Books on Credit

The January 26th issue of the Daily Telegraph has an article by Chris Price which says much about the times the world is in.

“Egyptians have resorted to taking out loans to buy books as inflation surges in the country. Book prices have more than doubled as the value of the Egyptian pound plummeted by about 43% against sterling over the last year.

Authors have even reportedly begun cutting out characters and descriptions as the cost of paper and ink soars, with inflation hitting a five-year high of 21.3% in December, according to statistics agency Capmas.

Mohammed el-Baaly, of Sefsafa Publishing House, told the BBC: “A book has become a luxury item here in Egypt. It’s not a basic commodity like food and people are saving on luxuries.”

Keen readers now reportedly can spread the cost of a book over nine month at 1.5% interest, according to the Egyptian Publishers Association.

Teen fiction author Dina Afifi told the BBC she hoped the scheme would bolster sales. She said, ‘My book’s been downsized, slimmed down to just 60 pages from around 100, because of the rising printing costs.’

Mr Baaly added: ‘The cost of paper and ink has gone up tremendously. The cost of a ton of paper is nearly four times higher than the start of last year.'”

The interest rate of 1.5% quoted in the article must be a monthly rate which would be equivalent to about 20% per year.

The Guardian, in an article dated last October said; “The price of books is likely to go up, say publishers – which are acting to avoid steep rises for readers.

Some presses are exploring printing on cheaper and thinner paper, postponing reprints for older books and publishing fewer titles to reduce costs and avoid increasing recommended retail prices.

But the hike in costs of paper and energy and the effects of Brexit mean price rises are likely in the long term if not in the short and medium term, “if the current high production and distribution costs stabilise at the current levels”, said Juliet Mabey, co-founder of the independent publishing house Oneworld

Valerie Brandes, founder and publisher of Jacaranda Books Arts Music, said it was highly likely that book prices for consumers would have to increase “across all formats” by 10 to 20%.”

So, we’re fortunate not to be buying our books in Egypt!

The Importance of Sound

There is an article by Susan Griffin dated January 20, 2023, on the Lit Hub website which is worth some extra thought and perhaps attention. Ms Griffin makes the point that the sounds of the words we write can make a difference to the readers understanding and appreciation.

Susan Griffin has written over 22 books, including nonfiction, poetry, and plays. A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times Notable book. Woman and Nature, considered a classic of environmental writing, is credited for inspiring the ecofeminist movement. She and her work have been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emmy, and the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement & Service, among other honors. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Susan Griffin

Ms Griffin says: “Soon after my failed attempt at a war novel, I began to read passages out loud from books I liked. I had listened many times to my older sister, who was studying drama in high school, as she read passages from plays or poems out loud. So, as with practically everything she did, I followed her example. I read stories by Hans Christian Andersen, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s stirring poem, “Renascence,” dialogues from Alice in Wonderland, and, though I never could finish the book, I loved to perform the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities.

Perhaps because of its notable symmetrical rhythm, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or the dramatic list of contrasting circumstances, “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” I loved this paragraph and would read it over and over, even when I was alone in the back bedroom, staring out a window that looked over other houses, streets, a few palm trees, and a giant neon sign depicting red paint as it poured over a round earth, imagining as I read that I was creating a larger perspective on the urban scene below.

I did not know yet that with this practice I was training my ear to take in the music of language and, in the process, beginning to notice the music of the various phrases and sentences passing through my mind, bits and pieces, which even without any clear logic seemed to carry meaning. Over time I began to recognize these fragments as the seeds of something I might one day write.

When asked in an interview “how do stories begin for you?” one of the great storytellers of our time, Grace Paley, answered, “A lot of them begin with a sentence — they all begin with language.”

We think of language as conveying meaning. But here, I believe, Paley is talking about sound as well as sense. “Very often,” she goes on to say, “one sentence is absolutely resonant.”

In this way, literature is not, as many often suppose, abstract. Its medium is the human voice, a phenomenon every bit as concrete and sensual as oil paint or marble from Carrara. And though modern attitudes do not recognize the meaning inherent in the concrete world, the medium is never passive. As Michelangelo told us, the material from which he sculpted his masterpieces guided him. “I saw the angel in the marble,” he said, “and I carved until I set him free.”

Sound can dive beneath presupposition and assumptions, the world of clichés that has already bored you, to unlock the vital yet undiscovered and unspoken worlds that lie just beneath the surface of what has become habitual.

For this reason, it is important that you listen to the words you have written. If the sound of your words is true (in the sense of a true note or hitting the mark), your reader will be riveted if not enchanted. And, more crucial to this process of writing, which you have already begun by this time, you will be exhausted; put in a kind of trance, the way religious ceremonies from diverse cultures have done for centuries. Thus, even you, as you write, will be led by the sound of the words you have written toward a wisdom you did not know you had within you.”

This advice may seem rather obscure and opaque. But I do find myself listening silently to a phase or a particular word I am proposing to use before, or even after I’ve typed it. Something about it doesn’t feel right. An alternative will spring to mind or I will consult the thesaurus. The alternative is much better. Perhaps the meaning is closer to what I’m trying to convey, but perhaps, also, the alternative has a sound that is more in tune with the feeling I want to transmit. I don’t think this is a scientific process; for me it is intuitive.

