I’ve just been interviewed about my work, and in particular Ocean Gods, Roman Blades, over at Nya Reads. I had a lot of fun talking with Nya about books I love, stories I’ve written, and my secret origins writing Superted fan fiction. Go check it out!
Anyone who follows epic fantasy has heard of Adrian Tchaikovsky. A lawyer, gamer and all round top chap, he’s the author of the Shadows of the Apt series – the sort of massive fantasy work whose printing almost causes deforestation – and the wonderful Jane Austen meets Vietnam war fantasy Guns of the Dawn. I discussed his new book a little last week. Today I have an interview with Adrian, in which he talks world building, writing and which authors could beat him in a fight…
AK: Your new book, The Tiger and the Wolf, has just come out. Could you please tell readers what the book’s about and why they should be excited about it.
The Tiger and the Wolf takes us to a completely new world of shapeshifters. It’s a plunge into a setting where everyone has an animal soul, and some – like the heroine, Maniye – have more than one. This is my first new series after Shadows of the Apt, planned for at least 3 books, and the plot moves from Maniye’s quest to escape the reach of her father towards something truly world-shattering.
Why did you pick the particular animals you use in the book?
Obviously I wanted to get away from the insects and arachnids that were the mainstays on Shadows of the Apt. What I ended up with was a mix of the very familiar and the unexpected. So the people of Maniye’s cold northern climes are wolves, bears and tigers, fairly common shapeshifting fare, but other characters travelling in from elsewhere have different shapes – crocodiles, serpents, hyenas. I wanted to get a diverse spread of cultures, and the cultures are inextricably linked to the animals.
Have you learned any new lessons as a writer in the process of writing this book? And if not, could you tell us something you’ve learned from writing one of your previous novels?
I cut a whole hell of a lot of world building exposition. It’s really easy, when you put a lot of work into the world, to want to show your working to the reader. It was actually useful for me to write down, as it fixed it in my mind, but it all had to come out before the final version.
I heard you talking about your re-enactment fighting a couple of years ago. How does that feed into your writing? And which other author would you be most afraid to face in battle?
A basic understanding of how fights work is always a good thing as it gives you a much expanded toolkit when writing those scenes (though, as above, you also have to learn not to show your working too much). In T&W a lot of the fights were kind of crazy to write because the shapeshifting is instantaneous, so characters are shifting in and out of animal shape depending on what works best in that moment.
As for other writers, I’m a big guy but I reckon there are a whole raft of them who would whup my ass but good. Myke Cole, for one, or Martin Page who’s a very accomplished swordsman.
Is there any chance you’ll be returning to the world of Guns of the Dawn? I loved that book.
There’s every chance if it looks as though the demand is there. I have an idea for a sequel, with Emily being called back into military service out of civilian (and married) life, because when you’ve done what she’s done, war isn’t just going to leave you alone. Some day it’ll get written.
And finally the inevitable question – where can people find you online?
My website is www.shadowsoftheapt.com, and I’m on Facebook, and @aptshadow on Twitter.
The Tiger and the Wolf is out now from TOR.
Thanks very much to Adrian for the interview, and to Jamie-Lee Nardone for setting it up.
David Tallerman is an author of science fiction, fantasy and many other things. I’ve written previously about his books Giant Thief and Patchwerk. Over the past couple of years we’ve become friends, mostly through the shared bond of convention bars. So with several new books from him in the offing, I abused my position to get an interview.
And here it is…
AK: Let’s start with the obvious question – tell us about your latest book.
DT: Actually, it’s more books at this point! January saw the release of my Tor.com novella Patchwerk and, if all goes well, February should bring my fully-illustrated collection of horror and dark fantasy short fiction The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.
But going back to Patchwerk, it’s the story of a scientist named Dran Florrian whose solution to the many problems of the near-future world he inhabits has been to create a machine called Palimpsest that’s capable of repairing his own reality by patching in elements copied from others. Dran, being the sort of overly-focused individual who would build a thing like that without fully thinking through all the implications, is just now waking up to the fact that he’s created something of apocalyptic power in the wrong hands, and has decided to smuggle himself and Palimpsest to somewhere safer. The only problem is that he’s already too late, and when an attempt to steal it leaves Palimpsest damaged, Dran begins to discover just what his creation is capable of.
The idea was very much to write a kind of high-concept action movie, the sort of thing that would only really work in a novella format. And Patchwerk is also a love story of a sort, though one set after the actual love story is over. That seems to be the aspect that’s getting the least attention in reviews, but it’s perhaps my favourite part.
– You write in a wide range of genres – fantasy, science fiction, horror, crime – and a range of formats – novels, comics, novellas, short stories. For you as a writer, what’s the advantage of doing so many different things rather than focusing on one?
In many ways, I think it’s proved more of a liability; I suspect that I’d have had more success by now if I’d stuck to one or even two genres. Still, I hope there are a few people out there who are excited by the notion of a picking up a book by a writer knowing that at the very least it will be completely different to what they’ve read before from that person.
