Miriam Sautin | Writer Support Team | Jericho Writers

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Hi there 👋 I'm Miriam and I'm part of the Writer Support Team. I'm here to help if you ever have a question about writing, getting published, Jericho Writers or anything in between. I'm half French, half Welsh and have a degree in French and Spanish. I'm an avid reader and am also a writer, with a stack of short stories, poems and scribbles tucked away. When I'm not curled up with a book or a pen, I'm out hiking and cycling, or attempting to play the guitar 😊

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Bookstagram.

What is it?

And why should you know about it?

Two members of our Writer Support Team, Polly and Elsie, are dedicated bookstagrammers and are here to tell us more about it and how Bookstagram could help all of you budding writers out there.  


Could you start by explaining what Bookstagram is to someone who hasn’t the foggiest? 

POLLY: Bookstagram is an online community on Instagram, where book lovers can share their opinions on titles they’ve read or are going to read. It’s essentially a virtual space for readers to find recommendations, see what’s current and engage with all things literary. I’ve made some really magical friends through this platform.


Tell us a little bit about your accounts, how you first got started, the type of content you share, and some of your bookish goals.

ELSIE: I got started in lockdown 1, partly to keep myself busy and partly to bolster up my CV for the book related jobs I was applying for. I quickly fell in love with the supportive community of bookstagram, and having a dedicated place to shout about books. 

I mainly post reviews, but I also like posting themed book stacks (for example, I love taking part in ). 

This year I’m planning on reading 74 books (just over 6 books a month), and reading one ‘classic’ book a month. 

POLLY: Similarly, I didn’t know much about Bookstagram until around March last year. I had always had a blog where I posted my reviews and posted eye-catching pictures of the books I was reading was just a way of marketing myself initially. I would say it was since the first lockdown I started to engage more with other people posting about books and focused more on this aspect of my content. It was also nice seeing something other than influencers in Dubai on my newsfeed. 

I think my mental health has improved by engaging with a community that values books over appearance. I share reviews, my current reads, my recent book purchases and reels (funny videos). 

My goal is to read 100 books this year and read more international fiction.


How do you think Bookstagram can help our aspiring authors?

POLLY: Firstly, the Bookstagram community is such a supportive place. The more engagement you have with people that like to read and have the same reading tastes as you, then you are automatically building yourself a ready audience for anything you put out. Just as you would ask friends to read/purchase your book – you now have an entire reading community at your fingertips. It’s also great to see what people are reading. A lot of publishers, actually, work directly with bookstagrammers now to market their books. So, why not build a platform there to begin with, to increase your chances of sales?

ELSIE: I couldn’t agree more. It’s a great way to stay on top of what books and genres are being talked about. When pitching a book, you need to show that there’s a demand for it, and you can do so by referencing comparable titles. 

I follow plenty of authors with bookstagram accounts. If you can attract an audience by talking about the books that you read, this could be a great starting point to begin a mailing list, and promote your own writing. 


You both feature a wide range of genres on your accounts, how do you decide which books to read next and which ones to feature on your account? 

ELSIE: I try to prioritise Advance Review Copies (ARCs) that I’ve been sent by authors and publishers, as I like to review them before the publication date, so I can encourage people to pre-order them! Other than that, I’m a mood reader, and it really depends whether I’m in the mood to read about people falling in love, or being brutally murdered… 

Every book I read is featured on my account, but if it’s not a positive review I don’t tag the author! 

POLLY: I download a lot of upcoming books from NetGalley and receive a few physical books directly from publishers. I usually read and post about them to not only increase my chances of more free books (I know, the dream!), but to help promote titles. 

Like Elsie, I’m also a big mood reader, so, I just see how I’m feeling before I pick up a book. A lot of bookstagrammers will pre-plan their reading list at the start of the month. I am just not that organised. 

I read a lot on Borrow Box an app that connects to your library card where you can read books for free. I often see what is newly released on there and borrow them. Otherwise I decide based on what people are raving about on Bookstagram and look for popular books in my favourite genres. I personally feature most, if not all, the books I read on my account – which can be time-consuming if I’m behind on reviews.


What’s rewarding about book influencing and what are some of the main challenges you face?

ELSIE: If I told my childhood self that one day I would regularly be sent free books, she would go out of her mind with excitement! However, the most rewarding thing is when someone tells me they’ve read a book based on my recommendation – reading books doesn’t have to be a solitary experience, and one of my favourite parts of reading is getting to share my enjoyment with others.  

