Collaborative Writing

Up on the high moor near Belstone - where I walk for inspiration!

Up on the high moor near Belstone – where I walk for inspiration!

It’s a strange thing that nowadays it really is quite hard for a writer to go out on a limb and try something new.

Some years ago I was on a panel talking with a friend when a member of the audience asked “Is there a natural end point to a series?” Phil Gooden, with masterful understatement, said that he thought any series must end after eleven books. As he said, the author must grow bored with his own characters by then. Any series that long must be running out of steam. The books would be growing stale.

I had to lean over as he spoke and remind him that I’d just published my 21st.

The fact is, that each book and each series can exist in their own sweet world. My series was not one coherent whole. The series changed radically at least four times, running from straightforward cosy crime tales, migrating into books based on social studies, then into legends, and finally becoming political thrillers. My main concept from the earliest days was that each book should stand on its own, and that no consecutive books should be easy to predict. I had books that were largely humorous (The Death Ship of Dartmouth) to deeply black and grim (such as Sticklepath Strangler and Butcher of St Peter’s). A long series will change, but with luck the authors will be able to bring their readers with them.

But it is a sad fact that with the way publishing is being forced to change, there is no longer money to reward the poor authors who generate all the income for publishers, editors and retailers. Also, every book that is published needs to have as strong a business plan as possible. Without the business plan, authors will not get published.

Even the author needs to have good marketing now. I do not know how new authors win their publishing contracts now – I heard recently of one publisher that was demanding that all new writers should have at least 3,000 followers on Twitter.

West Henstill House - where I dreamed up Templar Series and which ended up as Simon's home near Sandford

West Henstill House – where I dreamed up Templar Series and which ended up as Simon’s home near Sandford

Why? There is no proven correlation between Twitter and sales that I have ever seen (if you have any, please let me know – it would help me justify my 30,000 followers!). From common sense and personal experience, Twitter is, at best, mediocre at generating actual sales. It is as unproductive as most literary festivals – I used to go to Harrogate and others, but the only purpose really was to enjoy the company of friends, not to sell books. In terms of books, if I were today to go to Harrogate and pay the travel expenses, the hotel bills, the costs of meals and the fees for registration, I would make a thumping loss. Paperbacks and hardbacks do not earn much money. Their sales at a festival certainly wouldn’t justify my investment of £500-£600 to be there. I have certainly sold many books over Twitter. However, how many were new, and therefore helping to pay my weekly bills, compared with the sales that were second hand, or heavily discounted? Not many. When a book is sold second hand, the author earns nothing; if it is sold at a large discount, the author’s income is cut. When you buy a book from, say, Amazon (who demand 80% discounts), the author’s income falls by 80% as well. Most paperbacks sold via Amazon will earn less than 10 pennies.

So there is more and more focus on making sure that the book that comes out at the far end of the meat grinder that is the publishing industry is going to be a success. This is good.

Very few authors can edit their own works. In fact there is a steady progression for many authors. Their early books read well and fluidly, and they make huge sales. They earn more as a result, and then they start to argue with their editors and copyeditors. The quality of their books falls off, and gradually sales reduce. It is in large part, I think, due to the lack of appreciation of the work done by their editors. Such authors begin to believe that they know the market better than the professionals in selling. Which is always a bad mistake.

Anyway, since my earliest days I have collaborated with editors with enthusiasm. When there have been suggestions, they have invariably been for damn good reasons. And that means that the books have done better. Everyone wins.

I have no doubt that there are some writers who can write superb, fluent stories without editors – but I’m equally certain that most of them would write better with an editor.

For me, after writing the first drafts it is essential to have someone else view my work. Many people now use a circle of Beta readers – groups of non-publishing professionals who will read and comment – but I’ve always been wary of this approach. I am happier to have an editor who sees the rougher outlines of the story and then works with me to hone it. Otherwise I’m introducing a new level of complexity. And I remember once giving a manuscript to a friend to read. She liked it, apart from one scene introducing some characters, which she insisted should be cut. It went to the editor. She couldn’t understand a chunk of the story and asked for a new scene to be added … yes, that very one. So I think it’s better to work with the people who’ll end up working on the story and owning a share of it.

Why these thoughts? Well, I’m embarking on a new idea – a modern day story again – with a view to a book based around international problems in the arms, drug and smuggling businesses. And I’m floating ideas in front of my agent to see which grabs him strongest.

