Books for free!

Should authors be giving away their books for free? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about since a conversation I had with a group of other authors on Facebook recently.

Gold_BarsIt came as part of a wider discussion about the financial rewards (or otherwise) of writing a book. Cards on the table – at my level of authorship there simply aren’t any significant financial rewards! My book is a literary novel by a first time unknown author, published by a small press – it’s not going to sell like Fifty Shades of Potter. So I didn’t expect to make very much money at all from my book – and have not been disappointed in that expectation.

In fact, it still comes as a surprise and a pleasure to me when a tiny royalty cheque lands on the mat – a novelty if you like. I am amazed I get any money at all for doing something I love – and perhaps that’s the problem we authors have.

Unless we sell books by the skipload authors do not make a great deal of money from the books people buy and the other peripheral things authors do don’t add to their riches either. At my level, for example, getting paid for reading at lit fests is hit and miss. I have been paid on occasion – but I’ve also been expected to turn up for nothing, and pay my own travel expenses, just for the privilege of promoting my book. My view on this has been that as a recently published author, in all humility, I ought to take the opportunities which are offered to me. I accept that I am working for the festival organisers for nothing and put it down to experience.

US_Dollar_banknotesThe thing is though, even more established authors often don’t get paid for work either. There was a row recently when a novelist refused to write a forward for an academic non-fiction book for free. His argument was that, as a professional writer, he ought to be paid for his services. Was that so unreasonable? And I have also heard that very well established writers are still expected to turn up at literature festivals and read for nothing, or for some kind of low value ‘gift.’ Why is this?

It’s a surprising state of affairs I think. The literature festivals only exist because of writers – they sell tickets and make money. So why shouldn’t the writers be paid? I like to compare it to when I was a kid playing in rock bands. If the owner of some bar had asked us to play for nothing, on the basis it would be ‘good exposure’ for us, we would have laughed in his face. Somehow the economy surrounding books and writers has become skewed so that the market has set the value of an author’s labour at more or less zero and the expectation is that they do a lot of work for nothing. We work ‘For the love of it’ or to increase our profile. Where do we draw the line?

BookspileSo – to the business of giving away books.

This is something I didn’t know happened until I had mine published – but I’ve seen plenty of it since. It tends to be the download, Kindle, variety of book which gets given away for nothing. Self published authors do a lot of this, though it is a marketing technique I have also seen adopted by some small publishers. Often books will be given away free as downloads for a limited time – during a free week for example.

I think part of the idea is simply for people to get their book out there – to put it in as many hands and in front of as many pairs of eyes as possible. This is a need I understand only too well. There is a glut of books on the market in an age when people can just publish their own work with no quality control whatsoever. And, of course, there are a lot of calls on people’s time – all those TV shows and movies and web sites and games. Who has time for reading? (Me!).

It is very hard to get your work noticed, however good it may be. So asking people to take a copy of your book off your hands for free – spreading your work around as widely as possible, can no doubt seem like a great way of kick starting it on it’s road to best-sellerdom.

There’s also the issue of the ‘best-seller’ lists, which are broken down into numerous genre and sub-genre groups. How many authors are propping up their claims to be ’best-sellers’ on some of these more minor lists on the basis of the number of books they have given away for free?

Here’s my position – I don’t like the idea of giving away my book for nothing. Why? Because that suggests my work is worthless, and it is not. Song of the Sea God took me two years to write, it’s been nominated for a couple of serious book awards, been published by a reputable publisher with a passion for literary fiction and has had good reviews from readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Frankly I am very proud of it. So why would I want to suggest it is worthless?

Writing is such a subjective business – the only thing which separates me from a mad old lady writing cat poetry is that, sometimes, I get paid.

It really isn’t about the money. I know I am not going to make any significant money from Song of the Sea God – but that does not mean it is not a good book. So why would I treat it as though it is of no value?

That’s why I don’t give away my book for nothing. I don’t do it online and I don’t do it in person. Since I became a published author I’ve been surprised now and again by work colleagues, acquaintances and the like who say things like ’lend me a copy of your book and I’ll read it.’ or ‘stick a copy in the canteen so people can borrow it.‘ I politely decline their kind request. I don’t know who they think has paid for the copy I would be giving them.

I’m lucky in that my publisher has never asked me to give away my book for free through Amazon etc – they’ve set a price for the product and stuck to it. I’m sure I would have handed out a lot more books if I had given them away for nothing – but what would I be saying about the quality of my work?

What’s your view? Let me know in the comments section below!

Song of the Sea God visualIf you’d like to see whether my book is worth paying your hard earned money for you can take a look here at Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

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What the public thinks of writers

Morris_dancers_during_well_dressing,_Etwall_-_geograph_org_uk_-_505411It’s funny the reaction you get when people find out you are a writer and that you’ve had a book published. A fair few look at you as though you are a little odd – they’ve learned something slightly strange and off-beat about you on a par with finding you belong to a religious cult or are a Morris Dancer.

Others are vaguely impressed – they might say something like ‘I’ve never met a writer before.’ They tend to assume you must make some sort of significant money from your book – sadly I have to disabuse them of that notion.

