Friday, October 30, 2009

Book Sales - Up or Down?

In a Publisher's Weekly newsletter this week was a link to a very interesting article about sales of children's and YA books, but more particularly about a survey on teen book buying habits. The article (found here) starts with this in the first paragraph:
While adult trade sales are expected to fall 4% this year, juvenile and young adult sales are expected to increase 5.1%, according to the PW/IPR Book Sales Index.
This tallies with what I've read in other media and newsletters - that the children's/YA market is booming and book sales continue to rise.

The whole article is fascinating, because it also looks at how and why teens buy books. The back cover copy is a huge influence, as is the cover. Teens like to go to author websites and check out new titles and information about the author - but they also like to meet the author at bookstore events or school visits (that's good to hear - but not sure if it's the same here). When asked how many books they bought, the result was:
Over the period surveyed (two months), 31% bought three to five new books, 21% bought one to two and 21% bought six to 10; 13% bought more than 10 while 13% didn't buy any new books.
Quite a few said they were going to the library more, which meant buying less, but others said they were buying more books now than before. Yaayy!

So what's happening in the actual publishing industry? Plenty of staff have been laid off in the US and UK - I haven't heard of any layoffs here in Australia. I don't have exact stats on Australian book sales for the last few months, but the general feeling for a while was one of "battening down the hatches". Books on backlists were allowed to go out of print, and the bestseller lists were dominated by Stephanie Meyer and now Dan Brown. I got the impression quite a few new writers who had been hoping to break in felt that the door had closed to them. Does anyone know what's really happening? Well, my impression is business as usual here, but publishers are being more picky, and looking for projects that they are sure, or as sure as they can be, will sell well. So yes, maybe new writers are going to find it harder.

But isn't that always the case? To break in, you need something well-written, with a great voice and concept, and ability to carry it all the way. "Nice" and "competent" haven't been good enough for a long time. So has anything really changed? I think belts are being pulled a lot tighter, and they'll stay that way. I spoke recently to a woman running an events and promotions company - she said she had had a really rough six months late last year, and had learned to economise, cut costs and tighten up. Now that business was going well again, she wasn't about to go back to her old ways. The economising would continue to create a better bottom line.

How this will affect publishing long-term is a different matter. We have ebooks to contend with (the Kindle has just arrived in Australia but the response seems to be a bit of a yawn) and in the US there is a strange deep-discounting war going on with the Walmart kind of store - so if you live there, buy from your indie store! It will be interesting to see where we are in twelve months time. My feeling is that we might see more of a marketing push towards the hot new books (more vampires and conspiracies), but I'm hoping keen readers and book buyers will continue to use the good old word of mouth for their book-buying. You're less likely to end up with a dud that way!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Managing a Large Project 2

AFter considering large projects the other day, I started thinking about the different methods I've used over the years for myself. I've tried a few - some worked better than others. I suspect that everyone has to find a method that works for them. But here are some you might find useful:

* File cards - write each scene on a card and pin it to a board. You could summarise the main action of the scene (as a reminder, if nothing else) but also the purpose of the scene. You'll soon see if another scene is doing it better, or whether a scene has no real purpose at all. I've tried this with sticky notes on a large sheet of paper on the wall and ended up with a pile of paper on the floor on a hot day (as Sheryl G. mentioned). This method is handy if you are playing with chronology and want to run scenes out of sequence, or have a subplot interwoven.

* Loose-leaf binder - separate your bits into categories. Characters, settings, subplots, etc. This becomes like a bible and is handy to stop your character having red hair on page 27 and blonde hair on page 143. This method is handy if you are good at keeping the whole storyline in your head but have trouble with the smaller details.

* Notebook - I've started keeping a new notebook for each novel project. This might not be enough for a large project with many subplots and viewpoint characters and time shifts, but for an average novel it can be very handy to keep everything in one place. For another project which has several components, I'm keeping a separate notebook for each one (e.g. research notes).

* Computer software - I don't use this method but I know a few people who do. There are several different software programs that keep track of characters, plotlines, subplots, settings etc. There are also some programs that are designed to help you out of plotting dead ends, or provide you with new ideas and possibilities. I also know one person who uses spreadsheets as a way of keeping track of this stuff.

* Colour-coded folders - a different way of organising material and notes. Blue for characters, red for research, etc. This can be good if you're the kind of person who collects things such as photocopies, research notes, pictures of your characters, etc, or you like to make random notes on bits of paper and sort them later.

