Monday 29 June 2009

The View From the Shoe 1: D J Young

Today sees the first of a new weekly column I’m going to run in honour of all the wonderful creative people out there in cyberspace.
The View From the Shoe is an interview feature designed to get under the skin – and over the socks – of some of the most talented people on the Web and, I have no doubt, in the flesh. I hope it gives an insight not just into the creative mind as a whole, but into the creative juices of these very special individuals. Read all about them, and please, whatever it is they do, go and check it out for yourselves. As the slogan for Free-e-day will encourage you – discover something amazing today.

Just a quick note before we begin. The format for this week is slightly different. The Year Zero column will be on Wednesday. For the very good reason that on Wednesday Year Zero Writers will be launching Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair, the free anthology of some of the very best independent writing in the world. So from now, I will run The View From the Shoe on Mondays, and the Year Zero columns on Wednesday and Friday.

Without further ado, this is the View From the Shoe on DJ Young

DJ is a writer, blogger, essayist, logophile and long-time short story addict at work on first novel. I discovered DJ on twitter:@dijeratic from where I migrated to her fantastic blog:

Thank you so much, DJ, for agreeing to be the first lab rat for the new column.

Thank you so much for your time. So, Louboutin or Converse?
I have only worn Converse, and that was in school, but I must admit to being a bit of a Strange Person who enjoys going around in bare feet. I understand it comes from the hobbit side of the family. I do, however, keep any unsightly bits well groomed.

Why is there no one in the world who does it quite like you?
I doubt there are many for whom the wasting of an entire day re-writing the same sentence over and over holds much interest. Or maybe there are. Somehow, I do not feel alone. In fact, I am certain there are many who do it far, far better than I. Not as slowly, of course, but still.

What do you really, really love about it?
When I write I completely obsess over the inner life of the work itself – the characters, their ideas, their world and there is something so tortuous yet satisfying about it. It is the same with reading someone else’s work, or listening to certain pieces of music – Bach, for example – and there is this mazelike quality to it that I love being lost in.

A bit more time in the day, or a bit more money in the bank?
Oh both please – but time (if such a thing really exists – we know money doesn’t) would be very welcome.

Imagine you “make it”. You wake up, and imagine the day ahead. Tell us about breakfast.
If I even have an appetite for food at that point – I’m sure I’d be enjoying my usual poached eggs and toast – in Australia, perhaps.

What’s your Jimmy Choo? And what’s just cobblers?
I have no Jimmy Choo fantasies – my footwear is hopelessly casual and out-dated. Where I come from though, a cobbler is either a type of pie or someone who fixes your shoes. If we’re speaking of the former, I enjoy a blueberry cobber in the summer, very refreshing - and if I need someone to mend my shoes, well, let’s just say it is very sad.

Tell us about the last time a fan made you feel 100 feet tall.
This isn’t really from a ‘fan’ as such, but I did have someone tell me once that if I ever did become ‘really famous’ she would save all my emails and letters and transcripts of our chats so she could auction them off one day. Now that I think about it, I’m sure I was more scared than anything else.

Independent and poor, or under contract and rich?
Rich is a state of mind and experience and contracts are for Faustian types. That said, being poor has its drawbacks, so if I could possibly remain independent while under contract, I would feel very rich indeed.

Do you remember that bit on Play Away where Brian Cant stood behind people and did the actions whilst they spoke? If you could choose anyone to stand behind you and do the actions to your sales pitch, who would it be and why?
Neil Gaiman would be lovely – but only if he could do the actual speaking since he is impossible not to listen to.

Frocks or socks?
Socks, but only in winter. Can’t stand the chafing.

Once again, thank you

Thursday 25 June 2009


Hmm. Was gonna say it but I can't bear the thought of the spam-magnet effect it'll have. So substitute asterisks for "o"s :-)

This is the “what we’re up to” column. Feel free to treat it with schadenfreude as the “I told you so” column, to see it as an interesting reference point, or if you so wish as the place to cheer us on (we like that one!)

B**BAD sounds rather rude. It stands for Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair, which at this moment is the title of the collective’s sampler, due to be launched on an unsuspecting world on July 1st. I say at this moment because we’re a collective. So decisions come hard. We love each other and we’re all rather enamoured of our hippy credentials. Which means when we have two names on the table (the other is Zero Cuts – I like both, but they say completely different things – one is whimsical, intriguing, smacking of fragility and quality; the other is exciting, edgy, smacks of the new) two names sometimes stay on the table :p

Whatever it’s called, we’ve put together a really rather whizzy sampler of work, containing contributions from 13 of us. Some of us have given short stories, others extracts from the books they’re going to be publishing as part of the collective later on.

