Jeff

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Anyone in the Society of Authors? If so, what's your experience?I joined them a few months back and …
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  •  · Why pay a lawyer to review publishing contracts when you already pay your agent 15% or 20% commissio…
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Hi all,Just writing with the good news that I landed an agent in New York through the Jericho one to…
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  •  · Congratulations Jeff. You have put huge efforts, money and time and so happy it has paid off...step …
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I was browsing the Submission pages of an Irish publisher to submit my novel (I'm Irish, live in Lon…
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  •  · I hear their royalties and advances are lousy and lousy.
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Hi all,I'm currently pitching a crime thriller to literary agents and wondering how long it takes fo…
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  •  · You shouldn't be able to find just another book to compare it otherwise it's not original. What you …
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Friday Night Live - throw your hat into the ring?I didn't as I write commercial fiction with a strai…
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I have my one-to-one agent chat shortly through the Jericho Summer writing festival - nervous.I'm ac…
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  •  · Excellent post.
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Anyone in the Society of Authors? If so, what's your experience?

I joined them a few months back and found the £15 a month fee excellent for the contract vetting service alone.

I once foolishly paid a so-called publishing lawyer £500 a few years back to get me out of a publishing contract for a true crime book.

He couldn't (not necessarily his fault) -- and later I learned I could have gotten the same service for £15 a month with SoA.

As an aside, Harry recommends joining them, according to his book on publishing. There's strength in numbers and all that.

Added a forum 

Hi all,

Just writing with the good news that I landed an agent in New York through the Jericho one to one sessions (that were set up during the Festival of Writing).

And even better news is that the agent doesn’t think my MS needs any work. And that’s thanks to Jericho – I wrote the novel (a thriller) with the help of a Jericho mentor, Daren King (link below).

Of course, getting an agent is only half the battle. Now the challenge is to get a publisher.

I landed the agent on my fourth one to one session. I didn’t do four sessions to try to get an agent, but just wanted different opinions on my pitch and writing sample. My first two agents were with London publishers, but I felt my novel (set in the Americas) was a better fit with a US publisher and so hit up two other agents through the Jericho sessions who were based in NY. Both gave positive feedback on my pitch and writing sample, but it was the fourth and final agent who requested a full MS and offered representation after he finished reading it a few days later.

Please don’t see this as any ‘easy’ success. I worked on the novel for three years. It involved a round with the Jericho mentor, a round of heavy self editing, then another round with the mentor on the second draft. I then hired another Jericho editor to give it a read over in an MS critique assessment. And only after I put his excellent suggestions into place in my MS did I go near an agent.

As an aside, I pitched the novel to about 20 agents in the UK three months ago. I only got about three/four replies - all nays (mostly with replies like  'it's not our thing', 'it's a tough market', 'I've given up on fiction', 'I didn't connect with your writing', all which is fine). So don't be disheartened if you're going down that route and getting nowhere. It's a slushpile slog.

Anyway, keep writing. Work hard. Never give up.  And you’ll get there.

Jeff

https://jerichowriters.com/freelance-professional-editors/daren-king/

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I was browsing the Submission pages of an Irish publisher to submit my novel (I'm Irish, live in London0 and found they charge 750e to consider an MS.

What a cheek!

And they're not a vanity publisher (Liberties Press) per se, they publish the successful crime author Declan Burke.

Anyway, steer clear.

https://libertiespress.com/submit-publication/

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Hi all,

I'm currently pitching a crime thriller to literary agents and wondering how long it takes for them to generally reply.

Many of you may have been through this experience and might shed some light.

Agent profiles on their websites etc suggest they take from 8 to 12 weeks to reply.

But then you hear stories about writers pitching to agents and getting a deal in a day ... 

I started pitching yesterday and that hasn't yet happened to me, haha.

Love to hear from you all.

Jeff

Added a forum 

Friday Night Live - throw your hat into the ring?

