Books & Writing

How Publishing Can Disrupt Technology

  What is the most exciting technology currently disrupting the publishing industry?

bookThat was the question I found myself pondering last weekend as I sat amongst a bunch of aspiring and established authors, traditional and indie publishers, founders of literary startups, agents, editors, technologists and a few fellow hybrids of the above at The Literary Consultancy’s annual Writing In A Digital Age conference.

(That and: where can I find a velvet housecoat like the one Dorian Grey wears in Penny Dreadful? But that’s a whole other article.)

Ask the average bibliophile on the street, and they’d probably namecheck their Kindle. But although e-readers have forever changed the way we consume our books - in the opening panel, Steve Bohme from Nielsen BookData revealed that in 2013 Brits bought 10% fewer print books and 20% more ebooks than the year before - new and exciting they are not. 

The basic ability to transport thousands of tomes on one device is indisputably amazing, but the software and hardware still have a way to go. Formatting remains dodgy, ‘communal highlights’ irritate and exporting notes is a chore. A reading-specific device means yet another bit of tech in your bag, but having your novel interrupted by Twitter alerts feels deeply wrong. My compromise is an iPad Mini bristling with multi-format apps, but the lack of heft, give and texture of even the prettiest electronic slab inevitably degrades the reading experience.

There are rumours that Sony and Kobo are collaborating on a snazzy new reader using e Ink Mobius on a six inch display, but until I actually see devices that deliver on both functionality and tactility, I won’t be giving them my vote.

Self-publishing platforms, on the other hand, are a much more solid candidate. Established services such as Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life and Completely Novel have not only liberated authors from risk-averse, glacier-slow commercial gatekeepers and connected them directly to their readers, they’ve given designers and editors a whole new freelance marketplace. According to Bohme, self-publishing's share of the UK market grew by 79% in 2013, amounting to the purchase of 18m books.

But, although a long-tail of startups such as Softcover and Archer continue to diversify the space, self-publishing frustrates as often as it inspires. The unscrupulous exploitation of Digital Rights Management by the big boys (kicking off the conference, Cory Doctorow< delivered a rousing anti-DRM keynote) and dodgy deals offered by author-assisted services (Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, exhorted writers to read the small print) persist. Moreover, self-publishing platforms are only as exciting as the content they host, and it can be all too tempting to birth a self-published book before it has reached creative full term. There is a lot of chaff out there, and too few tools with creative rather than commercial agendas to help us harvest the wheat.

What about social media? It certainly deserves an honourable mention for services to literary word of mouth, and for providing a playground where indie collaborators, authors and readers can meet. But it is the people on the platforms, not the platforms themselves, that disrupt. The best book blogs and forums favour the simplest designs, and eight-year-old Twitter remains the most popular writers’ space. Unbound, the crowd-funding site for books, offers uniquely rewarding collaborations between the Unbound team and its authors, and those authors and their readerships; but it's pretty much a social media dinosaur by now, having been founded in 2010. 

Finally, you could make a case that digital production tools, which are facilitating the creation of transmedia storytelling projects such as Sherlock: The Network or The Live Writing Series, have game-changed our idea of what reading and writing can be. But they are still the preserve of a minority of both makers and audiences, and feel more like the emergence of a new genre than a disruption of the existing market.

So, as I sat there with my seventh cup of coffee cooling in my hands, I decided that I needed to reframe the question. 

The most exciting technology in publishing has remained consistent for centuries. It’s called the human brain. Brilliant stories - whether served up across on and offline platforms in fragmented bites or slurped in a single sitting from between the sweet-smelling covers of a hardback - have the potential to shape our world in the way that no piece of code can match. They give us the words, images and analogies that allow us to build visions of the future in our heads before we ever translate them to the dev lab.

From TS Eliot to George R R Martin, Arthur C Clarke to Hilary Mantel, authors - and the people who help nurture, polish, distribute and sell their stories - have always shaped our collective imaginations, and our collective future, as powerfully as they’ve been shaped by it.

The ancient and inherently anti-social discipline of reading a mono-media, full-length novel has more potential to disrupt the tech industry than the tech industry has to disrupt the book. An eclectic and healthy appetite for fiction should be considered a seriously desirable, if not compulsory, entry on every tech founder, CEO, VC, creative and developer's LinkedIn. 

The shorter our attention spans and the more data-led our insights, the more vital it is that we build tech companies, products and services that are steeped in humanity, empathy, real-life social wisdom and the unexpected neural connections that great stories create.

Close your browser. Go read made-up stuff.

This article originally appeared on TCN.

 

7 Things Every Twenty-First Century Writer Should Do

Writing can be a lonely business, and the fragmentation of the publishing industry can leave aspiring authors feeling unsure as to whether they’re got more or less opportunity of getting their work read than ever before.

Last weekend’s Writing In The Digital Age conference – an event organised by leading manuscript assessment service The Literary Consultancy – was a rare opportunity for the UK’s leading publishers, editors, agents, writers and digital innovators to gather in an atmosphere of honesty and openness to swap experiences, perspectives and practical advice.

TLC Conference 2014 by © Elixabete Lopez Photography-1

From a blistering keynote by journalist and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow to a panel about what book reviewing means in the twenty-first century, it was a rollercoaster ride through the opportunities and challenges on offer for those of us mad enough to cobble together careers based on words.

If you fall into that category, here are seven things you need to know.

1. Take control of your own career.

Whether you choose to self-publish or pursue the traditional route, it is no longer viable to shut yourself in a garret and expect the royalty cheques to come. Orna Ross, founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors, got it in one when she said that “every writer should be an indie [independent].” Define why you want to write, what sort of things you want to write, how much money you want to make, and the lifestyle you want to live while you’re doing it. Make it into a proper business plan, with a timeline, marketing strategy and KPIs. Then go out and find the tools and partners that are the best fit.

2. Self-publish, at least once.

Ross also insisted that even trade published writers should experiment with self-publishing at some point. It’ll give you a much better understanding of the full range of publishing services and tools out there, and will encourage you to get over the mental barrier of sharing your work. Beware of making anything public too early – you still want to thoroughly polish before you slap an ebook onto Amazon – but genre novels, specialist non-fiction, short stories and experimental formats might get more traction on niche platforms than in the traditional marketplace. You won’t learn until you start producing, and there’s real value in overcoming your ego and learning how to ‘ship.’

3. Turn one manuscript into multiple streams of income.

Marketing guru and novelist Joanna Penn explained how she makes a living as an “entrepreneurial author” by turning her projects into print books, ebooks, audio books and public speaking opportunities - not to mention ensuring everything is translated and spread across the globe – so that she gets every bit of a juice out of every piece of work.

4. Think beyond books and experiment with multimedia storytelling.

David Varela is a transmedia storyteller who applies his writing skills to everything from digital games (Sherlock: The Network) to fitness apps (Zombies, Run!). Screenwriter and director JJ Abrams collaborated with writer Doug Dorst to createS, an incredible romantic-novel-cum-library-book. As Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director at Canongate put it, “Stories are spells. You need to find immersive ways to draw your audience in.” Don’t constrain yourself to words on a page; and if you don’t have the skills to bring your hybrid to life, use social networks to find someone who can.

5. Get creative with funding.

Unbound is a brilliant website that offers crowd-funding for books; writers pitch ideas and readers pledge money to make them happen. Everything is transparent, with Unbound and the author splitting the net profits 50/50, and authors offer all sorts of enhanced treats – an insider view of their writing process, tickets to launch parties, goodie bags, lunches – to draw their supporters in. Don’t forget that there are more conventional sources of funding, too. If you think your book could have the potential to push creative or digital boundaries, it’s worth checking out the grants and bursaries on offer from the likes of Arts Council England.

6. Don’t sacrifice editing for marketing.

Piers Alexander, who won last year’s PEN Factor competition for promising debut writers and is about to self-publish his first novel The Bitter Trade, delivered a brilliant keynote discussing the fine balance that writers need to strike between reaching out to readers and producing good art. While it can be incredibly helpful to spend time building a social media community, designing your perfect cover or refining your sexy elevator pitch, you need to make sure the majority of your effort is being ploughed into making your book the best it can be. Without that, it’s all so much turd-gilding.

7. Never give away your DRM.

DRM, or digital rights management, is a set of technologies that was ostensibly established to prevent people from illegally copying online content. However, while it has proved pretty useless when it comes to piracy, it has proved an excellent tool for unscrupulous publishing corporations to control authors’ works – and income. Cory Doctorow is on a mission to make authors realise that opting into DRM is tantamount to putting yourself in chains. Educate yourself on the issue, sign up to the Open Rights Group – and think very carefully before you tick that box.

This article originally appeared in PHOENIX

Shaping A Satisfying Writing Life

If there was one statement that summarised last weekend's Writing In the Digital Age conference, the annual event produced at Farringdon's Free Word Centre by the Literary Consultancy, it was that voiced by Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, during a self-publishing panel called "The Writer In the Machine". "Nowadays, every writer should be an indie, whether they are traditionally published or self-published," Ross declared. "They have to take control of their writing careers."

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Cory Doctorow

This rallying cry for individual responsibility, and its concomitant positioning of the publishing industry as a set of complementary tools rather than a feudal bestower of success, echoed throughout #TLC14's three intense days, uniting agent and editor, author and publisher, print fetishist and digital innovator alike. The message was as challenging as it was inspiring, but always underpinned by one basic acknowledgment: the ivory tower has been bombed. The garrets are dust. So if you want to stay around you'd better stop cowering under shaky lintels, pick up some rubble, and start thinking like an architect.

However, the ivory tower in question is not "trade publishing", "print book production" or "pre-Amazon retailing". It is our tenacious yet spurious illusion that making a living as a writer was ever anything other than frustrating, confusing, expensive and exhausting; full of things you don't want to do; and inextricably linked to the grubby, fleshy, non-fictional world of other people and commerce.

In an early session exploring the relationship between authors and traditional publishers, writer Rebecca Abrams admitted that she was a "thwarted monogamist", having had a different publisher for every book and four editors for her latest novel alone; in other words, she reminded us that a deal with a big-name house does not insulate a writer from insecurity and flux.

Alexandra Pringle, Group Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury, described her own struggle to balance the needs of her writers with the commercial imperatives of the company, and the agony of having to "abandon" previous clients for her own dream job. These challenges may have been intensified by the new digital landscape, but they have always been inherent in publishing.

When Robert McCrum's article "From bestseller to bust" appeared in the Guardian this March, profiling once-prestigious authors who are struggling to make ends meet, I was amazed by the storm of comment it provoked. Was this really news? Wouldn't it be rather more extraordinary if literary awards proved to be some sort of credit crunch kryptonite? I'd certainly have been more shocked by "From bestseller to sustainable career: how authors other than JK Rowling have managed to feed their kids without taking shit part-time jobs or netting a high-earning spouse."

Yes, it's damn hard to build a writing career nowadays; but hasn't it always been thus?

Just as the old ways of publishing were never as solid as we like to imagine, the new ways are less disruptive than we might assume. Take Unbound, the crowdfunding-for-books site launched in 2010 that gives readers the chance directly to fund the books they want to read and writers the chance to publish work that would otherwise slip through the commercial cracks. As co-founder John Mitchinson pointed out in a panel dubbed "The Age of Possibility", Unbound is at heart a hybrid of the patronage and subscription publishing models that have been writers' main route to market for centuries, only with transparency, creative playfulness and equitable profits thrown in.

Another good example of this was provided by Mitchinson's co-panelist, transmedia writer David Varela. By applying his word skills to everything from interactive digital games (Sherlock: The Network) and fitness apps (Zombies, Run!) to public improvisation (the Live Writing series), Varela looks to have developed an unprecedented and uncategorisable portfolio career. But his cocktail of freelance storytelling is as reminiscent of roving Shakespearean poet-singer-actor-playwrights as it is typical of Gen Y.

