Just to say that it’s still out there, for sale, and getting the odd review like this:
Ben Jeapes gave Our Child of Two Worlds five stars
Carries on the story of Cory the alien from the first book, OUR CHILD OF THE STARS, with barely a falter in momentum. All the things that made the first book so charming and so strong are there: the golden age science fictional setting, updated with present sensibilities; the compassion and decency of the main characters; and above all, the intrusion of reality into the best-laid plans, making this feel like a story that is firmly set in the real world. Soon after the events of the first book, a new normality has just about asserted itself, people are getting used to it … And then the rug is pulled right from under their feet. There is no guaranteed ending, and whether the actual ending we do get can be called happy is a matter of perspective. I cannot recommend this or its predecessor highly enough.
I was signing the paperback of my second book. A man came up to me, introduced himself as Owen, and said,
‘I love Our Child of the Stars! I didn’t know you had written a sequel.’
He bought another copy for a friend, and a copy of Our Child of Two Worlds for himself. So, lovely, but also, I felt like banging my head on the table.
I’ve named this the Owen Problem. Everything I did to promote the book for six months hadn’t reached an enthusiastic reader. In fact, sales suggest a great many Owens are out there.
186,000 books are published in the UK each year. Traditional publishers rely on the retailers to sell to individuals. Some small presses and some online retailers retain contacts for the purchasers – so Amazon can tell you a sequel is out.
Marketing and publicity is expected to reach the millions of Owens. But I believe 95% of marketing goes on 5% of titles. Not everyone reads book bloggers, and no one reads all of them. Not everyone reads the reviews in papers.
Furthermore, the traditional model relies on publishing the paperback six months later than the main publicity drive. (Some publishers now do eBook and paperback first, and then do a hardback if demand justifies it!)
Every commercial social media platform becomes progressively less effective, demanding more payment to make your content widely visible, or at all. TikTok (which only works for some books) is starting to go down that route.
The traditional publisher arguing the author on social can sell the books has never been brilliant and now looks very out of date.
Self-publishers of course have a similar problem.
Mastodon is a federated, non-commercial social media platform. I quite like it, it has potential, but it’s really not the main solution.
If I sold handbags on Etsy and the like, I would have emails from my buyers. I could warm them up for new products, within reason, and they’d at least know when the new one was out.
It’s why I run a newsletter and why I want to expand it. But still, I cannot expect people to follow me and 99 different authors. Our email inboxes are already very full.
If you like my content, sign up to the newsletter anyway! Free, special offers, not too frequent.
It’s one reason why I am moving into training authors in media skills, useful across a range of publicity activity.
I woke up this week and thought – you should run media skills workshops for creatives.
Stephen, you worked for twelve years at Great Ormond Street. You supported world class doctors and nurses and fundraisers with the media. You helped parents and patients get through tragedies, and to get their side of the story across. I helped with research and fundraising and public interest campaigns. You enjoy doing this. You were good at it.
Last century, you led a successful consumer campaign, much of which was empowering local branches. You did turnaround PR support for the Nursing and Midwifery Council six months after it was described as ‘failing at every level’. You helped pro bono all sorts of small organisations.
My publisher publicists knew what they were doing. The publicity for Our Child of the Stars was excellent. But they’re overworked. Social media is becoming steadily less helpful at reaching audiences. It’s fragmenting, punishing small creators, and increasingly asking for money.
I thought – why not use these skills for authors and other creatives? You’ve been a writer and talking about that journey for years. Hell, you sent over a friend exhibiting her art a free PR plan last month just cos you could.
Being confident and interesting, and knowing how to answer difficult questions, will help in many ways. Some obvious opportunities on your doorstep will take little time. Speaking in public, doing interviews, getting coverage…. a bit scary but doable.
I’m piloting these workshops free, then I’ll be running them for a modest fee in the autumn. Interested? Drop me a line through contact asap.
An alien washes up on a Scottish beach and is recovered by a small group of humans, linked by a curious burst of unexpected strokes. Needless to say, sinister authorities get involved, and soon the alien, a telepathic five-tentacled cephalopod dubbed Sandy, is being kept safe in a dash across scenic Scotland. Who wouldn’t want a book which adds an alien to Loch Ness?
For a story like this to work for me, the humans need to be empathically drawn, the alien the right blend of vulnerable and mysterious, the thrills and reveals well-paced, and the setting more than background scenery. Johnson, an experienced writer, succeeds on all fronts, including delivering his first science fiction book.
The story is grounded in four engaging humans. Lennox is a troubled older teen from a children’s home; Ava, a heavily pregnant woman fleeing a coercive husband; Heather, a middle-aged mother contemplating suicide; and Ewan, a washed-up journalist tracking a story which draws him from reporter to participant.
