London Book Fair 2013: After it has all sunk in…

Kobo at Clapham Junction

Kobo reader at Clapham Junction, awaiting train home after LBF13, 15th April

There’s not much I can say about this year’s London Book Fair that hasn’t been said already. Authors ruled. Early in the day on Monday, you could see the tumbleweeds blowing through EC1 – while in EC2, at the Author Lounge, it was an ants’ nest of inquisitive and industrious minds around Mark Lefebvre‘s talk ‘From E to Eternity’.

Mark Lefebvre of Kobo speaking at the London Book Fair 2013

Mark Lefebvre discussing the Zombies Run app as an example of progressing interactive e-reading experiences

The authonomy blog shared a mind-blowing fact afterwards – that around 25,000 new titles are currently being released to a worldwide audience every week (April 2013). With more and more folk picking up on how easy it is to self-publish using free ebook and POD platforms, this number looks set to continue growing exponentially.

Standing room only inside and outside the LBF13 Author Lounge

The outcome of this year’s Book Fair was that there was some traditional publishing buzz afterwards, but even the high bidders, staking claims to their meaningful contribution in the industry, couldn’t contend with the sheer overwhelming presence of (and interest in) the independent authors at this year’s event.

Photo by Kobo Writing Life

To me, the most daunting thing facing a writer today is the sheer number of people doing it. The same thing has happened with the indie music industry and indie film industry over the past 15 years.

Suddenly everyone is producing work, and putting it online, and trying to reach people with a taste for their style using the promotional platforms available – and while the creative market is exploding, the audience is progressively shrinking. As consumers, we don’t have enough hours to see, hear and read everything out there (even less so if we’re also the creators, and need most of that time to be creative ourselves), and the chances of finding our perfect entertainment to fill our small amount of spare time, although it may be out there, is tiny – like hunting for our own personal needle in a haystack full of needles.

Which is why it’s important to ensure that your creative hobby is fulfilling you, before you even conceive of who else might appreciate it. You are your primary audience.

The major concern that I’ve heard other authors voice recently, is that their one fear about publishing their work is “being judged on the content” which suggests they’re not writing for themselves, or from personal experience, but for some seedy underbelly kind of voyeuristic audience that they wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, let alone at a book signing.

If you wouldn’t want to be judged on the content of your writing, why are you writing for that particular perceived audience? For the potential money? For the notoriety? Are you simply in denial of a fetish for that specific genre yourself? Writers who enjoy their work, and are writing in a way that reflects them accurately, aren’t suffering from that fear. Anyone meeting them will find their personality consistent with the writing. They’ll leave them feeling that they were indeed the only person qualified to have written that particular work, and that if it was to their taste, that they’d happily want to learn more – in effect, to spend time with that author getting to know them better through their writing.

Sometimes, as a reader, there’s nothing more disappointing than an author who doesn’t live up to their stories. The author is supposed to be ‘the authority’ on their individual writing. Not a collector of ideas applied to writing, in order to make a fast buck.

Sometimes, that’s the reason true life stories are more interesting than fiction. You already know that it really happened to the author, which makes them an interesting person – one with a story to spend time on.

An author whose only personal story is that they churn out ideas, like a machine, in the best tried-and-tested manner to generate income, may be running an effective business, but are they living a life worth sharing with lessons worth learning? Are they inspiring people to live differently or explore life by being the best example of that lifestyle that there is?

By accident, I found out that parody sells. I enjoy parody, as a consumer – fantasy and sci-fi parody is my favourite genre, alongside graphic novels. I wrote my first parody as a test of publishing platforms, once I’d taught myself the technical know-how to format and publish for free – which led me to publish other original works I’d written years earlier. But ironically, it’s the parody that keeps selling. Is it because it’s my favourite genre as a customer? Or just that it fits a mainstream contemporary audience?

