Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Titles - Joy or Torture?

Are you good at thinking up titles for your book? Next to writing all the bits that go with the submission, I find coming up with a memorable title almost the hardest thing of all.

I’ve always understood that the publisher, or more accurately the marketing department, has the last word on this, but even so, you want a good title when you send something out to an agent. I’ve always considered it as a working title that may later change, but this alone can make you feel it’s hardly worth slogging away for hours when what you’ve dreamed up may not last.

But the title is part of the package that will hopefully catch an agent’s attention, so … remember it will set up an association of ideas in the agent’s mind, perhaps even at a subconscious level, before they finish reading your cover letter. Think about it: you only have to see the words Cruel Mistress, Considerate Lover and you know you can’t be far from the category romance. Cloud Atlas, and you know you are moving into the realms of literary fiction. Words, even single  words, have great power and depending on your perception and their context, words convey whole volumes of meaning. a good example would be Revelation. Others might be Heretic, or Heresy, Treason. Look at them, and see what filters into your mind. Those few small words, when applied to your book, will set up a whole raft of expectations in your reader.

If you thought up a good, strong title that captures the eye, the chances are good that the publisher will keep it, and that will give you a nice warm little glow in the days when your book is for sale. So the first step is to decide what sort of a book you’ve written. Romance? Thriller? That gives you a handle on the sort of titles you should consider. Then start thinking of any ad every title you could possibly use. I check them against Amazon, because one thing you don’t want is a title that  has already been used – and possibly used more than once, for more than one genre.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent, recommends free associating at this point: write lists, she says.  Put all the words associated with your book "in columns: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Describe or suggest the setting. Then think about each of your major characters and write down words that relate to them. Think about the action in the story and write down verbs that capture it.” Keep going until you have at least 100 words.

There has been a fashion (it may even be passé now) for single word titles, which can be powerful. If not, put combinations of your words together. If you have a thesaurus, use it. to jog your memory. From this point, you should be able to winkle out perhaps 20 possible titles. Then go away and do something else for a day. The following day, add any ideas you’ve had in the intervening 24 hours to your list. Then select the five that appeal most and try them out on other people.

A couple of days later, consider how your potential titles would sit in among the lists you’ve seen on Amazon – or your local bookshop if that’s handy. Are you happy to make a final choice? Does the selected title match your book? Does it suggest right away that this book is Romance, Historical, Thriller? Is there any sense of a time period within the words? Will it attract attention from the buying public? If you are planning a series, can your title be adapted or made to fit and match with later volumes? Dunnett connected six of her titles in the Lymond series to chess, and the idea worked beautifully.

Rachelle has more to say on the topic.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Rejections, hashtags and freebies

I've just returned from a meeting with writer friends and so my spirits are high in spite of two rejections this week. One rejection came whizzing back within 3 hours, which must be a record! I alternate between thinking that a) the agency is super efficient or b)that my submission was complete and utter rubbish.

Great strides have been made this week by my discovery of #hashtags when using Twitter.  I've always wondered what function they had, and that other funny little @ symbol - well, now I know and it's all thanks to a great little download from Kindle - Indie Author Book Marketing Success.

Also FAR AFTER GOLD is going free on Kindle today and tomorrow and the times are Pacific Coast times. This means that for my UK friends, the offer will run on after midnight UK time. If someone reads, enjoys and cares to post a review on Amazon, that would be great.

I see there is to be a further programme on Richard III this week. The 27th February to be exact, on More 4 at  9pm. The Radio Times claims this will feature the tests carried out after the discovery of his bones, so I shall be watching. I thought the earlier programme a little light in that department, and have high hopes of this one. I shall be surprised if there isn't a flurry of historical novels on Richard being published in the next few months. A certain Ms Gregory must be smiling every day! Nearly as much as Hilary Mantel after the furore over her speech at the London Book Review - anyone who hasn't read the full speech ought to do so -

Blogger seems reluctant to upload my new pictures thoughI don't know why, so the one above was taken on a trip to Stirling a couple of years ago. I have no idea what kind of transaction was taking place!