I didn't as I write commercial fiction with a straight voice.

And I know FNL are looking for unique voices.

But if you put in an entry I wish you luck.

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I have my one-to-one agent chat shortly through the Jericho Summer writing festival - nervous.

I'm actually published successfully as a true crime author, book link below, but touting my first novel is another thing.

I don't expect to get signed from a chat with the first agent, of course, but it's a great learning curve.

Wish me luck!

(I'll post back about the experience.)

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cocaine-Diaries-Venezuelan-Prison-Nightmare/dp/1780576072


Added a forum 

Hi all,

I posted the first chapter of my crime thriller novel for critique in an earlier post -- and found the feedback from fellow authors fantastic.

People left detailed comments and even bothered to rewrite some scenes to show me, rather than tell me, their suggestions.

I tried writer groups in the past - online and offline - and found them largely a monumental waste of time.

But this platform is different - you're all here (of widely different experience) for the same thing: to improve your writing.

I love it and expect to be knocking around here for a long time.

Jeff

Added a forum 

Hi all,

I'd be very grateful for any comment on the first chapter below of my crime thriller.

As an aside, I'd be happy to critique the first 5k/three chapters of your crime/thriller book (just one mss, that is) if you'd do the same for me.

I'm a newish member - joined a couple of weeks ago.

Looking forward to knowing you all.

Jeff

Chapter 1

Gunfire crackles from automatic weapons, a sporadic drrr-drrr-drrr, the muzzles flaring sparks into the darkness. The bullets spitting out in a clatter that echoes around the valley. Death so close you can touch it. It makes me feel alive and giddy. My skin tingles.

Night had fallen over Caracas, bathing its concrete wares in blackness. A balmy, lilting wind drifts south from the coast. It glides over the El Avila mountains that hem in Venezuela’s capital to the north, then blows over a mishmash of a city. Villas with pools in gated communities, skyscrapers downtown, and all encircled by barrios — slums — that crawl around the sloping hills to the south and east.

And it was in one of these beat-up ghettos where the shooting show was in full swing. Sunday evening, barely 7pm. But it was the same most weekend nights. Rival drug gangs tanked up on coke or booze. Waging war. Settling scores, eating into new turf. Or maybe just bored and flexing muscle.

I sat sipping Santa Teresa rum, a candle on the table flickering behind a lamp the shape of a goblet. I pointed out to the gun fight. “The boys kicked off early tonight,” I said. 

Jonny, a stringer with the LA Observer, puffed on a Cuban cigar as thick as a banana. It made his narrow face look even smaller. “It’s a joke. More are killed here in a year than in that war in Iraq.” He called it eye-er-ak.

“I told my desk that once, when I had a job,” I said, “and you know what my editor says? ‘Find something interesting to write about.’ So I pitched a story about the government rationing toilet paper and he had a hard on.”

Jonny laughed, spluttering out smoke. 

Ryan, of the Financial Record in London, threw his hands up. “Wait a minute, Alex, at least your bloody desk in New York had heard of Venezuela. I phoned an editor with a pitch once and he said Vene-where?”

I chuckled. Jonny clapped. 

Hector, an investigative journalist with the local current affairs magazine La Semana, grinned. “I’ve put my life on the line snooping into this fuck of a dictatorship and you clowns moan about boozing your time away.”

We all laughed, lounging in our usual spot in bar Mirador, housed on the rooftop terrace in Hotel Castellena, perched up on the 19th floor. High enough to hear the mini war from a distance, but far enough from the danger. Only the odd bullet strayed here at the end of its path, dropping like a coin with a ping. Grabbed by a gleeful expat looking for a souveneir.

It was busy enough in Mirador in this hangout for rich Venezuelans and westerners. The crowd was the usual. Diplomats, expat businessmen, a few save the world types, even the odd spook and mercenary. Our Gringo numbers these days dwindling, though. The only pool growing, or stable, was the journalists. The currency of bad news in good supply. People dying, shot up or starved. Protests. A socialista government slipping out of popularity but digging in its heels. A whiff of a coup. Misery to most, but to a reporter it was gold.