Whatever the case, I’m convinced that I’m a better writer for it. Every new thing you try teaches you something that’s applicable elsewhere and helps to keep your ideas fresh. I’d hate to ever feel like I was repeating myself, and if that means I tend to over-steer the other way then I guess it’s a price I’m happy to pay. But mainly I do it because it’s fun and it keeps me interested, and I suppose because I want to get to play with all of the writer toys.
– Your novella Patchwerk deals with alternate realities and the desire to change them. If you could step into an alternate reality of your choice, how would it be different from our own?
I think that one of the inevitable morals of this kind of story is that we live in the best of all and the worst of all possible worlds, and your only option as an individual is to do whatever you can to make it more the former than the latter. Having said that, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at any reality where I got Crouching Tiger style Wushu flying powers. I mean, that would be pretty cool.
– Easie Damasco, the hero of your Thief novels, is a selfish loner reluctantly pushed into doing good deeds. We shouldn’t like him, and yet we do. Why did you choose a protagonist so inherently hard to like? How did you make that work? And what foul deeds did you commit to get into his mindset?
I don’t know that I chose Easie as such, he just kind of came along. Because Giant Thief was my first proper novel, it never occurred to me that it might be problematic to have a protagonist who was basically pretty obnoxious and by no definition a good person. Easie was a bad guy because the setup I had called for a bad guy, and I suppose I figured that because he was funny – at any rate, because I found him funny – it wouldn’t be much of an issue.
The thing is, to me, Easie is a fairly realistic character, within the bounds of the kind of story that Giant Thief is; he’s not some cartoonish rogue, he really is a criminal and he’s led the life of a criminal, so of course he doesn’t simply begin doing the right thing at the first opportunity. He has his good side, he’s capable of kindness – he treats animals, as a rule, better than he does people – and he even has a kind of lopsided sense of right and wrong. Again, I suppose I just hoped that those qualities might be enough to allow readers to turn a blind eye to some of his less savoury behaviour!
As for any likeness between him and me, the most we have in common is a propensity to talk to horses. I can honestly say that I’ve never once stolen a giant, a crown or even a prince.
– Other than your own books, what have you really enjoyed reading recently?
That implies that I sit around all day reading my own books! Whereas in fact I tend to wait for the audio book to come out.
I’m just right now getting to the end of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ten book Shadows of the Apt epic fantasy / sci-fi series, and it’s been a hell of a ride. I normally avoid doorstopper books due to limited time, but once I finished the first I just didn’t want to stop. I also went back and reread The War of the Worlds for research on a short story and it was a reminder of just what an incredible, ahead of its time book it is. To anyone who hasn’t read it, or whose memories have been muddied by the films, I’d recommend coming to it with fresh eyes, it’s a true masterpiece.
– As your blog shows, you’re passionate about anime. What’s special about the genre that appeals to you? And if someone doesn’t watch anime why should they try it?
Well, you know, we’re talking about a vast body of work here and what’s visible in the West, especially here in the UK, is only the tip of the iceberg. It sounds like nitpicking but its actually a crucial point: anime is a medium and not a genre. So in that sense to say “what’s the appeal of anime” is a little like saying “what’s the appeal of film” or “what’s the appeal of books.” If you enjoy art or entertainment then there will absolutely definitely be something in the world of anime that will appeal to you, and it’s easier than ever these days to track down something that fits your tastes. Certainly if you’re into just about any subgenre of fantasy or science-fiction then you’re doing yourself a huge disserve not to.
For me personally, though, I would say that, firstly, I love animation; I love the artistry of it and, although I like Western animation too, there’s the obvious fact that it’s been dominated by a company that gears their work predominantly towards children for the better part of a century. On top of that, anime tends to handle genres that I like, fantasy, horror and sci-fi, in a manner that’s more thematically diverse and, at its best, more sophisticated than what tends to come out of Western film and television. I suppose the relative lack of budgetary constraints is a big part of that: even if you had the impetus to make something like the Ghost in the Shell TV series, that kind of smart, adult-focused science fiction, the costs would be prohibitive. But for whatever reason, I think that the best anime tends to be a little more daring in its story-telling and the kind of places it’s willing to go to.
Oh, and in the spirit of absolute honesty, I’ve come to realise that I’m kind of a sucker for J-pop.
– Who would win in a fight – Isaac Asimov or J R R Tolkien?
Are they armed? What’s the field of combat? Are they in the back of a moving vehicle? Has Asimov had any opportunity to slip nerve toxin into Tolkien’s tankard of ale? Did they bring their writing possies?
But actually, none of that matters. The correct answer is Isaac Asimov.
– Where can people find you on the internet? And what terrible things will befall them there?
I am in many places on the internet, but a good place to start would probably be my website at www.davidtallerman.co.uk. There’s nothing terrible there at all, it’s a place of innocence, beauty and quietude. Kind of like a Zen garden, if Zen gardens were full of people ranting lengthily about anime.
Today I have the pleasure another author interview. This time it’s with W Lawrence, writer of the science fiction novel Syncing Forward.
Could you please start by telling us a bit about yourself and your books.