In other words, wish me luck. I need it!

On with the next book!

On with the next book!

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Comments
18 Responses to “Collaborative Writing”
  1. Good Luck! I’m just getting ready to publish my first novel (without an agent). 21 published books seems like a dream.

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    • Well, one thing I got to realise a while ago was, it’s not necessarily quantity that pays the mortgage! There is a huge amount of luck involved too. All best of luck with yours. Hope you get lucky!Well, one thing I got to realise a while ago was, it’s not necessarily quantity that pays the mortgage! There is a huge amount of luck involved too. All best of luck with yours. Hope you get lucky!

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  2. Jack Eason says:

    It’s not just writer like yourself who are out of pocket these days Michael. Many of my fellow Indies are in the same boat, having spent a lot of money to promote their book(s). Fortunately, I’m still holding my head above water.
    :)

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  3. Good luck, Mike. Also keeping my head above water as an indie, but I also have 2 manuscripts with my agent being bandied around publishers. “Eggs and baskets” comes to mind!

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  4. Laura says:

    I’m really enjoying your blog. Funnily enough I discovered you via Twitter and mainly because you were one of my first 5 followers. (Which was a lovely welcome to my first foray into social media). As a consequence I found this blog and bought a properly priced copy of Fields of Glory in a real bricks and mortar bookshop. (Happy to help with the mortgage).

    I completely agree with the need to collaborate with an editor. I certainly will when any of my manuscripts are at that stage. As the writer you still have the say as to whether or not you accept the suggestions but at least you will get them to consider. As a reader I want to read a book that is entertaining and well written. You don’t want to find yourself re-reading lines because of poor or no editing.

    Best wishes for your next endeavour, Michael.

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    • Many thanks, Laura. Interesting that I caught you because of Twitter! I know I’ve sold some books from there, but it’s hard to quantify how many. The problem still seems to be that unless it’s a recently published book, Amazon will not promote you. Which means authors have to spend silly amounts of time just trying to get their work noticed! Hey ho!

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  5. Laura says:

    Oh a thought on marketing, word of mouth is the probably the strongest vehicle for the creative soul. If someone you trust gives you a recommendation you tend to look into it.

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    • I absolutely agree. It’s how to get the word of mouth going that’s the problem. So many readers don’t think of it. So any additional name spreading gratefully received! Oh, and have you seen my YouTube channel, out of interest? http://youtu.be/jLYkfnGqMpQ is the latest one on Death Ship of Dartmouth. Be interested in what you think!

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      • Laura says:

        I have watched a couple of your YouTube videos. I think your previous life as a salesman probably helped a lot. You come across very personable (which I’m sure you are). The book sounds like fun. I think it helps immensely if an author enjoys writing their books. For me, as an aspiring yet-to-be-published writer, your willingness to share your thoughts and knowledge is extremely helpful and I’m sure your readers appreciate the accessibility and that you respond to comments and queries. (I haven’t started reading Fields of Glory yet so I can’t really class myself as a reader yet.) Keep doing what you’re doing.

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      • Hi, Laura – I’m really glad the videos are helping you (and others) – it’s so difficult to know what to put into videos like these. To a large extent it’s a matter of guesswork. Do please let me know if there’s something else you’d like me to talk about. I’m very happy to take any suggestions!

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  6. D.G.Kaye says:

    Excellent post. I can identify well with the cost of promoting and advertising versus what we make as Indies. I have sadly had to decline some bookfairs and seminars because the outlay just wasn’t feasible. I think writers and self publishers work the most hours on a daily basis, with no retirement or benefits, for the least pay.

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    • Absolutely right. Authors work daft hours. And in fact, even when not ‘working’ at the desk, our brains are ticking over with new ideas and concepts, just hoping to get that extra few dollars to pay the mortgage or the rent. Have a friend who tried project management, but after a couple of years he went back to his old job as an extremely talented engineer because he couldn’t cope with the way that projects took over his entire life. He was waking up during the night and thinking about things he had to do. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was what a writer’s life was like all the time. Then again, people look surprised when I confess to not knowing what’s happened in Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Coronation Street – or anything else. I don’t have the time to watch TV. I’m working! What a damn silly way to try to earn a living.

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