Sandy is enigmatic and in some curious sense, plural. They are often recovering and powerless, but as the book progresses, who they are, where they came from, and what it all means becomes clearer. All my reviews are spoiler free, but the climax gave me the wonder and hope implicit in the premise. Those involved have been transformed in large ways and small.
The title I read is about the space between human beings and how we reach across it when thrown together by accident or a common purpose, but also, the distance between us and other thinking beings. That space is bridged in a spectacular fashion.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an impartial review.
My recent newsletter talks about progress on the book and has a long series of short pieces about Artifical Intelligence, including asking how far the Luddites were right.
I suppose progress happens, but how why and to what benefit is a legitimate question. In the last forty years I have become much more awate that when something is invented, how and why it is used and who makes the decisions is the real issue.
An example I don’t give is genetically modified crops – there was a lot of hysteria about human safety which was not justified, leading to blanket bans in many countries – obscuring some much broader issues which had some real weight to them.
I share across various platforms but I really do need regular subscribers to the newsletter as with the changing, deteriorating, state of social media, being able to keep in touch matters to any author (except the super successful ones).
It is free, you can unsibscribe at any time, rarely more than once a month, and gives access to giveaways, tip-offs, competitions, free fiction and who knows what else.
Photo: Me being interviewed by the very smart Bryony Pearce at SciFi Weekender.
SciFiEtc Weekend SFW XIV was well organised, friendly and entertaining – and a bit bonkers. It describes itself as a SFFH weekend or a Geek Camp or a party. They were kind enough to invite me and Sarah and we had a great time. And I got to play Just A Minute with Nina Wadia.
I am struck by the difficulty of describing SFW both to people who go to other SFFH ‘conventions’ and those who lump them all together.
What they have in common is assembling people who are enthusiasts for the fantastic – people who have different tastes in books, shows, films, T-shirts, and art can still recognise a common ‘geekium’.
There are common elements
-lots of people cosplaying – wearing elaborate costumes. This makes me feel ‘I am with my people’ even if I don’t do it myself.
-talks, interviews, panel discussions, Q+As.
-different interests reflected particularly in the bigger events– film, TV, books, comics, games.
-entertainment of various forms – from folk music to rap, from standup to puppet theatre – all with some SFFH references
-guests who are working in the field, or who stay involved despite their professional life having moved on. So sometimes actors from series in the 70s 80s and 90s.
These events can be overwhelming or small and focused, they can be commercial and hardnosed, or run so much for the fans that they put off commercial and professional attendees.
SFW had the wonderful thing common to many enthusiasms that ‘everyone here treats this incredibly seriously’ but also with a firm core of ‘of course we don’t take ourselves too seriously’. In fact, never trust any group of people who aren’t happy to laugh at themselves.
It put a lot of emphasis on the entertainment – we were in a holiday camp. Guests like me in the Writer strand were treated as important but also expected to be accessible to the other attendees. For example, I was delighted to be given an hour where I went round six tables of 6-8 people and talked with them for ten minutes each.
I had an intelligent interview with Bryony Pearce (author in several genres) and Q+A – a panel discussion on fandom such as how far do fans own a topic and is that always good – numerous slots selling my books and talking about what was on people’s minds and…
And I got to Play Just A Minute with Nina Wadia. It was a riot.
So Nina Wadia was there because she was in the Sandman TV series, which is very big, and was a first timer at any SFFH event. She was lovely and hilarious – and I’m not sure she was expecting the friendly warmth and enthusiasm and minor insanity she got.
Just a Minute was played as a full contact sport – like all these things you are singing for your supper and so we tried to give the audience entertainment. Nina, briefed on the rules only as we entered the stage but well able to stage a tantrum where required, me – listened to the game as a child – and author Bryony Pearce and actor Chase Masterton who are convention regulars and utterly ruthless players but charming and delightful with it! I got plenty of laughs, which was a relief – sometimes my being funny mode doesn’t switch on. The result depended more on whose buzzer was working than anything else.
It was all great and people seemed interested. I don’t think I got snappy, although I did have to disagree with the person who thought it was ‘a shame’ no one read Asimov any more.
All the artists had the option to meet up for dinner which meant we got to know each other better.. Extrovert mode takes it out of me and a quiet night was appreciated. Shout out in particular to Anna Stephens (prolific author and fanfic advocate), and Simon Kurt Unsworth (horror writer and calm voice of reason on panels) and Benjamin his son and also a horror writer/collaborator. And Sam and David and Matt from Area 51 and everyone else who worked on making it happen.
George Orwell famously wrote, “Why I write” – a defence of truth against propaganda, and a call to arms against the ills he saw in the world. In a time when he saw lies winning, he kept going. He saw clear writing as a defence against the bullshit of his day and much of what he says is valid now.
I don’t pretend this is that essay. We need many Orwells today, and those who write from wider perspective than he did. But also, his fiction outlived his journalism and political essays, at least in terms of sales.