There were two driving forces behind the format. The first was to get readers slathering for our prose. That goes without saying – the main approach people have taken with this is to give pieces that aren’t necessarily their most polished or publishable, but are most distinctively them. Which is exactly what’s needed. I’m fed up with reading perfectly-crafted flat prose.

Second was length. We didn’t want to create a book. We are not a business and don’t want (well, OK, I don’t want – I may have forced this bit onto people :p) financial macramé getting in the way of things. So the idea of producing a collection that we published and all took tiny cuts of royalties from was a definite no-no. Plus, it goes against the whole marketing (and collective) ethos I’ve been expounding for the past few months of giving stuff away. So the idea was to produce something short enough that if people wanted to make it into a physical object they could print it from their desktop (something made centrally likewise doesn’t work when you have members in the UK, USA, Dubai, Finland, France and Hong Kong!!). Mostly, though, we’ll be giving away the pdf.

So that’s the centre of our attention at the moment. That and working on our guerrilla marketing campaign (I think guerrilla marketing’s great, but one of those things that if you don’t get it spot on, you end up wasting vast swathes of time, so we’ve got a group working on perfecting some really great ideas we came up with during a brainstorming session – there’ll be a how-to on that: it was incredible, we got way over 100 posts with some fantastic ideas). So what I’m doing at the moment is chasing down bios for people, trying to write some press releases, and not worrying about the fact we don’t yet have a cover!! Cancel that last bit. In the two days since I wrote this we do have a cover. An absolutely fantastic one, courtesy of the vastly over-talented Larry Harrison.

Monday 22 June 2009

Who are Year Zero?

There are 20 of us, ranging from the shy who work behind the scenes for the time being to the media floosies amongst us like Oli and I. I think the number we have is about right for what we’re doing, and the way we work, which is as democratic as possible without grinding to a total standstill. Given that at any one time half of us will be busy, any fewer and nothing would ever get done (and we wouldn’t have the range of skills to draw on). Given that there will always be differences of opinion, any more and, er, nothing would ever get done.

So how did we end up with us? Well, there are two questions there. How did we end up with anyone? And how come it’s us 20 not another 20? And the most important thing, given this isn’t just a piece of navel-gazing but actually intended to be of some use if you decide you’d like to do something similar, is how should you go about choosing the members of your collective?

So let’s start with us. Well, as with 99% of these things, most of it just sort of fell into place a bit chaotically. So if you’re reading this for tips you’re already well ahead of where we were! At the end of 2008 a number of us on a couple of my favourite online writing sites, Harper Collins’ Authonomy, and the critiquing group The Book Shed, started talking about the future of publishing, and the possibilities new technology offered for outflanking the established industry (the exact ins and outs are another post altogether), and we realised there was a great chance for a group of niche-focused, motivated writers with some great books. Fortunately, because I was the gobbiest, I got let off the last of these requirements.

So when, in January, I announced I was going to start a collective, there was a preformed constituency to choose from, consisting of all of us who’d been talking. I seriously doubt, if any of us had simply announced we were starting something from scratch and begun approaching people, we’d have got anywhere fast. As with everything in the creative world, these things are built on relationships. And that’s a good thing, especially if you’re doing it online, because you’ve got to be absolutely sure you’re getting on board with the right people.

Most of our membership came by that route. But there were a couple of places left to fill, which meant approaching people. So how on earth do you decide whom to approach? Well, the obvious disqualifier is forum behaviour. I think I can genuinely say this didn’t affect us. Possibly because it was back in what now seem the halcyon days of beautifully-etiquetted threads, possibly because I’m a gullible twit, I didn’t ever think, “Ooh, I want their book, but no, they’re a prize plonker.” It’s certainly the main bit of advice I’d give, though. I’d never deal with someone I’d witnessed trolling or flaming or partaking in any other jargonese metaphor. No matter how good their book. It’s something I say a lot on forums when people moan and moan about not getting an agent. If I were an agent looking through the forums, that alone would rule out working with them. And if I were an agent – or someone starting a collective – I WOULD look.

So how did we decide? Well, it was quite simple. First off, like any agent or publisher, we wanted books that had a voice. Most important of all for a collective, though, is that you all fit quite a tight niche. The reasoning’s simple. The advantage of a collective is that you’ve got lots of people to work targeting the same market any one of you would have to reach on your own. You’re divvying up the chores, and building a brand people in that market can come to trust. As soon as you have books that push the limit of the niche, you’re expanding the workload not focusing it. And whilst there will obviously be books you like more than others in an imprint, in order to create brand loyalty you have to consistently hit the same buttons, so people know what kind of read they’re in for.

