Elena Ferrante (2016) Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey.

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Elena Ferrante (2016) Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey.

All writers are historians. Subject and object. Subjecting what we know with what other people know. In other words, we read to write. We look for resonance in our writing and our reading. And sometimes somebody says it better and you’ve just got to acknowledge mastery. This is an honest book, a beautiful book in so many ways. When I start taking notes— Papers: 1991-2003; Tesserae 2003-2007; Letters 2011-2016—I find that I’ve copied word for word all 384 pages of questions and answers and it will take me another lifetime to read it, but if I pluck open any page there will be wisdom and advice. One often translates into the other as Ferrante’s Italian is translated into English and other languages, but the resonance of meaning remains true. This is a book, not so much about writing, but about living.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. If you want to look for her, she asks you to look for her in her writing, in her novels. The media obsession with who a writer is unhealthy and unnecessary. A good book will find an audience of willing and receptive readers. This is counterintuitive advice. As a crowdfunded author, published by Unbound (Lily Poole) I should be a critic of this approach, not an admirer. I’ll let you into a secret, crowdfunding doesn’t work, even when it does. Another way of putting this, of putting Ferrante in her place, is claiming she is saying nothing new. We don’t need to know, for example, who William Shakespeare, Robert Burns or the J.D Salinger was to appreciate their work. The message of Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the idea that somehow quality created its own momentum and would stand out. A conflation of both ideas is To Kill a Mocking Bird and Go Set a Watchman. Both had millions of world-wide readers and are financial success stories, but only one is readable. That’s a value call. A value judgement. The inference is my book flopped because it wasn’t marketed well enough, I wasn’t marketed well enough, or it was rubbish and therefore found no readers.  A combination of all three is the most likely answer. Because despite what Ferrante says, much of which purist ideology I agree with, a book I’ve never read, or intend to read has sold 125 million copies and, like Ferrante’s work, two films so far created, based on the book.. It relied on social media, word of mouth marketing and the fan-fiction community. Fifty Shades of Grey breaks all of Ferrante’s rules. And the power of social media is Trumpeted by the election of the moron’s moron as the most powerful man on earth.

After a book is published, let a book find its own way is not something Ferrante preaches. It is something she did. On the media she writes of a common predicament for the nobody of which she is champion:

Is a book from the media point of view, above all the name of the person who writes it? Is it the fame of the author or, rather the author personality who takes the stage thanks to the media, a crucial support for the book? Isn’t it newsworthy, for the cultural pages, that a good book has been published? Is it newsworthy instead, that a name able to say something to editorial offices in on the cover or some book or other?

Writing is not a game of winner takes all and stacking up the number of sales. Ferrante argues, ‘Novels should never come with instructions for use, least of all by those who write them.’ But Ferrante is saying something more than that. She is saying that writing is a private act made public. Not all writing should however be published. And not all writers have attained the skills necessary to say what they are hoping to say. I include myself in that group.  Writing which is published should be able to stand alone. And women in publishing, as in life, find it far more difficult to succeed. That’s not feminism, just fact.  This is a constant motif of her novels. ‘I’ve described women at moments when they are absolutely alone. But in their heads there is never silence or even focus. The most absolute solitude, at least in my experience, and not just as narrator, is always, to paraphrase… ‘too loud’.’ Men explode. Women implode. Melina Cappucino, the ‘mad widow’ in My Brilliant Friend, is a constant, a fragment of a life also held up to the light, similar women, but not stereotypical characters feature in  The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love. The idea of the ‘other’ not being other, but us, is something in these troubling times we need to keep hold of.  We need to be aware of in the fight ahead. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, yes, she is indeed. Read her.

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Why book selling doesn’t work!

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Warning, I’m going to try and sell you something. It’s billed as ‘the best new writing from ABCtales’. Who decides what’s best? That’s a question that is often difficult to answer. Certainly, Stephen Thom, who wrote story of the year is here. And Alex Graves who wins poems of the year, every year, is included. My work is also in, but I’d guess that’s because I’ll have a book out later this year in which ABCtales act as my agent and get a fee. I’m glad about that. Although it costs nothing to join ABCtales, or to publish your work online, the expense of running the site is met by Tony Cook, chief cook and bottle washer. Every year I pay around £40 to ABCtales because I know it’s not free and I can afford it. Mr Cook will probably pop up here and say no you don’t – in the eight years you’ve been here you’ve paid six shillings and two pence. But listen, I’ve got an active imagination and no real interest in Facebook, I do like stringing a few sentences together and passing them off as original prose. And I get a buzz when someone reads it and comments. Without a reader the circuit of writing is not complete. ABCtales gives me that opportunity. It gives you that opportunity. But I’m not stupid. I know whatever I’ve written will be forgotten quicker that a photo of last night’s dinner. That doesn’t bother me. There’s no glory in what you’ve written, but what you’ve still to write. Even then, I’ve no illusions, ABCtales is gang hut in hyperspace few folk know about and fewer still cares?

