Posts Tagged ‘ youwriteon. The Gambia ’

Bearded Ladies And Overweight Donkeys: Benjamina White On Role Models

Day Five

Equal rights for women.

So who came up with that idea? And why, in western society almost a century after one woman threw herself under a horse to make the point, is it still even being discussed?

My partner is female. My daughter is female. My co-author is female. Equal rights? They run the bloody show!

But pause a moment and take a good look at that photo. A young woman throws herself in front of  the King’s horse at Epsom. Four days later Emily Davison is dead. She gave her life in the fight for equality. The year was 1913.

One hundred years on and what have we achieved? Okay, so women got the vote in 1918.

Well, actually they didn’t. Women in the UK got the vote in 1918 ONLY if they were over the age of 30, were householders or married to a householder, or if they held a university degree. It was another ten years before all women got the vote in the UK.

As for equality…  Margaret Cavendish, left,  was arguing the case for equality as far back as the 1640s. Yet it took until 1918 just to get a sniff of the vote.

A century on and we all know, however much we hate to admit it, that gender still matters. That being born male still, unjustly, gives us many advantages in society.

Yes, there are now “equal opportunities,” or so they have us believe, and things have changed for the better. No question.

But we all know that if you’re female you probably have to work twice as hard to get the “equality” you deserve. So how is that equal?


As writers, things are different. Gone are the days when the likes of Mary Anne Evans (left), to have any hope of getting her novel even looked at, had to pretend she was a man, George Eliott. And let’s be glad she did. The world of literature would be that much poorer if we did not have Silas Marner and The Mill On The Floss.

Today, JK Rowling is of course the most commercially successful writer on the planet, the richest woman and God know what else besides. My own favourite author, Enid Blyton, may not have made as much money, but her sales totals over the decades must compare well with the venerable JK’s, and with none of the hype and films and spin-offs to bump up those numbers. What a gal!

Does a writer’s gender determine their chances of getting published? Or of being read?

Hopefully not. But it does determine who might publish them, and more importantly who might read them.

Because our reading inclinations are very much determined in childhood.

Had I not had a younger sister, and access to all her books, comics, etc, I would almost certainly have been locked into a male-orientated reading world where action, adventure and mayhem were the only things I would look at. For those who missed the discussion on heroines of children’s literature, checkout the archives.

Bottom line is, my childhood reading had lots of great girl role models, and often I found them more appealing than the gun-toting war heroes, footballers and action-men that dominated the books I was “supposed to read.”  Characters like that of the superb child actor Chloe Moretz in the film Kick Ass were in short supply in my childhood. There were strong girl characters, but none kicked ass like Chloe!

Role models are just so important.

In the patriarchal society I live in, here in West Africa, that is especially true. Females outnumber males by four to one. But men rule the roost.

Things are changing, and I spend a lot of time visiting schools to try and help facilitate that change, but it’s slow and tortuous.

Some girls here receive an education. If they are lucky. Most girls never finish school, even if they start, because it’s simply unaffordable for the parents year after year. If you have to choose between your son or daughter going to school, the son is the one with most chance of getting a job later and supporting the family into old age. In a land where pension schemes do not exist your children are your pension scheme.

So are girls and women here in West Africa downtrodden and miserable? Not a bit of it. Of course there are cruel exceptions, just as back in “civilization,” but by and large happiness is a plentiful commodity. Especially among the children. In fact, I guarantee you will not find happier children anywhere.

But unless you’ve been here and lived their day to day reality you’ll never understand why they can be so happy with so little.

What would it take to change the lives of girls like those above? A new barbie doll? A pink mobile phone with fifty ring tones? A sleepover after a KFC feast? The latest computer game? Or how about this:

Thanks for briefly sharing my world. Now back to yours.

As girls grow up they have few role models to look up to. Now maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I certainly wouldn’t want my daughter doting on Paris Hilton, or thinking that success is getting yourself on a televised “talent” show, or…

Fact is, there are just so many bad role models for girls out there right now. And there is nothing more disturbing to me than impressionable pre-teen girls dressing like Jodie Foster in Taxi-Driver, trying to emulate role models that are nothing more than z-list celebs who got where they are by flashing silicone-implanted flesh and being unbelievably vacuous.

Isn’t that just the twenty-first century equivalent of sleeping with the boss?

So I’m always on the lookout for new role models for my daughter, her friends, and the other girls here. Chloe Moretz, right, in Kick Ass would be great if it wasn’t for the language used.

But what I love about Chloe’s character is that it shows boys and girls on an equal footing without compromising on the fact that they are girls.

I stress that last point. Equality does not mean females aspiring to be males. It does not mean giving up on “girlie” things and being “one of the lads.” Girls should be proud to be girls. Men and women are different for a reason. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Vive la difference!

But true equality means acknowledging flaws just as much as it means acknowledging strengths.

Pretty profound, huh? Wish I’d written that, but actually I stole it from today’s green room guest, the delectable, gorgeously adorable Benjamina White.

