Showing posts with label Katherine Roberts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Katherine Roberts. Show all posts

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Kindles and Kids' Books - Susan Price and Katherine Roberts

KATH:  You were the first person to sign up with Amazon for Kindle, weren't you? So maybe you should start...

SUE:  I think it’s arguable which of us became interested in Kindling first.  I remember talking with you years ago about writers being pushed into self-publishing by the way things were going in the publishing industry.  We’d both seen what had happened in the music industry, and it seemed plain – to us anyway – that the publishing industry would go the same way.
            I remember suggestions that the Scattered Authors’ Society become a co-operative publisher, and people saying, ‘We should write and let publishers publish!’ – things like that.  But publishers weren’t publishing many of us.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Salinger’s Safe – Katherine Roberts

There is a rumour that in the years before he died, JD Salinger finished his manuscripts and locked them away in a safe so nobody could publish them in his lifetime. “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing,” he told The New York Times in 1974. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” This makes me wonder why I am so frustrated when I have a finished manuscript that – for whatever reason – is not published. Surely, if the work is the most important thing, then it doesn’t really matter what happens to it once it is finished? So why not lock your manuscripts away in a safe? Or simply burn them? Your work as a creator of stories has been done.

Looking at it from this perspective, and leaving aside any higher aims such as providing a service to readers (let’s face it, there are plenty of other writers perfectly capable of providing the same, if not better, service), then I believe the desire for publication must come down to two things: ego and money. If you have a private income and honestly don’t care about getting paid for your work, then it must be pure ego that makes an author submit a manuscript for publication. To egoists, the work is worthless unless someone reads it – and preferably loves it and praises it, though even negative comments are better then nothing if you are the sort of author who needs hordes of adoring fans in order to write. In fact, if you have enough ego and enough money, you’ll probably bypass the whole painful submission process and publish yourself so you can bask in the celebrity status it conveys. If, on the other hand, you need an income in order to write, then that can be just as strong a reason to desire publication. In fact, maybe it is those writers who have both healthy ego and need for income who are most likely to succeed in being published, because they have double the drive and double the reward at the end.

So back to Salinger and his safe. Death neatly removes both ego (unless you happen to believe in an afterlife where such things will matter) and need for money (assuming you are not leaving behind any dependents). In that case, the muse being satisfied and the work being complete, surely there would be little point in leaving those manuscripts behind for publication? It’s an interesting thought, and brings me to a third reason people might write – not for personal ego or money, but a very human desire to leave something behind us when we go. A passing on of the genes, which is something most people achieve through having children. So a writer, particularly a childless one, might write to leave part of their soul behind. That is the kind of manuscript I can imagine putting into my safe. Out of the books I have written so far, "I am the Great Horse" would fall into that category. On the other hand, I’d probably burn anything written specially for the market, particularly if it remains unpublished, because without readers that kind of manuscript has no reason for existing.

And before you all begin to worry I’m about to drop dead tomorrow, I will say here that as far as I know I’m not – unless I should choose to, of course, which is not an uncommon way for writers to go when backed into a creative corner. But at the risk of sounding morbid, you can’t escape the fact everyone dies sooner or later, and death seems rather more sure to me than taxes in this profession. So when the hooded figure with the sickle approaches, assuming he gives you a bit of time to plan, what would YOU do with your unpublished manuscripts? Or am I the only one thinking about buying a very large safe?

Visit Katherine’s website at
And find out what her unicorn muse is up to at

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Supermarkets and fair trade books - Katherine Roberts

Like many other people, even though I prefer independent shops, I do a weekly food shop at my local supermarket. It’s convenient, the car parking is free, everything is together under one roof so it saves time, and it's affordable. It’s also a fairly pleasant environment with generally helpful staff, and I can always choose Fairtrade products or avoid those with vast numbers of air miles to salve my conscience. OK so far. But two things really annoy me. One is when they change the shelves around so I have to spend extra time wandering up and down the aisles to find all the things I want. The other is when they don’t stock a particular product I know is available elsewhere.

