Hatchets and Hodge: Quirky facts and figures from the publishing world

A hatchet is taken to Morrissey

You might think that most literary prizes emphasised the positive but the British have a snarky prize that is firmly based on negatives. It’s the Hatchet Job of the Year Award and it’s for the best slag off review from a book reviewer. This year the nominees included Peter Kemp (Sunday Times) who slapped down Donna Tartt’s The gold-finch, Frederic Raphael (Times Literary Supplement) who launched his vitriol at John Le Carre’s A delicate truth and David Sexton (Evening Standard) who wasn’t awed by Man Booker winners and took issue with Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries.

Cover of AutobiographyBut the winner was A.A. Gill for his ‘expert caning’ of Morrissey and his Autobiography:

The first quarter is devoted to growing up in Manchester (where he was born in 1959) and his schooling. This is laughably overwrought and overwritten, a litany of retrospective hurt and score-settling that reads like a cross between Madonna and Catherine Cookson.

Patricia Hodge

Fans of Miranda Hart will understand why Patricia Hodge, who plays Miranda’s mother, has called her forthcoming autobiography, My life in, what I call, a book.

Z for Zachariah

Cover of Z for ZachariahLately Hollywood has latched on to YA (young adult) titles for the big screen treatment. Previously, a number of YA novels made it to the screen but in the format of a television movie (such as Z for Zachariah, now being remade as a biggish Hollywood film on location in Port Levy with a Home and away name in the cast). Major reasons for the number of film versions of YA novels are the enormous success of the Hunger games and the Twilight franchises. Upcoming are adaptations of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, John Green’s The fault in our stars, Lauren Kate’s Fallen, Tim Tharp’s The spectacular now, Lois Lowry’s The giver and more.

There is another reason which has been under-played: YA novels usually can get in under the rating radar as PG in America as the R rating can limit audience numbers. There is, as well, to be fair, the fact that they have strong storylines.

Publishing picks

Publishers Weekly gives overseas bestseller lists from time to time and it’s interesting to see whether the US/UK/downunder market is echoed by titles in other languages. Recently Stephen King is up there in the top three for the French and the Spanish while the biggest seller in Germany for some time is the new one from the author of that eccentric novel about the 100 year old man who jumped out of the window. Top Spanish title is La vida es un regalo, the autobiography of a Spanish racing driver who died just before the book was launched while German readers can’t get enough of a style manual by designer Guido M. Kretschmer.

All over Europe the mania for crime novels is the same as in the English speaking world but Scandinavian crime, while still big, is not as big as it was and every country is fielding a crime writer to try and equal Nordic crime.

James Patterson

Cover of Private LAIn the time it took me to write this there’s probably been two James Patterson novels produced. Many of them these days are by other authors (24 have been used now it seems) as Mr Patterson “defines the brand” and lets his sort of co-authors go to it. Stephen King, who actually totally writes his books himself, called Mr Patterson “a terrible writer” but every airport bookshop around the world can tell you they sell more of James P. than anyone else as you know exactly what you are going to get.

Philip Tew

A half hour with Hugh Howey

Search catalogue for WoolMy first author interview was scary enough, but having to do it on the phone without those useful visual cues, and the whole experience became all the more challenging.  Hugh Howey, author of Wool and Shift was a very kind and patient man however, and he coped well with all my long-winded and rambling questions.

As a member of the team that purchases stock for the library I was particularly interested in Hugh’s approach to self publishing.

Although the library does buy e-books it is not always straight forward.  Publishers and authors have at times had a reluctance to sell e-books to  libraries as it will be borrowed as opposed to individuals purchasing their own titles.

Thankfully this is not an issue for Hugh, he is happy to get readers any way he can and sees libraries purchasing e-books as a boom for the writer. Random House has now picked up this series, but Hugh is totally committed to the self publishing route for authors. As an aside, the editors of his self published books are his wife and mother.

I was keen to find out what Hugh thought about libraries.  

Hugh grew up with three kids in his family with a mum who had several jobs and probably not a lot of spare cash. The library was his favourite place as a child. He reads widely and believes that to write you need to read, and used the analogy of playing football without having watched the game. Watching or reading is how you learn the tactics, get ideas and generally broaden your point of view.