Lost Novel Is A Best Seller 83 Years Later

An article dated 17 May 2021, on the BBC News website caught my eye. It had a picture of the author, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, who died in 1942 at the age of 27. He had written the novel 4 years earlier.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

“Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger is about a Jewish man who – like the author – attempts to escape the rise of the Nazi regime.

It was rediscovered in 2018 after the author’s niece told an editor about it.

The book has had stellar reviews and has now entered The Sunday Times list of top 10 hardback fiction bestsellers.

The UK edition sold almost 1,800 copies last week to put it at number 10 on the list.

It was written in the weeks after Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass, also known as the November Pogrom), the outbreak of mass violence against Jews in Germany and Austria in November 1938.

It tells the story of a Jewish businessman called Otto van Silbermann, who hears a knock at his door from Nazi Storm Troopers and quickly realises he must flee.

He and his wife stuff all their money into a suitcase and end up boarding train after train across Germany as they try to make their escape.

Boschwitz himself had left Germany three years earlier after anti-Semitic laws were enacted.

His book was published in the US and UK in 1939 and 40 respectively, but made little impact and soon went out of print. The author died in 1942 at the age of 27 when a boat he was travelling on was torpedoed by the Germans.

Boschwitz’s niece contacted German editor Peter Graf after reading an interview with him about another novel he had rediscovered.

She told him about her uncle and the book, the original typescript of which was in the archive of the National Library in Frankfurt.

Graf went there and told the BBC that as soon as he read it, he ‘knew that this was an important novel’.

He decided to edit and revise the book and it was published in Germany. It has now been released in 20 other languages so far this year.

He believes the novel, written more than 80 years ago, has a powerful message for modern society.

Graf added that the novel was essentially about ‘the disenfranchisement of a hitherto respected and well-off citizen’. He added: ‘Anyone who reads the fate of Otto Silbermann will understand a lot about human values and how terrorism and the lack of courage of the masses make terror against individual groups possible.'”

The article says this about the author: “Boschwitz was a young business apprentice who left Germany in 1935 and emigrated to Norway with his mother. Later he lived in France and stayed in Belgium and Luxembourg. Both came to England shortly before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.

They were arrested as enemy aliens and Boschwitz was sent to Australia, where he spent two years in an internment camp.

In 1942, Boschwitz was allowed to leave the camp, but the ship taking him back to England was torpedoed by German U-boats.”

I have been watching the BBC4 documentary The US and the Holocaust, which makes the point that in the late 1930’s the US and much of Europe had very little sympathy for the plight of German Jews. In the US, this was attributable, in part, to the terrible state of the economy and the opposition to immigration as it was feared jobs would be lost to immigrants. There was also a view that confronting Germany about its treatment of Jews would stir up trouble. More recently, with a clearer understanding of the Holocaust, and the publication of books like The Diary of Anne Frank, sentiments have shifted dramatically.

In the Sunday Times, David Mills wrote: “There have been a number of great novels about the Second World War that have come to light again in recent times, most notably Suite Française and Alone in Berlin. I’m not sure that The Passenger might not be the greatest of them.”

Review: A Message from Ukraine

I bought a copy of Volodymyr Zelensky’s collected speeches at an airport bookshop in December. It’s a small book, just the size to wedge into a suitcase, 118 pages at £9.99, of which President Zelensky’s personal income from the book (at least £0.60 per copy) will go to his charity, United24, in support of Ukraine.

I’ve been impressed by Zelensky: his absolute commitment to his country, his ability to lead his people in their struggle against a much larger, heartless, autocratic and immoral aggressor, his skill at coaching Western democracies to come to his aid, but perhaps most of all for his restraint in not criticising donors who pinch pennies. It would be so tempting to call Macron out as a egotistical, French, Putin-loving, tightwad. But whatever he may have thought of Macron, he kept it pretty much to himself. And now, low and behold, there is a transformation: France is backing a military victory for Ukraine and is going to send Ukraine light tanks, prompting Germany to do the same and adding Patriot missile batteries.

Zelensky’s Wikipedia page reads: “Born to a Ukrainian Jewish family, Zelenskyy (in Ukrainian, his surname is spelt with two y’s) grew up as a native Russian speaker in Kryvyi Rih, a major city in central Ukraine. Prior to his acting career, he obtained a degree in law. He then pursued a career in comedy and created the production company Kvartal 95, which produced films, cartoons, and TV shows including the TV series Servant of the People, in which Zelenskyy played the role of the Ukrainian president. The series aired from 2015 to 2019 and was immensely popular. A political party bearing the same name as the television show was created in March 2018 by employees of Kvartal 95.