The first is a marketing trick, designed to tempt the customer into buying something they don’t normally buy, and I’m willing to play that game in exchange for convenience and affordability. The second is more sinister. Supermarkets know very well that, having driven to a location a mile or more out of town, few people are going to walk that mile in search of their desired product. Most will probably buy the nearest alternative (often an own-brand product) instead. I've even done it myself while muttering under my breath that I'm allowing myself to be controlled - but then that's the choice I make when I walk through their doors.

You might not think it matters with food. A bit less tasty, maybe, a bit more sugar, a bit less healthy, a few more air miles, but it’s still food. In the words of Crocodile Dundee, “You can live on it…” But now supermarkets sell books. These used to be a bit of a joke, sparkly eye-candy people would pick up for their nieces and nephews at Christmas. But more and more these days I see real books on supermarket shelves, good solid novels that took their authors several years to write and are for sale in real bookshops in town for twice the price.

Supermarkets don’t stock all the novels published, naturally. There’s not even as much choice as the hair products in my local store... clearly it matters more to people around here which hairspray they use than which book they read. But they stock books nevertheless, containing exactly the same words and often having exactly the same production quality as the more expensive variety. And your typical supermarket shopper, blissfully unaware of the range of other titles available, will pick up one of these books because it’s (a) convenient, (b) cheap, and (c) just as good as any other book in a particular genre, as far as they are concerned. You might argue the discerning book buyer will walk/drive the extra mile (or these days more likely 5 miles) to visit their nearest independent book shop, or simply head home and order their preferred title online. I’m sure you lovely blog readers would. I do, being all too aware of how tiny a royalty goes to the author from each supermarket sale (there’s a reason their books are so cheap). But most people won’t. They’ll buy what’s there under their noses at the time, especially if it’s half the price they can buy a similar product elsewhere.

This is a double-edged sword for authors. If your book is not stocked in the supermarkets, then you’re not only missing out on potential sales, but your book then looks ridiculously expensive in comparison to supermarket books, even if a customer does happen to see it on sale elsewhere. They’re going to need to be very motivated indeed if they are going to walk that extra mile to find it and then be expected buy it at full price. Chances are they won’t buy it at all, maybe not even online unless it’s discounted deeply. On the other hand, if your book is stocked by the supermarket then you might get good sales, but your royalty from each sale will be so small you’d do better buying them yourself and selling a few at your local school gates after marking them up by fifty pence or so.

There has to be something wrong when the discount given to supermarkets – or any other mainstream bookseller for that matter – is larger than the discount allowed to authors in their contracts for buying their own books without a royalty. I don’t know the actual figures (they are not easy to find out), but I can tell you my author discount has never been greater than 50%, with a proviso that I am not allowed to sell such books to the trade myself (presumably because this would mean lost profits for my publisher). And yet I’ve heard rumours of discounts MUCH bigger than this being given to supermarkets as a matter of routine. So how do these figures work out?

To my mind, the real threat to authors’ incomes is not Google or e-books or any other alternative technological format. It’s the supermarkets, who already dictate our diet, and have the power to control our reading choices and impoverish authors in the same way as they have impoverished farmers. Fair trade books, anyone? Or is that a dirty word?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Authors and their Muses - Katherine Roberts

The part of me that dreams up stories is quite separate from the part of me that goes to the supermarket for food, drives my car, or does the accounts. It is a fragile part, since it needs to feel safe before it emerges. Yet it is also a strong part, because it is always there deep inside me even if it does not feel like coming out. I am talking, of course, of my muse.

Traditionally the muses are young women who appear in Greek and Roman myth. First there were three, then seven, then nine. They had names, and they specialized in poetry, music, dance, history, astronomy. But obviously nine muses are going to be vastly overworked in our modern age, when nearly everyone seems to be writing a book or making music or doing other muselike things. So my muse is not a daughter of Zeus. He’s male for one thing, and he’s a unicorn.

