Thursday, 22 December 2011

Happy Winter Solstice!

sunrise at Stonehenge
Here in the northern hemisphere today is the winter solstice... midwinter, the shortest day of the year... and it’s time to celebrate! For this is the darkest hour. From now until midsummer, the days will get longer and the nights shorter, which means you’ll soon have more sunshine (well, daylight anyway) to frolic with your loved ones, which can only be good thing.

The solstice actually happens at a set time that varies slightly according to your human calendar. This year it happened at 5.30am this morning, but I had to poke my author with my horn to get her out of bed to post this for me... and you know how long it takes authors to wake up and smell the coffee, let alone write anything half decent… but she's up now, so here are a few interesting solstice-y things the unicorn has unearthed.

Newgrange, Ireland

If you’re in Ireland, you might be celebrating the solstice at Newgrange, which is an ancient celtic tomb that my author has been inside (she had to duck, and there wasn’t any room for me because they said my horn would be dangerous to the other tourists!) It’s a large burial mound with spirals engraved into the large stone at the entrance, and its narrow passage and chamber are illuminated by the winter sunrise for seventeen minutes each year between 19th and 23rd December. Quite spooky.

In the Druidic tradition, the winter solstice festival is called Alban Arthan, which translates as "Light of Winter" or "Light of Arthur"… when the Holly King (representing winter) dies at the hands of his son and successor the Oak King (representing the summer to come). Also at this time of year the Druids would gather by the oldest oak tree in the forest to cut mistletoe with a golden sickle, catching it in a white sheet. The early Christian church banned the use of mistletoe because of its association with the Druids, but then stole the solstice celebration and many of its traditions for Christ's Mass or Christmas, when we traditionally hang mistletoe in the hope of getting a kiss!

There are many other festivals celebrated around the world at this time of year, but the unicorn thinks it doesn’t matter what you call your midwinter celebration. At this darkest time of the year, it's good to be with your friends and family to keep the lights burning brightly until the sun returns. So I am trotting off now to be with my author, and will be back in the new year...


Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Books... the last chapter? No, it’s the sequel!

I was just about to turn off the TV and curl up in my warm unicorn stable last night, when an Imagine programme called “Books - The Last Chapter?” came on, which you can watch on the BBC's iplayer HERE. That title made half the glitter fall off my horn, I can tell you! I immediately started worrying for my poor author, and what she’s going to do for the next 20 years of her working life if books are truly about to close and never open again.

my author rescuing old books at Hay-on-Wye
In keeping with the doom-laden title, there were depressing pictures of large, boarded-up bookshops, followed by three representatives of the publishing industry gloomily discussing their roles in the digital age. You can look up their names, but let’s call them Bigwig Publisher, Bigwig Agent, and Bigwig Author. All three looked worried, even when the author declared that authors would still need publishers in the digital age (“and agents!” shot Bigwig Agent in a telling moment of sheer terror). “And agents”, Bigwig Author added, though it wasn’t clear exactly what kind of agent he was talking about.

Bigwig Publisher agreed, and seemed to see her role mainly as selection, i.e. bringing the best books by the best authors to readers - or maybe she meant the most profitable books? Strangely, there was little discussion of promotion, which (in the unicorn’s humble opinion) is the main thing authors will need from publishers in the digital age... the original definition of “to publish” being “to make public or generally known”. Of course, publishing budgets are limited and not every publishable book can have a big promotion, so maybe what Bigwig Publisher really meant by her statement was promotion for the selected few? Those selected few authors will quite obviously still need publishers.

So let's examine the less glamorous side of publishing. My author’s ancient dictionary lists a second definition of “to publish” as “to issue copies of a book for sale to the public”. This might have been the case when print runs were hugely expensive, but that definition went out of date with the arrival of print-on-demand years ago, and with ebooks it’s possible to publish in this sense of the word without actually printing a single copy. So if, in future, all a publisher offers an author is issuing copies of her book for sale to the public, then in theory that author does not really need that publisher any more. Authors still need editors, of course, but there are other ways of getting your work edited than under contract to a publisher – hiring a freelance, for example - so these authors are free to choose.

And what about readers? There followed an interesting history of books, starting with Homer’s "Iliad", hand written on scrolls and carried by Alexander the Great on his epic journey to India in a large box, which he'd have read by scrolling – i.e. rolling one end while unrolling the other. The history quickly moved on to the printing press and the bound paper book we know and love, with physical pages that you turn by hand. And finally to the screen, where we read by er… scrolling… and then on to the Kindle, which has electronic pages turned by pressing a button. These days, we don’t need a box and a mule (or a unicorn) to carry our favourite book on our travels. We can carry our whole library in our pocket... from a reader’s point of view, what’s not to like?

But do not panic! Judging by those interviewed on the Imagine programme and the poll on the right of this blog, there's still a healthy market for paper books. The unicorn sees books becoming works of art in their own right, sold in the equivalent of antique shops for big prices to collectors, or auctioned off to Russian oligarchs to display on their coffee tables between the caviar and the samovar. Authors who are selected by publishers to provide the content for these beautiful books will still make a living, selling less books at higher prices maybe. For those authors, the book itself will be an important part of their product, even more so than today. So Bigwig Author need not be scared. And Bigwig Publisher of these new works of art need not be scared. Nor should Bigwig Agent, who will bring author and publisher together in the old way.

The mass market, previously served by paperbacks, will probably move the other way. There will be ever cheaper paperback editions produced for supermarkets and book clubs, the emphasis being on affordability and personal choice… if a chain can provide these paperbacks at competitive prices to the public, then maybe there will even be a new type of discount bookstore, perhaps with POD machines, springing up in out-of-town shopping centres? But the unicorn thinks that once e-readers become more affordable and are given away in cereal packets, much of this mass market reading will be in eformat.