Friday, 22 February 2013

Time for Amazon to pay

Pennines in snow
E-book sellers Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble are located in Luxembourg.  In January 2012 France and Luxembourg dropped VAT rates on e-books to 3% so that the tax charged on both printed and digital books would be equal. That might seem fine, but in the UK, the tax on e-books is 20%. Infringement of the VAT rules on e-books distorts the single market and runs counter to the fundamental EU principle of fair tax competition.

Objections were put forward last October but there have beent no changes in the situation. Several Ministers and representatives of both paper and electronic publishing industries have voiced concerns over the negative effect on sales in their domestic markets, and so the EC has referred the matter to the EU Court of Justice.

It is interesting to know that Amazon requires UK publishers to pay most of the 20% VAT charge on e-book sales even though Amazon pays only 3% in Luxembourg.  It is not clear if Amazon passes on such gains to its customers. In going digital, Amazon has avoided the effects of piracy that so harassed the music industry and has no hesitation in admitting that, with all its massive clout, the company seeks the most advantageous arrangements, and is doing nothing illegal (apart from undercutting tax laws. Surely that is illegal?)

Their goal, they say, is to make it easy for readers  to obtain the books they love…and to offer greater access to those books. Well, that's fine for readers, and for Amazon. I suppose it is also great for authors. It is not so great, in fact it is hugely detrimental to UK publishers. It is common knowledge by now that though Amazon generated sales of £3.3billion via its UK website in 2012, it paid zero corporation tax to the UK on profits from that income. Over the last three years, sales have raked in more than £7.6 billion - but no corporation tax has ever been paid on profits.
All I can say is, Remember Starbucks, Amazon, and cough up.
If anyone wants to read a longer article on the subject, here's what the Guardian had to say last October: Pay up


Wednesday, 20 February 2013


I used to think marketing was an American term for doing the weekly grocery shop. Then somehow it morphed into the business of promoting and selling products. Then it took on aspects of satisfyng customer needs even before they knew they wanted whatever it was you were selling. Marketing for authors is something I find particularly difficult. Who knows who the customer might be? They will buy a particular title for many reasons, and may never choose to buy the same author again.

Branding myself sounds painful, but that's what marketing gurus always recommend. Plus which it is difficult to know quite what to brand myself with - am I a Historical Writer? Is that a brand? If I select that label, am I stuck with it for life? C J Sansom has made his name writing about a Tudor lawyer named Matthew Shardlake, but his latest novel is set in the second world war. I've not taken much notice of it, because that era doesn't interest me, thought I have his other novels on my shelves as keepers. For me, Sansom's brand is thoughtful Tudor mysteries and injustices, and I begin to see from his example that writing outside the brand can be dangerous.

Social media always crops up when talking about marketing. To some it is a necessary evil, to others it can be an addictive pleasure. I've been on Facebook for a while, ( Twitter not quite so long, (JenBlackNCL) and I visit Goodreads, though not frequently - and I have to say I do not find the latter easy to use. Promotion and excerpts on Yahoo groups for readers offer an easy route to readers, though they remain an unknown quantity. I try to visit a couple of groups every day. I've found they are least busy Friday night and through Saturday till late on Sunday and then everything starts to pick up again. It's often the same for Facebook and Twitter - family time comes first at that time.

'Likes' and 'recomendations' on Facebook I don't yet understand, but must get to grips with someday soon.

Monday, 18 February 2013


Terry Deary, shock horror, supports his local council, Sunderland, as it looks into the possibility of closing libraries to save money. While authors up and down the land protest any and all cuts on libraries, he thinks libraries have had their day and are no longer relevant.

The concept of a free library came into being in 1850 and the idea of free books is now entrenched in our psyche. In Victorian times the impoverished had no access to literature, but now they do, via the compulsory schooling for which we all pay. Deary claims that books are entertainment, and should be paid for just as people buy cinema tickets and tv licences.

Authors, he says, are not “like Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They need to eat, and have to make a living.”

The maximum amount possible a writer can earn from the Public Lending Right scheme is capped at £6,600. Deary claims that if he sold a book he would get 30p per book rather than the 6.2p PLR offers. Therefore, instead of earning £6,000 from PLR for a title, he should be getting £180,000.

