- Some indie writers, like Amanda Hocking, making it mega big with millions of fans and sales and offers from traditional publishers
- Realization dawning (a bit late in some quarters) that ebooks, not paperbacks, are going to be the most popular form of book very, very, soon.
- The mysterious non-launch of Pottermore
- Publishers like Penguin and Harper Collins trying to monetize the slush pile - all those keen and naive authors, surely some profit there somewhere...
- Prognostications of doom about the future of publishing
- The totally unsurprising rise of ebook piracy, encouraged by the determination of publishers to keep ebook prices as high as possible
- Spats between unpublished writers and self-published writers, fuelled by the near-impossibility of getting a contract, and the irritating success of some indies
- Some agents attempting to become publishers, with mixed results
Saturday, 31 December 2011
Monday, 26 December 2011
Saturday, 24 December 2011
On behalf of my blog readers, I decided to investigate. First stop was the Pottermore website, still in beta. Not much to see for non-members, but if you go here it's clear just how many people are involved in the enterprise. Next stop Pottermore Insider, the site blog. Oddly, none of the posts have dates, only times, though you can tell from the sidebar the last four posts are December's. I liked the posts about designing the House Crests. No information about when the site will exit beta and the ebooks become available. No updates or press releases.
What has this hiatus meant? First, it's enabled Amazon to consolidate Kindle's lead position among ereaders; they've brought out the affordable Kindle 4, the Kindle Touch and the Kindle Fire, and have been selling a million a week this month. Amazon's clever online store and wireless delivery are a hard act to beat. Sony's Reader (which must have been counting on the USP of offering access to the world's best-selling series of books) has lost ground it will never recover.
Second, a canny operator like JKR has made the classic mistake of creating a demand and failing to meet it. The black market has stepped in. For those who don't care about copyright, the ebooks of Harry Potter are out there, readily available and free, in the format of your choice.
Saturday, 17 December 2011
Saturday, 10 December 2011
Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, has written critical pieces on his blog and in the Huffington Post. You can sympathize with his point of view - his site is a resource for indies, and now a massively richer business is poaching them. Although the writers leaving are those who, like me, sell insignificant numbers on Smashwords, if 20,000 books that sold one copy a month are removed, that's a lost income of around $4,000 a month.
What would I do if I was Mark Coker facing this threat to his business? I'd ask myself what Amazon was doing that I wasn't - I'd stop fighting the alligators for a moment and do a bit of swamp draining. The key problem with Smashwords is you can load an excellent book, but no one who isn't looking for it will find it, as I know from personal experience. So, if I was him, I'd recruit my daughter and six voracious readers like her, young and willing to work for a modest fee. I'd tell them to find the best books on the site and write a review. I'd showcase one of these books a day, then put them in a Best Books on Smashwords chart. I'd think up other cheap promotional ideas, like Reduced for a Day, or Month's Best Cover.
What chiefly interests me about this whole situation is that suddenly indie books are being viewed as a valuable resource, instead of a 'tsunami of crap'. Amazon has always known it was worthwhile giving nearly equal opportunities to self-published books - other outlets are only just beginning to catch up. How long before these outlets start actively competing for our custom, instead of tolerating and side-lining us?
Thursday, 8 December 2011
- Your books must not be digitally available anywhere but Amazon
- You sign up for three months at a time, after which you can opt out
- You are entitled to make your book free for 5 days out of each 90 day period
- There is a fixed amount of money which will be split between books which have been lent out each month; you will receive this amount divided by number of loans x loans of your book. Amazon will provide $6 million for 2012.
Saturday, 3 December 2011
|Coat of arms modelled in wax|
Saturday, 26 November 2011
On Kindleboards I came across this post by V.J. Chambers which struck an instant chord with me. I'm sure most self-published authors will agree it's spot on about the ups and downs of an indie writer.
The good news is, that most traditionally published authors experience similar ups and downs, but the whole process is much slower, you have less control, less direct information to obsess over, and it's possible to be dumped by your publisher.
My emotional writing journey by V.J. Chambers
- I loooove writing. I'm going to get published and make millions of dollars!
- (100 no-responses from agents later and two manuscripts later) This is really hard and demoralizing. Why do I freaking bother?
