Why I turned down a publishing deal

Several weeks ago, I was more or less knocked off my feet. On the other side of the table I was sitting at, the charismatic publishing director of a smaller press had just told me they were interested in publishing my forthcoming books AND my entire backlist. I sort of soared out of that meeting, let me tell you.

Now, before we go any further, allow me to crawl off my high horse and say that everything that follows would probably not have applied had I been approached by one of the big publishing companies. In fact, had they offered, I’d probably had said a resounding yes while still sitting at the table. Why? Because they could have afforded me a highway to retail exposure, which is one of the constant difficulties indie writers grapple with. Truth be told, had any of the big publishing companies offered, I’d gladly have sold out a part of my creative soul, more or less blinded by the whispered promises from Mammon. This despite knowing that Mammon is a character best not trusted…

A small press cannot afford to push all their authors. A small press has to be very commercial and business oriented in their thinking. The publishing director I met was clearly a savvy business person – but so am I, so I wasn’t intimidated by this. Rather, I respected the person – I like people who are direct and don’t beat around the bushes. So when the publishing director explained that their normal practice was to first publish as e-book and PoD, only upgrading to print runs if the initial formats enticed enough interest, I totally agreed with the business reasoning behind it. But. I already have e-books and PoDs, so how would this benefit me? My royalty rates would go down, my exposure would all in all be more or less the same – albeit that there were tie-ins the publishing house could offer to other authors in similar genres.

All the same, I was tempted. Very tempted. So I did some further research.
I produce my PoDs to a very high standard, Truth be told, I make very little money of my pb sales, but on the other hand I have the satisfaction of knowing my books are printed on good quality cream paper, are adequately typeset with adequate margins, and have covers that are thick enough not to curl upwards like a third into the book. I can afford to be picky – I am not running a business, I am pandering to my artistic ego, ensuring the packaging conforms with the (I hope) quality of my writing.

A person running a business has to think margins. All the time. Two percent higher margin may be the difference between a healthy cash-flow and liquidity issues, so the conscientious business owner will go for acceptable paper quality rather than good, will go for the lower grade cover material and will keep a hawk’s eye on the page count – which may result in over-crammed pages.

The business person in me studied the copies of the paperbacks produced by the small press that had contacted me, and was not surprised. Lightweight paper, equally lightweight covers – but nice cover art. The creative person in me studied the way the cover curled and offered a loud “hmm”. Very loud.

The creative person in me was further put off by the occasional odd font change and the somewhat hasty feel to the editing. I had read a couple of e-books published by the small press and in some cases been less than impressed by the formatting (they have subsequently been reformatted) and the recurring typos. In brief, the creative me cringed.

And then there was the matter of control. The publishing director was very direct, explaining that yes, I would lose control. Not all control, obviously, but a lot of it. I didn’t like that. Like most indie authors I know, I’ve developed a protective and somewhat control-freak attitude to my books. I spend a lot of money on edits by accredited editors, I don’t stint on the cover design and will rework and rework until I am happy with the end product as presented by my excellent cover artist. Obviously, a business on the lookout to defend their earnings can’t do that. I understand that. But I don’t like it.

So, all in all, I decided to say no thank you. I was immensely flattered, and I will be forever grateful to the publishing director for the huge compliment she offered me, my branding, and my writing. Plus, of course, this entire process made me realise just how much I enjoy being an indie, in total control of every facet of my book production. But hey, Random House et al, don’t let that put you off, okay? You come calling and I’m sure we’ll work something out  Oh, yes!

It’s all about people, people

Sometimes, people ask me why I write historical fiction. “Why such a difficult genre?” they ask, which in itself makes me a tad irritated, as historical fiction, IMO, is not a genre – it’s an umbrella under which all other genres coexist. In essence, the “historical” in historical fiction merely indicates that the story is set in a non-contemporary time.It says nothing about the content as such, albeit that many people seem to think historical fiction is defined by blood and gore and thousands upon thousands dying in one battle or other. 

Yes, that stuff happens in historical novels. It also happens in contemporary novels – it happens in real life around us on a daily basis. There are historical novels that are essentially love stories, there are others that are coming-of-age stories, yet another author delivers a well-crafted thriller set in distant times, and quite a few produce so called cosy mysteries a la Miss Marple. As long as all these very different books are set in the past, they end up labelled as historical fiction – and considered comparable. Obviously, they are not.

I write books set in the past because I am something of a history geek. Since I was old enough to read for myself, I have submerged myself in stories set in the past – no matter genre – because I wanted to pretend I was there, in an era very distant from my own. Escapism in its purest form, one could say.

And yes, I spend very many happy hours researching my chosen setting – at times resulting in tangential excursions that bring no value whatsoever to my WIP, but expand my soul and enrich my life in general. After all, who doesn’t want to know that Peter the Great married a low-born, illiterate commoner? Or that Eleanor of Castile had a half-brother, Felipe, already a bishop when he threw his ecclesiastic career out of the window to marry a Norwegian princess?

You can research your setting and the era you’ve chosen until you’re blue in the face. That in itself will not result in a page-turning novel. In fact, sometimes too much research produces a major info-dump instead – you know, books in which the author expends pages and pages on showcasing their own knowledge of the period, thereby effectively killing pace.