We already hand some brand identity because we had – if not at that stage a manifesto – a set of rallying principles: we were going to deliver books as the authors wanted them to appear, unedited to fit preconceptions of taste and market. We were, essentially, a bit anarchic and 100% indie. Which created its own problems – if you’re not dictating content, how do you ensure brand identity?

What actually emerged from some soul-searching was that we were all doing the same kind of thing for the same kind of people. We were writing slightly edgy contemporary literary fiction (the kind of book the publishing industry isn’t geared up to deal with because the market is just a bit too small), and we were writing it for an urban indie audience – the kind of book you’d see people reading while they sat on Camden Lock smoking; the kind of book people would take out of the back pocket of their skinnies on the Tube.

The authors we approached had to be the ones who wrote this kind of thing.

The reaction, at both stages, was mixed. Which was a good thing because we didn’t end up with 100 people in the group. But a bad thing because we missed out on a couple of the books we really wanted. The reason why was usually – and completely understandably – the same. People either wanted to see how we got on before committing. Or they wanted to exhaust other avenues first. So where does that leave us with regard to them? Well, my personal approach is the door’s always open. The right books, written by lovely people, are always welcome. Yes, I have a list. There are between 10 and 20 names on it. I hope for their sake they don’t come to us, because that would mean they’ve made it. But I hope for our sake they do.

We’re not taking on new people at the moment (the exceptions being those on “the list”) partly because we’ve been through a huge amount together and – despite being based in the UK, USA, Hong Kong, Spain, Greece, Finland, and France – have knitted into an incredibly strong group. Now is the wrong time to unbalance that and risk losing focus. It wouldn’t be fair on newcomers either. Anyone joining up this close to a major release would have to just accept a whole lot of things we’ve agonised over and just aren’t up for negotiation any more.

But once the first books are out there and, I hope, flourishing, that’ll change. Our membership isn’t cast in stone. People are free to leave, and take their book with them, at any time. We are the antithesis of a record label. We are all self-publishers. We have no financial or intellectual property ties to each other. We can come and go as we please. We’ve made sure to make this freedom of movement clear in our Articles of Association.

How do I see us evolving? Well, people will come and go, and I imagine in 10 years we will look very different. I don’t even know if there will be a core membership. But Year Zero will be the same, and its strength will be the same – a commitment to giving readers the very best contemporary fiction, straight from the author’s keyboard; a commitment to building the trust and respect between writers and their readers.

Friday 19 June 2009

Free-e-day. The World's biggest indie culture online expo & giveaway

Free-e-day, the world’s biggest cultural giveaway
search free-e-day on Facebook and join the group

What is Free-e-day?

Free-e-day is 1 December 2009

Free-e-day 2009 is the biggest ever cultural electronic giveaway & celebration of the independent creative spirit.

Free-e-day is for every singer, writer, artist, artisan, photographer, film-maker, whatever who believes that the most important part of culture is the fans. And it’s for everyone who loves culture and wants to experience the very best of it, or just try out something new, for free.

Free-e-day is the chance for everyone and anyone to give some of their work away for free, as a thank you to their current fans, and a present for their new ones.

Free-e-day is the world’s biggest showcase for the massive, indomitable, indestructible, joyful, independent creative spirit of the human race.

Free-e-day is the chance for everyone to discover the most exciting culture the whole world has to offer.

Who can take part in free-e-day?

Anyone can join the group. You don’t have to be giving something away; you just have to think it’s a good idea.

And anyone can give their stuff away. If you’ve ever written anything you’re a writer. If you’ve ever sung anything you’re a singer. The established industries might tell you what you’re not. We believe in celebrating what you are.

How do I take part in free-e-day?

All you need to do to participate in the spirit of Free-e-day is give something away for free on 1 December 2009, or take something that’s being given away.

On the other hand, we want to make this the biggest, shiniest, most fantabulistic cultural giveaway ever, so, if you want to give something away:

Sign up to our Facebook group. That way we can put a number on it and show the world just how many of us there are.

  • Post your name, what you do, and 32 words about yourself.
    Include up to 8 tag words to make it easy for people to find your stuff
  • Post a link to somewhere you’ll be giving something away. It has to be something people can take away and keep. A pdf, a jpeg, an MP3 or MP4 file.
  • Tell us what you’ll be giving away
  • Make sure, come free-e-day on 1 December, you put up your freebie. If you don’t have the tech to do that, you can give people an e-mail address instead of a URL, but make sure you send your thing by the end of 1 December.
  • If you have some way of doing something live, let us know what, when, where, in the same format as above
  • Don’t post more than one plug. It’s rude. And it’s unoriginal

    If you get something fantastic on Free-e-day, remember to tell us. Remember to tell the lovely people who gave it to you. And most of all, remember to tell everyone you know.