- Discover self-publishing is not as bad as eating babies.
- I loooove self-publishing. I'm going to market my butt off and play with my price and make millions of dollars!
- So, um, I'm not actually making any money. This is really hard and demoralizing. Why do I freaking bother?
- OMG! I'm selling more!
- OMG! I'm still selling more. If this keeps up, I could quit my day job!
- Oh. So, I'm, um, not really selling that many books any more. This is really hard and demoralizing. But I bother because I know that it's possible to be successful.
- Huh. My sales are picking up again.
- Huh. My sales are plummeting.
- So, um, apparently this writing thing is going to be emotionally draining.
Saturday, 19 November 2011
I haven't blogged about Penguin's move into vanity publishing as it's been covered elsewhere - if you've somehow missed reading about it, I'd recommend David Gaughran's post. It's really annoying to see yet another attempt to make money out of naive wannabe writers.
Writers, without whom there would be no books, bookshops or publishing industry (and no films for that matter) are generally treated surprisingly badly. The Big Six offer ever smaller advances and more comprehensive contracts; writers are the only people involved in publishing who mostly don't make a living wage. Anyone submitting work to agents is resigned to slow responses, form rejections or being ignored. We keep quiet about the worst horror stories (though they'd make riveting blog posts) because we want to be seen as professional.
And everyone, it seems, sees opportunities for making money out of writers thwarted by the near-impossibility of getting a legacy contract. I believe there are three sensible ways of reaching your readers today:
- A traditional publishing deal. Though this is probably still most writers' dream, it's less advantageous than it was even ten years ago. Increasingly, publishing is more about marketing than the product and new or mid-list authors can feel neglected.
- Small press publishing deal. There are some small presses, such as Ridan, that do very well for their authors. Others, such as Night Publishing, are more like co-operatives. You need to look carefully at each one to see exactly what they offer and what their terms are, but if you are not happy going it alone this might suit you.
- Self-publishing. You control everything, but will need to learn how to do or commission covers, formatting, editing, proofreading and uploading to Amazon's KDP.
Saturday, 12 November 2011
A month ago, the Daily Mail Online had an article about Hive, a website set up by Gardners to 'try and stop even more independent bookshops from having to close by allowing people to buy books, e-books and DVDs online put money towards a local bookshop at the same time.' Amazon is depicted as the baddie, responsible for closing bookshops; famously nice Michael Palin supports Hive. (Not a good name, Hive - try looking it up on Google.)
I commented on the article: Like every reader, I want bookshops to flourish. But I'm also a writer, and when I looked up my novels on Hive, they are there but 'not available'. Why? Because I'm a self-published author. My books are available on Amazon. Amazon has enabled me to sell 45,000 books, mostly ebooks, over the past year. But it's virtually impossible to persuade bookshops to stock indie books, even with the full trade discount. So my loyalty remains with Amazon, and that's where I'll continue to buy books.
I was somewhat staggered to see my comment voted the least popular. But then I got a phone call from a You and Yours researcher; they were going to do a piece on Amazon, had seen my comment and wanted me to record an interview.
The BBC is only a thirty minute bike ride from Hoxton. I was taken up in a lift to the fifth floor and a small, sound-proof studio with a window into the room next door where two women controlled the sound. They asked me to keep my hands off the table so the microphone didn't pick up stray noise. Peter White came in. It's strange meeting someone you've often heard on the radio - you feel you know him, but he doesn't know you. His pleasant, relaxed demeanour made me less nervous. He asked me questions, and I remembered to keep my hands in my lap while answering. Then I biked back, thinking of all the things I might have said and didn't.
I missed the programme, as my sister was in London that Friday and I met her for lunch, so I didn't hear it until it was available on BBC iPlayer. I got several emails from friends who'd heard it by chance, and a couple from writers asking my advice. I also sold half a dozen paperbacks of Remix and Replica on Amazon.
It was an interesting experience, and I now feel more confident about doing something similar another time.
Friday, 4 November 2011
I tend to err on the other side. In my first novel, Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation, the baddie Skardroft became so sympathetic I had to introduce a further baddie, Corfe, who as a torturer was hard to like. But I have to say, in the sequel, I feel sorry for Corfe as he attempts to continue his evil ways after suffering well-deserved head injuries...