Now you’ve probably never heard of Benjamina White. To be honest, nor had I until a month or so back when past MWI guest Marion G Harmon (left) drew my attention to one of Benjamina’s books. Marion is the author of the wonderful superhero novel Wearing The Cape, which I featured here back whenever it was. I absolutely adored it. Not one but two fantastic female MCs. Well only one, Astra, according to Marion, but there’s another gal in there, Artemis, who absolutely stole the show.

Both great role models, although I’d much prefer my daughter look up to Astra than Artemis. Astra is cool, clean-living and respects her parents. Artemis is more your cool dark-avenger by night, with attitude. Oh, and she’s dead. Highly recommended.

But Astra isn’t the only kick-ass female superhero in town. Because the aforementioned Benjamina White (that’s her below with the Ascot hat) happened to have created one too. Charlotte Powers is her name, and she’s fifteen. Which also happens to be the age as one of my guests in the MWi green room next week.

Back to Charlotte Powers. When Marion told me about Charlotte I of course was on the next flight to Kindleland and smuggling a copy back through customs. Benjamina lives in New Zealand and if you’ve ever thought there can’t be much to do in New Zealand except write books, it seems you may be right. Benjamina knocks them out every few days. Of course, being in New Zealand, that’s where they stayed. Until the Kindle changed our world forever.

And the great thing is, they’re all about girls kicking ass. Which of course is what we’d expect from a sassy female writer like Benjamina, right?

Okay, so here I have to make a confession. Two, in fact.

First, I edited Benjamina’s post. Something I never do. But only for the spelling of “ass” which had been originally rendered in the traditional British English as “arse”.  That’s part of a separate debate we’ll have soon about how a universal English standard will emerge as all books become digital. But for now, I changed arse to ass not because I’m pandering to our growing number of American readers (not a chance – learn proper English, damn you!), but because arse is such an ugly word. You can’t smile and say arse at the same time. You can with ass.

Come to that, you can’t smile and say donkey either. Ass is just so versatile!

Secondly, those of you paying attention will have realised by now Benjamina is in fact Ben. Yeah, the beard sort of gave it away, I know.  I did ask him to shave it off and put on his favourite frock, but he spent so long trying to choose which one I just gave up waiting. As for the shoes…

So Benjamina is in fact male. But hey, this is about equal opportunities, right? So give the guy a break and listen up as he explains why he writes books about girls. And not just any girls. Girls that kick arse ass.

Here’s Ben:

All right, so someone’s finally pulled me up on the ‘girls kicking ass’ thing.  Someone’s finally read that line in my bio and stopped and said, “I’m intrigued, tell me more”, and now I have to actually think about things.  So thanks a lot, you made me THINK.

To be honest it first came about because I was searching for a way to unify my books, to find a common thread between them.  Many authors write a single series and see it through to the end before beginning another; I admit that I sometimes envy those authors.  Although I love writing sequels and I feel that I’m at my best as a writer when I’m elbow-deep in the middle of a series, with all of the juicy history and characters and internal mythology that brings, I just can’t seem to ignore a new story idea once it takes hold.

I had planned to be working on the sequel to Charlotte Powers in February of this year, instead I found myself writing about an entirely new girl who came out of nowhere along with a horde of horrible zombies.  (That’s Imogen Shroud, for those of you keeping score.)

So what I’m left with is a bunch of different series to try to tie together, and although there are several themes that do keep popping up in my books–the necessity of family, wherever you might find it, the high cost of freedom, the (clearly ridiculous) notion that Those In Charge may not have your best interests at heart–the fact is that none of those themes are as exciting or interesting or, let’s get right down to it, fun as Girls Kicking Ass.

And so I claim, half-joking, half-serious, that my books fall into the sub-sub-genre of ‘girls kicking ass’.  Genre has always been a tricky thing for me–like most writers I just try to tell the best story I can, then after it’s done I start thinking about which holes it might fit into.  Sometimes it’s easy (Imogen Shroud is Survival Horror) and sometimes it’s hard (I still don’t know what Resonance is, Dark Ensemble Superpowered Fantasy maybe?).

In general I label my books as YA, and I’m proud to do it, but these days it’s just such a wide genre that the term no longer holds all that much meaning.  So it’s a challenge to try to define myself and my books, but Girls Kicking Ass is comfortable for me, and so I’m happy to occupy this niche.

If you read any of my books you are guaranteed to find a girl, and you are guaranteed that she is going to kick a certain amount of ass.  Even The Boy & Little Witch, a children’s book I wrote without much in the way of ass-kicking opportunities, has the character of Little Witch, who kicks a modest amount of ass with words alone.

So why do I write about girls kicking ass?  For a start, because girls DO kick ass, and I think this is something that, quite frankly, isn’t being shouted loudly enough.

Oh, it’s talked about, but compared to boys girls are sorely lacking in the ass-kicking role models department.  We’re TOLD that ‘girls can do anything’ but my feeling is that this isn’t SHOWN nearly enough.

