Monday 29 December 2008

Happy New Year!

... and good luck!

Saturday 27 December 2008

Save the Library, Save the Book

Save the Cheerleader, Save the World was the slogan on which turned the first season of Heroes, the TV series about people with super powers.

In the real world however there is plenty that needs saving - and here's one campaign that should be dear to the hearts of all writers:

Save the Library, Save the Book.

Here's a sad fact: this year was the National Year of Reading in the United Kingdom and yet spending on books for public libraries is down for the third year running.

Libraries are in trouble. Which means books are in trouble.

Not that books haven't always been in trouble.

Technology relentlessly produces threats to the ascendancy of the book - the telephone, cinema, the radio, TV, and now, the internet have all been accused of ushering the End of the Book. But rumours of the Book's demise has always turned out to be exaggerated.

Here's why I think libraries are important to children's writers like ourselves:
  • Libraries create readers.

  • Libraries aren't Borders or Waterstone's or Tesco. However wonderful a bookstore may be, it is still a business driven by profit. If libraries were properly funded and buying enough books to keep publishers happy, publishers will have the breathing space to take risks with new authors, more "literary" books. They will have enough bottom line to nurture unripe talent.

  • Librarians love books. A librarian will recommend a book because he/she has read it and loved it. Not because of some statistic that a sales rep has produced or because a publisher has paid for its promotion.
Having said all that, I recently visited a library local to me where there was no comfortable seating in the adult section, when I asked if I could sit in the children's section, the librarian tried to discourage me from hanging around, then scolded me for keeping a pile of books on my table because they were made unavailable to others (the library was empty).

The thing is, libraries have to change too. I am not just talking about technology or serving a better latte than Borders, I am talking about becoming a place where the young people of today would want to hang out.

Books I Borrowed Last Week:

by Garth Nix

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

The Savage by David Almond

The Red Necklace by Sally Garner

The Stuff of Nightmares by Malorie Blackman

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Save the Library, Save the Book ...

If you haven't yet signed up to the Campaign for the Book, do so now. Go to this Facebook page and sign up. Here is the draught charter as conceived by author Allan Gibbons (Shadow of the Minotaur). Attend the conference for the campaign on Saturday, 27 June 2009 at King Edward's School in Birmingham.

Blog about the situation (feel free to use the image I created above). Visit a school. Borrow books at your local library and post a list of the books you've borrowed on your blog (check out mine above!)

Save the Library ... who knows, the book you save might be yours.

Thursday 18 December 2008

An Action Movie to Make Your Day and Thinking about Book Trailers

So over on my friend Addy's wonderful fiction blog about Wilf there's an action movie to watch in case there aren't any James Bond replays on at Christmas.

Action Movie by Addy Farmer

Screenshot from Addy Farmer's Action Movie. Watch it here

Addy's action movie comes as my other writing pal Sarwat Chadda discovers that his publishers have released a book trailer for his forthcoming novel, The Devil's Kiss. Here it is:

Agent Kristin Nelson over at the Pub Rants Blog posted this book trailer for one of her authors which takes the form of a West Side Story themed MTV rap - very interesting, but probably out of the league and budget of DIY book trailer makers like me and some of my friends.

All this adventuring in film-making is interesting and important if you're an author or author to be, as book trailers are now a must-have marketing tool and if your publisher doesn't give you a budget to make one, you might find yourself making one for yourself!

Rather fortuitously, social media consultant Angela Wilson at the AskAngela: Market My Novel blog, posted on the whys and wherefores of book trailers the other day. Her interviewee Sheila Clover English gave these five top tips for producing an effective book trailer:
  1. Determine what you want people to know about your book and include that in the trailer.
  2. Know what your goal is for the trailer.
  3. Create a measurable goal to check how effective the trailer was.
  4. Make the first 10 seconds of the video the most gripping or interesting
  5. Know your audience and get the trailer to places where you will find that audience Read the whole article

As a YouTube dabbler myself may I add my own unprofessional advice:
  1. Keep it short and to the point.
  2. What IS your point?
  3. Make it funny (unless of course it's horror - then make it scary)
  4. Nobody wants to see ads on YouTube - try to have an angle (I've mentioned this before but Meg Cabot's video for her book Queen of Babble Gets Hitched has hook, arc and punchline and a bubbly, hilarious feel very attractive to her readers.

  5. And finally: make the book trailer something people will want to forward to all their friends.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Desperately Seeking A New Model for Selling Books

I am extremely busy, coping with the pre-Christmas rush.

But not too busy to comment on some potentially industry-changing news from across the pond.

Last month I attended a Children's Book Circle event at which booksellers representing the supermarket, the chainstore and the independent explained how the business of selling books worked.

Here they are being very friendly with each other despite the title of the event: "High Street vs Supermarket - the Gloves are Off"

From left to right: independent, Borders and supermarket. At the end of the panel discussion the three booksellers on impulse picked up some props that the supermarket bookseller used in his talk. The cards read (l to r) "They only take bestsellers", "They get huge discounts", and "They are evil".

I suppose I'll have to report back what I learned: that most booksellers are nice people, including supermarket booksellers who are only doing their best considering they've got such limited display space. That they are all crazy about books and that's why they sell them. If they're crazy enough about a book, a book really stands a chance of success. That supermarkets can't afford to stock losers, chains have to compromise and independents take the road less travelled - they try not to discount despite commercial risks.

I had expected the audience to ask some sharp questions (I didn't ask any ... I'm only an author). But I was taken aback at how docile and polite the editors and publishers were. I suppose at the end of the day, the booksellers hold the whip hand when it comes to the success or failure of a publisher's books.

Well there has been some interesting news from the United States where Borders has accepted to accept books from Harper Studio on a non-returnable basis.

Nathan Bransford, the blogging agent, describes the problem:
The returns model has long been a problem for publishers, who often end up having to print (and pulp) twice as many copies as actually sell, an economic and environmental mess. While it allows bookstores to be flexible with ordering and theoretically allows them to take chances on unknown commodities without being stuck with the bill if they don't sell, some have called the process, well, sloppy and inefficient. It's a system that few people have any affection for, and now Borders is signaling a willingness to tweak the model (of course, at a steeper discount). Read the whole thing
Earlier this year I had listened to Barefoot Books publisher Tessa Strickland describe how focusing their sales on gift shops had freed Barefoot Books from this wasteful tyranny.

