Thursday, 21 June 2012

Be Spectacular

This post originally appeared here, on my other blog, but it feels as though it belongs here, in the context of recent discussions about who we are as self-publishing writers.
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:

"be spectacular"

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

How Many Baskets?

Social media is one of the elephants in the room, the monkeys on the back, the metaphors still in the forming of being a self-published writer. Pretty much everything that needs to be or can be said has been said - and will probably keep on being said for years to come. I'm as guilty as anyone of contributing to the noise - for more than two years I've been writing a column on using social media for Words With Jam magazine.

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

Read Me! Or, why do self-published authors care who will review their book?

" It's simply not good enough for cultural pundits not to engage with self-publishing"...

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!
Now where I think it's different is the cultural media. I think I would still go along with point 1 - a review in a big paper won't make you millions. Speaking from experience, I can say that coverage in the Guardian, both of The Dead Beat and The Zoom Zoom, did lead to a sales spike - in double but nowhere near triple figures. But I very much do think it's the job of the cultural media to go out and trawl the world of self-publishing looking for the inventive and the ingenious. The cultural pages should be full of trendsetters not trend followers, people whose own journalistic career is built on innovation, on not being afraid to champion the unheard of (though it's so much easier to snipe than cheer). Hats off to Damien Walter for exploring the world of self-published weird fiction, even actively soliciting self-publicists! But that's one example. It's simply not good enough for cultural pundits not to engage with self-publishing.

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

Self-publishing Excellence: Amniotic City

(keep up with all my writerly goings on through my Facebook page)  

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.

Amniotic City is a map of the part of East London that cradles the Thames, produced by the wonderful Lucy Furlong. Only it's not just a map, it's a psychogeographic poetic tribute to a side of this wonderful city too rarely see. Looking at the city's architecture and liminal spaces, the poems and the walks through which they lead you as your guide, transforming your view of the city around you, uncover and explore the eternal feminine as she manifests herself all around.

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.
So, tick one - a book that is specialist and knows exactly what it's doing and has something great to offer readers.

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).
Lucy uses the device of coloured pins and string to lead us to the reverse on which she has printed the poems, the coloured pins indictaing which is associated with which location. Some of the poems appear suggestively on the page - a tree, swarming bees. All of them make us question the place to which they refer, like an archaeologist's brush delicately uncovering the feminine around us.

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

In it Together: Triskele Books

 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!

1. You have chosen a great focus for your collective - how did that come about, and how important is it to have that focus?

Focus and brand were amongst the first things we discussed. Since we all share a passion for “place”, location as a focal point seemed suited to our books. Quality too, was crucial. It took a lot for us to lose the snobby-looking-down-our-noses view we’ve long held about self-publishing, but the knowledge that we were all equally fussy and focused was a big selling point and it has worked well. The ‘location and quality’ concept also makes it easier to market ourselves and hopefully, recruit more Triskelites in the future.

2. Several small publishers have entered the market and done very well in recent years (Peirene and And Other Stories always come to mind) by having both a particular focus and a very strong brand image - what are you doing to keep the Triskele brand distinctive and clear?

Right from the start, we were very concerned about image and design. Having an identifying, recognizable logo backed with strong themes of time and place seems to be working well. Jill came up with the Triskele logo, the origin of which represents what we stand for: three independent circles resembling three scrolls, joined to create something entirely new. And of course, its Celtic connotations tie-in with one of the author’s settings and two of their family origins.

We all had a similar vision for the website design –– simple, clean and bold –– which our designer, Jane Dixon-Smith, executed perfectly. We have no doubt the image will develop over time, but we are all very happy with this starting point.

As for the distinctive brand, when future authors join up, we would expect a similar kind of commitment to quality and to marketing one another’s work as well as one’s own.

3. How does the money work? At Year Zero we absolutely never exchanged money and what to do about money was one of the reasons we ultimately went our different ways. How have you sorted things out to avoid any trouble later?

