Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Crowdfunding - the latest word in publishing

Last week there occurred a momentous event of groundbreaking proportions. And I'm not referring to the ghastly goings on in Gaza or the shooting down of a civilian aircraft over Ukraine. No, instead I refer to a story that has received scant attention in our newspapers. Indeed, the vast majority of the news reading public will not even be aware of it. I refer, of course, to the fact that it was announced last week that a debut novel that had been crowdfunded by members of the public, had made it onto the prestigious longlist for the Man Booker Prize. The book entitled The Wake is a historical novel set in 1066 by Paul Kingsnorth who turned to crowdfunding because he knew instinctively that no publisher was going to take any interest in his manuscript, which is written in what he terms "shadow tongue" - a hybrid of modern and Old English. Now, when you take into account the fact that for the first time in its history the Man Booker Prize has opened its doors to the US and non-Commonwealth countries, and that such class-acts as Ian McEwan and Donna Tartt have both been squeezed out of this year's contest due to the quality of the entrants, one really has to take one's cap off to Mr Kingsnorth. But more significantly, the publishing industry has now to sit up and take note of this extraordinary achievement by an entirely new publishing model. Unbound, the crowdfunding publisher behind The Wake has only been in business for three years but in this time has already successfully crowdfunded 65 books from the UK, US, Australia and Ireland.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of crowdfunding, this is basically how it works. A crowdfunding publisher will look over a manuscript or synopsis of a manuscript and decide whether it has  merit and is worthy of publishing. If they believe it is, the author will be invited to draft a proposal to potential readers to invest in the project, and the proposal will be designed as a webpage. This done,it will then be down to the author to send out the link via email and social media to raise donations from the public who like the sound of the project. And depending on the level of their contribution, donors will receive anything from copies of the book and acknowledgement of their contribution on the acknowledgements page, to access to the author's notes and a chance to actually contribute ideas to the narrative. In the world of computer games, crowdfunding has become a primary source for funding.

The implications for traditional publishing are potentially huge. "The traditional model is not working for a lot of authors," says John Mitchinson, Unbound's founder. "Publishing has become a hit factory with publishing houses only publishing a handful of books."

From my own limited experience, and that of  friends with writing aspirations, these words of Mitchinson's really do ring true. And anyone who has attempted to publish anything through conventional channels will know precisely what I mean (J K Rowling included). The fact of the matter is that it's nigh impossible to be accepted these days by a literary agent if you're an unknown writer. And if you do approach an agent, you'll need to write the kind of stuff they are already familiar and comfortable with; material they feel confident with when pitching to publishing houses. So you will invariably be likened to another successful author and pigeonholed as say, the next E L James (heaven forbid).

In 2009 I had the germ of an idea for a story that I thought I'd pen in the first instance for my kids. And then, like all enthusiastic would-be storytellers, went and purchased a copy of the Writer's and Artist's Year Book - the Bible for the writing fraternity. This compact tome tells you everything you need to know, including details for publishers, literary agents, wholesalers, e-publishers, self-publishers and so on. Armed with this volume, I went about drawing up a list of literary agents specializing in teen fiction and photocopying my first few chapters, which all agents will require along with a concise synopsis. And like all other enthusiastic novices, dropped off a large pile of large brown envelopes at the post office - only to have to wait for weeks and weeks, and in some cases months and months before receiving a reply from the agent. When your reply does finally materialise it will almost certainly read something like this:

Dear Mr Smithers,
Thank you very much for considering Bloggins and Partners to represent your novel, but due to this agency's very demanding work load, we are only able to consider a tiny fraction of the unsolicited manuscripts that come our way; and having read your synopsis we feel that your manuscript is not one that is suited to this particular agency.
We wish you the very best of luck in the future.
Yours faithfully,
Mr J Bloggins

After the 15th such letter (along with the returned chapters) had landed on my doorstep with that familiar 'thwack', I felt it time to move on. Some weeks later, however, I ran into an old advertising colleague, Hugh Salmon. Unbeknown to me, Hugh had moved into the world of publishing and had co-founded lovereading.co.uk - the online book site that was getting rave reviews from the national press. It was he who suggested I self-publish through either Matador or Penpress. I took his advice and plumped for Penpress because they promised to re-print copies at no extra cost in the event of demand. Penpress offered to edit, produce and market the book for the cost of around £1,600.