I can tell when he is sulking. In some environments he emerges, delighted and curious and playful. He likes open spaces, mountains, beautiful gardens, candles, sunshine, snow, independent shops, second hand bookstalls, car boot sales, interesting artwork, music, colours, animals, the moon, stars, sparkly things. He dislikes noise, grey streets, traffic jams, litter, crowds, fluorescent lighting, mobile phones, dentists, and men in suits. He likes to be given little treats – a coffee in pleasant surroundings, a walk in a scented garden, ten minutes of sitting in the sun, a candlelit bath with incense and wine, an open fire on a cold day. In short, he has to be charmed.

For quite a while I did not know what my muse looked like and called him vaguely “my artist”. But gradually over the years he took form. He first showed himself to me when I won a short story competition – I went shopping with the intention of spending my winnings on something special to remind me of my success, and came back with two unicorn book ends. They were rather sweeter and pinker than I imagined, but of course they were my muse as a foal…

(I have been wondering if this means he is a twin – does anyone else have a unicorn as their muse?)

Later, browsing around Hay-on-Wye during festival week, I came across a poster of a more grown up unicorn, which I have on the wall of my study. I burn candles and incense on the shelf beneath it if I need his advice. I painted the wall behind him red for inspiration. He watches me as I write peering over my shoulder and breathing magic mist over my computer. Naturally, he is on the south wall for creative development (he’s into feng shui at the moment).

The unicorn is quite an interesting muse to have. He is a shy creature who will only respond to gentleness (the traditional maiden), and yet has potential for aggression when threatened (a sharp horn). Unicorn horn also has magical properties – it is supposed to bestow eternal life in powdered form, and can transform poison into sweet wine. Unicorns have a spiritual connection sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, and are also associated with healing. They are usually shown as being horse-like, which means they can be ridden (but presumably not bridled). They are everywhere you look, and yet they do not exist except in the imagination. It is no surprise they turn up in several of my books.

Lately, my muse has grown strong enough to start his own blog. You can find him at RECLUSIVEMUSE. I am hoping he won’t get too distracted by posting there and forget I need him! He hasn’t got a name yet, but maybe that will come as he matures. He’s only a young unicorn at the moment, a bit innocent still.

Since my unicorn started Reclusive Muse, several of my colleagues on this blog have admitted to having muses of their own (see comments on Muse’s first post) and it’s fascinating how they seem to reflect their authors’ work. In his book “On Writing”, Stephen King says his muse is “a basement guy, chomping on a cigar”, which seems about right. I have been looking for an entertaining book about children's authors and their muses but can't seem to find one - does anybody know of a good one, or do I have to write it?

Do you have a muse, and if so what shape does it take? How do you communicate with it? Does it have a name? Is it reclusive and prone to disappearing into the enchanted mists, like mine? Or have you managed to tame it? What kind of books does a tame muse produce? I have a feeling my unicorn will always remain a little bit wild...

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Tip of the Storyberg - Katherine Roberts

Before my first novel was published, I used to write short stories. After a few years of sending out my work, I realized I was selling about one story in every ten. Often “selling” merely meant publication in return for free copies of the magazine it appeared in, but I’m not talking about money here, I’m talking about an editor liking my story enough to publish it and bring it to a wider readership (which for short fiction is often as good as it gets). So for every story of mine that made it into the wider world, there were another nine hopefuls that saw only the inside of my computer. Other writers talk of their bottom drawers, but I prefer to think of my published work as the tip of an iceberg, or – because ice seems too cold for creativity – the tip of my “storyberg”. The unpublished stories make up the much larger chunk below the waterline that nobody can see.

Since I have published around 50 short stories, that means 450 unpublished ones floating around below the surface… a fair amount of work! Was it wasted? Out of interest, I recently went back and re-read a few. Some of my earlier efforts clearly deserve to be drowned in the depths for all eternity, but others aren’t so bad. They just didn’t fit the market at the time, or (more likely) never found the right market because I gave up sending them out. But those 450 unpublished stories were clearly necessary in order to write the 50 that did make it into readers' hands. Every single one of them needed to be written, or the tip of my storyberg would not exist.