    If you want to speak to me about Free-e-day, whether you want to publicise it, get a quote, offer moral support, volunteer to do something, or even tell me to p*** off and make people pay for things, send me an e-mail:

    So What’s Gonna happen?
  • I’m going to turn the free-e-day website into a directory with sections for:
    · Music
    · Writing
    · Film
    · Photography
    · Art
    · Pot luck (you can put anything here if you prefer people to come across your stuff serendipitously)
    · Craft
    · Live Shows
    If I’ve left anything out let me know.
  • I’ll paste everyone’s details over, including the links.
  • I’ll paste your links as you post them, but it’s your job to make sure they work. There’s only one of me!
  • This needs to be a live – and living – event. So from midnight on one side of the world to the following midnight on the other, there should be events
    A 48-hour long open to all webchat
  • Workshops. Some of the most important things anyone can give are experience, time, and advice. This is a day for fans, but with so many people around, it’s a great chance to host a workshop to help your colleagues
  • Live events – online and in real life. If you’d like to offer a live show as part of Free-e-day, the only criteria are that it’s held on the right day, and that it’s free. Anyone hosting an event will be sent some free e-files with media releases and logos nearer the time. Just let us know.
  • Whatever your social media of choice, make sure Free-e-day is what people are talking about. And make sure, come December 1st, everyone’s giving and getting a whole load of stuff for free

    How can you make this a sparkle in the cultural firmament?

Volunteer to do something. I’ll need help with the following:

  • Admin. If this is going to be a big event I won’t be able to do all the cutting and pasting and sorting. I’ll need help.
  • Publicity. Point anyone and everyone to our website and our group. I’m up for interviews and all kinds of publicity.
  • Hosting – care to host the webchat for an hour? Or to host a workshop advising and answering questions from the people who work in your area – or another?
  • Tech. There are probably things out there I need I have no idea I need. If you’re willing to offer it/your time for free, let me know. I’m sure at some stage, to paraphrase a certain Spielberg movie, we’re going to need a bigger website. If you can offer that, supertastic!

    I’d love to think we’ll get lots of coverage. If you come across any publicity anywhere, send me the link – to the Facebook site, by e-mail, or to the website, and we’ll build a great big bumper archive
    Send me an e-mail if you’d like to volunteer:

    Free-e-day Against Spoilsport Twits
  • Spam sucks. Everyone needs to put food in their mouths. Some of us do that by selling stuff. Fans love to buy stuff. But not on Free-e-day.
  • Plagiarism really sucks. If you’re giving stuff away, make sure it’s yours. Its’ not up to us to make sure it’s yours to give away. It’s up to you
  • If you’re with us you’re with us. If any nice people in the press and stuff give us some inches, we can say you’re on board.
  • Viruses and worms and other terms borrowed from questionable if ecologically essential branches of the tree of life and metonymously applied to inanimate scuz beyond suck. I’m not responsible for what you put out, but if you do that kind of stuff there’s a whole bunch of people gonna like you not very much.

    Oh, and any ideas – e-mail me, post them on the facebook group, or add a comment on the website

Thursday 18 June 2009

Year Zero has a Website!!

Warning: this post was composed at midnight after a heavy Beethoven session. May contain banality!! It’s 2 days in and we’ve had 176 hits so far. Now there’s a Bridget Jones type thing to keep you updated on! And we’ve had some lovely comments for which a huge thank you!

Some of our writers have started posting their profiles there already, including Oli Johns, whose Benny Platonov is one of the first books to be released, on September 1st. It’s still right at the nascent stages so be patient. But you’ll start to get a feel for who each of us is and how we write.

Every writer needs a website. So does every writers’ collective. We knew that. We also knew it had to be a free one. But that was about it.

So why Wordpress? Well, I won’t say we’re done with thinking this through, but let me give you a little insight into where we are so far.

We’ve been hatching our plots for quite some time now. Since January, in fact, when we first decided 2009 was the year we should give it a shot, and do the very best job we cold of the collective lark. We’ve been doing it on a [secret] Facebook group, with Sarah’s bra as our rallying logo. Secret Facebook groups are great for hatching plots. It’s a social networking site so it suits cabalistic connivances. We’ve been able to do things like hold a 24 hour marketing brainstorm session across gazillions of timezones, which generated 118 posts.

