Friday, 18 April 2014

The View from my Desk - Easter 2014

Beverley Birch is friend and mentor to many slushpilers and published authors alike. She was a senior commissioning editor for Hodder Children's Books and three times shortlisted for the Brandford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent. She is a writer of more than 40 books including novels, picture books, biographies and retellings of classic works and folk tales. Her novel, 'Rift' came out in 2006 and you know you are in the hands of a true storyteller when you read the very first page. Beverley now concentrates on her author life and mentoring new writers through Imogen Cooper's Golden Egg Academy. Follow Golden Egg Workshops for Children's Writers on Facebook

I’ve always viewed the publishing landscape half as an editor looking after a host of authors, half as an author, coloured by my personal author-editor-publisher relationships.

Now, fourteen months since leaving my in-house commissioning desk, I expected my view of the publishing landscape to have radically altered.

To my great surprise, it hasn’t.

I expected my advice for the author looking for an agent or publisher to have changed.

Again, it hasn’t.

So what are the contours I can see? Is anything sharper, more well-defined. Can any predictions be very firm?

Well, there’s one certainty - the continuing state of flux. Social media is awash with commentators, the reading of trends and predictions of outcomes. The truth is that no one knows how to publish successfully in the 21st century’s multiple currents, cross-currents and swirls – least of all publishers. They’re still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of the digital revolution and the birth of self-publishing as a serious player; booksellers likewise are struggling to find their place against the online environment.

Big guns may have more resources, but smaller publishers are more nimble, can react quicker. My bets are on the smaller publishers – and I detect that more of them think the current environment is one of opportunity rather than threat, and have the energy to ‘go for it’.

Jack (or Jill) be nimble ...

But in general both publishers and booksellers are obsessively risk averse. Agents are frustrated about projects enthusiastically liked by editors who can’t get them through acquisition meetings. Editors are frustrated by an inability to commit to books they love, or see their authors grow as their work deserves. Publishers are frustrated because books they believe in aren’t getting bookselling support, because not yet proven. And so it goes on …

It inevitably filters down the line, to risk-averse agents, and authors so obsessed with trying to read the runes that they can’t make up their mind what to write.

And of course it continues to squeeze the already narrow gate to traditional publishing, just as the stream of applicants is in fuller flood than ever before, fuelled by courses, conferences, networks, social media discussion about self-publishing, and the way it has opened the author-life and the writing process to scrutiny as never before. No wonder that people who might just have half-dabbled now begin to have serious ambitions, and dreams, and are prepared to put the work in to get there.

At the same time, the dream is flawed. For traditional publishing and bookselling, there is an incredibly short window of time for any author or book to be noticed and ‘break through’ (achieve commercial sales) If the breakthrough isn’t there, the machine simply moves on to the next project … and the hapless book (and author) is deemed not to have ‘worked’. Publication of any one book is only one step at the beginning … and thereafter everything may still be in flux.

Add to this the obsessive struggle for discoverability – for the traditional publisher and the indie authors alike: yet how can you possibly be heard amid the clamour and anyway, does being heard actually influence the fate of your book? The jury is still out …

It can all be a bit of a tightrope walk ...
Indie-publishing of course has an allure about it: the ease of just getting your book out there and finding your readership. But listen to any successful indie author and you need to listen too to the saga of time spent to find, nurture and hold that readership: much, much greater than writing the books in the first place.

So where does that leave the writer? What to write? How to assess what you’re writing? How to know whether to bother to keep going, or retire from the fray and just write for fun. Find an agent first? Or go straight for a publisher? Go the indie route immediately? Or try the traditional avenues first, and drop back to indie publishing if there are no traditional publishing options on offer. In this risk averse atmosphere, that may not mean you have written a bad book …

You’d think the answers might have changed over the last year or two. I don’t think they have. Here are mine:

Don’t write with the dream of publication as the goal.

Don’t write with your eye on what you hear the bookshops want, or what publishers say they want.

Listen to the voice inside you that’s telling you a story.

Write because you want to tell that story to others.

And (though I say it quietly) don’t have earning a living as the prime reason for writing.

Listen for your voice
Trends and fashions come and go, and one thing is clear, that what goes around comes around, that nothing is for ever, and that what is the rage today is just as likely to wane tomorrow, and what is not noticed today, will be all the rage tomorrow. And anyway, by the time you think you’ve caught up, the bandwagon will definitely have moved on …

In the end, whatever the shape of industry change, it is nothing without the thread that holds a reader, of any age, to the story, in whatever form. Story is still at the heart of it all, and the creators of those stories, and the readers who read them, hear them or watch them. You have to keep your focus on that.