Literary agent Richard Curtis wrote the definitive piece that declared the returns model:
As a student of publishing history, I'm aware of all the "death-of-publishing" prophecies that have proven false in our time. But I don't think I'm risking much by stating that the publishing industry cannot endure much longer the way it is being run. The need to change our ways is particularly acute in light of revolutionary developments in electronic publishing. Read the whole thing
The fact that he wrote this editorial in 1992 (just one year after the birth of the world wide web) is a chilling reminder of how long it has taken for the industry to take baby steps towards saving itself. The recent slashing and burning in major US publishing houses led Curtis to republish his essay on December 4 (way before Borders announced the deal with Harper Studio). He ended the re-posting with: "It gives me no pleasure to say I told you so."

But if Borders - a MAJOR publisher - is willing to dump returns, surely, there is hope? Will other booksellers follow suit? Will the practice travel across the Atlantic to the UK? Will this result in a natural cull of the "overcapacity" that characterises the writing world as described in the other day's New York Times essay?

Nathan Bransford writes:
It's going to be interesting to see how this shakes out, particularly if it is adopted in a more widespread fashion. But BRAVO for experimentation in a time when we desperately need to see some new ideas in action.
Which leads me neatly to the story of this one bookseller who has found other techniques of pulling customers:From the blog of Eric Stone who visited the naked bookseller in Quartzite, Arizona.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

RIP Oliver Postgate: "Children are no longer children. With so many millions at stake they are a market"

The Guardian today published a 2003 article by the late Oliver Postgate - creator of the Clangers, Bagpuss (pictured) and Ivor the Engine - on a budget he estimates at £10 a minute for each finished film, a stark contrast to the multi-millions now spent on children's programmes.

Such frugal programming came to an end when:
Then, in 1987, the BBC let us know that in future all programming was to be judged by what they called its "audience ratings". Furthermore, we were told, some US researchers had established that in order to retain its audience (and its share of the burgeoning merchandising market), every children's programme had to have a "hook", ie, a startling incident to hold the attention, every few seconds. As our films did not fit this category they were deemed not fit to be shown any more.
My fellow writers of children's books, does this sound familiar? If one were to replace the word "stations" with "publishers" would this be a fair assessment of children's publishing today? Postgate wrote:

Today, making films for children's television has become very big business, requiring huge capital investment, far beyond the reach of small companies . . . entrepreneurs have to hurtle from country to country, seeking subscriptions from TV stations to fund their enormous costs. Each of these stations will often require a format to be adapted to suit its own largest and dumbest market. They have to do this because, for them, children are no longer children: they are a market. With so many millions at stake, the bottom line is "to give the children of today only the sort of things that they already know they enjoy". Or they might switch channels.

My own assessment is this comes close. But there are too many really fine children's books in the shops to say that publishing is dumbing down. Yes, children have become a market. Yes, children's publishing is under similar pressures to children's programming. But no, the fact that editors are constantly banging on about looking for that new Voice means that good things can still be expected from this highly important industry.

Read the rest of Postgate's article and have a good think.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

My Friend Ed Maranan and the Dangers of Unfed Filipinas

I made a rare visit to the Philippine Embassy the other day. The occasion was a flying visit by my writer pal Ed Maranan, a soft spoken creature with a passing resemblance to the Filipino national hero Jose Rizal.

Ed is an essayist and a writer of children's books. My favourite has to be The Jinx, the Dolphin and the Deap Sea Mystery - a picture book (beautifully illustrated by Girlie Aragon) that would probably struggle to fit neatly into the fixed boxes that sadly make up the building blocks of UK children's publishing today.

While he was living in London, Ed whiled away the time winning the Guardian's weekly online haiku competition. That while at the same time steadily winning the Palanca Awards (the equivalent of the Philippine Booker Prize) year after year for his fiction and essay-writing. Apparently he's won it 30 times to date! Come on, Ed, step aside. Give others a chance!

The reason Ed was in London was to launch a book he co-edited with his daughter Len Maranan-Goldstein, titled A Taste of Home, compiling the "food memories" of Filipino expats all over the world.

When Ed first issued the call to submissions, I had intended to write an essay about my own secret cravings for condensed milk on white bread, spam and vinegar, and tomatoes in fish sauce - comfort food guaranteed to cure any Filipino exile's homesickness. But alas, other things got in the way and I attended the book launch as a spectator and not as an author.

There were short readings from the book by five England-based contributors - moving and mouth watering at the same time. The one I most identified with was by IT consultant Desiree Latimer (who happens to be from my hometown of Davao):
The mystery of the Filipina, according to (my husband), is perhaps not her Oriental charms, beauty, vivaciousness or even her penchant for karaoke. It is her craving for food. He is painfully aware that there is nothing more dangerous than a Filipina unfed ... A Filipina, in a crisis, must be fed Filipino food.
A Filipina unfed is a dangerous thing. So true.

I hope all my friends are paying attention.

Ed Maranan signing books at the Philippine Embassy launch

Proud contributors to the book posing with the Philippine Ambassador to the UK: (left to right) Gene Alcantara, Carla Montemayor, Gina Consing McAdam, Ed, Ambassador Edgardo Espiritu, Desiree Latimer and Catherine Walden.

Thursday 27 November 2008

The Eleanor Farjeon Award and Meg Rosoff On Writers and Real Work

Yes, that is Meg Rosoff of Where I Live Now fame. No, Meg Rosoff is not praying. Actually her reverential head is bowed not over the good book but a sampling of her internet activity on a normal working day which includes Dog Drinking Water in Slow Motion and Obama Lama on YouTube.

This was just to make the point that some people do REAL work ... and that writers aren't those people. People who do real work are folks like Chris Brown, the head teacher who's made it his life's mission to get books and children together.

Chris Brown. The blurry pics from my mobile do seem to enhance the saintliness of this worthy winner.