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Jon Slack, Max Porter, David Varela, John Mitchinson

In short, digital disruption has done us a huge favour, by both exposing the insecurity inherent in the act of publishing and surfacing a host of anciently innovative models that can help drive an author-centric writing life. But what exactly does that life look like?

Well, whether your idea of being a writer is getting arts funding to pen epic poetry in a remote Scottish cottage or using your weekends to crowdsource a real-time thriller on Twitter, it needs one thing in common: a business plan. As the conference transitioned from reflective debate to practical advice, Ross begged writers to be honest about why and for whom they write.

In the self-publishing panel, indie author Rachel Abbot described how she really became happy with her writing life only when she applied what she had learned from her previous career as an MD, creating a timeline and a marketing strategy complete with KPIs. In a later session on book reviewing, the popular review blogger Lynne Hatwell (Dovegreyreader) declared that she would never monetise her blog, accept advertising or write for a newspaper, as her creative freedom was priceless. Their paths are very different, but defined by a similar sense of self-awareness and educated choice.

Writers must also be painfully honest with themselves about the skills, time, money and services required to achieve their chosen vision of success. Speaking alongside Abbott and Ross, the effervescent self-published marketing guru Joanna Penn outlined the multiple streams of income she pursued as "an entrepreneurial author". From fiction to non-fiction, audiobooks to ebooks, speaking gigs to podcasts, Penn made it clear that "becoming a money-making machine" required both full-time commitment and a willingness to turn yourself into a personal brand.

And writers can no longer abdicate responsibility for their rights. In his opening keynote, the journalist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow delivered a brilliant polemic about the evils of DRM (Digital Rights Management) and the companies that promote it, declaring that he would rather give up his right to tell stories than publish using a system that threatens freedom of speech.

Later, Ross sounded a warning note about unscrupulous agent-assisted self-publishing services, and when Polly Courtney talked about her defection from HarperCollins for insisting on branding her novels as chick-lit, the point was reiterated: whether operating in print or digital, trade or indie, authors need to educate themselves about the credentials of their collaborators and develop their own ethical codes. In the words of Granta's Senior Editor, Max Porter: "Read the way you want to read, write the way you want to write, and weatherproof your value system."

Finally, Gemma Seltzer from Arts Council England emphasised that writers need to remain focused on their core creative mission. If your novel is an unconventional genre piece, are you really doing it justice by submitting to traditional publishers, rather than considering multimedia content marketing online? If it's a quiet literary novel, might you have to accept that you'll need to keep the day job for the next couple of years while the trade publishing process plays out?

In her opening comments, conference organiser Rebecca Swift explained that she had founded TLC because she "hated to see creative energy wasted". The subsequent three days were, in their way, a plea for writers to stop wasting energy - on maintaining unhelpful illusions around both trade and indie publishing, and on mismatching their creative aims and approaches.

It's all too easy to blame publishers for being slow to innovate, social media for being crowded, and readers for reaching for the lowest hanging fruit. Instead, more writers need to take responsibility for shaping the nature of the book-world in which they want to take part.

This article originally appeared in Bookbrunch.

How Social Media Is Coming Full Circle

Last month, I took seven days' holiday, in a remote cottage on the Suffolk coast. There was no phone signal. I switched off the WiFi. I cooked some locally caught fish. Then I sat in front of the log burner and read The Circle, Dave Eggers' controversial Google satire. 12192913926_e8b9deb5b3_b

Eggers is a star of contemporary American fiction and, like his equally talented peer Jonathan Franzen, a deep sceptic of 'technoconsumerism'. His novel is a bit clunky, but it makes brilliant, albeit painfully resonant, reading for anyone who works in social media. As his heroine, Mae Holland, becomes indoctrinated by her new employer, a slick, data-hungry internet corporation called The Circle, she reduces her identity to a thousand tick-box surveys and comes to believe that sharing every moment of her life is not just a liberating choice, but a moral imperative.

The novel takes a rather dim view of humankind, and Eggers ignores how empowering social media can be when used with purpose and perspective. But his somewhat clunky challenge is both timely and important. It is all too easy to let your sense of purpose and perspective slide, especially when you start to feel that opting out of online sharing amounts to professional suicide.

In your personal sphere, you might find yourself starting to gag at the calculated cool of your tweets, or cringe at the one-upmanship on Facebook. As a marketer enslaved to the idol of content, you may start to suspect that the digital white noise you churn out on behalf of your brand is as hollow as the feeling in the pit of your stomach. Increasingly, you wonder whether you are feeding ego-trolls rather than strengthening relationships, and you secretly believe that the endpoint of social media marketing is A Billion Brain-Numbing Branded Buzzfeed Lists, with their guarantee of easy likes, shares and click-throughs.

Our sense of disillusionment is very real, and we need to listen closely to what it is telling us, but we would be unwise to underestimate the self-correcting power of the internet. As established platforms become over-commercialised and clogged with crap, a new generation of apps and platforms are aiming to reinstate something of the serendipity and yes, even anonymity, of the early social media landscape.

Take VSCO Cam, a photography app that stormed onto the scene in 2012, securing over a million downloads in its first week. VSCO (short for Visual Supply Co.) started out as an in-house editing tool, amassing a cult following for its outstanding 'presets' (filters to you and me). In 2013, the company took a dip into social networking by introducing the 'Grid', a minimalistic image-sharing stream that opens automatically when you run the VSCO Cam app.

It may look like a sleek Instagram, but VSCO Grid is a very different beast. You can't leave comments on photos; you can't even 'like' them. You can follow other users, but recommendations get served by the VSCO team themselves, not an algorithm. The emphasis is on curating quality content, not playing status games; there are no trashy memes or wobbly selfies, and VSCO founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze claim that the platform will never focus on numbers or adopt the bolt-ons of a traditional social network.

Any brand with great visuals or a design-based offering would be mad not to pay attention to a community where quality of content and depth of emotion reign supreme. Of course, the price of authenticity is a tricky measurement, and any brand with a heavy hand will be quickly ostracised. But VSCO has recently collaborated with Levi's to create a bespoke LV1 preset, which denim fans are using to share images of their jean-clad commute on the Levi's® x VSCO Commuter Grid. It's one example of how both brands and individuals are reclaiming meaning in a crowded space.

Another can be found in Sgrouples, a free platform that lets users 'privately communicate with friends, families and groups' by creating invite-only conversations, free from trolls, frenemies and data thieves. Sgrouples allows users to pick which ads they want to see and which brands they want to interact with, including the option to see no ads at all. No profiling, tracking or media buying is allowed, so if brands want users to subscribe to their feeds, they must raise their game with increasingly useful and delightful content.

We may not have reached the apocalyptic meltdown of The Circle quite yet, and we hopefully never will. But to future-proof the value of social media we must make our sharing matter: less, better, more helpful and on our customers' terms.

This article originally appeared in AdMap.

Scarlett Johansson Gets Under The Skin

skin3 Velcro books. You probably have a few: those quiet, quirky novels that you relentlessly recommend. They’re not blockbusters; you most likely stumbled across them by chance. And although you find it difficult to describe precisely why you find them so compelling, you just want other people to have a go. To hear what they think.

Michel Faber’s novel Under The Skin has long been one of mine. Although it was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Award, it didn’t seem to make much of a blip on the popular radar, possibly because of its genre-bending nature. Ostensibly sci-fi, the novel follows the story of an alien called Isserley, who prowls northern Scotland harvesting the flesh of hitchhikers for her extraterrestrial employers, but the prose is as tautly opaque as the finest literary text. Part crime thriller, part psychological drama, it riffs on themes of corporate ethics, environmental destruction, factory farming, identity and class. See? It sounds rubbish. It’s not.

So when I found out that it was being made into a film directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Guinness ads) and starring Scarlett Johansson, I was worried that my odd little gem was going to become a big, reductive blockbuster. I was reassured when its premiere at the Venice Film Festival sharply divided critics, however, and it turns out to have all the strange and subtle anyone could want. Perhaps too much.

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There are many memorably good things about this film. Johansson, renamed Laura as the alien, is a marvel. Every movie Johansson stars in features obsessive, salacious camera shots, and Under The Skin takes this fascination with her face and flesh to the extreme, both revelling in and satirising the objectification. Laura’s discomfort in her human body, and her slow journey towards finding acceptance and even pleasure in the ordinary stuff of human life, is mesmerising. Glazer is not afraid to let a single scene of Johansson driving, or looking in a mirror, or walking, play out for several minutes, until we too become defamiliarised from those familiar shapes and textures of fat and bone and skin. It’s deeply eerie, slightly disgusting, and utterly beautiful.

This is enhanced by one of the best soundscapes I’ve ever heard in a film. The minute crackles, pops, crunches and scuffs of a human moving through their environment are magnified so that we feel like our senses have been flayed, raw to the air. Much of the horror of the scenes where we see Laura’s victims disappear into a sea of black goo, only to have their insides sucked into a conveyor belt of gore and their skin deflate into a twist of parachute silk, is aural. Every slow, terrified eye blink and glacial finger movement has the opaque intensity you get from ducking your head under the bath.

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The extraordinary ordinariness of Glasgow and its residents – many of whom were picked up by Johansson, cruising in her van, without realising they were part of a film – is deeply moving. From a cocky young clubber to a young man with a bone deformity making his way to Tesco’s in the dark, we see the full humour, heroism and vulnerability of people who could not be further from Hollywood. And later in the story, as Laura hides out with a reclusive man whose undemanding tenderness starts to crack her chill, her exploration of the surrounding wilderness – majestic snow-frosted mountains, forests, lochs – provides an exhilarating contrast.

As a mood piece, it’s an utter triumph. Aesthetically, the horror and the beauty are stunningly intertwined. And yet, and yet. You don’t have to be a soulless popcorn-munching pleb to long for the tiniest bit of structure or dynamism. As viewers, we are willing to wait a long time for the anticipated moment of reversal or development, because we’re so immersed. When it never comes, we are left with a slightly greasy taste in our mouth. Johansson gropes towards change and discovery but never quite gets there – meaning that when she literally climbs out of her burning skin in the putative climax, it doesn’t have the moment of impact the film so badly needs. Like her ash, we just kind of drift.

Like the book, it’s hard to say what the film is about, or even what really happens. The opening images – a series of circular surfaces, reflections and halos of light moving into and out of each other, evoking, in turn, hospital scanners and eyeballs – perfectly set the atmospheric scene. This is a film that lives in the boundaries between things, the silence beneath dialogue, the spaces where one body ends and another begins.

It’s a gorgeous ride to nowhere. Love it or hate it, it’ll velcro itself to your brain.

This review originally appeared on PHOENIX Magazine

Are You A Junk News Addict?

NEWS It’s Sunday morning, and in an uninspiring lecture hall somewhere in the boondocks of Bloomsbury, bestselling popular philosopher Alain de Botton is teaching us how to read a newspaper. He brings up a slide showing a photograph of a glacier crumbling into the sea, then flicks to a photograph of Taylor Swift in a pair of shorts walking along a sunny LA street. One is news, the other is not. But why? And how, as a society, can we rise above our Twitter-fuelled deluge of real-time ephemera and use the news to become better people, and think deeply about the issues that really matter?

De Botton has a new book to flog, and it makes sense that he should flog it at one of the School of Life’s brilliant Secular Sermons, a monthly gathering – complete with Lady Gaga hymns and themed biscuits – at which earnest young hipsters and earnest mid-life self-developers listen to the likes of David Baddeil on Fame or Mary Anne Hobbs on Love and Loyalty. De Botton founded the School, which gives people “a place to step back and think intelligently about central emotional concerns” via lectures, workshops, books and products, in 2008, and The News: A User’s Manual is exactly the kind of lightly controversial, culturally zeitgesity fare that regular attendees adore.

