Thursday, 21 June 2012
The inscription at the front of my book (life:) razorblades included says simply
"be spectacular and die living"
That's still about as much as needs to be said on the subject of either life or art. The rest, as it were, is just unpacking. It's so incredibly difficult to keep it plastered to the inside of our eyelids as we wade through life, and, to get more specific, as writers setting out "to be published" or "to sell books" or even "to connect with readers". The line itself is something I've become a dab hand at churning out but singularly bad at reflecting upon and aspiring to. My recent lift in spirits and creative direction has been largely a result of thinking about that simple mantra.
Which brings me to one of the catalysts, which in turn got me thinking. One of my favourite films, Man on Wire, was on TV a week or so ago. Watching it, spellbound (for those of you unfamiliar with it, this a documentary about Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker who, with a few co-conspirators, in 1974 illicitly rigged a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, and proceeded to walk across - and then back, and back again, stopping to lie down, to look down, to kneel to the dawn, almost dancing as he played dare with the police waiting to arrest him at the other end), one line struck me. One of the first things the arresting officers asked him was "why?" Petit's response was one of those lightbulb moments. Odd, because it's a common question - we all think of those "why?" "because" exchanges about climbing Everest. But Petit's response wasn't "because", it was to shake his head and despair that after such a beautiful moment the officer had deflated it with something as banal as a question.
For me, that exchange is a perfect commentary on the cultural life.
It also set me thinking (national cultural stereotyoe alert!). One of the things I'm researching for a new book is parkour. Don't worry, I'm not actually doing it, rather I'm researching those who do, and the philosophy behind it.
Parkour (the art of movng through a space continually forward by finding ways for your body - and mind - to overcome obstacles - you may not realise it but you saw it in that BBC ad a few years ago that you thought was all stunts and mats and tricks but wasn't) was given its shape and identity by David Belle (that's him in the video), who developed it with his friends in Fecamp, in France. And then I thought about the incredible "spiderman" Alain Robert. And the stereotyping part of my brain took hold of the fact that the three people I was thinking about were French. Now, we're used to people talking about literature and philosophy in France and their place in French life, but maybe it's not really Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq we should think of but the likes of Belle, Petit, and Robert.
Petit's words have blended sowly into that mantra over the last few days - the need to do something spectacular, beautiful, memorable and, possibly equally important, inexplicable. But for those of us whose bodies are closer to Henri Levy than Belle, and dabble in creativity with our minds, what does that mean? "Be spectacular" - the rest, as I said at the start, is just the unpacking, and yet absolutely everything is in that unpacking. In focusing on a thing - a single, spectacular, beautiful thing, and moving always and only towards it. Sometimes it seems to me as though the thing is life itself - but life, as my last two collections have been written to demonstrate, is nothing without content, without relentless energy and celebration. At other times I think asking the question at all is the problem - a sign of my Englishness? - and yet these remarkable characters don't have the aimlessness of people who haven't honed down their goal to absolute concreteness in the way we imagine when we think of a lack of questionning.
Then I thought on, of my recent conversations with friends who know far more than me about zen, Trevor Barton and Viv Tuffnell, and I wondered if they would tell me that the key is not to question but to "know", whcih made me think "but I don't know". But maybe the answer is that it is the questionning - of ourselves, our lives, our world, that stops us from "know"ing what we have to do, and then giving ourselves to doing it. Maybe the answer lies in learning to know oneself well enough that one does not have to question - which sounds a lot like what I have said about confessional art and stripping everything to your most basic truth. I'm still not there, but maybe I'm starting to learn which questions not to ask. The fundamental mantra seems unchallengable, though, for us as artists:
Tuesday, 19 June 2012
I was writing this piece anyway, but then I came across Jane Friedman's article on platform on the Self-publishing Advice blog. She advocates
"Producing a body of work on your own platform—e.g. blog, e-mail newsletter, social network, podcast, video, digital downloads, etc.—that gathers quality followers. This is usually a long-term process."
Now absolutely this is very sound advice, especially that last bit about the long term.