Zelenskyy announced his candidacy in the 2019 presidential election on the evening of 31 December 2018, alongside the New Year’s Eve address of then-president Petro Poroshenko on TV. A political outsider, he had already become one of the frontrunners in opinion polls for the election. He won the election with 73.23 percent of the vote in the second round, defeating Poroshenko. He has positioned himself as an anti-establishment and anti-corruption figure. As president, Zelenskyy has been a proponent of e-government and of unity between the Ukrainian and Russian speaking parts of the country’s population. His communication style makes extensive use of social media.  His party won a landslide victory in the snap legislative election held shortly after his inauguration as president. During the first two years of his administration, Zelenskyy oversaw the lifting of legal immunity for members of parliament, the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession, and some limited progress in tackling corruption in Ukraine.

During his presidential campaign, Zelenskyy promised to end Ukraine’s protracted conflict with Russia, and he has attempted to engage in dialogue with Russian president Putin. Zelenskyy’s strategy during the Russian military buildup was to calm the Ukrainian populace and assure the international community that Ukraine was not seeking to retaliate. He initially distanced himself from warnings of an imminent war, while also calling for security guarantees and military support from NATO to “withstand” the threat. After the start of the invasion, Zelenskyy declared martial law across Ukraine and a general mobilisation of the armed forces. His leadership during the crisis has won him widespread international praise, and he has been described as a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. Zelenskyy was named the Time person of the Year for 2022 and opinion polls in Ukraine have ranked him as Ukraine’s greatest president.”

The speeches – there are 16 of them – were selected by Zelensky for the book, and range from his inaugural address to the Ukrainian parliament to Ukrainian Independence Day on 24 August 2022. There is a useful preface by Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian and Eastern Europe editor of the Economist. This is followed by an introduction by Zelensky in which he reflects on changing the past.

His speeches are focused on several themes. Ukraine is a free, sovereign, independent country. Russia is engaged in an illegal and immoral invasion. Russia must be stopped because ultimately, it is at war with Western democracy, its values and principles. If Ukraine loses the war, Europe itself will be next. Ukraine can and must win this war. It will end when all the Russian occupiers are gone.

The language and the images are highly motivational. This is an excellent, two-hour read.

Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

I missed reading this novel when it came out in 2000, won the Booker Prize and was made into a movie in 2019. It was written by Peter Carey, an Australian author, who had previously won another Booker. He was born in 1943. He dropped out of the pursuit of a science degree at university and started work in advertising. He began to read important novelists and wrote five unpublished novels. Having spent two years in London, working in advertising, he returned to Australia in 1970. In 1980 he opened his own advertising agency and the following year published his first novel, Bliss. Toward the end of the Australian phase of his career, Oscar and Lucinda was published in 1988 and won the Booker McConnell Prize as it was then known. Carey, who moved to New York in 1990 continues to live there, has received fourteen literary awards, several more than once, nominated twice for musical awards as lyricist, written fourteen novels, two short story collections, a stage play and has been married three times.

Peter Carey

There was a Kelly Gang in Australia in the 1880’s which was famous for its exploits, and for its identity with the marginalised immigrant population. The ‘True History’, however, departs from the historic facts on several points. The character, Mary Hearn, who became Ned Kelly’ lover and the mother of his daughter, never existed. There is no evidence that Kelly sired any children. The relationship between Kelly’s mother, Ellen, and Harry Power, the famous bushranger is a literary fabrication.

The story is told by Ned Kelly himself, in semi-literate writing, without punctuation, to tell his life history to his daughter from his point of view. He began life as the oldest boy of destitute family of Irish extraction trying to survive on a remote farm. His father had numerous brushes with the self-serving rural police which resulted in his death when Ned was 12. His mother then apprenticed Ned to Harry Power so that he could survive as a bushranger. He leaves Power and tries to live within the law, but he is imprisoned for three years for receiving a stolen horse, which he claims was given to him. Released from jail, he worked for two years in a sawmill, but he is drawn back into bushranging when a herd of his horses is stolen by a rival settler. Serious trouble with the police begins when he shoots the gun out of the hand of a corrupt police constable who makes advances on Ned’s younger sister. Four police are sent to kill Kelly, but Ned kills three of them in an ambush. The Kelly gang of four (Ned, his brother, Dan, and two friends are eventually surrounded by a crowd of police who kill the other three gang members and wound Ned. The shootout and Kelly’s death by hanging are told by ‘C. S.’, presumably the relative of the local teacher, Thomas Curnow, who ended up with all the Kelly manuscripts and who warned the police that the train tracks via which they were approaching the gang for the final shootout had been sabotaged. Kelly died a hero to most of the people of northeast Victoria, who amplified his life story over time.

The novel draws an accurate picture of the hard life lived by the large majority of the settlers and of the culture of the police, the judiciary and the ruling class in southeast Australia in the nineteenth century. Life was very hard and it created hard men. The story is told in the uneducated language of an impoverished Irish farmer, who clings to his family and its traditions. Ned never ceases to do what he believes is the just thing, and, in the process, there is an inevitable censure of the values and actions of the authorities. The characters are credible – if unsavory. The action is non-stop. This is a big jump above a good American western in its authenticity, its interest and its contribution to history.

Australia’s Struggling Authors

The Guardian has an article today by Rafqa Touma ‘Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: How Australia’s Favourite Authors Are Making Ends Meet’.