If you bookend your day with compulsive glimpses at the BBC News app or spend guilty lunch-hours bingeing on the Mail Online’s Sidebar of Shame, de Botton’s manual makes uncomfortably acute reading. Promising “to bring calm, understanding and a measure of sanity to our daily (perhaps even hourly) interactions with the news machine”, he analyses 25 classic news stories to prove that most ‘breaking exclusives’ are in fact the same old archetypes served up in different wrappers. Envy is fed; fears are resurfaced; relief washes through us when we witness that it is someone else’s turn for disaster today.“Yet there is a particular kind of pleasure at stake here too,” writes de Botton.

The news, however dire it may be and perhaps especially when it is at its worst, can come as a relief from the claustrophobic burden of living with ourselves, of forever trying to do justice to our own potential and of struggling to persuade a few people in our limited orbit to take our ideas and needs seriously. To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity. It can be an escape from our preoccupations to locate issues that are so much graver and more compelling than those we have been uniquely allotted, and to allow these larger concerns to drown out our own self-focussed apprehensions and doubts. A famine, a flooded town, a serial killer on the loose, the resignation of a government, an economist’s prediction of breadlines by next year; such outer turmoil is precisely what we might need in order to usher in a sense of inner calm.

In other words, news addiction serves a very real purpose, and we should not feel ashamed. We should, however, reflect on the feelings that that interview with Natalie Massenet evokes in us, and try to use them to make us healthier and happier, rather than just stewing in envy. For example, a more rewarding approach might:

  • Seek out more complex, historic stories such as climate change, or the culture of Iraq, and find ways to make them part of everyday conversation
  • Use art, from paintings to theatre, to direct us to deeper more stimulating spiritual, cultural and emotional ‘news’ that is always relevant to humankind; and use art to make difficult subjects sexier and more palatable
  • Consider issues through the lens of a number of different biases – say, imagining what Miley Cyrus twerking would mean as part of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path
  • Rather than feeling guilt about our obsessions with celebrities, accept that role models are important – but understand which of their qualities we would really wish to emulate
  • Seek out good news so we get a better balance with the bad

The book is far from perfect. It has stirred up a hearty ripple of controversy in the news organisations it both implicitly and explicitly criticises – surely one of de Botton’s intentions. Reviewers have condemned it as “simplistic” for swapping probing research in favour of obvious platitudes; The Sunday Times‘ Dominic Lawson complains that “de Botton talks about the entire industry as if it were homogenous. It is extraordinarily diverse, more so than ever.” Indeed, such a short volume cannot hope to fully address the nuances of the questions the author raises, and his failure to acknowledge many of the positive practices and innovations being used by organisations such as the BBC is galling to a generation of journalists and broadcasters who have deep integrity in their work, and who are already being squeezed on all sides.

But de Botton’s writing is witty and lucid, his examples eclectic, and his focus refreshingly practical. And his accompanying website, The Philosophers Mail, which rewrites real-time tabloid headlines to give us a glimpse of what a more theraputic model of reporting might look like, is a work of disruptive genius.

This is an important book. Love it or hate it, has the capacity to stimulate some touching conversations about your own hopes and…oh, wait. I’ve just seen that Opening Ceremony is trending on #NYFW. Better go.

If you’d like to receive an elegant signed bookplate especially designed to fit into de Botton’s new book, email your retail receipt together with your address to siobhan@senecaproductions.com using the subject header ‘Bookplate’. 

This article originally featured on PHOENIX

Why Every Writer Needs A Group

hemingway_lg-e1387211082722-800x600 “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” said Ernest Hemingway, whose idea of a great social life involved a remote cabin, dead animals, and the bottom of a brandy glass. “Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing.”

Isaac Asimov – a self-confessed claustrophile whose greatest childhood wish, according to his autobiography, was to live in a magazine stand in the New York subway so that he could listen to the trains and read – agreed. “Writing is a lonely job”, he wrote. “Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his typewriter or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter.”

The writer as maverick loner, doomed to exhaust their emotional energy in the dazzling salon of make-believe inside their brain, has become a romantic cliché; and it is one that writers themselves particularly love. Certainly, to write well, we must, well, write, which requires hermit-like stretches of solo graft. But we’re also prone to using our creative introversion as an excuse for perfectionism and pride. In our day jobs we evangelise teamwork, but at night we obsess over our manuscripts like a host of literary Gollums, snarling at the idea of ‘feedback’.

By we, of course, I mean me. As a child of social media, I have long been a vocal champion of open mental API. But up until two years ago, while I over-shared in every other area of my life, I couldn’t bring myself to expose a single sentence of my fiction to someone else’s scrutiny. ‘Writing groups’ were herds of passive-aggressive women firing off thinly veiled invective about each other’s historical murder mysteries in community centres, and if I couldn’t pour out the prose with the sole support of a Moleskine and a martini, I simply wasn’t fit to write.

Everything changed one balmy August day in 2010, when my mother emailed me a link to (the pre-S.J. Watson, little-known) Faber Academy. “I don’t need a bloody course.” I snapped, contemplating the glittering string of adjectives occasionally bumping into a plot on my laptop. “I just need to write. I certainly don’t need the bastardised highlights of Steven King’s On Writing flogged to me by some consumptive publishing house reduced to whoring out its name to would-be soft-porn self-published housewives with more money than sense.”

At the other end of the phone, there was a dignified pause. “Darling,” my mother said, “It was just a thought.”

But it was a thought that lingered. Perhaps I was being a little rigid. Perhaps writing was more of a craft than a trait. Perhaps, just perhaps, a tiny bit of mentorship might not go amiss. In any case, it would be a good excuse to buy new stationary. So, two days later, I sent out the first ever extract of my book, and two months later, found myself in a room in Bloomsbury with fourteen other tense-looking weirdos who had obliterated their ISAs in order to secure a place on a six-month novel-writing course.

There are many reasons why I am now grateful for that decision, from the warmth, wisdom and wit of our brilliant tutor, Richard Skinner, to the generous guidance of guest speakers such as Helen Dunmore. But the fourteen most important reasons were undoubtedly those fourteen fellow weirdos. I didn’t know it on that first day, but thanks to Faber, I’d found my writing group.

Now, over two years later, ten people from our original class still meet every month. A fortnight before each session, two of us still email round 5,000 words for the others to discuss – just like Richard taught us – with a chairman to keep conversations on track. This spring, we even organised a four-day writing holiday in Italy, complete with exercises, readings, one-to-ones and private writing time.

We are friends now, proper friends. We meet each other’s partners, we cook each other dinner, we sing awful karaoke while drunk on cheap wine. But, in that room above a pub, our shared commitment to getting those damned novels finished comes first. It’s a unique relationship, necessarily different from those we have with our families and our regular mates.

Our group is the place where we can bang on about the stuff that would quite rightly be esoteric and irritating to anyone who has never tried to write a book. Did I get away with that exposition? Do my semi-colons drive you nuts? Have you discovered the snapshots on Scrivener? These people care. More importantly, they understand. They might not always have the answers, but you can be sure that their questions will force you to face up to all those sneaky little obfuscations and evasions that you’ve been trying to repress.

So what makes a good writing group? Without a doubt, diversity. We are recent graduates, we are working mothers, we are globetrotting businessmen, we are retired. We even, God forbid, live outside London. We all share a certain ballpark of skill, but it would be difficult to imagine a more eclectic mix of personalities and writing styles. Our collective life experiences and expertise (including that of a lawyer, a doctor and a wonderfully pedantic architect) help inject fresh perspectives, catch factual anomalies, and prevent any whiff of echo-chamber. Somewhere in the class, each one of us has our natural first reader, but we also have our natural critic, too. And reading others’ work is just as valuable as having yours read.

“To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light,” explains Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer.

Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

What else matters? Commitment – you have to be willing to consistently put in the time if you expect others to do the same for you. Kindness – you’re dealing with the raw underbelly of our identity and dreams, and it is easily flayed. Honesty – because a true desire to help each other succeed sometimes requires harsh truths, albeit tactfully delivered. And humility – fighting your corner can help you understand what you’re trying to write, but learning to shut up, sit back and listen is even better.

There’s a lot of luck involved in corralling a compatible group. But now I’ve experienced the benefits – benefits which have helped turn my novel from an egotistical outpouring into a almost-better-than-rubbish third draft – I would urge every aspiring writer out there to trawl writing courses, networking events, bookshops, libraries, social media and friends of friends until, by trial and error, they build their own magic circle of trust. And finally, remember that one old cliché still works; unfortunately, your mother is always right.

This article originally appeared on The Writing Platform.

Big Is Still Beautiful

luminariesstack Unity Studies by various impressive-sounding academics have shown that, thanks to a multi-tasking whirl of texting, tweeting, one-click buying, email checking (on average 30 times an hour) and – oh, look, a butterfly! – our reading habits are officially rubbish. Statistics verified by the Associated Press suggest that our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight in 2012. To put that in context, the attention span of the average goldfish is nine seconds. Yep. Goldie could beat you at Pong.

Over the past few years, publishing pundits have predicted that this will usher in a shiny new era of short-form fiction, as authors scrabble to adapt to their attention-deficit audience. This is, they declare, the era of flash fiction, perfect for readers addicted to micro-this and insta-that. We are witnessing the rise of the Twitter novelthe return of commute-friendly serialisation via media-rich apps, and the resurgence of the short story - after all, the grande dame of the form, Alice Munro, just won the Nobel.

So upon hearing that the Man Booker Prize has been awarded to Eleanor Catton for her vast, dense and demanding second novel The Luminaries – with 12 parts and 852 pages, the longest book in the history of the competition - must we conclude that the twenty-eight year old author – incidentally, also the youngest winner in the history of the competition - is dangerously out of touch with her generation, and that the judges have no idea what the reading public enjoy?

Of course not. For every example that short books own the zeitgeist, there is equal if not more evidence that this is, in fact, the era of the epic. Last year, The Daily Beast’s Marc Wortman complained that a combination of over-easy Google research, and an ebook-influenced disregard for length, was in fact encouraging non-fiction authors to release ever-burgeoning tomes. When it comes to fiction, consider the popularity of the two previous Booker winners, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, or the excitement around Donna Tartt’s enormous, long-awaited new novel, The Goldfinch – modeled on the nineteenth-century doorstoppers she adores. Add in the fact that most writers considered to be the world’s current finest – Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Marukami, David Mitchell – and many of the Best Young Novelists on this year’s Granta list – Steven Hall, Adam Thirlwell, Benjamin Markovits - also have a penchant for four hundred pages plus, and the short-form ‘trend’ seems distinctly baseless.

Both Franzen and Dave Eggers have recently released diatribes against our obsession with digital, afraid that the ‘Play Doh’ of social media is corrupting the publishing industry; Franzen is famously disparaging about novelists who dirty their toes in Twitter. It’s all too easy to agree with them, in a chicken-licken sort of way, but when we look at our bookshelves or ereaders, the generalization falls apart. Sure, there are plenty of bad, shallow books out there, but there’s also plenty of extraordinary, original, long-form new fiction – not to mention the fact that Eggers and Franzen, for all their self-avowed maverick status, still seem to sell their massive opuses in the mainstream rather well.

Consider, too, the people around you on the tube. Chance is, far more of them will be ploughing their way through Game of Thrones than zipping through an installment of a serial or downloading a novella. Catton herself has explained that The Luminaries was "very strongly influenced by long-form box-set TV drama”, which she believes to be the novel’s “on-screen equivalent," and it could be said that our hunger for sprawling escapism has never been greater, precisely because we spend so much of our working day hopping from half-baked blog post to Pinterest soundbite.

