Why entitlement is bad for writers

 So, if you’re even remotely following what’s been going on in the publishing world, you will have heard of the Amazon/Hachette battle. Lines have been drawn, sides have been picked and bloggers have been at war. But so have writers.

And certainly everyone is entitled to their own opinion on the matter. What I like the least, however, is the way authors are being pitted against each other – whether because they wrote some kind of open letter, signed a petition or said something on Twitter.

And the thing is, authors are nearly always getting pitted against each other.  Sometimes, we even do it ourselves.

Case in point being this old piece  by writer Lynn Shepherd, which I saw a while back, but which came to mind today when I was discussing the publishing war with a friend.

In a nutshell, Shepherd saying that JK Rowling has had her time in the sun and that she should just move over and stop taking up shelf-space so other writers can have a go. Now, the writer’s opinion of Rowling’s work is completely irrelevant here. She’s allowed to like or dislike it for whatever reasons and that is completely her business. What I find so striking is the author-vs-author standpoint.

There’s a lot wrong here, like assuming that writers are in some strange battle over readership which will never, ever cross over. So if they read someone else, that’s it. They’re set for life and no other author has a chance. Obviously, that’s blatantly silly. Readers cross over, across writers and across genres. We’re not staking out territory over here.

The patently ridiculous thing is that this article implies that once a writer has reached a certain level of success, they’ve got what they came for and should throw in the towel because it’s just rude to hog all that success.* This is a bit like when you’re in the university library, trying to print out your thesis half an hour before it’s due,** and not only is there a huge queue to the computer clusters, but the people at the computers are messing about on Facebook in the middle of deadline season. Just downright thoughtless.

Except that writing isn’t like that at all.

By that logic not just Rowling, but King, Steel, Hobb, Pratchett, Gaiman and everyone else who’s managed to earn a respectable income and a strong fan following through their writing should just quit. Right now. This instant. Put down those pens and step away from the keyboards.

And this just reveals an underlying attitude of entitlement. Rowling really doesn’t owe it to anyone to do anything with her career one way or the other. She can write what she wants, as much of it as she wants, and under any pen name that she likes. Why on earth Shepherd makes it sound like Rowling producing a sequel to her mystery series is an act of spite against other writers is beyond me. Physical shelf-space is determined by success and the connection a writer or publisher has with a book shop, and their place in the alphabet.

But Shepherd’s article casts Rowling as that one sibling who’s licked all the biscuits so that no one else can have any.

Except that writing isn’t like that either.

The way bookshop shelf-space works, even if Rowling and all the rest ‘tactfully’ stopped publishing things, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the bookshop would suddenly change tack, order a million copies of the ‘obviously more deserving’ writer’s work, and place them all at eye-level in the best part of the shop. There’s rather a lot more involved when it comes to getting shelf-space or winning over readers.

And this is the bit where writing isn’t the library print queue. Sure, you might not get the table at the front of the bookshop, or front-page website listings. But that doesn’t mean it’s because other writers are getting in your way. As a writer you’re only trying to produce the best thing you can – whether that resonates with readers or not has nothing to do what someone else has published. Whether you survive or thrive is not affected by how well the person next to you is doing. It’s not like there’s only that one spot in the sun for the hallowed writer who does well, and no one else is allowed. Readers read, and if they’re buying someone else that doesn’t mean they’re not going to buy you.  In fact, a writer drawing the spotlight to a particular genre is a good thing for everyone else in that genre.

To my mind, it’s this sort of grumbling that makes it easier for writers to get caught up in imaginary conflicts instead of banding together to make the industry better for themselves. I have heard a lot about both sides of the Hachette/Amazon argument, and it’s certainly valid for writers to speak their mind about what’s going on. But since it’s not the writers (Team Amazon or Team Hachette) who are at the heart of the quarrel, perhaps aiming barbs at each other isn’t really the point. Sides have been picked for moral reasons, but also for financial and contractual ones – and whatever Amazon and Hachette may be doing, it doesn’t make one writer morally ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another.

That said, it would be rather nice if they resolved it soon: that way, we can all have something else to talk about.