But Facebook’s not really ideal as a website with all the copyright stuff. We have a Ning site (, with some amazing graphics thanks to our techie genius Garalt, which is super. Ning’s a fantabulous whizzy do it yourself social networking site. So you can have your own groups without any of the copyright problems. Do come and join ours and see how you like the site! The problem with it is there’s no central area where we can say this is who we are and this is what we do. No real structure at all. Social networks are great for interacting, and we all want to do lots of interacting with our readers. But we also want somewhere that’s nicely structured where our readers can have a look and see who we are, what we do, and who writes what.

Wordpress seems to tick all the boxes. Or it did when I set it up, but as soon as I’d done that Sarah messaged me to say I should’ve used blogger because she’s a whiz at doing themy things with html on it! What Wordpress does let you do is structure the site. The first thing we needed was an orderly way to display the profiles and work of the 13 of us who’ve put work into our sampler, which we’ll be launching on July 1st. Wordpress lets us create a profiles section with 13 sub-sections, all of which can be further subdivided (it’s administrator’s heaven!!)

So that’s how we arrived where we are. We have a central site, with which we are very happy, and which we can stuff with cool content until it’s positively bursting with goodies. From there people can find each of our footprints, that roam far and wide across the web, sucking people unwittingly into that one central honeypot.

At some point I’ll go over how we all use our other virtual bits and bobs. I’m a huge fan of twitter, for example, and have found it a wonderful place to meet other people who love books and the whole indie scene. Sarah, on the other hand, because she’s dead good with images, uses deviantart. We all have blogger accounts, and I can’t be the only one who’s got a YouTube channel (agnieszkasshoes), whilst Octavia is ahead of the game and puts her books up on textnovel. All of this is well worth a who does what and why blog at some point. But right now the alarm’s due to go off in 5 hours and I haven’t had my bath yet.

Tomorrow: all about Free-e-day, the biggest FREE celebration of independent creativity ever seen.

Monday 15 June 2009

Year Zero: Week One

Year Zero Writers has existed as a group since January. Which makes writing a progress column one of those “where on earth do I start?” exercises.

So where I start is this. A twice-weekly column. On Tuesdays I’ll bring things up to date with the “why” and the “what” of the group. And later in the week I’ll take things forward from where we are now.

Rather Like I did with my 10 commandments, I’ll start out with one of those contents-page type columns to give you an idea of what’s coming up over the coming weeks. So, here we are:

1 (this one!) What do Year Zero Writers stand for? What’s our manifesto?

2 How do you go about setting up a collective? What were people’s responses to the project?

3 Why a collective?

4 We are not a small publisher. We are a group of self-publishing writers with common goals and a common theme to our writing.

5 Marketing – how do you get the economy of scale of being a group without losing individuality? How do you decide what to do and what not to do?

6 Quality control. What does it mean? How important is it? How does it work in a collective?

7 Tip-toeing through legal minefields

So, this is our manifesto:
The problem
The Factory: agents, editors, media arbiters of taste, publishers. A chain of filters that takes raw fiction, cuts it, sells it on, cuts it again until the street product peddled to readers is weak, toxic, and addictive.

YEAR ZERØ exists to eliminate the impurities and deliver prose in the pure and raw.

Pushing the boundaries of substance through new technologies, YEAR ZERØ provides prose just as addictive, in many cases just as toxic, but with a powerful, instant high that will stay with you for life.YEAR ZERØ is not an industry. YEAR ZERØ is not a group of writers. YEAR ZERØ is not a set of beliefs. YEAR ZERØ is an approach to culture.

· Culture is the breath we suck from each others’ lips.

· Culture is not alive. Culture is life.

· Readers and writers, like all producers and consumers of culture, cannot exist apart from each other. They exist only insomuch as literature flows between them. Inasmuch as The Factory exists to separate readers from writers it exists only to bring death, to create ghosts and hollow men.

· Culture speculates; culture takes risks; culture hijacks every human artifice and structure in the name of life.

YEAR ZERØ exists as a conduit for this process.

We are not YEAR ZERØ. We are some of its voices. You are its heart.

Why? I hope the thing that’s come through more than anything else in this blog is my belief that culture is a conversation. It’s about readers and writers talking, about the living, breathing, dynamic relation between them. The more I talk about writing, the more I read from my own writing in public, the more I know that something happens when this relationship is direct that just can’t happen in any other way. Which doesn’t mean books aren’t for curling up with in the bath. But that when you curl up and block out everything but the sound of the words on the page, you somehow have to know the only voice you hear is that of the author (that’s sort of rhetorical – I’m not making a statement about POV :-)).