Hollywood especially is so, so guilty of this, giving us (and I’m paraphrasing here but I can’t find where I read it; apologies to the original writer) supermodel scientists who also happen to be expert marksmen and kung-fu masters.  We’re TOLD that they’re ‘strong female characters’, but really this is the worst kind of lowest common denominator pandering and does no good at all to anyone.

Of course, it’s not all bad.  Lately we’re getting a few more strong female characters in mainstream media, and that’s good, but it’s not enough.  I’m greedy!  I want more.  And the young female ass-kicker in particular is a rare bird indeed–although let me take this opportunity to share a little Game of Thrones Arya Stark love.  And if we’re talking female ass-kickers in mainstream media I’d be remiss not to mention Avatar (not the James Cameron thing, the proper one), in which we have such significantly ass-kicking young female characters as Katara, Azula, and of course Toph.

If you don’t know the show (and why not, it’s great), Toph is a tiny little blind twelve year-old girl who happens to be the greatest earthbender in the world.  Naturally, she’s my favourite character (well, if I’m honest Iroh is my favourite character, but Toph is a very close second–and this isn’t about Old People Kicking Ass (although who doesn’t enjoy that?), it’s about Girls Kicking Ass).

Just one more example of a strong female character in mainstream media: Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series of games.  This is particularly interesting because you have the choice to make Shepard a man or a woman–and yet to me, it’s no choice at all; Shepard is a woman, and this is a hugely important part of her character.  It’s hard to define exactly why it’s so important to me that Shepard be a woman (I doubt I’d have half the interest in the story if the choice to play as female didn’t exist), but I think it might have something to do with the fact that seeing a strong, complex, intelligent, charismatic female character in a military sci-fi setting delivering rousing speeches and kicking ass in a myriad of ways is so unfortunately rare.

How many times have you seen a big macho alpha male space marine type giving his troops the “Let’s go get ’em!” speech before a big operation?  And how many times have you seen that kind of speech performed by a woman?  How much more brilliantly insanely awesome is headbutting a Krogan when it’s a girl doing it?

Female characters just don’t get enough of these moments, and when they do I find it both refreshing and wonderful.  (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the female Shepard is voiced by the amazing Jennifer Hale.)

Another reason that I’m interested in this particular subject/theme/concept is that I’m afflicted with that peculiar ailment known as ‘daughters’.  I have two of the blessed things, just can’t seem to shake ’em. To be serious, they’re the joy of my life and amuse and bewilder and delight me on a daily basis, and I wouldn’t be without them for all the tea and biscuits in the world (and that’s a lot of tea, and that’s a lot of biscuits).

I wrote the first ‘Miya Black, Pirate Princess’ novel before my first daughter was born, and the character of Miya Black was in some ways based on the girl I felt that my as-yet unborn daughter might someday grow up to be. I know it’s odd, but there you have it.

So aside from simply enjoying the concept of girls kicking ass, I’d like to think that perhaps, someday, if I’m lucky, my daughters will grow up to BE girls who can kick at least a moderate amount of ass.  And to help with that they need–yep, you knew it was coming–strong female role models, not just in their life but in all forms of media.

It’s my belief that popular culture has a strong influence on people, especially young people, but it’s not violence or sex or bad language that’s damaging, it’s seeing people behaving wrongly and having that wrong behaviour be reinforced as ‘normal’.

So-called ‘reality’ shows are particularly poisonous, showing dishonesty, disloyalty, greed, vanity, success-at-any-cost and so forth as normal, even positive.  And so now we have a significant portion of people who think this kind of behaviour is okay.  How do we fight this?  I’m glad you asked, because the answer is (goodness, how did you guess?) positive role models, both male and female.

One small point I’d like to make clear is that, to me, a ‘positive role model’ doesn’t have to be a perfect Lawful Good type who never makes mistakes and who has no flaws.  To me, that’s a pretty weak role model.  Role models have to be relatable, we have to form a connection with them, we have to see a part of ourselves in them, and not only that, but see them in ourselves.

I’m not going to lie, this is hard, and I don’t know how often I succeed.  But I think good characters shine through, and we can learn even from ‘wrong’ characters–the important thing is not to show wrong behaviour as ‘normal’ without comment, and not to present it in a positive light.

One example that springs immediately to mind is Edward’s behaviour in the Twilight books, which is creepy and stalkerish and domineering and pretty disgusting, actually.  His relationship with Bella (who is by no means blameless) bears not even the slightest resemblance to a healthy, mature, adult relationship, and yet it’s presented as the most perfect romance in the world.  And so, poison.

If you’re a mature, reasonable person you’re somewhat immune, you read it and think “rubbish” and move on to a better book, but to someone lacking in life experience, such as the millions of teenagers the books are marketed to, they might read it and think “normal?” or even “desirable” or at the worst “justification for my own terrible, terrible behaviour”.  I wouldn’t stop my daughters from reading the Twilight books, but there would be some pretty long discussions afterwards.