These days I write books, and the process is similar. “Song Quest” was my twelfth novel, but the first to be published. Since then I’ve had 12 more books published, but have about 100 other projects in various stages of progress in my files, most which will never see the light of day. At certain stages of an author’s career, it seems necessary to grow the storyberg below the waterline rather than above so that the whole thing can continue to float when the next project makes it into the sunlight. Sometimes it seems as if no progress is being made, and other authors' storybergs seem to be growing so much faster than mine - but, of course, I cannot see how much is lurking below their waterlines and I suspect the author who publishes everything they write does so at their peril, since top-heavy storybergs will not stay afloat for very long.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Left Handed Writer - Katherine Roberts

I’m left handed and never learnt to touch type. So when I started writing fiction in the days before personal computers (not that long ago, honest!), I used to scribble my first drafts in pencil with my left hand. Since the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain, which is meant to be responsible for creativity and intuition, this made perfect sense to me. I’d then type up my draft using an equal number of fingers on each hand (only about two fingers from each, but involving my right hand as much as my left). This resulted in an edited second draft, which I then worked on by hand until I had a final draft, which needed typing all over again. It made sense that I should start editing my words at the typewriter stage, since the right hand is controlled by the left side of the brain, which is meant to be responsible for linear reasoning and analysis – useful editing skills.

These days, for the sake of speed and convenience, I write my first drafts straight on the computer, missing out the left hand creation stage entirely. My right hand (and my analytical left brain) are therefore involved at a much earlier stage, which no doubt accounts for the amount of editing I feel compelled to do to the text as I type. There are also many more "drafts", since the text feels endlessly fluid. It works, but is this the most effective way to create? I still find it impossible to write poetry straight into the computer, and for a long time I could not write my first drafts in this way… it was almost as if my brain had to learn how to do it first. It would be interesting to do a survey to see how many creative writers of the past have been left handed. I’d also be interested to know if the right handed authors among you find your first drafts easier when typed straight on to the computer, rather than writing them in longhand? Because in theory you should do!

But writing a novel is not just a matter of scribbling a wonderfully creative first draft - the words still need to be worked on to make them readable. So whatever hand you use to hold your pen it would seem that, with the right brain doing the creating and the left brain doing the editing, the most important thing for a writer is that both hemispheres of the brain should work well together. This ability to use both halves of the brain (sorry, blokes!) is supposed to be a female characteristic, as well as being helpful to the typist who uses both hands… so is writing a novel using a keyboard actually easier for a woman than for a man? There certainly seems to be a high proportion of female authors out there.

And what does all this mean for our children, who might never learn to write in longhand at all? Have computers trained our brains to work in a more efficient way and levelled the playing field so that more people now find it possible to write a novel? Or are they quietly destroying the unfettered creativity of the left handed writer? Perhaps returning to pencil and paper for my first drafts might not be such a bad idea, after all...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Beautiful Books - Katherine Roberts

There has been a lot of press recently about e-readers and the long-awaited revolution of e-books. If we are to believe the manufacturers’ claims, people will soon be downloading entire novels to read on these gadgets – not just one at a time, but hundreds of books all on the same handy little electronic device. This got me thinking about what exactly a book is and (more importantly) what makes people buy them.

I sometimes buy books for the content alone. This might be because a friend has recommended a title, because I’ve read some interesting reviews, because I need a certain title for research, or because I've enjoyed other books by that author. In this case, I don’t really care about the packaging and am happy to read it in any form of packaging, however dog-eared. I suppose it’s possible I would read such a book in e-format, though I tend to find print easier on the eye than a screen so it would be no great pleasure for me.

But I also buy books on impulse because I am attracted to the cover image, the title, the colour, the sparkly bits, the fonts used, the illustrations, the feel of the book in my hands, its smell, its age, its value if a first edition, its memories if signed by the author… all the things an e-book cannot deliver. The packaging is especially important if I am buying a book as a gift for someone else.

It's interesting to note that I buy twice as many books on impulse/as gifts than I do because I know I want to read them. So if you are in the business of selling books, removing the packaging that attracts the impulse buyer seems a bit like shooting yourself in the foot. E-books will have no packaging, other than the e-reader itself. Content becomes all. Advertising and promotion will be the only way of bringing such “books” to a potential reader’s attention. The way we buy books will change.