I’m a married man with two daughters who spent most of his life moving from place to place, but now live in Pennsylvania working as a corporate investigator. I like reading, shooting, and I’m a huge game fanatic. I’m often accused of being a pessimist, although I believe that label sells me short. I consider myself a realist who just happens to be able to see bad things coming before most people. And given my profession, I don’t always get to see the best in people.
My first venture into writing started several years ago when I put together a game supplement for the (now unsupported) game of Epic: Armageddon. I was recovering from a painful surgery, had some down time, and realized that as a game player I didn’t want to wait for Games Workshop to publish their next supplement rule book. I coordinated several dozen volunteers to produce a book called Epic: Raiders. It’s derivative intellectual property, so we could never profit from it, but we did print it at cost and it’s still available for a free download. The artwork is wonderful, the models were well painted, and the story was written (mostly) by me. If you aren’t a Warhammer 40,000 fan, it probably won’t resonate, but it was a fun venture regardless.
Skip ahead to 2012 and I found myself writing Syncing Forward after an odd bit of inspiration. Framing the story into one genre has been difficult for me because it covers so many; it’s speculative fiction, it’s a bit of a thriller, a bit of a mystery, most certainly dystopian, and it’s sci-fi. There are a lot of twists and the story will take you in directions you weren’t expecting. Most importantly, however, is this is a love story of the family, about how far we are willing to go for our children, our parents, our spouses. It deals with the cold truth of consequence and how we deal (or struggle) with our decisions.
The main character’s life is altered forever after he pushes a suspect for information on why equipment is being stolen from their company. One phrase, Tell me about the rat, sets him moving forward relentlessly through time. He is able to stake out moments with his family before he is carried forward again. His wife grows older. His children grow up. And he becomes a man increasingly out of place in the world.
Why did you pick that particular idea to explore in Syncing Forward?
I had a dream the likes of which I haven’t had since I was a child. No surreal mango fights or living in a swamp cooler with an orange pet chicken named Pepe. This was a vivid dream, tangible, substantive. I dreamt the plot of what is now my book, from beginning to end. When I woke I was so inspired I roused my wife to tell her about it. She told me, “You should turn that into a book!” Although in retrospect I believe she was placating me so I would let her get back to sleep.
Looking back, there are some changes to the storyline, some parts I simply couldn’t make work, other parts that I couldn’t recall. However, it’s pretty darn close.
You deal with both the positive achievements and the dark consequences of technology. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about where it’s taking us, and what are you hoping for from technology in the next couple of decades?
I was listening to National Public Radio one day and a guest –my apologies but I don’t recall who- made the bold comment that the internet is the greatest invention since language. While the automobile and a handful of other inventions might arguably take its place in the pole position, the fact is our world is forever changed due to its invention. We share information, commentary, art, desires, instruction, and finance in a way that could never be predicted 30 years ago.
And yet so many people are feeling increasingly detached from their neighbors, their spouses, their world. We make some of the vilest comments to complete strangers for one sole purpose: because we can. We text instead of talk. The internet has the dubious honor of simultaneously bringing us closer together and further apart. And this is just one technology.
We genetically modify foods with the hope of feeding more people (and making a buck), but the end result is the destruction of heirloom crops. We build smarter machines to help our dumber kids. We teach math with a calculator, not caring about the basics anymore. We are a world constantly propping itself upon the most recent developments, with very few people ask the question “Do we need this?”
There is a quote at the beginning of my book from Isaac Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” I know all of this comes across as awfully hypocritical as I type this in my word processor and send it off at the speed of light to another computer. However, I’m not suggesting we give up electricity. I am saying that technology on every level -genetics, communication, nanotech, robotics- is evolving so rapidly that either human beings will falter or we will have to make incredible sacrifices to adapt. Syncing Forward’s plot explores the price of our technological successes, amongst other arcs.
One technological advance I am looking forward to seeing is Mars-One being a success. Sounds crazy, but I love the pioneer aspect of sending people on a one-way mission to a different planet.
You describe yourself as a part-time Catholic, and religion plays a part in Syncing Forward. Even as an atheist I find the appearance of religion in science fiction fascinating, so I wonder, what role do you think science fiction has in debates about and within religion? And what do you think religion brings to the science fiction table?
Religion definitely has a place in sci-fi. For one, the majority of people in the world believe in some type of higher power, something that can’t be explained by science. But religion makes for great science fiction stories too, be it Robert Heinleins’ Stranger in a Strange Land or Battlestar Galactica.
To clarify, Syncing Forward’s main character -Martin James- is a part time Catholic. I’m a full time Christian, but I have been exposed to Catholicism enough to write the character as such. He is a man who –like many people in the church- is bound more by tradition than faith. He relies on prayer as a last ditch effort, becomes angry with God when his pleas are ignored. It takes up a small portion of the book and doesn’t preach. For non-believers, they will find Martin to be trapped by social aspects of the church that are unnecessary. For believers, they may find the faith aspects to be lacking. I’m fine with that though. The purpose of the book is to tell a story, not rewrite the bible.
