By the people and for the people

November 8, 2010

I’ve made a decision.
It is time.

Time to take back the books industry for the people. Time to produce books by the people and for the people.

We’ve had enough of superior beings sitting in New York offices telling us what is going to get published. Now it is time for US to decide. And our decision is that we want a lot more stories about families of squirrels. More anthropomorphic cereal boxes whose best friends are spoons. A major return to stories about drummer boys in the Revolutionary War. And as for craggy-jawed, adorable vampires – bring it on, there can never be too many.

Yes, we are going to rise up and reclaim publishing. Enough of all this tedious and unnecessary selection, rejection and general disappointment!

Oh, wait. Silly me. I’m so sorry, but I’ve just realized something . . .

We’ve ALREADY taken the industry back. I was forgetting a little thing called Print on Demand. And self-publishing. And blogging short fiction. And Authonomy . . . .

Of course! We the people have many, many ways, particularly these days, of getting our words out to a waiting world. If we have something to say, a vision of an audience, then we are never barred from the dissemination of our story. We can ALL become authors. It may cost us a bit, but a determined writer can get out there pretty easily nowadays, marketing and selling their words – and do really well with the enterprise. And why on earth not?

I think there are many ways of being a writer and most of them are, in my humble opinion, hugely underestimated and undervalued.

As a child I wrote many ‘books’ (dreadful spelling, huge writing, lined notebooks). They nearly all featured a yellow-haired girl called Sally and her horse-riding stables. These books were fully illustrated by me.

I wrote my first ‘serious’ piece (pretty funny, actually) when I was about 12 years old, and it was published in a local magazine.

My sister, as a teenager, took dictation from our grandmother of her entire life story, minutely transcribed from spidery shorthand. Being attacked in the jungles of Colonial India by unfriendly people wielding spears. Hearing news of the Titanic sinking. Sitting on the back steps as bombs came down in WW2. It’s all there, for posterity. And now my mother is writing her own memoirs.

One can write for one’s church, school, children and grandchildren. Poems and stories make wonderful, personal gifts. Or you can just write for yourself – like I did as a teenager when I was constantly ‘taking the dog out’ round the streets at night. My father used to think I was up to something nefarious, but in actuality I was composing POETRY in my head, which I would then come back and write down and file away in a special, secret place. Almost no one ever saw those poems, but a while ago I found them and was transported back to my early teens.

I feel I am a writer, but I currently have absolutely no wish to be published. I am the MIDWIFE to those who seek publication, and I love that role.

Yes, there are tons of reasons to write, other than to be published by Random House or Flux or HarperCollins or Candlewick.

But if that is what you DO want, then it all becomes much, much more tricky. Because then a little word comes mightily into play. You know what that word is?

MARKET. MARKET. MARKET.MARKET.

And the market is not always fair, kind, understanding, or rewarding of what we feel should be rewarded. The market can just be itself and make rude faces at us because it really is the boss of us, and it sets its own rules on what it deems valuable. A quiet, beautiful, dreamy novella? Or a pacy, nail-biting, high-concept thriller? Where should the bigger advance go? What I personally think is pretty irrelevant. The market – ie, the consumer with money to spend – dictates the answer to the question.

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So what is the market telling me right now?

It’s telling me I’ve got to be wary of paranormal. And that there are lots of stories around about teen girls with ‘an altered state of consciousness’ (ie, who transport somewhere else, switch places with someone, live an alternate life).

I’m seeing an increased wish for contemporary, real-world stories (ie, without supernatural elements). I’ve heard a couple of editors putting out feelers for a ‘weepie’ story. And it’s incredibly hard to find a really great love story.

I was talking to an editor just on Friday who, like me, would love to find a story set in another part of the world, set against a real political situation. And my own wish to find a bleak novel (definitely with literary quality, this one) set in Scandinavia (or I’d settle for Iceland quite happily) was echoed by another senior editor last time I was in New York.

Magical realism is also of interest. Worlds that are real but where strange things happen.

For me, quality of voice and crafting are always going to be very important. I am a detail-person, I was trained as an editor when I was young, and I care about precision and the sound of words. That search for quality is what I hear echoed time and time again by editors. What they are seeking right now is a strong, grabby idea, written with literary flair and skill.

The market is a strange beast – a creature that turns and shifts. But after 30 years in the business, I can tell you one thing. WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND. What is out of fashion now will almost certainly at some point make a comeback.

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Writing is by the people and for the people, and it always will be.

I can’t guarantee you a slot with Penguin or Bloomsbury, CarolRhoda or Simon & Schuster. But I CAN guarantee that there are always good reasons to write, whether your audience is in the millions – or just one, yourself. It is not the size of your audience that validates the craft of putting words on a page.

The thought I want to leave you with is this. Enjoy writing; make it your treasure. And never let your quest for publication steal your joy.

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