I can sometimes put pressure on myself and feel that I have to post regularly, and that each photo has to be perfect. I have to remind myself that I already have a full time job, and bookstagram is what I do for fun! 

POLLY: I think the most rewarding thing is when other people buy a book based on your review – and fall in love with it too. It’s nice to spread the word about literature and that you’re bringing a bit of joy into people’s lives. I know A LOT of my friends love my little book reviews and have bought books on my recommendation. It makes me feel closer to them and it’s nice to be heard. 

The main challenges are probably just getting your posts seen, composing the perfect composition and generating engagement. It can also sometimes feel like a vicious cycle where reading is no longer just for fun and you feel you need to share every thought on a book – but, when that happens, I take a step back and focus on something else, before returning with even more passion.


How would you describe your relationship with the publishers and authors who send you their work? 

POLLY: I have a good relationship with someone at Bloomsbury and Faber & Faber, because I chat with them on bookstagram and they know the kind of books I like. Often when a publicity department knows what kind of book you’ll rave about, they will send anything they think you’ll like your way. I have recently connected with one of my favourite debut authors via bookstagram, the friendship we’ve formed has been a real balm during these past few months and he’s offered me a chance to practice my Japanese. Oh, and he recommended my newsletter to both his editor and agent – so, it’s great for getting word out about your work and networking. 

ELSIE: I recently spoke to a PR director who told me that proof copies cost around £5 to produce - more than the cost of making a mass-produced paperback - and with postage on top it is expensive for them to send to multiple reviewers. I make sure to honour the time and money spent to send me the book by publicly thanking the publisher and writing honest reviews to go alongside photos that show the book off. 


What’s the most elaborate photo sequence you’ve ever taken? 

ELSIE: Definitely the clock of books. I thought it would be fairly simple, but by the time I was finished making sure all the books were the same distance apart, and could fit in the frame, an hour had gone by… 

POLLY: Well, I have videoed a few reels (short compilation videos) and they can be quite fiddly. In terms of actual photos my recent photo for The Cat and the City took a bit of composition. 

Flatlay (carefully arranged items) is super popular on Bookstagram and I’m still experimenting with styles. Some photos can take a while to get exactly right.


To finish off, could you summarise in one sentence why our writers should dive into the Bookstagram world?  

ELSIE: As an author, it’s your job to understand the complex beings that are readers – bookstagram is an excellent way to figure out what makes them tick!  

POLLY: Exactly. Not only will you expand both your reading tastes and your market reach, but you will “meet” a whole network of people that love books just as much as you.


You can follow Polly’s account, Where Polly Wanders here and Elsie’s account, Bookgrants here.  

Have a question about your writing, getting published or anything in between? Don’t hesitate to get in touch with our experienced and friendly Writer Support Team, we’ll be delighted to help.

 

 

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Whether you’re tentatively setting out on your first novel (like me!), knee-deep in edits, or on a mission to find an agent, the genre-question can be the buzzing bee in your ear refusing to leave you alone. Even when you know your book inside out, side-to-side, back-to-front, it can be tricky to decide on its genre.

Some of the buzzing questions might be:

          “Is it pretentious to call my book literary?”

          “Is the intrigue thrilling enough to be a thriller?”

          “Are there enough centaurs and dragons to make this a fantasy?”

But, as frustrating an exercise as it may seem it IS important to pin it down.

Why?

Because knowing and understanding your genre, along with its accepted conventions, intricacies and patterns will ultimately:

         -focus your narrative

         -and make it much easier to sell your book

The idea isn’t to regurgitate genre tropes. I like to think of the history of a genre not as a limitation, but a road map there for reference. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with writing a cross-genre book- it could be a sign that you’ve written something unique. But try to be as specific as possible because,

          “Part thriller, part romance, part fantasy, part sci-fi” 

Won’t cut the mustard when it comes to publishing your work. Both agents and readers are looking for some level of synchronisation between a book’s approach and their expectations.

How do we define different genres? What are some of these reader expectations you should be looking to play with, rather than cheat?

To help us along (I’m also struggling- I need to practise what I preach!), I’ve come up with a new writing challenge to help us understand the different expectations attached to each genre. The name of the game is genre shift where you’ll take one of the prompts below in the genre direction of your choice. Feel free to jot down 2-3 sentences as an opening to a story and post them in the comments below.


