October 2011

Thinking about an author’s needs

by Suw on October 17, 2011

The whole discussion about what the British Fantasy Society could morph into after its recent crisis set me to thinking about what, as an emerging author, I need and where I get those needs met (if I do at all). I’m a bit of an edge case, because right now I’m more interested in getting my stuff read by giving it away and binding my own books than sending manuscripts off to agents and publishers. (Not that I wouldn’t welcome that conversation should it occur, but I’m not actively seeking it at this point.) So that possibly makes my list rather different to that of other writes, but I thought i’d share it anyway.

1. Readers
The thing that I need the most – and I think this is quite a common need amongst writers of every genre and at every stage of their career – is readers. Most of my readers so far have come via my Kickstarter project and Twitter. It’s tough getting your stuff in front of enough people to build a significant readership, and anything that helps with that is useful. Of course, I can pimp Argleton to as many people as follow me on Twitter, read my blog, or whathaveyou, but a recommendation by someone else is worth so much more. (Which is why, if you’ve read Argleton and liked it, you should feel free to review it on Amazon. 😉 )There’s a lot still to do in terms of reaching more people, but finding readers will always be my biggest challenge.

2. Design and editorial
One thing I learnt doing Argleton is that I’m rubbish as design. The cover for Argleton looked awfully amateur, but I didn’t have the budget to hire someone to do a better job. My next book project will correct that error. I’d also love to hire a professional editor at some point, but I think that might have to wait.

But there’s a big trust issue, because you could easily spend a lot of time and even money working with someone only to discover that they really aren’t right for the project. I will likely start trying to find a cover artist via my existing contacts, but if that doesn’t work out I’ll have to investigate other options.

3. Peer review
If there’s one thing that’s incredibly valuable for any writer, it’s having a handful of people willing to read your first draft and tell you when you’re doing something wrong. There’s quite a lot of websites, like Zoetrope, that allow you to exchange your reviews of other people’s work for getting reviews of your own. It can be a bit hit-and-miss, however, as not everyone has a good feel for stories and ill-considered reviews can led you on wild goose chases. I’m lucky that Kevin has a really good head for story – it was he that pointed out that my original ending of Argleton sucked, and it was through discussing it with him that I figured out what needed to happen.

4. Technical expertise
If you have ever done battle with the epub format, you’ll know what I mean about sometimes needing a bit of technical expertise to drawn on. I’m quite a geek, but even so it takes a bit of a while to get your head round the tools you need to whip an ebook into shape. When you know what you’re doing, reformatting into mobi etc., is easy, but when you don’t it can be a bit of a pain. I’ve happily accepted help from a friend on this.

5. Typesetting oversight 
If you want your book to look good, you need to properly typeset it. Sticking it in Word and picking a pretty font isn’t good enough – it needs to look professional. I’m lucky in that I know the basics of typesetting and again, I have a friend with mad ninja skills whose experience I can draw upon.

I’m not sure this list is complete, but it’ll do for now. If you have suggestions for how I can meet some of these needs, or if yours are different, do feel free to let me know in the comments.

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I don’t know much about the British Fantasy Society, other than what I’ve gleaned from their website or at FantasyCon last year. In many ways, I’m in a poor position to pass any comment whatsoever on what they should or shouldn’t do after the recent controversy around the British Fantasy Awards. I’m not even in a good position to pass comment on said controversy. I’ve no inside knowledge, nor any great desire to fully read round accusation, counter-accusation, or response in order to form a considered opinion.

But what I can and want to do is think a little about about what the BFS might want to become. It’s clear that it’s at what could become an important inflection point, now that its Chairman has resigned over the awards. And it’s also clear that a number of people have questions about what the BFS is, or should be, or could be. And the only way we’re going to work out some answers is to have a public discussion about the issue, so here goes.

I’m not a member of the BFS. I hadn’t even heard of it until last year when Vince asked me if I was going to FantasyCon. I decided that, now I was taking writing more seriously, it would be a good investment and bought tickets. I knew that a few of my writerly friends would be there, so it seemed like a pretty good idea. And it was a lot of fun.

What it wasn’t was useful. At times, it struggled to be even interesting. It seemed to me that is was an event that didn’t really know what it was supposed to be.

The BFS is in the same predicament. It doesn’t know what it is or who it’s supposed to be serving. FantasyCon, I have heard, is theoretically a fan convention, but most of the people I met there were authors of varying degrees of professional. Who is the BFS for? Fans, or authors?

There’s a part of me that thinks, “Well, there’s no reason it can’t be for both fans and authors”. And it’s true that there is a valuable matchmaking role to be played between fans and authors, but can a single organisation fully provide for both sides of the coin?

What might fans want from an organisation?

  • Readings and signings
  • News about new book releases
  • Freebies and discounts
  • Content such as interviews, reviews and features in text, video, and audio, online and offline
  • Exclusives
  • Yearly booze-up where they can meet each other and authors
  • An online space to talk about the stuff they like
  • Probably some other stuff I can’t think of right now.

What might authors, at whatever stage in their careers, want from an organisation?

