Friday, 25 May 2012

Conservation for the Nation

It's back to normal for this blog, and thank you to Max Tastic for his contribution last week. Maybe you saw it as a lively satire on an over-indulged, over-stimulated generation of children, or perhaps you agreed with Mark Jones, who called Max "a little *%!$"

Anyway, this week, I was lucky enough to have a tour of the OUP archives and chat to one of the archivists. I've never worked in a company before where they thought it was worth archiving stuff (except for legal reasons) and we have a fascinating challenge ahead of us to find the best ways of preserving digital material for future scholars. It got me to thinking about writers and their archives – anyone who has done a PhD on a famous author will be very familiar with the piles of material that they often leave behind. But in an increasingly ephemeral age, what will we be able to leave for future generations? And more than that, have we got anything worth saving?

One of the challenges of conservation is trying to guess what might be significant. At OUP, we have a thirty year embargo on material, so I'll be retired before anything that I contribute to the archive is available to the general public. At this distance, I have to err on the side of caution and assume that what I produce has some value, and perhaps it's the same with my writing. I might have very fragile self-confidence, but who's to say that I won't write something of significance? There may be a generally snooty attitude towards children's fiction, but that could change. If we are indeed living through some kind of golden age (as people like Barry Cunningham frequently assert), then others will want to study that in the future.

My gut feeling is that what I've previously called The SCBWI Scene in the UK will be worthy of that attention. When I look at all of the book launch invitations I've had for this year, and the mushrooming size of the annual conference, I have to think that we're really onto something. Within that group, there will surely be authors who are more worthy of future attention than others, but no-one can know who that might be. Some books that were hailed as literary masterpieces thirty years ago are long forgotten, and yet some commercial fiction from that time has acquired its own literary significance.

This sign outside an Oxford pub always gives me pause:

How strange to be one of those "fellow writers," now mostly remembered as some kind of literary crutch to their more illustrious friends. Yet in their time, the likes of Owen Barfield and Charles Williams were important and well-regarded men. The caprices of history are impossible to predict and therefore not worth fretting about.

Consider this a licence, then, to start creating your own archives. Don't worry how good or bad the material is (and the early stuff is probably quite stinky), what will be important to the historians of the future is your growth and evolution as a writer. How wonderful to be able to unearth a plot outline scribbled on the back of a shopping list and then to compare that to the published novel that resulted from it. When you consider what to keep, ask yourself the question "What would I need to repeat the process if I started all over again?" If you're really lucky, maybe they'll also preserve your brain in a jar, Futurama style.

Paper is still the most dependable way of archiving anything, so get an acid-free storage box and fill it with all those abandoned drafts and deleted scenes. Hell, why not print out all your tweets and shove them in there too? You can even do what this guy did and type all of your twitterings onto index cards and keep them in a special oak box. Don't worry about what you're going to do with it all, just shove the whole lot in the loft and let your kids worry about it when they're clearing the house after you're dead. You paid for them to go to university, so preserving your genius for the nation is the least they can do in return.


Friday, 18 May 2012

Special Guest Blog by Max Tastic

Nick says: I turned 40 this week and am now officially too old to remember being a child and, consequently, too old to write for children. So, I thought I'd turn this blog over to someone much, much younger. Max Tastic is the wunderkind of British publishing and I think you'll find his opinions both entertaining and insightful (as long as you're under the age of 10). I'll see you at the old folks home, third armchair on the left.

Hiya kids!

My name's Max Tastic, and if you don't know who I am, then you must be an adult. As the mega-selling author behind The Strawberry That Wouldn't Die and the Gritty Grotty Grublins trilogy, I'm worshipped by all right-thinking people (this means you, kids). Even better than being a rich and powerful writer, is that I did it all before the age of eleven, which must make some of you out there feel pretty green. I know that when I meet grown-up authors, they're always moaning on about their publisher and how hard it is to make a living and blah blah blah. I try to cheer them up by offering them a ride home in my limo, but that just seems to make them angrier. I guess they have issues or something.

The author himself

It totally makes me mad that these so-called grown-ups think they should be the only ones allowed to write kids' books. What makes them so special? Before I divorced my parents, all they did was complain about the responsibilities they had, when in fact they should have just shut up and worked harder so they could buy me more Ben 10 figures. Kids rule, adults suck – this is the natural order of things. They had their chance to play around all day and do fun stuff – now it's my turn. But even though some of these grown-ups are forty or even fifty years old, with weird wrinkly skin and baggy bits, they insist on writing kid's books to pretend that they're like us. They are not like us. They are sadults.

I think writing books for kids should be left up to people who know what kids really want (i.e. me), but the sadults are sneaky. When I first read Beast Quest, I imagined this awesome dude called Adam Blade who had a special sword with a keyboard on the hilt, so he could type his stories and fight off minotaurs at the same time. But instead, I find out that Adam doesn't even exist and that Beast Quest is actually written by five old men who live in a garden shed in Taunton. Not only do these crusty old codgers smell REALLY bad, but they've never done anything more dangerous than brew their own cider or shake their walking sticks at drivers who don't stop for zebra crossings. And don't even get me started on the time when I found out that Violence McCarthy, bestselling author of the Rambo Magic series was secretly a school dinner lady from Ipswich. Pathetic.

Even more pathetic are books like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which appear to be written and drawn by an eleven-year-old. The sadult author might pretend that he's rubbish at drawing, but it says on Wikipedia that he also painted the Mona Lisa AND that super-cool poster of Justin Bieber getting his hair burnt off by a dragon. Every time I turn my back to count up my royalties, the sadults get sneakier – they've even started taking their own names off the cover of their books to try to catch us out. Trust me, even if it says My Absolutely True and Definitely Not Made-Up Journal by Sebastian Gnomeface on the front cover, some sadult has written all the words, and more than that, poor Sebastian probably doesn't even exist (though with a name like that, maybe the kid had a lucky escape). It's a good job that I'm a real live person, or we'd all have to pack up our lunchboxes and go home right now.