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Well, I care, because it’s my gang hut and my turf. And John Wilks who edited this slim volume also cares. He offered up his time and expertise to get this published. Publishing is the easy part. We all know that now. There’s an extract from Joe Lawrence’s East End Butcher Boy here and it’s better than anything published by Unbound, and I include my own work in that. The difficult part is selling something. I know that and Laurie knows that and Ewan knows that and Tony knows that. And I’d add that Scratch (Peter) who has also written a novel on ABCtales, although he’s not included in this volume, also knows that. It’s only when you actually go and try and sell something that you realise how difficult it actually is. It’s not like that Kevin Coster film Field of Dreams, when you build that baseball diamond, ‘they will come’. No they fucking willnae.  Ask Richard Penny,  who has a story here ‘The Tipping Point’, but who also published a sister volume,  My Baby Shot Me Down which included the works of some my favourite writers on ABCtales, including Rachael Smart, Claudine Lazar and ‘Katherine Black’ (Harpie). And really if you’re going to publish the best of ABCtales you’ve to have something from Maggy van Eijk. Why stop there? What about Philip Sidney who is also not included in this volume and to my mind merits inclusion (I love this for example,  http://www.abctales.com/story/philip-sidney/triptych-1-mass). But I don’t really think it matters that those other names aren’t there. That’s editor’s choice. I’ve been there with A Celtic Anthology, which I co-edited with Kevin McCallum (Old Pesky on ABCtales). I could rattle off another few anthologies I’ve been involved in. It’s that gang-hut mentality that makes you part of a group, and your mum and your sister and their brother might buy a copy. And then you become invisible. Christopher Isherwood’s narrator in The Berlin Novels jokes about selling eight copies of his poetry before fleeing England for Berlin. Funnily enough that’s the number of copies John Wilks claimed to have sold so far. I can name a few buyers. Joe Lawrence, Claudine Lazar, Ewan Lawrie and myself. That’s 50% of the buyers. And it’s pathetic. Thirty of those published in the volume haven’t bothered buying a copy. Whatever the opposite of resounding success this is the opposite.  Build the field and they will come? Just because you get ABCtales for nothing, doesn’t mean it costs nothing. Put something back (if you can afford it). There’s some good stuff here. I can’t claim any credit for that. At least think about it.

http://www.best-book-price.co.uk/Product-266239/1326510258-Abctales.html

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/1326510258/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_1_olp?ie=UTF8&qid=1453034710&sr=8-1&keywords=abctales

A simple contract

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Anybody that knows me should by now know I’m under contract to UNITED AUTHORS PUBLISHING LIMITED trading as UNBOUND.  I’ve agreed to deliver a novel currently entitled Lily Poole and it will be around 72 000 words (ahem, 84 000, but that’s word inflation for you). The Deliver Date will be 1st October 2014 or a later date agreed between the two parties, or in more simple terms – whenever.  The production costs currently stand around £5 100 and I’m about 40% of the way to achieving that target. So far, so boring.

The agreement is made on behalf of three parties. I’ve already named two of them Unbound and myself, but I’ve also got an agent representing me, Luke Neima c/o of ABCtales.com, Burgeon Creative Ideas Ltd.  Well, Luke Neima is no longer c/o ABCtales, he works for Granta (or some other publisher) and also for Unbound. I’ve only met Luke once and he’s the kind of likeable guy that even guys like me that usually don’t like likeable guys, like. He is a secret agent.

You see in his short tenure at ABCtales he looked round for things to sell. It hasn’t really got any assets, runs at a deficit,  but that didn’t really stop some start-up companies going for millions in the  hyperinflated stock exchange bubbles in modern global economies of the late 1980 and early 1990s and as late as the banking-induced shocks of 2008.