People frequently take the approach that science and religion are mutually exclusive topics. I feel comfortable both sharing a faith in God and loving all the cool aspects of science. I frequently tell my daughters that math is the language of God himself. There are several scholars who have theorized that our entire universe is a simulation. I won’t bore people to death, but one example is Planck length (the smallest measurable length), which alludes to the fact that we live in a digital environment. None of this is in the book, by the way, so if you think this is all nonsense you can still read the story.
You’ve worked as an interviewer/interrogator, which sounds absolutely fascinating. Could you please explain a bit about what was involved, and what if anything that experience has contributed to your writing.
I was trained by the U.S. Army Reserve as Counter-Intelligence Agent. They used to call it a 97B, although they may have changed it since then. There I was trained in interview and interrogation techniques. I found myself years later working for a large corporation in their security department and that skillset has proven invaluable. Sometimes it isn’t so fun when you are enthusiastically telling somebody about your day and you can tell they have zero interest, but so goes the hazards of reading faces.
Interviews for me are an art, and I’ve done well over 1,200 in my career – that’s more than most police detectives will ever do. It involves setting the interview room, how to speak, how far to position yourself from your subject, what tone to use, when to shut up, when to monologue, reading body posture, facial expressions, eye movement, micro-expressions (an interesting topic by itself), even counting a pulse rate on a person’s carotid artery. There are some great books out there on the topic of lie detection if you’re interested, as well as some excellent internet sites. Paul Ekman’s website is the best place to learn about micro-expressions.
The main character in my book is a corporate investigator. Hey, you write about what you know! Although his skills are on par with mine, the book doesn’t delve too deeply into the topic. It isn’t a detective novel. I just give the reader the highlights.
How did you go about getting published, and why did you pick that route?
I self-published, mainly because I am lazy and impatient. Writing Syncing Forward was a labor of love, but after two years I simply wanted the baby out of me. The idea of writing query letters over and over was unpalatable. My editor C.S. Lakin advised me to self-publish to maintain control of my work, so I took advantage of the technology we have (cry hypocrite here) and put it out to the world.
Last question – what have you read recently that you’ve really enjoyed, and what was so great about it?
I love non-fiction, and there is no better historical writer than Richard Zacks. While my favorite book of his was Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, I just finished Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. It is an opportunity to meet Teddy Roosevelt before his Presidency plus a fun look at the so-called debauchery of New York. And if you think the bickering between Republicans and Democrats is something new, read this and you will see –not similar, but- identical arguments from a hundred and twenty years ago. Zacks is a brilliant writer and if you email him, he will respond!
Currently I am reading Steven R. Boyett’s Mortality Bridge. So far, it is very well written and more than a little creepy. We shall see how it goes.
* * *
Thanks to W Lawrence for the fascinating interview. You can find out more about him and his work over on his website.
Getting stories read takes support from a whole load of different people – editors, slush readers, reviewers and countless more. Jared Cooper, as well as being a writer and a fellow member of the Reading Excuses writing group, fills several of these roles. So to give you some insight into other parts of the business, I present an interview with Jared…
Tell us a bit about yourself and where you fit into the world of stories.
I’m just a Jersey kid who likes to write. I was blessed with a string of passionate English teachers who showed me that I could tell stories. This process resulted, somehow, in me dropping out of high school and writing a novel at 16—which no agents wanted, rightfully so.
The next few years are a college-shaped blur, but over the past year or so (I am 24) I’ve really committed to my writing. I have a published short story, read slush for Lightspeed, review books for Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing, and have made a handful of great connections, so I consider myself having taken good first steps in my writing career.
Your dissertation relates to short stories – could you tell us what it’s about?
Many writers will tell you: begin with short fiction. The elements of the craft are all there; it’s easier to read and dissect short stories; and getting some published gives you a nice boost of experience for when you work on novels. At the very least, you become familiar with the demons of rejection and persistence, ideally building a thick skin as well as your writing skills. It’s a good argument, to start short, and I wanted to show why with my thesis.
The idea was, essentially, to demystify the great machine of sci-fi/fantasy short story markets, and get some hard facts to show that writing short stories is a great way to break into the field. I love science fiction and fantasy, and there’s a big community around it, which was a big factor in my research.
What have you found so far in your research?
That writing is hard, man. One of the most fascinating statistics I examined was acceptance rates. Semi-pro ‘zines generally have an acceptance rate of less than 1%. But does this mean every story has a 1 in 100 chance of being published? Not at all. Every story is judged on merit (speaking broadly, of course), and one in every hundred of these happens to be considered worth purchasing and publishing. It’s a highly demanding, competitive arena, which is essential for a new writer. It’s fantastic, because anyone can do it, with a little guidance.
My research showed me the benefit of reading, sometimes very closely, what gets published. If you want to write something, the best thing you can do is read everything you can that’s most like it. The more you find stories to love, the more your mind shapes the stories you’ll end up writing, which is a wonderful organic process.
But you still have to know the mechanics. Thus, we come to the slush pile.
How does slush reading work in practice?