There is an interesting discussion on this topic on Kindleboards. The suggestions of how to make your baddie sympathetic, but still evil, are so insightful I'm going to quote them here:
- My current WIP is a fantasy, and my villain became so cool, charismatic, and *sympathetic* that he was dominating the whole story! The problem was - I think - that we had too much of his POV. We saw too much of his thoughts and related to him too strongly. I went back and either cut his POV scenes, or rewrote them from another POV. And suddenly - voilà - he became scary again. He's still a very charismatic villain, but he's clearly a villain. Sandra Miller
- I always get into the heads of my villains and yes, their self-justification can be surprisingly effective. I wouldn't consider this a drawback, however. A richly drawn, slightly sympathetic villain is a wonderful detail to include in your novel. Michael Wallace
- Sympathetic is fine; what is important is fear. The reader might understand and even sympathize with a villain but when that villain is in the same room as the protagonist there needs to be fear, uncertainty about what that villain might do. It's that fear and uncertainty in the heart of the reader that makes a villain effective and if the villain is also sympathetic that's even better. KM Johnson-Weider
- To create a good villain, you have to be willing to completely, utterly, irrevocably damage the lives of characters you love. Otherwise, you're just having guys wave around guns with blanks instead of bullets. David Dalglish
- The uncertainty has to be there. I think what I need to do now is make something happen to throw the readers the other way again. So you thought you understand this person? Think again! Several people have commented that it's best to keep the villain off-stage as well, at least initially. The monster in the shadows is scarier than the one you can see, as long as you also see the bodies strewn around. Masha DuToit
Sunday, 30 October 2011
Partly it's because I think Replica would transfer well to the small screen, and partly because it's an interesting challenge. Screenplay writing is very different from novel writing; since there will be input from the director, actors, set and costume designers, on the page it's the dialogue that does all the work. You don't say what the characters are feeling; you don't write backstory; you don't tell the actors how to deliver the lines. So the dialogue has to be very good indeed.
You lay the screenplay out to an accepted format, in Courier 12, as in the picture. This enables the length of a script to be assessed quickly. A film should come to no more than 120 pages. I'm a concise writer, so it's a new sensation for me to have to cut scenes and dialogue. I now realize why adaptations often have whole subplots missing, and why films can be so different from the original novel.
I've a nasty feeling it probably takes as long to become proficient at writing screenplays as it does to write readable novels.
Saturday, 15 October 2011
Over the course of three years, HC has shown little faith in the writers on its site, or the ranking system it put in place. It has published only two novels from Authonomy authors, and those not from the top five, a big let-down for anyone who believed the hype when it launched. Years ago, members suggested that HC should bring out POD paperbacks of the top five each month, maybe have special stands in bookshops, promoting HC New Authors. Some books would be successful, thus financing the scheme. Possibly this idea was unrealistic.
Scott Pack's new scheme is a good one, if a year late, but then mainstream publishing moves slowly. Ebooks (in spite of publishers' protestations) are very cheap to produce; you need a cover, editing, proofreading and formatting, and you're good to go - from then on, it's all profit. The print versions of books that have proved their popularity will be risk-free.
I can see a couple of problems, though. One is that many of the best writers on Authonomy have left and self-published. Will HC want to publish books already available as ebooks? Probably not, which means they'll miss a lot of talent. The other problem, for authors, is the contract they will be offered. Publishers rely on authors' desperate longing to be 'properly' published. I somehow doubt there will be any advances. No details have been given, but I think any contract is likely to be so weighted in HC's favour that you'd need to think very carefully before signing it.
Take a look at this clause concerning a Harper Collins short story contest - and note, it covered every entry, not just the winners:
Where you submit your entry to this site...by such submission you grant UKTV and HarperCollins Publishers Limited each a perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, non-exclusive, worldwide, sub-licensable right and license to use, reproduce and publish, distribute and make available to the public your entry in any media, now known or later developed, for the full term of any rights that may exist in such content.
