Friday, 27 January 2012

Why'd Ya Have to Be So Negative, Man?

Apparently, the secret to leading a creative life is not to care what other people think about you. If you can skip through life sporting fluorescent green welly boots and an orange asymmetrical hairdo then you are well on your way to fulfilment. This is bad news for me, because not only do I not possess a pair of wellies, I also care very much what people think about me. On the upside, I hope that this makes me more conscientious. On the downside, it means I find negative feedback crippling.

I had a particular batch of negative feedback last year that shook me to the core, knocking me out of action (writing-wise) for three full months. I had been so confident about the work before that point, ebullient even. Was it hubris? Critique that I've had since suggests not, that it was simply a subjective difference of opinion. But the feedback was so unexpected and I crashed hard into an ocean of doubt. I feel like I'm still out there most days, clutching onto a piece of wood and hoping someone will rescue me.

People don't usually mean their negative comments to have any sort of lasting effect. They assume the person to whom they are delivering the feedback is robust enough to examine the issue from all sides and come to a measured conclusion. Sorry, but I'm not that person. I know that the creative arts are subjective. I know that everybody can't love everything. But I also know that my own emotional response doesn't respond well to logic.

The irony is that I can also be very negative in my own feedback. That part of my brain that exists to draw the worst conclusion from any situation also allows me to find flaws in seemingly perfect work. The more I read and write, the harder I find it to detach from the language and structure of a piece, and just go with the flow. Perhaps this is good – language and structure are the things that writers struggle to perfect, so any comments here might be useful. But I can't help noticing how easy it is to miss the spirit of a piece when you focus heavily on the practical aspects of writing.

This is usually the part of the blog where I turn around and offer up the solution to my problem, but on this subject I'm not so sure. I think it's tied up with the deeper aspects of a personal need for approval from others. Interestingly, these are the very same aspects that unconsciously led me to write and try to get published. It begs the question: will a healthier attitude to all this remove my desire to send a book into the world? Or will it simply make me more robust and measured in my approach to publication?

At least I get some time to work on this while my writing is being seen by relatively few people and criticised by even less. Imagine, for instance, how I would react to a negative review on Amazon. That isn't something that sits in my inbox, quietly simmering – it's visible like a scar to anyone in the world who cares to look for it. How would I resist clicking that link when I was feeling low, and torturing myself with the evidence of my very public failure? How indeed.


Friday, 20 January 2012

The Primary Product

For hundreds of years, publishing's primary product has been very clear – the book. Sure, there are magazines and journals and pamphlets, but the book has reigned supreme as a method of organising and presenting information. The inexorable shift towards digital platforms threatens to change all that – is it enough to simply transpose the book onto an electronic device, or is it time to rethink the entire structure of what we do?

In their review of 2011, The Bookseller said that trade publishers had made around 10% of their monthly revenues from digital over the year. Quite clearly, the printed book is still very much the primary product (at a ratio of 9:1). And the digital products that they did produce were almost all e-books that more or less reproduced the print book on a Kindle or iPad. So, perhaps I'm making a lot of fuss about nothing.

But, it's a process of acceptance. A couple of years ago, publishers were nervous about e-books, now they routinely release one for many of their print products. Who's to say that this won't continue with enhanced e-books, apps or whatever we can expect down the line? Digital used to be a specialist discipline in publishing companies, a department quite separate from editorial, sales and marketing. But, like a virus, digital is spreading into people's job roles and becoming a key part of what they do. For publishers to survive, it must also become a key part of what they sell.

I'm interested in where the tipping point lies. Will it be when sales of printed books and digital products are 50:50? Or will the complexity (and new opportunities) of digital products force the change earlier than that? Numerous startups are snapping at the heels of publishing, keen to nose their way into a multi-million-pound market. Yet, publishers themselves still hold a considerable cachet and brand presence. Just look at Amanda Hocking's decision to traditionally publish her e-books – she has no need financially to do so, but she craves the credibility and editorial rigour that comes from the print book process.

So, what happens if digital products do become the norm? In some ways, we will be freed, liberated from structures that have changed little in centuries. Different kinds of content could be organised in different ways, rather than squeezed into the shape of a book. For instance, I work in reference publishing, and most people have never read reference books from cover to cover, but use contents pages and indexes to find what they need. So it makes sense to structure entries into many cross-referenced chunks. Stories may evolve in a similar way, with shorter, more episodic "chapters" and perhaps the ability to follow a narrative from different viewpoints or via different media.

On the downside, losing the book's structure may also mean losing a key part of how we understand narrative. Years of "the novel" have unconsciously trained us to recognise a well-constructed story, and any move away from that risks reader fatigue. With our busy lives, do we really want to spend time constructing story from an all-you-can-eat buffet? Or would we rather it was laid on for us by a trained chef?

In the meantime, perhaps the book and digital content can coexist. Publishers can go on doing what they do best, which is delivering big, editorially-complex products to high quality standards. Startups, meanwhile, can produce wildly innovative stuff like Zombies, Run! which is an app that enlivens your daily exercise with an interactive audio book narrative. This is high concept at its finest – the zombies are coming and you need to literally run the hell away from them! Whether this leads to a rise in stress-related heart attacks remains to be seen...