Last night, Chris was awarded the 2008 Eleanor Farjeon Award for distinguished service to the world of children's books "given to someone whose commitment and contribution is deemed to be outstanding". The spirit of the award is "to recognise the unsung heroes who contribute so much to every aspect of children's books." In his acceptance speech, Chris read a story by Eleanor Farjeon to violin music. Achingly beautiful!

The nominees included Elizabeth Hammill and Mary Briggs (pictured right after the awards), a former bookseller and librarian respectively, who together launched the Northern Children's Festival and then proceeded to set up the Seven Stories Centre for Children's Books in Newcastle in 2005 - an incredible feat which proves that yes, it is possible for entire buildings to be built on foundations of love. Well, love and hardcore fundraising. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Elizabeth and Mary collect their award from the Eleanor Farjeon Trust!

Other nominees were Michael Morpurgo for his work with children in the countryside, and David Wood who has written over 60 plays for children and was dubbed 'the national children's dramatist' by the Times.

And so, dripping with inspiration, let us end this blog post by revisiting one tiny corner of Meg Rosoff's work process:

If you can't see this video, here it is on YouTube

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Sherman Alexie on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and Why YA is So Cool

I just finished writing my chapter for the day and it's total rubbish but at least I've now hit 22,412 words.

That's good right? At least I've laid the bones down and tomorrow I can go over it again with humour and craft and care. So in anticipation, I try to prime my brain with something inspiring.

I thought, what about reading a few chapters from Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Then I thought, Sherman Alexie, what kind of name is that? Is he really Indian? So I thought, surely, there's a video of Sherman Alexie on YouTube. I wanna see if he's really an Indian.

And guess what, he really is. But the other thing he turns out to be is really funny. You've just got to watch him do this HILARIOUS reading of one of the funniest moments in the book. The Q&A afterwards is cool too. About the true stories behind the book, the differences between his adult and Young Adult writing and also his remarks on how supportive the YA reader/writer community is - which makes me smug because that is exactly the world I want to be in.

If you can't see the video click here to view it on YouTube

Tuesday 25 November 2008

John Green on Reading Ambition

Yes, I am not dead. I've just been busy.

But not too busy to share this wonderful speech by John Green (Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) delivered during his recent book tour, about literacy, teachers and our role as writers in nurturing the future lives of teenagers:
This is the business, right? It is not just reading for the sake of reading. Literacy is important. Literacy is vital, but literacy is not the finish line. Literature is not just in the business of See Jane Run. Literature is in the business of helping us to imagine ourselves and others more complexly, of connecting us to the ancient conversation about how to live as a person in a world full of other people. Read it all
My friend Felix (age 15) from across the road, spent this evening appearing and disappearing every thirty minutes, first to microwave some batter in my microwave; then, to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow on my daughter's ukulele and finally, to taste test the prawns, courgettes and egg rice that I'd made for dinner.

As he left the first time, he suddenly asked, "You got anything good to read?"

I wracked my brains. I had just finished Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness - but the news had spread quickly amongst the kids I knew that (Spoiler! Spoiler!) the best character in the book was going to die. Resistance to heartbreak had already gathered apace.

Luckily, that very afternoon, trying to inspire some humour into my own writing, I had dipped into Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan. "How about a talking tumour?" I asked. Felix didn't look very excited. In fact he started examining the contents of my fridge. I try a bit of hard sell. "The tumour tells the kid what to do. There's a lot of swearing." Felix wanders away, obviously bored.

When Felix suddenly remembers that his mum might want him back across the road for supper, he rushes off. As he leaves, he yells over his shoulder. "I'm gonna read it!" "Read what?" "The Henry book!" I was so thrilled I had to encourage him with discouragement. "There's a lot of SWEARING. You've got to cover one eye!"

Which makes me like one of the people John Green talks about:
Too many times, we say to our young people, “Hey, read this. It’s a fun read. Not too serious, you know. None of that English stuff.” As if there is some kind of dichotomy between good and fun. As if Gatsby is oatmeal and vampires are Lucky Charms. Vampires, of course, ARE Lucky Charms—they are magical and delicious and just dangerous enough to excite me. I love vampires, and I love vampire books. And please know that I would never argue against putting books kids want to read in their hands. But I am arguing that we need to make space in our classes—no matter how advanced or remedial the students—for ambitious novels. Because good is not the opposite of fun. Smart is not the opposite of fun. Boring is the opposite of fun, and when we create the smart/fun dichotomy, what we end up implying is that Gatsby is boring.
But Gatsby is not boring. And Henry Tumour is really a lot more than a bit of swearing as Felix is soon going to find out. But I'm confident he won't put the book down once he's realised that it's not just a book with swearing in it. He won't put the book down because it's a good book.

Maybe I should have had more faith and recommended something even more taxing. Says John Green:
The best books are rarely easy, but teenagers love fun things that aren’t easy.
Yup. That's what makes teenagers so cool. And lucky that they've got all those brilliant books still to discover.

On Focusing and Dropping off the Face of the Net

Just got a text from a friend who was wondering if I'd died - I'd been so quiet on the blog and on Facebook.

The truth is, I've been a really good girl.

I have written 21,000 words of my new novel. Helped organize some SCBWI events. And given a talk at a conference. Tutored my daughter for the admissions exams. And sorted out the house.

Nope. Not dead. Yet.

Click on the picture to see enlarged

This is a cartoon I did for the Comixtravaganza online exhibition of British SCBWI - an offshoot of the wonderful Turning Pages conference I attended this weekend (more to report soon!)

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Economic blah-turn: 'My fellow book lovers ...'

The writing is on his forehead: oh how to lead them out of the Recession?

And so it has begun.

The other day, I received a rejection letter that actually mentioned the economic downturn. Here's an excerpt with bits deleted for discretion's sake:
... Alas, I feel this is something I could have published several years ago, but right now, with the troubles we are facing ... this would be a very tough sell here at ...
Dear old Nathan Bransford, the Curtis Brown agent-blogger, gets real in his most recent blog:
Now, first of all, we must remember the advice of the late Douglas Adams and Don't Panic. The book industry has been through worse times than this, people will always read books, books will still be published, and until that changes most of us will still be here.

