S.A. Rule's Blog: Authors in the frontline

July 13, 2012

I’m not writing fiction at the moment. I am suffering an overdose of reality. So here’s my two-pennyworth on changing banking culture, and why persisting in paying bankers excessively high salaries is fatally damaging to the world’s economy.

It is the work of ordinary folk that drives the economy. Not the gambling games of highly-paid men in sharp suits. It is our money - the output of manufacturing and agriculture, the services we provide and the goods we sell - that they are playing with. The growth of the modern economy is fuelled by consumerism - ordinary people buying things that in the past only the rich few could afford. If the divide between rich and poor continues to grow, that economic model will simply wither on the vine. A business cannot succeed if it has no customers, and if ordinary folk have no money, they cannot give businesses their custom. Simples.

Effective organisations focus on delivering value to their customers. They spend time, talent and resources understanding and anticipating what customers want and how they can provide it most efficiently. They grow and prosper because they always have the right products or services in the right place at the right time for the right price. This cannot be achieved without an effective team, effectively managed. We all work for incentives; but its only the highest paid who seem to think money is the only incentive. Most of us ordinary folk want decent pay for an honest day’s work. We want security, to safeguard our family’s standard of living. We like a job we enjoy, a job where we feel we are doing something worthwhile. A job where we can employ our skills and abilities to good effect.

The effective organisation is designed to give its workforce those incentives. If it means the top executives have to take a little less out of the pot to enable the rest of the team to deliver full value to customers, so be it. The system of risk and reward needs to be rebalanced - not least so that those who are paid very high salaries to fulfil responsible positions are held accountable for those responsibilities. Perhaps then they will take their responsibilities seriously. Chief Executives should know what is going on in their organisation, how effectively it delivers value to customers and whether risk is managed effectively. I personally do not see how it is possible for the CEO to have a clear grasp of value or risk when understanding of both is poor in lower levels of management. The information chain is only as good as its weakest link - and likewise the value chain.

The culture and focus of any organisation is shaped by its executive team. One effect of the skewed salary structure in many of our global corporates is the re-focusing of all activities towards achieving the executives’ bonuses - rather than towards delivering value to the customer. What you measure is what you get - so if your measure of success is the size of the CEO’s bonus, the CEO will get a massive bonus. Regardless of whether the business is a trainwreck or not. Is this the reason why insurance companies drive customers to the point of a nervous breakdown when we have to process a claim? The reason why a bank can with impunity cause not only inconvenience but real financial hardship to its customers through its own inept systems management? It should never have been possible for such catastrophic systems failures to occur, and “sorry” hardly seems an adequate response.

No organisation can be changed from the outside. The change is within hearts and minds. Until those who benefit most from the dysfunctional inequality of recent decades can be forced to face the reality that they did not earn the huge amounts of money they made and certainly have no right to expect to go on making it, we are - I fear - on a downward spiral to a very grim economic future.
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Published on July 13, 2012 03:38 • 231 views • Tags: bankers, banking, business, economy, success

August 14, 2011

Two of the questions I most frequently get asked when I’m talking to people about my books are, “How long did it take you to write?” and “How long have you been writing?”

Neither question has a straightforward answer.

I have always loved books. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I learned to read at the age of 4, romped my way through Janet and John and discovered Enid Blyton thanks to Noddy and Big Ears. I spent my childhood in the company of the Famous Five (and numerous heart-rending tales of brave and extraordinary dogs, horses, otters and other creatures.) From the age of 7, I was scribbling in exercise books the somewhat prosaic adventures of my teddy bear or the family dog.

I requested Lord of the Rings as my school prize for achieving good results in my ‘A’ levels. I remember spending one Easter holiday reading it cover-to-cover to a soundtrack of Andrew Cronshaw playing Breton folk tunes on the electric zither - I think the album is called ‘Earthed in Cloud Valley’. The music, much of it inspired by Breton tales of Arthur and Merlin, and Tolkein’s vividly imagined world of Middle Earth, left pictures in my mind. Over the subsequent years of life and experience, those pictures became my own imagined world of Shehaios, the Fair Land.

So while in one sense I started writing Cloak of Magic in 2000, in another I started it some time around 1972.