51ATyzrOYVL__AA200_Sooner or later people will compare you to one of their writing points of reference. Up to a couple of years ago this was always JK Rowling. They would say: “Do you write children’s books? Harry Potter is very successful you know.”

This used to make me a bit grumpy – I know writing children’s books is an important skill all of its own – but I write books for grown ups, and that’s quite difficult to do well too. I didn’t say anything though – I’m too polite.

800px-Martin_Amis_2012_by_Maximilian_SchoenherrI remember reading that someone had the brass neck to ask acclaimed literary author Martin Amis the same question.

“People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book,” said Amis “I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’.”

He upset some of the more thin-skinned children’s authors with that one but, I must confess, it did make me laugh.

fifty-shades-of-grey-cac1d39d5bb5c20810b1314bcbf61dee35d8219b-s2-c85These days, things have changed – nowadays authors are no longer asked if they would consider writing for children in order to reap riches beyond dreams of avarice. Now, because of fifty shades of whatnot we are asked if we would consider writing porn.

I can only speak for myself, but again, it’s a no I’m afraid. The truth is I probably know more about wizards than I do about vaguely sadomasochistic mummy porn so I’m just not really qualified to do the subject justice.

When you tell people you’re not going to try your hand at these things they seem disappointed in you – as though you are deliberately, perversely, refusing to do that which would make you successful. But of course the truth is that any writer who becomes a success is a hit because of what they do, not because of copying others.

And there’s no point trying to transform yourself into something you’re not. I’m afraid I’ll just have to continue ploughing the poorly rewarded furrow of literary fiction, because that’s all I’m cut out for.

Song of the Sea God visualIf you’d like to see how I’m getting along why not take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Michael Judge – Author Profile

Today I’d like to welcome Michael Judge who has just had his novel published by Skylight Press, who are also publishers of my book. It’s always a delight to have a fellow Skylight author on my blog – thanks for coming Michael!

1255191_1651996261991_1035335101_nTell me a little bit about yourself as a person?

I come from a very Catholic, very Irish part of Kansas City, Missouri. I don’t imagine that means much to an English or European reader, so think of it this way: if Manchester were the only major city in the UK, & the rest of the island consisted of small towns, gas stations, and disused industry, that would be roughly my geographic situation as a child. A million people hundreds of miles from anywhere, with the entire city leaning down into the Missouri River. Kansas City has a weirdly submerged cultural tradition; it’s where you’re from when you don’t come from anywhere. Stan Brakhage, Robert Altman, Charlie Parker, that ponderous stranger Ed Dahlberg.
I left for music school in Texas at 18, quit music school, got an English degree, planned to become a critical theory professor, quit professing much of anything, and disappeared into the basement of a roadside motel in Indiana for a few months, losing my mind & writing a first novel which is never going to see daylight. I hope. Since then, back to Texas, and about a dozen more books, including a lot of translation.

Tell me about your journey as a writer – how you started and how you have developed?

I really didn’t care much about literature per se till I was 19 or 20 – I read history, music theory, the odd intersection of the two (Greil Marcus, say). The triad that finally got me serious about language was a pretty odd one: William Blake, T.S. Eliot, and William Burroughs. Between those three lay something I wanted & needed to do. Then Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow made me pretty sure that the novel, however mutated, was my form. But, not really having any idea how to go about that work, I read & imitated a lot of systems writers, clever structuralists, people who use prose as a form of calculus: Borges, Calvino, Paul Auster, Robbe-Grillet, Queneau.
Another odd triad got me out of that rut: Djuna Barnes, Iain Sinclair, and Ezra Pound. From those three I learned that a major work could derive its structure not from any preconceived framework, but from a writer’s sense of language itself, from the use of words more than any schematic of reference. Nightwood, Downriver, Lud Heat, Suicide Bridge, The Cantos. At the moment: Paul Celan, Brian Catling, Jeremy Prynne, Walter Benjamin, Aimé Césaire.

How would you describe your work – it‘s themes and the important things about it?

My work comes out of the above-mentioned realization – that what interested me really wasn’t a particular structure or narration but the imaginative process of language itself. Language is alive; it’s an organism with all the biological rudiments; we’re channels & recorders for it. So all my work (to date, at least) forgoes much sense of linear narrative or diagrammatic theme to pursue words along the arcs, momenta, forms of gravity that language itself generates. I’m not really writing ‘about’ that; I’m attempting to do it.
That said, there are definite recurring motifs through all the novels: biology, astronomy, cosmology, the natural sciences; linguistics and especially writing systems – cuneiform, hieroglyph, ideogram, syllabic writing; what I think of as ‘cultural tectonics,’ the process by which an entire civilization suddenly drops an idea or adheres to a new one. I’m constantly drawn back to a brilliant line of Charles Olson’s: “When the attentions change / the jungle leaps in.” Part of what I do is a cartography of the attentions – personal, cultural, political, mythic, cosmological.

Tell me about your current book – what is it about and what makes it a great read?