Each magazine is different, but most I’ve seen or participated in have a tiered system. The first readers read everything that gets sent in, and if they think it’s good enough, they pass it up to the editor and their assistants. Usually it’s just two or three “levels” like this, because the vast majority of stories die before the first readers. Lightspeed has a 1% acceptance rate, and out of the first 300 stories I read for them, exactly 3 of those were accepted for publication. It still intrigues me to see that statistic proven in practice, considering every story is judged on merit.
You learn all these crucial things for what makes a good story: strong openings, clear concepts, good dialogue, good endings. The more you consume, and the more you see stories that get attention for being well-done, the better idea you have of what to do. The taste of the magazine is a factor, too, but it almost always comes down to craft.
What gets a story past you to the next stage?
Once a story is sent to the higher levels, it gets kicked around by the editors and assistants, deciding if this piece that looked worth a second glance should be published.
A lot of stories die there, too. Part of what preserves that 1% statistic is that there are no “near wins” with fiction; a story doesn’t just make it. The editors may not be unanimous, but in almost every case, the positive feedback has to overwhelm the negative. Having said this, one of the three accepted stories I mentioned was a requested rewrite, which does happen, but only if the editor is confident in your skill.
My experience is still lacking, a bit, so I leaned more on how much I felt the story fit the magazine’s taste rather than how highly I rated it. Although it is extremely validating to see veteran editors give similar comments to my taste profile.
It’s very educational, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to write short fiction. Keep your eyes open for magazines looking for slush readers; it will be the best investment of your time as a beginner.
What are you writing fiction-wise at the moment?
I mentioned writing a novel at 16. That was a project I spent about four or five years reworking and rewriting, and then let sit. This year, I’ve taken all my favorite parts of the story and split them into short pieces. A handful of those are being sent around, accruing feedback, and in rare cases, getting published!
I’m also about 36k words into a new novel, about 10k into a novella, and I have an array of short pieces, old and new, in various stages of completion and critique. Right now I’m developing my schedule and getting as much done as I can—and, currently, finishing school.
Last question – what have you enjoyed reading recently, and what was good about it?
I just finished Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and it was fantastic. Jeff shot straight to my favorites list, and it’s great because I’m hunting down authors who have extensive short fiction publications, or have written about writing. VanderMeer’s done all that; he’s a great fountain of knowledge, and I can confidently recommend that almost anything he’s worked on will improve an aspiring writer.
But really, if you want to write: find fiction to love. Find writers who talk passionately about the craft, whose ideas you agree with, and let them show you their favorites. And if you can, slush read. Developing your craft is a continual process, and often exhausting, but my thesis has shown me that it’s not an industry to be afraid of. Anyone can do it, if they want.
Jared W. Cooper is a Jersey-born editor, reviewer, and short story aficionado. His work has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction, and his reviews can be found at Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. He can be found on twitter @jaredwcooper, and at jaredwcooper.org,
As readers and writers it’s useful for us to understand more about books and how they end up in our hands. I’m therefore very lucky to know a bookseller whose brains I was able to pick on this subject.
Jane Skudder is a bookseller, book blogger and general top notch person. I’ll leave this interview to reveal the rest…
Tell us a bit about yourself and about your work with books.
I was the kid who was always reading ( I was sometimes found hiding under a desk with a book and *made* to go outside at playtime) and studied English Lit at University so a career in bookselling has worked for me. I started with Sherratt & Hughes in Essex in 1987, moved to Durham with Hammicks in 1988 and then on to Bradford with Waterstones (with a year in Stockport in the mid-90s) in 2001. Since I also had a short stint with SPCK in Durham and Dillons in Newcastle I think I have worked for nearly all the major chains now. I started working in general bookselling but have also done about 15 years in campus bookselling. I’m the one who likes students – I miss them now I’m back in a High Street store.
A colleague once described me as ‘bookselling since before the dawn of time’ – cheeky s*d. But it is true. I did have a period of unemployment followed by temping jobs in stores like Our Price Records. It was okay but I was relieved to get back to books.
I recently got to see the brilliant building that you work in. Could you tell us a bit about that as well, and about how it comes to hold a bookshop.
The Wool Exchange building in Bradford is a magnificent place! I feel really lucky to work in such a beautiful setting – it doesn’t seem fair that not everyone has marble pillars, a hammer-beam roof and a statue in their workplace…
The building is Victorian – built 1864-7 – and was a trading floor for whole wool fleeces. The magnificence seems appropriate when you consider that Bradford was, at that time, a rich wool town. We often have people asking if the building used to be a church – there are a lot of Stars of David etc in the decoration and, of course, the hammer-beam roof – but I like to say it was more a temple of commerce. Of course, the gothic revival style also likes to throw all those kinds of symbols in too…
After wool trading ceased in the 1960s the room was used as a music venue and for flea markets. There was, apparently, a plan to demolish the whole building at one point. Luckily Waterstones, and a number of other businesses, moved in so the history of the building can continue – hopefully for many years to come. We have a lot of customers who feel very strongly about the Wool Exchange – our twitter feed regularly features photos. Usually with the words ‘wow’ and/or ‘beautiful’.