Two guys strutted across the terrace. Early 30s, buttoned-up Polo shirts, all swagger. Throwing their eyes around to see were any girls checking them out. 

There wasn’t. 

They wandered past the bar the shape of a horseshoe. Next to it, a DJ, woolly hat and aviator shades, playing house music discs. Two Gringa girls danced badly, all swinging arms and legs. No rhythm.

The two dudes nodded to an empty table to my left and pulled up chairs. Chatted in a Texan twang. One of the duo, with puffed-up arms, clicked his fingers at a passing waiter. “Hey, chico.”

I spun around, got into his face. “Why don’t you show a bit of respect,” I said. “The staff have it hard enough in life without you shitting on them.”

Texan Twang stared me down. After a beat, he said, “Really?” Dripping with sarcasm. Throwing eyes to his buddy — his adam’s apple bobbing.

I kept my gaze on muscle man, my hands tightening into fists. After a long pause, I replied. “Really.”

He flexed his biceps but I smelled fear. His amigo cleared his throat and ordered two neat whiskeys. The waiter, in his uniform of black t-shirt and slacks, nodded and backpedalled, giving me a look as if to say, ‘don’t bother with this guy’.

Fingers gripped my shoulders and I turned around. Jonny, easing me back around to my table. “Take it easy, big guy,” he said. “We don’t want trouble on our own doorstep.” 

I shrugged. “Just blowing off steam.” Ryan shook his head. Jonny sucked on his cigar. Hector chuckled, his belly jiggling.

I glugged another mouthful of rum. In the background, Texan Twang sniggered, then babbled on about derivatives and capital gains. Speaking loud to his buddy about how he was going to tap into a failed country of “spicks” and make his millions. 

I put them down for a couple of wannabe businessmen. Eyeing up any opportunities in a dying economy. I tried to push the guy’s big talk aside but it grated.

The chat at my table turned to another embassy quitting town. This time, the Canadians.

“Awful shame,” I said. “They throw the best party in town. Barbeque and free booze.” 

Every Wednesday. It was the highlight of our midweek. It gave me a lift. Helped along by the coke. I dipped in and out of the toilets for a snort with the first secretary, an old guy, bald as a coot. He was always flush.

Jonny flicked ash from his Monte Cristo over the balcony. “Damn shame.”

Ryan pushed his round glasses up his nose. “Exactly. What do we do on a Wednesday night now?”

I shrugged. “There’s always El Mani club in Sabana Grande. But it’s getting rough down there, gangbangers turning it into the wild west.”

Out of the corner of my eye I watched Texan Twang pull a fistful of notes out of his wallet and flap the bills. “You could make a fire with this currency,” he said, laughing. “Bolivares fuertes, the paper’s worth more.”

I swivelled around. “You still being an asshole?”

“You ain’t seen nothin’ — watch this.” He grabbed a lighter on his table and lit the wad. Flames licked the air, the paper curling. A waiter stopped in his tracks, his jaw hung slack. Another gasped. Texan Twang then threw the notes in the air and they drifted over the balcony, embers floating like fireflies. He sat laughing, his big stupid mouth wide open.

“You muthafucker, dissing these people,” I shouted.

I jumped out of my chair, dug my fingers into his throat and hauled him to his feet. He sucked in air, his eyes bulging. I shoved him back and threw a volley of punches into his face, short and sharp, the kind that both shocked and hurt with each pound of fist. One blow hit his nose, bone connecting with cartilage in a spray of red. 

He staggered, then stumbled and collapsed onto a table, glasses smashing. A girl screamed and ran. Another, doing her lipstick, dropped her compact mirror in a tumbler. 