Triskele Books is a non-profit collective, as each author retains her own rights and profits but for the collective to get started, there had to be a certain, equal, financial commitment from each of us, from the beginning. At the moment Gilly is the financial manager, whereby she opened a separate bank account and deposited an initial float, which was soon matched by the others to cover website, promotional material, design and launch. Gilly sends out bank statements whenever funds are spent and, as and when we need to add funds, we do so, in equal sums. With something like this, trust is mandatory. None of us would have embarked on such a project without total and absolute trust in each other, not only for the financial aspects, but also on an emotional, and nitty-gritty editing level.

4. How difficult is it developing a brand devoted to both a narrow niche and quality within that niche when you're friends?

We’ve found that our friendship is an asset. True friends are those you: 1) would never consciously offend, 2) continually support and encourage, 3) are able to be completely honest and open with, should a problem ever arise.

As for a narrow niche, we see our work as having a pretty broad appeal. We’ve just released two crime novels and one historical fiction, and see our future as including many other genres, not to mention locations. If it’s great writing with a strong sense of place, we want to know. Triskele is a springboard, a platform to promote quality independent writers. It’s also hard work. But when you’re working hard with people you like and who share your ideals, it feels suspiciously like fun.

5. One of the main reasons many people self-publish is to maintain absolute editorial control. Your collective is dedicated to quality and making each book the best it can be. If it ever came to it and the rest of you thought one author's book wasn't up to scratch and they wouldn't change it, who would get final cut?

We all have to agree, unanimously, on any decisions concerning Triskele. We will never publish a book that does not have the full backing and agreement of the other members. This is a collective, and we work things out through discussion. Jill and Gilly faced a tough time a few months back, and got through it by talking and discussing. There are six of us on the Triskele ‘board’ and despite being spread over Europe, we are able to make difficult decisions, fight fires and respect one another’s opinions. We don’t see that ever changing. So if a book wasn’t up to scratch in the eyes of one or more members and the author was resistant to change, we’d have to part company.

6. What are the main things you can do as a collective you can't do individually?

The main thing is sharing workload in terms of editing, marketing and promotion. Each member is allocated certain tasks, which the others know will be done to the best of her ability. Manuscript critiques, editing and proofreading are far more effective in a threesome, rather than trusting one’s own unseeing, unobjective eyes. We rely on each other for all these things, and take comfort in the knowledge that these mammoth tasks are far less daunting when shared. Not only that, but the pressure not to let the others down is even more of an incentive. Lastly, we provide that essential boost when one of us is running low on confidence or energy.

7. Pooling resources and having a diverse skillset like you do is a fabulous bonus for a collective. If people are thinking about starting a collective, how much emphasis should they place on this side of things when deciding on membership, and how should they weigh that against their titles?

Founding a collective is not something to be taken lightly, but we believe our very diversity of skills and styles can be an asset in terms of providing a variety of books for different types of readers, as well as the promotion side of things.

First and foremost, we believe you should look at quality, or level, of writing. Don't join with someone who can talk the talk and has thousands of Facebook and Twitter friends, but who lacks the skill, or ambition, to match your level of writing.

Then look at organization: who can do what. Who has business sense, financial nous, organizational skills. Who can market, and where.

But the most vital thing is, who is reliable, trustworthy; someone you’d be happy to go into business with in the real world, because even though this isn't a company set-up in the strict sense of the word, the commitment is identical. As you know, Dan, there’s a lot of hard work and energy involved in self-publishing, and no ship can afford to carry unseaworthy passengers.
The first three Triskele books are
The Charter by Gillian E. Hamer
Behind Closed Doors by JJ Marsh
Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat

Saturday, 2 June 2012

What Does Life as a Community-builder look like? 1000 true fans revisited part 2

Last time I suggested it might be worth blowing the dust off Kevin Kelly's 1000 true fan theory. So, what would your life as an artist look like if you trod the 1000 true fans path? If you decided that the key was building a community with your work at its centre and doing so one person at a time, maintaining some kind of personal connection with each and never seeking to reach a level where you were unable to maintain that connection.