But any illusions the industry might have had about escaping the recession are going the way of a Bachelor engagement. Read the whole piece to see some very real examples of what's going on
At this point, as all anxious authors and wannabe authors recoil in fear and horror, let me direct you to an inspirational post-election think by agent Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency:
Don’t tell me that words don’t matter. Yes, most words need actions to accompany them. But those little gems of language still rule. And they can change a life - and the world. Read the rest of it here - it's great writing from an agent!
Yes, words bring change.

And of course where can we find the best words? Books.

And that is one of the reasons why we've all got to help publishing through this.

Nathan Bransford proposes a stimulus package for the publishing industry:
My fellow book lovers, let me just second Moonrat and endorse her Publishing Industry Stimulus Package: buy books, and buy them often.

Most importantly: BUY NEW BOOKS
I third the motion.

Friday 7 November 2008

Book Trailers on My Mind

I've been giving book trailers some thought recently. I've just realised that I have two rather talented brothers in the film-making business (one does animation the other is a corporate film maker) ... I wonder if they would do a skills exchange and make me some videos?

While thinking, I was scanning the web of course and discovered that someone has already put up a book trailer website! goes by the catchline 'Know what to read next'. Check out this rather fabulous video for Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, voiced by the author:

While you're browsing the site, here's a geeky thing to notice - the videos from the video-sharing site Vimeo are much better quality than YouTube.

Saturday 1 November 2008

Verna Wilkins and the Promise of Change in Our Own Lifetimes

BREAKING NEWS This morning Barack Obama was declared the next president of the United States and suddenly the world has changed irretrievably . Americans are celebrating, yes, but so are Africans and Indonesians - their connections to Obama may be tenuous, but in his victory, they can suddenly see possibility. And they are not the only ones. "I didn't think this would happen in my lifetime," says one pundit who was old enough to recall not being allowed to vote 40 years ago in America.

After today, In My Lifetime is possible for all our impossible dreams. Well done, America - and good luck.

So I was really really excited to blog this week because I attended the Patrick Hardy Lecture which featured one of my heroes, Verna Wilkins (pictured) of Tamarind Books. It just seemed so appropriate on the eve that some history might (might!) be made in the United States.

But unfortunately the sock monster (you know, the one who steals socks) must have escaped from the washing machine while I wasn't looking and nicked the notebook where I recorded almost every single word.

So all I have to do this without notes which doesn't do justice to this wonderful lady.

Verna says she woke up to her true calling when her then small son came home from school one day with a self portrait that he'd coloured in pink. Apparently the teacher only had pink crayons.

This reminds me of the day son number one (now 17) came back from nursery with a picture he'd drawn of our family. There was Dad, pink skin (which is almost true but sometimes he looks even milkier); there was my son, also pink (which was true at the time but no longer since he took up rugby and other outdoor bone-crushing pursuits). And then there was Mum, as in me - unmistakeable in my glasses ... but with bright blue skin.

Unlike Verna's son, my boy had solved the problem of the missing tint by grabbing the nearest other-colour.

What does it mean? We like to say that children are colour blind but they're not. Yes they are colour blind in the sense that they do not care to judge people on the basis of race like some adults do. But they are NOT colour blind in the sense that they can see!

They can see that they are a certain colour - unlike the teacher who couldn't see that her pupil was not pink-skinned. They notice that there are differences between people - like my son noticing that I was different skinned from him and his father.

And Verna's big point is that so many children in the UK - those with disability, and those with dual heritage like mine, and especially those on the more ochrey end of the colour scale - simply don't see themselves in the books they read.

It is as if they are invisible.

Verna set up Tamarind to redress the balance featuring children in many different hues, two-tone pairs of parents (like me and my husband), and wheelchairs and disability as part of the furniture. In Boots for the Bridesmaid, the brown-skinned little girl in the story has a white mum who also happens to use a wheelchair - but it's never mentioned in the text. The blurb on the cover of her catalogue is "In the Picture".

And Verna sets her rainbow kids in real kids situations.

No, not edgy stories about life on a gritty estate and racism and exclusion.

Situations that matter to REAL KIDS - like losing a tooth, birthdays, and learning to count.

Just because the images feature a range of skin tones doesn't mean they can only be read by children with permanent tans. "These books are for all children," Verna says. Its a mantra repeated over and over again in the Tamarind catalogue - "For ALL children in any environment".

Of course, 20 years on from when Verna started out, things are better. We have Malorie Blackman. And Benjamin Zephanaiah. And after years of Verna hand-selling her books from bookseller to bookseller with a bag of samples, Tamarind has become an imprint of Random House. (Verna, Malorie and Benjamin probably have a virtual monopoly of school visits during Black History Month - which in itself maybe says something about diversity in children's publishing)

After her talk, Verna took a few questions from the audience which were mainly writers, publishers and editors. One editor said, and I have to paraphrase because the sock monster took my notebook: part of the problem is that the submissions we receive do not often reflect the diversity we see in Tamarind.

Verna's response was that for there to be more submissions of this sort, more books had to be published.

As an imprint of Random House, Tamarind now has the resources to expand its rainbow:
Having established its reputation, Tamarind is ready to focus more on other cultures, including South-east Asia, and to develop more books 
for the fast-growing dual-heritage market. Read the whole Bookseller article
But in an ideal world, there would be no gap in the market; no burning need for a Tamarind Books - and no need for Black History Month.

P.S. Writers take note: Tamarind is actively looking for submissions in the area of young fiction and chapter books.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Why Age Will Never Wither Nor Custom Stale a Book's Infinite Variety

Have you guys noticed that the new poster girl for the Sony E-reader is no less than Alice in Wonderland herself?

You can watch Alice shrink and enter the Sony eReader on this page.

Cds, ipods and the internet have well and truly killed the vinyl record. The email has practically ended the use of the fax. If even Alice in Wonderland is willing to front a device that may help hasten the demise of the book, then what hope is there? Is this the beginning of the end for the book?


I was at the 18th birthday tea of our lovely young friend, Ati (happy birthday!) where I came face to face with The Reason Why Age Will Never Wither Nor Custom Stale a Book's Infinite Variety.