I have a feeling, though, that literature for me will always be about more than words on the page. Having just come back from a conference where I got to take part in a writing workshop with one of the most inspiring writer/teachers I’ve ever met and to give a paper based on my novel – watching the audience’s faces as they listened, I will always want to do it in a way that gets people excited by words and stories in an immediate way.

All kinds of writers can share these goals. Next week I’ll explain how we arrived at our current 20 members.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

A Long Tail needn't make a Big Splash

Last week an agent sent me the most lovely rejection letter. What’s strangest about that sentence? That I should consider a rejection letter lovely (hardly – it was, I won’t quote at length out of courtesy to the agent concerned, but it was), or that I should have written to an agent (I am a firm advocate of the benefits of self-publishing, and I am committed to the self-publishing collective, Year Zero Writers, of which I am part, but whilst the agenting system is part of a machine I don’t really like, there are individual agents I’d give my eye teeth to work with – this is one)?

Digression over. The gist of the rejection letter was that my novel had a super, original voice (which is the nicest thing a writer can hear – maybe my voice is something other than simply loud after all!), and a wonderful atmosphere, and that the agent would love to see my future work, but Songs from the Other Side of the Wall was, alas, just not the kind of book capable of making a “big splash”, and as a result not right for the current climate.

Now it’s not news to me that Songs isn’t an “event” book. If I could pick a perfect review phrase for it, I would pick “achingly beautiful.” It’s the dreamlike story of a teenage girl growing up gay in post-communist Hungary, the imminent death of whose father forces her to choose between past and present; East and West; the family-owned vineyard, or art college with her lover. It is, in other words, the kind of book to sit alongside Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, Alessandro Baricci’s Silk, Marie Darieussecq’s Mal de Mer, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen – it’s a beautiful “translation table” book that students and the odd middle-aged melancholic would love. Because it’s about the fall of the Berlin Wall and that’s topical (I’m speaking about the book at a conference commemorating the anniversary this week) I figure it would happily sell 5,000 copies rather than the 3,000 it would sell in other years.

No publisher in their right mind would sign an author whose books will (consistently, probably – I like writing dreamy, quirky, pop-culture-heavy, character-based books about Eastern Europe [as anyone who’s got further than chapter one of Agnieszka’s shoes will attest] and have no intention [more to the point no capability] of changing) achieve these figures. There’s a chance – an outside one – that one day I might scoop a minor award for one of these books, and increase its sales tenfold (to a very mediocre 30,000).

In other words, no publisher working on the system of advances and big marketing budgets would be able to sign me without being sectioned by their shareholders. And, as a result, any agent of moderate sanity is equally unlikely to want to chance their arm.

It is this kind of book for which self-publishing could have been made. I need to pay for my ISBN – but that’s it on the essential outlay front. I have the most exquisite cover to hook in readers – designed by the super-talented Sarah E Melville. And I know exactly who my 5,000 readers are – they’re students, people interested in Eastern Europe, and fans of Murakami. So marketing consists of finding those people. And because it’s a genre I will stick to, I’m happy to give stuff away to get fans – if people like this book, they’ll like anything else I write. So marketing consists largely of finding these people and giving away pdfs of my novel. It’s slightly more complicated than that, of course (and my marketing series of posts will look at exact details), but not much.

Once I’ve uploaded the pdf to Lulu’s Print on Demand service, it can sit there indefinitely. And I can do the same for Kindle format. It doesn’t matter that I have a very small market. No one’s lost out by having to pay a big advance, and there’s no big marketing budget (the advantage of a small-market book is that we writers tend to know our market fairly exactly, and once we know them, it’s easy to reach them at little or no cost because there are no fishing expeditions).

So my advice would be – have a little self-knowledge. If your book’s not the next Twilight, Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code then admit it to yourself. Having one of those hard to sell hard to place books needn’t be the end of the road for you, just because an agent won’t (rightly) take you on.

Yes, it’s hard going it alone. But over the next few weeks, I’m going to run a column on my experiences of setting up and getting running a writers’ collective – one great way to help you on your way – not just because you’ll have greater marketing support, but because you should never underestimate the importance of company and not being alone. I hope that’ll help you. That will take my regular Tuesday column slot – 10 Commandments will become Year Zero in a rather Pol-Potian manoeuvre – I’ll also be running posts on marketing for self-publishers that I hope will help anyone thinking of that route. Together, let’s see where we can get in 2009.