I dropped my hands to my side, my nostrils flaring. I watched Texan Twang crawling away. His buddy ran over, tugging at his arm to get him up.

The manager, Diego, marched onto the terrace with a doorman. Diego massaged his goatee, trimmed so tight you strike a match off the stubble, and shook his head at the sight of me being at the centre of the commotion.

I shrugged. “What?” I said, now feeling dumb.

The waiter filled in the pair about Texan Twang sparking up money into a bonfire. Diego barked orders at the doorman who scooped the KO’d clown off the floor. He and the dude’s buddy hauled him out, Texan Twang’s arms slung over each of their shoulders, his feet dragging.

I sat down, wiped my bloody hands on a napkin and folded it neatly on my lap. Ryan, Jonny and Hector, all now back to smoking and drinking like nothing happened. 

“Guy had it coming,” Hector said.

Diego stormed over, wagging a stubby finger. “You did right at that piece of shit, Alex, but you gotta leave. The owner, you might be his best customer, but he don’t like trouble.” 

I stood, shrugging. “Got it.” I fished out enough notes from my wallet to cover my tab, shoved the cash under an ashtray. “We’ll do it all again next time, boys.” 

Ryan winked. “Make it next time as in an hour. Club Mani. Get down there. We’ll nurse a few night caps.”

“Maybe,” I said. I gave him, Jonny and Hector a thumbs up and shuffled off, eyes all around on me. I scuttled down a metal staircase to the lower terrace, my legs wobbly from the booze. 

I stood at a balcony for a breather. A starry sky pulsed. A light breeze stirred, my hair ruffling. 

My phone rang and I pulled it out of my pocket. I brushed off loose tobacco from the screen. I showed a +353 number – a call from Ireland. 

Lorraine, my sister.

I hadn’t spoken to her in months. I slapped myself around the face to sharpen up and stabbed the answer button, ready for a ticking off for going AWOL.

“Look, Lorraine, I’m sorry, I eh,” I stuttered. “I haven’t been in touch lately but—” 

“Forget about that,” she shouted. “Your brother. You know, the one you never see.”

I snorted. “For good reason.”

“He’s … he’s.” Her voice breaking up, then a spasm of coughs.

“What the hell is going on?” I said.

Lorraine cleared her throat, making raspy sounds. “Mark — he’s dead.” Groans and soft cries.

I pushed the phone tight to my ear, so hard it pinched. “What are you talking about?”

“He went to Caracas with that Venezuelan tramp Carmen and married her. And she killed him there for his money. I bleedin’ know she did.” 

“Just pull it back a bit,” I said. “How did he die? And where in Caracas?” I paced in a circle.

“I … I don’t know.” Her words trailed off into sobs.

I stopped shuffling. “Lorraine, talk to me,” I said.

After a pause, she said, “You’re over there, Alex. Just get Mark home. And find the truth.”

ENDS

Self Edit course or Ed Assessment?

Hi all,

I have a reasonable draft of a crime thriller done and am trying to figure out what Jericho course would now suit me best.

The self edit course looks great, and I like that you get help with your work in progress.

But I equally like the idea of getting a full report on my entire manuscript.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Ps: I see some of you have your the first line of your posts as big bold headlines -- how'd you do that?

Added a post 

Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.

___

So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon

Harry

PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

Added a post 

Usually, on Thursday afternoon or so, I start pondering what I’m going to write about on Friday.

This week: no pondering. There’s only one thing I could possibly write about.