At the party I met Michael and Linda Falter who are publishers of a kind unlikely to be harrassed by wannabe children's authors.

Michael and Linda publish manuscripts ... ANCIENT manuscripts.

This is the limited facsimile edition of The Rothschild Miscellany,
reproduced here with the kind permission of
Facsimile Editions Limited

Their company is called, appropriately, Facsimile Editions:
Since its foundation in 1981, Facsimile Editions has become world-renowned for reproducing ancient manuscripts with unparalleled accuracy, careful scholarship and meticulous attention to detail.
We've all probably seen illuminated texts in the dusty glass display cases of museums and libraries.

Well, they showed me one of their facsimile editions, the Rothschild Miscellany, and I wanted to weep. Here it was to hold in one's hands, the minute illustrations painstakingly reproduced, the gold hand-tipped, even the worm holes that get progressively smaller as you turn the pages are retained.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I wanted to rub my face against it but that might have been alarming so I focused on not drooling as I gazed upon its pages.

The Miscellany was a collection of "miscellaneous yet connected texts ... illustrating almost every custom of daily life in a Jewish Renaissance household". It was compiled by a wealthy Jew in 1479. My husband describes it (wittily?) as a "rich guy's Daily Me" of the period. You can read more about it here.

Their latest releasd work is the Book of Esther, and I can only urge you to go to this page of their website and click the green arrow buttons to see the scroll unscroll. The story of Esther unfolds from right to left, in intricately illustrated scenes which change progressively as the scroll unrolls.

Illustrators, behold!
This is the limited facsimile edition of an image from The Megillat Esther, reproduced here with the kind permission of Facsimile Editions Limited

I was devastated to hear that they didn't have a showroom where I could bring some booky friends and spend time with these gorgeous objects.

Seeing and touching these books, it was so totally clear to me.

Books are too fabulous to lose and we should do all that is in our power to ensure their survival in the face of all the realities of the Digital Age.

Friday 24 October 2008

The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride and Us Too

The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride Youtube book trailer
I was going to focus today. FOCUS!

But when I heard about the Steffi McBride book, all the little bits of blogging material that I've been trying to ignore in the name of writing my novel came rushing to the fore - so important to share this, especially in the current downturn. So I've got to just quickly tell you about Steffi McBride and all the other stuff that might be meaningful to the Rise and Fall of Us as writers.

I heard about Steffi McBride in today's Guardian RSS feed which highlighted Andrew Croft's new novel The Overnight Fame of Steffi Mcbride - or more precisely, how the author is using Web 2.0 to the hilt to promote the novel:
But what, arguably, makes Steffi more interesting than your average airhead celeb is that she's the figment of an author's imagination and these tantalising - or annoying - insights into her star-studded existence come courtesy of her updates on Twitter, the social media "microblogging" site, and her Facebook page. Read the article
The book trailer is appealing (a bit long but quite appealing - makes authors want to rush out to the nearest drama school in search of cheap but capable talent to star in their book trailers). And suddenly all that wasted time in Facebook turns out to be an investment in my future success as a writer ... I'm off to friend Steffi now (for the record, her friend count is only 33 at the moment, will be interesting to check back in a few weeks). It will also be interesting to see what FB does to the page. FB took down the FB page of Vern, Sarah Macintyre's wonderful comic creation for the DFC comics, on the basis that Vern was not human.

The article appears on the heels of a series of guest blogs on book marketing running on the agent Nathan Bransford's blog . Bestselling author Michelle Moran (Nefertiti) blogged in two parts. The first part was about the nitty gritty of the business, the lingo, the marketing department, the publicity department ...
So you’re a few months away from publishing your debut novel. Your publishing house has suggested that you pitch in to help promote your own work, but you don’t have the first clue as to where you should start. Or perhaps you’ve already published your first book without doing any of your own publicity and marketing and now the hard realization has hit that this time around, without a significant change on your part, your career is going to end as quickly as it began. Now you’re willing to try something – anything. But what works? What doesn’t work? What should you be doing? Michelle Moran on Book Marketing Part 1
Michelle's second blog was about blogging, websites, online reviewers ...
... don’t be afraid to try new ways of publicity and marketing, even if you’ve never heard of anyone else doing it before. This is what a great publicist will do for you, and what you want to do for yourself. There are so many ways of promoting a book that aren’t widely used, and many of them are free. Michelle Moran on Book Marketing Part 2
And finally, the guest blogger on Nathan's blog today is M.J. Rose (The Reincarnationist), who shares this lovely kernel:
Not even the most brilliant pr and marketing can sell a book people just do not want to read. M.J. Rose on Book Marketing
Having gotten that off my chest, I can now go back to work. Enjoy, everyone.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Tripping the Blight Unfantastic

This is Carol Burnett as Scarlet O'Hara, in the scene where
Scarlet too proud to be poor makes a dress out of curtains. Except this Scarlet O'Hara leaves in the curtain pole.

This unfantastic economic Downturn has everyone speculating about the future.

The Media Guardian actually wondered if there was a silver lining for TV.
Sipping champagne, more than one TV executive said that when the economy goes down the pan, people turn to home entertainment to cheer themselves up.

"Depression time is a good time for entertainment programming," says Rob Clark, vice-president of worldwide entertainment and production for FremantleMedia, home of The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent. "People don't want to go home and be clobbered with dreary stuff." Read more

Apparently rental firm Lovefilm had a 40 percent jump in business since the credit crunch began.

Hey, does that mean people will be READING more as well?

Well, not quite so, based on according to this report on the ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair:
Looking at the numbers, the answer is yes, it already has been. There are fewer exhibitors here than there were last year (7,373 compared to 7,448), and a recent survey of 90 German publishers shows that business was down 3% in Germany over the first nine months of the year.
However, like their TV counterparts, there is much optimism amongst publishers:
But publishers here are resolutely optimistic about the fate of books in a recession - one agent said that "books are good in the good times, and great in the bad times". In the words of Richard Charkin, former Macmillan chief, now Bloomsbury executive director, "banks may crash, derivatives flounder, hedge funds wither, dotcoms rise and fall but somehow or other writers, publishers, booksellers, literary agents, publishing consultants and old bookish friends always manage to congregate for the autumnal bunfight known by the single word, Frankfurt".
It's a good time to remind ourselves WHY we are in this business. It's because we like to write, not because we like money. As Justine Larbalestier (Magic or Madness) blogged today:

I keep coming across wannabe writers who believe that writing is an easy way to make heaps of money. Nope.1 Your odds of being paid good money to write novels year after year are vanishingly small. Most published writers aren’t.