How has bookselling changed while you’ve been doing it?
Back before the dawn of time we didn’t have a computerised database. We didn’t really have a database at all – just drawers full of catalogue cards – and most ordering was done by phone. ISBNs were new-fangled so title and author were the start point for searches on microfiche – I sort of miss the microfiche…. There were few wholesalers so orders from publishers would generally take a week or so to arrive (and you didn’t phone a customer to tell them their book was in until the afternoon as phone calls cost a lot more in the morning!) My greatest bookselling asset is my good memory – back in the old days it was one of the most important things you had to rely on. We now order for customers from our own warehouse and wholesalers, books can be reserved or ordered for collection instore via our website and the majority of orders take a day or two. With the huge amount of books now available these electronic ordering methods are essential.
Book prices have, of course, changed too. Although possibly not as much as we think. When I first started bookselling paperbacks were usually £4.99 – £6.99. Now they are £6.99 – £9.99. Not bad over nearly 30 years. When I started work the minimum price of books was fixed by a trade mechanism called the Net Book Agreement – there is a school of thought which says it should be reinstated but that seems fairly unlikely.
What hasn’t changed is the need for good customer service. Booksellers, good booksellers, are sometimes expected to work miracles of detection with very little information – and we relish the challenge! In some ways the old-fashioned skills, listening, intelligent questioning and informed suggestion-making never went away. And they are not available the same way online….
With the rise of e-books, what are booksellers like yourself doing to keep readers’ interest and keep them coming into the store?
As we have already established I work in an amazingly beautiful building. There are many stunning bookshops around Britain (and further afield) and it would be a crying shame if they were lost. It would be bad enough to lose the less aesthetically pleasing ones (I did work in one whose main architectural features were breeze-blocks and a corrugated metal roof) so making sure we keep customers visiting us – and spending their hard-earned money – is vital.
As a company we have, hopefully, established ourselves as a trusted source of information about books. Our recommendations – Books of the Month and Waterstones Book Club titles – are chosen by booksellers, rather than paid for by publishers – and customers, I feel, appreciate that. We also have an increasing large presence on social media – our Oxford Street store’s Twitter feed is legendary.
All this is replicated at store level too. In Bradford, like many stores, we have our own Facebook and Twitter accounts which we use to promote books, events and our city in general. We also run a reading group (next up, The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton) and host monthly Magic: The Gathering casual play events. We encourage local schools to bring classes into the store – for a story, a look at the books and, for some, their first experience of choosing and owning a book – and try to organise activities for children during school holidays. (And, as you know, we even let the grown-ups join in and play croquet if they want….)
We also have to expand the range of things we offer in the shop. As well as books our customers want to be able to get cards, stationery, gifts, toys, jigsaws and giftwrap. And vouchers, theatre tokens and stamps….Because we want our customers to read (and don’t believe we have the right to tell them what or how to read) we also sell Kindles.
And finally we have a coffee shop. It used to be a Starbucks but, after they moved out in 2013, we set up our own cafe, Cafe W. These are now in a dozen or so stores around the country – booksellers learning new skills as baristas (although we always knew a lot about cake…..)
What decides which books get onto the shelves and onto the display stands?
In terms of books which are published by companies we are able to set up trading relationships with then the decision to stock a book is, largely, based on the quality of the book itself and on its relevance to public demand. Who would have predicted the need for books on Loom Bands? As I said earlier we don’t rely on publishers paying for space in store – a book needs to stand on its own two feet – although we do get a lot of support from them in the form of ARCs, proofs and support material like kids activities or sample chapters to give to customers.
The actual ordering is done by booksellers based outside of the stores – either in our London head office or regionally – but input from the stores is always welcomed. We know our stores and markets and they know much more than we do about the vast numbers of books published each week.
Displays in store are a combination of head office suggestions (usually for major new titles), our regional stock buyers (who look after a small number of stores in a particular area so their local knowledge is good) and the shop staff themselves. We have recently had a lot of extra display space put into our stores, as tables and small cloth-covered wall display units, so we can highlight any sections, books or events which are relevant to us and to our customers.
To a large extent our customers are the prime reason why we choose to stock or promote a particular book. We are there to sell them what they want to read not to tell them what that should be! We can and should use our knowledge of books to suggest things the customers may have missed but we probably learn as much from them as they do from us!
Do you have any advice for writers who want to see their books get onto those shelves?
This is always a tricky subject. We do have a mechanism for stocking books of particular local interest in individual stores – in Bradford we get a lot of wonderful books about local walks, personalities and, of course, our football team – but it is something which works best with non-fiction. Unless a novel is set in Bradford and explores issues which we can say would be of interest to our customers in particular then it is not really something we can take on in store. It is also quite difficult for us to stock self-published titles – they need to be stocked on a firm-sale basis so we need to be even more confident than usual that the book will sell.
I’m not sure if it is much help to writers but the main thing I can suggest is make friends with your local bookseller! We seem to spend huge amounts of our non-working hours reading so you do need to convince us that your book should make it onto our to-read pile – if it’s good, and something we could see our customers buying, then we will tell you! It is no guarantee that a book will be stocked but we could certainly help to promote customer orders.
