Friday, 4 February 2011

Authors: e-network or die? (part 3 of 3)

Part 3: Where do I go from here? (or, who says I can write anyway?)

'Nuff said (image: Charles M. Schulz)
So, the futurologists (otherwise known as sellers of online services) want me to own some serious cyber real estate, but agents (otherwise known as the gatekeepers to glory and riches) assure me that the writing is everything. What should an aspiring novelist (otherwise known as a manic depressive) do? I'm still not convinced much has changed from the traditional route for a new author; it really depends on that writer's personality.

Those garrulous, social types who, in the past, wrote lots of letters, spent all day on the telephone, and all night at the pub can do so using the new technologies. In fact, they can be BFF with thousands of people they'll never meet. Stephen Fry is a prime example: he would do what he does socially even if he wasn’t famous; he just wouldn’t have two million followers on Twitter.

If an unpublished, non-celebrity author can generate that kind of following, then great; I hope someone tells me when it happens. Claims of similar success in the music industry involving MySpace, such as The Arctic Monkeys, proved to be false.

If I'm honest, I really enjoy writing the occasional blog – it's a bit like coughing up phlegm on the brain. But even if I had the inclination, I just don't have the time to spend cultivating a Facebook or Twitter following worthy of mention. Actually, even if I had the time, I wouldn't know where to start – I'm simply not a naturally social animal. Does that really mean I’m doomed to be left off the bookshelf?

My time is limited because I have to work for a living – long hours, and I’m trying to come to the creative writing party in middle age. I'm not in the industry already, so I can only write in my spare time; and remember, the writing is everything, so that’s my main objective. The second authorial priority is reading. Why would you want to write if you don't read? And if I am going to enter cyberspace, it's likely to be for research.

I have nothing against people who like to build up a friends list the size of Wales, in the same way that I ignore fat, middle-aged men who buy sports cars. But I rail against those who wish to force me to do things their way for no good reason. I write because I find immense pleasure in doing so, but I don’t tell everyone that you have to write to find pleasure. I wouldn't expect someone who enjoys bungee jumping to tell me it’s the only way to have fun; I'd tell him to go and jump off a cliff (bad example).

My advice to new authors? Write. Write what you want, how you want, when you want, for whatever motivation you have. Write it to the best of your ability because that’s what an agent wants to see. If your instinct is to network, then do it. If you're an old curmudgeon like me, don't (people soon catch on and unfriend you).

If the futurologists are right, then we’ll only be able to buy books (and e-books) written by authors who are internet sensations. But I’ve yet to see anyone equate ‘socially popular on the internet’ with’ talented at writing a pageturner’. I really hope they’re dead wrong.

Let me know what you think.

I'd like to thank those agents who generously offered their time and thoughts to help me make sense of this issue. Rest assured, I'll be knocking on your doors in twelve months time with my manuscript. We'll see how bloody generous you are then.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Authors: e-network or die? (part 2 of 3)

Part 2: What do agents think? (or, bear in mind that JK Rowling was turned away by several agents and publishers)

Publisher to agent: "This doesn't look like the menu to me" (image:
For new author, getting published is a daunting proposition. The very nature of the typical writer puts them at an immediate promotional disadvantage – self-doubt is a crippling trait. Then there are the horror stories of authors wallpapering their writing sheds with thousands of rejection slips. Add to that the rumours of slush-piles so large and old that they have their own listed building status.

Simplified, the traditional route for a novel is for an agent (or a sub-contract reader) to receive the manuscript, judge its potential for success in the market, and, if good enough, talk to a publisher who might agree with the proposition. So, where does the futurologists’ publishing new world order fit in with an agent’s lot?

Eve White, head of her own literary agency, said that an online presence would not be the first thing she looks for. She made it quite clear that ‘with a novel, the writing always comes first.’ However, Eve did go on to say that if an author had an online presence, she would mention the fact to a publisher as they ‘are very keen on authors who can promote themselves through social networking.’

Conville and Walsh agent, Alex Christofi, who runs the company’s website and Twitter page, said,’It depends on the kind of book. Non-fiction depends more on profile than fiction.’ Alex gave the example of 59 Seconds author, Richard Wiseman, who has a huge online following and is able to take advantage of it. Alex pointed out a potential downside to having an online existence: ‘If an author has drawn the wrong kind of attention to themselves by spamming, self-publishing or vanity publishing, that’s going to work against us when we try and sell their book.’

When asked if agents consider the internet profile of a prospective author, Sam Copeland, an agent at Rogers, Coleridge and White, was unambiguous: ‘No, manuscript only. Anything else is dressing.’ He felt that having a healthy following wouldn’t hurt, given that it contained the right kind of content. When pushed about whether an author with a large Facebook following might be easier to sell to a publisher than one without, Sam would only commit to ‘possibly’.

