sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
How's this for a good marketing idea? Here is Paul Yandle's poem "Dogs" from the anthology of dog poems I blogged about in my last post, and he's recorded it not only with his rather lovely reading voice but set it to kinetic typography using words from the poem (and playing with said words visually; see what he does with "circling"). Curiously enough, though this uses modern technology, it had a precursor in the artist Paul Peter Piech, who used to make posters using text to create pieces of calligraphy. Mostly he used political texts but he did sometimes set poems too; he did a lovely one for Dannie Abse. This is an ingenious update of the technique; give it a listen!
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Candlestick Press is to publish a pamphlet of 10 poems about dogs by various writers. Arr, says you, why is she blogging about that, for she is a cat person all the way down the line? Well, says I, among names like Billy Collins, Stevie Smith, Siegfried Sassoon, Ogden Nash and Lord Byron is that of my ex-student Paul Yandle, with whom I did a blog interview here. Paul also has a web site, where you can see how unusually upbeat and aware of the possibility of joy his poems are. He won't look at all out of place in that company.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Just in case anyone'd like to know, the poem I wrote on the day of the Chilean miners' rescue and posted on this blog has now been published by the magazine PN Review (no 198). This is quite enlightened of them, because a lot of print mags won't so much as look at anything blog-published, even if it's the writer's own site. I offered to take it down but they haven't required me to. Good eggs, and sensible. I only wish more mags would figure out that it isn't going to hurt sales if the odd piece is known in blogland.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
- ie the views folk were kind enough to express on book titles. Both here and on FB, there was a definite vote for Using Glass Like Air, with several people saying it would be oddball and intriguing enough to make them buy a book. I might hold you to that... seriously, that was a very helpful exercise, because I'm too close to all contenders to have a clue what resonates or doesn't with others. Using Glass Like Air it'll be, then.
sheenaghpugh: (Posterity)
I'm working on another collection; it's nowhere near finished yet but I'm trying to decide on a title. It does make some odds to the way you write, and what you might decide to put in or leave out, because it'll say something, hopefully, about the collection's intended focus. I've currently got several possiblities, all with pluses and minuses, and thought I'd try them out on folks. Unfortunately it isn't as easy as just listing them, because all come with baggage like the poem they're from and the cover pic they might generate. Here are the contenders... )
What do folk think?
sheenaghpugh: (Brain)
I've often heard novelists debating whether it's better to be with a big publisher or a small one. The big guys have more clout with people like Waterstones, and bigger budgets to spend on publicity, but if you're a first-time or midlist writer, that may not help you much, because they spend the budget on their big names and ignore the small fry, whereas with a small publisher you may be a big fish in a small pool. Leastways, that's the theory; in practice I suspect most writers, certainly first-timers, go gratefully with the first and often the only outfit to make them an offer.

But this interview on Helen Caldwell's writing blog shows an interesting example of a far from first-timer author switching publishers from Hodder to the small (and to me unknown) operation Plash Mill Press. David Wishart has been writing his Marcus Corvinus ancient Roman murder mysteries for 15 years; I know because I'm addicted to the things and devour them as soon as they come out. He says that "being a small fish" at Hodder, there was little money for marketing his books and describes his frustration at seeing them disappear into a “publishing black hole”. That surprises me because he was always easy to find in Waterstones, got lots of Amazon reviews, and the last few Corvinus books had started to come out in hardback before the paperback, which I always thought indicated success. Yet here he is switching in hopes of more publicity. Whether it'll work just because PlashMill have a blog, I'm not sure. I only found out about the new book via googling him and finding this interview, but to be fair, it's only been around for a month.

I'd be interested to hear what my novelist friends feel about the big vs little debate. And my publisher friends, come to that...
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
"We need better networked programmes [...] offering talented writers help at early stages in their careers. [..] and the profiling of work by new writers" (Arts Council England, in a recent consultation paper)

This might seem unexceptionable, and probably is, with one proviso: that "new writers" and "writers at early stages" are not, as they often turn out to be, weasel words for "writers under 30".

Not that there's anything wrong with writers under 30; they can't help it, and, given time, will acquire the experience of both life and language that gives them something to write about and the skill to do it. In the meantime, the energy of youth may even compensate, to some degree, for what they necessarily lack... ok, ok, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but no more outrageous than the assumption by so many movers and shakers in the literary world that youth and newness are intrinsic virtues.