I’ve done some minor Orwelling in my time and I should be doing more. I do believe that my fiction talks about how the world is and how it could be.
So why write then?
I recently summed this up as:
Like many writers it is a mixture of four things. Managing an urge; satisfaction with a job well done and a desire to improve; reaching other people and perhaps achieving change; and trying to get some financial reward. The latter is a pure and holy motive; if you spend a lot of time on it, and need to feed your family.
You can see that one can write purely for your own satisfaction, purely for yourself and your readers, or for yourself and other people and to make your way in the world.
I have always written. My grammar school did everything possible to stop people writing creatively or applying the truths in literature to modern life. That urge to write still fought through, and it has seen me try poetry for a few years, run a postal roleplaying game, and run various newsletters, promoting and commentating. My thirty years in communications were in some sense about spreading truth.
I have gone through spates of writing short stories. A writing bout in the early nineties brought me to some crucial personal revelations – all those characters tortured by private secrets who’d be happier if they were honest. What could that have been about?
Then on holiday in 2012 I fired up a new laptop and started a novel. That’s over ten years ago, and I have two traditionally published novels out and another with my agent. And perhaps a hundred short stories, from the brilliant to the disastrous, largely unpublished.
So why do I write?
I write because it is an urge, because I like the results of my writing (sometimes), because I want to do it better, and because other people I trust, like and enjoy my stuff. I want to share my stuff and hear back from people about it. It is partly an oblique way to ‘tell my truth’.
There are not vast numbers of people who write like me – I know few people who write in my space, and a couple of those who do are very successful, which suggests there should be wider interest.
So, I will probably carry on writing fiction. But in what frame of mind?
Recently, someone at my writer’s group expressed her desire to stick to the day job and ‘write as a hobby’. Right now, what she wants is to get confident enough to share her work and improve. That’s a wonderful and healthy ambition, because with determination, it’s achievable! My parents took up music in their late forties, and that hobby gave them enormous fun, a good social life, and a retirement purpose.
They were financially secure.
For many years I loved what I did for work, and it paid the bills. The work I used to do is now beyond me. Now I want to write, it feels like my purpose, but the bills bit is rather urgent.
To Parliament for the launch of an ALCS report on writer incomes. And I used to nip in for work reasons and it is worth remembering what a strange building Parliament is. Kind of Hogwarts.
TLDR It is very tough living on writer incomes and much worse than even ten years ago.
ALCS is a body which collects secondary use income for authors, and they also commission the Uni of Glasgow to run an independent study of author incomes.
The headlines are that the typical (median) author who works on it more than half their working hours has seen their income drop 60% in real terms since 2009. That author currently gets £7000 a year from writing, which was said to be ‘shocking but not surprising’. Writing is paid a lot less than the minimum wage (and the amount of time required unpaid to promote the book is extraordinary.)
The number of writers for whom it is their full-time job has dropped from 40% in 2009 to 19% this year.
The creative industries are around £100bn. Less and less of that is going to the author, under increasingly tough contract terms and a worrying tendency to offer contracts which have no upside if the work does very well.
MP Giles Watling spoke passionately about the importance of the creative arts. An actor and producer in a former life, he said that young actors are notoriously poor, but their careers tend to build. He said that what the report showed him was that authors can’t assume the same will happen for them.
Amy Thomas who led on the research said that reward was very unequally distributed, with one percent of authors getting a quarter of total earnings, and the top 10 percent getting just under half the total earnings. Women, the very young and very old, and ethnic minorities were significantly less well paid. She said this was ‘a profession approaching a tipping point’.
A freelance journalist and author listed all the different things she did to make a living. Freelance rates have barely increased in ten years and she can’t tell young writers to ‘demand what they are worth’ because they won’t get the job.
During lockdown, we read, we watched, we listened. Were the writers seeing the benefits of this? Does it matter that authors are largely juggling the writing around other jobs or caring responsibilities – that the system favours those with private incomes and /or partners in secure middle class jobs? It is not a system set up to reward working class voices, for example.
I don’t write just for the money. I write because I enjoy the creation. It feels like my purpose in life. I enjoy people reading my work. But to be really good, and to stand any chance of having time to do it, I have to work hard and work within this difficult market.
The industry in the broadest sense relies on people of passion and creativity who do it because they love it, and who are over-optimistic about the returns (or cushioned against them).
There’s no obvious policy fix. Researchers investigate the world, other people must find solutions, or just shrug.
A Universal Basic Income would be great, exploitation would continue but we could still live. Ireland gives writers a significant tax break. France prevents book discounting in theory protecting small bookshops and authors incomes, although the impact of that might be less positive than you think. A campaign of public shaming around some of the worst practices might work – it has begun to stop literary festivals expecting authors to appear for free.
Making payment at the time the writers’ job is done would also be a start. After all, when you get a dress or jacket drycleaned, you don’t ask the drycleaner to wait for payment until a month after you wore it.