal. It yielded, revealing a plain business card with one word, handwritten in capitals: CHARLEMAGNE.

Thomas Bladen always knew that his surveillance partner, Karl McNeill, kept secrets. What he didn't know was where they would lead. 

* I seem to recall that George Takei made an appearance at Redruth Library, which I unfortunately missed. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

A bad business, but enough talk of me.

Every business needs solid foundations.
I try to do many things with this blog, but somewhere in the top three objectives is being honest. This post was going to be about the fallout between me and a client. It is still about that, in a roundabout sort of way, but not the name and shame mud-slinging extravaganza I thought about writing (I rarely act on my immediate thoughts, which is a good thing). So if you're looking for drama, sorry about that.

Most freelancers I know have had an experience of working for a client where at least one of the wheels comes off. The timescale changes overnight; or what you both agreed was proofreading turns out to be a hidden expectation of editing for the same price; or four pages and a bit becomes seven, which blows your costings out of the water; or the client doesn't quite know exactly what they want and you find yourself doing the free consultancy dance, while swearing under your breath - or not, and all the while you're working on trust. Coins in the USA state 'In God We Trust' but that's no way to run a business.   

In this tale of whoa (that might not translate well for the Brits) I doubt there was any malice aforethought, just a set of miscommunications that could double as dominoes.

To begin with, the client hadn't scoped the job and asked me to do it. Well, I say 'to begin with' but that was after several emails back and forth to agree what services and to make sure we had a joint understanding. (It later transpired that we hadn't, but neither of us knew that at the time.)

Logically, I needed to scope the job - at the client's request, remember - in order to price up the entire job. However, that's a faulty business logic. What I should have done is invoice her separately for the scoping work. As the messages had flowed thick and fast I assumed the same would be true for payment of the scoping. And here's where the wheels came off and the go-kart of a project (figuratively, you understand, although a ho-kart project would have been awesome), and it scraped along until it ground to a halt.

My client silence...only for a handful of days but out of character when compared with the previous exchanges. And, of course, I'd now delivered something in expectation of payment for that and being assigned the full job. 

By day four I taken agin them and fired off a blistering 'Where the hell are you?' message, and, more importantly, 'Where's my payment?' 

A free humbug to anyone who can guess where this is going...

When the client resurfaced they were shocked at my tone because none of the other writers they'd remained in contact with for the same job had responded in that way. In addition, they didn't think what I'd provided was fit for purpose - now you tell me! - and they'd had some private issues that prevented them getting back to me for four days.

In the largely pointless aftermath of this wholly unnecessary soap opera episode, I made the following observations:

1. My bad. Quite simply, commencing work on anything for a new client without clear agreement on scope and payment is utter folly. I've rarely used a contract, unless it's to pre-book blocks of time (when I obviously won't be working for anybody else), and I don't always request a deposit. Mostly, that works pretty well.
2. The clues were there. A lack of clarity after 20 messages back and forth is a good indication that a phone call would be better, or a contract, or even a stuttery chat over Skype. Also, the discovery - at a late stage - that the client was still in touch with other writers about the same job shows we each had a very different take on the working relationship.
3. There are few business bargains. I was drawn to this job by what I perceived to be some quick money. In the end, I spent far too long on messages back and forth, and gave a free hour of consultancy, and ended up with zip.

There was no happy outcome for either of us. I wouldn't have been happy to commit more time without payment upfront and the client wasn't happy with what they'd received so far. 

Result: stalemate. And when that happens you need to take the pieces off the board. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

A Vote of Confidence for Chloe Banks

Winning prizes is something that many writers dream about. We can all imagine the excitement of making our Man Booker acceptance speech, or buying the perfect country cottage with our winnings. For most of us, the reality is smaller. We might win a small cash prize in a charity competition, or earn publication in a niche magazine. Winning something, however small, always gives us a boost, but it’s not just about coming out on top. Sometimes, even being shortlisted for something is all the inspiration we need.