Earlier this year I attended a workshop at The School of Life called The Connected Brain, in which psychologist and writer Dr Tom Stafford and neuroscientist Dr Ben Martynoga examined how our brains are changing to accommodate the demands and distractions of social technologies. The overriding message was: not much. We’re good at adapting our minds to exploit new media, and we’ll happily outsource elements of memory that technology better serves, but we never loose the old skills; it just takes a bit more effort to dredge them back up.

The form of the novel simply isn’t as fluid or vulnerable as commentators would have us believe. It is led by the needs of authors; not readers, or technologists, or academics. The creative possibilities afforded by a rich, roomy, multi-plot behemoth are unique, and readers are resilient too. The attention we lend to a novel is entirely different to that which we expend online. Sure, nowadays it might take us a bit longer to relax into the slower, denser pace of a big book, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capability, or the hunger, to do so.

This article originally appeared on Bookhugger.

Writing On Writing

keep writing It is a well-worn truism that all novel-writing advice boils down to a handful of simple tenets. Show, don’t tell. Cut adjectives. Kill your darlings. Get in late, and out early. Read your work aloud. Don’t give up your day job, you masochistic fantasist; don’t you know that publishing is dead?

Okay, so that last one was mine. But from Aristotle’s fifth-century Poetics to this year’s On Writing by A L Kennedy, the elements of how to spin a satisfying tale have remained remarkably consistent. That’s the thing about good writing; the rules don’t really evolve. Our ability to tell awesome stories is part of what makes us human – self-consciousness is, after all, the greatest story of all – and it seems that the sweet-spots of pace, character development, suspense and so forth are ingrained inside our neurons. Of course, every so often the rules get broken by a genius, who redefines the possibilities of form, subject or style; that’s the best writing of all. But we need an instinctive consensus about the golden mean for those subversions and revolutions to work.

Yet writing about writing has become nothing less than a fetish over the past few years. The culprit is, yet again, that tireless, whip-wielding mistress we call Social Media, who offers everything from hourly tweets served up by self-promoting editors to twee typographic Pinterest posters exhorting adverb genocide. That isn’t to say the advice is always bad. There are some genuinely helpful new articulators out there, such as Chuck Wendig, a prolific blogger/novelist whose writing-advice ebooks say the same things over and over again, but with such brilliant self-deprecation, humour and filth that I never get bored. And the online vogue for circulating vintage essays from canonical writers such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway has resurrected some beautifully examples of the genre. I can lose hours at a time browsing sites such as Brain Pickings, Maria Popova’s inspiring online grab-bag of creative inspiration, or the Paris Review’s Art of Fiction archive, featuring interviews in which authors from William Faulkner to William Gibson discuss their craft.

That timewasting is, of course, one reason why we are so obsessed with re-describing (and often unnecessarily complicating) the writing rules. Yes, the rise in digital self-publishing, which does not offer that crucial editor-author relationship, has fuelled demand for DIY novel how-tos; but frankly, we could just stick ten sentences up on the wall above our laptops and be done with it. The fact is, it’s easier to read about writing than to do it. Poring over fellow wordsmiths’ wisdom makes us feel like we’re putting time in on the novel - regardless of the fact that it has no more tangible impact than bunking off to watch Game of Thrones.

A second reason is that the best writing advice is so profound in its simplicity, and therefore so difficult to apply, that writers must repeatedly grapple with it, like (if I may) Peleus wrestling the shape-changing nymph Thetis, to pin it down and into their work. Those pithy injunctions aren’t so much rules as descriptions, principles of literary taste. They tell us what great writers do instinctively, and although taste can be honed and matured, the dash of beautiful tastelessness that elevates a technical success to an emotional tour de force is even harder to acquire.

Frankly, I think rookie writers (and by rookie writers I mean me) would be better off spending less time pondering how to write, and more on clarifying whatever it is that they passionately, immoderately want to say. The best way to develop a craft – once you’ve had some basic training - is by doing. By experiencing different contexts, trying your own ideas, and, most importantly, by not just striving for the ‘good’, but being brave enough to make your own mistakes; by being rubbish and then persisting in your rubbishness until you become slightly less so. Surely the best way to progress a novel is to think more about the world of your book, write more, and read the works, not the discursions, of authors you admire. There’s a fine line between pruning your voice into a leaner, more sophisticated and more generous version of its natural self, and chopping at it from so many different angles that it becomes a timid mess.

Personally, I’m going to try and go cold turkey for a while. If any developer out there fancies coding a web tool that, whenever a user attempts to click on a link to the latest nugget of literary wisdom, blocks the page and flashes up a GIF of Hilary Mantel with a shotgun exhorting them to THINK AND WRITE instead, I’ll stump up the fee.

Yes: real, shiny money. I didn’t give up the day job, you see.

This article originally appeared in Bookhugger.

The Real Value Of Books

DoeringerFreeBooks Do you think Dickens should cost more than Dan Brown? Do you approach a 99p ebook with a different mentality to a £10 hardback? And does a soy latte really have more impact on your life than a book? The value of literature – not in the sense of soul-stirring, brain-pimping, culture-cementing worthiness, but in the sense of cash – has never seemed more contradictory.

Historically, reducing the cost of book production, distribution and ownership has been an important step in increasing the freedom and sophistication of society, from Gutenberg’s press to Penguin’s sixpence paperbacks. Books are essentially whores, not madonnas; the more people that get the chance to handle them, the better for us all. Sure, there is a place for beautiful, limited edition objets, handcrafted by callous-palmed bookbinders, but that place is on a coffee table, not out in the world, in pockets: connecting people, spreading ideas.

But that was before the Kindle Daily Deal, which gives the harvest of an author’s heart and soul the status of a hamburger. That was before I saw recent book-buying data from Bowker, which finds that price is the third factor for people buying paper and ebooks (behind author and subject), but the first factor for those buying self-published ebooks. The first factor? Are people seriously downloading manuals on falconry and novels about time-travelling dinosaurs simply because they are free? Do they perhaps believe that reading works like your five-a-day, shoving in a stale turnip of a story because it will eventually come out the other end just the same as a fresh organic strawberry?

And no, apparently free books do not act as gateway drugs, luring non-readers in, before hooking them on more expensive product. At the The Literary Consultancy’s annual conference Writing in A Digital Age, self-published author and SEO expert Chris McVeigh highlighted research showing that people who read free books simply do not go on to pay for books. He declared that he would never offer a book for free on a commercial marketplace such as Amazon; he may give a few copies away within his personal networks, but maintaining the idea that his work was actually worth paying for was an important part of his marketing strategy.

This is part of a wider debate around the value of original creativity in social media. Jaron Lanier, early internet pioneer and author of seminal manifesto You Are Not A Gadget, was once a vocal advocate of online music streaming, but now insists that society simply must start to pay for what makes it rich. As he put it in a recent talk in London, “If we’re in an information economy, and information is free, we’re fucked.” Surely, musicians and journalists have taught us by now that freebies can’t save an industry.

Producing even half-decent literature is extraordinarily expensive. One of the best things about Unbound, the brilliant crowd-funding platform that allows prospective readers to invest in unknown authors or quirky projects from established names, is the insight it gives the public into exactly how much money is needed to create a book. In most cases, the bulk that money doesn’t go on award-winning cover art or innovative multiverse web builds. It goes on time. Time to write. Time to research. Time to edit. Then more time, to write and research and edit again. Even if you believe art is a luxury, it seems extraordinary that a ticket to the theatre can cost ten times as much as a novel, when the former is a one-night stand and the latter a lifelong relationship.

At the same TLC conference, Alison Baverstock, Senior Lecture in Publishing at Kingston University, ventured to suggest that, because people who work in book PR get books for free, they underestimate how much consumers are willing to pay. And yes, perhaps the publishing industry does need to grow a pair in regard to pricing; but to be fair, finding itself squeezed on all sides and pilloried from all angles, the publishing industry is doing its best. I think the responsibility lies with the readers.

If you get a mass-cc email containing a PDF of the latest must-read, swallow your pride, be that guy, and send a mass-cc rant back. If you get sent a freebie from a marketing department, pay full price for another novel that same day. Don’t showroom in bookshops, buy online, then moan about the demise of the high street. If you care about hardbacks, make an effort to buy one for every handful of ebooks, and buy them as gifts.

Of course, free books still have an essential place in libraries, schools, and education and social schemes. Literature is a human right. But it simply must be subsidised by those of us who can pay.

This article originally appeared on Bookdiva.

Self-Help Fiction

Hi. My name is Molly and I’m a self-help addict. Although I avoid anything involving diets, doctrines and fist-pumpers in suits, recent, beautifully written pop-psychology classics as Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit have given me a socially acceptable way to indulge. I’m certainly not alone; in 2012, Laura Vanderkam identified that “45,000 self-help titles are in print, and the self-improvement industry does $12 billion worth of business each year”, while the impoverished NHS is even considering prescribing self-help titles to treat depression. But my deepest and most lasting moments of self-discovery still come wrapped in a fictional pill, and I’m not alone in this, either. Waterstones’s new online project The Book That Made Me features videos and testimonials in which cultural superstars such as Michael Parkinson, Malorie Blackman and Caitlin Moran discuss the books that have had a profound impact on their characters and lives. The hope is that the rest if us will join in and share our own literary lifesavers, either on the website or by tagging content with the #TBTMM hashtag, and that the best stories will be displayed in Waterstones bookshops this summer. A quick browse of the existing content shows many moving, uplifting and surprising tales beginning to emerge.

In a similar vein, the London Library Magazine runs a quarterly Bibliotherapy feature, in which members discuss the books that helped them weather tricky life events. This issue, I was lucky enough to be invited to contribute, so below, in the spirit of #TBTMM, I’d like to share my recommended reading for anyone going through a long-distance relationship. Please, join in, contribute to the Waterstones project, and tweet me your tales. It’s time to rack up your book karma brownie points.

A Book That Made Me: The Vinter’s Luck, by Elizabeth Knox

We had been going out for a year. I wasn’t quite a waitress in a cocktail bar but, as an out-of-work actress, I was close enough. He was a lawyer, which was bewildering. We shared a fabulous, fractured 12 months in London before he announced that, inspired by seeing me pursue a career that I loved (although considering that by this time I was starring in a Japanese shampoo commercial, the terms ‘career’, ‘pursue’ and ‘love’ should be interpreted in the loosest of terms), he was jacking in his magic circle fast-track to retrain for a job in the sports industry instead. In Arizona. For two years. Followed by, as it turned out, a summer working in New York, then nine months in Paris.

On receipt of the news, I put on an impressive display of bravery, selflessness and quietly anguished solidarity, which was, I am reluctant to admit, cut through with an ignoble whiff of joy. Because although being in a relationship with this good, gorgeous man was flesh-sweet, soul-deep and everything in between, it was also sorely starting to encroach on my reading time. I’d only ever previously had undemanding flings, and had thoroughly underestimated how much talking and gazing and basically non-book-related activity true love requires. Of course, several months later, finally curled alone on his massive bed after he’d gone, I fondled and discarded one paperback after another; for the first time I had discovered a space inside me that a book couldn’t fill.

That’s when I met Xas. Xas was a fallen angel with enormous white wings, leather trousers, a penchant for gardening and a lingering perfume of snow. In short, the perfect lover: exotic, damaged, fickle, faintly ridiculous and, being fictional, incredibly discreet.