Does it matter? I think it does. I know that as an author my text never feels quite real until the proofs arrive, and if I am disappointed by the production quality of the finished book then I often feel a need to create a more beautiful version myself to do justice to the work. “I am the Great Horse” will one day be a collection of handwritten scrolls kept in a box like Alexander the Great’s edition of the Iliad that he took with him on his epic journey to India and back, and I know many other authors create book art in their spare time, perhaps seeking something more permanent than the electronic text that can be so easily lost, stolen or abused. In contrast, my latest title is a highly illustrated novelty book in beautiful packaging that I keep wanting to pick up just for the pleasure of looking at it - that's the cover above, though a picture can't show you how the actual book glitters and sparkles in the sunlight. Maybe the e-reader will prompt a return to such art, and production values (which have been falling for some time where mass market paperbacks are concerned) will become more important again? I hope so.

As for the e-reader itself, apparently you can get them in pink. But I bet they don’t come in swirly pink and violet with sparkly silver stars and prancing white horses on them. I know which type of book I want on my shelf - and I'm not even seven years old any more!

Friday, 14 August 2009

Ten Commandments of Epos - Katherine Roberts

There is a secret weapon publishers, agents and booksellers can use to find out how good an author you are. It’s called Nielsen Book Scan, and it’s a computer record of the sales of your books through all outlets that use electronic point of sale (Epos). Sales figures are certainly one measure of a book’s success. But there is a dangerous tendency these days to use this weapon to commit mid-list murder on a scale that would shame Hitler. Don’t even get me started on the twisted logic of this, but apparently the sales of your last book can be used to predict the sales of your next one. Decent sales figures last time around… next book welcome. Embarrassing sales figures… next book not so welcome, maybe not welcome at all. Dump bins for a new title from a mid-list author? Get real.

It is tempting to mumble in your freezing garret about mass market sales being no measure of literary quality, or point to the thousands of books you have sold yourself in schools that never registered on Nielsen. But since sales mean royalties, and all authors need to eat, let’s assume for now that we all worship this new god of commerce. With obvious apologies to Moses and no insult intended to anyone’s religion or beliefs, here are the Ten Commandments of Epos that today’s career-minded author ignores at their peril:

1. Thou shalt not worship any other god but me.

2. Thou shalt not make any graven image of me. Moulding a little doll out of clay, calling it Epos, and sticking pins into it under a full moon while chanting from the pages of your latest novel is unlikely to help your sales very much – though you could try putting the video on Youtube and starting a cult, that might work.

3. Thou shalt not curse my name. No good using “**!&*! Epos” as an excuse for your less than marketable writing. Go away and write a better book or find another job.

4. Thou shalt observe my day. By all means have as much fun as you like creating your own little worlds in your books during the first six days, but do not neglect to worship me on the seventh. (What do you mean, you can’t create a book in six days? What do you do all day?)

5. Thou shalt honour with due respect all those who brought your book into the world – your long suffering family, your equally long suffering agent, your editor, your writing buddies, your sugar daddy, whoever gave you a grant to pay your bills while you were writing the thing, without whom etc, etc… it’s what the acknowledgements page is for.

6. Thou shalt not murder other authors (in print or otherwise). Even if you think killing off the competition might be a good idea as a last resort, don’t forget that nearly everybody else in the world is now writing a book of their own, which means you will simply be murdering most of your potential readers.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Sleeping with the head buyer of a large bookselling chain is only likely to help your sales figures if you are young, beautiful and preferably already a celebrity… in which case you don’t need to sleep with them, darling, believe me.

8. Thou shalt not steal your books. Terry Pratchett might have gained some publicity for being one of the UK’s most stolen authors, but stealing the only copy of your book from the shelves of your local bookstore will merely result in one less sale. (On the other hand it’s understandable if you steal Terry Pratchett’s latest, since on the average author’s earnings you probably can’t afford to pay for it.)