Friday, 13 January 2012

The Joy of Networking

(Before I start this week's blog, I'd like to say thank you to everyone who wished me well in my new job. I've been working at OUP for 4 and a half days, and they still haven't sacked me – so I must be doing something right!)

Networking is one of the most useful skills a writer can develop. I'm not talking about social networking here, but the ability to walk into a room full of people and not run out five seconds later, screaming. And I say "develop" because the ability to network isn't something that writers are often born with. We can be quiet, mousy people who seek out our own company for hours on end and frequently find ourselves in the kitchen at parties. Being the centre of attention can be deeply uncomfortable.

It's also tempting to see networking as a glib exercise in one-upmanship, putting ourselves ahead of the competition simply by knowing the right people. And there will always be those who glide around a room, apparently warm and welcoming to everyone but without a shred of genuine interest. However, I think we sense this kind of superficiality pretty quickly and steer away from those people, even if they aren't self-aware enough to realise we're doing it.

The other thing to say is that networking probably won't get you published before your work is ready. Look at Candy Gourlay, who must be the best networked person in children's publishing – she still had to write the right book. You only have to look at those poor souls with a thousand Facebook friends and a shonky self-published book they are trying to promote. "This is great!!! You should defenitly get published!" comments Luann from Arkansas, but sadly, the gatekeepers of publishing remain unconvinced.

So, are there any joys to networking? Or is it simply something we must put up with, a necessary evil in promoting ourselves and our work? I think networking can actually bring pleasure – the delight at seeing an old friend or the relief as you realise there are people at a party who you actually know. One of the best networking experiences I've had was at a launch party where I knew only Candy Gourlay (yes, her again) and one other person. Not only did Candy insist on introducing me as "The future bestselling author, Nick Cross," but I also wound up chatting to the lady who runs the Children's Laureate scheme. My campaign to be Children's Laureate in 2025 starts here!

There is something quite embarrassing about idling up to an agent or editor at a party and launching into your pitch. I still find myself apologising before I start, which is probably not a good opening gambit. But the irony is that, by the end, they almost always ask me to send something to them. This may be because I am so mind-blowing at pitching (yeah, right), but I think it's more the fact that they are always scouting for talent and open to new ideas. It's worth remembering that, more often than not, they want to hear your pitch – their livelihood depends on finding and developing new talent. So, perhaps you are the one with the power and they are the ones who must bow to your every wish (pause for evil laughter).

I believe that networking is genuinely about making friends and finding your place in a community - if it gets you ahead, then that's a bonus. I can barely describe the rush of emotion I experienced this week when walking into a room full of publishing people and suddenly feeling that I belonged. So often, I've felt like someone on the outside looking in, banging on the glass of publishing and hoping for their attention. That experience of no longer feeling like a fake was a real vindication of my choices – now I could feel comfortable among writers and editors. For someone with often fragile self-confidence, that was quite a victory.


Friday, 6 January 2012

New Year, New Job

I don't tend to talk about my day job much on this blog. For the most part, that's because it has nothing to do with writing and getting published. Since that's about to change, I thought you all might like to know about it.

From next Monday (9th January), I'm going to start a new role working at Oxford University Press as a Digital Development Manager. My responsibilities include designing mobile apps and managing app development for the dictionary department. Yes, that's the Oxford English Dictionary plus a whole host of modern English and foreign language dictionaries. It's very exciting to be involved with such an iconic brand and such a wealth of amazing content. OUP has been focusing heavily on digital publishing over the last couple of years, and it's fantastic to join the industry at a time of critical change. There are fringe benefits as well – I get to cycle to work and spend an extra hour in bed every day!

So, ignoring the fact it's a fantastic job, why publishing? Why leave a booming market sector like telecoms to work in a world that some pundits would tell you is doomed? Ever since I joined SCBWI and started to meet publishing people, I've been curious about the industry. The more I immersed myself in studying the market, the more curious I became. At first, I considered a job in editorial, but a friend with a wiser head than mine cautioned that I would find it hard to compete with all those new graduates. Besides, entry-level roles in any industry pay very little, and publishing especially. Why not, she suggested, find a job in publishing that used my existing skillset?

It's taken me two years to find the right role, balancing my aspirations with my family's need to eat and have somewhere to sleep at night. In the meantime, my existing day job expanded into new areas and publishing finally caught up with the world of digital - I blogged last month about how the stars have aligned for me.

I guess the final thing that pushed me to make my dream a reality, was an epiphany I had earlier this year. I was sat in a publisher's office (not OUP), discussing how they could work more closely with SCBWI. I looked up at the clock and an hour had passed without me noticing – this was the most interesting meeting I had had in months. I realised that I wasn't just in this business to be a writer – I wanted to be on the other side of the desk as well.

So, how will my new employment change this blog? Probably not that much, although I may have to be less rude about publishing in general ;-) You'll probably also see more posts here about all things digital. But I'm still writing children's books and still hoping to get published. I don't have any commissioning powers at all in my new role, so please don't send me manuscripts! I'm going to be spending 2012 doing battle with the slushpile, exactly the same as many of you. When I'm not sleeping, that is.