|How do your interests and work experience affect your writing?|
|I’ll start with my work experience. My day job was in the business world. I worked for the same firm for over twenty-three years, and for sixteen of those I was on the board of directors. I would say that the disciplines of project management, of finishing long and difficult projects, and of bringing them in on budget have been invaluable. I did not know when I started writing my first novel that it was going to take four years to complete. If I did, I might have thought twice about it. My business know-how also forces me to treat self-publishing as a small business. I still freelance in insurance, auditing other companies. I think the fine attention to deal is invaluable in many areas: scrutinising a plot when looking for continuity errors, carrying through that ‘what if?’ question to its natural conclusion, working a change through from beginning to end, knowing how the book should look on the page.
As for my interests, I always choose to write about subjects I feel passionately about, whether it is photography (I Stopped Time), Child Protection laws (A Funeral for an Owl), prostitution (A Funeral for an Owl), or the religious upbringing I rejected (These Fragile Things). No experience is wasted.
|What is your latest novel called and what is it about?|
|My soon to be released novel is called An Unknown Woman. In December 2013 I announced publicly that I was going to cut right back on paid work and spend a year trying to live on my earnings as an author. I was already earning very much less than I did at the height of my career as the deputy managing director of a firm of insurance brokers. Already, I had had no new clothes for over four years, but in December I got rid of my car and cut out all of the little luxuries – the takeaway coffees, for example. Everything that was not essential had to go. At the same time, mine was arguably low-level risk. My house is paid for and I have no dependents relying on me. If push comes to shove, I doubt my partner would let me starve. But as my world shrank even further I began to think about how much of our identities are bound up in the things that we surround ourselves with, much of them completely unnecessary, but the things that have become our armour. To my right as I sit here is my bookshelf. The selection of books on display in my dining room is not random. Each book tells part of my history and says something about me. ‘If we are what we own, then who are we when we own nothing?’ And so, in the first scene in An Unknown Woman I burn down my house and everything in it. Anyone who knows me will recognise that it is my house; those are my things. People who have read the early drafts asked me how could I do that? (Certainly, I’ve become quite paranoid about switching anything electrical off before I leave the house). Although the character is not me, I think that in order to make the emotion as raw and authentic as possible, you have to make it personal.|
|Why is independent publishing important to you?|
|The simple answer is that it gave me a second chance.
My first novel (hidden away under lock and key) earned me the praise, “Jane, you are a writer”, but not a publishing contract. My second novel had been sitting in my overworked agent’s ‘in’ tray for several months when I attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference in June 2008. It was there that I learned about the Daily Mail First Novel Award. With the closing date for entries only two days away, I had nothing to lose. My incentive for entering wasn’t the thought of winning. It was the promise that all entries would be read. I left my job of twenty-three years the following September, jaded from having had to make so many colleagues redundant. Every time I turned on the television there was talk of financial doom and gloom. Then came the call from Transworld announcing that I had won.
Except that I wasn’t.
In a year when fiction sales plummeted, Half-truths and White Lies, sold reasonably well. Then, in 2009, came my reality check. Transworld exercised their right to ‘first refusal’ of my follow-up novel. The reason? It wasn’t ‘women’s fiction’. I hadn’t appreciated (and no one had thought to explain) the implications of being published under their Black Swan imprint. I had been pigeon-holed – and my new work didn’t fit.
Parting company with my agent, I sought new representation. Rejection letters flattered. My writing was not for them, but with my credentials, I would be snapped up. For a while, I believed them.
Over the next four years, I produced two further novels. Had I been under contract, I would have been chasing deadlines. Instead, with the luxury of time, I added layers to plots, depth to characters and a real sense of time and place. As Hugh Howey said at the London Book Fair, authors should enjoy their anonymity.
In November 2012, I decided I owed it to myself to investigate something I had been resisting. I attended the Writers’ & Artists’ Self Publishing in a Digital Age conference. It was a revelation! There, established authors who had been dropped by their publishers were rubbing shoulders with first-time writers who had released their e-book priced at 99p and had sold 100,000 copies within a year. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out?