“But never mind my selfish author perception,” he says. “What about bookshops?” Bookshops are closing down because someone is giving away their product for free. Libraries give nothing back, but booksellers pass on money to both publisher and author. Libraries damage the book industry. They cost vast amounts of money when most are used by diminishing numbers of people.

I hate to admit it, but his argument makes sense.

OTOH, we do pay for library books via our taxes, though not at the going rate. Libraries do purchase the books they lend, so money goes to publishers. But publishers receive only one payment while the book is loaned and read until it falls to pieces. There is an argument that library users will risk reading an unknown author whereas they may not pay out good money for something they may not enjoy. Libraries help authors build a following. And not everyone can afford to go out and buy a book whenever they want something to read. I doubt very much that the habit of  reading would rise if libraries were abolished. Would Mr Deary be as well-known as he is, if libraries had not promoted his books for all to sample? Probably not. I have to say that the libraries do good work and this country would be poorer if we followed Mr Deary’s suggestions.

Friday, 15 February 2013

My love of words

When I was young I used to read poetry and I laboriously copied out my favourite pieces. First in longhand, then on a typewriter. By the time computers came along, I'd stopped doing it, but I still have the file with all those fabulous words on flimsy pieces of paper. Most of the poems still have the power to move me. Kathleen Raine was a favourite, and still is.

There is stone in me that knows stone,
Substance of rock that remembers the unending unending
simplicity of rest
While scorching suns and ice ages
Pass over rock-face swiftly as days.
In the longest time of all come the rock's changes,
Slowest of all rhythms, the pulsations
That raise from the planet's core the mountain ranges
And weather them down to sand on the sea-floor.

Remains in me record of rock's duration.
My ephemoral substance was still in the veins of the earth from the beginning,
Patient for its release, not questioning
When, when will come the flowering, the flowing,
The pulsing, the awakening, the taking wing,
The long longed-for night of the bridegroom's coming.

There is stone in me that knows stone,
Whose sole state is stasis
While the slow cycle of the stars whirls a world of rock
Through the light-years where in nightmare I fall crying
"Must I travel  fathomless distance for ever and ever?"
All that is in me of rock, replies
"For ever, if it must be: be, and be still; endure."

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A world of books

It is tricky to get definitive numbers, but let’s say that 100,000 new fiction titles are published every year in the English language. What then are the chances of a particular book reaching the best seller lists? Mathematicians among you can work out the odds. I daren't even try, for they must be frighteningly high.

For new or wannabe authors, and these days there are many, it’s a daunting prospect. Good books will simply be crushed in the rush. Being ignored is bad enough, but Professional reviews – if a writer can get them – can be caustic, and the comment section of Amazon is noted for driving struggling new writers to contemplating suicide.

 I've read that publishers tend to concentrate the PR budget on perhaps half a dozen books and the rest are left to fend for themselves. That means the author has to roll up his or her sleeves and do what they can via electronic technology, for without some sort of exposure, the book will remain unnoticed and unread. Unhappily, Amazon algorithms aid and abet this by taking the most popular books to the front of the list. Reviewers tend to review the same titles, bookshops stock the titles they thiink will sell, and usually they’re all choosing the sort of read you would expect to find in the top fifty books of the year. None of this is geared toward finding the debut or middle list author.

The reader takes few risks in this burgeoning market. Some, spending almost £15 on a paperback that is too large to handle comfortably in bed and which turns out to be not such a great read after all, may go so far as to ignore that author in future. They may even write an unfavourable review. But then, readers are so very subjective in their tastes. I’ve read an awful lot of books in my life, but these days there are many books I pick up and return to library shelves unfinished. I often complain that I cannot find anything I like, which sounds as if I must be the pickiest person in the world when the numbers published are taken into account. I’m attracted by a good blurb, but often the book doesn’t live up to it.

