The pain of wanting a pony

When I was a child, I wanted a pony so much that it hurt. I was nine before I learned to ride and my one hour a week on the back of a horse was the high spot of my life. Between times, I devoured pony books and, completely ignoring my mum’s rules, I sat astride the back of the settee and imagined my own pony adventures.

The desire for a pony of my own started as soon as I started riding and was fuelled by the stories I read. The few main characters who didn’t have a pony at the beginning of the story always had one by the end. But they lived in a world surrounded by fields, where there was always a convenient orchard in which to keep the object of their desire.

We, on the other hand, lived in suburbia: row upon row of similar houses with neat front gardens and not an orchard in site. A pony was unrealisable dream, but that didn’t stop me pestering my parents for one. I even entered a competition to win a saddle in the hopes that, if I won it, they would feel duty bound to buy a pony to go under it.

Eventually my parents compromised. They would let me have a pony if I saved up enough to buy one. I suspect they thought that would let them off the hook, but they hadn’t allowed for my determination. I went without sweets and presents for a long, long time and the money I received instead gradually accumulated until finally there was enough to buy a very cheap pony.

I never got it. By the time I hit my target, my dad had developed terminal cancer and my mum faced a future bringing me up on a widow’s pension that definitely wouldn’t feed a horse as well as a growing daughter. Although I finally got a horse of my own when I grew up, childhood remained a time of dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams.

Maybe the pain of wanting a pony was a subconscious reason for my current choice of career. After all, in Jill’s Gymkhana, it is her mother’s success at writing children’s books that finally solves the money problems associated with keeping Prince.  But whatever the reason, now I write pony books myself, I am always aware that, for the majority of my readers, pony ownership is out of the question and even riding lessons may be an impossible dream.

Partying with publishers

Contrary to what many people think, authors’ lives aren’t a constant whirl of launch parties and champagne lunches with publishers. Contact with the people who edit and produce our books is mostly by email, and the reality of an author’s life is mainly sitting alone in front of a computer, trying to put words into meaningful order.

partyinviteSo the arrival of my invitation to Usborne’s 40th Birthday Party caused great excitement, especially as the venue was the Orangery at Kensington Palace. The words “posh do” flew through my brain, rapidly followed by a question triggered by the dress code:  “What’s a cocktail dress?” A quick email to Usborne provided the answer so I set off to the shops.

As always, I initially met with disappointment. Designers don’t understand women with big busts. They create a dress for a flat chested size 8 and then adapt it to size 18 by increasing all the dimensions, thus producing a dress for someone who is still flat chested but fat. Honestly, it’s only my bust that strains the material. I don’t need armholes suitable for an elephant, and I don’t want something that’s the same size all the way down. Watching Gok Wan has taught me I should be proud of having a waist so I wanted a dress that admitted that I’d got one.

I finally found what I wanted in a dress agency. Retro style with a halter neck, it fitted perfectly and made me feel good. With the addition of a pink bag and some sandals that looked reasonably smart, I was all set to go. So on Tuesday 11 June, I walked nervously down the extremely long drive to Kensington Palace.

The nervousness wasn’t due to the auspicious surroundings. It was caused by my tendency to turn up to events on the wrong day. Although I had checked the invitation countless times, I still had horrible memories of turning up for a party brandishing a bottle and a happy grin only to discover I was a week late.

Once I reached the Orangery, I relaxed. There were other women in posh frocks, several of whom were changing into high-heeled shoes too precarious for the previously mentioned long walk. I obviously was at the right place at the right time.

book coverAnd then we were inside, being greeted warmly by friendly Usborne staff and served wine and nibbles by waiters dressed in trench coats, hats and false beards The reason for this became clear when Peter Usborne gave his entertaining speech about the history of Usborne and revealed that one of their first books was The KnowHow Book of Spycraft.

His speech wasn’t just funny – it was illuminating. The piece that resonated most with me was “My work is my hobby and my hobby is my work”. That’s so true of writers and explains why so many of use never retire.

The Orangery was packed with fascinating people I would never normally get the chance to meet, and it was particularly enjoyable to meet so many independent booksellers. Although we’re often told they are a dying breed, the ones I talked to were definitely alive, well and fantastically enthusiastic about books.

Huge thanks to Usborne for organising such a great event. I returned home, bouncy and enthusiastic and totally sure I had chosen the right career.

Usborne have published twenty of my books so far: 12 in the Pony-Mad Princess series and 8 in the Amy Wild – Animal Talker series. There’s another book in the pipeline – more news of that later.

Help with self-publishing

Ever since I switched to self-publishing my books, I’ve been bombarded by questions from other authors thinking about doing the same. As a result, we’ve developed a new website called helpwithpublishing.com which has just gone live. It’s still in its early stages so we’d welcome feedback and suggestions on topics we should cover.

We’d also love to hear from UK-based editors, designers, illustrations and technical people who would be interested in being on our database of experts willing to help self-publishers.

The Price of Shoes

Last week I was a victim of credit card fraud. The fraudster spent almost £2000 on  a coach ticket, a stay in a hotel and some shoes. “That must have been an expensive hotel,” I can hear you thinking. But it wasn’t. The bulk of the money was spent on the shoes – £1600 for two pairs!! The fact that footwear could cost so much shocked me almost as much as being cheated.

Praise must go to MBNA for sorting everything out at top speed. It only took one phone call to get my card cancelled and the money refunded. So I’m no worse off, and the insight into how the rich live may come in handy one day in a book. No experience, however bad, is ever completely wasted for an author.