On the other hand, any big publisher has a lot of clout and ability to promote. It'll be very interesting to see how this works out.
Saturday, 8 October 2011
Amazon has a new feature for Kindle users (you need to sign in). You can keep tabs on the books you are reading, have read, or stopped reading, and the notes you made on them. You can choose to make this information public.
Of course, I rushed to see if readers had highlighted anything on my books. With Remix, proudly ranking 4395th in books with Public Notes, oddly it's the first lines and my website address. With Replica, I was delighted to find this note on the thoughts of my hero, Nick Cavanagh:
How cool is that?
Saturday, 1 October 2011
Today I noticed a novel because of the lovely colours and lettering on the cover (I take note of book covers I like, in order to work out how they were done - all part of my efforts to get on top of Adobe Photoshop 7.0).
As I write, The Lady of the Rivers , as well as being at #48 in the Amazon paper book charts, is at #82 and rising in the Kindle top 100, priced at £11.49. The paperback (not yet released) is £5.99, the hardback £6.68.
I wondered what is going through the minds of the publishers, Simon & Schuster...
- Philippa Gregory has a lot of fans, many of whom will pay this outrageous price in order to get her latest book - then we can drop the price later, and pick up more sales.
- We don't like Amazon, and don't want to help it to do well with books for the Kindle.
- We don't like ebooks - we'd really rather they went away; if we make them more expensive than paper books, maybe people will buy those instead.
- And if they DO buy the ebook at this price, what a lot of money we'll make. After all, we're only paying Philippa and her agent 17.5% of the price, and it's costing us nothing at point of sale. No paper, printing, delivery, storage, returns. Ho ho ho.
Wednesday, 28 September 2011
Amazon.co.uk has asked publishers for discounts of 90% on titles in order to participate in an October Kindle promotion.
The campaign is due to run from 17th to 31st October inclusively. Amazon has told publishers this will be the "main focus for our merchandising efforts during this period", and would be supported with emails, on Facebook, and via Twitter. It has asked for new frontlist as well as key backlist titles.
Of course, publishers are grumbling about this - they hate to reduce their prices, and have spent the last year coming up with specious arguments as to why an e-book should cost as much as a paperback, in spite of savings on paper, print, transport, storage and the pulping of remaindered books. But I'll bet they were pleasantly surprised by the profits they made during Amazon's Twelve Days of Kindle, Spring Spectacular and Summer Sale. Amazon wants to encourage them to produce more and better products (many mainstream books' formatting is poor) at a lower price.
At the start of this year, along with other self-published books, Remix was featured on Amazon's promotional pages. This gave it a huge boost. The same hasn't happened with Replica, nor have I noticed any other indie books being promoted recently. This may be because there are now many more trad published books available. And the algorithm tweaks, which made rankings less 'sticky' and changed the recommendation system have hit our sales particularly, as we don't have the marketing opportunities big publishers do.
It's not a conspiracy. I don't think Amazon has anything against self-published books. Amazon constantly seeks ways to improve its selling and profit, and indie sales are just collateral damage. But it's kind of depressing to suspect that within another year, big publishers will have established the same stranglehold over digital that they have always enjoyed over print.
Once more, the authors they reject will have no way of reaching readers, and readers will not have access to some books they would have loved.
I do hope I am wrong about this.
Tuesday, 20 September 2011
"I think a lot of 'Indie' writers are going to find the times ahead quite difficult. Most don't really understand how publishing works and have had their hopes and ambitions raised by the sudden interest in eBooks which started late last year. But the simple fact of publishing remains the same - very very few writers make a living from their writing. It has always been that way and just because companies like Amazon make it easy for anyone to publish their work doesn't change that fact.
A lot of Indies thought that because they were selling lots of books at the start of this year that they now had a guaranteed income stream and that they would be earning money for ever more. That's not how publishing works. It doesn't work that way with paperbacks and people are starting to realise that it doesn't work that way with eBooks either. Most of the books that were in the Top 10 at the start of the year are now selling just a few copies a day. Writers who were heading the bestseller lists in the spring are now lucky if they have a book in the Top 100. And by next year most will have dropped out of the Top 1000. Books come, and they go. So do writers. It has always been a precarious way of earning a living and that hasn't changed!