I cannot emphasise this enough: If you don’t love writing don’t try to get published. (emphasis mine!) Read more

And speaking of calamity, disaster and poverty, Julie Bertagna (Exodus, Zenith) over on Facebook posted this link about great children's books about financial ruin!

Thursday 9 October 2008

As Recession Looms, Consider Signing Up for Big Brother

I guess one of the great things about having an agent, is that the rejections come more quickly.

No, really. If you know a publisher has passed on your manuscript in two weeks rather than eight months, then you have room for strategy.

But it's still a bummer.

Even more of a bummer is if your submissions have coincided with this extraordinary economic downturn. If you have been in a coma for the past few weeks, here is a quick video explaining the financial crisis. Because this is a writer's blog, we got Hank Green, brother of award-winning author John Green (An Abundance of Katherines), do the explaining:

An agent friend told me the other day: "It's not just about quickly drawing your reader in. It's about quickly drawing a publisher in."

And then of course, you find out that David Walliams, star of Little Britain, has published a children's book. No, it's not about child transvestites.

You can't even hate him because apparently the book is not half bad (I had a peek at Waterstones and dang, it looked quite good) - he is a writer after all.

We can't begrudge David Walliams his children's book because he's
first and foremost a writer. Look, even Quentin Blake approved.

And you realise that now more than ever, publishers are going to be looking to celebrity to make their dough. And some celebs can actually write.

So here's a cunning plan.

Apply to become a Big Brother inmate. You only need stay for, oh, two days.

Germaine Greer managed to stick it out for six days before marching out because it was so unhygienic.

Two days would qualify you to add "former Big Brother inmate" to your query letter which immediately qualifies you as a B-List celeb ... which immediately also qualifies you as a publishable author (especially if you do something suitably ghastly that hits the headlines while you're in the Big Brother House).

Who knows, you might even sell more books than Katie!

Success is built out of small sacrifices like these.

Monday 6 October 2008

The Great Literacy Debate: What is the Future of Reading?

The New York Times is running a series debating the future of reading.

In July, the NY Times wondered if the new realities of the web signaled a change to reading habits:

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.

There was a video interviewing a family in which reading habits fall along a generational divide.

Screenshot of NY Times Video
Click on the screenshot or here to view the NY Times video.

Today, the NY Times series focuses on video games as a way to get children reading. According to the article, a recent poll by the Pew Internet & American Life project found that 97 percent of children 12 to 17 play games on computers, consoles and handheld devices.

Apparently, librarians in the States are using games to bring teenagers into their libraries.

Inspired in part by such theories, librarians now stage tournaments for teenagers with games like Super Smash Brothers Brawl and Dance Dance Revolution. In the first half of this year, the New York Public Library hosted more than 500 events, drawing nearly 8,300 teenagers. In Columbus, Ohio, nearly 5,500 youngsters have participated in more than 300 tournaments at the public library this year.

“I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What exactly is reading?’ ” said Jack Martin, assistant director for young adult programs at the New York Public Library. “Reading is no longer just in the traditional sense of reading words in English or another language on a paper.”

In the UK, I hear that the super duper Jubilee library in Brighton holds Playstation tournaments!

Scholastic, the American publisher of Harry Potter has already published The Maze of Bones, the first of a series tied to a web-based game. Ricky Riordan (Lightning Thief) wrote The Maze of Bones and has outlined the story arc for the rest of the series.
“My main concern was crafting an adventure novel that would stand on its own, even if kids never access the Internet at all,” Mr. Riordan said.

During the brainstorming phase and after he wrote a manuscript, Mr. Riordan worked with editors at Scholastic, who suggested details that could be worked into the novel so that they could also be used in the game.

“There’s a lot of commonality between what makes a good game and a good book,” Mr. Riordan said. “Whether you’re a gamer or a reader, you want to feel immersed in the story and invested in the action and the characters, and you want to care about the outcome and you want to participate in solving the mystery.”

More about the Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues series) here.

Many authors, I imagine will throw their hands up in despair at this new turn of events.

But if you really think hard about it, what lies at the heart of this new movement is a love of Story.

And Story is something we authors can always work with. It's just a question of how.

Saturday 4 October 2008

School Visits ... Part of My Letting Other Folks Do The Talking Season

Some canny readers have noticed that I've been very brief for the past couple of weeks, letting other blogs or vlogs do the talking. It's because ... pssst! I've just started a new novel! Very exciting.

Now that I got that off my chest, here's Don Tate from the Crowe's Nest blog, explaining the secrets of school visits. Read his very informative article here.

If you can't see the video, this is the youtube page.

Tuesday 30 September 2008

Meg Cabot's World Tour

Meg Cabot has left the UK (Chicklish is running a Meg Cabot week featuring interviews they blagged while Meg was here).

I still think it's unfair that nobody told me she was coming.

Moving on, Meg is now in South Africa.

Meg Cabot at Exclusive Books Capetown. Photo by Nicky Schmidt

Lucky for you, Notes from the Slushpile had spies carefully embedded at Exclusive Books in Capetown where Meg made an appearance.

Nicky Schmidt — aka Atyllah (a chicken from outer space ... but that's another loooong story)— packs her report with some cogent thoughts about authors and marketing.

Noting Meg's powerful online presence, Nicky writes:
I’m amazed at how much of the marketing is electronic – almost the whole customer relationship management side of her marketing is done via the internet – aside from the book tours and books signings. But the key marketing focus, it strikes me, aside from having a decent product, is customer relationship management. It’s interesting that in an increasingly competitive market authors are having to focus less on their product and far more on customer relationships in order to up and sustain sales figures. It’s no longer solely about how good the book is, but it’s also about how accessible you are to your market and how you woo them. That gives authors two full time jobs rolled into one – writer/entertainer and marketer.
Read Nicky's full report here - it's mandatory reading for anyone who is working on their strategy to dominate the world ... er, market their books.

