Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Plus Fieldwork progress, character creation, and a sleepy Copurrnicus.

Hi there,

It was a long weekend here in the UK, which was much needed. It’s been really drab and rainy for a long time, and so dismal I’ve even had my SAD lamp on to lift the mood a bit. In May. I’m hoping that the sunnier forecast for the next week is correct.

Last week I also discovered a lot of Substack posts stuck in my Gmail spam folder. So if you’re reading this on the web or in the app and your settings are such that you should be getting the emails as well, please take a look and see whether you’re actually receiving them. If they are stuck in spam, please mark them as Not Spam, to increase the chances you’ll both see them in future and Gmail stops marking them as spam for other people. Thank you!!

Suw’s news: Fieldwork progress

A hawfinch, a bird I’d never heard of before last week.

I’m now in Week 4 of Dave Cohen’s Build A Script sitcom course and I’m having the time of my life. I always knew that having a program to follow would help me make progress on my script in a timely fashion, but I didn’t realise that it would be this much fun.

It’s also been a fabulous way to bring my non-writing collaborators into the process. We’ve had some great conversations about the various ecological research projects that the characters could be working on, unsexy research areas, and ridiculous moth names. Dingy skipper, anyone?

I had a delightful moment when I realised that one character could be working on hawfinch conservation, largely because I learnt about them whilst practicing my Welsh watching Trefi Gwyllt Iolo (Iolo’s Wild Towns, expires 29 June) on S4C. There are only about 500-1,000 breeding pairs in the UK, but lots of them have decided that one garden in North Wales is the best place to be. Smart birds. I’d love to spend my time hanging about in a garden in North Wales.

If you want more of a Fieldwork update, plus a review of Joel Morris’s new book about comedy, Be Funny Or Die, take a look at the latest Fieldwork post.

Grist: Creating characters with personality

The last Grist video call was about how to construct characters with real personalities using frameworks such as the The Big Five personality traits. Because only a couple of people came, I decided to turn the conversation into a post for my premium subscribers.

I did send the preview post to everyone, but I never quite know if that’s what you want. If you’re a free subscriber, is it annoying to get previews for a paywalled post? Or do you like knowing when premium posts go out and what they are about, even if you can’t read them?

Please let me know via this poll so that I can get the balance right!

2024 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist announced

The 2024 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist “features six brilliant, thought-provoking and spellbinding novels that between them capture an enormous breadth of the human experience”. The shortlisted books, in alphabetical order by author surname, is:

What should you ask your newsletter readers in a survey?

If you’re writing your own newsletter, then Dan Oshinsky’s advice for what to ask in a reader survey might well come in handy. Oshinsky was Director of Newsletters at The New Yorker, and now runs a newsletter consultancy, Inbox Collective, so knows what he’s talking about. He suggests that a reader survey should always start with three types of question:

  • Something numeric
  • Something about the value of your newsletter
  • Something open-ended

And then goes on to suggest other key questions you could ask in your next (or first!) reader survey. It’s great advice and well worth a look.

Do people buy books, or is claiming they don’t just clickbait?

Last month, self-published author Elle Griffin, published a post with the provocative headline No one buys books in which she suggested, based on documentation and transcripts from the 2022 Penguin vs DOJ case, that traditional publishing is unfairly weighted in favour of big authors and celebrities, and that most books “make no money at all and typically sell less than 1,000 copies”.

Her conclusions were that a lot of books don’t make money, publishers get most of their income from the backlist, “A ‘Netflix of Books’ would put publishing houses out of business”, and that publishing is essentially dead. The future features, according to Griffin, self-publishing and Substack replacing traditional publishers.

With 620 comments and 373 shares at the time of writing, she’s clearly hit a nerve. And she is right on some things — celebrity and major authors do earn the most, backlists are important, Amazon is a big threat to the industry.

But, as with many things, it’s all just a bit more complicated than that. The headline, in particular, is disingenuous nonsense. People do buy books. Lots of books, as Brooke Warner pointed out, in the USA “book publishing is a $30 billion-dollar industry that published over 3.5 million titles last year”.

Warner also adds some missed context:

The reason that 2022 trial focused so much on high-level “unicorn” authors getting $250K+ advances, which are qualified as the Big Five’s “anticipated bestsellers,” was because it was an antitrust case, meaning the DOJ was trying to prove that authors would suffer (ie, lose income) if Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster were to merge.


When a publisher pays a million dollars for a book, it’s not typically for North American rights. They anticipate earning money on foreign rights and other subsidiary rights. Publishers make money all sorts of ways, and the profits work to pay off the author advances and earn publishers money. We’re talking about things like book-to-film rights; audiobook rights; translation rights; merchandising. Book publishing is lucrative beyond its most famous product: the book.

I recommend Warner’s post if you want a different viewpoint from someone who understands both the traditional and independent arms of the industry. Other relevant posts include:

And, for a giggle:

Remember, in publishing as everything else, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and Griffin does not actually have the receipts.

Obligatory cat picture

Copurrnicus, curled up on the sofa and sound asleep.

That’s it for this newsletter! See you in a fortnight!

All the best,


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