Ms Touma writes:”According to new research by Macquarie University, the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency, the average annual income from practising as an author is only $18,200 (Australian = £10,000). This has left two-fifths of authors relying on their partner’s income, and two-fifths relying on a day job unrelated to their writing. We spoke to some of Australia’s most celebrated authors who are supplementing their income with day jobs. Here is what they have to say:

Jennifer Down: the Miles Franklin-winning copywriter

Jennifer Down, author of Bodies of Light

Down won the 2022 Miles Franklin for her novel Bodies of Light, which was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s prize, the Stella prize and the Voss prize. She is also the author of Our Magic Hour and Pulse Points.

At a weekend writers’ festival in October, Jennifer Down had work to finish for her day job: a brand launch campaign was coming up. So she sat down at a pub and pulled out her laptop.

“I thought if I have to work on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll do it with a pint,” she says. She looked so focused that a group at the table across from her made a passing joke: “Have you finished your novel yet?”

Little did they know Down had in fact finished her novel, which had just won the country’s most important literary prize. “The irony is that it is a Sunday afternoon, and I’m doing my money job while at a festival for my non-money job.”

Down was named the Sydney Morning Herald’s young novelist of the year consecutively in 2017 and 2018. At the time, she was working as an in-house copywriter for an Australian skincare company, being paid less than $50,000. “I was living in a five-person share house, and I could barely pay my bills.”

“It is surreal,” she says. “Outside of work, my writing is really respected. I had this modest critical acclaim coming in. Then at work, I’m having social media copy corrected by a person who doesn’t understand what subordinate clauses are and hasn’t read a book in 10 years.”

Down currently works as a copywriter full-time. She sets her alarm for 4am to write for herself; the alternative is foregoing social engagement.

“I don’t know if it has paid off. It is gratifying to have won prizes, but I feel like it can be incredibly isolating at times.”

It also means she’s effectively working seven days a week. “I don’t really remember the last time I have had two consecutive days off,” she says. “It is paid for in the sense I have been able to produce work, but it is not without a cost.”

Holden Sheppard: the manual labourer with a TV deal

Holden Sheppard’s debut novel Invisible Boys won the 2019 WA Premier’s prize for an emerging writer, the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell award, the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford award and the 2017 Ray Koppe residency award. He is also the author of The Brink.

Holden Sheppard is well loved among high school readers, with a TV adaptation of his multi-award-winning novel Invisible Boys currently in production. He is now writing his third book under contract; to fund it, he is working as a manual labourer in a timber yard.

“Authors are sole traders,” he says. “The part that doesn’t get seen is that there is a huge amount of admin.”

The Australia Council report found writers spend only half their writing time actually producing original writing. With invoicing, emailing, social media managing, talks at schools, event appearances and podcasting to fit between his work at the timber yard, Sheppard says he is left to write whenever it fits.

The annual income of children’s book authors sits at $26,800 – higher than the $18,200 average. Sheppard acknowledges his books have sold well, “but as much as it might appear successful, it is still not enough to live off”.

He deliberately looks for casual jobs instead of permanent part-time ones, for the sake of flexibility. “If there is a media interview opportunity, or an event I really want to do on a day of work, it is hard to get it off,” he says. “You jeopardise your day job and your income.” This precarious work he chooses rarely comes with entitlements such as annual leave and sick leave.

In 2015, Sheppard received an Australian Council Art Start grant for $10,000, but the program was scrapped after his round. “I feel that is needed again.” He also advocates for digital lending rights, which don’t exist in Australia.

“Each revenue stream helps us. When people take a book out of an e-library, we don’t see that revenue.”

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: the award-winning novelist who wrote behind the counter

Michael Mohammed Ahmed won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelists award for his debut novel The Tribe. His second novel The Lebs won the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin. He also founded the Sweatshop literacy movement.

“I am a multi-award winning author, and I have a doctorate in literature. I am about as educated as you can get. I have sold tens of thousands of books. Still, I don’t have the job security of a manager at McDonald’s.”

While writing three acclaimed novels – The Tribe (2014), The Lebs (2018) and The Other Half of You (2021) – and setting up the western Sydney-based literacy agency Sweatshop, Michael Mohammad Ahmad worked at his father’s army disposal shop.

“When customers weren’t there, I’d be writing my novels behind the counter,” he says. “I only stopped working there about two or three years ago.”

He’s proud he was able to support his family this way, he says. “But it is insane that I had to do that. The industry isn’t set up to support people.”

Mohammad Ahmad still works seven days a week, with weekends spent writing. “I feel fortunate that in my case it is a job I am passionate about,” he says. “Writers didn’t enter the industry for money.

“It is an activity we’ve been participating in since humans could begin to think. It is fostering the next generation of thinking. It is something we find valuable outside of the capitalist construct of wealth. Even though writers aren’t making ends meet, they are still going to do it.

Anna Spargo-Ryan: the acclaimed author doing everything all at once

Anna Spargo-Ryan won the inaugural Horne prize in 2016 for her essay The Suicide Gene. She was longlisted for ABIA’s Matt Richell award in 2017 for her novel The Gulf. She is also the author of novel The Paper House and 2022 memoir A Kind of Magic.