Unbound belongs to this latter slow-growth period. But it bucked the trends of businesses going bust by recently announcing its publishing portfolio’s one-millionth pound sale of books and ebooks. Putting this into content Unbound as a publisher is the size of a field mouse. Amazon is, in comparison, a Shard-sized tyrannosaurus. It has what Joe Nye called ‘soft power’ and with each second that passes it adds more byte. Unbound and Amazon do not compete in the same markets. Unbound offers luxury goods-books that are priced accordingly.  But Amazon determines market prices, which most books can be charged.   Under monopolistic pressure it screws down prices so low that smaller publishers—and all publishers are smaller than Amazon—cannot compete and professional writers are generally being paid less and less. This is being reinforced by a greater number of writers seeking publishing deals, and self-publishing, which has never been easier or cheaper, and this is reflected in the price charged to the consumer. Often this work is offered free –which is the new consumer baseline price, or sold at discounted prices often around, or less, than the price of a box of Christmas’ crackers.  There are exceptions to the mass-quantity rule, in which an increase supply, while demand remains the same, brings down market prices. Superstars of writing such as Rushdie, Amis, and J.K. Rowling (fill the name in of your favourite writer here) get paid a premium.  There is another, what seems at first sight, a contradictory trend self-published writers epitomized by the aptly named Fifty Shades of Grey sell so many units of their self-published books that they too are paid a premium and join the pantheon of established writers working for more mainstream publishers. This is easily explained. Successful writers are only successful as long as they can consistently sell a certain number of units. Thank You for This Moment, for example, sold 200 000 copies in two months in France and the English edition is now out. The success of books, or luxury goods,  like Lily Poole are premised on pre-selling around 200 copies at around £20 for the first print run. When the figure for Valerie Trierweiler’s memoir drops, she too will be dropped. Success is all about the numbers. We inhabit different worlds, but with many of the same rules.

Author needs to write books that sell. Laurie, or Ewan or myself from ABCtales, for example, have been parachuted into this new business model of crowd funding, we need to write the books and sell the product we have made. Unbound allow us to legitimize our unpaid work by using their logo, or imprint, to help our selling.  How we do that is really up to us. But in a standard business model sellers are in search of buyers.  Unbound outsources direct selling but reaps the benefit of us harvesting family and friends. In simple terms, it is vanity publishing with a real publisher.

Unbound only sell a limited run of each book. Printing is outsourced. Most products under the Unbound imprint have tended to be more novella- sized than novels (well under 60 000 words) which tends to keep printing cost down.  Proof reading is outsourced to Luke Neima, and his zelig like transformation from ABC to Unbound, to proof reader, is complete when he also turns up to help make the provisionary video needed for promoting the book and the author to the paying public, which is added to costs. Books do not get published until all costs are paid for in advance by pledges.

Writing a book and selling a product are two different skills.  I’ll simplify the selling process for you. Online sales nominally depend of the use social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. Sellers directly ask people for money or what is termed ‘pledges’ for our unpublished book. Success, or failure, is hypothetically dependent on how many people you know online and also to a certain extent on your online presence.

My experience is nothing much works. The Clydebank Post, for example, ran a story about my crowd-funded book Lily Poole. It featured a photo of me standing gormless beside a gravestone. Nobody pledged. I tried selling a free editing service. It wasn’t free, so perhaps ‘free’ should be in quotation marks, as I was seeking pledges before aspiring writers submitted their work to me. Then again perhaps the use of quotation marks around ‘free’ is an unnecessary affectation as nobody pledged using this route.

Yet this is contradictory. Unbound is a successful, publishing firm and Laurie and Ewan from almost the same starting position achieved sales targets of over 100% to my 40%. I’d explain that in a number of ways. The last 10% of sales is, in a sense, a free-sales run. Success is predicated on success. After achieving sales of 90% Unbound begin to advertise their latest successful product and, this is crucial, to a ready-made reservoir of book buyers. Laurie and Ewan for example are no longer dependent on asking  people that they know directly or indirectly for money.

Laurie had another marketing strategy for selling his product. He piggy-backed on a well-known charity. That way he could legitimately suggest he was not just selling himself and a book, he was selling for a charity. This added around 10% to the total cost of the book, but as this was paid through a slight increase in pledge levels so the cost was spread.

He also acknowledged he had hundreds of friends. Crucially, I’d argue, he also had the right type of friends. Let’s call them middle class people that own houses. Ewan, I’d guess, has similar middle-class friends and he also contributes online to UKAuthors who also supported his work.

Those that have pledged to Lily Poole, so far, have been immediate family, a few friends and fellow writers on ABCtales. My friends tend not to be middle class home owners. They generally don’t have an interest in books (or me, unless I’ve done something stupid, which I’d guess nullifies the friendship scenario. Loser!).