Monday 29 September 2008

Need an agent? Stalking might do the trick ... if you're not arrested first

David Henry Sterry, best-selling author, award winning actor/comic and book doctor, recently lectured on the art of getting an agent. Here's an excerpt from Galley Cat.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Shoo Rayner's Drawing School

Okay, I'm trying to be a good author and ignore all distractions.

However Shoo Rayner is evil and has started a drawing school over on his website. I can't resist watching illustrators draw so now Shoo's new page has seriously set back my plans for world domination.

Here's Shoo teaching us how to draw his archetypal character, the Ginger Ninja.

Saturday 27 September 2008

Brilliant Animation on Meg Rosoff's Blog

The problem with Meg Rosoff's blog is that you can't subscribe to the diary. So you have to keep checking back in case she posts something.

So I checked back today and found this.

I'm so in touch with that emotion.

(If you can't see the animation, click here)

Wednesday 24 September 2008

The Happy Prince on Lookybook

This was on Lookybook in today's post.

Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, retold by Elissa Grodin and illustrated by Laura Stutzman.

It is so beautiful that words fail me. Click through to view it in larger mode on Lookybook

The Happy Prince on Lookybook

This was on Lookybook in today's post.

Words fail me

Monday 22 September 2008

Meg Cabot in Britain

Nobody told me Meg Cabot was in Britain. How did all those teenagers who turned up in their hundreds for a book signing at Waterstones find out?

It's a conspiracy.

Pictured right: Meg accidentally reveals the end of Princess Diaries 10 while on a school visit in England. Photo

Anyway, Meg Cabot blogs very entertainingly about turning up in jeans at a black tie affair and measuring up to the wit and wisdom Richard Attenborough AND Anthony Horowitz:

Like I said I’m on my way to Bath now to speak at their 2nd annual book festival which I hope will go well. Or at least better than the speech I had to give last night, which was at a sales conference for some lovely book people who didn’t tell me it was a formal event (the men were in tuxes, the ladies in evening gowns), so of course I wore jeans. They also didn’t tell me the other speaker was Lord Attenborough (you might recall he directed the film Ghandi, among other things, like, oh becoming a lord). He waxed eloquently about his intimate friendship with Princess Diana and the deaths of his daughter and granddaughter in the tsunami whilst I sat at my table thinking, “*&%@! I have to go on after this, and talk about the Princess Diaries? Freaking shoot me now!” Sadly no one obliged.

Fortunately Anthony Horowitz, whom I didn’t even realize I was sitting next to, went on before (HE got the memo about formalwear, somehow), and gave a brilliant talk with many witticisms. Everyone laughed uproariously. Which just made it worse that I had to go after him because I had no speech prepared other than the one in my head which I’d written BEFORE Lord Attenborough, and so when I got up there I tried to change it around a bit to make it more full of pathos and witticisms, a kind of combination of Anthony’s and Lord Attenborough’s, which was of course a disaster. I found myself wondering, midway through as the lights beamed on me, and I was rambling away about Topshop (it’s a store in England kind of like a high end Express–I’m not joking, that’s really what I found myself talking about) what would happen if I just ran away. Or started to cry.

Since I've been posting a lot of random videos anyway, here's a relevant video, featuring Meg Cabot, dressed as a bride, talking about her book Queen of Babble Gets Hitched. It made me think my friend Fiona Dunbar (author of Pink Chameleon) really ought to do a video like this ... but dressed as a chameleon.

And yes. I'm still procrastinating.

More Catherine Tate Procrastination: Queen At Two O'Clock Sketch

So I'm still taking Catherine Tate's work process advice.

So this is Catherine Tate doing 'Am I Bovvered' for the Queen at a Royal Thingy Performance. Warning though, have a pillow handy to muffle your laughing so nobody else knows you're procrastinating.

Catherine Tate Procrastinates and So Shall I

The Guardian newspaper has yet again decided to produce a series of fab inserts specially designed for me. It's a seven-day How To Write series, which isn't as naff as it sounds. Today's insert is How to Write Comedy with an introduction by Catherine Tate, comedian and one time companion of the Time Lord.

I was supposed to be working on some fresh material for my new novel but I just had to blog about Catherine Tate's working process that incorporates procrastination just because my readers in South Africa are unlikely to be getting the How to Write insert (except of course, this being the digital age, you can read the whole article in the online Guardian).

'Writing" always means "not writing" to me, because I will do anything to put it off.

I think this is mainly because writing anything down and then handing it over to a third party — especially in comedy — is such an exposing act that you naturally want to delay the process.

Also, the control required to get ideas out of my head and into some tangible form that I can present to others doesn't come easily to me. I will quite simply do anything other than sit down in front of a blank screen and begin.

So guys, we procrastinators are in stellar company.

But that is not the point of this article. I will quickly come to the point so that I can get on with procrastinating over my writing.

At the end of the piece, Catherine Tate offers up three bits of advice and I thought, hey, it would be so easy to apply these to writing for children (which I suspect is a lot like writing comedy, but I haven't read the rest of the Comedy insert yet so I can't tell you).
Catherine Tate: Trust yourself. You have to start with what you think is funny before you can have the confidence to write to anyone else's brief.

NFTS: Start with your own idea and then work on it from there. Don't go copying what seems to be hot at the moment (Chick Lit and Vampires according to BrubakerFord, in my previous post), don't do a comic diary just because Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been so successful (although I am sorely tempted), be yourself.

Catherine Tate: Give a gag three chances to work, if after three (separate) attempts they're still not laughing, bin it. It's not them. It's you.

NFTS: Be clear-eyed about reader feedback/critiques. If three trusted readers concur on a problem, well, don't bin it ... but accept that you've got to do something about it. It took me a long time to take my own advice about this and with my first novel, I got stuck in an endless loop of rejection and submission that only ceased when I wrote another book.

Catherine Tate: Don't take criticism personally, take from it what's useful. Apply it and move on to something better. And be brave. No one got anywhere by being too scared to open their mouth in case nobody laughed.