I've got no locus in this, btw; I am neither young nor at an early stage in my career, more the stage of checking the obituaries for an appearance. But it so happens many "new" writers are not young, because they didn't start writing (and marketing) seriously until other pressures allowed them to do so. One such pressure is childcare, and although there certainly are male late starters, it's a more common pattern with women writers, which raises interesting questions re equal opportunities.

These writers are disadvantaged by "initiatives" that, more often than not, seem to be targeted at the under-30s, as if what was wanted by the public was specifically young work, rather than, as I suspect, good work. Drama is a particular offender, but in novels and poetry too, if a year goes by without some rising teenage star, or a prize shortlist consists of established authors (as why would it not?), you can guarantee some broadsheet running an article on the lines of "where are the young writers?" (a question to which I'm always tempted to reply "learning their trade in decent obscurity").

It's also a fact that, these days, you don't just break through into publication and find you have it made. I wish I had a quid for every novelist I know who had real trouble placing a second or third novel because the first, though it sold respectably for a first novel, wasn't a mega-earner. At one time publishers would stick with a writer building a reputation, rather as TV bosses allowed a sitcom to bed in; now everything has to be a mega-success from the off. As far as novels go, I'm not sure ACE shouldn't focus on mid-career writers rather than new ones.

I've heard it suggested that mid-career writers would do well to reinvent themselves with an assumed persona, because of this craze to find something "new" each year. That craze, which I'm not sure readers actually share, is one reason for this youth focus. Another is the drive to find a young audience for genres, like poetry and litfic novels, that tend to appeal to an older one - maybe publishers should accept that fact and concentrate on marketing to the audience they know is there, rather than the one that isn't listening? Another culprit, in my view, is the universal modern practice of putting a picture of the author on the book. This pernicious habit presumably brought about the question reportedly asked by a US publisher about a novelist recommended to him; "will she look like a babe on the back cover?" (So: reinvent yourself with a new name, but also with a picture of some obliging young model; he or she'll only want 10% of the hopefully huge dibs.)

I'd be interested to know what experiences writers on my f-list and elsewhere have of this, also if anyone has age-related stats on the sales of writing? And readers; does the age or newness of an author make any odds to you?
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Delighted to see from Jo Preston's writing blog that her collection The Summer King has now won the Mary Gilmore Prize for the best first collection published by an Australian author in the last 2 years. There is history here; I've posted before about how this collection, having been turned down by several UK houses, was eventually published as a result of winning another prestigious competition. Just proves several old saws: cream eventually floats to the top, if at first you don't, etc, and most importantly for writers, don't let the bastards grind you down. A good day.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I don't copy all the reviews I write to this blog, but am doing so with this one, partly because it's a new press which should therefore be encouraged, and partly because one way or another, I know several people in Manchester, who might be interested. There's a shorter version of this on

An anthology of the current poetry scene in Manchester )

sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
There are fashions in writing; there always have been, and being in tune with them does sometimes make odds to one's chances of publication. For instance, the Holy Grail for some publishers, both in prose and poetry, has lately been to find young, male writers who concentrate on urban settings and "gritty" themes. (I assume this is in order to appeal to young male readers, though since by far the most novels are bought by women, it would seem a strange marketing strategy to ignore the likely buyers and focus on the unlikely ones.) In poetry especially, it has been fashionable to dismiss anything with a rural setting or preoccupations on the ground that most readers live in towns and want to see their own background reflected in what they read (yes, that would make the popularity of fantasy and histfic inexplicable, but I guess that just underlines the way that for the litfic establishment, Genre Doesn't Count). Poets have long been accused of concentrating on nightingales and seascapes and ignoring "real life". Rural isn't contemporary.

Though I've always thought this a bit daft, it never actually affected me before, because I was by nature very urban, my curiosity directed more towards people than places, and that reflected in my writing.
Now, however )
sheenaghpugh: (Heslop from Porridge)
There's a certain amount of chat going on at the moment about book prizes. Elizabeth Baines' blog FictionBitch details how the Guardian's First Book Award will now cost £150 to enter - there'll never be another poet shortlisted, that's for sure. Poetry collections by first-time authors are lucky if they make £150 in profits.