 

 

 

*The second thing that I just couldn’t fathom is the patronising suggestion that Rowling should just continue with children’s lit, if she must continue at all – I imagine this is because children’s/YA lit is clearly so much less worthy than adult lit. No one cares what happens over there. Which is silly too, but genre snobbery is very much a discussion for a different post.

**This has almost certainly never happened to me. Ever. Erm.

 

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His Wayward Duchess cover reveal, and why covers matter

Just a quick update about the book reveal of my upcoming Regency romance, His Wayward Duchess!

 

Duchess final 200x320

 

When Sylvester, the Duke of Strathavon, unexpectedly inherits the family estate, he decides to enter into a marriage of convenience with the plain, practical Miss Holly Millforte. Who better to help him set the crumbling estate to rights?

But Miss Millforte is much more than Sylvester (or even she) could ever imagine! When Holly turns the tables on him, charming London society and stealing his heart into the bargain, can their marriage take a most inconvenient turn towards love instead?

An old-fashioned comedy of manners in which adventure, blackmail, rakish cousins and true love abound.

 

It’s amazing how much a new book cover feels like Christmas morning – when you see it all ready, finished, and real.  You keep peeking at it again and again, because you can’t quite stop.

It makes the book feel so much more real too. In a way, more so even than having the manuscript on your hard drive does. It’s pretty peculiar.

I have a strange relationship with book covers: I make them myself, because I  enjoy it, and I figure that I may as well put all the time I spent mucking about with Corel Painter and Photoshop to good use. And yet there’s always this point – about midway through a cover, when the software just won’t do what I want it to, and I realise that none of it looks right anyway, and now I’ll have to start again because of the sheer awfulness of it… Then I spend a good few minutes just staring at the screen in blurry-eyed despair and seriously questioning my life choices.

Why, oh why, won’t Photoshop just listen to me? And why did I ever think this was a good idea?

Usually, this is a good point to go away from the computer for a while, in the hopes of coming back a little calmer.

Then finally it somehow manages to come right and the world is full of rainbows again, which is a good thing because there should really be an annual limit on existential despair. This is the part where I get to sit back and bask in a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Of course, next I want to show off  the cover to the whole world, and it takes some serious self-control not to email all the friends in my contact list, or tell the internet right away.  It’s pure giddy glee in the driving seat at that point.

I think all writers feel that way about covers to some extent, whether they make the covers themselves or hire a designer. It’s honestly one of my favourite parts of the whole process.

This makes me think about covers in a wider sense. Most marketing guides will tell you how important covers are. It’s all about packaging. Your cover needs to be eye-catching, and it has to look well made. It also has to be genre-appropriate, because a cover can serve as genre short-hand and if you get it wrong you can accidentally miss your mark with your intended audience. There are tips on how big your name should be, how big your title should be and what else you need to include.

Some writers get prickly about this because they feel that their story should speak for itself, on its own merit. Never judge a book by its cover and all that. This is a great sentiment in theory, but in practice it just doesn’t work. The cover is the first thing a reader sees – that’s inevitable. On the other hand, before they’ve read it, they have no way of knowing the sheer brilliance and scope of your magnum opus, even if you’ve spent the last ten years perfecting every last adverb. And the undeniable fact is that a good cover dramatically increases the chances of the reader checking out the blurb or reading the first paragraph.

So keep an eye on that new cover when you’re prepping your book – does it create the effect that you want it to? Does it do your work justice? Is it eye-catching?

Covers are definitely important – especially when you consider all the other books out there. You want to stand out, you want to be memorable and easily recognisable.

But cover reveals are also fun to do: which is why I’m so excited right now to finally able to share this brand new cover, in anticipation of launching His Wayward Duchess!

 

 

Author and Authority: what makes a writer, a Writer

I thought it might be fitting to look at what it really means to be a writer: after all, this is my very first blog post, and it’s a blog in which I’ll be talking about books, writing and things of that ilk quite a lot.

So the question is, what makes a writer? At what point can you officially wear your Real Writer* hat? Whether you write romance, fantasy, thrillers, or even lit fiction, this question is bound to crop up eventually.

For me, it cropped up just the other day, when I was in a bookshop, talking to a guy who, as it turned out, is currently working on his first novel. I mentioned that I was working on my next Regency, and he said “So, do you want to be a real writer someday?”