According to the research, more than one-fifth of authors have a day job that’s related to being a writer – but that doesn’t make it easier for them to write a book.

Since 2013, Anna Spargo-Ryan has been balancing a full-time freelance mix of jobs, from ghostwriting and advertising copywriting to writing podcasts, websites, brand guidelines and feature articles.

“I do a lot of writing,” she says. “But all of it is for other people. A very small proportion of it is for my own writing work.”

Spargo-Ryan once held a romanticised idea of working as a writer. “But over the past 10 years … I have realised that the only way to get writing done is to fit it in.”

This year she published her first nonfiction book, A Kind of Magic. Although she spent the last three years writing it, she “barely remembers” the process. “I had a deadline, I had a contract, so I had to write it, but I didn’t have the leisure of having lots of time to get that done,” she says.

“So I wrote it in all kinds of small gaps. Waiting for the kids at school, before meetings, during meetings, editing on the treadmill. Whenever I could get bits of time … which I don’t really recommend as a writing process.”

Spargo-Ryan recommends writers learn to diversify their craft. “You might get an advance that is like a tenth of your annual salary, and that would be quite a good advance,” she says. “Then you are going to earn like three cents a word, for 100,000 words. In itself it isn’t sustainable.

“No one has a patron who pays for you to do your creative work. Part of being a writer is the hustle, trying new things, and diversifying the work you are doing.”

Omar Sakr: the PM’s literary award-winner looking for a day job

Omar Sakr won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary award for poetry for his collection The Lost Arabs. It was also shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary award, the John Bray Poetry award, the Judith Wright Calanthe award and the Colin Roderick award. He is also the author of These Wild Houses and Son of Sin.

“[It was] easy enough to do at first because I was couch-surfing and didn’t have much in the way of expenses,” he says. “But it has become increasingly difficult as I settled down and started a family.”

Grants and prizes gave him time to write his debut novel Son of Sin, but publishing involves a “relentless grind” of writing and touring, which has been “impossible” to sustain since his wife gave birth to their son this year.

The report finds more than half of authors find searching for income elsewhere to be a competing demand on their writing time.

“Now I find myself in a very precarious financial position, and actively trying to find a day job,” Sakr says. “Full-time freelancing relies too much on uncertain outcomes and requires too much of me, on top of being a dad. I already knew that our society doesn’t support artists enough, but it’s brutal to realise we also don’t support parents in a meaningful way either.”

Have Celebrities Ruined Kids’ Books?

Ben Lawrence has an article in today’s Daily Telegraph which makes the arguments that not only have celebrities seriously reduced the quality of kids’ books, but they have also captured the publishing space to the detriment of competent kids’ writers.

Ben Lawrence, Commissioning Editor of the Telegraph

In the article, he says: “Long ago, when I was young, I had a vivid imagination that needed feeding. While TV shows and computer games went a little way to inspiring me, nothing shaped my thoughts like a good book. This was the 1980s, so I caught the tail end of the second golden age of children’s literature. I happily lost myself in the vivid, sometimes strange worlds of Nina Bawden, Alan Garner, Leon Garfield and Susan Cooper, while supplementing my addiction with the classics: Kenneth Grahame, E Nesbit, C S Lewis and Eve Garnett. Books build a child, and my career in writing and editing would not have evolved without them.

I was lucky: I had bookish parents, both acting as in-house curators, full of ideas of what I should (and shouldn’t) read. Yet if I were small now, I am not sure that I would have the same access to great children’s fiction. You could make the usual noises about social media and attention spans, but there are other worrying factors in regard to the 21st-century child.

First, I benefitted greatly from my local library, which had a staggering selection of books both old and new – and we all know what has happened to Britain’s libraries. There were, I remember, plenty of friendly librarians, armed with incredible knowledge and an infectious love of reading, who could make recommendations to me. In an age when primary-school teachers were less constricted by a national curriculum, we also had the luxury of “reading afternoons”: we could sit and browse the books in both the school library and the shelves which lined our classroom.

There is now also the serious problem of brand recognition. Writers today (whose average salary, in Britain, is down to £7,000 per annum) are unable to gain a foothold in the children’s market because they are being muscled out by celebrity names whose publishers can afford the most prominent slots in bookshops and supermarkets.

It never felt like such a problem in the days of JK Rowling’s reign: she, at least, was a career writer whose works – though not, I’m afraid to say, that well written – displayed a vivid imagination, and who did a great deal to get children interested in reading.

For the harried parent trying to find a book for their child, a familiar name on a bookshelf is always going to be the obvious option. The Duchess of York went first in 1989, with Budgie the Little Helicopter. But in truth, blame Madonna: 14 years later, her wafty Kabbalah nonsense, The English Roses, started a ghastly trend. Fearne Cotton’s Yoga Babies, Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies, Clare Balding’s The Girl Who Thought She Was a Dog – they all feel like cynical cash-ins.

Perhaps the most egregious example, however, is the comedian David Walliams, now the most successful children’s author in Britain. Anecdotally, I’m told by parents who’ve bought his best-selling books that they’re appalling: sub-Roald Dahl (of whom Walliams is a fan), and devoid of heart or writerly flair.