Well, this is where Kelly goes silent – he makes it clear his research is limited. But we have four years on him now, and I’d like to put forward some tentative suggestions. I’d also like to introduce you all to a friend and very talented performance poet. You may have met her at many of our live shows, and online at the eight cuts blog

Everyone, this is Lucy Ayrton (on the right, performing at Not the Oxford Literary Festival in 2011), and I’m introducing her because Lucy has just started a Facebook page. Here it is. Um, yes, you say, just like a gazillion others. Well, yes and no. First, I received a lovely message from Lucy after the last post, saying it had finally got her into gear to start one up. Second, she has agreed to be my guinea pig and let me follow her progress and occasionally report back here and tell you about the cool things she does. And third, and most important, she already does a lot of cool things. A lot. She is the embodiment of someone who should thrive under the 1000 true fan model, so I couldn’t have a better example – as a performance poet she does lots of things in person, connecting with people – this summer she is taking her first show, Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry, to Edinburgh, where she has spent many summers doing super stuff like poetry takeaway.

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.

Back to generalities. The 1000 true fan approach essentially affects two things about your creative life – the things you do and the things you sell. OK, put together, that’s just about everything. Let me put it simply and then get on with some suggestions.
  1. Know what it is you want to do
  2. Do it the very best you can
  3. Know for whom you are doing it and what it is they are looking for
  4. 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.
Here are some suggestions as to what the fourth of these, in particular, might mean. It’s not an exhaustive or by any means a universally applicable list. Building your own community is something that will carry your own “voice” as distinctively as your writing does. That’s key – after all, this is all about what is distinctive about you and your creativity, and letting that shine through. Any suggestions (and this is a mistake I think gets made a lot by people looking for – and giving – advice) are simply offering means for that shining-throughness (official technical term) and are not the point of the exercise in themselves.

Building your community

I recently interviewed the artist Trevor Bartonover at eight cuts. One of the things he said is that in the new economy markets will be local and global but not national. That’s a very astute observation, and it’s based, I think, on the fact that markets will increasingly be based around communities – just as in 1000 true fans. What this means is that we can build dedicated communities through direct contact, either online or in real life. It’s something I’ve noticed in my own life over the past few years – the two communities are building at the same time but also overlapping and feeding into one another with great results – but they are only able to do that when you are yourself both online and in person – it’s that shining-throughness again – if you’re always you then no one will have any nasty surprises when they meet you in the flesh – or when they see you trolling in a chatroom!
The other thing I would recommend is having a base, somewhere people can catch up with everything you're doing. This may be your Facebook page, a website, a tumblr, or a twitter account, but whichever it is, it needs to be somewhere from where people can find out everything you're doing, where you can link to things, whence you can send out messages that reach everyone, and that's easy to navigate - don't make people hunt high and low to find stuff out. They may want to. If they're fans they probably do. But don't make them.

Giving to your community
This is really the key to building a community – what is it that you can give to people? Another of the things Trevor and I reflected on was the dream of seeing an economy in which the currency was altruism. Imagine that for a moment – seeking not to acquire but to give, dreaming of riches where that could be measured in terms of lives you had touched for the better. That’s basically how 1000 true fans works. You give, because you want to give. Your community gives back because it wants to give to you. Transactionally it may look the same but what is going on at a deeper level is very different. But what do you give, and how? Towering colossus-like over everything else, of course, is your writing. So you write books, right?
Not really. At least, you almost certainly write books, but that’s not the alpha and omega of it. You will be looking to find any way you can to get your work to people. Which may mean blogging, it may mean giveaways, it may mean making pamphlets and leaving them in your local pubs and cafes, it may be going into the pub, asking the landlord, and reading something on a Tuesday afternoon. The key is to give regularly. For reasons I’ll go into in future posts, but are essentially to do with not wanting anyone not to be able to read what I write and the giving ethos, I think it’s a really good idea for your work to be available in some form or other for free (whilst selling some things and offering the option to donate – I will talk about the so-called freemium model in the not too distant).