  • Access to fans via readings, signings, other events
  • Promotion of their latest works
  • Advice from experts
  • Content such as interviews, reviews and features in text, video, and audio, online and offline
  • A community of peers to discuss the industry/their work with
  • Access publishers, agents and other industry professionals
  • Yearly booze-up where they can meet each other and fans
  • Probably some other stuff I can’t think of right now.

There’s clearly some overlap. But any organisation wanting to serve both communities is going to be walking a fine line. The kind of content that authors want on a website, for example, is very different to that preferred by fans. But worse than that, serving both communities can create a conflict of interest.

Let’s take the idea of a convention. If your are a society of fans and you organise a convention, then you need to get in the biggest and best speakers to provide a compelling reason for the fans to buy tickets. If you are a society for authors, then your aim is to serve those authors by putting them in front of as many people as possible. An organisation trying to please both groups is likely to end up putting its own members in front of its own members, resulting in a small, cliquey event that doesn’t bring in or attract outsiders and thus doesn’t serve anyone properly.

This is a form of the Agency Dilemma and it is very hard to solve. Indeed, even with a single constituency, the Agency Dilemma persists, as can be seen by the current predicament that the BFS finds itself in: The goals of the organisation are at odds with the goals of its members, causing an inherent conflict of interest.

Indeed, this was at the heart of the issue with the BFS Awards. Having a publisher organise the awards was a serious mistake and would have been even if that publisher’s authors, publications and partner had not been involved as nominees. Any awards ceremony must be administered by people who are independent and unbiased, which means no publishers, publicists, authors, etc. Clearly, that’s going to be a real challenge.

It seems fairly clear to me that the BFS cannot be both a Fan organisation and an Author organisation without compromising its integrity. Which way it jumps is almost unimportant, as either decision would basically require the organisation to fork so that both constituencies can be served. I think it would make sense for there to be a British Fantasy Society which is focused on the needs of the fans and aims to be run by a majority of non-industry people, with the awards run exclusively by a non-industry committee.

I would then have a British Fantasy Author Society, run primarily by authors, publishers, publicists, agents and other industry people, and any dedicated fans who want to get involved. The two organisations could collaborate when it is appropriate, but would retain a sturdy dividing firewall whenever a conflict of interest might arise.

As for FantasyCon, well, that needs to decide what it is before it can decide who should organise it and how.

If I was the BFS right now, I’d be looking at a radical overhaul along these lines to not only regain credibility but also to retain some sense of relevance in this newly interconnected world. When I looked at the BFS site last year, I felt that it didn’t offer me anything that I couldn’t already get on Twitter. It would be a shame if I looked at the site again next year and felt the same way. This furore is an opportunity to examine what the BFS could and should be. We should all seize it.

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Cross posted from Strange Attractor.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, the annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, tech, engineering and maths. As the Tweets flow thick and fast and the new website holds its ground, it’s time for me to think about my own contribution.

This year I have chosen Emily Cummins as my Heroine. At just 24, Emily has already won a number of awards and accolades because of her work on sustainable tech. She was named one of the Top Ten Outstanding Young People in the World 2010, won the the Barclays Woman of the Year Award in 2009, and was Cosmopolitan magazine’s Ultimate Save-the-Planet Pioneer 2008.

One of Emily’s most notable inventions is an evaporative refrigerator that doesn’t need electricity, for use in developing countries for the transport and storage of temperature-sensitive drugs. But it’s not just her inventiveness that makes Emily a great role model – it’s her willingness to tinker, try things out, and invent. And that is something she puts down to having been supported in her tinkering as a child. She said in this interview with Female First:

I had a really inspirational granddad who gave me a hammer when I was four years old! We used to spend hours together in his shed at the bottom of the garden, taking things apart and putting them back together again. By the time I started at high school it meant I already understood the properties of different materials and how certain machinery worked. I’d always had a creative spark and because it was encouraged from an early age I suppose I had the confidence to take it forward and start inventing for myself.

There’s a very valuable lesson there to anyone who has daughters, granddaughters or nieces: Give them hammers, screwdrivers and, when they’re old enough, power tools. Encourage them to spend time in the garden shed or the garage with you, learning not just how to take things apart, but how to put them back together again. It’s through playing with technology – both hi-tech and lo-fi – that we learn how it all works, and once we know how it works, we can invent.

I don’t have a daughter but I do have a niece, and I love buying her the science and technology kits and toys that no one else thinks to get for her. I know she loves her chemistry set and her electric circuitry set, and she knows that she’ll get more fun things to play with from me that she can’t yet even guess at. I hope that that, as she gets older, she’ll remember how much fun she finds them and will carry on thinking of herself as someone who can do science and tech, and won’t give in to boring gender stereotypes.

Emily makes a great role model for girls like my niece, and young women, but also for those of us who are a little older, who deep down, just want to get out into the garden shed and start tinkering. Emily shows us just what women can achieve, given the room to experiment and invent. And we all ought to remember that it’s not too late to get ourselves a hammer and start making stuff.

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