Was their service any good? Well, yes and no. Having had the cover professionally photographed and designed independently, Penpress oversaw the production - and in fairness they produced a very nice looking book. The typesetting was fine and the cover well reproduced. This said, their editing was patchy, their marketing non-existent and their press release poorly designed and peppered with spelling errors. Because I wanted my royalty paid to Centrepoint, I had to employ lawyers to draft a commercial participation agreement to be signed by both the charity and the publisher. The reason one has to do this is chiefly for tax reasons. In the UK if you want to give your royalty to charity, that royalty has to be paid directly by the publisher to the beneficiary, otherwise the author becomes liable for tax - despite the fact that he's giving it away. It's crazy, but that's how the UK tax system works.  Once all this had been agreed, Penpress arranged a book signing at Waterstones where I managed to sell 24 copies. I've since discovered that arranging book signings at bookshops is terribly easy: you just pick up the phone. Despite the legal agreement stipulating that Penpress would pay Centrepoint on a yearly basis, it took the publisher two years to pay the first royalty cheque - a measly £200 or thereabouts for the 200 copies sold. So much for the validity of commercial participation agreements.

Amazon has since launched CreateSpace, which allows you to download your manuscript, design your cover, price the book, get an ISBN number, write the sales blurb and then release your masterpiece as a book and an e-book onto Amazon's website - all for free. Needless to say, CreateSpace takes the lion's share of the royalty to make the whole exercise worth their investment. And of course, they won't publish anything. Drivel perhaps but nothing pornographic or politically dubious.

Now, of course, there are the new breed of crowdfunding publishers on the scene who are making waves primarily in America. One by the name of Inkshares recently followed me on Twitter, so I ran my book past them. Several weeks later I received an email back from its co-founder, Larry Levitsky who expressed an interest in adding the book to its growing platform and exposing it to the American market. So I agreed to write a proposal page on the condition that Inkshares agreed to pay 100% of my royalties to Cancer Research UK; a request they were happy to accommodate.

I've no idea if the project will achieve its target of $4,210, but if it were to, Cancer Research UK could stand to gain a tidy sum since my royalty on any future sales is a whopping 70%, and Inkshares claims to have an established distribution network in the US. If you'd like to learn more and possibly even go as far as backing the project, you can view my proposal here.

There will, of course, be a lot of eager eyes watching the progress of Mr Kingsnorth's book. Were it to do the impossible and pull off the top prize, the repercussions for publishing would be fascinating.

Whatever the outcome, the emergence of crowdfunding may well have knocked yet one more nail into the conventional publishing coffin, and looks set to open the floodgates to a sizeable untapped pool of writing talent.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Men of many talents

As a creature of habit, I have always had a great deal of admiration for any individual in this funny old world who can demonstrate skills and talents outside their own areas of expertise.

When I was a spotty adolescent still living with my parents I remember one of their neighbours, a lovely man
by the name of Alec, coming over for a Friday night meal. Alec was a short-hand typist by trade and such were his remarkable speed and professionalism that his services were much in demand from the likes of the high courts and the Jockey Club. So it was with some astonishment after dinner that he nonchalantly picked up my brother's old violin, which none of us could play, and proceeded to play the second movement of the famous Mendelssohn violin concerto. He hadn't received a single lesson in his life but had somehow managed to teach himself.

In a similar vein, there was a chap I used to play cricket with who, besides being a very bright young barrister, used to win knitting competitions, and would knit the most incredible cricket jumpers with the most elaborate cabling. His knitwear was in fact so impressive that the entire team would eventually end up sporting his handiwork - which would often draw comments of approval from opposing teams.

Of course, such talents can have their drawbacks when, for instance, the individual in question becomes a tad obsessive. My brother's old history teacher who sadly passed away not so long ago, was in fact one such person. In many ways he was a typical academic and by all accounts a very good teacher. But he was also a fantastic mechanic despite the fact that he didn't own a car. His love of machinery had led him at one point to collect and restore old motorbikes. When I first met him he was going through his gramophone phase, and had I think accumulated a collection of around fifty wind-up gramophones and wax cylinders - all of which worked perfectly thanks to his mechanical genius. But sadly his obsession grew to the point that one could barely set foot inside his sizeable house for the size of his collection. And it was by this time that his wife had made it very clear to him that either she or the gramophones would have to go. Well, of course, there was no way he could have let any of those remarkable machines out of his sight, so it was his wife who was to make a hasty exit - never to return.