* The whole wall - if you have a few spare walls, you can cover them in large sheets of paper and write everything up where you can see it. This can be good for creating a visual storyline (along the top of the paper, perhaps) and adding everything underneath that relates to each part of the story. Rather than sticky notes, glue your bits of paper on so they don't get lost. If you change your mind, just glue something else over the top. I like diagramming so this would work for me - if I had any spare walls!

Have you got any methods that work for you? Are you organised like this? Or do you wish you were? Or would you rather just write and see what comes out, and fix it all later.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Managing a Large Project

In the past two weeks, I've experienced two major works. By "experienced", I mean I read one (a book) and went to see another (a play). Both of these left me wondering about the amount of time and mental energy it takes to create a major project. But even more than this, a project that stretches the boundaries in some way. Obviously it takes time. It's hard to imagine writing a 150,000 word book in your spare time between work and family, let alone a huge book that involves time shifts, multiple characters, research and the invention of elements such as fabricated diaries and histories.

The Hour I First BelievedThe book I'm referring to is The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. I bought this because I had loved his first two books - "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much is True". I bought the current title some time ago, and put it aside. It was huge - nearly three inches thick, and 734 pages. I didn't want to try and read it at a time when my brain wasn't up to it.

And I'd also read a couple of negative reviews that said Lamb had let the subject matter get away on him. Lost the plot, so to speak. But one day I picked the book off my reading pile and began. I agree - there are some parts that I skipped. They did seem off the track of the story, and I wondered why he'd included them in such detail (I'm referring to the fabricated diary mostly). But overall the book held me for the duration. I really wanted to keep reading, I wanted to find out what happened, and 734 pages went fairly quickly (unlike some 3 hour movies I won't name).

At the end, I started wondering. How does a writer "manage" such a huge book? This is not just a story about a couple who crash apart after the wife is almost murdered at Columbine High School. This is about history, family, obligation, and the links we make or refuse between generations. It requires an intelligent, believable narrator who involves us in his story, and a writer who can create rich threads and then gradually draw them together into a tapestry. And right at the end, we discover how and when the "hour of believing" happens.

My other experience was a play that went for more than two hours with no interval. This was Andrew Bovell's "When the Rain Stopped Falling". It began with rain falling on the stage and then a fish landing in front of us. I know it was real because we got splashed! What followed was a complex series of moves between eras from 2039 to 1959 and back again, and along the way we saw revealed the layers of catastrophe in a family, like the ripples from a rock tossed into the water. It wasn't until about 3/4 of the way through that we began to see the links, the layers and the meanings. Afterwards everyone in the audience was eager to talk about what they'd seen, what the links meant, how it all came together.

And I was back thinking again about the "major project" - the challenges for a writer who chooses to tell a multi-layered, multi-timeframe story. How do they plan such a story? How do they keep track of all the threads? How do they decide what is essential, what is superfluous? How, when the first draft is there in front of them in a huge lump, do they rework it without losing sight of the original intent? It's all very well to be picky after reading or watching something of this scale, but I've decided I can forgive the occasional sidetrack or perhaps unnecessary extra. I'd rather think about the book or play as a whole, and learn from what worked.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Presenting and Panicking

Over the past two weeks, I've been a student in a workshop/class on how to do better presentations. The one thing that drives me crazy is going to a seminar or talk where the person speaking puts everything up on a Powerpoint and then basically reads from it. As a teacher and writer, I do a range of presentations: I teach classes where I need to show a range of materials and provide information for note-taking; I do school visits and talk to kids from five to eighteen; I speak at conferences. While I have strongly resisted the Powerpoint disease and shied away from bullet points, it's weird how you can find yourself falling into that when inspiration fails you!

So when a professional development opportunity arose at work, I suggested that creating better presentations be our focus. The first task was to find someone who could show us new alternatives - that turned out to be Tania Makin from The Presentation Group. She came along and spent 8 hours with us during which, instead of telling us what to do, she provided a wealth of good and bad examples, and we analysed and discussed what worked and what didn't. In Week 1, we had to present for two minutes on a topic. In Week 2, it became a five minute task. Both times, we "graded" each other; the second time, we were filmed.