But here’s what I wanted to write. When I was about fourteen, I read an interview with a Mills & Boon author at the time, Mary Wibberly. She had been writing romances for years and submitting them to Mills & Boon for about a decade before finally getting published (she’d even been submitting them under different author names, in imaginary fear of having been blacklisted by the editors). It made me want to write romances one day. I still do. But although I can satirize and produce parody of it, I feel like a fraud whenever I attempt more traditional ‘romance’ with a straight face, because I don’t have any romantic experience. Ideas aren’t the same as having experience. I can read all the advice books around, from writing advice by Sue Moorcroft to relationship advice by Greg and Amiira Behrendt – but in the real world where nothing remotely like romance is happening and the only nudity I see is dead and trussed up in the frozen meat counter at the supermarket, I have to kick the daydream of writing romance aside and stick to comedy and fantasy for now (and sometimes zombies, see above). I’m one of those writers that has to be identifiable to myself first, and if I tried to write something that could only be comfortably and authoritatively written by a happily married housewife or a happily dating city girl, it wouldn’t seem real to me and most likely wouldn’t seem real to anyone else.

I guess we all have dreams of creative and professional success, the same way we have dreams of achievement in our personal lives. The internet makes it possible for everyone to compete in the same playing field. Meaning that the potential for anyone to rise head and shoulders above the rest, where everyone has the same level of electronically-supported social skills at their disposal – subject to time and budget – is slim.

If you picture the internet as such a playing field, with the population of the world strolling around on it trying to get noticed with their business cards and check-lists saying ‘reviews’ and ‘advertising’ (or ‘dating profile’ and ‘has genuine recent photo’) – what would stand out to you, as a potential customer? It’s not Dragon’s Den, where you get five minutes to pitch individually. Everyone selling themselves online, is online at the same time as you. You have, at most, about 0.4 seconds to catch someone’s eye and make them look again. (If they’re an RAF pilot, about 0.1 seconds).

And your budget doesn’t stretch to getting them all sociably drunk and conveniently impressionable – and that’s even if you could fit them all into Groucho’s.

As a customer, for me, it’s in regular high street bookshops and the supermarket where I look for books, so the dream is probably still to reach one of those publishers who can distribute to those places. I’m a proud reader. I think people being able to see what I’m enjoying reading on the train is better than writing a review any day.

Although perhaps not this book… I was laughing, but I don’t think that’s what the intention behind it is…

IMG-20130904-00296

Weirdest thing I’ve ever read on a train… didn’t make me want to try it out, let alone read past page 45…

So, besides misrepresenting myself as a person occasionally by picking up weird cult books to read, my philosophy of ‘write what you know’ is about as flexible as it is to continually increase what I know, to a valid and confident level where I know I won’t be misrepresenting or misleading anyone else.

That way, the fear of being ‘judged on the subject/content’ as a writer doesn’t sabotage my enjoyment of writing. After all, I may be the only person who ever reads it for more than 0.4 seconds, and I wouldn’t try and delude myself with artificial knowledge and lack of experience, so why try it out on anyone else?

So like I found with parody – what you think you want from writing early on may turn into something else, leading you down other creative pathways.

How writing affects you as a person – whether it defines you or misrepresents you – is probably more important, particularly for your sanity and whether it affects how comfortable you are around other people, talking about your work. If you’re considering pushing for a career in a certain genre, or as a certain kind of writer, and want to reach those upper echelons of success obtained by JK Rowling, James Patterson and Sir Terry Pratchett – try recording yourself in an imaginary interview, answering all the most awkward questions you can imagine being thrown at you, or write down your answers. Watching it or reading it back, you’ve only got to convince yourself that you’re the star for this job.

If you don’t seem convincing as the star candidate for this subject or this story – maybe try interviewing yourself about a different genre or story. Because if your passion doesn’t come across and your personality doesn’t sparkle as you talk about your work, how are you going to convince others that it’s a story worth selling?

The real challenge is, how to stand out from the 25,000 other books being released the same week as yours… never mind in the weeks following, under the increasing deluge 😉

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Mark Lefebvre of Kobo Writing Life Author Relations at London Book Fair 2013

Zombies Run 2 app trailer

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