Trying to find a good read for me means stalking the libraries, bookshops, listening to friends and dodging about the many internet  sites but eventually, even for the most dedicated, (which I am not!) the search begins to pall. There is so much on offer! How can I make a choice? It seems to me I either buy an armful, or I buy nothing. What kind of choice is that? Perhaps, just perhaps, too many books are published these days. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Pitching and Business

Helen commented, "Whilst I haven't pitched books before, I've done plenty of pitching over the years as part of my career in professional and financial services. What's worked for me is firstly,
  • ensure the target already knows you or is aware of you before you even try and pitch."
I don't know how many pitches a business person receives but they say a literary agent receives thousands of partial submissions a year. If I lived in London, where most agents seem to congregate, then meeting them at a conference or party would be possible, but even then I suspect they get mortally tired of being approached by would-be authors talking work over an alcoholic beverage. I should think the best we can do is read their websites. Some give lots of detailed instructions on how to approach them, others give very little; but at least we can check that they are seeking new authors, which is vital, and that they want stories in the genre we are writing.  Then it is sensible and polite to address them by name - with the correct spelling - and introduce ourselves in the covering letter. Does that fit your suggestion or miss it by a mile?

"Secondly, really understand his/her work style and preferences (you could even ask them long before you pitch)."
 That’s a difficult one. Looking over their author list gives some idea of their past choices, but isn't foolproof as each title is so different. Making contact with an author who works with the agent would be one way of getting the information. Some agents are quite specific and say what they require on the website – and of course, the sensible person matches those requirements.
  • "Finally, understand their next steps in the the pitch process (e.g. is his/her next step to present to a committee, board etc). By understanding this stage you will be able to prepare your pitch in a format that makes their life a little easier"
Here we seem closer. If the agent accepts you  and your story, then s/he has to pitch it to editors of publishing houses, who then has to convince her colleagues that her story is the one they should take on. It follows that if we provide a killer title, a succinct tag line or selling blurb that really works, then it makes their job so much easier.

 "Just my observations - not sure if they translate from the business world to the wonderful and exciting literary world."
It was good to see them, Helen, and thank you. Do tell if you think I'm missing opportunities!

Friday, 8 February 2013


The Matterhorn. 
It's that stage again. The one I keep avoiding, putting off and then forcing myself to do as a necessary chore. Then, of course, I don't do a very good job. How nice if I could learn to love pitching my novel to an agent!

Here's what some of the experts say - first of all Blake Snyder, the Save the Cat man
  • the pitch should be somewhat ironic (huh? don't get that, especially as he's American and there is this great myth that Americans don't get irony at all)
  • paint a compelling mental picture (I try, I try!)
  • give an idea of genre and market (Well, OK, but my book isn't like any other book out there. And it seems a little conceited to liken my work to Sansom or Gregory or any other successful novelist. Can anyone imagine a mix of Sansom and Gregory? I'm not sure I can.)
  • give the work a killer title (Yes, of course. Easier said than done. When I look at the half dozen titles my wip has had over the last three years, I feel like throwing myself under a bus. No, change that - I'll toss my wip under a bus.)
Other experts say: state who the hero is, his goal, why he needs it and what stops him attaining it. Focus on the conflict at the heart of the novel. (A little more practical than Snyder's instructions, so I'll remember this)

Rachelle Gardner asks:
  • what's the story? RG has a blog post which claims that pitchers often tell her the emotional theme or journey of the hero but don't tell her THE STORY. H'mmm. Food for thought there.
  • Give your protgonist's choices, and the conflicts he faces
  • Consequences - what happens if he doesn't attain his goals
I know the answer to all those bullet points, but putting them all together in vibrant exciting prose is going to be hard going. Sigh. It's got to be done. Wish me luck.

PS Have just heard the York Minster does not want Richard III to be interred there. It's quite happy for Leicester to have him. I guess York just can't cope with any more tourists than it already has.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Richard and the Silver Boar

Like every other history buff the world over, I watched the Channel 4 programme on Richard last night. While I was fascinated, I was also irritated by the chopping and changing deemed necessary by the programme makers! Just as we got to some interesting bit, then the story would revert back to how Phillipa felt as she stood over the R painted on  the tarmac of the car-park, or the frizzy haired presenter would warble on about what he thought, or Laurence Olivier's dreadful performance as the king would declaim a few choice words from the Shakespeare play. Which reminds me - no one ever explained the significance of the R on the tarmac. Who put it there, and why? (Reading newspaper reports today, I gather it meant Reserved space and had nothing to do with the fact that Richard was buried beneath it.)