But it got me thinking - and asking (though I have yet to see an answer - note to anyone out there contributing guest blogs - answering comments is rule number 1 for guest blogging) what this means. There are so many forms of social media and "platform" sites it's easy to get totally flummoxated both knowing where to start and knowing where to stop! And there's the secondary problem that most of us don't set out from a standing start to build a community around our work. Many of us will already be on Facebook, or have a blog, or be on twitter at the least, and because we've only just thought about building our communities we probably didn't give "branding" much thought.
Which I suppose is tip one - if you can, use the same distinctive username everywhere. That's very much a case of do as I say not do as I do. Before I proceed any further, this is a sample of my sites that will show you what I mean:
I'm on YouTube
here's one of the videos I have there - it's a site I use for putting up poetry readings I do
And here's my tumblr - look, it has the same username! Huzzah!
here's my twitter - er, wait, that's not Farmer Barleymow
My main website at least has my name on it
as does my Facebook page
but my other blog is back to its old tricks
And then, of course, I write articles across the web, and I'm part of a couple of great collectives like Authors Electric, the Alliance of Independent Authors, and the League of Extraordinary Authors.
And the list goes on. In other words, my internet presence is somewhat hit and miss - in fact the only place where you can get to everything I do is on my website.
Which leads to two questions.
1. Should this worry me?
2. What should you do?
This is a series that will run to many episodes, and I'll tackle each website separately (I originally thought of my social media contribution to Words With Jam as a single article. Two and a half years later I'm just getting started!), but I want to do some thinking around teh first question today that will hep with the second - I also want to open the floor for thoughts and tips.
Common sense tells me absolutely, yes, I should be very worried. I've done it wrong. I've not branded myself consistently. The single greatest danger this poses, as I see it, is that someone sees something I do and is desperate to know more, to find a book, to purchase it - yippee!! But wait, there is no click-through. We are told again and again that one-click is everything. And, yes, that's right.
we are looking here at commuity-building, at creating a group of "true fans", people who really want to know what you're up to, to be part of the conversation with you. Yes, they may start as browsers, they may stumble across you, but if, having done so they are still at the stage of casual interest, they will probably never be part ofthat core community. I have no interest in parting people from their money on a one-off basis. I want people to buy my books because they are desperate to see what I've written, because they are so engaged with what I say and what I do. The absence of a single omnipotent click is not such a disaster.
In fact, go back to what Jane says about the long term. She's absolutely right. What people who coordinate their tweets with their Facebook with their linked-in pinterested tumbling don't get is that a great online platform-building site is great precisely because it does something specific. And you use it best if you use it for that specificity (if you, as it were, enter its narrative community to bring Wittgenstein in again). So whilst, yes, I wouldn't say go out of your way to hide your identity and make each platform you use an utterly discrete parcel, I think the main thing is to treat each separately, on its own terms, using it for what it does best and using it because it fits with what you are trying to do as a whole.
Over time, and without harping on that really is the key, each tendril you send out into the ether will strengthen and send out its own branches, and each of those will gradually converge so that each community you build aruond yourself will begin to blur at the edges with others. Don't worry if there always remain large sections that overlap nowhere - different "true fans" of yours will engage with different sides of you. Remember this:
The only reason to keep all your fans in the same place is to make your life simpler - and how is that related to the central artistic principle of giving?
So, use platforms judiciously (though by all means play aroudn to see what works rather than just taking my word for it over the coming weeks - after all, you can only know a conversation from the inside...) and don't worry if you are part of separate conversations. What matters is the integrity and your commitment to each of them. Perhaps, just perhaps, you could, even should, just stick to one...
Thursday, 14 June 2012
Getting someone to open the cover of your book. That's always been one of the major battles a self-publisher faces. It almost certainly will infuriate you at many points during your self-publishing life. After all, you *know*, if they'd just open the first page...
The first thing to say is it's not something exclusive to self-publishers. Many of my author friends published by small presses have exactly the same problem, and Kevin Duffy, who runs Bluemoose, one of the most inventive - and brilliant - small presses around is frequently outspoken about the Big Six and London-centrism of most reviewers.