When I was doing some background research I discovered that he makes great use of social media.

Hugh sees writing as an unsocial act and he enjoys connecting with people via his blog and Facebook page.  You can tell this – he responds promptly and seems to enjoy the interactions. He also keeps in contact with others writers via a forum called Kboards. Signing up with Random House has meant the opportunity to travel and meet many of his fans. Next time he plans to come south and bring his wife – we will hold him to that.

The latest book is Shift, and I inquired as to why he had decided to write a prequel at this point in the series.

Hugh felt that there was a need to explain the reasons behind Wool and the Silos before progressing with the series, he also wanted to give us a break from Juliet the main character, but you will be pleased to know that she does make a brief appearance at the end of Shift.

Dust, the last title will be published in October. Hugh is not a writer who is content to let his books evolve, he has already written the last chapter of Dust. He knows exactly where he is taking us. I asked if he considered himself an optimist (considering that both books so far have been quite dark), and he said he is – so I’m hoping for a happy ending!

Shift is more political than Wool. We learn why thousands of people were bunged into silos, and it’s not pretty.  Without giving the plot away, certain quarters of the Democratic Government feel that are one step ahead of the terrorists, and what they are about to do is for the good of humanity. I was curious to ask if this series would have been written if 9/11 had not happened, and Hugh agreed that yes the events of that day and afterwards has shaped him and had definitely helped create this series.  Although he follows politics, he is interested in how politics and political decisions shape people.

Wool and Shift are very visual books and I asked Hugh about his involvement in the proposed film directed by Ridley Scott.

Hugh said that writing for him is like watching a film and that he is a very visual writer. I wondered if he would therefore have a problem with someone else taking his vision and making it their own, but he has no problem with leaving the film completely up to Ridley Scott. Hugh is very happy for the film to stand on its own.

I was interested to know if Hugh agreed that there was a lot of snobbery around reading Science Fiction.

Hugh recounted working in a bookshop and making the decision to move all the great science fiction, eg  Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick etc into the general fiction section. He hoped this would  break down the barriers between the so-called geeks and anoraks, and encourage readers to see that great fiction is just that – great fiction regardless of the genre. Librarians of course are completely hooked on genres and fitting books into categories, the likes of Hugh Howey could come as a bit of a challenge! Perhaps Wool and Shift would fit into what Margaret Atwood regards as speculative fiction, but in the end we agreed that  it is all semantics, and if you enjoy the book then that is what matters.

On that note my half hour was up. Hugh could now get on a plane and go home from his whirlwind tour. This is a writer who we will be hearing a lot more of –  a romance is in the process of being written and he’s rather fond of mystery and horror – something for everyone. I for one couldn’t be more delighted.

What will you be reading this Christmas?

The TwelveOn Wednesday evening I found myself at a publishers’ roadshow. What a treat, and the selection of books that were promoted for the Christmas market were rather good too.

One title that received rave reviews was These wonderful rumours:

At the outbreak of WWII May Smith was 24.  Her two most pressing concerns were what would she do if Hitler invaded and what if her two beaus found out about each other?

Apparently it is “witty, observant and acerbic”, and sounds just the ticket for the summer holidays. It is due to be published in November and we already have it on our library catalogue so it can be reserved.

Other notable mentions A Casual Vacancywere the new title by JK Rowling The Casual Vacancy which is sure to be a big hit and needs no plug from me and The Twelve, Justin Cronin’s scary follow-up to The Passage.

The two titles that interested me most were Keigo Higashino Salvation of a saint and Miranda Hart’s Is it just me?

I read The Devotion of Suspect X last year mainly because Higashino is hailed as the “Japanese Stieg Larsson” and really enjoyed it.  As for Miranda Hart, her You tube clip advertising her book got me hooked and I can’t wait to read it.

Issues with ‘issues’ – is young adult fiction too dark?

coverLast week’s post about the Ms list of novels “that awaken girls to their feminisim” featured lots of ‘issue’ novels; a topic that’s been generating a lot of heat among readers and writers of  young adult fiction.