What we have seen over the past year isn't so much a revolution as a bubble. The bubble isn't going to pop, but it is now deflating slowly and will continue to do so, and my prediction is that once everything has settled the eBook bestseller lists will be dominated by the same names that top the print lists. Just my humble opinion...."
Mark Williams, 11th September 2011:
"Fully one third of the top 500 ebooks on Amazon are indie-published. That means that the trad publishers, with all their money, their professional resources and their years of expertise, their huge marketing budgets and their acclaimed ability to know what readers want to read, combined with long-published names that have loyal followings built up over decades, can only manage to hold 66% of the market.
Indie publishers, on their own, often complete beginners, unknown names with no following, no resources and a shoestring budget, are mopping up 33% of the ebook market. And that can only get bigger.
How on Earth can totally inexperienced indie authors, most with day-jobs, just come along and outsell the experts? Here’s why: The success of the indie e-publisher is based on their ability to be flexible; to price low; to offer quick turnaround; and to engage directly with readers and deliver what the readers actually want to read, not what the gatekeepers think readers should be reading."
So who is right?
Speaking from my own experience, just when I expected to sell more - the two month Amazon Summer Sale is over, and I've published two new books - my sales have slowed dramatically. I am not alone; it seems to be happening to most other indie writers. See this thread here on Kindleboards. The consensus is that Amazon has tweaked its algorithms twice this year, back in spring and about a week ago, each change incidentally making it a less favourable marketplace for the self-published, and better for the big publishers.
Publishing is still in a state of turmoil, though, and the fat lady sings on. Pottermore, due to launch next month, will be a game changer. Agents and publishers feel beleaguered, and with good reason. Indies have got a taste of freedom and success, and will never again feel quite so abject towards the publishing industry.
For me, the last year has enabled me to prove there is a readership for my writing, and cock a snook (whatever that may be) at all the agents who rejected my novels. I've sold over 44,000 books, and made quite a bit of money. Even if it is all downhill from now on, I'll be eternally grateful for the opportunities Amazon gave me.
Friday, 16 September 2011
Thursday, 8 September 2011
Dear Ms Revellian,
I am writing on behalf of a new international publishing house, JustFiction! Edition.
In the course of a web-research I came across a reference of your manuscript TRAV ZANDER and it has caught my attention.
We are a publisher recognized worldwide, whose aim it is to help talented but international yet unknown authors to publish their manuscripts supported by our experience of publishing and to make their writing available to a wider audience.
JustFiction! Edition would be especially interested in publishing your manuscript as an e-book and in the form of a printed book and all this at no cost to you, of course.
If you are interested in a co-operation I would be glad to send you an e-mail with further information in an attachment. I look forward to hearing from you.
Lots of writers have received similar emails recently. Go to Just Fiction's website and it's curiously vague about the details of what is on offer should you sign up with them. Check out Writer Beware and you will find it most likely appropriates your rights forever and pays you 10% royalty - extremely stingy for ebooks, even by publishing standards.
It's a sad fact these days that if a publisher expresses interest in your novel off his own bat, it is almost certainly a scam. Don't be flattered, do be suspicious. You can do better than this on your own.
Sunday, 4 September 2011
It's easy to say when JK Rowling chose to e-publish Harry Potter herself via Pottermore that with her money and clout, she can do what the rest of us can't. But there's more. Mostly in America, publishers have picked up the best-selling indies - at a price. (If they'd had the wit to sign Amanda Hocking when she was submitting the year before, they'd have got her for much less than the two million dollars they paid.) Barry Eisler turned down half a million dollars from St Martins to stay indie. John Locke, a prolific and successful indie writer, has just signed a deal with Simon & Schuster. But it's a pretty unusual deal - it's just for print books. He retains ebook rights.