That said, why reviewers, especially bloggers, won't review self-published books is something that has become a heated debate in the past few weeks. Well-respected blogger gavreads posted on 27th May his "Reasons Why We Reviewers Won't Read Your Self-published Book." Self-publishers were furious (and believe me, what's said on the comments is nothing to what was said on forums and groups all over the web. And to be fair, paragraph titles like "we know it's going to be rubbish" were probably designed to stimulate a certain amount of, er, debate.
And today, the on site Awesome Indies Tahlia Newland has issued a clarion call that seems aimed as a rebuttal, entitled "Come on Guys Give Indies a Fair Go."
Now, both articles make some good points - the former is, as the author says, simply an explanantion of a tendency and not a justification, the latter makes a call for equal treatment rather than especially harsh scrutiny. And both have their faults - traditionally published authors aren't exactly tantrum-free and genre-busting is sort of what self-publishing's for; whilst "be big-hearted" has the ring of desperation to it.
I don't want to take sides, but I do want to offer a series of observations about reviews and book bloggers. Take them as the beginning of a debate. Reviewers - take them as the start of some self-questionning about what you do; writers - take them as the start of some self-questionning about why you want to be reviewed.
- Most of the anecdotal evidence I've heard - and the outspoken words of indie guru Joe Konrath - suggest reviews don't create sales
- There are book blog reviewers I go back to again and again because I know I share their taste. They are few and far between - Tony Malone, Farm Lane Books, Winston's Dad - and I think of their reviews more like recommendations from friends who share my taste. Furthermore their reviews feel less like advertisements than parts of an ongoing discussion of which the book in question is only a part - and more often than not I enjoy the review more when I've read the book as opposed to when I'm looking for a new book - though when I do buy a book recommended, as when Farm Lane Books introduced me to Beside the Sea, it's so I can join the conversation. So...
- Reviews are part of a community built around a certain taste. This feels much more like the 1000 true fans model than the "review-as-plug" model. I wonder if, within such communities, there is such resistance to self-published authors who are part of that community - the first of Gav's main points "we don't know who you are" certainly doesn't apply
- Writers, ask yourself why you would want a review from somewhere where you're not part of the community. Why are you not already part of the community? Quite probably, or at least possibly, because people who are part of it don't share your taste - why would you want to foist your book on them in that case?
- People have review blogs for a lot of reasons. Some of them for their own glory. I thought Gav's point "We know you’re not going to generate hits" spoke volumes - I have no interest in being reviewed by someone who reviews books to generate hits. Just as I have no time for people who self-publish "to get rich" so I have no time for people who review "to get hits." Most people review books because they love books, plain and simple. I go back to my point above - if their passion is not for your kind of book why would you want to hack off another human being by being a pest, and if you just know they'd love your book that's probably because you're a regular at their blog and chances are they will take a look at some point.
- If a reviewer isn't looking at self-published books, chill - blogs will soon appear that do - gaps will be filled, niches plugged, communities built. Take a look, for example, at Cally Philips' excellent Indie ebook Review (interested party alert - I do some reviewing there and have had a couple of books reviewed there). If nature hates a vacuum, that's nothing compared to the internet's sheer abhorrence of them!
The point here is that cultural pundits are there to give a picture of both the general landscape and the new, exciting things bubbling up on it - and by failing to give a complete picture they are failing the public that look tothem for advice of where to turn next for exciting things - and when people get turned off books because they are told only a fraction of what's out there, some of the blame for that lack of interest lies with those who didn't give a complete picture.
So, book bloggers and cultural pundits do two different things. The former are engaged in ongoing discussions with devotees. The latter exist to chart those discussions and provide entry points to them. We writers need to get those clear in our heads before we start complaining and campaigning. If a reviewer won't review us, the chances are, to bastardise Wittgenstein, both parties aren't part of the same community - in which case, why worry about missing a review, and if you are worried, take the correct step and join the community. If a cultural pundit won't talk about the exciting liminalities of the self-publishing world, however, campaign from the rooftops and call them out on it in the blogosphere and anywhere else.