Are we in another galaxy? Or in Victorian England? Or perhaps in a land of myth and magic?

 

Take the time to think about:

 

          Tone

          Characterisation

          Setting

 

How can you present these elements in an opening paragraph so that a reader knows from the get-go the type of book this promises to be?

 

Here are some prompts to kick-start your writing muscles:

 

          'They always said red was the colour of anger, but they’re wrong...’

          

          ‘I switched out my gun for a…’

          

          ‘'Behind the curtain, two shadows danced...'

          

          'I walked into a room full of ears, each one waiting for…’


So don’t swat away the buzzing bee (side note: bees are an essential part of our ecosystem so please don’t ever squash one) but rather listen to what it has to say – it won’t sting you!

Have fun!

Miri x

February is genre month at Jericho Writers with our members’ webinar programme chock-a-block full of genre specific events. If you’re a member and haven’t yet registered, you can do so by popping over to our webinar programme page. Not a member and want to know more? Get in touch with us and I, Stephanie, Polly, or Elsie will happily help.

 

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As a child, I dreamt of writing a novel. A good hunk of a book which could also double up as a door stopper. The heavier the better. I viewed short fiction as something for writers with small goals, who were too nervous, lazy or scared to go the whole hog. A bit like tapping your foot with an odd click here and there instead of full-on jiving and swinging in the spotlight. But then, as the pile of unfinished novels wobbled over me and my overconfidence fizzled, I came to realise that short stories can be vital in a writer's literary journey and that there’s real beauty in a timely tap and click. 

Short story collections are frequently overlooked in bestseller fiction lists -I also write my short stories in Welsh so good luck making your millions Miriam- and yet, I am by now a full-blown convert. Many of our most beloved authors started off writing short fiction, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf… The list goes on and on. Having spent the last few months crafting a short story collection, I’ve come up with a few reasons why that is and why short fiction can be the bees’ knees even for hardcore novelists:

1. You get a BUCKET LOAD OF EXPERIENCE. We all have so many stories to tell, who has time to devote 80k+ to each one? You complete the entire process of writing from plotting to final full stop within a short space of time, gaining a better understanding of what writing methods work best for you without waiting to turn grey. 

2. You become an EDITING WIZARD. You’re forced to flex your writing muscles in a tight space and understand the impact of each word choice, loading your writing with intent and meaning, and learning to shave all the fluff. What’s left unsaid can speak just as loudly as what sits on the page and this is just as applicable in novel writing.

3. You get CREATIVE and EXPERIMENTAL. It’s an opportunity to get curious about structure and characterisation, and to play around with new voices, genres, themes, and ideas. You figure out which shoe fits best, or if you like wearing shoes at all. 

Basically, short stories are a low risk, high reward way to hone your craft and better understand yourself as a writer.

Neil Gaiman hit the nail on the head:

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” 

PLUS, and this reason is the closest to my heart, short stories are so much more than steppingstones to the worshipped land of the novel, they’re extraordinary destinations in themselves. They’re an entire art form challenging writers to summon up worlds and lives in a few pages, welcoming a reader’s interpretation and active participation in the storytelling. Characters are unravelled in a few interactions, and a single moment conjures up an entire arc in someone’s life. Isn’t that terrifyingly beautiful? They reveal and make us relish the small absurdities nestled away in our days. They can be exceptionally tricky to master but can result in the most memorable of stops as you jolt your reader off the train before they even have time to find their seat. 

What do you think? Have I convinced you die-hard novelists at all? 

As a quick challenge, putting all the listed reasons above to the test, I’m turning to the short story’s smaller and even punchier cousin, micro fiction. It’s a form I like to play with between writing projects to help reset my mind and which boasts the same value as short stories but in a more concentrated form.

I would love you to squeeze your skill, imagination, and creativity into 20 words. 

20?!

Yes, up to 20 words on the theme of your choice. Taking inspiration from Hemingway, renowned for his cut-throat approach to editing, and who (supposedly) wrote this heart wrenching 6-word story:

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Are you feeling up to the challenge?

Feel free to post yours in the comments section below. I’d also love to know if you have a favourite short story collection or writer of your own. Do you write short stories? Wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole? Share all below! You can find my comments there already.

Will I ever write a novel? I think so. But for now, I’m happily tapping and clicking away, learning to land on the right beat and enjoying the music.  

If you’d like to read more about short stories, be sure to check out our latest article by Dan Brotzel.