The story is everything

Of course, when you’ve written the story that’s in you – get whatever professional objective guidance you can to help you hone and shape it to perfection: tapping in to the host of networks, conferences, and services now available, to give it the best chance of riding the currents and reaching its readership.

But don’t let that professional world befuddle you about what your story is and why you are writing. Don’t be clouded by the hullabaloo about the changing nature of publishing, and how much you need to understand that before embarking. When all is said and done, none if it is there, none of it works without story, and all that hullabaloo is only about form and the route to put the story in the reader’s hands.

So enter the fray with open eyes. Concentrate on storytelling. Everything else is a by-product.

And any route to the reader is good. And all routes may be different tomorrow.

What a wonderful Easter gift! So many thanks to Beverley for her wisdom and inspiration. Happy Easter, Slushies! Addy





40 comments :

  1. Very interested in what you say about the smaller publisher. Do you think they'll soon have the same respect here in the UK as they grab on the other side of the pond?

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  2. I think so, definitely. They know what they're doing, have excellent editors, tend to commit to their authors, and are more likely not to inflict an albatross of unrealistic expectation onto each book because their business model is more likely to be able to sustain the book that finds its readership over time ... and gives things a realistic chance.

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  3. Thank you for publishing, Addy. You're brilliant at finding fun pictures to spice it up! Quite transforms it ...

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    1. It's a pleasure as always, Beverley. The pics are mere adornment! Your words are the thing, so full of heart and heartening.

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    2. Thanks, Candy and Addy, always written as much for the faltering self as for the outer world. Need to be reminded, or easy to get lost in the dark woods

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  4. Wonderful advice again, Beverley. Like you say, it's hard to stay focused on story amid all the tweets, blogs - and comments, even! But if not a goal, would you allow that the dream of publication is a great driver?

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    1. Indeed it is, so long as grounded in reality, and you don't allow yourself to be pushed from pillar to post by all the advice.

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  5. This was really interesting and inspiring. I know I feel very happy and lucky that my first book 'Girl with a White Dog' has been published by Catnip - a small but really supportive publishers. I do feel they are in it for the long term and won't just dump an author, but work with them.

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    1. And I am sure you are right. Lovely publisher. Congratulations, you are lucky.

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  6. After 30-something years as a commissioning editor, I don't think the risk / safety struggle has really changed all that much. All you can do is to try and spot great original books, and come up with equally original ways of marketing them.

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    1. I agree, but I think what has changed too much is the psychology - the need to have a sense that the risk is on the safe end of the spectrum, and with that there is a subtle, and not so subtle withdrawal of support for the editorial 'eye'. Editors continue to strive - but too often that instinct is smothered under the requirement to 'prove' in advance, that you are right. But no one can prove anything in advance, all you can do is go for it with as much gusto and conviction as can be mustered.

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  7. Small publishers can take chances the big ones can't. And yes, are more supportive. And in my country, the ONLY way to sell science fiction is to small press; the big ones only want fat fantasy trilogies.

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    1. Yes, and in reality everything is chance ... But smaller publishers may develop a business model that allows them to support range and a relatively modest course, compared to the sales results required by the larger houses.

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  8. These are wise words, Beverly! Thank you.

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    1. Thanks, Candy, glad they resonated.

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  9. Beverly presented (a workshop on voice) at the very first conference I ever attended. I learned a great deal and the lessons are still with me today. I feel very fortunate to have attended one of her workshops. For those of you up for some travel, SCBWI Germany will host a 3-day writers' retreat with Beverly in early May.

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    1. You'll have the best time!

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    2. Absolutely. Beverley was fantastic at the Winchester workshops I attended, and hugely helpful in1-2-1s.

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    3. Thank you all! I am looking forward to the SCBWI Germany retreat immensely.

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  10. Great words, as ever, Beverley. I've certainly been tempted at times to retreat from the fray of submissions and avoid the rejection slips, but one thing keeps me going: my firm conviction that a story (whatever form it takes) is only half-created if it does not have the participation, the imagination of the reader. In fact, I've written a book about it! Look forward to hearing more of your wise words.

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    1. thank you, Linda - yes, nothing without the reader. And I'd be interested to hear more about that book!