When The Wall Street Journal recently featured an editorial called Darkness too visible, the title  may have given a clue as to where the author, Meghan Cox Gurdon, was coming from.

No, she is not a fan of the ‘issue’ novel. Gurdon thinks young adult fiction is “ever-more-appalling”, it goes into ‘stomach-clenching detail” and it should not deal with issues like self-harm because it only encourages people to start cutting themselves. Young adults that is. Adults are never influenced by books so we don’t need to worry about them.

Cue lots of young people who actually read these books (gladdening an old librarian’s heart – they are reading) to take to their blogs and twitter accounts (#YAsaves trend) to describe how books saved them from despair.

Writers like Meg Cabot, Susane Colisanti, Laurie Halse AndersonNeil Gaiman and Jackie Morse Kessler  weighed in as well, talking about  young adult books providing positive moral guidance,  saving lives and encouraging healing. But then they would say that, being as they specialise in books about every issue you hope you’ll never have to deal with.

Last week Laraine commented on the Ms list – “As a teenager I loathed books that rubbed my nose in my problems. I read to “get me outa here!” In other words, I wanted something as different from my life as possible.”

What do you think?  Do you have a favourite ‘issue’ novel? Or should authors stay away from the darker side of life?

Agony, ecstasy and letting your writing go

logoAnyone who has ever slaved over a piece of prose or poetry knows the agony of finally admitting that it is ready to be released into the wild, to take its chances amidst the front-runners and also-rans in the publishing world.

As soon as your manuscript has been prised from your hot little hand (or keyboard), you are stricken with doubt: should I have edited it one more time? Did I let it slip from my grasp before it was fully matured, a mere wordy stripling competing with mature authorial oaks?

Ok, ok, enough metaphorical hand wringing, you get the picture – it’s hard to let your baby go and be judged by others. At the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival session we’ll hear from several experienced writers regarding this problem:

Aminatta Forna: born in Glasgow, raised in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom. She is the award-winning author of  The Devil That Danced On The Water (a memoir of her dissident father and Sierra Leone),  Ancestor Stones (linked short stories set in Sierra Leone), and her new novel The Memory Of Love (a story of friendship, war and obsessive love).

Gail Jones: an Australian author who has won many awards (including the WA Premier’s Award for Fiction, the Age Book Of The year Award, the Adelaide Festival Award For Fiction and many others), been shortlisted for international awards and her fiction has been translated into five languages. She has five novels published – Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, Dreams Of Speaking, Sorry, and her most recent Five Bells.

David Mitchell: an English novelist who has written five novels, Ghostwritten; number9dream; Cloud Atlas; Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. number9dream and Cloud Atlas were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001 and 2004 respectively.  He has lived all over the world and has known that he has wanted to be a writer since he was a child. Mitchell has the speech disorder of stammering and has said that he ‘outed’ himself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, that is narrated by a stammering 13 year old.

Tea Obreht: born in the former Yugoslavia, and spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt before immigrating to the US. Her short stories have been widely published, and her first novel The Tiger’s Wife was published in 2010.

David Vann: an assistant professor of English at the University of San Francisco, teacheing creative fiction and non-fiction. He is the author of a memoir – A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea, and has had other work appear in many magazines. He has also written two novels – Legend Of A Suicide; and Caribou Island.

Having personally filed many pieces of work into a bottom drawer, never to see the light of day again, and agonised time and again over exactly when a story has been edited for the final time, I’m looking forward to hearing how ‘real’ authors have coped with sending their work out into the world.

A guide to writing and illustrating for children

Does every lover of reading also love writing? I don’t know about you, but I have always wanted to be a writer. As a kid, I would staple a few pieces of A4 paper together, come up with a title, illustrate the cover, write a blurb and review (one celebrity or another always thought my work was “the best ever”) on the back, and leave the inside pages blank.

In my teens, I wrote experimental poetry and novels about love and death. I even got paid to illustrate a book written for Korean children learning English. Now, I still love words, still occasionally jot down an idea for a novel or picture book, still dream of being known as THE literary talent of our time … but that’s as far as it goes.

For those of you who are smart enough to know that in order to get published you must actually write something, the library can help you become the next Margaret Mahy or Gavin Bishop.