Saturday, 9 June 2012
Over at eight cuts today, I interview Lucy Furlong about her extraordinary book, Amniotic City. It is a perfect example of self-publishing excellence so I thought I'd have a look at the object itself here.
This is a niche book for sure, but to me that's both a fascinating and very strong concept. I've done shows about Lilith and uncovering the ancient feminine, hidden but never eliminated by thousands of years of patriarchal design, is always invaluable. This book brings that process to life in situ, leading you through a hidden London, making you open your eyes and not only that, when you go anywhere, you will look at the "MAN-made" landscape around you through different eyes, and it will be as though the scales have fallen from them.
The execution is also brilliant. Presented like a fold up map (not just a gimmick - this means you can - and will - put it in your pocket and use it as such), this opens out into just that - a map. On one side a map leads us around London, with photos taken on Lucy's own travels that both guide us ground us and help us to see the city through her eyes, intimate how we might look differently (such as the coins in the crack in the wall, clearly photographed as fecund or prostituted [is the money going in or coming out? the photograph makes us ask and consider the ambiguity] genitalia).
In other words, every aspect of the purpose and production of this book have been thought through and work well together. Which is exactly what self-publishing should do.
Wednesday, 6 June 2012
For the second in my series on writers' collectives, it's a pleasure to talk to Liza Perrat, Gillian Hamer, and Jill Marsh, whose books are the first to be launched through new collective Triskele, who have just held their formal launch in London . With a focus on books that have a strong sense of place, Triskele is a group that seems to have got its marketing and creative heads firmly screwed on, so open your notebooks and pay attention!
The Charter by Gillian E. Hamer
Behind Closed Doors by JJ Marsh
Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat
Saturday, 2 June 2012
She also runs poetry workshops, and makes wonderfully folded poetry books to put in your wallet. In other words, she has already thought of lots of ways to do lovely, interesting, rewarding things to draw people to her and then keep them part of her following.
- Know what it is you want to do
- Do it the very best you can
- Know for whom you are doing it and what it is they are looking for
- Find as many ways as you can to find them, make them fall in love with your work, and make the love affair last by giving them what they want whilst never compromising number 2.
- Newsletters (these are a *really* good idea but should be beautiful, engaging things and you *must* know your data protection law)
- Blogging – but make sure your blog is of interest to your fans (I write a column on social media for Words With Jam that might be helpful)
- Gigging – be it at your local open mic, a reading at a bookstore, or setting up a group with other like-minded writers and producing your own show
- Merch – yes, this does all sound like the music industry, but it’s just not true that as a writer you can’t do live performance and you can’t sell things that aren’t books. The rule for merch is the same as for everything – make sure people who love your books will love it, and make it reflect you in some way. Clothing is an obvious one, as is stationery, and if you have a crafty skill, why not use it? I will do a particularly long post on this but remember, you will probably sell a lot through an online store (bigcartel is the best I’ve found) but you may also sell face to face – so customised filing cabinets are probably not as practical as postcards.
- Business cards – I’m sure we all have cards of some kind or other – but why not make this another way to give away your work – it could be a haiku on the card, or a QR code that links to a poem or story
- Find other things your fans will love and tell them about them – this is a great thing to do with twitter. Be a source of things that people will love. Remember, it’s not about you, you, you, it’s about them, them, them
- Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter are great – if you want to put on an event or produce a run of your latest book, this is a way to fund everything in advance to produce something great for everyone whilst letting people pay different amounts in return for different extras
- Allow people to donate on your website – whether it’s Paypal or google checkout, having a donate button is a way to let people who want to give back do so. I particularly like the idea of combining this with giving your work away for free in some way or other – those who want to pay can. And if you build a warm community you will be surprised how often they do
- Tips – if you do readings, consider doing them for free (remember, though, that the venue needs to make a living too – always speak to them, work out how you can help each other) and collecting tips as well as/instead of selling merch. This needn’t be a pushy passing round of the cap – “if you enjoyed that and want to help, anything you are able to give is welcome” is enough.
