Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Towards a Homogenised Society?

Yesterday, in Waitrose, I chanced across a bottle marked "traditional" milk. Could it be? Yes! The label confirmed it. Unhomogenised. What joy.

I have always thought of homogenised milk as one of the scourges of modern life, depriving us of such simple pleasures as top of the milk on your breakfast cereal. I remember with fondness the breakfast times of my youth, racing my siblings to see who could get to the bottle first; berating any adult thoughtless enough to invert the bottle before opening it.

I grabbed the bottle (not too harshly, don't want to shake it) and nestled it into my trolley. This morning, once more, I was able to delight in my simple childhood pleasure. As I did so, though, I started to ponder on the parallels between milk and other aspects of life. Has society itself become too homogenised?

These days, it seems, we fear and discourage the exceptional and celebrate the mundane - the "norm". The education system is the worst culprit and has slowly been promoting the cult of the mediocrity for years. Even as long ago as when my children were at school, the different sets of kids were not labelled A, B, C but using successive letters in the school's name, because they didn't want any children to think of themselves as, say, an E and therefore a failure. I suspect you had to be in the bottom ten percent of the E set for that subterfuge actually to work but the idea behind it was an early symptom of the desease of homogenisation.

Today, inter-school sports competitions are considered subversive as they may be disheartening for the losers. So called celebrity TV reality shows abound with celebrities whose only claim to fame, that I can discern, is that they are famous. The media world rejoices in the number of channels now available through digital TV without, apparently, the slightest concern about the quality of programmes broadcast by those channels. Everywhere you look, mediocrity abounds and society is gradually turning a homogenised shade of grey.

Cream always rises to the top, they say. That hasn't applied to milk for many years. How long before it ceases to apply in the figurative sense too?

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Monday, 1 March 2010

The Book Signing

Well that's it. My first book signing completed. I have finally arrived as a writer? Er, maybe not. This writing business is a real roller coaster of triumphs and knock backs. Read on for one writer's experiences of trying to climb the slippery pole...

When I first started this writing malarkey I used to think that getting published was the holy grail. Get published and you had made it as a writer. Actually, that's not entirely true. When I first started writing, getting published wasn't even on the radar. I wrote my first book because it had to be written. Only when I'd finished, and ended up with something I reckoned was on the "really-quite-good" side of "not-bad", did my thoughts turn to the publishing world. I was confident publishers would be queuing up to help me unleash my masterpiece on the eagerly awaiting public. How naive can you get?

Dozens of rejection slips later, the truth finally dawned on me. There was more to getting published than just writing a decent book. This was a commercial business, not a literary club. The book had to be good, yes, that goes without saying but that, on its own, wasn't enough. Unless you had a "name" then you either needed something so gob-smackingly unique it was going to take the world by storm (and I'm not even sure those types of books exist) or you had to have the right product at the right time. I crawled back under my stone and continued to write more books that had to be written but which, I accepted, probably very few people would ever read.

My luck changed about eighteen months ago when my wife came home and told me that some director called Tim Burton was making a new Alice film so why didn't I try sending out my Alice book manuscript again. Older, wiser and considerably more cynical, I tried again without much optimism but, to my enormous surprise, the book got picked up - not by one of the big publishers, it was a small independent but, nevertheless, it was real publishing. There was someone out there with enough faith in my product that they were going to use their money to publish my book. Finally I had made it as a writer. I had achieved the holy grail. I was to be a published author. How naive can you get?

I now started to learn that being published isn't a goal. It is a step on the ladder - and only the bottom rung at that. The next problem I had to face was that no one had ever heard of me. The publisher, bless him, does his best but in all honesty he doesn't have any more publicity resources than I do. I badgered the local press and they promised to write and publish a review, but didn't. I approached the local radio offering my witty repartee, free of charge, as a chat show guest. I even had an "angle" - the problems facing the new author in a competitive publishing market, but my offers fell on deaf ears. I did manage to mention on an Anne Diamond phone-in that I had had a book published, and she was obligingly interested, but I was too startled, polite and embarrassed actually to mention the title. Some publicist I'm turning out to be.

The only places I achieved minor successes was with the local libraries, schools and bookshops. It was the local bookshop who offered me my next big break. Last Saturday, with everyone talking about the imminent premiere of the Tim Burton film, they were kind enough to organise a book signing for me. Last week, their entire shop window was taken up with my book. There were advertising banners, tee shirts and dozens of copies on display, covers outwards. I have never walked down the high street so many times in one week. I had butterflies every time I saw someone peering in the window. The shop was advertising my product and I was to spend Saturday afternoon servicing a queue of eager readers just itching to get an early signed example from the upcoming, and soon to be famous, new author. How naive can you get?

Saturday afternoon arrived. It was raining and there was an England rugby match on the telly. I sat, smiling beatifically at those few customers who passed. It was over half an hour before any customer actually spoke to me. At the end of the afternoon, I asked the manager what her expectations had been. She was kind but clearly a little disappointed. She said the public were fickle, such occasions could be very variable, and one might sell as many as fifty or as few as a dozen. We both politely avoided mentioning the fact that I had only sold seven. I enjoyed the experience but it was a humbling one. Divide seven book royalties by the two and a half hours I spent there and the hourly rate is humiliating. Yet I would not have missed it for the world. It was seven books I would not otherwise have sold and the thrill you get the first time someone comes up to you, someone you don't know but who has nevertheless forked out their hard earned money for your book and now wants you to sign it, that is undescribable.

I think I am slowly coming down to earth and my targets are more realistic. I would like to make enough money in royalties to cover the cost of the hundred author copies I optimistically ordered, nearly half of which remain unsold. I don't think that's far away. I have already recovered the cost of the illustrations I commissioned before I secured my publishing deal. Beyond that, I would like to earn enough to finance the up front self-publication costs of a collection of comic verse that no one, not even my current publisher, seems remotely interested in but which I think I could sell in modest numbers off the back of my school and library visits.

I would like to become interesting enough, or well enough known, for the local radio to show some interest. Local publicity is going well with gigs lined up in local schools and libraries but it would be nice to break out of the local area a bit. The Oxford Alice shop has apparently ordered twenty copies, which is a start.

I guess the next target is for sales to get into four figures, but that is going to be a struggle. There is still a small voice inside that keeps telling me that one day, just maybe, I will hit the big time - attract queues at book signings, creep into the lower echelons of the best sellers list, get talked about in literary circles. But then there's another, slightly louder, voice inside that keeps saying "how naive can you get?"

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