David Walliams

The only thing worse than a child deprived of books is a child immersed in bad ones. Defenders might say that at least a writer such as Walliams gets more children interested in reading, but I see no evidence that he is acting as a gateway drug to better quality gear.

All of this is heartbreaking, because there’s so much to recommend. A quick ring-round to friends and colleagues resulted in my being bombarded with names. You should mention Emma Carroll, they said. Julia Copus is brilliant, said another. MG Leonard, Ross Montgomery, Nadia Shireen, SF Said, Katherine Rundell, Jenny McLachlan… Yet with the exception of Rundell, I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of any of them (even if, not having any children of my own, I have a reasonable excuse).

It was enough proof to me that children’s literature is as strong now as it was 40 years ago when I was young. So: enough is enough. It is time to attempt to end the depressing monopoly of a small selection of not-very-talented writers. A concert pianist never achieves success by being mediocre, so why should a children’s author?

There is, I admit, a slight air of nostra culpa here. Children’s fiction has always been the Cinderella of the book world, and we journalists need to work much harder in highlighting works for children. As the children’s author and scriptwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce argued persuasively on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, newspapers run plenty of restaurant reviews, featuring swanky places that 99.9 per cent of the population are never going to actually visit. Books, on the other hand, are comparatively cheap, and even cheaper if they’re loaned or shared.

So I’m going to make a pledge. From January, we will review a new book by a children’s author once a week. It could be a picture book for younger readers, a novel for pre-teens, or perhaps some Young Adult fiction. It could be a book by an established (professional) author, or a debut by someone brilliant and unknown. What you won’t see, I promise, is anything by a non-writer who is pushing larger talents out of the way in order to extend their personal brand.”

It seems to me that publishers bear some responsibility for this situation. They certainly know what a good quality children’s book is. To favour a celebrity brand-builder, who offers a short-term sugar rush of poor quality sales, over a professional author, who offers long-term sales to happy customers, is making bad business decisions.

Finding a Publisher

In last Friday’s email, Harry Bingham, the founder of Jericho Writers, gives a brief up-and-down personal history of his interactions with agents and publishers. It demonstrates that being a successful writer has a large element of good (and bad) luck.

Harry said,”I sent my first manuscript out to half a dozen agents. They said no or didn’t respond. I sent it out to six more, three of whom said yes. One of the yessers was clearly as barmy as a fruitbat, so I politely declined. (I’m pretty sure he hadn’t actually read my book which, in an agent, you know, is a bit of a fail.). One of the other yessers was the CEO of a really first-class, large and prestigious agency. The other was one half of a two-woman shop, with a good reputation, but nothing like the other for prestige. I chose the latter. I didn’t regret it. I don’t regret it. But was I right? Would my career have had more oomph with the power of ____ behind me? I don’t know. I do sometimes wonder.

First publisher

That book sold easily in a multi-publisher auction and for good money. Two publishers offered the same dosh. But one publisher offered me the money while sitting in a slightly cramped and windowless room. The other pitched to me while sitting in a boardroom and plying me with vast lumps of Stilton, a notably smelly English cheese. I don’t know what sales manual recommended the cheese tactic, but it worked. But the other publisher? I ended up with that editor later in my career and he was a good guy. Did I make the right choice or the wrong choice? I dunno.

Second book

My second book was a stinker. Or at least: the first draft was a stinker. The second draft was adequate. But what if I’d written an actual good book? Or did it not work like that?

Second book cover

That adequate second book went out into the world with a terrible cover. I said to the publisher, “This cover is terrible.” They said, “oh no it’s not,” I said. “Oh yes it is,” – and this game went on until it turned out it was too late to change the cover anyway. We shipped 70,000 copies of that book to bookshops. 35,000 came back again. What if those 70,000 books had gone out nicely dressed instead? Would that book too have been a bestseller? And if so, then what after?

Non-fiction cover

Years later I wrote a history book which I sold for a lot of money. I had a brilliant editor (she’s still editing; still brilliantly) but we never quite nailed the cover. The cover we ended up with was charming but rather polite. And we were selling right into the heart of the Christmas market. A somewhat similar book with a much more shouty cover trounced mine in the sales stakes although (my biased opinion) I think my book had more about it. What if that cover designer had just gone for it. Big, bold, brassy, loud, Christmassy? Dunno.

Crime publisher

Years later again, I had to choose between two major publishers for my crime series. One was arguably the country’s then-premier crime house. The other was (not arguably, just factually) one of the world’s most reputed literary publishers which now and again cares to dabble in upmarket crime. I took the money and the big house. Said no to the reputed literary one. But was that right? For me? It was sort of the opposite of my first decision in relation to agents: then I went to a small outfit, because I thought I’d matter more to it. Here I took the exact reverse course. I’ve often wondered if that was the right decision. I’m thinking maybe no.

***

But what do we make of these thoughts? At each of those decision points, we might say that somewhere in the multiverse, a different me (or designer or publisher) made different decisions and the world went spinning off in a whole different direction – quite possibly a violently different one. How different? Well, let me give you an example.