You can also join in on some more Townhouse short story fun by joining the community’s short story group. 

Can’t wait to read your comments!

Miriam 😊

Writer Support Team 

Don't hesitate to get in touch with us at info@jerichowriters.com if you ever have a question about writing, getting published or Jericho Writers, we’re here to help!

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Poetry’s the marmite of literature. A divisive subject with one side of the scale, I unhappily admit, heavily tipped. I think it’s safe to say that most people hate poetry, an awful thing to hear if like me, you love it.  

Why all the hate? 

Maybe because poetry’s seen as moth-eaten and archaic, to be shelved alongside cobblestone heavy history books. A sloth-like slow drag lacking in thrill and pace. Or maybe, it’s because people think poetry equates effort. A poem is evidence of someone having made an effort to try and be clever. To unashamedly try to make something beautiful. It follows then that reading a poem can make you feel closed off, feel dumb when you don’t understand, even after all the eye-scrunching effort trying to untangle all the pretentious bits of fluff.

Gosh, this is a bit negative on National Poetry Day isn’t it? But this is exactly the reason why I love this annual celebration. Ever since primary school when I shoved bunglingly written acrostic poems into my parents’ faces, I’ve loved the idea of getting everyone EXCITED ABOUT POETRY. Making poetry for and about everyone. As it should be. Because poetry isn’t about condescending cleverness. It’s about voices and people. When you think about it, it’s insight into someone else’s life and mind. A permission slip to be a fly on the wall. 

On this October 1st, our National Poetry Day in the UK, people all over the country are getting excited about poetry and they’re not embarrassed to admit it. From writing poetry to putting on events, poetry-lovers are coming out of the woodwork and shouting from the rooftops. You can find out more about what it’s all about here: https://nationalpoetryday.co.uk/celebrate-national-poetry-day/.

I’d love you to join in too. 

Why not write your own poem in response to this year’s theme of VISION in the comments below? 

Write, post, respond and share!

Let’s show all poetry sceptics wrong, show them that poetry doesn’t drag, it bumbles, meanders, hops and dives. It doesn’t close people off, it makes us more open. Poetry helps us understand the world and people around us, giving us the language to explain our own patchwork of feelings and thoughts. Letting us know that we’re not the only ones and that someone else gets it, gets us.

I’ve kick-started our poetry thread with my own response to this year’s theme, my poetry has improved a tad since my acrostic days, but my enthusiasm has remained child-like in magnitude.

Looking forward to reading your responses!

Miriam x

 

We’re 2/20

 

My vision’s a total mess,

2/20,

Smudges and stumbling edges.

I can’t see further than my nose

and its kissed pink bridge.

From my easy balloon

I drift, 

          Sideways 

Loosening sacks of sense.

 

I spot your smudge in all the smudges,

Your 4B trace, your guiding stroke. 


Your blur is crisp and clear to me,

As your balloon 

          bops

                    gently

                               mine.

 

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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.

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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

Added a post 

I had plans for today, plans that involved some interesting and actually useful work.

But –

Our boiler sprang a leak. Even with the mains water turned off, it went on leaking through the night. Finding an engineer who could come out today (for a non-insane price) took the first half hour this morning. The engineer is coming at 3.30, and that’ll eat the last part of the day.

And –

I have a vast number of kids: four, in theory, but most days it seems like a lot more than that. And one of them, Lulu, spent most of the last couple of nights with, uh, a stomach upset. Of the intermittent but highly projectile variety.

So –

Not masses of sleep. And today’s interesting work plans have been kicked into next week.

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

The fact is that even if you’re a pro author, life gets in the way of writing all the time. Because writing isn’t an office-based job, almost no writer I know keeps completely clean boundaries between work stuff and life stuff. Life intrudes all the time. Indeed, I know one author – a multiple Sunday Times top ten bestseller – whose somewhat less successful but office-based partner always just assumes that she’ll be the one to fix boilers, attend to puking children, etc, etc, just because she’s at home and not under any immediate (today, next day) deadline pressure.

And that’s a top ten bestseller we’re talking about. Most of you aren’t in that position. You’re still looking for that first book deal. The first cheque that says, “Hey, this is a job, not just a hobby.”

So Life vs Work?

Life is going to win, most of the time. And it’ll win hands down.

The broken boiler / puking kid version of life intrusion is only one form of the syndrome though. There’s one more specific to writers.