The Vintner’s Luck (1998), a novel by New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox, tracks the unique relationship between Xas and Sobran, a vintner in eighteenth-century Burgundy. At the start of the story Xas, injured from a divine battle, tumbles out of Hell, on to a hill-top, and into the arms of the wistful young peasant. Year after year the angel descends to the same spot, to see what changes joy, violence, illness and betrayal have wrought on his mortal specimen, while Sobran quietly provides the tenderness and constancy Xas secretly craves. Between rendezvous, we follow Sobran’s struggle to build a meaningful life – with his homely wife Celeste, his rough wartime comrade Kalmann and his beautiful widowed employer, the Countess de Valday – as France itself struggles to reconcile the new scientific discoveries with the old comforts of faith.

Knox’s brilliantly original story had everything I needed to weather separation: escapism, romance and torment, not to mention what is perhaps the ultimate portrayal of lifetime long-distance love. Arizona might have seemed unbearably hot and far away, but Hell, gratifyingly, sounded worse. Knox’s themes are epic, but her prose is subtle and earthy, lyrical in the most specific and sensual way. It’s also highly erotic, and when you’re on a 12-hour plane journey anticipating the first sexual contact you’ve had in 3 months, a bit of inter-species sodomy goes splendidly with your complimentary nuts.

On my last visit before the by now ex-lawyer was unexpectedly transferred to London for good, I took him a copy of The Vintner’s Luck, lovingly inscribed. He told me he hated it, and I seriously considered throwing those three loyal years away. Instead, Reader, I married him, which has resulted in the most extraordinary bliss. And now, whenever I think back to those early years of our own modest, still-unfolding drama, I always return to the very last lines of The Vintner’s Luck. 

"You fainted and I caught you. It was the first time I’d supported a human. You had such heavy bones. I put myself between you and gravity. Impossible."

This article originally appeared on Bookdiva.

Digtial-Only Imprints: Inclusive Or Cynical?

Carina UK Poor old big-name publishers. Stick to your guns by insisting on the value of your traditional, print-centric gatekeeping, and you'll be shunted straight to the top of the endangered species list. Pander to the plebs by putting a fancy cover on fan fiction, and you'll be decried as an opportunist whore who has swapped literary values for trending hashtags. It's enough to make you run screaming out of your Bloomsbury redbrick and set up in a cheap little Hackney warehouse with a bunch of fixie-riding digital natives who can knock out a Dickens alternate reality game before breakfast.

For those brave soldiers who have remained in the barracks of trade publishing (the smell of fear and ink catching in their nostril hairs), digital only-imprints must seem like a promising hybrid. First, take a brand that both readers and authors trust. Next, put said brand in a genre-specific digital cage, with a ringmaster offering some editorial and production support. Kick off the show with a few established writers and, finally, allow the unsigned, self-published or unpalatably niche pen-monkeys in to play.

Random House has been one of the earliest and most comprehensive adopters, with Hydra (sci-fi and fantasy), Alibi (mysteries and thrillers), Flirt (new adult, or soft porn) and Loveswept (romance and women's fiction). Harlequin UK has Carina (multiple genres) while Little, Brown is breaking with convention to focus on literary and non-fiction with Blackfriars. This month alone, Penguin, Kensington, F+W Media, HarperCollins and Bloomsbury have announced new or expanded digital imprints. Democracy, speed and low overheads, plus author support and brand heft: what's not to love?

Cue a scandal around the "predatory" Hydra contracts, which have been derided for offering no advance, deducting costs such as editing and design, and retaining rights for the term of copyright. Follow that with Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), pleading with writers at the Literary Consultancy's conference, Writing in a Digital Age, to be "extremely wary" of "the new vanity publishing". Sit back, scroll through your RSS feeds, and watch the name-calling ensue.

"It's easy to see why this option is attractive for a publisher," explains Ross, who recently published an ALLi manual for authors called Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013. "They can push books into a growing marketplace at a much lower cost than with a conventional imprint, and reap the profits. From the author's perspective, though, such imprints seem to offer the limitations of digital-only publishing, without providing any of the offsetting advantages available to self-publishers – control over format, publication dates and pricing; creative freedom; better royalties. Authors need to think carefully about what value is being added here and look closely at the contract's terms and conditions, comparing them with what they get if they publish themselves."

But is this an example of yet more publisher-bashing? Should we be giving them credit for at least trying to find a compromise? Evidently, the imprints vary hugely in their aims and approach.

"The Blackfriars contracts are conventional publishing contracts," explains Ursula Doyle – Blackfriars co-founder and Virago associate publisher. "We acquire the rights – all for full term of copyright so far, as is usual, but allowing for certain reversions in certain circumstances – we remunerate the author and offer advances, and we bear all the costs."

Doyle is passionate about their integrity. "Blackfriars is a small list by the standards of many digital imprints, and it is as carefully put together as our other literary lists. The books are edited, designed and published in the same way as all our books. We have dedicated publicity and rights people who ensure they have the same shot at serial, review and interview coverage; one of our launch titles, Too Good to Be True by Benjamin Anastas, was serialised over four pages in the Observer Review last weekend. All our authors are remunerated for their work, and all of them so far have representation. We believe that a digital-only launch is the perfect way to publish wonderful books that otherwise might not be published at all, purely because the market for print is so brutal right now."

And what of authors? While some are raging about the small print they failed to read, others are celebrating this new flexible approach. Amy Bird, who has just signed a three-book deal with Carina, and whose first novel Yours Is Mine will be published next month, spent months bashing her forehead against traditional brick walls before the Carina team visited her MA creative writing group at Birkbeck, University of London.

She considers her contract more than fair – there is no deduction or charge for editing, marketing or design, and there are provisions for rights to revert to her after seven years if certain conditions are met. "True, there is no megabuck advance," she admits. "But I don't need an advance: I work part-time as a solicitor. And I am being offered 50% rates on royalties, which seems fair. And most importantly, nobody is asking me to get my cheque-book out."

She believes there are many misconceptions about the industry. "Digital publishing is not about dumping books on a Kindle. From my experience, it is about bright and talented editors finding work that they love and working with an author to get a book the best it can be. With Carina UK, I have gone through all the processes one would expect with a 'traditional' publisher: initial feedback with detailed suggestions for structural revisions; a full copy edit; consultation on title, cover designs and marketing. The amazing thing about digital for me is that I submitted my novel in late February, and it will be coming out in mid-July. Going digital is not for everyone, but for people like me, who have been tweeting, reviewing and blogging for years, it feels natural, exciting, and, frankly, kind of cool."

Of course, the truth of these imprints will be in the storytelling. Until we see them producing consistently exciting work over the long term, neither authors nor readers should be dazzled by their daddy's name. But I strongly believe that we should also get better at taking and celebrating risks. We must allow publishers to fail better, without engaging in continual media mudslinging, or citing specific horror stories as symbols of endemic rot. Otherwise that brave, imperfect future, of which we don't yet know the contours, won't take shape at all.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

Writing And Reading In A Digital Age

tlc2 "These are the best of times and the worst of times," declared Robert McCrum. He paused, then added to wry laughter: "They are very confusing times."

Confusing, yes; cataclysmic, no. The attitude from both speakers and audience at Writing In A Digital Age, The Literary Consultancy's second annual conference, distinctly implied that the days of Chicken Licken are over; it's time to focus on action and leave the apocalypse to the journalists. In a session reviewing the past year's mergers, mistakes and mass-market mega-successes, Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Random House, quoted Churchill. "This isn't the beginning of the end. It's the end of the beginning."

Both keynotes, from McCrum and Audrey Niffenegger, were bracingly optimistic about the current juncture in publishing's turbulent history. Niffenegger's review of the evolution of typography, set against her own journey from craft-obsessed book artist to seven-million-copy-bestselling author, posited that our new digital ecosystem is dissolving boundaries in an unprecedented way. As a professor at Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, as well as a prolific graphic novelist, illustrator and, most recently, collaborator with choreographer Wayne McGregor on Raven Girl for the Royal Ballet, she confided that "the word interdisciplinary lets you get away with a lot". Yes, the ebook is still in its clumsy infancy, just as the Gutenberg Bible aped the look of early manuscripts, but the book community is incredibly robust and self-sustaining. Allow time for the artists to catch up with the technology, she said, and in the meantime, stop worrying so much.

While Niffenegger focused on form, McCrum made a rallying call for content. In our "golden age of reading", he believes, readers still care most about compelling stories. Quality, original writing, rather than esoteric technological dabbling, is more important than ever before. He too called on the past to provide a sense of perspective, reminding aspiring authors that writing has never been free or easy, but often mortally dangerous. We need to take a longer view of progress - there were, after all, 50 years of novelistic drought between Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe - and focus on the language and ideas that are urgently meaningful to us now. If he were 25 today, McCrum claimed, he could think of no better place to be than independent publishing.

Of course, the debates that ran across the two days of this excellently curated event still contained plenty of juicy angst. McCrum's emphasis on the reader was particularly refreshing because, in all the conversation about author services, publishing strategies and interdisciplinary doodahs, the ultimate audience had a tendency to get obscured. The Collaborative Force panel, in which the Writing Platform's Kate Pullinger, Watershed's Jo Lansdowne and Media Futures' Nico MacDonald presented case studies of projects "pushing the boundaries of technology and narratives" - including the community novel Wiki A Million Penguins, the Neil Gaiman-backed Bristol-based narrative These Pages Fall Like Ash, and Microsoft's IE-ad-come-interactive-story Brandon Generator - provoked reactions ranging from silent meh to open animosity, as the Independent's Christina Patterson accused the panelists of peddling over-subsidised, underwhelming "posh art".

For me, the pressing question revolved around the degree to which these innovations truly improve on the core reader experience. The act of reading has always been subversive precisely because it requires - and perhaps depends upon - zero intervention from institutions, benevolent or otherwise. Our private imaginations are inherently anti-social and tricky to monetise. Most current digital collaborations appear to give more creative power and pleasure to their writers and designers (not to mention revenue and/or data to their sponsors) than to their readers. Do we really need our eyes and limbs guided by online prompts or offline ARGs, when for centuries we've created far more weird, wonderful and personally relevant "contextual content" in our heads? I can't help but think of my two-year-old niece, who still invariably prefers a cardboard box to a shiny plastic thing with buttons and beeps.

Steve Bohme's robust research from Bowker, on how readers are consuming and discovering self-published books, was a welcome corrective. Sure, the results were largely unsurprising. In 2012, self-publishing comprised 12 per cent of overall ebook purchases, with over 20 per cent coming from genre fiction such as crime, SF, romance and humour. Books were mainly found via browsing in subject, recommendation and offer sections online, and bought by older, prolific female readers, mainly on the merits of their price and blurb. But the very predictability of the findings was a sharp reminder of how out of touch traditional publishing can be with what free-range readers really want. It also touched on a second theme of the conference: value.

TLC's tagline is "literary values in a digital age", and in a panel of the same name Sally O-J, TLC editor and Sarah Waters' beloved first reader, mounted a spirited defence of the much-derided sphere of fan fiction. Yes, much fan fic is derivative dross, but it also exposes an alternative canon which, whether we like it or not, is inspiring hundreds of thousands of readers to grow their own. Take the example, O-J suggested, of the online popularity of slash fiction. Most agents would snort at the idea that heterosexual women have a voracious appetite for stories centred on gay male relationships, and would immediately consign such a manuscript to the bin. But by working with raw new authors to help refine their literary skills, and established ones to broaden their notion of the zeitgeist, might we approach a middle-ground between elitism and amateurism that could breed an interesting and profitable new wave of literature?