Nant y Coy Mill Cafe nestling in the verdant Treffgarne gorge.
In a rather roundabout way, this leads me onto my old mate, Jon Bray. Jon and I both attended Maidstone College of Art where we managed, between drinking beer, to gain degrees in graphic design, and then perversely secure jobs in the fickle world of advertising as writers (copywriters) rather than designers (art directors). But there the similarity ends. You see, unlike me, Jon is a man of many talents. And one of those talents happens to be cooking. Over a decade ago Jon took the brave decision to jack in his successful career as an advertising copywriter and do what he loves best - cooking. He and his wife upped sticks and moved to the glorious wilds of Pembrokeshire. And to hone his culinary skills, Jon got himself onto a leading cookery course in Ireland and then did a stint as a chef. In 2011 he set up his own business, the Nant y Coy Mill Cafe, and now employs his own workforce including a chef and rears his own pigs, chickens and geese. It's a good life, if at times hard and full-on. Needless to say, the reviews of Nant y Coy Mill Cafe on such sites as Trip Adviser are fantastically positive.

I have yet to pay Jon's cafe a visit to sample such delights as his Ribollita served with toasted sour dough or his chunky smoked haddock chowder with leek, potato and fennel, but something tells me that it won't be long before I do.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 11 July 2014

Israel bashing. It may be right on. But is it right?

I'm not an especially religious Jew. As Jonathan Miller famously said: "I'm just Jew-ish - not the whole hog you understand." And I'm not a huge fan of religion per se. I've only been to Israel once many years ago when I was a schoolboy. For me the best thing about Judaism has to be the chicken soup and gefilte fish.

This said, it irks me that every time I hear or read about Israel, the general sentiment is vehemently hostile towards this tiny country the size of Wales - the only parliamentary democracy in the Middle East. Admittedly this tiny country does have a right wing government that a lot of us have issues with, and I count myself among those who certainly don't like Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu's policies. I never have. Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in my view was and still is questionable. But to understand the mess that is the Middle East, one has to be in possession of a few inconvenient truths (to borrow Al Gore's phrase). Inconvenient truths that so many who blithely label Israel as a fascist, colonial state seem completely unaware of.

Inconvenient truth no. 1
Before 1967 when Israel went to war with her neighbours, Gaza was owned by Egypt and the West Bank was owned by Jordan - neither of whom recognised their arab brethren as Palestinians living in the land of Palestine.

Inconvenient truth no. 2
There are 5 million Jews living in Israel, surrounded by 500 million arabs. Imagine a match box lying on a football pitch. That match box is Israel.

Inconvenient truth no. 3

The Israeli government does not speak for the vast majority of Israelis when it comes to foreign policy. There are many outspoken Israeli critics of the current administration and many pressure groups and inter-faith groups operating in this small land. And unlike other states in the region, these individuals enjoy the freedom of speech.

Inconvenient truth no. 4

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and now the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have never accepted Israel's right to exist.

The Palestinian Authority went as far as publishing this in 1998:

"The difference between Hitler and (British Foreign Minister) Balfour was simple: the former (Hitler) did not have the colonies to send the Jews to, so he destroyed them, whereas Balfour turned Palestine into his colony and sent the Jews. Balfour is Hitler with colonies, while Hitler is Balfour without colonies. They both wanted to get rid of the Jews... Zionism was crucial to the defence of the West by ridding Europe of the burden of the Jews." Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, December 6, 1998

I think this text says everything we need to know about the PA's deep-seated feelings about Jews.

Inconvenient truth no. 5

Since 2001 Palestinian militants have been firing thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel, deliberately targeting civilians; acts which the United Nations, the EU, Amnesty International and others have condemned outright as acts of terrorism.

So the next time you hear someone on their high horse telling the world that Israel is a pariah state, do please remind them of these five inconvenient truths. Like every other hotbed of conflict in this complicated world, there are always two sides to any intelligent debate.
Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Cinema - the ultimate theatre

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my first day at primary school. For some unfathomable reason the experience remains indelibly ingrained in my memory. I can still recall waiting with my mother to be introduced to my teacher and then being shown around the school with its glazed brown wall tiles, faded parquet floors and distinct smell of disinfectant, and eventually bursting into tears on being shown the gymnasium. I'm not entirely clear what triggered those tears, but I suppose it must have had something to do with an aversion to any form of physical exercise; a trait that, for good or ill, has remained with me to this day.

And I suppose it must have been shortly after this traumatic school episode that I was taken by my mother during a particularly wet and miserable afternoon to the local cinema - The ABC in Ilford High Road. My mother used to love the cinema, and this would have been the first of many such visits. The film being screened was 'The Wizard of Oz' starring a very young Judy Garland. It seems odd now to think that back then, seeing old movies screened on the High Street would have been par for the course. (Today old classics are only ever screened in art house cinemas.)