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    2. I've not submitted it anywhere yet so I don't want to say too much (in public, at least) but it's a quest story, for 8 - 12 year-olds, and one of the characters is able to influence the books he reads. Oh dear, that is less than informative, isn't it?

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    3. sounds intriguing! would certainly catch my interest even in this little descriptions. Keep going, and good luck with it.

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  11. Thank you for putting things into perspective. I think you echoed what Nicholas Allan told me a few months ago - just focus on the best book you can write. Worry about the rest later. :)

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    1. in a nutshell, Chitra, and Nicholas is a master of storytelling so clearly listens to his own advice

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  12. 'The truth is that no one knows how to publish successfully in the 21st century’s multiple currents, cross-currents and swirls – least of all publishers.'
    Thank you, I've copied the above onto my list of inspiring quotations.

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    1. oops, did I really make such a sweeping statement? Nevertheless, I think true. The difference is that some see it as a threatening environment ... others as a time of exciting challenge ...

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  13. thank you all for all taking the time to comment on a holiday weekend, and Happy Easter!

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  14. Gill Hutchison19 April 2014 20:38

    Thank you for this, Beverley. Since meeting you in Lincoln (cup of tea outside the Cathedral??) when your amazing "Rift" first came out, I have been trying to put into practice all the hints that you probably didn't know you were giving as we walked up that very steep hill. As a result, getting published has taken a back seat for me. My aim is to write the most enthralling story I can.

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    1. Hello Gill - I do remember! This is a very healthy attitude to writing ... and will I am sure bear fruit ... the anxieties about whether you are going in the right direction for the 'market' - which is not the same creature as the reader - can be crippling

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  15. Thanks so much, Beverley. You've taken my own muddled thoughts on writing and publishing and given them some sense of order. I took the decision to stop submitting, and concentrate on story, last year and it has made a huge difference to my attitude to my work. It's fun again. Having been so close to being published by one of the big six (or is it five now?) I've gained the confidence to self publish and go for the 'slow burn' adding to my online portfolio and gathering readers as I add more material. There is no advance, there is no notoriety, there's very few royalties (at the moment) but there's a lot of contentment and enjoyment.

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    1. I am so glad to hear this, Maureen, good for you! I've heard too many writer confessions recently - including from some much published - who find themselves unable to move forward because they don't want to write what is being asked for, are afraid to just stick to their guns, because they suspect they will then get no contract ...and as a result are drowning in procrastination, so both they and their readers lose out. I am sure your slow burn will build to a healthy flame if you can keep focus on the quality of your storytelling and enjoying yourself. Your enjoyment will reflect in the story.

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  16. Wise and insightful words - as always, Beverley.
    Like Angela, I remember meeting you at my first SCBWI conference in 2006 and then, as now, your words made so much excellent sense. I despair of those writers chasing the market and I find that since I stopped looking at publication as the primary goal, writing has become a much richer and more joyous experience.
    Wishing you a very Happy Easter.

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    1. I remember well, Nicky - and I have a confession to make - as you are on my guilt list! I liked what you showed me very much, and felt v frustrated indeed at not being able to do anything about it! Very good luck with the current project - and I am sure that one way or another, readers will have the joy of reading your stories.

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  17. Twyla Dawn Weixl21 April 2014 10:25

    I've signed up for your workshop at Chiemsee May 9 -11 and your words here have confirmed in advance that it's worth eating bean sandwiches for a month to be able to attend! I appreciate your sober clarity and speaking to us as professionals even if some of us, self included, still often feel like beginners....

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    1. It will be great to meet you Twyla! Now I will have to really make sure I do make those bean sandwiches worth enduring.

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  18. It's great to read such good, realistic advice, thanks Beverley and W&P. I've been thinking it all over for a few days: my sticking point is not writing to be published, because being published makes it possible to work with a really good editor, thereby making the story the best it can be, and gives the story more of a chance of reaching readers. Writing because we love it is primary, but editing and rewriting a book to the extent needed to (hopefully) reach a professional level is a big investment of time, especially on a book which may never be read. Whatever happens though, I can't imagine not writing ... Brilliant article and such interesting comments too.

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  19. Thanks Notes From The Slushpile, even! Sorry: followed link from W&P & confused the two.

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  20. Yeah, the publishers are really risk averse and many times, they focus more on your qualifications than your talent. I wonder if they have enough workforce to even read the manuscripts.

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