9. Thou shalt not accuse your rivals falsely. If you read in the press that a new author has just been given a six-figure advance for her first novel, it’s no good saying bitterly, “That’s only because she has no past sales record…” before you have even read her work. Her first book might be… (insert her advance divided by your advance)… times better than yours.

10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbour’s talent – or their glamorous handbag, youth, Scottish castle, Swiss bank account, or whatever else they have that you don’t. Their sales figures are obviously significantly better than yours, but changing your name to JK Rowling is not going to fool anyone for very long. Especially if you are a man.

Now then, where did I put my chisel and those stone tablets...?

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Hero(ine)'s Journey - Katherine Roberts

I have just returned from the Other SAS’s annual retreat. This takes place at a top-secret venue in deepest Oxfordshire. Naturally, we are all sworn to confidentiality so I can’t tell you much about what goes on there, except that there is always some magic. But I would like to share with you the results of a dream workshop led by Jenny Alexander, who guided a few of us on the Hero’s Journey along our personal writing paths.

Imagine you are walking in a familiar place, when you see a sign saying “To the Treasure”…
I am in the local wood on the boardwalk, and it is raining so no one else is walking there today. The trees are dripping and the bluebells are out. All smells green and garlicky. I am approaching my favourite bridge over a stream, where I often imagine fairies, when I see a new path twisting through the trees where there are no marked trails. A sign says TO THE TREASURE. I think it is one of the farm’s regular treasure hunts for children so I hesitate because it might be something tacky and disappointing. But since no one is around to laugh at me, I decide to have a look.

You find the path blocked
I duck under the leaves, push aside some vines, and find the path blocked by a monstrous “bird” that some local artists strung up in the trees by the boardwalk during a recent Arts Trail. It is a fantasy creature made of old grey canvas, black feathers, and a scary triangular beak/snout. It is meant to be a future people’s idea of a bird they have never seen because birds are extinct in the future, and it has come alive. It hisses at me. It has been tied in the trees long enough and now it has escaped. But it can’t fly because its wings have not been made the right way, and they are soggy with the rain. Also it has no eyes, so it is blind.

How do you get past the block…?
The “future-bird” cannot see me so I freeze, trying to make no sound. I think about going around it, but the undergrowth is too thick. Also it’s boggy because I am off the boardwalk. I am too afraid of its huge sharp beak and its powerful claws to try climbing over it, so I decide to fool it. I pick up a stick and throw it into the undergrowth. The future-bird hears the stick land and flaps off after it, getting its wings entangled in the bushes and shrieking as it flounders in the bog. I hurry past before it can get free, a bit afraid of meeting it again on the way back.

You find the treasure
As I leave the future-bird behind, the sun comes out and the path emerges in a clearing where there is a barrow covered by greenery. I push aside some ivy and crawl inside, where I find a gleaming golden sword. This is the treasure! I take the sword, thinking it might be useful if I have to fight the future-bird, although I don’t really want to soil the beautiful blade with its blood, nor hurt the future-bird because it is the last of its kind. Also, I doubt my fighting skills because I have not been trained to use a blade. So I venture back warily along the dripping path, where the sun now sparkles through the leaves and gleams off my golden treasure.

What do you do next...?The future-bird is still stuck in the bog, but it has exhausted itself and the sun is drying its feathers. It steams gently, its wings spread in the warmth. It still cannot see me, but the sword is magic so it can see the golden light. It crawls towards me, as if hypnotised. It seems less afraid now, maybe because it is no longer lost and alone. I stroke its beak and it does not attack. Murmuring to the creature, I climb on its back, and since the sun has dried out its wings it can now fly. Although it is still blind, my eyes will guide us. As we take off and circle above the trees in the sunshine, I see the glint of water below us where the fairies live. We both feel amazingly free. As long as we continue to trust each other, we can fly anywhere in the world, and my treasure-sword will defend us from all enemies, past or future.

I added the last part after the workshop because I had only tricked my block on the way to the treasure and knew it would be waiting for me to return. Other writers’ blocks were dealt with the first time they met them.

You are welcome to analyse!