And that threw me a bit, because what is a ‘real writer’?  This question has been debated an awful lot lately, on Goodreads and writing blogs, and there still isn’t any real solid answer.

For one, there’s the idea that once you’re published – once you’ve signed a contract with a bona fide publishing house, you instantly get initiated into the Grand Hall of Official Writers, and then you can sit with the cool kids.

But what if you choose not to go the legacy route? Does that mean that no matter how much you earn, you’ll never be a real writer? Or what if you choose to self-pub after you’ve spent some time in legacy? Does your writer card get instantly revoked? The ‘published’ label worked a lot better before self-publishing threw the industry for a loop, and it seems a bit silly to use it as a yard-stick now. And this is not counting the fact that in this model you’re waiting for some secondary party to give you the green light to be a Real Writer – if you need anyone to green-light you, surely the most obvious people would be the ones who will hopefully buy and read your stuff…

On the other hand, maybe you’re a Real Writer once you start earning a living by means of your writing. That’s how I used to see it. Once your writing pays the rent, you’re in. But when you think about it, that doesn’t quite work either. Whether you self-pub or go traditional, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll earn enough off your advance (and even royalties, if you manage to earn out that advance later on) for your first book to completely support yourself by means of your writing alone.

It happens, but it doesn’t happen enough to warrant becoming the yard-stick, either. Besides, suppose you do manage it for a while, and then have to go back to a part-time job, or a full-time one, because the economy is wobbly and unpredictable like that**:  Real Writer card revoked. And that’s before you consider all those writers who don’t become famous for years and years, if not till after their death, just because by sheer chance it took ages for them to be discovered.

So, it’s not publishing. And it’s not income. It’s not how much you’ve written (Harper Lee only published one book), or how long you’ve been writing for, what you write or how many writing classes you’ve taken.

In fact, modern ideas of authorship are very modern indeed: in the Middle Ages, when manuscripts were expensive, difficult to make and owned by a privileged few, they were usually written out by clerical and secular scribes (who copied and recopied manuscripts , compiled new ones and frequently made their own changes to the text). They changed words, phrases, even whole chunks of narrative. Sometimes, when a particular section of the original was damaged or unavailable, they left blank spaces to be filled in later (some of which never were). These scribes were usually anonymous. As were most of what we would now call the ‘authors’ of these works. Sometimes the scribe and author were one and the same, but usually not.

Christine de Pizan writing from MS Harley 4431(retrieved from http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/7a/f9/cb/7af9cb632e2bcccb799091b144adf6c4.jpg)

Christine de Pizan writing from MS Harley 4431(retrieved from http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/7a/f9/cb/7af9cb632e2bcccb799091b144adf6c4.jpg)

Aside from a few, like Gower or Chaucer, who we know by name, the identities and names of many medieval ‘authors’ have been lost to history, and it’s doubtful if they were even widely known in their day. They just didn’t value authorship identity the way we do now, didn’t see the point of it, and they certainly wouldn’t define authorship as we would.

In fact, authorship of a work was often denied even by the authors themselves, who claimed divine inspiration, or a visit by some personification of Wisdom ,or the like, as the true source of the text: they would say that they had only written down what was imparted on them in some other way. Christine de Pizan and her contemporaries did this an awful lot – and they surely would have been very confused if asked what they thought constituted a Real Writer.

The thing is, there is no official writer induction, or Grand Hall of Official Writers or any of that. If you’ve going to wait for someone else to induct you (and that may or may not happen), then that is entirely your choice. But it’s equally your choice to decide when you have officially become a writer. It can be after you’ve finished your first story, when you’ve decided to make writing the primary focus of your life, or when you book starts selling. It’s about the goals you set for yourself.

Do you want to write a story for yourself and never let anyone else see it? It would be a shame to keep it hidden in the dungeons of your hard-drive somewhere, or in a shoe box, but if that’s your goal than it’s every bit as valid as making enough money to cover half your rent, or just making people happy from having read your work.

Which is to say, at the end of the day it’s you who gets to decide what will make you a writer, and it’s you who has to work towards that goal and celebrate when you achieve it. Although you can always rope in your friends for that last one!

*Capital letters et al.

**Here, you may be able to tell that I am a person with an English degree writing about finance things…