Deciding I was in, I released I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things on Christmas Day, using Amazon KPD. (I have since experimented with Smashwords and Kobo.) The decision how to present the work – the designs of covers and the interiors – were all mine. As were the mistakes. (Neil Gaiman refers to Gaiman’s Law. If there’s one typo, it will be on the page your new book falls open to the first time that you pick it up.) Learning by my mistakes, I ironed them out. The following summer, I released paperbacks, using Createspace’s Print on Demand service. The second time around, I was aware that I needed more help. As well as a structural edit, I bartered for services, using a copy editor in return for a testimonial. I also expanded on my volunteer army of beta readers and proofreaders. I didn’t have to ask for volunteers. They came to me. In November that same year, I released A Funeral for an Owl. For my most recent novel, An Unchoreographed Life, I used even more external services. The manuscript has actually undergone three separate copy edits. I also used someone to format the e-books. Readers who discover me tend to devour everything I have written, so I really owe it to them to get it right.
|How do you feel about mainstream publishing?|
|For me – and many like me – it offers validation. Like membership of an exclusive club, the criteria for acceptance is incredibly high, but when you get there… To be honest, I felt incredibly green and, at times, quite stupid. Ridiculous attention was paid to what I was wearing, but not what I had to say. I think we will look back on 2014 as the year when the balance shifted.
What the publishing industry no longer does is offer authors an apprenticeship while they learn their craft and build readership. Val McDermid, who has sold 10 million books and whose novels have been televised as Blood on the Wire, said at the opening of the new Foyles, “If I published my first three novels now, I wouldn’t have a career because no-one would publish my fourth novel based on the sales of my first three.” And this shift in attitude is not only found in the publishing world. Jennifer Saunders tells in her book ‘Bonkers’ that it is the same with television. If a comedy pilot episode doesn’t work there are no second chances. She is a realist saying that if French and Saunders were starting out today, we would never hear of them. It is said that it now takes five years to get a publishing deal and six months to lose it.
Pulitzer prizewinning playwright, David Mamet decided to self-publish a novella and two short stories about war. His reason? Control over the way that the book is promoted. He said, ‘Publishing is like Hollywood. No one ever does the marketing they promise. Far from excluding his literary agent, he is using a new self-publishing service provided by his literary agent. And Mr Mamet has said that, based on his experience, he thinks that self-publishing has far broader appeal.
Joanne Harris is among the authors who recently went to the House of Commons to debate the fact that authors’ incomes have decreased by 29% since 2005. The Society of Authors Chief Executive, Nicola Solomon, has said that traditional publisher’s terms are no longer fair or sustainable. Harry Bingham, founder of Writers’ Workshop – a service which used to help would be authors find publishing deals – has been very vocal in his disillusionment of traditional publishing. Having said that he will self-publish his next novel, he is also changing the focus of the services his firm offers authors.
I spoke over the summer with a traditionally published author who said that traditional publishing still owned bookshops – and then watched the store manager’s face drop when she said, ‘Of course, if libraries and bookshops carry on with their policy of not stocking indie fiction, when I decide to self-publish, they won’t be able to stock my next title.’
In fact, in a survey taken in the summer of 2014, of over 2,500 authors, 25% of those who had traditional deals had also self-published and, of those who had self-published, 89% would do so again. So perhaps it is not a case of ‘jumping ship’, but there is a new breed of hybrid authors who look at each writing project and decide if it is one to submit to their publisher or one to go it alone. My feeling is that once they see the advantages of going it alone, perhaps they will change their minds. Meanwhile, the real success story of 2014 has been the rise of the small presses, publishers who show that they are prepared to take risks, whose focus is the book and the reader, rather than purely on the profit. And it is books from these small presses – Girl is a Half-formed Thing being the obvious example – which have taken major prizes.
Literary agent, Andrew Lownie, now estimates that by 2020 95% of books will be self-published. Ours is the gang everyone wants to join.
|Do you ever read novels more than once? If so, give us the name of one and tell us why you reread it.|
|I do, yes. I have few formal qualificatations and I am not someone who learns well in a classroom setting, so everything that I know about writing, I have learned through reading. I always read paperbacks. My books are littered with margin notes and markings. (People are horrified by this, but I went to Sissinghurst recently to see the book collection belonging to Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold and I am now reassured that this is exactly what you are supposed to do with books.) I underline words and phrases I particularly like. I look for any tricks the author has pulled off – and also any that didn’t work. I mark any changes in points of view or tense. I also copy-edit as I go.
The last book I went straight back to the beginning and started again was The Miniaturist because I just thought it was so well done. I really did get lost in the story. The second time, I wanted to look at the mechanics more. Other books I often revisit are Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Hardy), Cider House Rules (John Irving) and – my all-time favourite – The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, just because it is so epic and there is such a lot to learn from it. The Prince of Tides has everything a novel should. It transports you to another time and place, it has a cast of hugely flawed characters that you gun for all the way, it has a terrible family secret and a doomed love affair, an unusual family pet, it addresses serious issues of mental illness and suicide attempts, and, ultimately, it leaves the path open for redemption. I’m not sure you can ask much more of fiction.
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