No eager publisher has contacted me. But in the unlikely event of this happening, would I be interested? I'd love a print-only deal that would get my novels into the bookshops, and handle foreign and film rights for me. This is improbable, though; I imagine they'd want full control, with a modest advance of five or ten thousand - and I've earned more than that on my own in one year of self-publishing. Add the loss of control, a delay of eighteen months before publication, and paper book sales dropping all the time as digital rise, and I'd feel a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Bob Mayer, a New York Times best selling author, has been approached three times in the past month by trad authors asking him how ebooks work. He says, "Frankly, I don’t think anyone in NY Publishing really understands the big picture of ebook publishing from writer to reader." I'm not sure they get the small picture, either. Inexcusably, some formatting is carelessly done. I often notice blurbs on Amazon for mainstream published ebooks with duplications, stray bits of HTML, or missing punctuation. Sometimes the author's page is left blank. When I told an author friend I'd noticed mistakes in his blurb, he said that was the responsibility of the marketing department, and it was difficult to get them to change things.
So: we have good books the public wants to read being rejected by publishers. Midlist authors are treated badly by their publishers. Bookshops are struggling, closing or changing hands. A growing indie movement has proved astonishingly successful over the last year. Writers and readers have more choice and opportunity.
Vive la révolution!
Tuesday, 30 August 2011
A reader reviewing Remix said, "... as I was reading it, it played through like a film in my mind. Very rarely a novel appears like a film to me and it's a sure fire sign that I'm enjoying it."
When I write a scene, I observe it as if it were a film; so the film playing in my mind was transcribed, published, sent to her Kindle, then replayed as a film for her. Interesting to speculate on the differences between our respective films; Caz's workshop imagined by her will not be the same as my image of it, as it's based on places she has never been to - but if I've done my job well it'll be none the worse for that. (I wonder what her Ric Kealey looks like? Drop dead gorgeous, of course...)
Thinking about this, it occurs to me that books are written in code, and only the right reader is able to correctly decode them. It is a joy for a writer when a reader totally 'gets' her novel, and of course, not everyone will, even with the most popular authors. Myself, I reckon my decoding of Jane Austen or Mary Renault is in the high nineties, percentage-wise, but for Dan Brown, DH Lawrence or Dostoevsky it's down in the low thirties.
Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Tuesday, 16 August 2011
Tuesday, 9 August 2011
Saturday, 6 August 2011
So there is simply NO POINT adding a sombre, "Please enjoy responsibly," to a radio advert for alcohol. That is so not going to make the listener think, "Dear me, in that case I'd better not go out with my mates and get ratted tonight as planned." Similarly I doubt all the messages on cigarette packets persuade smokers to desist. The thing about nagging is that it's irritating, so people tune it out.
Hi everyone, my thriller The Tattooist is on special offer for 99p!
What starts as just another murder investigation for DI Beverly Richards gradually turns into a nightmare, as a ruthless serial killer known as The Tattooist slays and mutilates lots of attractive young women and a few children and pets too, then tattoos clues on to their skins to taunt the police.
In a unique twist, the killer begins to hunt the cop hunting him! Beverley must find him and stop the slayings before he slaughters her, her twins, and her pet lop-eared rabbit, while simultaneously dealing with a hard-drinking boss who wants her taken off the case. Not to mention unfinished business with a man from her past who may not be what he seems.
Time is running out for Beverley – can she beat her demons and survive a final show-down with The Tattooist?
Perhaps they worked, in the early days of the Kindle; but now, I think there have been so many of these posts, often inappropriately posted on half a dozen threads simultaneously, that potential readers mostly screen them out. On the US Amazon forums, such was the proliferation of Buy my book! posts that Amazon has declared zero tolerance, banning even discreet book links in signatures.
Writers need readers, and won't get them by badgering.
Saturday, 30 July 2011
I DIDN’T KNOW I KNEW THAT
by John Harding
The American novelist Wally Lamb once wrote: ‘I write to discover what I didn’t know I knew.’ I find it’s a phrase that resonates and by way of illustration, let me tell you a story about me.
In my novel Florence and Giles, for reasons I won’t go into here, Florence, the 12-year-old narrator, has never been allowed to learn to read. But one day she discovers the neglected library of the decaying old mansion where she lives, an immense dusty, disregarded room crammed with books. Visiting it in secret, she teaches herself to read, and then proceeds to work her way through the books there. It’s a forbidden, clandestine act, and Florence has to take many precautions to avoid being caught. If she is, she’ll be banned from the room and have no more books again. So she’s always extremely careful to leave the books exactly as she found them.