As Elizabeth points out, "this has always been an expensive prize for small presses to enter, as publishers of shortlisted books are required to provide 100 copies free for the reading groups involved, thus effectively wiping out the profits on that book for a small publisher". There is in fact a great difference between the kind of competitions individual poets and short story writers can enter, which generally cost them no more than a few quid and one or two copies, and the book prizes for which publishers enter. I'm not sure it is generally known, outside the writing world, that these frequently involve crippling expense not just in entry fees but in the number of free copies demanded, and that this effectively rules all but the biggest presses out of competition. Even if a book is shortlisted, it's debatable whether the publicity will recoup the expense; probably only the actual winner will come out ahead, and small presses just can't afford to gamble on it.

Some competitions also demand more money for publicity purposes - take, for instance, the Dylan Thomas, which could teach Dick Turpin a thing or two: "the publisher/producer of longlisted works agrees to supply free of charge 40 copies for promotional purposes [...] the publisher/producer of shortlisted works agrees to supply free of charge a further 40 copies [...] the publisher/producer undertakes to contribute £2,500 (!) towards the general publicity of the prize and to spend an additional sum of not less than £1000 on direct, paid for media advertising". (See here). With demands like that, you'd wonder they need sponsors.

Does all this matter? Only in that, as I say, I don't think it's generally known outside the trade, so that one might easily be deluded into thinking the winner of the Guardian First Book Award, for instance, was the best first book published that year, rather than the best first book brought out by a publisher who could afford to enter...
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
It being time for New Year's Rissolutions, I've been vaguely resolving to spend less time online and do more writing. This is partly a consciousness of how incredibly idle I am, given the chance, but also a growing suspicion about the effect of online activity on book sales etc. Publishers and writing gurus are forever exhorting authors to promote themselves online, to blog and get involved with blog networks, to facebook, twitter etc etc. And it's enormous fun (well all right, not Twitter, which I could never get into) but while it may raise said authors' profiles, I do wonder if it actually does much to sell books. I do know of a lot more writers than I used to, but I'm not sure I have actually bought any book merely because of reading about it on a blog. Reading extracts on a blog or website is a different matter; that I can believe in as a seller.

Then of course there's the way it can eat into your actual writing time. Elizabeth Baines, in a recent blog entry, worries about this, but also about what the result of less online promotion might be on sales: "But how can I make such a resolution, when the marketing of my books, which come from an independent publisher, depends on my being very much online? Would making such a resolution be the same as making a resolution to stop marketing my books? I'm very much afraid of this, but I guess I'm even more afraid of ending up never writing again."

It's possible that marketing, online or otherwise, works better for her, because she's a novelist. Until very recently I'd have said it made no odds to poets, but since I mentioned proposing to spend less time online, one person at least has indicated that "meeting" me online caused him to buy some books. So clearly the dilemma does exist. And all the more so, since publishers, especially small ones, not only don't have the time or resources to spend on promotion themselves but very much expect authors to do it - some won't take authors who aren't prepared to throw themselves fully into that side of things. (You might say: what if an author is constitutionally shy and unsocial, as is quite often the case; the answer these days is that said author is also likely to be unpublished.)

Yet I can't help recalling Rostand's Cyrano, refusing to do the sensible thing:

travailler à se construire un nom
Sur un sonnet, au lieu d'en faire d'autres.

and thinking his way's the way most creative types would rather be... I shall compromise, as usual, and see if I can focus online time better. I might concentrate on updating my blog more often... though, again, I'm really not sure this is the best promotion method, or just the most enjoyable!

Just now, publishers and writers all over the place seem to be debating how to increase the market for literary fiction and poetry, and very few have any new ideas about how to do it. It's very hard to get reviewed in the national press, and even if you do, it doesn't actually affect sales as much as one would think. You need to start a buzz round a book, and as far as I can see, the best way of doing that is to find an angle that has nothing or very little to do with writing - biographical, scandalous, whatever - because otherwise you're preaching to the converted, who already buy books, and there aren't enough of them.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's been involved in virtual book tours via blogs; it looks like a lot of work. Does it pay off?
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
There's an article in the current issue of The Author (the magazine of the Society of Authors) which at first sight looks like bad news for those wishing to sell books... but I'm not so sure. It's by lifelong author Roger Williams, who like most lifelong authors wasn't making oodles of money and who had decided to seek "a market that would drive sales". He devised a cunning plan (well, I expect it seemed so at the time) to write a book of fact-based short stories all set in the 200 or so hotels around the world that happen to be called the Hotel Bristol. The idea was to sell them direct to the hotels to put with the Gideon bibles as light reading. He self-published High Times at the Hotel Bristol, at a cost of about 60p a copy for 2000 copies. That meant he didn't have a publisher's marketing dept to rely on. But I doubt any publisher would have gone the length he did in marketing.