So what can we do about this problem? How can we stick two fingers up the nose of sadulthood without getting covered in bogies? Together, that's how. I intend to write a magnificent guide that will help kids everywhere to rise up and write a book for themselves. It will be magnificent! It will be revolutionary!

It will have to wait until after I've done my homework.


Friday, 11 May 2012

Retreating from the World

I'm off to the SCBWI writing retreat this weekend, and I'm already struggling for words to put into this blog – which is probably a bad sign. This is the third SCBWI retreat I've been to, and my writing output has been decidedly variable – last year I wrote 4,000 words, then came home and immediately deleted 3,000 of them. Oops.

There's something really interesting about the idea of sending ourselves away to write, and it can be problematic for me because I often work best when I have really limited time in which to do it. The idea of days and days of creative time stretching ahead of me is a bit of a scary one, if I'm honest. There's also a whiff of brown rice and sandals about the idea of a retreat, that you could as easily be practicing yoga or communing with the Goddess of all creation. The SCBWI retreat isn't like that at all actually, though it is a little daunting being one of the few men attending. Call it the Marcus Sedgwick effect!

The Arvon Foundation's residential writing courses have a high reputation amongst authors, but I've met a couple of people who absolutely hated it. There's something about being trapped in a remote location with a group of neurotic writers that can either end very well or very badly. It's no surprise that there are several books out there that base a detective plot around a murder at a writers' retreat.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that for us Scoobies, though a few characters might come to a sticky end over the weekend. I'm trying to be realistic about what I can achieve, especially as I'm right at the start of a new novel (yes, my indecision has probably ended. Probably). I have several books to read as research and whatever words come out of the time will be a bonus. Given how busy I've been at home and work recently, it will be a pleasure to take some time out for myself. Plus, there's nothing like talking to other people about your work to really fire you up about it. It might be agony pitching an idea to an agent, but when they say they'd like to read it, I always get a genuine boost. Yes, it might seem like hanging on for crumbs of encouragement, but maybe one day I'll have enough to make a loaf of bread. Or at the very least, a gluten-free organic wholemeal roll (sandals optional)


Friday, 4 May 2012

I Am the Keymaster. Are You the Gatekeeper?

Phew, it's good to get the obligatory cultural reference out of the way so early. But aside from the sexual context of that phrase from Ghostbusters, it also has a surprising relevance to the rapidly changing world of publishing. As writers, our content is the key that will unlock a publishing deal and/or a lot of sales. But who are the gatekeepers and do we even need them anymore?

It used to be so simple – editors were the gatekeepers for publishing and they maintained quality by saying no to 99% of what they were sent. Then agents came along and were, for quite a while, treated as the lowest of the low. Slowly, they gained the upper hand and became the de facto conduit for writers to reach editors. Agents maintained quality by saying no to 98% of what they were sent (and by hyping the remaining 2% relentlessly to whoever would listen). Then sales and marketing and rights and publicity got involved on the publishing side, and suddenly gatekeepers became more like stakeholders, all of whom needed to be satisfied before a book found its way to the shelves.

The move to digital is disrupting this model, and even speaking as someone who works for a publisher, I think this is broadly a good thing. New ideas and approaches are flooding into publishing, and in the long term this will benefit savvy authors. We're starting to see the increased use of revenue sharing, where – instead of an advance – authors take a larger cut of the sales of their product. And a lot of people are bypassing the traditional gatekeepers entirely and self-publishing directly to e-book platforms.

I recently attended the London Book Fair Digital Minds Conference, and it was clear that roles in publishing are blurring faster than anyone expected. In fact, there was a whole panel session on just that subject, with agents, writers and publishers talking about how their jobs are changing. Agent Ed Victor, for instance, began a small publishing imprint last year, for books whose rights had reverted to the author. But now he has seen a niche for publishing books by his clients that have been rejected by traditional publishers. His agency recently inked a deal to sell Dead Rich by Louise Fennel exclusively in Tesco stores and they have a dictionary of popular music on the way. Is Ed a poacher turned gamekeeper, or is he simply adapting to survive in a tough business environment?

What about technology companies? Are they the new gatekeepers? Apple certainly police their app store very closely, making sure that app developers comply with a whole bunch of regulations (which those developers are legally prohibited from discussing with others) and subjecting apps to a rigorous testing process. All of this is designed to foster customer trust, because it should be impossible for an app to break your iPhone/iPad or introduce a virus onto your system. Amazon too – by controlling the Kindle – strive to be the primary channel for e-books, both now and in the future. You only have to look at the ire generated by Amazon's decision to publish their own physical books, to see what an uneasy relationship they now have with traditional publishers.

Do the traditional gatekeepers of publishing still have a place? Well, I'd argue very strongly for the role of editorial in publishing – editors add value to a book from the first time they look at the manuscript. As a parent, too, I find great certainty in picking up a children's book by an established publisher – whether it's age-banded or not. My daughter was recently given a self-published book for free, and I was at a loss to know how suitable it might be. The characters were young, but the premise seemed to be more adult. A quick trip to Goodreads told me what I needed to know, and the book made its way to the charity shop instead.

This last example leads me to an intriguing thought – maybe we are all gatekeepers in the brave new world of publishing? In which case, I'll be accepting submissions of three chapters and a synopsis to the usual address.