Now, when I’d finished it, one of the things I liked about Florence and Giles was that my previous three novels had all contained clear elements of autobiography. For the first time I’d written a book that had nothing to do with my life. Everything in it was completely made up. Or so I thought.
After the book came out I was giving a talk about it one day and someone asked a question – I can’t even recall what it was now – and suddenly I found myself replaying an episode from my childhood. It wasn’t just something I hadn’t thought about for nearly years; it was something I’d completely forgotten.
I grew up in a house with only four books in it on a council estate in a bleak and remote Fenland village where culture simply didn’t exist. It’s likely I’d never have become a prolific reader, let alone a writer, but for one thing. I had my early education in the village primary school (roll call 90 kids) and my mother was the school caretaker. Or, take away the fancy title, the cleaner. Every day when school finished at three o’clock and the teachers and the other kids all left, I stayed behind and my mother arrived and got to work. Last thing every day, before they went home, every pupil had to put his chair on his desk. First thing my mother did was to sweep the floors and when she’d done that (it didn’t take long; she was a fast worker and she had a lot to do) it was my job to stand all the chairs down again so she could clean the desks. Once I’d done that I was free.
The school had three classrooms, for kids aged 5 to 7, 7 to 9, and 9 to 11. Each classroom had its own teacher who taught two different year groups within that class. Now, at first, when I started school at five years old, there wasn’t a whole lot to do after school once I’d finished with the chairs, but pretty soon I learned to read and once I did, I was off. It didn’t take me long to work my way through all the books in my own classroom, the infants. They mainly concerned two kids called Janet and John whose idea of a good time was to point at every day objects or animals and say something like ‘See a dog’ or ‘See a chair’. Once I’d mastered all of these in my after school sessions, I started on those in the next classroom up. There was a frisson of excitement about this, because I never entered it during school time. In most ways it wasn’t any different from the infants except it didn’t have the Wendy house or the portable sandpit on wheels. The principal difference was, the books. Suddenly I was transported into a magical place. I remember clearly a whole series of little books with horizontally red-and-white striped covers and large print. Each one contained an ancient Greek or Norse myth. I especially loved the ones about Loki the Norse god of mischief who caused havoc in Valhalla just for the hell of it. My most spectacular find was Tintin. There were two of them: King Ottaker’s Sceptre and The Crab With the Golden Claws. Of course, I knew comics, no child of the fifties didn’t, but this was something else. A proper hardback book consisting of just one story, in the most beautiful colours. I would have given anything to own one of them. It was another ten years before I did.
Anyway, I read my way through everything in 7-9 long before I was officially allowed to enter that room, and after that I went at the ones in 9-11 and by the time I was nine I was relying on new books arriving or rereading stuff I’d already read, because I’d already read every book in the school. Right from the start my mother had told me, ‘Mr Teale (he was the head teacher) might not like you touching those books, so don’t say anything to anyone about it. And make sure you put them back exactly where you find them.’ Looking back on it, my mother’s attitude seems tantamount to paranoia. Surely the headmaster would have been delighted to find a child so keen to read? But I never thought to question it. I supposed she was worried about stepping out of line in any way in case she lost her job. Of course, as I imagined Florence doing so many years later, I always left the neighbour book slightly poking out when I took a book from a shelf so I’d know its place, though actually I’m pretty sure now none of the teachers would have noticed. It doesn’t matter, because my mother’s insecurity gave me a great gift. It made reading an exciting, forbidden thing; books have never lost that lustre for me.
Now this whole business was lost to me for many years until I wrote Florence and Giles when it surprised me by surfacing again. I’d filed it away some place and not only forgotten where but that the file existed at all. This is what writing does, which brings us back to Wally Lamb. Of course what he was talking about, wasn’t just recovered memories, like mine here. He meant the emotions we don’t know we feel, the attitudes we don’t know we have, the connections we never make until they surface from our unconscious onto the page in that gloriously surprising process that writing is. The connection between my childhood experience and Florence’s fictional one was an emotional one; I was reconnecting with the fear, the excitement, the sheer guilty pleasure I’d felt nearly half a century before.