When I'm at a conference or a festival, I like to listen to and watch other writers and think about what they do and how they do it. Some are great, some are not. I discovered that great presenters to kids, like James Roy, tell stories. Funnily enough, the most interesting speakers at the big writers' festivals do similar things. Rather than lecture, they tell a series of small stories. Those that are boring are the ones that think they need to lecture, reading from prepared papers or the dreaded Powerpoints. The best presentation I have seen was an editor and illustrator talking about how a picture book was created, and the whole PP was simply images from various stages of the book.

So what did Tania Makin tell us? Or, what did I learn that was useful? Firstly, that my perception that telling stories was the most engaging approach for the audience was correct. We talked about the ways in which stories can be utilised to get across the information we want - she calls it the documentary approach. Rather than a series of facts or dot points, you can frame your talk as a narrative. The use of great images is really important - what's also important is how you present them on the screen. I added my own corollary to this - you can never depend on the technology to work, especially in schools. Your talk needs to stand alone without the PP behind you on the screen.

Some of the other points that have stuck with me (without going back to the handouts and infringing on Tania's copyright!) include doing a lengthy analysis of your audience - who are they, what will they expect, where will you present, what is your purpose. This is important to me. One day it can be 50 five-year-olds, the next it can be a room full of school librarians. There are also times where you need to provide good handouts to give accurate data and information, but you also need to remember that this is where it belongs, not on the screen.

I came away with my brain buzzing, and feeling a lot more confident about how to use images and titles, and also feeling that my usual approach is actually OK - I just need to develop it and expand it more (and not talk so fast). I also need to spend more time thinking about how to match images with what I am saying, something I've always known about picture book writing but never applied to my presentations - the image is there to enhance and/or take the place of the words, not just be a nice decoration behind me! But while the image stuff is useful, there will still be plenty of times where I can't use it, so ... it's back to making the words work better!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nurturing Ideas

This week, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn shared in winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and in The Age she is quoted as saying: Chance favours the prepared mind. This has stuck with me for days, and I've been thinking about how it applies - to writing, and to life in general. Students often complain that there are no new story ideas, so how can you write anything original? Or I tell them to make things worse and worse for their character until there is total disaster and no way out. But then, they say, how can you come up with a story solution?

By preparing the way and letting the supposed 90% of your brain that you don't use much help you out. Writers often rush. They push an idea too hard and beat it to death, or give up too easily before finding what it needs to become more original. Kids are notorious for writing stories that end "and then I woke up and discovered it was all a dream". It's because they can't work out a good ending so that one will do. As writers, we can't give in that easily.

So what is the prepared mind? For a start, one that is used to writing. If you only write once a month, then forcing your story into action will be a big struggle. It takes you so long to find your feet in it again that there's no mental room for spreading your wings (sorry about the cliches - couldn't resist!). I find if I haven't written any poems for a while, I need to write three or four bad ones before I rediscover the rhythm and imagery I need to create something I'm happy with. If you work on your novel or your writing project regularly, it will be happily bubbling way in the back of your mind and provide you with new ideas and inspirations.

I suggest to students that when they are working on a story in the early stages, they spread out their notes or diagrams or plans on a table, or stick them to a wall, and regularly come back for another read and a ponder. Each time you think of something new, add it in. You will be amazed how physically keeping the project in front of you will create sparks and leaps, and enable you to take the ideas to new horizons or higher levels.

It's also helpful to keep a notebook specifically for each project. Carry it with you and read bits when you have spare moments, then add new material when it pops up in your mind. This can work for anything, not just writing. You may have a building project on the go, or a work assignment - keeping it physically with you enables you to jot down ideas on the spot. If you have created an impossible situation for your character and don't know how to get them out of it, put it aside and go for a walk, or leave pen and paper beside your bed and go to sleep thinking about it. Often the solution will seemingly "just come to you" - but it doesn't really. You've prepared your mind, given it the materials it needs and the questions you want answered, and now it works away in the background and eventually will give you an outcome. Or several outcomes. The more the better!

I've been talking about focused idea nurturing, but it works in a general way, too. If you're a writer, you may worry that you will run out of ideas, but really all you have to do is be open to them, prepare the way by telling yourself you're ready and waiting, and then grab each idea as it passes and write it down. There are thousands of them out there. And if you feel stuck, give yourself an assignment. Buy a 48 page notebook and commit to writing a poem or a paragraph every day for 48 days, no matter what, no matter how silly the topic might seem. For writers who love deadlines, that's a winner!

