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.

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