My first crime novel, when it was published in the US (by a very very good editor at a very very good crime house) got starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. It was a Book of the Year in a few major US newspapers. Good, right?

But that same book sold a total of 800 copies in paperback. How come? Because the way it was published just somehow managed to miss the market completely. Whoops-a-daisy.

It must be the case that a very well-reviewed book could have sold a ton more copies than that. And, as it happens, I know that there are plenty of American readers who enjoy kooky Welsh crime novels, because loads of those readers were happy enough to buy the book when I self-published it.

So: somewhere in the multiverse, I’m a feted literary-ish crime author with huge American sales and a TV adaptation or two.

In this particular corner of the multiverse, though, I’m definitely not.

And the purpose of all this meandering? Just this:

THE WORLD DOES NOT GIVE YOU A RELIABLE PICTURE OF WHETHER YOUR BOOK IS GOOD OR NOT.

SALES DON’T EITHER.

AMAZON RANKINGS DON’T.

Things can go wrong for reasons far beyond your control. All you can do is write as well as you can, publish as well as you can, and hope. In the end, the truest sense of whether your book is any good is your own inner truth-teller. Also: the more you can cherish and build that inner instinct, the better you will write and edit your work.”

Are Publishers Becoming Censors?

There is an article by Anita Singh in Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is quoted as saying that it is unlikely that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses would have been published had Rushdie written it today. Adichie goes on to say that it is unlikely that Rushdie would have decided to write it today.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a professor and her mother was the first female Registrar. She studied medicine for a year at Nsukka and then left for the US at the age of 19 to continue her education on a different path. She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in Communication and Political Science. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree in African History from Yale University. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The article says, “In the first of this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, Ngozi Adichie spoke about freedom of speech.

She said: “Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not. Would it even be written? Possibly not.

“There are writers like Rushdie who want to write novels about sensitive subjects, but are held back by the spectre of social censure.

“Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent phenomenon of ‘sensitivity readers’ in the world of publishing, people whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words.”

Ngozi Adichie said that publishers are also wary of committing “secular blasphemy”.

She claimed that the issue went far beyond the publishing world, with young people caught in an “epidemic of self-censorship” because they are too afraid of being cancelled.

The author faced her own backlash in 2017 after stating in an interview: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is [that] trans women are trans women.”

In her lecture, Ngozi Adichie said: “We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith.

“Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so they practise an exquisite kind of self-censorship. Even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so.”

Ngozi Adichie said the alternative to this “epidemic” of self-censorship was people stating their beliefs and as a result facing a “terrible” online backlash of “ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs”.

She said: “To anyone who thinks, ‘Well, some people who have said terrible things deserve it,’: no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism.

“It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is.

“Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.”

Ngozi Adichie called for a raising of standards on social media, and reforms including the removal of anonymous accounts.

She suggested that “opinion sharers, political and cultural leaders, editors [and] social media influencers” across the political spectrum should form “a coalition of the reasonable” to moderate extreme speech.

I agree with Ngozi Adichie that social media needs drastic reform to stop harmful misinformation, libel and threats. She seems to believe that the ‘tech’ owners of the social media platforms will not regulate properly because of the cost. She is right, but the cavalry is coming in two regiments. One regiment is government regulation and legislation which is starting to be announced and enacted. This will say ‘reform or pay billions’ and if social media platforms want of survive, they must change their business models. The other regiment is the digital advertisers, who, as the defunding of Twitter shows, do not want to be a part of their customers’ misery.

Publishers and authors are different kinds of problems. Publishers have historically had to navigate a fine line between capturing the public interest on the one hand and not causing public outrage on the other. Some authors face a similar set of choices. But neither publisher nor author has an incentive to lie or cover up the truth. On the contrary.

It seems to me that The Satanic Verses is a special case that has nothing to do with current truths or falsehoods. Most Muslims would regard passages in Verses as blasphemous, though is seems doubtful that Rushdie actually intended such severe criticism of Islam. To me, it seems that he intended the dream sequences featuring Mohammad (the Messenger), the polytheistic deities, the devil and the Prophet’s companion as a demonstration of how absolutist systems can go horribly wrong – one of the themes of the book. But the author framed the example with fictional characters and action which are completely contrary to Islam.

In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of “fear and nervousness”. I agree that it wouldn’t be published even today, in 2022, but I wouldn’t attribute the decision to ‘fear and nervousness’. Today, most publishers would look at the manuscript and think, Muslims won’t like it and there will be mass protests. If he wants us to publish it, the dream sequences have to go.

You can call it the ‘sensitivity reader effect’, but really it’s a question about what’s good for the business.

Outlining a Novel

A question I always wrestle with when I start a new novel is should I do an outline? There is an article on the Novelry website by Tess Gerritson, dated June 19, 2022 which deals with this question.

Before she started writing fiction in 1987, Tess Gerritson graduated from Stanford and headed to medical school at the University of California. In 1987, her first novel was published, Call After Midnight, a romantic thriller, followed by eight more romantic suspense novels before she turned her hand to medical thrillers with Harvest in 1996 marking her debut on the New York Times bestseller list.