The biggest book-related newsflash this week – or this year – is that Barnes and Noble is changing ownership. The ins and outs are a little complex (and everything is not quite settled), but if all goes according to plan:

  • An investment firm, Elliott Advisers, is to buy Barnes and Noble, in a deal which values that business (including its debts) at about $700 million.
  • That sounds like a lot of money, but given that B&N’s sales are $3.6 billion, the pricing actually feels pretty cheap – reflecting the dismal state of B&N.
  • Elliott is also the 100% owner of Waterstones, the British equivalent of B&N. Both those chains are proper bookshops, appealing to proper book lovers. In that sense, the chains are distinct from the supermarkets, who just sell a lot of books but don’t care about them, or the British High Street & travel operator, WH Smith, which is as much a stationer and a newsagent as an actual book store.
  • Waterstones was rescued from impending financial disaster by CEO James Daunt. It was Daunt who negotiated the sale of the firm to Elliott.
  • Daunt will now act as CEO to both firms – B&N and Waterstones – and will divide his time between London and New York.

As it happens, Daunt also owns and runs his own mini-chain of high-end London bookstores. It was his experience at those stores which won him the position at Waterstones.

So, assuming that all goes according to plan, James Daunt will be the book world’s second most powerful human, after Jeff Bezos.

So what does that mean – for readers? For writers? For publishers? For anyone?

Well.

It’s a big and important move. James Daunt has a huge reputation in the UK and it’s probably deserved. His secret sauce for success? Quite simply this:

There is no secret sauce.

In the UK, Daunt simply took everything back to basics.

He turned bookselling into a proper career. (Albeit, inevitably, a badly paid one.) He retained staff who cared passionately about books and waved good-bye to the rest, perhaps a third of them. He cut costs. He made his stores prettier.

And, in a move so radical that it shook British publishing to its core, he let each store manager select their own inventory. So, yes of course, every store was expected to stock major bestsellers of the moment. But beyond that, what stores sold was guided by local passion and local knowledge. From a reader’s point of view, stores got better. There was more energy, more passion, more commitment.

But publishers, for a while, didn’t know what to do. In the past, publishing worked like this:

  1. Publishers paid Waterstones a big chunk of cash to get into a 3-for-2 front-of-store promotion. So Waterstones was actually retailing its shelf-space. It wasn’t really curating its own retail offering.
  2. Some of those 3-for-2s did really well, and became huge bestsellers.
  3. Others didn’t, and the volume of returns was enormous (often 20% of total stock.)
  4. Publishers pulped those returns, ditched those authors and just made money from their mega-successes

That was check-book publishing and check-book retail.

Daunt killed that, and terrified publishers. How could they market books if the key step wasn’t just throwing bundles of money at retailers? [and if you want a reminder of the different publishing options, you can get that here.]

Well, they solved that problem … kinda. But all they really did was turn their attentions (even more than before) to the supermarkets and other mass retailers. Waterstones’ local stores are great and feel like real bookshops … but they can’t build a bestseller as they did in the old days, because each store chooses its stock according to its own tastes.

Daunt’s path in the US is likely to follow the exact same route.

He’s commented that one of the issues he feels on entering a typical B&N store is quite simply “too many books.” Too much stock. Too little curation and guidance. Not enough knowledge from the booksellers. An atmosphere so flat, you could swap it for cigarette paper.

He’ll cut stock. Reduce staff, but retain the best and most passionate members. Eliminate central promotions. Get better terms from publishers. Sharply reduce stock returns.

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

Elliott’s cash plus Daunt’s knowhow should save specialist physical book retail in the US. That’s massive. It’s the difference between a US publishing industry that operates much as it does now and one that would be almost wholly slave to Amazon. That also means that trad publishing is likely to survive in roughly its current shape and size, rather than being sidelined by the growth of digital-first publishers (notably self-pubbers and Amazon itself.)

The negative:

US publishers will have to learn the lessons already absorbed by the Brits. If B&N no longer operates national promotion systems as in the past, publishers can’t make a bestseller just by buying space. Yes, they’ll go on seeing what they can do on social media and all that stuff. But, as in the UK, they’ll be even more dependent on supermarkets. The make-or-break of a book will be not “Is this wonderful writing?” but “did we get enough retail space in enough supermarkets at a sufficiently attractive price?”