You also have a blog about books – how did that come about?
I seem to know an awful lot of bloggers starting with my brother who has been musing about books, films, politics and pets for a few years now. He set me up on his blog as a contributor but I didn’t seem to find much to say – this is odd as I am a great talker in real life, while my brother is fairly taciturn. We can spend a whole day with him around Christmas time and hardly hear him say a word: he then goes home and writes a 1000 word blog entry about the day!
What this did give me was a basic introduction to WordPress so when I decided that I needed a book blog for myself I had a rough idea of what to do. I’m actually quite proud that I set it all up myself (even though I share my home with someone whose job is to give IT support….).
The blog itself was largely set up because I needed somewhere to put book reviews – as I said earlier publishers are very supportive to booksellers by sending ARCs and proofs, so it is only polite that we share our thoughts on those books. I also had hoped to get some involvement from my Book Group at work but they are all quite shy at the moment. It is a blog I share with a colleague – although she hasn’t had a chance to post much recently – and Rob (my other half and tame IT support person) also does some reviews. Hopefully this means we will cover a range of subjects and genres as Bex is a big chick-lit fan and Rob loves his travel writing. That said I will request proofs of all kinds of things – I am reading to recommend to all our customers not just the ones who share my tastes – so I am always finding new stuff to enjoy.
Most of my reviews end up being pretty enthusiastic. The worst I put on the blog are the ‘damning with faint praise’ ones – if I haven’t enjoyed a book I will usually just let the publisher know directly. And even then I can usually see customers that I would recommend the book to since we all have differing tastes.
Do you have any favourite posts from the blog that you’d like to point people towards?
I’m rather fond of the one for Season to Taste and I believe Bex’s post on books to read after John Green is the most popular. The book I was most surprised to enjoy was Birdbox as I am not a horror reader generally and, it appears, my favourite authors overall are Hugh Howey and Caitlin Moran.
Last question – what have you enjoyed reading recently?
I have just finished reading Harry’s Last Stand – a fascinating polemic against modern society by Harry Leslie Smith. He was 91 when he wrote the book and lived through the Depression and World War 2 – an interesting, surprising man and, fingers crossed, if he is in the UK for the paperback later this year we would love to have him do an event in Bradford. The Girl With All The Gifts was an unusual take on zombie novels, David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks was as dazzling as everyone says and I did read rather a good steampunk short story collection…..
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Thank you very much Jane. That’s certainly given me more insight into how book shops work.
If you’d like to read more from Jane then please go and check out her blog. And if you’re in the Bradford area then why not go check out the Wool Exchange for its coffee, architecture, books and wonderful bookselling staff.
Here’s the second in my series of interviews with book people. This time I’m very pleased to present an interview with Russell Phillips. Russell’s a self-published non-fiction writer who’s been a huge help to me in finding my own way into self-publishing.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your books.
I’m originally from South Yorkshire, though I currently live in Stoke on Trent, and I’ve had an interest in military history for as long as I can remember. I started writing articles for magazines in my early 20s, but never thought about writing a book until a few years ago. Once I’d written that first one, I realised that I wanted to write more.
Why did you pick military history, and in particular modern military history, as a subject to write about?
Initially, I chose the Falklands War. I’ve long thought that a lot of British people think the outcome was never in doubt, and the book gave me a chance to show at least some people that it could easily have gone completely wrong. The title (“A Damn Close-Run Thing“) is a direct quote from the commander of the British land forces, and was chosen to reinforce that point. All my subsequent books have been about modern military history because it’s what I’m interested in, and it seemed to make sense to stay within a similar time period. That said, I have vague plans to write books about other periods (particularly the Napoleonic Wars) at some point. So many ideas, so little time … 🙂
What led you to self-publish your books?
When I started writing A Damn Close-Run Thing, I wasn’t sure if I’d finish it, but I started reading about publishing options. Initially, I was thinking that I’d ask the History In An Hour publishers if they were interested, then look into self-publishing if they weren’t. By the time it was written, self-publishing had become my preferred option. I’m something of a control freak, and so having complete control appeals to me. I’m also a techie, so the technical challenges weren’t a barrier.
What have the biggest challenges been for you as a self-published author?
Initially, marketing was a major challenge, but resources like The Creative Penn and The Sell More Books Show have helped a lot with that. Self-doubt has been a constant challenge, though. I generally try to ignore reviews, because the bad ones bother me more than the good ones please me.
And what have been your biggest triumphs?
I’ve been interviewed by The Voice of Russia, which was a great, but odd, experience. Earlier today, I posted a copy of A Damn Close-Run Thing to the Argentinian Army Central Library. I was amazed that they’d even heard of it, but also very proud that had, and that they wanted a copy.
If you could give one piece of advice to other writers out there, what would it be?
If you want your books to sell, you will have to do some marketing, so look for ways to market that you’re comfortable with.
Last question – what book have you enjoyed recently, and what was so good about it?