He sent copies to the local press and targeted the city of Bristol. The local Waterstones and Blackwells took copies, as did the tourist office, it went up on Amazon and he went on local radio (BBC) to talk about it.

This resulted in some sales in the city but not one outside (he knew, as all orders came to him). Then the Mail on Sunday named it their travel book of the week. That brought a grand total of one new order. However this was better than the result of exposure on Radio 4 (he'd sent a copy to the producer of Excess Baggage; again classic author marketing strategy but not a single order resulted.

So he went online - set up blogs, put chapters online, made podcasts. He reports "barely a sale" as a result. Then his luck seemed to turn - the Wall Street Journal picked up on it and he got 29 column inches and a mugshot in both the US and European editions. Total extra sales? One.

So where's the ray of light for writers in this sad story? I think there might be two. One: before you market your idea you must have it, and if it's a dud it'll be a dud however good you are at the marketing. I think a collection of stories that just happen to take place at various hotels called Bristol was just not a very fascinating idea to start with. Neither do I see why the inhabitants of Bristol should have been likely to buy it just because it name-checked their city. (I do think he might have done better to home in on cities outside the UK called Bristol; "exiles" tend to have a more sentimental attachment to old-country names etc than those of us who live there).

And the other thing that's interesting is that he chose the idea not because it fascinated him but because he thought it would sell. The fact that it didn't suggests that at least for writers, who tend anyway not to know much about what sells and why, it might be better to write what pleases them, as well as they can, and hope it also pleases others. Do the marketing afterwards, by all means, but don't create your product with marketing principally in mind; it may work for beans but on this showing at least, it doesn't for books.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
- and this is how the cover finally came out; I haven't scanned it in yet but the thumbnail version from Seren's website shows what I think is the one change, a sort of fade-effect on the words which I quite like.

Now we're trying to find an official launch date and a venue that costs sixpence-halfpenny - you'd think places would be reasonable, in these hard times, but it ain't necessarily so, apparently.

Haven't found any typos yet though I did find one factual error in the back cover blurb that someone, namely me, should have picked up on. Am hoping nobody will notice.
sheenaghpugh: (Heslop from Porridge)
So... if you recall this post, about the various possible cover pics for my Later Selected (which looks like coming out in July), folks voted here, on facebook and on a mailing list I'm on. And the clear front-runners from all sources together were Map )

and Franklin )

In fact, Map was slightly ahead, but it looks as if the publishers will go with Franklin, if they can. I'm not too surprised by that, because I've heard before that there is a belief that human figures on a cover sell it better.

"If they can", however, is the operative phrase, because that image is owned by the National Maritime Museum and so far they haven't replied to emails asking if it can be used. If it doesn't work out, I guess they'll go with Map, because I think that's public domain.

My favourite three were definitely Map, Franklin and Landscape 1 - that was probably my ultimate fave but in the end you gotta go with what'll shift copies.

It was a fun exercise, anyway! Thanks to all who joined in.
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
Andrew Motion in today's Guardian:

"News editors don't think a poem is a story in and of itself, so they then get on the phone to as many people as it takes to find someone who doesn't like the poem - then they have their story: poet laureate writes another no-good poem.

I'm not the first laureate to complain about this. John Betjeman (who got so fed up with it he considered resigning) and Hughes say exactly the same thing in their letters. But I am the first person to say it in public - call that a privilege of my 10-year span, if you like. My point is not simply that the response is tiresome for whoever happens to be laureate. The point is: it's bad for poetry in general - but journalists apparently have some difficulty (or, more likely, no interest) in grasping this."

This is absolutely true, though not just of poetry. It's true in a wider sense of literature - the Whitbread prize for biography was only news the year two authors who happened to be husband and wife were "rivals" for it, and I've been rung up a few times by BBC bods who were doing stories about fan fiction and hoped that, as a published author, I would tell them how terrible and intrusive it was. When I told them what harmless fun it was, they were gravely disappointed, though to their credit BBC Wales has latched on to this now and rings me up when some other author is getting stroppy about it. But the format is still "find two people to disagree on air, or find one to take a negative view", and it extends beyond the arts. "Government Initiative Succeeds" isn't news. "Exam Results Improve" isn't news unless you cast doubt on their accuracy. I happen to think this is bad for society in general - anyone would think our national newspapers were all edited by Eeyore - but I think Motion is right that it's particularly obvious in editors' treatment of poetry, perhaps because they see poets as an elitist bunch who need mocking. They do love being able to portray them as forever feuding and squabbling, though, bizarrely and inconsistently, they also see them as forming cliques to assist each other's careers in underhand ways, which you wouldn't think they'd do if they really hated each other so much.