I know any number of authors where Book A did incredibly well, Book B did poorly … and Book B was better than Book A. The difference, in every case, was that the supermarkets backed A and not B, and there’s damn all a trad publisher can do once the supermarkets have said no.

Oh yes, and supermarkets don’t really give a damn about the quality of writing. They don’t know about the quality of the writing. They just buy on the basis of past sales (if you’re John Grisham) or a pretty cover (if you’re a debut.)

Of course, they’d say their selection is a damn sight more careful than that, and it probably is. But that’s still “careful by the standards of people who mostly sell tinned beans and dog food for a living.” That’s not the same thing as actually being careful.

That sounds like a fairly downbeat conclusion, but the Elliott-saves-B&N news is still a real big plus for anyone who loves traditional stores, print books and traditional publishing. It’s the single biggest win I can remember over the past few years.

What that win won’t do, however, is weaken the hold of supermarkets and Amazon over book retail. Those two forces are still huge. They’re still central.

And of course, talking about print books has its slightly quaint side. Me, I prefer print. I hardly ever read ebooks. I just spend enough time on screens as it is.

But print books constitute less than 30% of all adult fiction sales, and online print sales accounts for a big chunk of that 30%.

In other words, all those B&N stores up and down the US are still only attacking 23% or so of the total adult fiction market. However well Daunt does, that 23% figure isn’t about to change radically. (Or not in the direction he wants, anyway.)

But, just for now, to hell with realism. Let’s remember the magic of a beautiful bookstore.

Daunt does. Here are some comments of his from 2017:

“[there is a sense that] a book bought from a bookshop is a better book.... When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it's not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop. …Price is irrelevant if the customer likes the shop. The book is never an expensive item, [particularly for the many customers who] we know are quite happy to go into a café and spend dramatically more on a cup of coffee."

Quite right, buddy. Now go sell some books. The readers need you.

Till soon

Harry

Added a post 

I’ve been reading a terrific guest post on our blog by our Craig Taylor. (And actually, “guest post” doesn’t feel like quite the right term, if I’m honest. Craig’s a buddy, not a guest.)

The post is on how to write a scene and, in it, Craig asks:

If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love?”

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

I, for one, don’t write a book thinking that every scene I write has to “angle in” to my major theme. But what if that’s wrong? What if, in a well-constructed book, pretty much everything angles in to the one same issue? (Or, rather, cluster of issues, because a book that is rich thematically can never be too neatly categorised.)

And here’s another thought:

What if you don’t especially think about these things as you build your story? What if you do concentrate on good writing (nice prose, strong characters, a well-knitted plot), but don’t overthink the thematic stuff?

What happens then? Is the result strong? Or will it never reach the kind of thematic depth and congruence that Craig is hinting at?

Hey, ho. Interesting questions. So I thought I’d take a look at my own work and see what’s actually happened there.

So my last book, The Deepest Grave, has a cluster of themes that include:

  • Ancient history, specifically post-Roman Britain and the shade of Arthur
  • Treasure and fakery
  • Death (because this is a murder mystery, but it is also a book about Fiona Griffiths, whose attitudes to life and death are deep and complicated.)

But then, I only have to write those themes down on the page here – something I’ve never done before; I don’t plan my thematic stuff – and I realise this: that those themes absolutely and necessarily contain their opposites. So a book that is about fakery and death is also, essentially, a book about:

  • Authenticity
  • Life – or, more specifically in Fiona’s case, the whole knotty business of how to be a human; how to establish and maintain an identity in the face of her overawareness of death.

OK. So those, broadly, are my themes. Let’s now look at whether my various scenes tend to hammer away at those things, or not. Are themes something that appear via a few strong, bold story strokes? Or are they there, fractal-like, in every detail too?

And, just to repeat, those aren’t questions I consciously think about much as I write. Yes, a bit, sometimes, but I certainly don’t go through the disciplined thought process that Craig mentions in his post.