Yes, I realise I just lost about a billion potential readers for describing the Twilight books as ‘poison’.  But in my idealistic heart of hearts I also like to think I might have gained a couple, who read that and thought “YES”.  You, theoretical and possibly imaginary reader, are MY target audience.

Now, most everything I’ve been saying here is from a Western perspective, focused on Western media.  But a lot of my influence comes from Japanese media; books, animation, comics, even games.  Although in general I think Japan lags behind most Western cultures as far as equality of the sexes is concerned, they’ve just about got it right with their media–well, mostly. 

 This is, after all, the country that invented ‘fan service’, and some Japanese media is exploitative-bordering-on-offensive (or just flat-out old-fashioned sexist), but if you look at the really good Japanese anime and manga and games and so forth you’ll find plenty of strong characters of both sexes, and female characters who are not only allowed to be intelligent, independent, brave, good at kicking ass and so on, but also clumsy, cruel, crazy, given to human frailty and (goodness me) who also get THEIR asses kicked from time to time, and not just by other girls (ie the ‘designated girl fight’ we all know and roll our eyes at, where the token ‘good’ female character is only allowed to fight the token ‘bad’ female character). 

I think this is really important, and something I work hard to show in my own books–that girls don’t JUST kick ass.  That a woman can be just as small, weak and flawed as a man–that a woman can be just as human as a man.  That girls can get dirty, that they can get beaten up, that they can suffer through indignity and pain and hardship, that they can make terrible choices and live with the consequences of their actions, that some people WILL, in fact, hit a girl … but that some of those girls will hit back just as hard–or harder.  That girls CAN do anything, including being flawed, imperfect human beings. 

 True equality means acknowledging flaws just as much as it means acknowledging strengths.

And yet this isn’t just about equality, although that’s an important–vital–ideal and something we should all be striving towards.  Even if the world were perfect and diversity was not just tolerated but actually celebrated (I can dream, can’t I?) I’d still be writing about girls kicking ass because that’s what I enjoy.  There’s something so appealing about it, I don’t know whether it’s rarity value, or the power and beauty of that mother bear ferocity, or the fact that I’ve been fortunate enough to have strong female role models around me all my life–and I think guys need strong female role models almost as much as girls do, just like girls need strong male role models.

We need others to show us how to act, to show us what we can become, and men have a feminine side just as women have a masculine side, and bringing those sides into balance is an important step towards emotional maturity.

Maybe it’s the whole David vs Goliath concept, that girls tend to be smaller and at least appear to be physically weaker than men, and we all love seeing the little guy win.  Maybe it’s that having a hells-damned determined girl tear through the world imposing her will upon it is greatly appealing to me.  Maybe it’s just that I find female characters more comfortable, easier to relate to, more fun to write.  Whatever the reason, the fact is this: I love seeing girls kick ass, and I love writing about them doing so.

I’ll close by stealing the words of another writer, just to prove that I am a proper author.  Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and other works featuring Girls Kicking Ass (I haven’t actually watched Buffy myself but I’m told it’s pretty good and that the girls in it do indeed kick a substantial amount of ass), apparently gets asked this question quite a bit:

“Why do you write these strong female characters?”

And the answer he sometimes gives, the answer that resonates the most with myself personally (and I am paraphrasing here):

“Why are you even asking me that?  Why aren’t you asking those hundred other guys out there why they’re NOT writing strong female characters?  Why do I write strong female characters?  Because you’re still asking that question.

And that, boys and girls, says it all.


Reformation & Renaissance – the future of publishing.

I’m an optimist.

In this game, you have to be.

I’m optimistic that you’re reading this blog. Okay, perhaps not quite so optimistic you’ll ever come back, but it’s a start.

But this post is about optimism. Because anyone who has written a book, let alone submitted it or had it published, is an optimist.

It is a triumph of hope over experience to stare at that blank page / screen and start hitting keys with the intention of producing x-thousand words of coherent story that will interest and entertain a complete stranger. No sane person would even contemplate it!

But optimism is what keeps us sat at the keyboard until the very last word is in place.  Optimism is what has us sending the ms out time and again despite the cruel and heartless rejections from evil agents on a mission to make our lives a misery. Optimism is what has us stick our books on Kindle and let “real people” judge them.

So why are we so pessimistic about the future of publishing?

To be sure the Konrathian soothsayers haven’t helped. Predicting the demise of publishing is their stock in trade. And of course we all love to read Joe’s latest rant on how evil the publishers are, how paper is dead, and how everyone should rush out and indie e-publish this very second. We all love to read how Barry Eisler turned down x-gazillion dollars to be a self-published indie, etc, etc.

But sometimes we have to take a step back and make sure we’re all reading from the same script. That same Joe that is telling us paper is dead is bemoaning indie booksellers not stocking his paper books. And haven’t these two just signed up with Amazon’s new publishing venture to have Amazon produce their books both as ebooks and on paper?