- Emails – newsletters are important, so one of the most important things people can give you is their email address – and don’t forget to treat it with due respect – spam isn’t cool
Friday, 1 June 2012
Writers' Collectives are fabulous for self-published writers. I'm going to be talking to one of the best new ones, Triskele Books, on these pages very soon. I'll also be sharing several years of my experience with Year Zero Writers, which I started up at the beginning of 2009. Collectives can do many things for their members and take many forms and I'll look at many of them in the months ahead as well as giving advice on how to go in with your eyes wide open.
But I wanted to share this for nostalgia. On January 2nd 2009, I posted a manifesto-cum-clarion-call "Can We Make 2009 Publishing's Year Zero?" which is where the Year Zero name came from. From that post, a group of 22 disgruntled writers of literary fiction from 8 countries came together and created something rather special.
Some of the post is outdated (see "point one" about printers; my avatar in which I'm a good 3 stone lighter than now, most of that gain down to added hair). Some is hopelessly rhetorical. But I'm surprised how much has stood the test of time and would still make sense today. So whilst we're at the starting-out-and-inspiring phase, I thought I'd post the whole thing in full. If you want to understand some of the ideology behind it, it's best read alongside the homepage of the LETS movement, LETS being a formalised barter system that is used the world over, but most relevantly for me in my old home town of Stroud. It's also the basis of Endangeredworlds.net, the fictitious charity group in the novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, which I'd just finished writing by the start of 2009. The charity is basically a matchmaking site between groups and individuals whoneed non-financial aid, and groups and individuals who can provide that aid (I still think that should be done more often in real life). Anyway, here it is, my original call to arms:
- A cooperative of writers working together to bring each of their books through from the first draft stage to the marketplace will be more effective than the same writers working separately. The more writers working together, the more their effectiveness will surpass that of individuals working alone.
- Each person in the cooperative would offer the skills they have to other members, and take the skills they need from other members using a barter system
- Marketing would focus not on books but on distinctive genre-specific imprints with recognisable formatting
- Each book within the imprint would have individual exposure through an online catalogue consisting of cover, blurb, and first three chapters
- The system works on a barter principle, whereby every part of the process of taking a book to market is assigned a credit value.
- Skills can be bought or sold for credits.
- To ensure liquidity in the system, each member of the co-operative is assigned a number of credits equal to 1.5 times the number needed to complete every part of the "to market" process.
- The "value" of the cooperative is divided into this number of credits, so that each member is initially an equal co-owner, and increased "ownership" can be acquired by carrying out more work on behalf of other writers.
- Each new member is assigned the same number of credits so that they become notional equal stakeholders. To account for the inflation this causes, the credit value of each task will be reassessed at pre-agreed membership levels.
- Members would advertise the skills they were offering in one place; those they were seeking in another.
- Every skills provider would have a profile based on moderated feedback for previous tasks. All tasks would be performed under house rules, with an expected time frame and standard. Successful completion within these parameters would earn credits as well as being reflected in a member's profile
- What would be covered: editing – writers would work together in a task-focused way to turn first drafts into the best manuscript possible; formatting and design – including cover art; marketing
- What would not be covered: negotiations with publishers and agents – because everything is carried out in house
- Meta-tasks: web design; negotiating with printers; production of house standards and standard operating procedures; moderation of tasks; management of the credit barter system;
- Marketing would focus on imprints and the enterprise as a whole instead of individual books
- Initial publicity would be based on the appeal to media of the size of the endeavour.
- The target would be twofold: the media frequented by the most likely customers; and trade media for physical booksellers.
- Follow-up campaigns for placement in specific stores would build on this initial public and trade awareness, as well as initially targeting the local stores of authors (where success would demonstrate to retailers the potential not just of the author but the whole imprint)
- The main focus would be on new media – on marketing through web catalogues, and on sales of books in e-format
- Once books are in print, cross-posting and rating by all writers of all books on online retailers sites would be encouraged, along with the generation of as many cross-links to similar books as possible
- The cooperative is not seen as a once for all alternative to the traditional publishing route. If a writer's work is absolutely suited to mainstream publication and in receipt of interest from mainstream publishers the route remains open. A book's place alongside others within an imprint is not at the expense of its place on a publisher's list.