The Blue Effect by Harvey Black. It’s the final part of a trilogy, and finished the story nicely. The trilogy is based on a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe in 1984. The author served with the British army during the 1980s, and it shows. Much of the focus on the NATO side is on British forces, which frankly makes a pleasant change, and it’s well researched, which is important to me. If I notice a technical mistake, it drops me out of the story, and if it happens too often, it spoils my enjoyment enough that I stop reading.
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Thank you to Russell for taking the time for the interview. You can find out more about him and his books on his website, which includes some handy tools for self-published authors.
Among the most fascinating things about books are the people who work with them. Whether they’re writers, collectors, publishers, librarians, or any of the many other people whose lives connect with this wonderful art and the business around it, I’m endlessly intrigued by how people think about books and writing. To explore that further I’m going to be publishing a series of interviews with people who deal with books in different ways – I’ve already lined up a couple of indie authors, a bookseller, a slush pile reader who’s studying the short story market, and a collector of antique editions. If you’d be interested in taking part as an interviewee then please let me know and I’ll get in contact.
Today I’m kicking this off with an interview with Victoria Randall. I discussed Victoria’s novel Get On Board Little Children in a post on science fiction and the population ‘problem’, but today we get to learn a bit more about Victoria and her writing.
After all the preamble, here’s the interview…
Tell us a bit about yourself and your book
I enjoy writing but take long hiatuses between books. My first book, The Witchstone, came out in the seventies; then I got busy raising kids and pursuing a nursing career. My next, The Ring of the Dark Elves, was published in 2003; and the Children in Hiding trilogy from 2013 to 2015. Obviously, look at any library or bookstore and you will see stacks of books, multitudes of them worthy of reading, many very valuable. We have to pick and choose, so adding dreck to an already about-to-topple pile never appealed to me.
Why did you choose the idea of population control as the one to explore?
This idea found me. I read the news frequently, and I noticed that whenever a news story came out about child abuse, many commentators would say “we really ought to require a license to have a baby.” It’s a reasonable stance. We need a license to drive a car or motorcycle, get married, start a business, and of course bringing a new human into the world is a much more complex and important project.
The problem is that then you get the government involved, and the notion of punishment. And you might end up with a situation such as in China, which is deplorable. So I thought I would explore what might happen if a license were required here in the US.
How did you go about developing the idea and working out details?
I’m still working on that, with the third book, City of Hidden Children. I decided to take it in stages: Book One is about the challenges faced by a woman who is pregnant with an unlicensed child. Of course if it were set in China, it would not end well. But in the USA, we still might have possibilities; partly because even in my dystopian future, the dream of America as a land governed by and for the people is still alive in people’s minds. Book Two is about a small child who is seized by the government, and her mother’s struggles to reclaim her. Book Three is about that same child, grown to adolescence, and the struggles she faces in coming to terms with her status as a non-citizen.
How did you go about getting published, and why did you pick that approach?
My first book was published by Pyramid. It was nice; the advance was enough to buy five acres in Oregon to start a homestead. That didn’t work out, but I still have part ownership in “Bird Farm.”
I tried working with an agent to publish subsequent books, but that did not work out. So I published the second book through a POD company. Expensive, and the book cost too much to buy. So now that self publishing through Amazon is available, it seems ideal. Of course you have to market yourself, and I don’t have time to do that, but at least my books are out there. And it’s been fun learning how to create books for myself, both ebooks and paperbacks on Createspace.
What’s next for you writing-wise?
I’m working on book three, City of Hidden Children. My cover artist, Brandon Graham, suggested that I publish the trilogy as one volume, so I might do that. Brandon is my second son, and he’s a graphic artist, two time Eisner award nominee and the author/illustrator of King City, Multiple Warheads, and the Prophet series. I’m pleased that he agreed to create my covers because he’s a very busy guy.
Last question – what have you enjoyed reading recently?
On my to-read list is Andrew Knighton’s Riding the Mainspring. [interviewer’s note – look at Victoria’s impeccable taste! or blatant pandering to the interviewer – who can tell?]
Currently I just started Second Chance by Dylan Hearn, which looks very good, and am wading through a splendid 900 page book titled Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Abe Lincoln is my hero, and it’s fascinating to read about what he had to face during the Civil War. Did you know that a member of his cabinet was accused of being a “fanatical bigot” because he opposed slavery? And that the Emancipation Proclamation was called “a fatal mistake,” a “radical step,” because it freed the slaves, who were considered less than human?
First, in my books, I try to tell an exciting story. But beyond that, they are about the inestimable value of each person, in the hope that some reader’s heart, somewhere, will be touched to appreciate anew the intrinsic worth of her unborn child.
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Thank you to Victoria for taking the time to be interviewed. I’m totally with her on being a huge Lincoln fan, though I haven’t yet mustered the courage to tackle all 900 pages of Team of Rivals – one of these days. And while I don’t share all of Victoria’s views, it’s always good to see authors using fiction to explore the issues that concern them. You can find out more about Victoria and her books on her webpage – please go have a look around.