Top tips from those in the business

  • Do your research – get to know your audience and the works of other successful authors writing similar material;
  • Be original, use humour, and stay clued up on what’s current;
  • Keep your writing simple but effective;
  • Respect your readers;
  • Prepare to rewrite, revise and edit again … and again … and again;
  • Make sure your manuscript is well-presented;
  • Remember to include your name and address, cover letter and relevant CV, and a stamped, self-addressed envelope (ouch, the publishing industry can be cruel).

Writing and Illustrating for Children was originally prepared by Bill Nagelkerke and is now freely avaialable online from your library.

Ben Naparstek and Doogie Howser

PhotoIt’s okay to make the comparison above, because I am merely quoting chair Guy Somerset’s introductory remarks about the wunderkid of interviewing, Ben Naparstek.  He himself gets very tired of all the focus being on his age (he’s 24), but truth told it really is astonishing that he has managed to do so much in such a short time, and so incredibly well (particularly given that it has taken me 187 years to even do my first interview).

Beginning his journalistic and interviewing career at the tender age of 15, and with hundreds of interviews with dazzlingly famous people since then, Ben is now the editor of the Australian magazine The Monthly.  He is well-spoken, erudite, and solemnly serene.

He’s here talking about his recently released book, Ben Naparstek: In Conversation, a collection of 40 interviews with, as the blurb says, “the famous, the difficult, and the sometimes downright elusive”.  Many of the names he’s talking about are unfamiliar to me, particularly the names of other journalists and editors, but there are many nodding heads in the room, and I figure it’s just me being uneducated, and clearly not widely-read. Perhaps because of this, I find myself strangely mesmerised by Guy Somerset’s rather daring stripe-y socks,  and I resolve to ask Richard if he has fared better with the names.

I do, however, manage to take away a few gems for future thought – that the ethics of interviewer-interviewee relationships are immutable; that fact-checking is vital; that interviews should never be ‘friendly’, but always focused on delivering the outcome; and that the purpose of an interview is never to impress the interviewee with your own knowledge, wit, social ability or fashion sense (just as well, really, from my point of view!).

Helen Lowe heads for publishing bigtime

Christchurch based Helen Lowe,  has just sold the UK and Australia/New Zealand rights to her 4-book Fantasy series, The Wall of Night to Little Brown & Co in the UK. She has already sold the North American rights to HarperCollins and the first book, The Heir of Night, is scheduled for publication in the United States and Canada in October.

Helen’s first novel, Thornspell was launched at Fendalton Library in 2008.   The book went on to win the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel: Young Adult in 2009 and was also a Storylines Children’s Literature Trust Notable Book.
When asked how she felt about the deal, Lowe said: “Very happy! Selling the books into the UK and Australia/New Zealand markets, as well as being published in the USA/Canada, is a pretty big deal for a new New Zealand author.”

Publishing in the 21st century: The end of the golden weather?

I was really looking forward to this session after hearing Derek Johns speak earlier at the festival. Obviously, so were lots of other people as the Downstage Theatre, a brutalist structure that would be at home in any corner of Christchurch, was packed to the gunnels.

Noel Murphy from the New Zealand Book Council did the appropriate thing for any discussion about publishing and made sure everyone had a drink – water of course -and then abruptly copped some unnecessary flak for talking too fast. There were also some yelps about lack of volume, but as the guests were introduced – Johns (A P Watt), Michael Heywood (Text), Sam Elworthy (Auckland University Press) and Laurie Chittenden (HarperCollins) – the audience mostly composed themselves and got on with listening.

Learning about each guest’s career roles gave us an insight into the world publishing scene and a potted transtasman publishing history. The former “lucrative dumping ground” of the Australian and New Zealand market has now taken two different paths – Australia is a rights territory and does not allow parallel importing, New Zealand has no geographical rights and publishers here can potentially be competing against overseas imprints of their own works.

Murphy’s cleverly put questions gave broad scope for the panel to answer. Is this the golden age of publishing? The large number of formats and wide availability of books, plus the high levels of readership / literacy in places like New Zealand, Australia and Iceland would seem to be ideal conditions.