Here’s the not-yet-pro-author version of the syndrome, in one of its many variants: You have one book out on submission with agents. You keep picking at it editorially and checking your emails 100 times a day. But you also have 20,000 words of book #2 on your computer and though, in theory, you have time to write, you’re accomplishing nothing. You’re just stuck.

That feels like only aspiring authors should suffer that kind of thing, right? But noooooooo! Pro authors get the same thing in a million different flavours, courtesy of their publishers. Your editor quits. Your new editor, “really wants to take a fresh look at your work, so as soon as she’s back from holiday and got a couple of big projects off her desk …”. Or your agent is just starting new contract negotiations with your editor, and you are hearing alarmingly little for some reason. Or you know that your rom-com career is on its last legs, so you’re looking to migrate to domestic noir, but you don’t know if your agent / editor / anyone is that keen on the stuff you now write. Or …

Well, there are a million ors, and it feels like in my career I’ve experienced most of them. The simple fact is that creative work is done best with a lack of significant distractions and no emotional angst embedded in the work itself. Yet the publishing merry-go-round seems intent on jamming as much angst in there as it can manage, compounded, very often, by sloppy, slow or just plain untruthful communications.

So the solution is …?

Um.

Uh.

I don’t know. Sorry.

The fact is, these things are just hard and unavoidable. Priorities do get shifted. You can’t avoid it. The emotional strains of being-a-writer – that is, having a competitive and insecure job in an industry which, weirdly, doesn’t value you very highly – are going to be present whether you like them or not.

There have been entire months, sometimes, when I should have been writing, but accomplished nothing useful because of some publishing drama, which just needed resolution. No one else cared much about that drama, or at least nothing close to the amount I did, with the result that those things often don’t resolve fast.

Your comfort and shelter against those storms? Well, like I say, I don’t have any magical answers but, here, for what it’s worth, are some things which may help:

  1. Gin. Or cheap wine. Or whatever works. I favour beers from this fine brewery or really cheap Australian plonk. The kind you can thin paints with.
  2. Changing your priorities for a bit. So if you really needed to clear out the garage or redecorate the nursery, then do those things in the time you had thought you’d be writing. You’re not losing time; you’re just switching things around.
  3. Addressing any emotional/practical issues as fast and practically as you can. So let’s say you have book #1 out on submission, you can help yourself by getting the best version of that book out (getting our excellent editorial advice upfront if you need to.) You can make sure you go to a minimum of 10 agents, and probably more like 12-15. You can make sure those agents are intelligently chosen, and that your query letter / synopsis are all in great shape. (see the PSes for a bit more on this.) You can write yourself a day planner, that gives some structure to the waiting process: “X agents queried on 1 May. Eight weeks later is 26 June. At that point, I (a) have an agent, (b) send more queries, (c) get an editor to look at my text, or (d) switch full-steam to the new manuscript.” If you plan things like that upfront, you don’t have to waste a bazillion hours crawling over the same questions in your head.
  4. Accepting the reality. It’s just nicer accepting when things are blocked or too busy or too fraught. The reality is the same, but the lived experience is nicer. So be kind to yourself.
  5. Find community. Yes, your partner is beautiful and adorable and the joy of your life. But he/she isn’t a writer. So he/she doesn’t understand you. Join a community (like ours). Make friends. Share a moan with people who know exactly what you mean. That matters. It makes a difference.
  6. Enjoy writing. This is the big one, in fact. The writers who most struggle with their vocation are the ones who like having written something, but don’t actually enjoy writing it. And I have to say, I’ve never understood that. My happiest work times have nearly always been when I’m throwing words down on a page, or editing words I’ve already put there. And that pleasure means you keep on coming back to your manuscript whenever you can. And that means it gets written. And edited. And out to agents or uploaded to KDP and sold.

Of those six, then cultivating that happiness is the single biggest gift you can give yourselves.

And the gin, obviously.

Harry

Added a post 

Here's the place to talk about today's email - "The days that say no" - in which I talk about that feeling of reluctance to grapple with your current draft. We've all been there. What's your solution? What's worked, what hasn't, what's your advice?

And here's a picture of apple blossom to make us feel happy.

Added a post 

Want to ask questions? Got any follow-up? Don't agree with something I said? Then here's the place to do it. I'll follow the chat thread on this post for a few days following my email, and I'm happy to talk about anything at all.

Meantime, here's a picture of a scary-but-pretty bug.

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Miriam Sautin | Writer Support Team | Jericho Writers
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