It should be clear by now that writing on a fairly regular basis is essential – not everyone is suited to the 1000 true fans model. You need to be comfortable with a certain degree of public-facingness (I’m just loving these double barrelled nesses!). And you need to write regularly – though not all of it the same kind of writing. The following might all be part of what you do (I’ll devote posts to each in coming weeks)
  • 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

What your community can give to you

If you do it right and build the right community, that community will want to give back to you. Some can afford more than others and it’s good to ensure that no one is excluded from your work or from your community, so offering a range of ways of doing things is good.
  • 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
Next time we come back to 1000 true fans we'll look at some of these in more detail.

Friday, 1 June 2012

In it Together: Writers' Collectives (1)

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, 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:

The Premise
The publishing industry stands in its current monolithic state because writers have bought into three myths.
Myth 1: An author needs a publisher
Fact: An author needs a printer. And customers.
Myth 2: A first-time author needs an agent
Fact: Getting a publisher is much, much easier if you have an agent. See myth 1
Myth 3: Writers are in direct competition with other writers for "slots" on the lists of a handful of publishers.
Fact: Books are in competition with other books for the attention of time- and cash-limited readers.
Writers believe that there are insurmountable obstacles to operating outside the strictures laid down by the publishing establishment. These perceived obstacles are: the impossibility of an inexpert individual with finite time and resources generating sufficient interest in his or her book to make it a viable source of income; and the perception that in readers' eyes the poor quality of print on demand books means that their book will not receive a reader's serious attention. It is my contention that these two obstacles are built on the false assumption of the truth of the third myth.
It is my contention that unpublished (and, indeed, published) writers stand the best chance of reaching an audience and making their writing viable by working with and not against other unpublished writers. It is my further contention that each additional writer committed to working with his or her fellow-writers increases the effectiveness of the group as a whole in the manner of a geometric and not and arithmetic progression. That is to say, three writers working together produce more effectiveness than three writers working separately. Furthermore, if this model is true, then each writer's maximum potential will be reached by cooperating with, and not competing against or reneging on, other writers.
What I am proposing is the viability of an entirely writer-led cooperative that would take projects through the entire process from the moment a first draft is finished to the moment the book is in the customer's hands. The whole process would be carried out "in house", using only the technical printing facility of a print on demand press.
The principle
  • 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 details
  • 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
Quality Control
This is one of writing's big white elephants – that an individual book will fail because of its peers; that an inability to enforce quality control will be to the detriment of other works within an imprint. This is one of those situations where the positive (that success will be bred from being part of a successful imprint) is true whilst its negative corollary (that failure will be bred by being alongside lesser books) does not necessarily follow. It should be stated first:
  • 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.
An internet catalogue that gives the readers the first three chapters , blurb, and cover, will allow an informed choice of reading material, and prominence within the catalogue could be based upon recent sales so that marketability breeds market position.
My invitation
Please feel free to use the comments on this post to discuss the issues raised, or to express your interest in taking part in a group discussion if you would be interested in joining such a scheme.
These are just ideas. Obviously it would be great – and might even generate some publicity – to get hundreds of writers together to launch a scheme like this once the details have been thrashed out – maybe with an open letter to every media outlet we can find; but in practice these things tend to need a vanguard. So I'm considering the possibility of starting with ten or twenty writers whose books are very much in a similar vein to mine, and seeing if a single, contemporary fiction imprint, could be made to work along these lines as a standalone, with the benefits of a little but not a great big lot of scale on its side. Of course I have a list of names in mind of people working on similar projects to mine, whose work is at a similar stage, but I'll always welcome others.
What next?
If anyone's interested, let's spend January discussing, some of us maybe meet in February. In March we launch a website for a contemporary literary (and slightly quirky/experimental) imprint, putting up the intros and blurbs for the first raft of books, and inviting interest through a multimedia marketing push, with a blog to keep in touch with readers, and a timetable to take us through the editing, rewriting, and design process to the launch of the first books in summer