At that time, as a teenager growing up in Croydon (a town that may have become familiar to many in recent days for all the wrong reasons), my favourite haunt was a bookshop in the newly-opened Whitgift Centre shopping mall. I think it was called Webster’s, and to me it was like an Aladdin’s cave. I used to just like going in there to browse if I couldn’t afford to actually buy a book. It was set over two whole floors, all given over to books. Magic. I even went in and asked them if there were any jobs going the summer I left school.

Webster’s is long gone, but if I’m remembering its location correctly, Waterstone’s occupies the same unit in the Whitgift Centre today. It is also an Aladdin’s cave, two floors of books. It’s staffed by young people (everyone looks young to me these days) who love books.

On Saturday, I was there signing books and chatting to lots of lovely people - several of whom bought books - about my imagined history of the imagined world. I’m sure I’m not the only author who would say, that is what success means. It’s not about the number of books I’ve sold, or the amount of money I (haven’t!) made, or about what some opinionated know-nothing says about my books. Its about being able to share my pleasure in creating stories with others.

If the publishing industry is to find its way out of the celebrity-driven, pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap nonsense that is bringing it to its knees, its executives need to understand the true value of books to those who cherish the power of the written word to conjure up pictures in the mind. It needs to be looking after book-lovers everywhere. Those who write them. Those who read them. And all the hard-working, book-loving staff trying to breath life into bookshops that are being suffocated by the dead hand of corporate incompetence.

Technology changes the game and the economics, but there is still something special about real books. There is something even more special about storytellers being able to connect directly with their audience. Just as music is increasingly about live performance, there is still a role for a place where books and people can be in the same space at the same time. A place to share the joy of writing and make stories come to life. With libraries and bookshops both under threat from the money-men’s woeful mismanagement of the cultural heritage that constitutes the real wealth of this country, I hope there will continue to be such places in the future.
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Published on August 14, 2011 07:27 • 236 views

August 11, 2011

In a capitalist democracy I believe it is the duty of those in power not to peddle their own political myths, but to maintain the balance of wealth. Its the consistent failure to accept this responsibility that I consider to be the cause of many of the problems bedevilling human civilisation in the 21st century.

By ‘those in power’ I mean not only politicians, but captains of industry, and those who control the media - whether they are newspaper magnates or individuals with a large blog following. Democracy devolves responsibilities as well as rights.

By ‘wealth’ I mean all those things that support a vigorous and healthy human population. If growth and prosperity is ‘good’ it follows that decline and destruction is ‘evil’.

Money is the enabler of growth and prosperity, so it clearly is not the root of all evil. However, the correct Biblical quote, “Pursuit of money is the root of all evil” , does hold true. Nothing trends more towards the decline and destruction of general wealth than the ruthless individual pursuit of money. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the collapse of the banking industry. Pandering to human greed is destructive, not constructive. Back in the days of Captain Mainwearing, the bank was a staid and conservative institution which looked on loans as a serious business requiring careful evaluation of risk. ‘Living on tick’ was frowned on as a somewhat dodgy practice. Contrast that with the credit mania of the 1980s and 90s. An economic theory based on ‘buy now pay later’ coupled with the crazed optimism of a compulsive gambler is pretty well guaranteed to be a recipe for disaster.

Yet we seem continually bemused by the increasingly apparent fact that the ‘monetary theory’ propogated in recent decades simply doesn’t work. Its a fiction. It does not take into account what wealth is, or how it is created. It sometimes seems to me that peoples’ individual ability to think declines as the level of comfort and security increases. We have collectively allowed ourselves to fall for the myth that a good TV presence makes for a good statesman. We let newspapers feed us scurrilous nonsense about peoples’ private lives and look to media outlets to tell us what to think about everything from crime to clothing. We revere airhead celebrities, and pay court to numerous unclothed emperors. I suppose living on the edge of starvation does focus the mind. But it seems a shame we can’t retain the ability to think, question and challenge just when we gain the wealth and security to allow us to make a real difference to the present and future of the world we live in.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. There is no victimless get-rich-quick scheme, and ignorance, far from being an excuse, is inexcusable for those who have access to education. Money is the oil in the machinery. Its an enabler of wealth; it is not wealth of itself. Used wisely it enables an effective economy to deliver growth and prosperity to the human population as a whole. Used unwisely, the best it can do is enable some individuals to be miserable in comfort.