And Egypt Is the River very much deals with those ideas & attempts to embody them, to partake in the process. Basically, I started from this: in most languages, including English, an etymological analysis of any word will take you back to some very simple physical action or observation. “Abstract” itself means “dragged-away-from.” The French word for magnet is aimant – lover, attractor. There’s a somatic microcosm at the center of these words, an Edenic first-light awareness: putting things together. And the logic of those connections is metaphorical. This is a really important point to me: metaphor precedes rationality, never the other way around. What we call ‘logic’ now is only a metaphorical system that’s managed to obscure its origins. For all its other facets, I think this is the pith of Ezra Pound’s ideogrammic method: the logic of metaphor, the imagination’s way of connecting units of experience, is the logic. The rest are subgroups, derivatives, or – at worst – denials.
So in Egypt, I tried to work through that kind of process, using English as the basic language (though a lot of it is written in grammatical constructions most English speakers would never use, and in a consciously hymnal rhythm pretty far removed from speech). How, given just the names of things, would you begin to connect them? How would words unfold the bones of your world?

Where can I buy a copy of your book?

The book’s available at Amazon here and the Book Depository, or through my publisher – our publisher, actually – Skylight Press (skylightpress.co.uk).

Where can we find out more about you?

I’m kind of a recluse & don’t have a huge online presence, but you can find me on Facebook or write to michael.s.judge@gmail.com You can also read a bit about the book at Skylight’s site or on Iain Sinclair’s semi-official site (iainsinclair.org.uk). I also do the odd reading in Texas, around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, if you happen to live in the middle of the same nowhere.

Cheltenham literature festival memories

800px-Cheltenham_view_arpI work in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, UK, and it’s just about Cheltenham Literature Festival time here at the moment. White marquees are springing up surprisingly like huge alien mushrooms in parks across town. It’s one of the biggest literature festivals in the UK and all very exciting.

The bill features very many celebrities from television and movies who have a book out for Christmas, plus a few proper authors who make a living writing books. Well, you have to put bums on seats after all.

DSC00849 (2)Seeing it all magically appear reminds me of the couple of times I have been invited to the festival to read. Once was last year to launch my book – nothing fancy, just me and a few people in the festival book shop tent. The other time was a few years ago when I was invited to read my Bridport Prize winning short story on a bill with a few other ‘emerging’ authors.

I remember we met up in the reading room in the town hall which felt like quite a posh moment. I was hoping it would be crammed with famous authors, especially as Martin Amis was reading that evening, but he wasn’t there and the only well known face was a bloke called David Bellamy who was a TV naturalist and was surrounded by earnest young men talking about green issues. Still I was pleased to be there and sat in a corner trying to look writerly.

800px-Cheltenham_town_hall_arpTop of my bill was the woman who had won the Orange prize that year, but she didn’t show up, then there was a guy whose first novel had just been published, then me, then a couple of writers from a creative writing website which was sponsoring the event.

So we followed one of the organisers to the venue which turned out to be the student union bar for the University of Gloucestershire. Which was fine, you can imagine what it was like – same as all the other student bars you’ve been in.

The first person to read was one of the writers from the website. She was a middle-aged American lady with quite bright bottle-blonde hair and she was a ‘big personality’ – all full of beans and enthusiastic, which was nice. I asked her if she had butterflies as she was on first and she said no, certainly not. She was all full of vim and get up and go etc. She even punched the air to show how keen she was. But then when she got up on the stage she died a death – completely crashed and burned. She went down like Justin Bieber on an oil rig.

It wasn’t like the Glasgow Empire – people weren’t booing and throwing stuff – there was just monumental indifference. They’d turned the juke box off and dimmed the lights a little but people were still playing pool, the fruit machines were still beeping away, people were talking to each other at the bar and so on. The only people listening were us other writers, because, let’s face it, you wouldn’t want it to happen to you.

She’d picked the wrong story was part of the problem, a sort of comedy about an elderly couple in the Cotswolds and the denouement was that the old boy had left the tickets to Crete in his other smoking jacket (I’m not making this up). And she tried so hard – she was even doing voices – impressions of the posh English couple. But it was just uphill all the way for her. It was much too young a crowd to be interested in that kind of story. At one point she stopped reading and shouted at the people by the bar that it was rude to talk. I really felt for her.

And when she came off stage she was crying – proper tears running down her face. At which point I went to the loo. Which I know might not exactly cover me in glory, but I had to follow this on remember. When I came back she’d gone, without even taking her money – I know!

But the next writer up, again from the website, was only a bit older than the students. She’d brought various stories so she could test the water before deciding what to go with and she read a thing about teenage vampires (again – not making this up) which went down quite well as you would imagine.

I didn’t get to choose my story – I had to do my Bridport winner which was like my hit single at the time (I was a one hit wonder). But when I came back from another visit to the loo the lights had been dimmed further, seats set out in rows, bar shut and everyone sat down like a proper gig. So mine went ok.

I think of that poor American woman when I occasionally do readings though – it shows just how bad things can go if you are unlucky. It helps me prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.