Is the Big 6 about to become the Big 7?

So in fact paper isn’t dead at all. But all credit to these guys for knowing how to generate hype and get sales boosted. Who needs a Big 6 publisher to buy you a plinth in Barnes & Noble when you can have the virtual plinth on Amazon?


But the statistics speak for themselves. Paper sales are declining. And as ereaders become the norm it seems likely paper will continue to decline, to the point where it is a luxury niche market.

So is this the end for publishing?

Back in 2009 there were two schools of thought. Either this “new” epublishing fad would die a death and paper would remain king (the experience of the newspaper industry being a classic example) or the Big 6 were finished.

As one leading pundit said in April 2009, the Big 6 were not even “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – they’re staying put and ordering more piña coladas and charging them to rooms that are already underwater.”

Two years on the Big 6 are most definitely still with us, and while there’s no question they are changing, there’s little sign that they are going under. Which will be a great disappointment to Konrath, but should be a big relief to the rest of us.

But there’s no doubt opinion is divided about which way things will go. And two of my must-read bloggers have run posts recently which have epitomised this debate.

First came Meghan Ward (left) in a post called 10 Ways To Save Publishing.

I commend the post to you for its list of things we all should be doing, as readers and writers. Buying more books. Reading more books. Reading to our kids. Etc, etc.

But as I said in response to Meghan’s post, “I agree with everything you said bar the reason for saying it!”

As an aside, Meghan’s Memoir May event over at writerland is just drawing to a close, but be sure to check out her guest Rachel Howard (right) who has a post this week on writing memoir using the second person singular.

Meghan by the way is a professional editor. Surely everyone’s dream job?! Getting paid to read all the latest books before anyone else knows they exist! If you ever need an apprentice, Meghan…

Then this past week along came Lexi Revellian with a great post entitles Who Chooses What You Read?

By which Lexi meant who chooses the choice available from which you choose to read. In Lexi’s own words:

If you go to a bookshop, what catches your eye, the piles of books in the window or on a table near the entrance, or books spine out on the bottom shelf at the back of the shop? Most members of the public are unaware that the prominent books are not those the manager has selected on merit; publishers have paid a lot of money for particular books to be well displayed.

Please tell us your desk isn't always the tidy, Lexi!

Thanks for that poignant reminder of reality, Lexi.

Invariably what sells best is what the publishers put most money into to make sure it sells best.

As for the rest… The simple fact is, most traditionally published books are lucky to sell just a thousand copies.

Which is why Lexi has every reason to be delighted her latest book, Replica, which is a feel-good thriller with a sci fi element, has already sold nearly 5,000 copies, and has only been out five minutes.

Although that pales into insignificance compared to her first feel-good thriller Remix, which has sold over 22,000 copies. And no, not by pandering to the least-savoury elements of the thriller market. If you like fast-paced thrillers that you wouldn’t  be embarrassed to read out loud to your grandmother, then Lexi’s books are for you.

But despite 25,000 happy readers Lexi has yet to capture the interest of the UK agents.

Why? because her books don’t tick the right boxes to be commercially viable . Which comes back to the matter of the huge expense necessary to publish a paper book.

So can we assume the publishers only publish books they know  will sell? Far from it.

Another tragic reality of traditional publishing is that most bookstores stock “new” books for maybe three months before returning them. To be pulped. Yep, brand new, unread books, many still in their packing cases, being pulped. Those that escape this ignominious fate go to the discount stores, having been bought up in bulk for a pittance by an optimistic reseller. There simply isn’t enough room in even the biggest bookstore to stock everything

The fact is, publishers print far more books than they expect to sell, just in case they have a successful breakout book on their hands. They expect to have substantial returns, even on big names, and budget accordingly.

Put simply, most books fail to sell. Fact.

Yes, the majority of books that pass the gatekeepers’ test and get into print are then rejected by the true gatekeepers: the buying public. Although again, by reject I mean that in most cases the buying public just never knew these books existed.

So one can understand the pessimism of both Meghan and Lexi about the future. Paper sales are plummeting, giant bookselling chains like Borders are in liquidation, and Konrath and co have already written the orbituaries for the Big 6 and are there, spades in hand, digging their graves.

But I disagree. I simply cannot see the end for the Big 6 or for publishing.

Just the opposite in fact.


No question there is a revolution in publishing taking place. It is a Reformation unparalleled in publishing history.

But far from seeing the death-throes of publishing I think we are seeing a painful rebirth. A revival – dare I say a Renaissance? – on an unprecedented scale, where every author who has a good quality book will, in the near future, have a chance to reach an audience.

Of course, those that are unwilling or unable to adapt will go to the wall.

Yes, there will be casualties along the way, and real people will lose real jobs in publishing, printing, book-selling, distribution, et al.

But get real. The days of carting shed-loads of printed blocks of paper around the country so people can buy them is coming to an end. The loss of huge stores like Borders is of course a tragedy, but dinosaurs become extinct.