Wealth is created by five capital flows. There may be more, but so far I’ve found thinking in terms of five types of capital works.

There are two kinds of wealth that we inherit. Fundamentally, we inherit the planet on which the human race evolved. Without air to breath, water to drink and food to eat, without the natural resources that provide us with heat, light, shelter, and motive power, we would enjoy little in the way of health and prosperity. Stewardship of our planet is therefore crucial. Environmentalism is not about fluffy pandas and tree hugging, its about human survival on this planet. We no longer have the excuse of ignorance. A failure to hand on to future generations at least as much natural wealth as we inherited from our forebears is wilful destruction. Aka ‘evil’.

We also inherit the work of our ancestors hands and intellect. Systems of agriculture, and the landscape it crafted. Buildings, and enduring engineering structures. Systems of communication, government and law. Closely linked to these systems is the heritage of knowledge, seasoned by time into wisdom.

Managing and applying knowledge wisely is about sustaining human civilisation. In the so-called ‘information age’ we somehow seem to have lost sight of the need to qualify information in our obsession with the power of the microchip to process data. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.

Finally, the effects of a consistent lack of investment in social capital is brought home to us all too forcefully here in the UK today, with sporadic criminal rioting erupting in towns and cities across the country. Social capital is the warp and weft of individual interactions, collaborations, alliances, rivalries and arguments that weave the history of mankind. Each individual is one drop in the vaste ocean of humanity, but the ocean is made up of individual drops. We are all subject to the gravitational pull of our psychological make-up and the swirls and eddies of our cultural heritage, our genetic inheritance and our personal histories. It is the responsibility of each and every individual to manage that complex inheritance to the best of their ability and direct it towards the generation of wealth and not the destruction of wealth. The more wealth you inherit, the more your responsibility to nurture and grow it. So often its the case that those who inherit the least make the greatest contribution, giving selflessly to further the comfort and prosperity of family and community.

It is time to recognise what true wealth is. It is time to give true and meaningful respect to those who invest their time, talent and passion to the stewardship of natural resources or knowledge, or to building the fabric of a functioning society.

It is time for holders of the balance everywhere to show some humility, set aside political mythology, and examine objectively the root causes of the world’s ills. If we do not recognise our mistakes we do not learn from them. If we are really incapable of learning, the information age will never mature into an age of wisdom.
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Published on August 11, 2011 02:40 • 139 views

July 9, 2011

I've just been reading an article by Peter Cox from the agency Redhammer entitled, Your Agent Should Not be Your Publisher. http://www.redhammer.info/news/agent-...

Interesting. But this article is starting in the wrong place. This isn’t surprising, since the whole publishing industry starts in the wrong place.

I’d like to start with the author, the creator of the product. The writer’s skills and talents are most applicable in the creation of the raw material. At this point, there is just a manuscript. It’s a product with no value. It has given pleasure to no-one but the author. No-one but the author has read it, let alone bought it.

In order for the product to have value to a single reader, certain criteria have to be met. No matter how cheap the book is in money terms - even if it’s free - readers are asked to invest their time, their emotions and their intelligence in reading this book. They will want to know they are going to get a return on their investment.

The author has a product that has poured out of their imagination, based on their personal circumstances - their world view, their educational legacy, their personal history. They need help to make this into something that resonates with a significant number of readers, and still more help to get it in front of those readers in an attractive and saleable form.

When we talk about “the publishing industry” we are talking about the plethora of support services that have grown up to meet this need. The trouble is, all these support services now have a huge and cumbersome legacy of dysfunctional systems and processes that have trapped creative writing in a petrified forest of politics, egoism and business mythology.

Technology gives authors the opportunity to push the fossils out of the driving seat and take charge of this industry. There are more and more people out there writing. There is a whole new world of ebook publishing just getting going. We’re not talking about publishing a few books to a literary elite, we’re not talking about publishing a handful of best sellers a year, we’re talking about publishing lots and lots of books, each one of which will sell a modest number of physical copies and probably hugely more low-cost digital copies. Stories will increasingly become designed for digital publication, with hyperlinks to back-stories and spin-offs, multi-media formats, and all the other exciting possibilities technology makes available to the creative mind.