A skilled writer of historical fiction inserts DETAILS, not paragraphs. A skilled writer – no matter genre – also knows that if you want the story you write to resonate with the reader, your novel must deliver some sort of insight into the commonalities of being human.Therefore, for a novel to come alive, it requires characters that are vibrant and complex, real enough to step out of the pages, no matter if they ever existed or not. 

People have not changed all that much through the centuries. We are still needy creatures, both on a physical and emotional level. Think Maslow, and I guess we all agree humans have physiological needs, a desire to feel safe, to belong. We do in this day and age, they did back in historic (and pre-historic) times as well.

It is therefore a safe bet to assume human emotions and reactions are relatively constant throughout the ages. Someone betrays you, the visceral rage you feel is probably identical to the one your 12th century ancestor felt when he realised he’d been set up. Loving someone probably feels the same – maybe with the caveat that these days, we consider it a borderline human right to be loved and love. Back in the darker and grimmer eras that precede ours, love was something of a luxury: if you had food and a roof over your head, if you were safe and your children set up for surviving, you could live with not falling into throes of passion at the sight of your husband/wife. Truth is, you didn’t EXPECT to love your spouse – you married for reasons on the lower lever of the Maslow pyramid. But this doesn’t preclude that IF you fell in love, it would feel exactly the same way as it feels today.

All of us have personal experience of feelings and emotions. As these are the most important aspects to convey in a novel, we could all, potentially, carry a budding writer within. There is, however, a major difference between experiencing an emotion and describing it – plus, once again, it is a fine balancing act between describing too much and too little. Readers enjoy filling in the blanks. Writers don’t want them to fill in the blanks with the wrong stuff, so writers have to leave enough hints to steer the reader in the right direction. This is the major difference between “show” and “tell” writing – as in “She was so devastated and confused she had no idea what to do next” (the writer informs – tells – the reader of what the protagonist is experiencing) or “She couldn’t quite focus: her hands shook, her mouth was the texture of paper, her brain a total blank” (the writers presents the protagonist’s reactions which the reader analyses before concluding she is in a bad way, probably in some sort of shock).

Whatever the case, it is my opinion that to write a novel one must be fascinated by humanity, in all its diverse forms. It is only by presenting the reader with a mirror in which they can recognise their own emotions that a writer succeeds in hooking them. And once the reader has swallowed the bait, it doesn’t really matter if the book is set in the future, the past or the present. What matters is that the reader is willing to take a ride through the imagined landscapes produced by the writer, hand in hand with the protagonist.

This post was written for IndieBrag, albeit in a somewhat different form

A light in the dark

IMG_0323Wandering through the past has similarities to walking through the forest on a summer night. There is enough light to make out the general shape of things, the odd boulder, the stand of rustling oaks. The water of the distant lake shimmers in the ambient light, and a streak of orange hovers to the west – enough to illuminate the general contours that surround you.

The details, however, hide in the shadows. Something crunches benath your foot, and in the dark you have no idea whether it was a twig or the fragile shell of a bird’s egg. All you know is that something broke.

Writing historical fiction requires dragging those hidden details out into the light. In some cases, the author will fill in the gaps with plausible events – at least according to that author. But what is plausible for one author, is impossible for another, and so we can have two equally competent writers writing about the same historical person and depicting that person very differently. The classic example is Richard III, elevated to the heroic victim of whispered calumnies by some, presented as a ruthless murderer of innocents by others.

Some writers allow themselves the pleasure of presenting the same historical character differently in different books. One such example is Tony Riches, who in his book about Eleanor Cobham presents her husband, Humphrey of Gloucester, in a far more favourable light than he does in his book Owen, which features Owen Tudor and his secret marriage to Catherine Valois, Henry V’s widow (and Humphrey’s sister-in-law). Of course, neither of these depictions is correct – should Humphrey materialise before us, he’d probably be quite surprised by how he has been represented, as would Richard III. And Henry VII. Maybe not so much Henry VIII – although I suspect he would loudly claim he was the victim of a character assassination. From Henry VIII’s perspective, it is unfortunate that so much documentation from his reign has survived. Richard III, however, can give us a toothy grin and ask us just what sources we would base our assertion that he murdered his nephews on.

Things become even more diffuse if you choose to write about people who did not figure on the central stage – maybe who did not exist at all. Obviously, in this latter case you can ignore all need to research the individual’s timeline – you make it up as you go – but for the sake of plausibility, there is no getting away from the need to shed some light on the historical darkness. You need context. You need details. You need a setting that comes to life, whether through the draught that filters through the slats in the shutters or the endless sequence of meals that consist of pottage.

Actually, an author ALWAYS has to illuminate the setting. Whether contemporary or historical, sci-fi or dystopian, a writer aspires to anchor the reader in his/her world, with his/her characters. Readers can forgive a sloppy setting if the characters live and breathe. (The other way around doesn’t work – ever). But readers remember the books that transport them to whatever corner of the universe, in whatever time the writer has chosen to set the story in.

All of the above influenced me as I considered what to name my imprint. Yup. MY imprint.  Allow me to introduce Timelight Press – a little light in the endless oceans of time – and space 🙂

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