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Royalties Big Dipper

In Australia, for many writers, 30 September is royalties time. We only get them every six months usually (unlike the US where I believe a lot of publishers pay quarterly), so when the time gets close, you tend to hold your breath. There are a number of ways you can find yourself on the big slide down. One is that just when you were expecting to start earning out your advance on a book and receiving more money, there were a lot of returns back to the warehouse. (For those of you who might not know, bookshops are just about the only retail outlet - that I know of, anyway - where if they don't sell what they order, they're allowed to return the books and get a credit.) So you end up back in the red.

Another slide down occurs when something happens at the publisher (such as they go out of business, or are running at a loss) and they decide to remainder your book. Either a big lump of copies, or the whole lot. Suddenly, instead of them paying you money, you have to pay them in order to get hold of what you can before your book goes to the great pulping machine. Or there aren't many copies of your book left so the publisher decides it's not worth reprinting and they deem the book out of print, and again you're offered what's left. If you're lucky.

What can also happen is that your book has been out for quite a while, and is no longer selling more than the odd copy. So you receive royalty statements, like I did this week, for minimal amounts. One of mine was for $2.13, the other for 48 cents. If I put them both together, I can buy myself an icecream!

This is all in the nature of publishing, of course. It's a business. Just as I wouldn't go down the street and buy a pair of jeans that was manufactured in 1994 and been sitting on the shelf ever since, neither do I expect people to keep buying my old books when all those bright, shiny new ones are out there now. I'm not going to buy Agatha Christie in preference to the new Stieg Larssen (and I am so happy my copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest arrived today - yaayyyy!).

There is a constant debate, somewhat quieter at the moment with the economic worries, about the size of advances. Should you push for a big advance? The logic is that if you get lots up front, it pushes the publisher into doing more marketing of your book. But it can backfire. You could be offered $8000 and manage to get $20,000 instead, but if you don't sell enough copies and earn out that advance, the publisher eyes you a bit negatively. Marketing budgets are tight, authors now are expected to do plenty of publicity on their own. Everyone is responsible! That can make you feel as depressed as a $2.00 royalty payment.

With new technologies coming in - ebooks are only the tip of the iceberg - royalties will become even more of an issue. How much should an author get? The standard on a book is 10% here, but that takes into account how much a book costs to physically produce. When you start talking internet downloads onto Kindles and such, why shouldn't authors reap some of the benefits of cheaper production costs? Ah yes, the future will be very interesting indeed. I'm not making bets on anything. Can't afford to. I've only got $2.61 to gamble with!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Research on the Internet 2009

After four hours on the internet yesterday, researching a range of topics I needed information on, I began to wonder what had happened to the world wide web. If I knew exactly what I wanted (e.g. the Qantas website or a particular university course), I came up with the right website in a minute or less. However, if I was looking for information, rather than a site, what I discovered was a huge range of sites that were useless. That didn't respond to my search terms. That redirected me to other sites that were irrelevant. What has happened? Is it Google? Should I start using another search engine?

I remember around seven years ago when I was doing historical research on pirates in the Caribbean (pre the movies). There were plenty of sites, many with a lot of information on them, and my main task was to work out which ones were accurate. There are a lot of people with pirate sites! Usually any sites based at a university or historical research facility or government history facility were good, and gave me not only a wealth of information but lists of further references to pursue.

What do we get now? For a start, Wikipedia. I have nothing against it, but it's really only a starting point (not always accurate) for further, deeper research. What I am finding is that the truly useful sites are now buried under a hundred other sites that try to offer me merchandise or other rubbish, or that have used my keywords in some kind of cunning way to get me to their site, no matter what my real search is about.

I've also found that even refining search terms to be as accurate as possible doesn't work. One search I did was to try to find a cheap or reasonable-cost hotel in a particular area of a large city. I estimated that 70% of the sites that came up on the first two pages of Google were for hotels that were either way outside the area I specified or were way too expensive. This happened with a couple of other searches I did for different things.

The other thing I have found is a paucity of material. Yes, I know that website analysts are pounding into our heads that sites need to have short bursts of information that are readable on screen. That might work for a recipe or tourist site, but if I am researching, for example, the first cars in Australia and what they were and what they looked like and who owned them and who made them, one paragraph was hopeless - and that was on the museum website.

Has the internet finally got to a point where, if you want quality and quantity of information, it is useless to us? Have the merchandisers (i.e. anyone who wants to sell us something via the net) finally made the internet so cluttered that it's no use at all if you are doing real research? What do you think? (What I think is thank goodness for books and libraries! That's where I'm heading tomorrow.)