Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Booker Prize 2015

Yesterday the winner of the Booker Prize was announced – and in case you don’t know it was Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Every year in the run up the award the YCAA runs a Booker Debate at the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil. A panel of six people read and review the shortlisted books, and for the past few years I have been honoured to take part. Some years none of us think we have the winner. This year three of us did, which I think reflects the interest and diversity of this year’s shortlist.

This year I was allocated Satin Island by Tom McCarthy to read.

Now if you look at the reviews for the shortlisted six you might notice that Satin Island comes off quite badly being slated for being boring and pretentious. But I think it is wrong to write it off so easily, because it is in fact a really interesting book.

Yes. It is quite pretentious. For example the name of the main character, U, I think is meant to draw analogy between U the character and You the reader.

The characters we meet are vague and thinly drawn. U has a friend called Petr and a woman he sleeps with called Maddison but none of these characters are given any great depth; their relationship with U superficial. It is almost as if U is swamped with so much else that the real world lacks definition.
U Works for The Company and is tasked with writing the Big Report, both of which are also frustratingly vague. In fact U spends most of his time at work in his basement office surfing the internet and navel gazing.

And yet there is so much more to this book. U is constantly bombarded by images, news reports, the internet. Too much information for any one individual to assimilate. In fact the whole novel feels like it’s buffering – that frustration you get when you try to watch something but it simply won’t get going.

And this is where, in my opinion, this book is extremely clever. We live in an age of information overload. In a way we are buffering as we try to take it all in, and I think this is the effect the author was trying to achieve. In which case it works. Satin Island is a true reflection on our times and the world we live in.

I also found it surprisingly readable – for a book that never actually goes anywhere and has no characterisation, no plot, and nothing actually happens.

This is a book that I suspect everyone will see slightly differently and we will all come away from it with a different perspective. And it is this multi-layering that I think is where the genius of Satin Island lies. Yes, it may be pretentious but I suspect it could also just be brilliant.

And I reckon that sometime in the future someone will be writing a PhD thesis about it and how it reflects this world of information overload we live in.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Getting Published: Ask the Right Questions

There was a time, before I was published, when I would have signed anything to see my book in print. But now I’m much more aware of the potential pitfalls.

I was lucky that my first book deal was handled by an agent. I gnawed my nails as the e-mails between agent and publisher winged their way back and forth across the ether but I ended up with an author friendly contract. Not all authors are in such a fortunate position. Many authors have to negotiate their own contracts.

So how do you work out if you should sign the contract on offer? The answer is to ask the right questions and here’s a check list for you.

Cover art: This is an easy one to check out. Look at the titles on their website. You’ll quickly be able to see whether they’ve put much effort into them or if they are using stock library images. A cover sells a book so this matters.

Editing: The look inside facility on Amazon is great for this. A well written, well edited book is obvious right from the start. But what do the authors themselves have to say? Contact them and ask them. If they tell you their book didn’t need any editing then that is a red flag. Everyone needs editing. They should have gone through several different rounds, structural edits, line edits, copy edits.

Sales: This is a telling one. Ask the authors how their books are selling. I dare say some people don’t care to divulge this information in which case you have to wonder why. It really matters. If you’re books are only likely to sell in double figures then that’s pitiful. Hundreds could suggest that the publisher is doing nothing to market the books themselves and it’s all down to the author. Low thousands are better. Ten thousand is doing really well.

Marketing: The publisher should be able to tell you what their marketing strategy for your book is going to be. How do they plan to promote you? Obviously you’ll be expected to do your bit, but you should not be expected to do it all. If they don’t have a strategy or any clear indication of markets. If they can’t tell you where they will be sending review copies or about any other promotional activities they will take the lead on then you’re unlikely to sell many books.

Royalties: Are these net or gross? Understand the difference. Many publishers these days offer net, so make sure you’re happy with what you’re actually going to get for each title because your percentage may only be on the profits the publisher makes on your title rather than on what your book actually sells for.

Rights: Watch out for rights grabs. Make sure you are happy with which rights the publisher wants and check the clause for rights reversion. Do they act on the rights they buy? For instance do they produce the audio books they bought the rights for and do they sell their titles in other territories?

Of course, this is only the start. If all these things are to your satisfaction then you’ll want to delve deeper into the contract. Fortunately the Society of Authors offers a free contract checking service to members, so, if you don’t have an agent to lead you through the minefield then SOA are well worth the membership fee.

At the end of the day you have to ask yourself if what you are getting from the publisher is for you. Some authors are happy simply to have a book available that they can sell a few copies of to family and friends without the hassle of paying for their own editing and cover art.

If not then don’t be afraid to walk away. There are plenty of other options.