Veronique Baxter, of David Higham Associates, said that she would look for an internet background if it existed, but added, 'The writing comes first. If I like a manuscript, a lack of online presence doesn't bother me.' However, Veronique felt that publishers like writers who are clued up on social media matters, 'A good writer, with a good idea and a large social media following, isn't going to find it hard to get a publisher.'

None are fully aligned with the crystal ball gazers’ views, so what does this all mean?

In the third and final part, I'll discuss where I go from here.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Authors: e-network or die? (part 1 of 3)

This is the futurologists' mantra that's being foisted upon businesses and individuals in many industries. The publishing industry is one of those witnessing tectonic technology shifts in business models; first, with the digitisation of the presses, and more recently, with the exponential surge in e-book sales. Now it's the authors themselves who are being targeted for change.

In this three-part blog I'll be discussing whether a prospective author needs a large online following – website, Facebook, blog, Twitter - before approaching a literary agent.

Part 1: Crystal ball gazing (or, if you can tell the future, how come you haven't won the lottery?)

If you pay me a subscription fee, your book has more chance of selling (image:

A tsunami of advice for authors is rolling across cyberspace, typified by FUTUReBOOK’s recent blog, ‘If you won’t have a blog, don’t bother sending us your manuscript.’ Here, Steve Emecz, of MX Publishing, suggests that authors should become a brand, using social media to market themselves. He equates an authors desire to sell books with their willingness to self-promote because ‘good blogs sell more books’.

BookBrunch creator Liz Thompson, using the London Book Fair Spotlight blog, states that ‘social media is not an option for authors but a necessity’, and that ‘having a content-rich website is now de rigueur for established writers and newbies alike.’ She goes on to mention Philippa Gregory, bestselling author of The Other Boleyn Girl, who has a 17,000 army of Facebook followers, and who tweeted an abridged version of The White Queen in the voice of one of the characters.

In her Publishing Perspectives blog, Hannah Johnson writes about online promotion strategies presented at the eBook Summit. She reports that publisher Farrar, Strauss and Giroux has launched a literary blog with the goal of helping young authors advertise their wares. An industry panel spoke about using ‘online content as a way for authors to get discovered and build fan groups.’

Another approach for authors using technological means to advance their sellability would make agents’ lunches with publishers a rather noisy affair. Richard Curtis of e-reads suggests that instead of the traditional discussion about the author’s manuscript, and how it would fit into a publisher’s portfolio, an agent would bring along their iPad to show off the prospective authors dexterity with social media techniques, topped off with a self-made video pitch from the author.

All these opinions seem to be generated from self-proclaimed futurologists or web-based organisations trying to muscle in on traditional publishing turf. Although publishers are running flat-out to catch up with the e-book explosion, I have yet to read from anyone from the ‘old ways’ who says that they need authors to be popular before being published.

In the second part I'll let you know how literary agents respond to this.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The rise and rise of the troll

From their Norse origins as brutish cave-dwellers thousands of years ago, trolls have evolved. First, they ripped off bridge-crossing goats, and then they became ugly-but-cute 1960s dolls. Now they have reinvented themselves in their most repugnant form yet – on the internet.

The evolution of trolls 1: the Jotunn (image: Theodor Kittelsen)
The sole aim of these cyber-trolls is to draw mild-mannered internet browsers into illogical and non-sequitur-riddled discussions causing them to react with uncharacteristic fury.

The evolution of trolls 2: Three Billy Goats Gruff (image:
Initially, internet trolls inhabited public forums, such as YouTube’s comments areas, igniting flame wars and providing oxygen with carefully placed snippets of vitriol that end in chain reactions of thermonuclear off-topic hatred.

The evolution of trolls 3: Dam dolls (image:
Now the trolls have turned professional. The attraction of web advertising revenue has encouraged organisations to hire trolls that have trained as journos to write articles that are full of extreme views, encouraging plaudits from fans and outrage from those with opposing views.

The evolution of trolls 4: Trollface (image:
Current masters of article-writing trolling in the UK are right wing press darlings Melanie Phillips and James Delingpole, both of whom receive extra coverage thanks to indignant Twitterati. The liberal press have their own demons though, like The Guardian’s Bidisha.

The evolution of trolls 5: Uber-troll Phillips (image:
Whatever their persuasion, internet article trolls get as many hits from enemies as friends, but whereas bad reviews would normally end a writer’s career, the paymasters in these cases are as happy to receive the hate as the love - both make the same kerching sound.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

‘They’re not tattoos, they’re skin illustrations!’