One result is that if a literary author of any kind wants publicity for a book, he or she is well advised to find some totally non-literary angle - invent a feud or a case of censorship. Which demeans things, but is scarcely unexpected....
sheenaghpugh: (Bookworm)
- words I'd begun to think I'd never write. Maria's first was the unforgettable As Meat Loves Salt, a dark, violent, brooding tale of the English Civil War, a clash of politics and principles, not to mention a very stormy (and slashy) affair between a thinker and a doer. It had every ingredient for pushing my buttons, including a deeply unreliable narrator who doesn't know half of what he's done himself. I was present when its first draft was being read in a workshop, and recall vividly a scene of 17th-century dentistry which had strong men staggering outside looking green.

The second has been long in coming, partly because publishers are so obstinate about not wanting writers to do something different for their second novel; I think she wrote one set in modern times and couldn't get past this mindset. But now comes news that another novel, The Wilding is on its way,and I must admit I'm not ill-pleased to find it's historical too, just because I know how good she is at that period. The woman from faber says she read it in a night and I believe her; I did that with AMLS, and it was a doorstep. But an unputdownable doorstep. This is going to be worth waiting for.
sheenaghpugh: (Heslop from Porridge)
This is a really interesting blog post about the current state of UK publishing, from a young man who works in the business.
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
I've been refusing the use of a certain poem to most people, including exam boards, for ages - not a matter of money, I just don't like the thing. Just got an email from my publisher:

"I've gone as far as we can with denying permission for the use of 'Sometimes' in the OCR exam, but this from the administrator:' I have as I said arranged for the poem to be greyed out before the exam paper is published on the web and therefore it will not appear after the exam, however I need to make you aware that candidates of the exam have been studying the poem as part of their syllabus and therefore it cannot be removed from the actual exam itself (their is an exemption in the Copyright Act for examinations).'"

Do note "their is", from an exam board - quis custodiet, eh? But what's even more interesting is that "exemption". I can understand that they may not need to pay you, but the implication is rather worse; it is that you can't refuse the use of it and they don't have to ask. Words like "unmannerly", "arrogant" and "semi-literate bastards" come to mind....
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
There should currently (or soon, depending when she gets around to it) be much rejoicing on the blog of Joanna Preston, A Dark Feathered Art Joanna, a graduate of the Glamorgan Masters in Writing who now lives in New Zealand, had sent her poetry collection The Summer King, which was more or less her Masters submission, to various UK publishers, Cape, Seren, Faber, Carcanet and Salt, and they'd all turned it down. This collection has now won the prestigious inaugural Kathleen Grattan Prize, judged by Fleur Adcock, and will be published by Otago University Press. From the press release:

The winner will receive $16,000, making it the richest poetry prize in New Zealand, and publication by Otago University Press. Such was the high quality of the entries that the judge, distinguished poet Fleur Adcock, found it hard to choose a winner, until she gave 'marks for technical skill, originality, verve, wit and humanity. In the end I chose as the winner of the Kathleen Grattan Award: The Summer King by Joanna Preston.'

Joanna Preston is an Australian-born poet living in Christchurch. She grew up in various outback towns in New South Wales, with her grandparents' farm a constant, and started writing at an early age. She holds a BA in Theatre and Film Studies and has lived in New Zealand since 1994, apart from a spell in the United Kingdom during which she received an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan. She has been a member of the Airing Cupboard Women Poets group, Canterbury Poets Collective, and The Australian Haiku Society. Her work has received a number of awards and appeared in numerous publications. The Summer King will be her first published collection.

Moral: as I keep telling frustrated friends and ex-students, the editor or publisher who just sent you that letter is not called Moses: his rejection was not written on stone tablets and may have been for all manner of reasons other than literary quality, and there is always the chance that he was simply WRONG.... the thing is to maintain an ego the size of a bus and keep sending the stuff out. The collection's good, btw; I say so and I'm NEVER wrong....
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