There is something special about seeing your work on a shortlist. I think it brings out the competitor lurking deep within every writer. There is the satisfaction of knowing that, whatever the final outcome, your writing was one of the best pieces under consideration. There are the weeks or months of being able to tell people that you are “currently shortlisted in...” (before potentially having to admit you didn’t win after all). And there is the extra desire to win that comes from knowing you are within touching distance.

Since I started writing nearly a decade ago, I have entered 60 competitions – mostly short stories. I have achieved something in 30 of those competitions, but in only a handful was I the outright winner. Many of them did not bring prizes to my door but instead gave me the satisfaction of knowing that I’d been shortlisted – that I was there or thereabouts. I learned more from those competitions – what I’d done right and what had stopped me being a winner – than any of the ones I won. Being shortlisted is the writing equivalent of those steel bands who line the route of the London Marathon: keep going, you’re doing OK, you can do this. Try again.

The first competition I ever entered was the result of a friend daring me to write something for an undergraduate novel-writing prize. I was doing a science degree at the time but I managed to knock out a first draft and found myself on the shortlist. I can still remember the thrill I felt when I got the letter telling me the news. I didn’t win – I certainly didn’t deserve to – but making that shortlist set me on a path. Now, nine years later, I have another novel on another shortlist.

When I read through the shortlist for the People’s Book Prize my heart sank. There is at least one famous name on there, along with books which have already received national coverage or won other awards. What was my book – The Art of Letting Go – doing there among them? But then I realised something: every place on a shortlist is equal. In an award voted for entirely by the public, a quiet book by an unknown author may not have a head-start, but it  does start with the same opportunity as all the others. The competitor in me wants to win; the writer in me wants to know that people thought enough of me and my work to bother voting.

When I stand on stage with the television cameras rolling, and listen to the result of the People’s Book Prize being read out, I would love to hear my name. There will be eleven other authors there who also want to hear their names. Whichever of us wins, the experience won’t be a waste. To be a shortlisted author has given me the motivation and encouragement to press on with my next novel. And, in my experience, inspiration is one of the best prizes you can be given.

To vote for my novel, The Art of Letting Go, in the People’s Book Prize you can go to Your votes would mean an awful lot to me. Voting closes on 10th July ahead of the award ceremony on 12th July.

Chloe Banks lives in a quiet corner of Devon with her husband, two young boys and an overactive imagination. Her debut novel, The Art of Letting Go, briefly hit the Kindle Top 20 list but spends most of its life hanging around, hoping to get noticed. When not trying to get toddlers or words to behave themselves Chloe enjoys wandering the moors, baking puddings and eating chocolate.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Standpoint - now that's what I call advertising!

Of course you can buy lots of other things for the same price - although not in pound shops. You could buy chocolate (and lord knows I've roadtested that idea), but it'll make you fat - or hungry. You could buy a proportion of a coffee from a high street chain, and share it with a stranger. Or not. You could buy a newspaper and depress yourself to the point where you never want to leave your home again. You could pile up 99 pennies and throw them in the air while listening to Nena's Ninety-nine red balloons, but they'll hurt when they come back down again.

Or you could just chance 99p on a standalone, honest to goodness British thriller (with a nod to Raymond Chandler, Victor Canning, Reginald Hill, Harlan Coben, John le Carre, and Len Deighton). 

If you enjoy intrigue, action, sardonic humour and some heartfelt swearing, this could be the perfect gift for you or someone you love. Or someone you think deserves a good read but whom you value at less than a £1 outlay.

Thomas Bladen has been living a double life for two years. True, he's a government photographer. But he works in the Surveillance Support Unit, a shadowy department that loans officers to law enforcement, intelligence and other organisations in need of evidence gathering and discreet document deliveries.

He has his life in neat little compartments: job, Miranda and her family (a story in itself), and the family he left back in Yorkshire. One day on surveillance at Harwich Port changes everything. With an eye for the details other people miss, and a talent for finding trouble, soon his work and his private life are on a collision course.

Can one good man hold the line without crossing it?

Standpoint - the first book in the Spy Chaser series, published by Joffe Books. Come and see where it all began. 

Any questions?