Are less books being sold since Borders closed? Less paper, perhaps, but e-books are surely more than countering that, and ebook sales will increase exponentially as technology improves and the range of available titles is widened.

The epublishing revolution opens up huge new opportunities for those willing and able to take advantage.

Agents and editors will need to adapt and change, for sure, but their skills and service will still be needed. More so than ever before as the indie movement finds that quantity alone cannot compete with quality.

The big publishers are investing massively in digital, however much they try to appear aloof from it all. They have the financial muscle to do so, and at the end of the day they will make more money, not less, as the industry stabilises in the new world where paper will be the luxury niche.

The future for readers, writers and those publishers willing and able to move with the times, is brighter than at any time in history.

How so? Consider:

Traditionally an author’s chances of being published were governed by one single factor: can the publisher hope to get a return on the huge financial investment needed to bring a book to market.

For those that get the coveted place in the window display or on the plinth, yes. But unless you’re a celebrity, a mega-selling author, or are sleeping with the CEO the chances of that happening are remote.

If you are published, your fate will inevitably be a few book signings in your local store and then a place on the shelf, spine out, among however many hundreds of thousands of other books that are in the store with you.

And this is why, day after day, week in week out, perfectly good books are being rejected by agents and publishers across the globe.

The points Lexi makes about being an anonymous spine in a bookshop are exactly why so many perfectly good books are rejected. Former Big 6 editor turned million-selling author Ruth Harris spills the beans about reasons why agents may reject your book in her guest post over at Anne R Allen’s blog.

Of course agents rightly turn away appallingly written manuscripts by the hour. But they also turn away perfectly good ones. And the key reason for that is quite simple:

It’s because they are not commercially viable.

That doesn’t mean no-one will buy them. It means not enough people will find them and buy them such that they will recover the tens of thousands of pounds / dollars outlay required to publish in the first place.

Let’s hear that once more: It doesn’t mean no-one will buy them. It means not enough people will find them and buy them such that they will recover the tens of thousands of pounds / dollars outlay required to publish in the first place.

But now, with epublishing, there’s suddenly infinite shelf space for infinite categories and sub-categories, and the most intimate niche markets can be catered for with negligible outlay by the publisher.

Far from being less books, publishers can now reproduce their entire backlist of everything they’ve ever published (if they have the rights) and once that happens readers will be able to read that book they loved as a child, long since out of print, or a novel previously only available in some far off land.

And prices will come down.

Publishers will only need to pay for the time of the editor, proof-reader, formatter and a few other key staff.

Cover design is now a simple front page. No back cover or spine to worry about.

No time and resources spent physically producing, storing and distributing  heavy books.

No collecting and pulping the unsold titles. In fact, not a single wasted product.

Whether it sells a single copy or a million copies the production cost is identical (bar the author’s advance, perhaps).

And of course, the book will never again be “out of print”, “not in stock”, only available in if you live in a big city, or any of a thousand other reasons that buyers previously could not buy a book they wanted.

Far from turning away perfectly good authors because their book is commercially unviable, publishers will be queuing up to find new authors with a decent product, because any good book wll be commercially viable.

And it won’t matter whether the author or reader lives in New York or New Zealand. Don’t tell Barnes & Nobel, but there’s a whole wide world outside the United States. (When will it occur to them that’s why Amazon is leaving them standing?)

A revolution is taking place that we are not just witnessing, but are participants in. It’s up to us how far we get involved, but burying our heads in the sand is no longer an option. Peer-review sites like authonomy and youwriteon, are you listening?

It may take a few years to stabilise, and there will be casualties along the way. But when it does settle down there will be a whole new world of opportunity for both readers and writers.

Not to mention the publishers…

The glass is half full!

The future is bright. The future is digital.

PS Literally just having posted this article my attention was drawn, via the above mentioned Lexi, to a post over at The Daily Beast where Dale Peck has a very different take on the future. Check it out. Join the debate!

Becoming a Rhino – Gerry McCullough’s Story

When an attachment about a rhino first arrived in my in-box it had had me flummoxed.

Plenty of hippos in this part of West Africa, but rhinos are in short supply. Was this a safari enquiry? Or maybe a recipe suggestion?

In fact it was from Gerry McCullough, author of Belfast Girls.

Rhinos? That will become clear as we go.

I’d asked Gerry to share with us her path to publication. Had she discovered the magic formula to instant success?

Sadly, no. It’s another forlorn tale of hope and disappointment, of  dreams and reality, and of rejection and redemption. But yeah, mostly rejection.

Rejection underpins the lives of amost all authors, no matter how successful they are now. And in a weird kind of way, we as wannabe writers thrive on other peoples’ rejection stories.

They give us the will to live when we begin to doubt ourselves, as yet another beautifully crafted rejection slip arrives in the post or our email in-box.

We love to remind ourselves how the venerable JK’s first Harry Potter manuscript was dismissed by the gatekeepers time after time, including the biggest names in British publishing, and then given a tiny print run and was almost never heard of again.