NFTS: Yup. Like I said before. And as for the courage thing: it's hard but no one ever got published by giving up.
Btw: NFTS means Notes from the Slushpile. I got tired typing.

And before I go back to work, here is my favourite Catherine Tate sketch in which teenage scourge Lauren "Am I bovvered?" Cooper quotes Shakespeare to an English teacher (played of course by David Tennant aka Dr Who).

P.S. Check out this t-shirt in my shop -that- never- makes- any- money- because-the- Spreadshirt- markup- is- so- high.

It says "Done Procrastinating" in front. On the back it says "Later"

Sunday 21 September 2008

Send Your Work to BrubakerFord Ltd - But Only If You are Nice

The FAQ item on Brubaker Ford Ltd's website says it all:
Frequently Asked Question: I am a best-selling and/or award-winning author but I am not a nice person. Will you work with me?

Answer: Absolutely not. We are committed to creating the world's finest books while working only with nice people. Good things come from love.
Brubaker Ford Ltd is a book packager/agent/literary consultancy. Yeah. A bit confusing. But it becomes clearer later on. They've been up and running for two years and last Thursday, founding partners Brett Brubaker and David Ford, as well as senior editor (and author) Dr Roberta Butlert came to meet SCBWI members. Here is a picture of (left to right) Roberta, David and Brett at the SCBWI meeting:

Okay, that's Michael York and other actors in a current production of Camelot.

But I couldn't resist because David really has a striking resemblance to Michael York. I swear, this is what he looks like:

I mentioned this to Brett and Roberta after the illuminating talk (yes, yes, I'll get to that later but this is much more important) and Brett said actually David looked a lot more like Harrison Ford in his youth.

And here is a totally gratuitous picture of Harrison Ford to keep you all going.

Okay, having got the important stuff out of the way, I will tell you about their presentation.

I have to confess that I came to the talk purely with the intention of seeing my SCBWI friends and hanging out. Book Packagers have never been in my radar, having invested all those years on the slushpiles of publishers. Now I thought book packagers develop ideas themselves, then employ authors/illustrators on a work-for-hire (no royalties) basis. The ownership and creativity is all on the packagers side and the authors/illustrators provide a service.

But the moment these guys began to talk about what they did, I became very confused.

Like any book packager they develop books that they sell to publishers.

But they also take picture book and YA submissions.

And then they said they liked to work with authors to turn the author's idea into the best book it could possibly be.

And then they said they don't believe in a flat fee or work for hire.

They then said they put the author's wishes first and will only negotiate a contract with the full agreement of an author. Where some publishers don't involve an author beyond the text "we make sure our authors are involved".

Brett Brubaker, whose scintillating marketing pedigree includes Armani and Prada, puts it this way: "When we are representing an author for a novel, we are like agents. When we are working on a picture book we are more like publishers."

They chose to base themselves in London (with outposts in the US and Canada) because the UK market was small enough so that "here we are able to get together face to face ... we do think it is terribly important to sit around a table". A Publisher's Weekly report described their move thus :
Although Ford and Brubaker are working with authors and illustrators on both sides of the Atlantic, Ford said initially they will spend most of their time in London. "It's far easier to work more intimately with people [in the U.K.], because the country's smaller."
Ford was part of the formative years of Walker Books, spending over ten years as Managing Director before moving to the United States to launch Candlewick Press. He was Candlewick's President and CEO for several years then ran a bookstore in Georgia before returning to publishing via Little, Brown and Co Books for Young Readers as Vice President and Publisher. At Little, Brown he played a part in the launch of the now monster bestseller Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.

"We were taught by Sebastian (Walker Books founder Sebastian Walker) that it is the author's name on the cover of the book." Thus whenever there was a disagreement between an editor and a writer, the author inevitably got their way. And what if the editor was right? Says David: "You have to accept failure to get better."

In part, the BrubakerFord collaboration appears to be a reaction to the new realities of publishing, in which the creative control of editors is subsumed to the opinions of accountants in the search for ever bigger profits.

The aim, says Ford, is to do the FUN side of publishing. Distribution and Sales? Boring! Their website explains:
Recent developments in the publishing world have resulted in many authors and illustrators feeling more and more distanced from the creative minds and caring hands within some publishing houses. Working with innovative and imaginative individuals is what we most enjoy, and it is for that reason that we have decided to concentrate on the collaborative development of ideas and leave the business of sales and distribution to others ... Our authors have told us that this personal interaction reminds them of the "good old days" of publishing ...
It made me feel quite sentimental for those good old days.

They talked about lots of other things of course - like the cultural differences between UK and US publishing, what works and what doesn't, the currency of chick lit and vampire books, novelty books, YA, Gossip Girl, Maurice Sendak, Helen Oxenbury, pop-up books, what they're looking for, how to submit, and about all their exciting projects and some inside gossip about some other famous people but no, can't report it here. Not because I don't want to but because I can't read my handwriting and I have to tidy the hallway.

Maybe next time!

Sunday 14 September 2008

Feasting on the DFC - How Many Wows Doth a Comic Book Make?

The sun shined on the one day I needed it to shine - yesterday when I had a little barbecue party. And then this morning it shone again as I sat in the conservatory, catching up with my comics reading. I've only just begun to digest the September 5 issue and golly what a visual feast it is.

There's the cover highlighting the start of a new comics serial, Mezolith, story by Ben Haggarty and art by Adam Brockbank:

I mean, wow, really, WOW! It's painterly and yet those beautiful lines just made me itch to pick up a pencil and draw! (Click on the images to see it in full screen) Check out the first page of the comic, the play on angles. And the story moves too!

There's a small animation of this stone age comic on the DFC website.

And here's a frame from Monkey Nuts by the Etherington Brothers. I sat and looked at it for a long time:

Wow, wow, wow!

And then there's this frame from Sneaky, The Cleverest Elephant in the World - art by Laura Howell and story by Peadar O Guilin.

I like! I like!

And of course, always everyone's favourite, Vern and Lettuce by Sarah Macintyre - poor Vern swaps a tuba for a rather large jumper knitted from his own wool.


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