  • Derek Johns said silver age – very optimistic about reading, he said that digital offered a great deal of potential but there were many systemic publishing issues to be worked out. In Britain, at least, he said, people didn’t pay enough for books. The novel was a function of nineteenth-century leisure time – digital was much more flexible.
  • Michael Heywood was impressively relentless in his support of independent publishing, and authors. Festival and reading culture in this part of the world is in great shape, but at risk are quality independent booksellers and smaller publishers. The best work is done when publishing is the daily bread of a company. His summation? Golden-ish. The digital expansion will be fast  – but what was really exciting was the range of titles on best-seller lists.
  • Sam Elworthy said New Zealand publishing was exciting as in many areas there hadn’t been books published before, and that the process of finding new talent was one of discovering authors who could encourage a broad audience, even for academic subjects.
  • Laurie Chittenden also said golden, but wasn’t sure what came next.  She made the encouraging point that the American market is much more diverse now and the ‘Americanisation’ of manuscripts has largely stopped.

What would have made the session a stand out for me would have been if there were some digital books on display, or a datashow of what some of the devices look like. I’m not sure the audience would have been able to see them, or may have thought the Kindle was something you light the fire with, but that’s probably festival fatigue talking.

I’ve tried books on my iPod touch and quite like the format, and this week the number of available books overtook games  on the iTunes store. Perhaps the audience would have a better handle if they saw some of the technologies and possibilities. Audrey Niffenegger was right when she said that they are evolving quickly and are quite primitive, sneakily imitating the book, and that soon new forms would spring up for them. Being able to enlarge the text, or slow down the speed at which a book is read to you, or increase the volume – these are options that digital books offer people – this audience may have been reassured by that.

The panel were also all agreed that the publishing process was valuable for readers – the development of authors and manuscripts, the aggregation and quality assurance functions, for instance. They didn’t focus on any threat that digital might encompass, but were eager to ensure that the publishing industry – including authors and readers – had a long future yet.

Who won the top Christmas Book?

First things first, and because I know the anticipation is killing you, Dan “Da Vinci” Brown squeaked into the UK top spot with The lost symbol  squeezing out the Guinness World Records 2010. Dan also triumphed in the US christmas fiction list beating James Patterson’s I, Alex Cross into second place.

We’ll have to wait until January 14th before Booksellers NZ releases New Zealand’s bestsellers for the period between December 19th 2009 and January 9th 2010 but it isn’t too great a stretch to imagine Dan recreating his triumph here. Love him or loathe him, the first print run for Dan’s latest “masterpiece” was 6.5 million copies and this tinsel triumph is his second UK festive number one, The Da Vinci code  climbed to the top of the christmas tree in 2004.

The  frenzied book-war for the UK’s Christmas title of 2009 began early this year with 800 new releases hitting the shelves on a single day, 1 October, or “Super Thursday” as journo-types have coined it. Book sales this year have been globally drab so the festive season run-up has been seen by many as pivotal to keeping the book industry afloat. Early hopefuls for the top bunk  included the second installment of the Peter Kay story Saturday Night Peter and memoirs from comedians Jo Brand, Jack Dee and Justin Lee Collins. New novels by Audrey Niffenegger, Kate Mosse, Martina Cole and  Cecelia Ahern kept the fiction flag flying. And of course there was the traditional turkey tussle between the chefs with Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver going head-to-head.

But more importantly what can we look forward to in 2010?

Committed : A sceptic makes peace with marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert.

The Swan Thieves by  Elizabeth Kostova.

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

The Pregnant widow by Martin Amis

Blood men by Paul Cleave

Ape house by Sara Gruen

The unnamed by Johua Ferris

Message from an unknown Chinese mother : Stories of loss and love by Xinran

And many, many more ……yippeee

The Christmas Top 10 Uk books:

New Zealand’s Top Five Christmas sellers from Nielsen BookScan:

  • The lost symbol by Dan Brown
  • Ali’s book of tall tales by Ali Williams
  • The story of Danny Dunn by Bryce Courtenay
  • Guinness world records 2010
  • A song in the daylight by Paullina Simons