We love to hear how John Grisham got up an hour early every day to write his first novel, only to have it rejected by twelve publishers and fifteen agents who thought they knew best.

Which of course they must do, right?

Agents and publishers are the gatekeepers, after all. Or so some seem to think.

Jenny Bent is a New York based literary agent who thankfully doesn’t see things that way, but readily admits she’s pretty much on her own. This from her latest blog:

“A year or two ago I was having lunch with an old friend, someone I think both intelligent and savvy, the publisher of a largish imprint at a major house. We had a disagreement about what was going to happen as e-books became more popular. His position was that readers would always need the big publishing houses because they needed to have their content filtered, so to speak–because as agents, editors, and publishers, we had a certain kind of literary taste or standard and we needed to pass that along to the reader”

I’ll be coming back to the issue of agents and publishers as gate-keepers in a near-future blog. But for now, before we move on to Gerry McCullough properly, sit back and enjoy a few more examples of the gate-keepers showing their “certain kind of literary taste or standard,” as Jenny so elegantly puts it.

Let us be forever thankful for the gatekeeper who spotted the mindless drivel some up-start wannabe writer tried to palm off on a professional publisher. Wisely he passed on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold to a rival with the comment, “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” So said another gatekeeper publisher as he saved us from the banal witterings of this new guy, Stephen King.

William Golding’s Lord Of the Flies managed to upset an impressive twenty publishers. One noted thoughtfully, “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”

“I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” With those words a young Rudyard was sent packing by those who know best.

“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA,” said a publisher who slightly misunderstood the point of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Another talentless wannabe, Margaret Mitchell, managed to rack up no less than 38 rejections for her ludicrous attempt at a manuscipt before some two-bit publishing outfit got fed up with her pestering them and gave it a small print run. Then some idiot went and made a film about it.

They both flopped, of course. I mean, whoever heard of Gone With The Wind?

But apart from being writers, what do all the above have in common with Gerry McCullough?

Answer: They never gave up.

Here’s Gerry’s story:

I’ve been writing since childhood, with the encouragement of my primary school teachers, but it was when I was in my teens that I started sending things off to publishers/ magazines, and piling up the rejections.

PG Wodehouse once said that he had enough rejections to paper the walls of his study. By the time I had a study, I had enough rejections to paper all four walls and the downstairs loo as well.

My dream was to be a great writer on the lines of Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, acknowledged as a good writer by the literary critics but also a bestseller popular with the reader-in-the-street.

I had no idea how impossible that is in today’s publishing world.

Ten years ago, I had my first acceptance, a short story for a popular Irish weekly magazine. I was flying. This was it – no more refusals, now!

Well, no. The same magazine seemed happy to accept anything else I sent them but not many others were. The rejections kept coming.

A few years later I won the Cuirt Award for New International Writing for a more literary short story.  This is a prestigious Irish award from Galway Arts Festival. Again, I saw this as a real breakthrough – but it wasn’t.

Did I see myself as a short story writer?  No. I’ve written lots of short stories and had quite a few published but meanwhile I’ve also written at least six novels, the first completed and unsuccessfully submitted to publishers in my mid-to-late teens.

I badly wanted to have a novel published.

Another breakthrough – I thought – was when a local agent accepted me and started to push my book, Dangerous Games.

This was the story of three girls growing up in Belfast. Originally set during the Troubles, it had been re-written for the modern post-conflict era of drugs and money. Sound familiar? Yes, with a change of title it became Belfast Girls.

After a year of unsuccessful submissions, my agent suggested that I put it up on, the HarperCollins online slush pile, and I did.

The rest is history – the history of a hard slog.

I worked to make my book visible, reading other books and commenting on them in the hope that their authors would be polite enough to at least look at mine in return. Mostly they were. I think if the book had been rubbish they wouldn’t have gone further.

But in fact by April last year, at the end of five months, I had reached the top five, earning my book a review by an HC reader and the possibility of a publishing contract. I held on to my Top Five place until the end of April and then waited another six weeks for the review.

I had convinced myself by now that a contract offer would follow.

Alas, although the reader said some very flattering things about the book, no publishing deal emerged. It was a bitter disappointment.

Rejections still pierce.

I haven’t yet developed the hide of a rhino, which my friend Sam Millar, the crime writer, says all authors need.

HC wanted me to turn my book into either a romance or a thriller, and I wasn’t up for that. Belfast Girls is about life – which means romance, thriller, comedy and much more.

I’m delighted to say that the exposure of being on Authonomy won my book the interest of quite a few smaller publishers. 

Of these, Night Publishing was happy to take it as it was, without trying to push it into a genre. They offered me a contract on 1 July (a fortnight after the HC review) and a few weeks later I decided to go for it.

By the end of November, the book was for sale on as a paperback and on both Kindles, etc, in eBook format.

Then came the really hard work.

Lots of articles are written about how to sell your book online and you’ll be glad to hear this isn’t yet another one.