I wanted more detail on the bones and what they told us, so I'll have to wait for the scholarly write up. What about his diet? Did they  investigate his teeth so they could us where he passed his childhood, why were so many of his teeth missing; were they lost in the burial, knocked out at the point of death, or generally lost sometime in life? One sentence said he had an upper class diet with plenty of fish and meat. There must be more than that to come.

Facial reconstructions have been done before, by the same Dundee University team, and I have held the sneaking thought that they all looked rather alike. I think what I see as a likeness is given by the plastic used in the method of creating the facsimile head. This one was passably close to the portraits of Richard, which was pleasing, and made him look very young, even for thirty-two. This is a link  here to the Richard III Society for anyone who wants more background, or to try and understand the reason for all the fuss. I'll be popping back myself, as well as waiting for the scholarly reports. It will be interesting to see if any other university undertakes comparitive tests, and if their conclusions agree with those of Leicester. And I do wish they'd decide to bury him at York Minster; after all, he was the Lord of the North and lived a good part of his life in Yorkshire.

Monday, 4 February 2013

It is Richard III

The Leicester press conference has just confirmed that the bones sought and found in the car park are indeed those of Richard III. There is a Channel 4 programme tonight about the search and the results, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reach it has in viewing figures.
There are a lot of excited history buffs commenting on Twitter, but all at once 120 new Tweets arrived, most of which were people attempting to be funny and wanting to know if Richard would have a valid car parking ticket since he's been parked there for 526 years. I suppose it's mildly funny the first time, but the 119th comment is a bit of a drag.
However, I think it would be wonderful if instead of burying Richard in Leicester, they took his remains to York and buried him in the minster. York was always his city and the good people of York had the guts to write of their feelings for him once Henry was proclaimed king. "to the great heaviness of this city...."
I wonder if there will be a spate of books about Richard now he's in the news, so to speak? Richard's ghost seeks vengeance - I can see it now. Somebody is bound to write of his quest to hunt down Henry Tudor...maybe even get to grips with the current monarch. I expect he'd be shocked to see that it is a female. Just wouldn't fit with his mind set.

PS If they decide to make a film of Richard's life, I can see Richard Armitage as Richard III

Friday, 1 February 2013

Fiction Failures

While I was in Zermatt I did a lot of reading - Kate Morton's Forgotten Garden, to be precise, and enjoyed it until I got to the very end and couldn't believe in the reason  the child was alone on the ship. I don't want to say more of the storyline, but those of you who have read it may agree with me. That mystery had been a thread throughout the whole book, and I wanted so very badly to know why it had happened.  I'm afraid the weak raison d'etre cast the entire story into doubt.
Then I read Goddard's Set in Stone. Again, a wonderfully atmospheric story about a house that twists people's minds, but then in the last few pages - a railway ticket in the post and I couldn't understand it's significance. I obviously ought to have understood - but I didn't.

 It is things like these that make me so very wary in own writing. Is the basic plot both strong and believable? Am I expressing character in the way I should? Is everything in my head clear on the page? Will readers close the book and toss it aside, saying Rubbish! because they couldn't figure out what was happening?

So now I've begun Trollope's The Other Family, and noticed something that has been annoying me for ages. It's the increasing frequency of sentences like this: "it was perfectly possible to hand-wash most stuff, not take it to the dry-cleaner's." I would rather the sentence read 'dry-cleaner.' Why add the apostrophe, which indicates the writer means the dry-cleaner's shop, if said writer cannot be bother to add the word itself?
I hope it is not the modern trend to write novels in the same sloppy, slangy way we speak. One of the things I love about reading is discovering the astonishing beauty of clear prose and I would hate to lose that for the sake of being trendy.

Zermatt - some hotels pick up guests from the Bahnhof (station) in carriages that look like the Wells Fargo stage in cowboy films. The thunder of hooves and rolling wheels as they trot down the snowy streets is exciting to watch, and then the whiff of horse as they go by -  wonderful!

Taking a Risk

  Poised on the cliff edge about to take the leap! No thoughts of suicide - oh no! Or perhaps only in terms of covers for my e-books. I am a...