Resources for publishing print books

cover of bookWhen I first decided to do a print edition of There Must Be Horses, I thought I’d pay someone to lay out the book for me. But most designers use Adobe Indesign so I wouldn’t be able to make any last minute edits myself unless I bought the same software. At £650, that’s seriously expensive and way outside my budget.

Thankfully an internet search showed up a viable alternative that was much, much cheaper: Serif Page Plus. At around the same time, I met an author at the Winchester Writers’ Conference who had used PagePlus to create his book. The end resul looked so professional that I decided to give the software a try, and I’m really glad I did.

Tackling a task I had never done before with software I had never used was a pretty ambitious project involving a huge learning curve, but I soon found there is plenty of useful information on the web as well as Serif’s own tutorials. There’s even an excellent phone helpline where an extremely helpful man patiently talked me through something I was finding extra tricky. Once I’d learned how to use master pages for internal design and layers for cover design, I was able to experiment and discover the full power of this excellent software package.

Page Plus produces high quality pdf files ready for sending to the printer. But in order to produce a professional looking book, I needed to understand the conventions of book layout and learn how to make professional decisions about fonts. For this, I turned to several other resources.

  1. The books on my bookshelves.
    Looking at these helped me see that the odd numbered pages are always on the right and that new chapters start further down the page than the rest of the book does.
  2. www.thebookdesigner.com
    An excellent site full of advice on book layout and cover design.
  3. Createspace
    Amazon’s user friendly POD system that offers helpful advice and templates to help you lay out your book. I found its article on creating pdf files particularly useful.
  4. www.fontsquirrel.com
    A useful source of free fonts.
  5. The Non-Designer’s Design and Type Books
    I love this book by Robin Williams (which is actually two books in one). It’s an excellent introduction to design and type for beginners, packed full of visual examples that demonstrate the difference even small changes can make. I found it invaluable for understanding which fonts to choose and how to decide about leading (the technical term for line spacing). It’s also useful for designing publicity material.

I’ve received many flattering comments about the print edition of There Must Be Horses so these resources worked for me. Why not give them a try?

If you are interested in self-publishing, you’ll find plenty of information to help you on www.helpwithpublishing.com.

Two horse books that changed my life

After creating 20 novels for 7-9 year olds, I fancied the challenge of writing a horse book for older readers. But it wasn’t that book that changed my life – it was the books I encountered while I was working on it.

Before I could start writing, I needed a plot – something with wider appeal than another  “they all won red rosettes” title – so I decided to investigate the world of horse whispering. The obvious starting point was Monty Roberts so I read The Man Who Listens to Horses and a couple of his other books. Then I delved into Amazon’s “people who bought this also bought that” feature to help me decide what to try next.

Soon I had an eclectic mix of books about horses and horse training on my shelves. They all proved useful to some degree, but two of them had more effect than I had ever expected. Continue reading

Grief is a sea of tears

Grief is a sea of tears that ebbs and flows. Now, so soon after that last goodbye, the waves are huge, engulfing me completely so I can feel nothing except sorrow, then retreating briefly, leaving me exhausted.  But just as the real sea calms after a storm, so I know my grief will steady over time. It will never disappear completely. I will always miss you. But eventually I will be healed by the warmth of your remembered smile and once again be happy.

Please feel free to copy and share these words if they help you.

Is Writing a Cottage Industry?

A recent editorial in The Bookseller contained an interesting sentence that set me thinking.

Most books in this country are not self-published, and most are sold at prices that sustain a sector not a cottage industry.

He’s right. Most traditionally publishing books are priced to support a sector , namely the traditional publishing industry. And that sector currently needs plenty of money to keep it going. For example, the books published by Penguin have to support an impressive headquarters in an impressive area of London: a building that must have cost a fortune. They also have to support all the staff in that building and make sure that Penguin’s CEO continues to earn more than half a million pounds a year.

The interesting issue is how well traditionally published books support the people who actually write them. They rarely get more than 7.5% of the cover price of a paperback and, in these days of high discount sales that trigger lower rates, they frequently get far less.

Advances have dropped and are continuing to fall. They are also paid in instalments so authors rarely receive more than half up front, where they need it to live on while they write the book. Worse still, the final advance payment is often made on publication – a date that’s normally a year or more after the actual work was done. Try that technique with a plumber and you won’t get far.

Wikipaedia defines a cottage industry as one where most people work at home, often part time. On that basis, writing is definitely a cottage industry. And the money from traditionally published books is not being used to sustain that industry – it’s sustaining the publishing sector instead.

Authors faced with falling royalties and increasing bills have to look around for other sources of income, and one of those is epublishing their backlist. This is remarkably easy and, once they’ve discovered how much more they earn per book that way, it’s logical to make the jump to self-publishing their next new book instead of handing it over to the traditional system.

The book trade has two vital components – the writers and the readers. Unless publishers look after the first, they’ll eventually have nothing to offer the second. So maybe it’s time for them to give up their prestigious offices and high managerial salaries and offer a better deal to the people without whom there would be no publishing industry at all.

 

If you are interested in self-publishing, you’ll find plenty of information to help you on www.helpwithpublishing.com.

 

Ten things I learned at the Winchester Writers’ Conference

I love the Winchester Writers Conference. It’s great to be part of such a huge, friendly group of  people who share my passion for writing. The food is good, the instruction is excellent and I always return home with my confidence and enthusiasm restored.

In case you didn’t manage to get there or you went to different sessions, here’s what I bought back from the 2012 Conference.

  1. The digital revolution is gathering speed. On the train to the Conference, I didn’t see anyone looking at a book or newspaper. Everyone was reading Kindles, iPads, laptops or phones. Continue reading