At first I tried to sell my paperbacks. About a month ago, I realised that the major sales were coming from the eBooks, and started to concentrate on that.

I’d had quite a few interviews on blogs, which was nice – but I’m not sure how many books it sold.

I’d been on local radio, with a wide audience, three times, with the prospect of more, and I’d had a number of good reviews in local newspapers and magazines. Writer Garbhan Downey compared me to Andre Malraux, and said my book was about the human condition, which pleased me a lot, because that was the intention.

I was getting the literary appreciation I’d hoped for. But what about the bestseller status?

Did I need to change, to label my book ‘Romance’? Change the title and cover and description? I thought about it.

Meanwhile, my husband had set me up on Facebook with a Fan page, and I began to make use of this.

Suddenly I saw the book begin to climb the bestseller lists on Kindle UK.

I didn’t, like Byron, wake up one morning to find myself famous. But I did wake up one morning to find myself well up the Women’s Literary Fiction list, at No.32. Last Sunday I came home to see that I had reached No.13. I was also halfway up the Literary Fiction and the Contemporary Romance lists.

Since then it’s been continual movement.  I hope I’ve at last reached the tipping point, where the book will continue to sell without the amount of work on publicity I’ve had to give it until now.

Belfast Girls is on just about every Amazon site worldwide and although it’s early days yet to say how it’s doing, there’s been quite a bit of interest.

One customer from South Africa has been glowingly enthusiastic, and hopefully there’ll be lots more from these other countries. So far all my reviews have been good. With increased sales I expect a few bad ones will arrive. Then I’ll find out how thick a hide I’ve grown. Not very thick yet, I suspect.

But the main market is Kindle. I’d hoped to see piles of my books in bookshops, and that isn’t likely to happen currently.

But the Kindle sales are a delight and more than make up for it. Perhaps I’ll get to the top of the bestseller list sometime soon.  That’ll be the time for running through the streets shouting, ‘Hallelujah!’

But if not – well, I can only say that I’m very happy – over the moon, in fact! – to see Belfast Girls doing as well as it has.

Thanks for that, Gerry. Let’s hope your book soars up the Kindle charts and begins to develop sales elsewhere.

For anyone interested, Belfast Girls can be bought on here, and here.

BTW, and for the record, should anyone have spotted that Night Publishing is behind both Gerry’s book and Tom Winton’s Beyond Nostalgia, featured here a week or two back, just to stress that that is purely coincidental. Neither Saffi nor I are connected in any way with Night Publishing.

My acquaintance with both authors came through their presence on the peer review sites youwriteon and authonomy.

Which is perhaps a pertinent note to end on.

For all their faults, both sites remain excellent places to “meet” and sample new and up-and-coming writing talent.

Both sites deserve our continued support and encouragement whether, like us, we are just taking our first tentative steps on the self-publishing ladder, or even if one of us hits the jackpot and get a deal that would make even JK envious.

However successful the mega-star writers are now, they all started out as wannabes, just like us.

Of Mice And Men…

Whether you’re a John Steinbeck fan, or can trace affiliation back to Robbie Burns himself, you’ll be familiar with the frustration of seeing your carefully laid schedule ripped into pieces and tossed to the far winds by “events.”

Thus is it with the blog re-launch.

There I was, living a life of blissful ignorance in the glorious sunshine here on the Smiling Coast, supping an ice-cold Sprite, pondering what direction to take our new Snow White crime thriller series, when my co-author Saffina emails the news that we’ve made the top ten on Amazon!

Sure enough, when eventually I managed to log on (The Gambia is still very much a third-world country where IT is concerned) our ground-breaking thriller Sugar & Spice is indeed in at number ten in the thriller genre and, perhaps even more remarkably, in the top forty on the overall Amazon Kindle chart, competing against star names like James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell et al.

Oh for an ice-cold beer to celebrate! But alcohol in this largely Muslim country is to be found only in the tourist areas, where I venture only when necessary. Maybe tomorrow!

Meanwhile, back to reality.

Tomorrow shall see my revival of the ones-to-watch-on-youwriteon, as part of our commitment to building a platform for new writing and writers, beginning with a WIP from Anthony C Green by the curious title of Spiritual Philosophy: The Novel, which deserves a wider audience.

Peer-group-review sites like youwriteon, authonomy, etc, enjoy mixed reputations in the writing community, but for many new writers they are the only place where they can get independent and (hopefully) honest feedback about works in progress, from absolute beginners through to accomplished authors. Certainly for youwriteon it is the case that many established writers trial new material on the site to test audience reaction.

With so much material on both sites it’s quite impossible to keep track of everything, so if anyone has seen something special on a peer-review site recently, or just something that shows real promise, even if still in the very early stages, please let me know.

Good new writers both need and deserve every break they can get, and as the tsunami that is the e-book revolution continues to rewrite the rule book on how writers, agents, publishers and readers interact, there has never been a better time for wannabe writers to get their works before the reading public, and for the best among them to rise to well-deserved fame and fortune.

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