On taking our seats and being treated to the wonderful opening scenes of the storm, something really quite extraordinary happened: the real heavens opened and torrential rain hammered down with such force that within minutes, and just as the little wooden cabin on the big screen was being uprooted by the storm and tossed in the air, it began to rain quite literally through the light fittings in the ceiling. As a young boy of five years of age, it must have seemed all rather marvellous, until, of course, this indoor rain caused those sitting beneath it to put up their umbrellas and obscure my view.

This surreal state of affairs was not to last for long. The film ground to a halt and the lights came on. (In retrospect, I don't know how the lights didn't fuse with all that rain water cascading through their housings.) The disheveled manager of this rundown flea pit eventually appeared from nowhere and, like a startled hare caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, made some kind of halfhearted apology to the audience and asked us in no uncertain terms to leave the auditorium and collect a refund from front of house. As it happens, I have never got round to seeing 'The Wizard of Oz', even though both of my children have. But from that inauspicious introduction to the cinema, the bug for sitting in the pitch dark and being mesmerised by moving images, had taken hold.

Like all young children at that time, I was soon to discover the world of Walt Disney whose enduring animated masterpieces including 'Snow White', 'Pinocchio' and 'Lady and the Tramp' never failed to enthral and get those tear ducts working again. (Years later, I'd learn that Disney himself was not perhaps one of the nicest people to walk this planet, and had at times displayed racist, antisemitic and misogynistic tendencies.)

Then, of course there were the family holidays, which would invariably include a trip or two to the cinema. On one of many summer breaks to Devon I recollect sitting in a majestic picture house and witnessing before the screen, a man playing an illuminated Wurlitzer theatre organ, which gently sunk into the bowels of the building once the curtain was raised. The film being shown was 'The Longest Day', the 1962 epic black and white second world war movie based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, about D-Day and the Normandy landings.

My introduction to the world of cinematic comedy came a little later thanks to an uncle who was himself a keen cinematographer. He would frequently show us his extremely amateur holiday films, which usually had a sound track of my grandmother unintentionally narrating over the wobbly camera angles with complaints about some aspect of the holiday. The effect, whether intentional or not, was hilarious, and decidedly Pythonesque. This very same uncle introduced my cousin and I to the genius of Woody Allen one Sunday afternoon at the Gants Hill Odeon where we had the entire cavernous auditorium to ourselves and were treated to Allen's newly released comedy, 'Sleeper.'

It was some years later while in the sixth form at school that my enthusiasm for cinema moved up a gear when I discovered the joys of the National Film Theatre. Here one could become a fully-fledged movie geek and step back in time to watch silent films shot by the likes of Ernst Lubitsch to brilliant piano accompaniment, and hear live talks by luminaries of the film world. Two of these talks stick in my memory for very different reasons. The first was a talk given by Donald Sutherland, the wonderful Canadian actor. Before the great man greeted us with his presence, the lights were dimmed and the screen came to life with a manic scene out of some ghastly B-film in which Sutherland was playing a demented axe murderer. To describe this clip as mind-numbingly dreadful would be something of an understatement. Thankfully, we were spared the discomfort of watching this drivel for too long, and the lights faded up as a tall figure strode onto the stage and then chose to sit on the edge of the stage with his long legs dangling. He looked at us, shrugged and in that distinctively rich voice of his declared, "Well... we all have to start somewhere, don't we?" What ensued was one of the most entertaining and engrossing talks I've ever heard anyone give to a live audience. Mr Sutherland is not only a brilliant actor, he's an incredibly funny and natural communicator, and has that rare ability to speak to a packed house as if he were talking to his mates. He was also remarkably generous with his time, over-running the scheduled time slot to answer countless questions. Someone asked him if there was a scene from a film that, in retrospect, he might have played differently. Sutherland responded that yes, there was certainly one particular scene that he'd have refused to play at all had he known at the time what he was to subsequently discover. He then went on to talk about the scene out of the chilling supernatural film 'Don't Look Now' directed by Nicolas Roeg, in which Sutherland's character had to fall from a scaffolding while carrying out restoration work to a cathedral in Venice. The scene was down on the shooting schedule for a stunt man to play. However, due to some disagreement over the stunt man's contract, he had refused to do it and Roeg was furious. The scene required Sutherland's character to swing safely from a safety harness, so Roeg begged Sutherland to do it himself. To lose the scene, he argued, would be compromising the artistic integrity of the entire piece. Sutherland who suffers from acrophobia wasn't having any of it. But Roeg persisted, making it absolutely clear that there was no risk involved as the crew would be employing the very strongest steel cables for the stunt. After much heated debate, Sutherland very reluctantly agreed. During shooting, Roeg was apparently quite difficult, insisting that Sutherland had to twirl several times on the wire to capture the right dramatic effect in camera. After much sweating and swearing, the scene was in the can and Sutherland could sigh an almighty sigh of relief. But it was only some years after the event, while in conversation with a stunt-man on the film set of another film that Sutherland was to learn how fortunate he'd been. Apparently, the steel cables that Roeg had employed are in fact remarkably safe - so long as you don't twist them by twirling. Sutherland explained that he went a little pale on hearing this. "So what happens if you do twirl?" he asked. "They just snap," came the blunt and shocking reply.