Considering value from the angle of money rather than morality, Dr Alison Baverstock made another insightful point in Saturday's self-publishing masterclass. There was much talk throughout the conference about pricing and the pros and cons of Amazon's KDP Select and Daily Deal services. Baverstock pointed out that publishers, who usually get all of their books for free, often underestimate how much people are willing to pay for quality work. Self-published author and SEO consultant Chris McVeigh agreed, insisting that he would never give his book away for free on a commercial platform. Perhaps, if we all believed more literally in the value of literature, and more strongly in the goodwill of readers - Niffenegger's self-sustaining book community - our literary values might not feel quite so compromised by the digital age.

On a lighter note, the two more performative sessions in the conference were as exhilarating and moving as ever. Canon Tales, nine seven-minute, Pecha Kucha-style talks where some of the UK's top literary and digital players used 21 images to illustrate their influences, obsessions and hopes, and Pen Factor, in which six brave writers had their works-in-progress critiqued and judged live by a panel of agents and publishers, were a reassuring reminder of the heartfelt, personal passion and talent at the core of the literary ecosystem.

But my overriding feeling on Saturday night was that as a community of publishers, agents and writers we must, as TLC director and conference organiser Becky Swift put it, "pull our socks up". Rather than getting swept up in expensive experiments, we need to think less about ourselves, less about short-term gimmickry, and more about readers and words. We must listen harder and fail better, all with our eye on the timeless goal: to get damn good books out there, and get them read.

This article originally appeared on Bookbrunch.

Reading Lessons From A Two Year Old

ESME When I first found out that my sister was pregnant, I knew there were countless pleasures in store. Hot, squirmy cuddles. The DUPLO farm. Jelly.

But above all, I couldn’t wait for the reading. I longed to rediscover the stories I loved as a child, from Each Peach Pear Plum to Pippin and Pod. I wanted to be the one to start her on the adventure of a lifetime, helping her discover for herself the freedom and nourishment to be found between a pair of wipe-clean boards.

What I didn’t anticipate was the fact that, two years and nine months later, it was my niece that would be teaching me. Sure, grown-up literature demands subtlety that a toddler can’t appreciate. But I soon realized that a lifetime of accumulated reading habits had derailed some basic instincts that were still strong in a box-fresh mind. Thanks to Esme, I’ve learnt some sharp lessons about how to be a better reader. Here are five of the best.

Be less forgiving

Kids are ruthless. At an age when the real world is as magical and mysterious as any fictional fantasyland, it takes a seriously compelling story to keep them on your lap. Forget subtle undercurrents and enlightening metaphors; if a book doesn’t hook them quick and deep, they’re off. And although there is much to be said in literature for the difficult and the digressive, I have realized that I am far too accepting of self-indulgent authors. Why shouldn’t a book have backbone as well as beauty? Why do I condemn my own failing attention span rather than a writer’s lack of skill in keeping me hooked?  I have determined to abandon my ridiculous rule of finishing every book I start, ploughing through languorous, critically acclaimed crap that seems to posit that plots are for plebs. There are too many genuinely good novels waiting to be read, and the DUPLO cow is missing again. Priorities have changed.

Read aloud

Why on earth do we stop doing it? As any editor knows, reading aloud is an unbeatable test of quality. Sentences that look fine on the page become claggy in the mouth. Repetitive words and grammatical structures drum an unwelcome rhythm into the listener’s ear. Lapses in pace, clumsy similes and unbelievable dialogue all explode on contact with the air. Conversely, writers who treat their words like notes in a symphony shine anew; step forward, F Scott Fitzgerald and Alice Munro. And the bond created by companionable reading shouldn’t just be reserved for kids. On a torrential Tuscan honeymoon, my husband and I took turns reading Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap during long, misty car journeys and foamy hotel-room baths. Not only did it prevent us from spending our time together but apart, locked into separate fictional worlds, it provided delicious fuel for discussion and speculation over our subsequent pasta and wine.

Move. Laugh. Scream.

Sometimes, an incident or passage in a novel is so shocking, moving or funny you just want to share. The end of Engleby. The opening of Earthly Powers. The rat scene in American Psycho. So why do adult readers sit, silent and tingling, when a two year old would shriek or clap or cry? Well, sure, we don’t want to be thought irritating or insane, especially if we’re on the tube. But in the privacy of our own homes, might we not lose control now and again? Punch the air when Lizzie Bennett tells Catherine de Bourgh where to go? Roll on the floor, weeping and vomiting, at a Dan Brown metaphor? And hell, once in a while, why not let rip in public too? I will never forget the woman I saw sitting in a Soho café, crying with laughter over her copy of collected PG Wodehouse. She made my day.

Re-read

I am a reluctant re-reader. With so many books to read and so little time, it seems positively irresponsible. But I cannot deny that much of the pleasure of Room On The Broom or An Evening At Alfie’s comes from their familiarity, each word turned over and over until the narrative nap is worn soft as silk. This has inspired me to go back and catch up with some old friends - Catch-22 and Madame Bovary are first on the list – but also to take more time over new ones. Children don’t just have favourite books, but favourite pages, too, which they will linger over and stroke. For grown-ups, re-reading arresting lines or paragraphs can reveal complexities and delights skimmed over in the first pass. It’s also a brilliant training for writers, encouraging us to root around for the mechanics beneath the bonnet.

Short is underrated

The recent popularity of doorstop tomes such as Game of ThronesWolf Hall and Dominion, abetted by the rise of the eReader, has somewhat thrown the joys of shorter fiction into the shade. But toddler-length tales provide a welcome reminder that fewer pages can have a disproportionately powerful effect. Apparently, May is Short Story Month in the US. In celebration, Flavorwire has asked a series of acclaimed short story authors to recommend their favourites, and over on Huff Post, Scott Borch has been talking to Random House’s Ann Kingman about why 2013 is ‘the year of the short story.’ I’m on the hunt for my old Chekov collection; what’s more, I might just have a chance of finishing one before the beast wakes up.

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva.

Flush Fiction

Menopause The coming of age novel is one of our most popular and powerful literary genres. From The History of Tom Jones to TwilightThe Catcher in the Rye to Carrie, we never tire of watching tender little Homo Sapiens get plunged into the boiling cauldron of life, and no wonder. Stories are based on conflict, and innocence v experience is the oldest and darkest fist-fight of them all.

But bildungsroman aren’t restricted to the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The German word simply means ‘novel of formation’, and the male mid-life crisis novel, a study of that second, mirror-adolescence from adulthood to old age, is a rich contemporary theme. Ian McEwan’s 2005 James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner Saturday and his 2010 success Solar; Howard Jacobson’s 2010 Booker-winning The Finkler Question; and Julian Barnes’ 2011 winner The Sense of An Ending all focus on men who watch their careers and sex lives shrivel from over the burgeoning curve of their guts.

So it makes sense that novels addressing the menopause should be rife. After all, although men and women both have to reorient their identities as they age, the physical, emotional and symbolic power of the female ‘change’ is unique. However, although there are plenty of fine literary books about women at ‘that time of life’ - Anne Tyler, Margaret Drabble and Elizabeth Buchan are three mistresses of the art – they seem strangely wary of focusing on the process itself. And the few menopause-specific novels out there - US author Nancy's Thayer's chick-lit series The Hot Flash Club, Anne Kleinberg's 2011 Menopause in Manhattan - can hardly be set against the male-centric prize-winners above.

Non-fiction writers aren’t so shy; Jane Shilling’s 2012 memoir The Stranger In The Mirror is an intimate exploration of her shifting self-image, while Marie de Hennezel’s bestselling The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting is a life-affirming rallying call. So why are novelists so reluctant to anatomise the menopause?

It was a question raised by John Sutherland at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival. In a session on sex and marriage in literature, Sutherland admitted that when he read Elaine Showalter’s introduction to the 1991 Penguin Classic edition of Mrs Dalloway, and discovered that Woolf intended the novel as an exploration of the menopause, it was a rewarding revelation.

When Woolf says of her heroine that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street” or that “often now this body she wore […[, this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all”, it seems incredible that we could ever miss the allusions. And that’s without understanding contemporary attitudes to the menopause, which further enrich and complicate Woolf’s themes of generational conflict, madness and suicide.

Consider too Mrs Bennett, the laughing stock of that other perennial set text, Pride and Prejudice. Like Mrs Dalloway, Mrs Bennett is portrayed as frivolous, fragile and painfully self-conscious, but if we see her as a woman in the first flush of menopause, our derisive dismissal of her character becomes more subtle and sympathetic. Those famous nerves – her husband’s nemeses - become the symptoms of a woman struggling to with deep biological shifts. Her obsession with her daughters’ sexual ripeness – akin to Clarissa’s ambivalent relationship with her 18-year old Elizabeth - becomes a poignant parallel to her own fertility, once rampant to a character-defining degree and now presumably defunct. Her energy and ambition in the face of her feminine redundancy make her admirable, as well as exasperating.

It is understandable that such interpretations might not have previously entered the compass of a male academic born in 1938. But I studied both novels for my A-Levels in 1999 and I‘d never been exposed to those ideas before I heard Sutherland speak. A bizarre Victorian squeamishness seems to have followed the canon into the modern curriculum. My teachers of literature were as uninterested in the menopause as modern authors who, theoretically unbound by the social taboos, still seem unwilling to put it centre stage.

Last year’s study by the Associated Press found that women read almost twice the number of books as men, and account for a clear majority of the fiction market. A full-on menopause Wetlands might have a limited audience, but a deep literary exploration of this iconic and inevitable life event could be a huge commercial hit. Is the lack of it evidence of a lingering social stigma? Does the lack of interest come from authors, publishers or readers? Or have I missed a wealth of unabashed menopause bildungsroman? Set me straight!

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva.

3 Ways To Celebrate The Future Of Books

Futurebooking Do you love to talk about publishing innovation but realise that you behaviour as a reader has barely changed? Are you truly creating, or just 'being creative', online? Do you find that the opportunities for writers in social media essentially boil down to shinier and more addictive ways to procrastinate? Ah, Pinterest. Sweet Pinterest and your gleaming cornucopia of aspirational kitchen loft spaces.

I've always been deeply excited about how digital is changing how we write, read, publish and talk about stories, but I am even more excited now the conversation has moved beyond those boring either/or scaremongering polarities. Now that we've established that The Author, Journalism, God and All Hope are Totes Dead, we can get on with talking about the good stuff. Like how and if we are personally, daily, experiencing change. Like which technologies, tools and approaches have genuinely made us more productive, imaginative and skilled.

In short, now that we've accepted that the Queen Mother is going to ride back to earth on a super-asteroid, cackling maniacally as she rips pages from precious old folios and destroys us all in a massive fireball, we can settle down and share the fascinating, fallible, ever-changing paths we are all learning to navigate in our hybrid on-off, augmented-real, socio-introverted world.

Here are three great ways in which that sharing is going to happen this year.

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The first is the recent beta launch of The Writing Platform, "a website and program of live events dedicated to arming writers with digital knowledge" founded by two brilliant women, Joanna Ellis (ex-Faber and Simon & Shuster) and Kate Pullinger (writer and Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University) with support from Bath Spa Uni, the National Lottery and Arts Council England.

Not only does it feature a fantastic range of articles, from Margaret Atwood explaining why you need on online presence, to yours truly busting 10 common social media myths for writers, The Writing Platform is offering a bursary which will partner writers and technologists in an attempt to break down barriers and generate some inter-disciplinary magic. This sort of free, energetic and wide-thinking community is just what writers need more of, so visit the site, keep an eye out for events, apply to the bursary and start, well, generating some inter-disciplinary magic.

Second is Write The Future, a one-day micro-conference of creative short talks on the transformative power of science, technology, communication and speculative fiction, coming up in May. Driven by The Arthur C Clarke Award (the prestigious British award presented annually for the best science fiction novel of the year) in association with the Royal Society, it promises to be a stimulating mashup of writers, publishers, scientists, advertisers, trend forecasters and mutli-ilk curious creatives.

I'll be presenting a keynote called Don't Feed The Lizard Brain: Surviving the Social Media Comedown, focusing on three questions which will both examine where we are right now with social media and prompt us to tweak our direction for the future: Are we innovating? Are we connecting? Are we creating? In the evening there will be a dinner and presentation of The Arthur C Clarke Award, which, with recent winners including Jane Rogers, Lauren Beukes and China Miéville, is unfailingly controversial. #WTF13 is currently fundraising on Kickstarter so grab the chance now to scoop some tickets, with some great benefits such as free consultancy and a copy of the award anthology for those who want to dig a little deeper.

Finally, June will see the return of Writing In A Digital Age, the annual two-day conference from The Literary Consultancy, the UK's top specialists in assessing and editing manuscripts. Last year's event was incredibly honest, nuanced and inspiring; I was particularly engaged by the themes of gender in the publishing industryhow to become a happy writer in an uncertain landscape, and the challenges of social media as a self-marketing tool. #TLC13 looks to be even better, with a keynote by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveller's Wife; a review of the industry over past year with some of the UK's top agents, publishers and journalists; and sessions asking questions such as 'What are ‘literary values’ and how are they being challenged by technology?' and 'Self-publishing off the peg: does one size fit all?'

I'll be one of the speakers taking part in Canon Tales, a short series of rapid-fire presentations from people working in the intersection between literature and digital, alongside the likes of Sam Missingham from The Bookseller/FutureBook and Bill Thompson from the BBC. Early bird tickets, on sale until the end of this month, hover around £2-300, but this event has such an inclusive and questioning outlook, it's worth the investment for anyone interested or invested in the publishing industry.

Of course, all this speculation and rhetoric only comes to life when it touches on people's daily stories and experiences. I'd love to hear about the impact that social media and digital technologies are (or, of course, are not) having on your own behaviour as a reader and a writer. Is all the hype and hyperbole nothing but the ramblings of an Ouroboron industry, nibbling anxiously on its own tail? What are your real hopes, fears and dreams for where innovation around books will take us?

This article originally appeared on Bookhugger.

5 Top Online Tools For Writers

Online tools for writers Ah, tools. Such a seductive word, with that tactile, workmanlike ring. And such seductive implications. Accumulating tools feels like the very opposite of time wasting. Tools promise to transform us into humble, brine-browed word-carpenters, conscientiously whittling our masterpieces in brain-workshops full of sunshine and space, while topless, and grunting. In short, tools rule.

Of course, as a writer, any tools other than your mind, your fingers or voice, and a basic recording device, are entirely superfluous. Browsing the app store, watching little download circles rotate and fiddling with complicated settings are all byways, not highways, to becoming a laser-focused sentence-whore. In fact, reading articles about good online productivity tools for writers is one of the best ways to feel productive without achieving a damn thing. Close this tab! Go! Write!

Still here? Okay, I have to admit that from deep within the towering dung-heap of procrastination-friendly digital shiny things, I have managed to uncover a few gems that consistently make me write more, and very possibly better. Enjoy, argue, pass them on, and don’t be shy about suggesting a few of your own.

Scrivener

From the first day I tried Scrivener, “the first and only word processing program designed specifically for the messy, non-linear way writers really work”, I knew I could never go back to the plodding constraints of Word or even the sensual pleasures of paper and pen. Like many who grew up with screens, I write in a highly architectural way, and Scrivener brilliantly anticipates exactly what my chaotic brain needs.

An independent piece of software developed by an aspiring writer who couldn’t find a way to order his research and his notes, Scrivener has won numerous awards for its ingenious system of folders, corkboards, notes and composing windows, which allow you to keep all your references, drafts, notes and inspirations in one place and instantly navigate between them; tag, categorise and search for super-specific elements; track character arcs or themes; and eventually, download the whole manuscript in the auto-format of your choice, from Kindle eBook to screenplay. Normally a manual hater, I strongly recommend completing the on-screen walkthrough, which will help you understand all sorts of clever shortcuts, details and customisations to get the most from the software. In practice, I spend most of my time in the simple ‘blackout’ composing screen, which focuses your text in the middle of clean, distraction-free black page. But I would be lost without the ‘snapshot’ function, which allows you to capture and store the current version of your document at any time, and the synopsis panes, which force me to summarise each chapter succinctly as I go. A no-brainer. Download it now.

Evernote

Inspiration usually strikes in places where it is difficult to whip out a notebook – on the tube, on the toilet, in a work meeting, at the gym. I always loved the idea of carrying a beautiful personalised Moleskine and fountain pen wherever I went, but in practice I would forget, or spill coffee on it, or run out of ink, and when I returned to my scribblings they were not only illegible but impossible to organize into a coherent structure.

Evernote is the best digital note-taker I’ve come across. This free, simple app allows you to capture notes on your phone via text, audio, video and photo, then synchs them across all your devices, such as your laptop and tablet. You can search by tag, keyword or even text within an image, and easily transfer notes to another application such as Scrivener. Using your online Evernote account, you can also access them from anywhere in the world, safe in the knowledge that they are always floating in the cloud, and that you need never again lose that perfect opening sentence that you scribbled on a paper napkin with eyeliner. Oh, that sentence. You still mourn for that sentence, don’t you?

Shareist 

Fresh out of beta, Shareist is the quickest and easiest tool I’ve found for capturing and organising the research and inspiration I find on the web. An evolution of the old bookmarking platforms, Shareist provides you with a button for your browser which will capture any webpage, blog, video or image; allow you to title, tag and comment on it; and then turn it into an entry in a private ‘notebook’, which you can edit, format and even export as a book or a blog post.

The key feature here for me is the privacy. Online bookmarking has traditionally been seen as a social facilitator, whereby you display, share and discuss cool stuff you’ve found. Shareist, on the other hand, is geared towards helping you create and curate your own personal treasure trove. It allows you to move more quickly through the glittering mines of the web without getting distracted by individual nuggets; just chuck ‘em in your Shareist bucket, and return to them when you have more leisure for Gollum-like fingering. The free version only allows you to create one notebook, which can be a pain if you’re working with multiple projects or themes, but it’s definitely worth a try. 

Lulu 

You’ve finally finished your first draft. First, you need a drink or twenty; then, you need some perspective. After months spent nose to laptop, it’s hard to read your story with fresh eyes, so take a week off, sign up to Lulu.com and turn your draft into a proper book. I have heard more good word of mouth about Lulu than any other self-printing platform. It is clear, easy and quick to use, offers competitive pricing and allows you to order just one copy. A 300 page black and white paperback will set you back around eight quid, and will be shipped within 3-5 days from whichever global print operation is nearest your address, so with a good wind you could have your embryonic darling on your doormat within a week.

This is not an encouragement to consider your first slew of brain diarrhoea as a finished product – nor an excuse to spend hours mocking up cover art complete with ‘Booker Shortlist 2013’ sticker (don’t pretend you haven’t); but it will help to de-familiarise your work. Your Lulu book should be approached as a single working copy to scribble all over, not a mass order to share. Read it through once without making notes to experience the overall flow and only then pick up your red pen. You won’t want to print off a full new copy after every draft, but after the marathon of the first, it really helps.

Quit

We don’t need scientific research to know that the Internet is turning us into goldfish. When I finally, properly committed to writing my novel eighteen months ago, I found myself having to entirely rewire my behaviour. At first I could only manage a few sentences before I cast around for a link to click. I was sure that I could physically feel my brain fluttering like a moth trapped in a jar. With practice, it has calmed considerably, but a ‘quick email check’ still has the ability to turn me into the writer’s equivalent of Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, dashing breathlessly from Pinterest oubliette to Facebook bog while the great social media Bowie-god in the sky waves a hardback in front of me with a mockingly raised eyebrow.

I’m not a big believer in online ‘nanny tools’ such as Cold Turkey or Chrome Nanny, which forcibly shut down timewasting applications or restrict your web access.  I am, however, a big fan of the rewarding sensation of self-control. So acquaint yourself with that unfortunately Americanised little menu-option called Quit. Yes, turn shit off. Close your email application. Shut down your browser. Deactivate Skype and MSN. Don’t just put your phone face down on the desk, tuck it in your bag and do up the zip. Promise yourself a ‘check-in session’ every ninety minutes. I still sometimes find this really difficult; I recommend meditation as an effective accompaniment to keep your focus muscles lean and mean.

This feature originally appeared on The Writing Platform.

10 Social Media Myths For Writers

What the hell happened with social media? We were told that the fierce publishing-industry lion wouldst lay down with the fragile disenfranchised-author lamb and share the cool bounty of the literary watering hole. UnicornRainbow They promised that we’d be able to get all warm and snuggly with readers across the world while just happening to shift millions of copies of our noir circus thriller on the side. We were assured that from now on, becoming a global writing success would be easier, quicker, cheaper, and much more amenable to the uninterrupted wearing of Marmite-stained pyjamas.

So how did our glorious peer-to-peer revolution turn into a riot of BDSM fan fiction trilogies, ‘15% OFF MY NEW SCIFI EBOOK @GREATDISMAL LOVES IT BUY NOW’ tweets, and £250 workshops from seven year olds offering to gift us the secrets of social self-promotion success?

The truth is, it’s our fault. Most writers persist in labouring under a series of illusions about what social media is and isn’t, can and can’t do; illusions that generate huge frustration and anxiety. Weeding out these pervasive myths can be painful at first, but the sooner you identify exactly if, and how, these channels fit with your skills and aims, the sooner you can get back to that draft. So let’s go.

1.     Social media is a great marketing tool

Social media is a rubbish marketing tool. This set of technologies was designed to help us build relationships and share passions, not become the delighted recipients of targeted messages from strangers trying to steal our attention and our money. Attempting to establish yourself online once you have completed your manuscript, for the sole purpose of flogging said manuscript, will feel like bashing your head against a brick wall. Wrong hammer, crooked nail.

Example: Frankie Sachs outs the book spammers in fabulous style.

2. It’s the perfect place to talk about you and your book

Ah yes! Just like how people love it when you corner them at a party and bend their ear about your brilliant opus, right? Wrong. If you focus on connecting with likeminded people on their own terms, garnering inspiration, reading others’ work and having interesting debates, your online community probably will develop curiosity about your own work and evolve into readers somewhere along the line. But you need to give in order to receive.

Example: @chuckpalahniuk and @neilhimself are generous, witty, eclectic and useful tweeters.

3. It’s quick

Getting someone who likes expressing themselves in 140 characters to commit to 80,000 words – let alone Vols II and III of your Downton/alien trilogy – requires a reader relationship more akin to a marriage than a one night stand. Building large-scale engagement in social media that really will drive sales takes serious man-hours, and requires a hefty emotional investment, too.

Example: Self-epublishing specialists Joanna Penn and Louise Voss both recommend spending 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media to get results. That’s as quick as treacle.

4. It’s cheap

See above. Your time is money. It may well be better spent making your book really good. This is historically the reason why authors have preferred to pay agents and publishers to have ego-stroking lunches with influential people in Soho House, so you can have Marmite on toast and write, instead.

Example: Rob Eager writes eloquently on the hidden costs of social networking.

5. You can keep your personal and professional selves separate

Because we all love getting close and personal with Author: The Brand? You can’t treat social as a PR project.  You have to find what you love about this way of communicating, and bring an authentic sense of your own self to the playground. If you really hate that idea, if you think it’s all so much timewasting, you simply shouldn’t be there. We can tell.

Example: @lindasgrant is a self-confessed one-time sceptic who learned to love the Twitter beast – and Twitter loves her back.

6. You just need to be yourself

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t don a sexy and efficient business hat. Be strategic. Understand what you want to achieve. What proportion of your time will you spend talking about yourself, versus asking others questions or sharing their content? Figure out who your target audience is, where they are talking, and be as helpful, interesting and relevant as you can. Sure, look at shoes on Pinterest, but don’t pretend it’s work.

Example: Michael Hyatt used social media to get his book on the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal best-seller lists, but it took some serious tactical planning.

7. You need to be on every new platform

Whether it’s Path or Soci or MySpace (again), there will always be a box-fresh platform promising to be the next best thing, so you need to keep your head and choose the tools that most suit your personality and target audience. A witty satirist who loves peddling opinions about breaking news? Twitter’s your tool. A lengthy pontificator penning an epic historical drama? You may do better with a blog. Your protagonist is a photographer? May I suggest Instagram?

Example: Dennis Cass used video to brilliant effect with his ‘Book Launch 2.0’.

8. Facebook is the holy grail

It is very difficult to gain any kind of meaningful professional traction on Facebook. Liking a page or post involves minimal effort, but also minimal passion. Facebook a good place to spread the word amongst your family and friends, but they’re probably in your corner already; and self-promotional messages grate in the midst of the intimate chat and photos. Sure, use Facebook, but don’t depend on it.

Example: Some sobering examples of the meaninglessness of Facebook Likes.

9. You can always pay someone else to do it for you

It might seem easier, but this is a big fat waste of time. The whole joy of social media is that it cuts out the middle man between you and your readers. Why on earth would you put the middle man back in? Again, if you really hate this stuff, don’t do it. There are more than one way to skin a cat. If this blade doesn’t fit your hand snugly, go back to the drawer.

Example: If the thought of this doesn’t make you die a little inside, you’re already a corpse.

10. It’s the best place to generate word of mouth

No, it’s the best place to easily see word of mouth. US researchers Keller Fay consistently report that 90% of WOM still occurs face to face. So if you’re only thinking about how to be conversational online, you’re ignoring the iceberg beneath the tip. Team up with local bookshops, cafes and reading groups. Seed some copies on trains and planes with personalised notes. Focus less on the venues for where the conversation will happen; focus more on creating the sparks that will ignite it.

Example: Keller Fay’s The Face To Face Book is mandatory further reading.

This feature originally appeared on The Writing Platform.

My Life In Twelve Books

Screen Shot 2013-02-12 at 12.25.57 Last week, a colleague of mine asked if I would participate in a Pinterview (a Pinterest interview. Don’t judge.) called ‘My Life In Books.’ The idea was that I would submit images of the covers of twelve books that had been important to me at different stages of my life, in chronological order, with a short description of why each one had made such an impact at that time.

Try it. How long does it take you to reduce your literary soul down to a handful of JPEGs? I initially found the exercise excruciating, but soon realized that I was making two big mistakes. First, I was trying to squeeze in my all-time favourite books, when what was really needed were ones that affected me strongly at a certain time of my life, but which may be much less relevant or beloved now. Secondly, I was, inevitably, worrying about what other people might think. Was the proportion of cerebral classics to trash just high enough to suggest the perfect cocktail of rigorous intellect and fun-loving unpretentiousness? If I left out Dickens or Woolf or Franzen or Mitchell, would the Thor Of Writing render me incapable of typing a decent sentence ever again? Did I have enough women? Did I have enough racial diversity? Did, in short, my bibliophilic biography suggest that I was a big fat middle-class British cliché?

Well, yes, it did. But it also stirred up some wonderful memories and has proven to be a brilliant talking point with fellow clichés of all backgrounds and tastes. I’ve outlined my twelve below, but I’d love to hear about yours. Post them in the comments or add a post to the Nudge Facebook page. It’s the perfect opportunity to get to know the Nudge community better. Just try to be honest, and please, don’t judge.

1988: The Beano 

So it isn’t exactly a book, but my early love of the Beano sparked a devotion to comics and graphic novels that holds firm today. From Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’s Ex Machina series about a New York mayor with superpowers to Shaun Tan’s lyrical story for all generations The Red Tree, I still experience unparalleled energy and emotion from comics. Also, I had the best pair of Dennis the Menace bell-bottomed jeans.

1991: The Owl Service by Alan Garner 

As an introverted country tomboy I was an obsessive bookworm and an expert in hedgerows, ditches and streams.  Garner's weird mythic magic burrowed deep into my brain and stayed there, and I find his influence shining through as I write my first novel now.

1995: Riders by Jilly Cooper 

I used to read my sister’s Jilly Coopers on the school bus, hidden inside virtuous dustjackets so that my mother wouldn’t confiscate them.  Rupert Campbell-Black lived in an 80s glamour-world I could only dream of, and dream, wetly, I did. Cooper remains the original and best romance queen.

1997: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot

Oh, those opening lines… Chaucer and Eliot are my favourite London poets. Their ghosts are with me beside the murky Thames, in the self-conscious chatter of the Soho members' clubs and in the grimy Hackney back streets alike. Eliot reminds me of my tall, wonderful clock-repairing grandfather: musical, bleak, funny, obsessed with time. I read an extract from Four Quartets at his memorial service.

2000: His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman 

Pullman’s breathtakingly subtle and ambitious trilogy contains one of those stories that always seems to have been waiting to be told, and outlines a beautiful humanist philosophy that never fails to make me appreciate the world anew. Incidentally, my daemon is a falcon with green eyes called Lysander.

2001: Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

My university specialisms were Middle English, Arthurian Myth and Shakespeare: ideal preparation for modern life. The audiobook of Heaney reading his translation guarantees goosebumps every time. Hasped and hooped and hirpling, indeed.

2003: The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett 

My mum read these sixteenth-century historical epics in her early 20s and passed her foxed paperbacks on to me. Dunnett's research is mind-blowing research, her dialogue knife-sharp, and Francis Lymond is the best blond in fiction.

2005: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson 

In my twenties, I suddenly realized that I had miraculously become part of a generation where my geekdom was a positive thing. It’s difficult to choose between Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson and Gibson in terms of my influences at the time, but Gibson simply blows my mind with his urgency, his energy and his exuberant ideas. Although I do now fear I may be turning into Bigend.

2009: The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox 

In 2009 I was invited onto BBC Radio 4, as a guest on A Good Read alongside Michael Mansfield QC. I chose this dark, sensual tale of a fallen angel in nineteenth century Burgundy which seemed to leave both Mansfield and the deeply lovely Sue McGregor utterly baffled, but I was so delighted to be in the mothership, and talking books to boot, I didn’t care.

2011: Incognito by David Eagleman

I'm intrigued by neuroscience and started exploring several authors concerned with positive and cognitive psychology at this time. Eagleman not only thinks big but writes beautifully. His collection of short stories Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is a cult gem, too.

2012: Waterlog by Roger Deakin 

Living in Hackney, I miss proper nature with a visceral ache. Deakin’s part-travelogue, part-memoir, part-nature essay is an incredible love song to the disappearing wonders of wild Britain. I must read more non-fiction.

2013: Mog by Judith Kerr 

I've now come full circle with my two year old niece Esme, revisiting the books I loved as a child. Mog perfectly expresses feline disgust for the human race in general, and babies in particular. Judith Kerr’s books have more than stood the test of time.

This feature originally appeared on Bookdiva.

Close Encounters Of The Word Kind

PROSE This Christmas, I bought my mother-in-law a Smythson ‘Book Notes’ journal: 128 leaves of gilt-edged, pale blue featherweight paper bound in monogrammed navy lambskin, with each double-spread designed to record the Date, Title, Author and Comments of your latest read. Yes, I am a kiss-ass. She makes great eggnog. But I’m also deeply admiring of her diligence in keeping detailed notes and research on everything she reads in preparation for her local book club.

What was the best book that you read this year? It’s a classic festive dinner-table question but one I find almost impossible to answer. While my mother-in-law is able to rattle off long lists of best and worst, with ample context and lucid argument, I stare blankly into space trying to remember a single thing I’ve read other than whatever’s currently in my bag. And while I’d like to blame my lack of elegant stationary, I know that the real culprit is my propensity to gobble novels like Lindor truffles. I usually read compulsively, voraciously, in a glassy trance from which I emerge only faintly aware of what I’ve just experienced, like a compulsive binger who stares around at the empty Pringle pots in surprise.

The answer is quite obviously to read more slowly, more carefully and yes, perhaps even with a scribbled observation or two. But three years of a Literature degree bequeathed me, along with an impressive but hard-to-monetise fluency in Middle English, a decade-long phobia of literary criticism and its concomitant slow, analytical appraisal of text (horrible word). Anyone who has ploughed their way through a curriculum-issue paperback, circling metaphors, highlighting themes and writing things like ‘subjugation of the other!!’ in the margin, will have experienced the depressing reduction of a living, breathing story to, in the words of TS Eliot, “a patient etherised upon a table.” Close reading has all the romance of bowel surgery, and trails a whiff of righteous killjoy akin to pulling the casket from a conjurer’s hands in order to cook his rabbit.

But a recent New Year present-to-self – Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer – has persuaded me to recommit to its joys. Prose is both a working novelist and a university professor, and her witty, down to earth approach reframes close reading as a humble, intimate and joyful art. As she says, “writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us to read closely, to disassemble and reassemble them, much the way a mechanic might learn about an engine by taking it apart,” and through chapters such as Words; Sentences; Paragraphs; Character and Gesture she encourages us to examine a book’s nuts and bolts while never losing sight of the pleasure of the whole.

Prose’s admirable and rare belief that it is “easier to learn by example then by abstraction” results in parsed extracts from writers as diverse as Jane Austen and Gary Shteyngart, but she also steers clear of excessive nit-pickery, rather pointing our eye in the right direction and letting us intuit how the alchemy works. Of the last two paragraphs of Raymond Carver’s short story, Fat (which you can hear Anne Enright read here):

It is August.

My life is going to change. I feel it.

- she reflects that Carver’s bold structural decision manages to “combine statement and qualification, certainty and doubt” but “in a way that we can no more ‘explain’ than we can summarize the ‘point’ of poetry or analyse how it operates on us.” It is this combination - the clarity of Prose’s observations teamed with her refusal to reduce the results of literature to something mechanistic - which makes her book so good.

In an early chapter, Prose exhorts us to fill a bookshelf by our desk with works by authors who demonstrate mastery in the specific writing skills most pertinent to, or indeed most lacking in, ourselves. It’s an excellent idea, and asking others for recommendations is a great way to build a 2013 reading list – and, sometimes, to be surprised by the acuity of your friends. My fledgling collection includes several novels by Rose Tremain, for the rhythm of her sentences and her exquisite evocation of sense of place; Elizabeth Knox for subtle, glowing imagery; Dorothy Dunnett for dialogue and exposition; Jonathan Franzen and Joshua Ferris for characterisation and point of view; Virginia Woolf for words and, again, sentences; and Dickens for gesture and stage management. I’d love to hear which authors or individuals works you would chose.

I’ve also committed to reading one poem slowly every night before I go to sleep. Poetry is a great training ground for close reading, excavating nuance and surprise from the most simple words and grammatical choices. The anthology Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, edited by Roger Housman, yields both old favourites and surprising gems, all with a focus on reinvigorating the overlooked everyday, and has become something of a personal primer.

As a writer, my work is hugely improving by shifting from an instinctive education-by-osmosis model of reading to a more purposeful and present one. But I’m also noticing that those passages I read with such deep attention cling to my mind like raindrops; their images, meanings and music glistening at unexpected moments, and resonating throughout my day. I’d recommend it. Close reading may give you a serious advantage round the turkey next year.

This article originally appeared on Bookhugger.