And blow me down, but what I find is that, yes, those themes infest the book. The book never long pulls away from them at all.

So, aside from a place and date stamp at the top of chapter 1, the first words in the book are these:

“Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece. The Mona Lisa of office art. The masterpiece in question is a dinosaur made of bulldog clips, twisted biro innards and a line of erasers that Jon has carved into spikes.”

That’s a nod towards ancient history. It’s a nod towards authenticity (the Mona Lisa) and fakery (a dinosaur that is definitely not a real dinosaur.) It’s also, perhaps, a little nod towards death, because in a way the most famous thing about dinosaurs is that they’re extinct.

It goes on. The mini-scene that opens the book concludes with Fiona demolishing her friend’s dinosaur and the two of them bending down to clear up the mess. Fiona says, “that’s how we are—me, Jon, the bones of the fallen—when Dennis Jackson comes in.”

That phrase, the bones of the fallen, puts death explicitly on the page and in a way which alludes forward to the whole Arthurian battle theme that will emerge later.

That’s one example and – I swear, vow & promise – I didn’t plan those links out in my head prior to writing. I just wrote what felt natural for the book that was to come.

But the themes keep on coming. To use Craig’s word, all of the most glittering scenes and moments and images in the book keep on angling in to my little collection of themes.

There’s a big mid-book art heist and hostage drama. Is there a whiff of something ancient there? Something faked and something real? Of course. The heist is fake and real, both at the same time.

The crime that sits at the heart of the book has fakery at its core. But then Fiona start doubling up on the fakery – she’s faking a fake, in effect – but in the process, it turns out, she has created something authentic. And the authenticity of that thing plays a key role in the book’s final denouement.

Another example. Fiona’s father plays an important role in this book. He’s not a complicated or introspective man. He doesn’t battle, the way his daughter does, for a sense of identity.

But what happens in the book? This big, modern, uncomplicated man morphs, somehow, into something like a modern Arthur. That identity shift again plays a critical role in the final, decisive dramas. But it echoes around the book too. Here’s one example:

“Dad drives a silver Range Rover, the car Arthur would have chosen.

It hums as it drives, transfiguring the tarmac beneath its wheels into something finer, silvered, noble.

A wash of rain. Sunlight on a hill. Our slow paced Welsh roads.”

That’s playful, of course, and I had originally intended just to quote that first line, about the Range Rover. But when I opened up the text, I found the sentences that followed. That one about “transfiguring the tarmac” is about that process of transformation from something ordinary to something more like treasure, something noble.

And then even the bits that follow that – the wash of rain, the sunlight on the hill – don’t those things somehow attach to the “finer, silvered, noble” phrase we’ve just left? It’s as though the authenticity of the man driving the Range Rover transforms these ordinary things into something treasured. Something with the whisper of anciency and value.

I could go on, obviously, but this email would turn into a very, very long one if I did.

And look:

Yet again, I’ve got to the end of a long piece on writing without a real “how to” lesson to close it off.

Craig’s blog post says, among many other good things, that you should ask whether or not your scene angles in to your themes. But I don’t do that. Not consciously, not consistently. And – damn my eyes and boil my boots – I discover that the themes get in there anyway. Yoo-hoo, here we are.

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

Well, I don’t know. I think that, yes, if you’re stuck with a scene, or if it’s just feeling a little awkward or wrong, then working through Craig’s list of scene-checks will sort you out 99% of the time. A conscious, almost mechanical, attention to those things will eliminate problems.

But if you’re not the conscious mechanic sort, then having a floaty awareness of the issues touched on in this email will probably work as well. If you maintain that rather unfocused awareness of your themes, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating towards phrases and scenes and metaphors and moments that reliably support the structure you’re building.

And that works, I think. The final construction will have both coherence and a kind of unforced naturalness.

And for me, it’s one of the biggest pleasures of being an author. That looking back at a text and finding stuff in it that you never consciously put there.

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon

Harry

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