I’m working class, but a reader, so it’s also worth mentioning the idea beloved of certain types such as hedge-fund managers that there’s a hierarchy of human capital and they tend to be rewarded at the top with an income to match their skill sets and lesser mortals at the bottom.  I’m not in this elect group. I do know Laurie and Ewan spent more time online than me, translated into dour Presbyterian terms, which means they worked harder than me and deserved success. Whether they used a particular cultural skill-set, I lack, I can only make an educational a priori guess. Asking for money is never easy. Asking friends for money they don’t have, for a product they don’t need, is more difficult for non-home owning working class folk. Perhaps the laws of diminishing returns is applicable here. I like to think so.

ABCtales has been good to me in lots of different ways. I piggy-backed on Abctalers to help sell Lily Poole.   I don’t think of myself as a writer, but I like to write. Sooz, a fellow ABCtaler, expressed it so well. The need to write is almost a physical act, a bit like masturbation, but onanism has its limits and for writing to reach any kind of climax it needs a reader. ABCtales is a community or writers, but it is also (or should be) a community of readers. When I first showed my work online Ewan kinda ran the site himself. That might not have been other users experience but it was certainly mine. He was encouraging and very good at nudging me along with things I should be paying attention to, for example, spelling, syntax, sentences, meaning and what the fuck was that about? but all in a thoroughly nice way.  He disappeared as ABCtalers do over the years only to turn up later as competing for crowd-sourced pledges for publishing.

ABCtales act as my agent. They receive 25% of net profit. That’s the money that’s left after the costs of paying Luke and other zeligs have been met for editing, publishing etc. If you look at the figures for the first print run it’s not very much. But I’m sure Unbound and ABCtales would hope for the kind of Harry Potter magic that makes small publishing houses into large conglomerates.  I’m not a fan of agents. Their parasitical and cancer-like growth have outsourced many of the rights accrued to ordinary workers offer the last seventy years. But ABCtales has been a service I’ve freely used.  It has also given me the chance to get published.  I don’t begrudge and have no great interest in the possible and what remains more a hypothetical—rather than actual—profit, especially as it would subsidize other would-be writers.

Unbound take 50% of net profit. The average long-term return on capital investments stands around 5% per annum. ABCtales has offered writers’ content which Unbound need to keep growing.  Creative industries with around 10% of GDP are one of the few growth areas in the economy. Unbound needs to keep growing, making superprofit, and needs to keep selling to stand still. It’s a symbiotic relationship with ABCtales.

My concern is simpler, finish what I started, but I’m not sure I can. I’m not moaning about it, simply highlighting a trend based on factual analysis. When I write things down, as I have here, I understand them better with a cherry on top.

What would Jesus tweet?

My twitter account got Spammed, where is God when you need Him? But it got me thinking what would Jesus tweet in the twenty-first century. Then I tried to figure if counting was thinking and is this the twenty-first century? I’m getting old, what happened to the last one? If it is, where’s Buck Rodgers?

My three followers on Twitter were outraged with the tweeted message asking them to strip naked, post a photo online and send money. It was the last part that drove their fury. If anybody’s missed it I’ve been tapping everybody for money. http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

It’s not my fault, but a compulsion. If the Sermon on the Mount was reduced to tweets it would read something like – shit I’ve run out of tweets and I’ve not even mentioned love or send me money to fund this worthwhile and charitable book called the Bible. As long as your name’s Isaiah you can be one of the characters.   For as little as £500 you could make a difference to Jack O’Donnell’s life.

Today is the first day in the rest of your life. It’s also the day Peter Ustinov was on the telly as a gay Nero letting it all hang out as he burns with confidence. You know Quo Vadis. Toga and sandals and God reduced to a voice-over.  Tweeting, the devil’s work,  hadn’t even been invented.

Ustinov, like God, is everywhere. He was also in another dystopian fantasy Logan’s Run. Remember Jenny Agutter got to stroke and fiddle with his beard. There was no word for beard inside the dome, because everybody was young and beautiful and facial hair belonged to Yetis and old folk, none of which they believed in.  Young girls inside the dome had never seen a beard. They got all excited about it. Everybody wanted to stroke the old guy’s beard. I still get flashbacks of Jenny Agutter swimming naked in Walkabout. But that was last century. I’ve really got to grow up. Please buy my book – I’ll be your friend for a century or more. You can stroke my beard.