This is both scary and exciting for authors, whose stories and words will be able to shine - or not shine - without the distractions of beautiful typesetting or an artistic cover. When a book is stripped bare by an e-reader, those authors who write what readers want to read need not be scared at all, because their words and stories will still be in demand. The best sellers of the digital age will not necessarily be the “selected” best sellers you see piled in the front of WH Smith that sell because, like a mountain to be climbed, they are there and you trip over them. They'll be the books that sell because people talk about them and can easily order their choices from a POD machine or online, without having to wait for the publisher, distributor and bookseller to get their act together.

Again, publishers need not be scared, because all these authors will still need publishers to make their work public. Agents at this end of the business model might have reason to be a little bit scared since margins are tighter and authors might just decide it’s more profitable to do it for themselves than wait around for a contract that might never come – but not too scared, since they are in a position to hire editors and handle promotions on behalf of their uncontracted authors.

my author's brand new local library

So books - the last chapter? The unicorn says no! This is the first chapter in an exciting publishing sequel, where readers will have more choice and better access to affordable content than ever before, where collectors and physical book lovers will have more beautiful editions to choose from than before, and where authors should be dancing with joy because now they have another way to reach readers that does not depend upon the “promotion for the select few” model that relied heavily upon control of the printing presses, warehousing, bookstore promotions, and sale-or-return (what is THAT all about in the modern age, anyway?!) It’ll mean thinking about new ways to promote those books that are not in the physical bookstores and libraries, and it’ll mean new types of contracts between authors and their publishers and agents. But it’s certainly not a reason for anyone in the business to be gloomy.

As I keep telling my author… write a book people want to read, and it won’t matter if that’s read on a scroll, paper, screen, or plugged straight into your reader’s brain cells. Good stories will always be in demand, and readers will always be hungry for more of them. To my mind, authors and readers are in the strongest position of all. But then I’m only a unicorn, so maybe I'm dazzled by glitter? Please leave a comment and let everyone know what you think!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Warrior Princesses

What is a unicorn to do? I just can't seem to stop my author writing on other people's blogs these days!

Remember Xena? Well, my author used to be glued to the TV when this series came on, which might be why she wanted to be a warrior princess... meet some more girls with swords, including a very special heroine for 2012 over on The History Girls.

And don't forget to vote for paper or ebooks on the right of this blog... voting closes 31st December!

Friday, 2 December 2011

RIP Anne McCaffrey

At the start of this year, I signed up for the Anne McCaffrey reading challenge proposed by Caroline at Portrait of a Woman to bring some wonderful fantasy books to a new readership. Little did any of us know then that the great author would no longer be with us by the end of the challenge... the great Anne McCaffrey died at her home in Ireland last week, aged 85.

I was reading one of the collaborative novels she published ("Acorna", written with Margaret Ball), but not enjoying it as much as her earlier books. So rather than review that one for the final quarter of this challenge, I’d like to highlight again some of the Anne McCaffrey originals I fell in love with as a teenager.

Upon hearing the sad news, I immediately cast down my current bedtime read ("Eclipse" where Bella gets seriously irritating trying to choose between her vampire and werewolf boyfriends), and ran to my bookshelf for some nostalgia. I straight away grabbed “The Crystal Singer”, which I reviewed for the reading challenge HERE. This is the cover of my battered paperback edition:

Just 50 pages in, and I’m relieved to be back with the refreshingly non-whiney heroine Killashandra Ree, who has rather more ambition in life than simply finding a boy - vampire, werewolf or otherwise - to take care of her. This ambition takes her from her home planet to the world of Ballybran, where crystal literally gets into the blood, and no matter how many times I read this book it always speaks to me.

In fact, I can see distinct parallels between crystal singing and writing fiction. Here’s an extract from the first chapter, when Killashandra meets a crystal singer on holiday and asks how she can apply to join the guild:

Carrick smiled sadly. “You don’t want to be a crystal singer…. you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for. Singing crystal is a terrible, lonely life. You can’t always find someone to sing with you, the tones don’t always strike the right vibes for the crystal faces… of course you can make terrific cuts singing duo.”
   “How do you find out?”
    He gave an amused snort. “The hard way, of course. But once you sing crystal, you don’t stop, That’s why I’m telling you, don’t even think about it.”

And later, Killashandra asks about finances:

“You don’t get off-world with every trip into the ranges?”
     He shook his head, frowning irritably at her interruption. “You don’t always clear the costs of the trip, or past damages. Or you might not have cut the right shape or tone. Sometimes tone is more important than shape.”
     “And you have to remember what’ll be needed.”

This is apparently as difficult for a crystal singer as for an author, who can both forget the real world when they get caught up in the enchantment of their own work.

Other Anne McCaffrey books I’ve loved are the Dragonriders of Pern series, which are really independent books set on the same planet. The ones that shine in my memory are Dragonsinger, which tells the story of the bullied girl Menolly, who travels to the Harper Hall on a dragon’s back and becomes one of the most important harpers on Pern, and The White Dragon, which I reviewed here.

Other Anne McCaffrey books I’ve enjoyed include "Restoree", "Decision at Doona", "The Ship Who Sang", and some great short story collections "To Ride Pegasus" and "Get off the Unicorn". (Muse: I should think so, too!)

The author named her house in Ireland “Dragonhold” after her Pern books, and I hope that whoever lives there in the future keeps the name. Rest in peace, Anne McCaffrey, and thank you for all the wonderful worlds and characters you created. My teenage years would have been so much emptier without your books. I was your number one fan!


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