And if anyone would like the pdf of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, just send me an e-mail ( You won’t find yourself on an e-mail list that bombards you with spam – I’ll send you a note when I launch the paper book, with an invite to the party, but that’s it.

Monday 8 June 2009

The Golden Commandment

This is the last in my 10 commandments for aspiring writers series. Whcih means I now have to think of a new column theme :-)

Networking is about looking for ways to do something FOR people, not get something FROM them.

This is my favourite commandment of all, and I’m delighted to save it till last in this series. We’re always reading about networking. Anyone who’s part of a writers’ site like Authonomy knows that success has so much to do with spreading your social tentacles, and we’re always being urged to use social media to increase our contacts and improve our chances of success – these days we even have sites like Ning that we can use to create our very own virtual social networks.

So why “network”? To get to know more people so there’s more of a chance of getting things done for us. Isn’t that right? Well, to the extent that’s most people’s motivation, it’s right, yes.

But it’s hardly the best way to go about it.

I’m not quite sure how the structure of this post will proceed. For me the truth of the “commandment” is self-evident, which makes it hard to write about. So apologies for structural vagaries.

I spent the first 30-something years of my life thinking not only was I the world’s worst networker, but that I hated the very idea of networking – it was inimical to me and to everything I, as a sensitive, shy aesthete thought the world should stand for. I associated it with men in suits with slick haircuts and shiny shoes; and I thought it meant the kind of self-aggrandising, pushy arrogance said men in suits seemed to indulge in as they boasted over their lagers about the size and speed of their silver BMWs.

Then I got a job as manager of a carpet shop, and fund myself spending at least half my time drinking coffee with company reps whilst we talked about colourways and product specs and interior design, and I very soon realised that the people who spent most time explaining the trade to me – all about jacquards and chlydema squares, and the acoustic properties of different underlays – were not only the ones I looked forward to seeing, but the ones whose products I sold more of. I’d start calling them up and ask if we could take more of their ranges, maybe put in a window display. They’d start calling me out of the blue and inviting me to go to nice places with them, and they’d start offering me lower prices for the products I was already selling plenty of at the higher price.

When I moved, after a couple of years, to one manage of the swankiest showrooms in the south of England, I was told one of the reasons I’d been headhunted was because I was a good networker, a statement I met totally blankly, until it was explained that was what I’d been doing all this time.

In my next set of columns, I’ll write about marketing and promotion. And one of the golden rules I’ll give you is this: never ask someone to do something for you, or tempt them with your amazing book, if you’re not prepared first to do something for them. So I’m not going to go into detail here about it. It also feels disingenuous as I think about it – because what you get out of helping other writers and people in the trade really is nothing to do with why you help them in the first place.

It’s hard to say much more without sounding either mercenary or a total hippy, so to conclude I’ll go back to anecdotes.

I’m a member of two “competitive” (to the extent that they hold out “prizes” of having your work read by people in the trade) writing sites, and Both these sites attract – from a vociferous, but smaller than their loud voices would lead you to believe minority – criticism for the way some people use the competitive elements of the site to get an advantage. Squabbles erupt about how writers “score” each others’ work, and about the mean-spiritedness of writers who fail to appreciate members’ masterpieces.

It never fails to amaze me what an uncollaborative bunch we writers are (see my previous post). If we go onto these sites to get “discovered” we will almost certainly fail. If we join in order both to learn, and to share what we’ve learned with as many people as possible, to help other writers through our comments, and to add to the educational and emotional value of the site, we will always succeed.

And I’ll close with an ambiguous anecdote. The editors at Harper Collins recently very generously answered a whole swathe of questions about the industry from Authonomy’s site members. Amongst the more illuminating answers was a reinforcement of what I’ve heard said and what I’ve seen done many, many times. When looking at a proposal, one of the things an editor asks themselves before deciding to proceed is what it’s going to be like working with this author.

What would it be like working with you? Does the way you conduct yourself with your fellow writers reflect that reality? Interesting questions. I wonder if we ask ourselves often enough.

Monday 1 June 2009

Money Follows Innovation

One of the questions I’m most often asked when I explain what I’m doing is “How are you going to make any money doing that?” Actually, it’s not usually phrased quite that way – more “it’s all right for you, but we’ve got bills to pay” or less family-friendly rewordings of the same sentiment. After I’ve ridden the virtual punches occasioned by my stock tongue-in-cheek-but-actually-serious answer that no one’s owed a living and in a market economy it’s up to me if I give my work away (and anyway, if it’s as bad as all that how’s it really a threat, free or not?), it’s worth mentioning I’m not actually barmy to think I might earn money from my exploits (or at least, even if I don’t see a bean, I think people who do what I do only better might).