While Sutherland's talk was riveting, the other talk I shan't forget in a hurry (but for altogether different reasons), was by the late Ken Russell. Russell was very much the enfant terrible of the film world and was not one to do interviews or talks. And he certainly had no time for critics. So when the opportunity to hear him speak arose, I was probably one of the first to book my seat. Derek Malcolm the film critic would interview Russell on stage and the film director would then be invited to take questions from the audience. Malcolm took his seat and fiddled with his microphone. Then we waited... and waited... and waited a little more. Eventually Russell showed up looking rather worse for wear and clasping a plastic Sainsburys carrier bag; and it became clear from the off that he simply didn't want to be here. Malcolm, the ever polite and patient interviewer, took all this in his stride and handled the interview with aplomb - but my goodness, it was hard going, and one couldn't help feeling for him. Russell would answer questions in a gruff and slightly detached fashion, and wasn't keen to elaborate. But once questions were opened to the floor his mood was to change for the worse. The questions seemed to rile him. One gentleman in thick spectacles wanted to know if Mr Russell thought it important to film music being played for real, and pointed out that Richard Chamberlain didn't appear to be playing Tchaikovsky's piano score in the close-up shots of 'The Music Lovers.' Russell by this point had had enough and displayed his annoyance by implying that the question was a futile one. And with that he picked up his plastic bag. "I think we're done, don't you?" he declared, and with these words, stumbled off the stage. Malcolm was a little taken aback, thanked his interviewee as he disappeared from view and the lights faded up. There was a pause and then the audience began to slowly make its way to the exits. But in the confusion, the projectionist had forgotten to show clips of Russell's films, so now as everyone was trying to leave, the lights faded down yet again while the various clips were screened, and several hundred members of the audience found themselves stumbling around in the dark. It could have been a scene straight out of one of Russell's own movies, and one I'm sure he'd have found rather amusing.

Not very long after my discovery of the National Film Theatre, I was to stumble upon one of the oldest and, in my view, loveliest cinemas in London's East Finchley. The Phoenix was first opened as the East Finchley Picturedrome in 1912 and its first film was a rather sombre account of the ill-fated Titanic, which had tragically sunk that year. Today The Phoenix retains much of its original character including its famous vaulted ceiling and Art Deco reliefs. Over the years, however, the cinema has come close to being demolished, but thanks to the support of local residents and various high profile campaigners including Maureen Lipman, Michael Palin and Mike Leigh, it has survived in tact. And since 1985 has been run as a charitable trust for the community - its profits going towards its educational work and maintenance. When I first discovered it I was living in East London and would think nothing of driving halfway around the North Circular to see a movie here.

It's probably the only cinema in the UK in which you might book a seat and then be treated to a live performance of Morris men before the screening, followed up by a talk by the director. This was precisely what my wife and I were treated to when we decided on the spur of the moment to see a film neither of us had ever heard of called 'Morris: A Life With Bells On.' The reason we hadn't heard of it was because it hadn't yet been released. But The Phoenix clearly liked it enough to give it an airing. Rightly so as it is in fact a very funny spoof documentary with a few familiar faces including that of Sir Derek Jacoby. I can honestly say that I've yet to see a duff film at The Phoenix.

If like me, you love the cinema but can't abide watching films in the large impersonal chains that attract noisy gangs of kids and are perpetually littered with the detritus of popcorn and fast food packaging, head for this delightful haven in East Finchley. And if you really must insist on munching something, I'd recommend the home-made chocolate cake.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds