The Big Sell

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So I’m in the kitchen, opening a packet of Chia Seeds I bought in the health shop (because Omega 3, right?) when I notice a rather unusual claim in bold print:

Chia seeds, ancient food of the Aztecs.’  And I thought to myself, um…. they died.  All of them.  It was a wipeout.  I’m not sure that looking to the Aztecs for health tips is such a wise move.  I used to work in marketing, so I understand the process behind selling people things they don’t want or need, but even I’m baffled by the reasoning used to sell stuff these days.  It’s clear that they think we’re idiots – mindless consumers who will swallow any old sales patter from these snake oil sellers.

Next, it’s the turn of the serial ‘common sense offender’, the beauty industry.  There is a new face cream on the market that boasts as one of its ingredients, the leaf of some plant that a panther rubs up against in the rain-forest.  I mean, WHAT??  It’s the rain-forest, panthers probably bump against all sorts of plants on the way to the local watering hole, should we be spreading them all on our skin?  I just don’t see the correlation – is the panther doing it to stay younger?  Nope, she leaves that kind of shallow thinking to us humans.

Then it’s fashion.  Oh fashion, you give me an embarrassment of riches to choose from.   Statement Tees are the big thing now.  You don’t even have to speak anymore, or have opinions of your own when your friendly fashion label is having them for you.  Although, would you really want your top to say this?

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What the…. what does that even mean?!  How can you follow your karma, when karma traditionally follows you?  Well, kudos for challenging the principles of cause and effect, I guess.

What this says to me is that the PR people have finally given up on the need to make any kind of sense at all. I’m sure you’ve all seen the 250 million year old Himalayan rock salt with an expiry date doing the rounds.  They’re literally lying to our face, and yet we still part with our hard earned money because, well, it’s Himalayan rock salt.  It MUST be good!

Yet, it’s the way in which they target women which is really insidious.  They seem to feed on our insecurities, or create insecurities where there were none.  I mean, how can you sell anti-aging cream without making people feel old?  Or sell diet pills?  A few years ago I actually wrote to the broadcasting authority about an ad for diet pills targeting young women.  They were shopping for clothes together and for whatever reason, one of them kept trying on clothes that were too small for her and as a direct consequence, she couldn’t go out with her friends.  But then she took the diet pills, miraculously found a dress that fit and they all had lunch together (presumably more diet pills).  The message was clear – be thin or be a social pariah.

Eventually the ad was pulled, but it won’t stop companies coming up with new ways to manipulate our inner fears sell more stuff.  Stuff that doesn’t even do what it promises to, but we keep buying it.  Lotions and potions to hide wrinkles, mask grey hairs or eradicate hair altogether!  So what are they telling us?  Don’t get old, fat, grey, hairy.  Just stop BEING.  If that’s what they wanted, they should have just given us the chia seeds.

The Magical Mailing List

4641693023_942b8b2232_nIf I hear one more author tell me how VITALLY IMPORTANT a mailing list is, I think I’ll scream.  Swear words.  The bad ones.  The more observant among you will notice a new pop-up box asking you to join MY mailing list – don’t run away!!  This is merely my feeble attempt to jump on the wagon I should have flagged down four years ago, when this whole crazy thing started.  But do feel free to close it and completely ignore my cutesy request to give me your email address.  I know I would.  So how are other authors doing it?  Building up mailing lists with thousands of addresses (allegedly)?  Some say that they give away a free book to entice people.  Eh… so do I, it’s on Amazon, where anyone can download it.  No strings attached.  (Betwixt – a free short story that I wrote for readers who have supported me and future ones who’d like a taster of my style).  Besides, when people send me automated DM’s on Twitter (if you do that, please cease and desist immediately!) with links to free books, I NEVER click on them, much less download them.  So how do you let people know you have a mailing list without being annoying?

We would all love to have a database of names you could contact directly when you have a new book out.  It makes sense.  People like  your book, they want to know when you’re next one is out, or if it’s on sale, so they sign up to a mailing list.  Because we’re busy, people forget and you can’t catch everything on social media.  But you will check your email.  So it works for both the author and the reader.  However, I can’t help thinking that people don’t subscribe to these lists (myself included) because they don’t want to be bombarded with a whole load more crap they have to read in their inbox.  I have enough to be doing to keep up with reading articles, writing articles, supporting author/blogger friends and, you know, writing my book, without having to either read or delete unwanted newsletters.

How then, do you get people to subscribe?  If you’re not going to bribe them or promise them the secret to eternal youth?  It’s enough work getting people to follow your blog, your twitter, your train of thought!  Build it and they will come, right?!  I created a mailing list with Mail Chimp a few years ago, when I (yet again) read how important it was for authors to have one.  I put a link on the site and waited for the subscribers to come.  I’m still waiting.  And I’m still reading (mostly Indie) authors pontificate about the importance of the list to your marketing plan.

You see, apparently I was supposed to put a link at the end of all my books.  Of course, it makes total sense now.  The reader has just finished (and hopefully enjoyed) your book – they want to know more, get hooked up, stay in the loop.  This is the moment to hit them with the mailing list, while they’re still in their post-book euphoria!  So I guess I’ll just have to resubmit my documents to Kindle with the all-important sign up links.  Joy of joys.  Love upsetting the careful balance of an already formatted and published book.

However, because I can’t keep ignoring the value of  having a mailing list when you’re a writer building a relationship with your readers, here it is.  I am officially inviting you to join my mailing list, purely for the purposes of letting you know when I have a new book out.  I won’t be telling you every time I have a new blog post, or sending recipes for granola (I have a really good one by the way, but I’ll keep that to myself….. and my Instagram).  If you’re interested in all those bells and whistles, you (like me) can waste endless hours following my social media accounts.  But if you just want a heads up on my books, that’s what this list is for.

But let’s face it, every request needs a little sweetener doesn’t it?  I was going to run a giveaway for my paperbacks, but that’s just a bit predictable.  So, in the interest of trying to be original, I’m going to give away a signed print of my original artwork to some lucky reader once I’ve reached 50 subscribers.  Below is the original painting, but I will be posting the winner a giclée print on archival paper, double mounted on mounting board.  That’s assuming that you like my artwork!  If not, I’ll just send you a book  🙂  So, let’s see how it goes and if you haven’t already done it, you can sign up to my amazing but totally non-invasive mailing list HERE.

Wouldn’t I look lovely on your wall??

 

**Update:  The winner was Caryl

Women’s Fiction: The Big Cover Up

custom-wrapped-rose-and-pinks-31Following a recent discussion with an online book-club (which I am now ripping off for this blog!) the subject of covers reared its’ pretty head.  Pretty being the operative word, and a pejorative one in this case.  A male reader asked the question, why do publishers insist of giving female authors the kind of covers that men wouldn’t be caught dead with?  Of course, there was also the argument that some men wouldn’t be caught dead reading a female author, period; regardless of the cover.  In this day and age, I find that a bit sad to be honest.  It just perpetuates this idea that women can only write about things that concern women – as if men wouldn’t find anything of interest in ‘women’s things’.    Furthermore, what does it say about a man’s sense of identity, that he can’t ‘be seen’ in public with a woman’s book?  All big questions, which I will now neatly side-step in order to get to the side of the argument that best serves my agenda.  Girlie covers – what’s it all about?

Just to be sure I wasn’t being a complete hypocrite, I made a quick scan of the books I’ve read over the past few years and there is an approximate 60/40 split in female to male authors on my list.  I think it’s only natural that we will veer towards our own gender, but I was quite pleased to see that my reading has been fairly balanced.  I never really think about the author’s gender when choosing a book.  My decision is based solely on whether or not the story piques my interest.  That… and the cover.  It was at this point I realised that the guy in the book club had a point.

One of the most important jobs of a book cover is to let the reader know, as clearly and succinctly as possible, what they are getting with this book.  If I see a dark and moody cover with blood stains, I’ll probably keep moving.  Crime fiction isn’t really my thing, but how many good books have I missed because of these preconceptions?  Readers make their minds up in a matter of seconds, based on the cover of a book.  So it follows that the publishing industry, rightly or wrongly, create covers that they believe will sell; even if this is at odds with what lies between the covers.  However, there is an even greater divide when it comes to books by female authors.  Regardless of their literary merit, many publishers seemed determined to shoe-horn women’s books into the kind of covers that female readers themselves feel may be undervaluing the author’s work.  It has long been argued that the Chick Lit genre has become something of a double-edged sword; on the one hand, it has introduced readers to a lot of very talented female authors, but it has been marketed in so much pink fluffiness, that many of these writers are doomed to spend eternity on a dusty shelf, trapped in pastel coloured covers and not taken seriously.

A recent article by Emily Harnett in The Atlantic reveals the thinking behind these covers:

Like any form of advertising, book covers tell women what they want by surmising who they want to be.

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I’m guessing the assumption is that we all want to be white, thin goofballs with a hidden intelligence, all wrapped up in designer clothes!  Please don’t get me wrong – I am not criticizing this book or its readers, but I am questioning how the author’s work is marketed and whether or not this is a hindrance to women’s writing as a whole.  If you are a woman and you happen to write about anything involving relationships or family life, chances are that this will be your marketing strategy.

The following graphics from an article on Flavorwire show some examples of how male authored books are marketed completely differently.  The jumbo writing is a classic of the genre, which almost screams ‘This is important!’  It demands to be taken seriously, and as such, lends an air of gravitas to its reader.

The female authors have markedly different covers.  They are warm, decorative and while they’re not as garish as the Chick Lit cover, we immediately assume that what lies inside is somehow more feminine in nature.  Would a man pick up any of these books?  I would like to think that in this day and age, yes, he would.  But why are the publishers trying to divide us at all?  As an author, I would hope that both male and female readers can enjoy my stories, but have I subconsciously placed a barely perceptible ‘Men Keep Out’ sticker on my book just by the covers I’ve chosen?

And it’s not just a male/female divide.  There is also the question of what makes a book commercial fiction as opposed to the more highbrow literary fiction?  Who decides this and what are the criteria?  If you’re confused, take a look at these covers for the same book and tell me the publishers aren’t playing some sort of minds games!

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The first has a quote from literary heavyweight John Banville (a man!) comparing the author to Edna O’Brien, another literary biggie, and features a monochrome image of a child and an old man.  The second, features a young woman with a tagline from one of Ireland’s most successful commercial fiction authors, Cecelia Ahern of PS I Love You fame.  This is the same book, people!!  How could a single story be marketed so differently?  Well, on closer inspection, it turns out that the black and white cover is the hardback and the carefree young woman is the paperback version.  According to author Jennifer Weiner, who treads the fine line between commercial and literary fiction, “Hardcover is when you get the reviews and the profiles, paperback is when you get the readers.”

So what they’re saying is, they don’t want to challenge us too much, but give us something wrapped in a package we are already familiar with.  Are we such predictable repeat shoppers?  I’m not so sure.  One of my favourite novels this year was The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild.  It’s a mystery art caper, that takes us from the auction houses of London to Nazi Germany, and questions the true value of art and man’s desire to acquire beautiful things in search of salvation.  AND YET.  One of the male readers in the book club said he would never have picked it up, but his girlfriend had it and so he started reading it (and loved it).  A woman in the group said she wouldn’t touch a book with such a cover with a barge-pole (the cover in question was the red paperback).  The hardback features original artworks, while the Kindle version on the end features a palette and dispenses with the swirly writing altogether.  In this case, I imagine that the publishers are trying to cast their net wide and get as many potential readers as possible, so why not do that in the first place?  I really feel for the authors who have absolutely no say in how their work is packaged or marketed.  Perhaps self-publishing will change the face of cover discrimination, or will we, for lack of any better ideas, just perpetuate it?  The question we are all trying to answer is, what do readers want?  Perhaps a little less cliché and a little more originality.

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Sometimes I think we should just go back to the days when book covers were cloth bound and the title embossed in gold leaf.  These days, we have grown accustomed to the kind of aspirational lifestyle marketing that bombards us for clothing, make-up, interiors and cars, but isn’t there something about books that should be held sacred?  In reading, do we not seek to move beyond the shallow and superficial?  I love book covers, just as I love design and art, but matching an image with a story is a tricky business and can often be misleading.  I suppose the same can be said for blurbs, which are more often than not a bunch of sound-bytes to reel you in.  The Blind Date Book Company is a fantastic response to the publishing world’s attempts to manipulate our reading habits.  Their tagline, rather predictably asks us to ‘Never Judge A Book By It’s Cover’, but rather choose ‘blindly’, based only on a four word description.  I think it’s a really lovely idea and an innovative way to broaden your bookshelf and find some new books to love.  It is, after all, blind 😉

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Whether you like my covers or not, you can get my books here:

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The Mysterious Bakery On Rue de Paris (7) - CopyAmazon (Paperback) ~Kindle ~ Nook ~ iTunes ~ Kobo 

 

 

 

 

It Takes A Village To Write A Book

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We’ve all heard the saying, it takes a village to raise a child, implying that parents alone cannot possibly provide everything a child needs to mature into adulthood.  But what does this have to do with books?

I’ve been reading quite a few ‘bestsellers’ recently and they all have one thing in common: the acknowledgements section.  There are a plethora of names in there, from editors to beta readers, agents to proofreaders, sales & marketing departments to cover designers.  A small village of people (as opposed to the ‘Village People’) are involved at various steps along the way to get the author’s manuscript from first draft to first print.  Author Nina George describes these professionals as the team of people who ‘deliver your book safely into the world’, like literary birthing partners, puffing their cheeks and announcing your book’s arrival to the world!

So what are we to take from this?  That writers are complete morons who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery?  Or perhaps that successful, bestselling writers have the brains and the humility to say, ‘Maybe I can’t do everything myself.’  Now, as a self-published author, you may assume that I have done everything myself and to be honest, you’d be mostly right.  But as I’m working on novel number three (have I said that enough times yet?  No?  I will – trust me!) I’m learning that it does in fact take a village to write a book.  As a writer, I am fiercely protective of my manuscript.  I don’t like to show it to anyone until it’s absolutely necessary (picture readers prying the book from my COLD. DEAD. HANDS!).  But the fact is, once you’ve written a book and put it out there, it’s no longer yours.  It belongs to the reader now and so it only makes sense to write your story with the reader in mind.  I don’t just want people to read the story – I want them to feel it and be moved by it.  But in order to get to that stage, I have to stop wincing at the idea of trusting other professionals with my work.

We’ve all read books that promise so much in the blurb, but fail to deliver on the page.  An intriguing premise gets lost in a befuddled maze of stunted characters and confusing plot lines.  Sometimes, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees when you’re writing.  Your novel is an idea that has taken shape in your imagination as a beautifully formed thing, but somewhere in the process of getting it down onto the page, the message can get lost and the story can lose its clarity.  Writers can be headstrong and determined (or is that just me?), convinced that if they look at the words long enough, they’ll start to see them with fresh eyes.  But just like it takes a man who is secure in his masculinity to wear a sarong (am I right Becks?), it takes a secure writer to handle edits and critiques without flouncing off in a huff.  And now that I’m on novel number one, two, ah yes, three! I feel like I have so much more confidence to take other peoples’ ideas on board without crumbling at the first sign of ‘kill your darlings’.  I’ve just completed my first read through with my trusty alpha reader and I’ve already introduced a new character, cut an entire chapter that wasn’t working and given some weaker scenes a good re-tuning so that they sing in the same key as the rest of the novel.

However, it’s important to know the difference between constructive criticism and the other kind that makes you feel miserable and sore.  Having completed Julia Cameron’s inspiring ‘The Artist’s Way‘ workbook, I discovered that constructive criticism makes you think ‘Aha!  Now I know how to make my book even better.’  It doesn’t leave you feeling despondent and questioning your worth as a writer.  Editors and beta readers are a fantastic tool to help you gain perspective and that all-important objectivity you need in order to see your manuscript as a finished product.  It’s not about changing your work to please the reader, but rather using their feedback as questions that could produce interesting answers and perhaps a story with more depth.

I still don’t know if I’m going to submit this one to publishers or continue on my own self-publishing journey (both of my novels are still in Amazon UK’s Top 100, so I must be doing something right!)  The advantage of traditional publishing is that publishing houses have all of these professionals in-house.  However, an entire industry of freelancers has grown around self publishing and even on a small budget, you can hire editors, proofreaders and designers at competitive rates.  As an Indie author, I am still the grand master of ceremonies.  Nothing will get done if I don’t do it.  However there comes a time when you have to acknowledge that producing a good book takes so much more than writing.  It drives me nuts when I hear people saying that self-publishing is easy and just a matter of hitting the upload button.  Serious authors want to produce a book that can stand head and shoulders with its contemporaries and we work even harder to achieve that.   Writing is a solitary process, but producing a good book requires back-up from people who support your work, believe in your writing and want to see your book become the best it can be.

And remember, no man does it all by himself, I said young man, put your pride on the shelf 🙂

So get your Village People on and press play, you know you want to!