I was first introduced to Ray Bradbury’s work by ‘Nobby’ Jones, my English teacher, when I was thirteen years old. Up until that point, no literature had moved me. We read the classic short story A Sound of Thunder, which opened up a fissure in my philosophically barren mind. A couple of years later, I watched the movie adaptation of The Illustrated Man, and once I found out it was based on a Bradbury novel, I vowed to read it. Thirty-odd years later...

The Illustrated Man is essentially sixteen science fiction short stories of varying tone, from the morality tale of The Other Foot, to the light-hearted The Rocket, to the creepy Zero Hour, and the rather pointless The Last Night of the World. The stories are top ‘n’ tailed by the brief encounter between the narrator and the illustrated man of the title. The short stories are ‘seen’ by the narrator in the weirdly hypnotic tattoos – skin illustrations – that cover the man’s entire body.

Is it better to step on a butterfly or kill your own grandfather? (image:

The premise of seeing stories unfold in the skin illustrations is fabulous, but unlike the movie, the two characters have no interaction between viewings - we just get the sixteen stories, one after another. This makes the unevenness of the stories seem odd; they don’t feel like they’re from the same collection. This could be explained away if the narrator describes the unevenness of each illustration he sees before they begin to move. A missed opportunity, in my view.

Nevertheless, there are some stand-out stories. The Veldt, which features in the movie, tells the story of the misuse of technology and children out of control; The Long Rain (also filmed) gives the reader the drowning claustrophobia that visiting astronauts suffer on a rainy planet; The Rocket is a heart-warming tale of a man who buys a full-size rocket at the expense of his business, modifying it to make his children believe they go on the journey of a lifetime; The Visitor shows man’s selfishness and greed in action when a group fight over a mysterious man who can give them their dreams.

'I can feel 'em squirmin', movin' on my back' (image:

Bradbury uses a simple, easy-to-read style of narrative that allows the reader to engage quickly with each story. There are times when you have to make allowances for the outmoded ‘future’ technologies and scientific ideas – the book was written in 1952, after all. There are some excellent dialogue exchanges, and a fair turn of phrase; including ‘back to the future’. Bradbury comes up with a few truly great concepts – some of the stories would have made brilliant Star Trek episodes a decade-and-a-half later. I'm sure Kaleidoscope inspired the ending to John Carpenter's Dark Star.

For me though, this is a rare case when the movie trumps the novel – just. The movie has two things in its favour: one is the increased storyline of the illustrated man and the narrator (Willie in the movie), and the other is Rod Steiger, who brings the character of the illustrated man to life like no other actor could have. However, the book does have more stories (sixteen, against three in the film). If I were to adapt The Illustrated Man, it would have to be a six-hour miniseries at the very least.

The Illustrated Man is a recommended read. It was written during the golden age of science fiction, but is far more literary than the ‘pulp’ novels at that time. I also recommend the movie. Steiger was awarded an Oscar two years before making The Illustrated Man, and you can see why.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Howard's way

Having tackled Attwood, rucked McEwan, and kicked Rushdie into touch, I’m not one for handing out plaudits to Man Booker types. However, following his interview with James Naughtie for BBC Radio 4’s Book Club, I might give 2010 prizewinner, Howard Jacobson, a try.

Jacobson was discussing his 1999 novel The Mighty Walzer, a comic novel with a protagonist very similar to his younger, table tennis-playing self. Naughtie and the audience offered compelling evidence for why the book deserves to be read, but that wasn’t what impressed me.

The Mighty Walzer himself (photo: Jenny Jacobson)
The conversation turned to Jacobson’s early writing days, when he was struggling with a particular novel. He said that for years he thought that he wanted to be a serious, sophisticated novelist writing about the English country home, a subject beyond his knowledge and experience at that time.

Out of desperation, while feeling ‘humiliated’ about the situation in which he found himself, Jacobson just went for it – he wrote a campus novel instead of Middlemarch. In doing so, he found his natural writing voice. On penning The Mighty Walzer, Jacobson said that as soon as he started writing it he felt ashamed that he hadn’t written it already.

The not quite so mighty waltzer (photo:
How he describes the process of discovering his voice matches exactly how I feel about my own work. The novel I originally planned to write for my project is a ‘worthy’ piece set in the mid-nineteenth century. What the hell do I know about poor people in early Victorian London? Well, I’ll tell you – nothing!

So, I have a couple of weeks to determine which of my potential novels is going to offer me the best chance of writing in what might be my voice – the voice I haven’t really discovered yet. Thanks Howard.