Tess Gerritson

Ms Gerritson says, “The idea of outlining a novel is one that may strike dread, panic or even tedium in a writer’s heart. Are we really expected to have our entire novel outlined before we put pen to paper?

Years ago, I learned that a certain Very Successful (and Famous) Author would say so. Seemingly, he doesn’t start writing his novels until he has completed a detailed 50+ page outline. He knows in advance every twist and turn of his plot and every crisis, large and small, that his characters will face.

What a brilliant strategy, I thought. It seemed far better than the disorganized way I was writing my novels, with no clue where my story was going.

You don’t build a house unless you have a blueprint, right? What I clearly needed was a blueprint. Instead, I’d been the crazy builder who shows up with wood and nails and just starts hammering away. I’d build a room, decide I didn’t like the looks of it, and start building another room facing a different direction.

I was going to do it the logical way. I was going to become a Planner. So I set about outlining my novel.

In the end, my version differed from the 50-page highly detailed battle plan that the Very Successful Author writes. I wrote only eleven single-spaced pages with scene-by-scene descriptions of my story.

My outline had a really detailed beginning and middle, and just a semblance of an end; by the time I’d written those eleven pages, I wanted to plunge in and just start writing (which is the curse we plungers must deal with. We’re impatient people and we want to just get on with it).

With the outline of my novel in hand, I was ready to write. This time, I wouldn’t suffer my usual sleepless nights agonizing over the plot and my characters’ motivations. This time, the writing would be a breeze. This time, I knew exactly what was going to happen.

And it worked. For about three chapters.

Then the story took off in a different direction. I don’t remember if I was just bored because I already knew what was going to happen, or if some new plot twist popped up unexpectedly on the page. In any case, suddenly the characters weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. It’s as if they stopped and glared at me and said, ‘You really expect us to follow this stupid outline?’

The more I wrote, the more the story deviated from the plan I’d created while outlining my novel. Once I started down that different highway, my original route fell further and further behind me until it was just a distant puff of dust. I was writing an entirely different book, and I was doing it in my usual disorganised way, with sleepless nights and plot agonies.

I’d reverted to my bad habits. I was a failed planner.

But you know what? That book turned out just fine.

  • I still write my first drafts with pen and paper. The paper must be unlined blank typing paper, because seeing lines on the page inhibits my creativity. I’ve tried typing my first drafts on the computer, but seeing words on the screen turns on the editor in my brain. It makes me stop to edit and re-edit the chapter, and keeps me from getting on with the rest of the story.
  • Only after I’ve handwritten the entire first draft do I type the words into my computer. I have to type it myself, because no one else can read my handwriting.
  • I never stop to re-write when I’m on my first draft because it stops my forward motion in the story. This means my first drafts have lots of mid-plot corrections, as well as characters whose motives, names and even genders may change by the end. When those changes happen on the fly, I just slap a sticky note to the page reminding myself to fix this detail later, and I keep writing.

When I hit a plot wall and don’t know what happens next, I take a break from the book. Because of my chaotic method of plotting – in other words, decidedly not outlining the novel – this invariably happens, so it no longer freaks me out.

In fact, it turned out a lot more exciting than the story I’d originally outlined. It had twists I never expected and character revelations that occurred to me only as I was writing the scene.

Yes, I struggled as usual to make all the moving parts work together. Yes, I had to rewrite that manuscript seven times (as I always do) and I threw out about a hundred pages that didn’t fit into the final plot, but that’s the way I’d always done it. It’s the way I now believe I’m meant to do it.

Every writer has his or her own quirks. Maybe you can’t start your workday without drinking three cups of coffee, or lighting a scented candle, or turning on the theme music to Braveheart. I heard about a writer who would put on a chef’s hat when her children were young, as a signal that they were not to bother Mommy while she was working. Years later, after her kids were grown and out of the house, she still puts on that now-tattered chef’s hat to write because it’s become part of her process, and she can’t write without it.

I too have quirks I can’t shake:

I know that somehow, I’ll be able to figure my way out of the mess. I have a few strategies to deal with it: long walks, staring at the ceiling, maybe a long drive or mindless travel. It may take a few weeks of not writing, but I always manage to figure out what happens next, and why.

Is this an efficient way to write a book? Absolutely not. It’s stressful, it’s unpredictable, and it means I often take longer to finish a manuscript. But it’s the only way I know to do it. After writing thirty books, I’m too entrenched in my process to change it.

That’s the message I hope you’ll all take to heart: There’s no wrong way to write a book. Outlining a novel isn’t the key to its success – or the guarantee of its failure.

If your process works for you, no matter how crazy it may seem, just accept it. Embrace it.

And keep writing.”

I certainly agree with Ms Gerritson. I could never write a fifty page outline. Instead, I’ll write a description of the major characters which is reasonably detailed, and there will be a description of the setting and the initial situation. Then, I, too, will plunge in, letting the characters carry the story forward, adding new characters, and inventing new plot twists. I’ll have a general idea of the theme of the book, but the books never turn out as I might have expected. Once I’ve cleaned up the messy parts, the book is better than I had visualised.