It’s worth saying here this is a general post. I’m not going to tell you what innovation you should come up with. If I could do that then 1. it wouldn’t be innovation when you did it and 2. I’d do it myself. Instead I want to explain what I mean by innovation, and give some examples of successful, and not so successful, innovations to illustrate what I mean by money following innovation.

The reason is that generally speaking money follows innovation. I want to preface this with what’s probably the obvious observation. In the internet age, the real money flows to those with innovative software (Napster); and flows next to those who put existing software to innovative uses (selling goods in Second Life). I don’t have the technical expertise to do the former, or the start-up capital and time to give me access to technology to do the latter, although you may. Nonetheless, there IS a third rung of innovation – one that’s content-driven, that won’t make swathes of the population rich, but will make a few people a tidy living.

There are two ways to make money from innovation. It’s as true in traditional publishing as it is in technology. You can be first on the block – huge risk and huge return; or you can be second-up, the first of the “me too”s – lower risk, lower reward. In publishing terms, you can be the Da Vinci Code, or The Rule of Four. In tech terms, you can be IBM or Amstrad. Sometimes it pays to BE IBM and act like Amstrad – keeping your powder dry, waiting for someone else to take the risk and make the high investment, and content yourself with a lower yield sure thing. The obvious example from my youth where this paid in spades was the Betamax/VHS video recorder battle.

To return to the original distinctions, let’s take a look at how writing is open to innovation in each of the three categories I listed.

1. New software – if I knew what the next big software breakthrough was, I’d be looking for a business partner not writing a blog with a handful of partners. The person who devises it will be very rich. The most obvious example of this kind of innovation is the file-sharing software that made Napster’s founder first infamous, then rich. Wiki software and social networking software come into this category. I don’t know whether literature is liable to produce this kid of innovation (by nature I have a feeling it’s adaptive rather than creative, which is exactly the kind of statement designed to make me look an idiot when someone hits the jackpot – which is partly why I say it)

2. New applications – for me, this is where the big money lies, although I don’t know if it’s us writers who’ll cash in. The three obvious areas of what I’ll call (for want of any clue whatsoever what the real term is) adaptive innovation ripe for someone to come in and do an Amstrad are mobile phone subscription; wiki-novels; and POD machines. They shouldn’t need explanation. Each of them is clearly going to be central to the future of literature and publishing.

3. Content-drive innovation. By this I don’t mean looking for new ways to deliver the same kind of literature. I mean using existing technology to do something new. This is where writers’ big opportunity lies. It’s NOT big bucks. At least it will be for a couple of people, but most people, even the cutting edge innovators, won’t make a fortune. I think blogging IS an example of this kind of innovation – reluctantly, because formally speaking it’s not really that different from a diary – it’s just a diary/column that appears on a screen. It’s not a step forward for the literary form. Phone novels again for me are evolutions of the serial form, not phenotypic quantum shifts. I think they’re DIFFERENT because there’s the chance to be clever with the way phones display text, the way you write emoticons and text-speak in, but that’s not really innovation.

It goes without saying I’d LIKE to think of The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes as a genuine literary innovation – the fact it exists on multiple platforms each of which forms a part of a whole story, for example, is something it excites me as a writer to play with. Interactivity and metatextual commenting is great as well, but I have a feeling it’s little more than an evolution from primitive gaming books. The big innovation will be the thing that drives the shape of the novel forward. It MAY have to do with wikis – I love wiki writing if it’s done collaboratively and iteratively and not just treated like a high tech game of consequences. It may have to do with Bulletin Board Sites (BBS) – All About Lily Chou-Chou, in fact, may already be THERE – I’m amazed more people aren’t playing with this.

I have two predictions that are, at the same time, challenges. First, the big, literature-changing innovation will work around the way we take information in – it will break down linearity in the way modernists would have done had they not been stuck between covers. It will make us click links, and it will make us active participants in the world that the author is creating – in this sense it will borrow from narrative-driven art and gaming. It will be the ultimate realisation of Derrida’s claim that the text is everything.

Second, the money will go the Amstrad route. The first people to do it will catch the imagination of someone with an entrepreneurial mind and a marketing savvy streak, and they will make the money. So my advice to you is keep your ear to the ground.

Oh, and for those of us who lack that degree of imagination but have a certain knack for mixing up a cocktail of analytics and chutzpah, the way to make money from innovation is to talk and write about what others are doing, have done, or might at some time in the future do.