I believe it is time for authors to start demanding better support services, so that they can concentrate on honing their unique talent for creating raw material. The attitude of many literary agents, publishers and indeed booksellers towards authors is still breath-takingly arrogant. Authors are simply stumbling about trying to get stuff out of their head and onto the page, with varying degrees of skill. They look to the people in the industry for guidance and support. But we are looking for support from a bunch of people who have presided over the near-collapse of the industry. People who have allowed themselves to be duped by business mythology and dazzled by celebrity. The corporate culture consistently bullies and undermines new writers and exploits established writers. Collectively, the publishing industry has failed book-lovers everywhere. The only people who really care about good writing are the writers and the readers.

So it is far more than agents confusing the role of representative and publisher. I feel agents need to take a long hard look at the services they provide, and particularly their attitude towards unpublished and self-published writers, if they are to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The agent’s role is to provide authors with the time, space and income to be creative.

You cannot have books, whether they’re on your Kindle or on your bookshelf, without writers. There is no point in publishing books unless there is a growing population of readers. People discover the joys of reading through good books, and you cannot have good books without good editors. You cannot sell books without good sales and marketing channels.

Agents and publishers must contribute effectively to these essential services. They should be pro-actively nurturing new writers. They should be providing a library of information and feedback to writers about what readers like in a book, and steering them towards good editors. They should be taking a business-like approach to maximising the potential of each and every book, spotting new opportunities, mastering the technology, evaluating the service packages available, getting to grips with the rapidly changing face of marketing. If they’re not doing these things and more, they are redundant. They deliver no value to author or reader.

As an author, I’m still waiting, impatiently, for the support services to recognise that the world has changed. Eventually no doubt the smart people will respond, and take the business of publishing and distributing written stories triumphantly into the brave new world. The others will fall by the wayside. It is beginning to show signs of changing, but my fear is that there will be so many bodies many of us are never going to be able to find our way through the carnage.
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Published on July 09, 2011 10:31 • 228 views

June 13, 2011

Congratulations to the winners of the GoodReads Giveaway. Copies of Cloak of Magic are on their way to you.

I'm currently offering Good Reads readers paperback copies of Cloak of Magic at a special promotional price of just £7.99 plus p&p.

Order direct by sending me an Email at sa.rule@btinternet if you'd like to take up the offer.

I'm also offering the complete trilogy - Cloak of Magic; Staff of Power and Spirit of Shehaios - for £23.95.

Unfortunately, the shipping costs add quite a bit on physical copies of the books, especially for deliveries outside the UK.

So I've also reduced the e-book price for Cloak of Magic to $2.99. All three books are available on Kindle or Smashwords.

Staff of Power and Spirit of Shehaios ebooks are $4.99 each.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view...

Wishing you good reading,

S.A. Rule
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Published on June 13, 2011 01:45 • 134 views

May 4, 2011

Book 3 of the Shaihen Heritage trilogy is now out in paperback and available from Amazon, Authors On Line (http://www.authorsonline.co.uk ) and RedCap Books (http://www.redcapbooks.com)

I really enjoyed bringing all the tangled threads of the characters' stories to a conclusion, and I hope my readers share my enjoyment. Maybe the story goes where you expected it to - maybe it doesn't.

Of course, while the stories of this particular set of characters have now come to some resolution, the story of Shehaios, the song that is forever sung, goes on...

Spirit of Shehaios

S.A. Rule
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Published on May 04, 2011 17:44 • 93 views

December 18, 2010

For shame, I do declare I hear a weeping and a wailing and a gnashing of teeth from the depths of Old Fogey. After decades of refining the art of deep-crust protectionism, their ramparts have been breached. Those nasty techie-types have mined their way underneath the foundations and the walls are beginning to crack.

Am I talking Wikileaks? Publishing all the embarrassing secrets of the great and good and threatening to storm the firmly locked gates of the establishment?

No. I'm talking e-books. But don't ask me to shed a tear for the publishers and booksellers who are trying to resist the new book formats. They have been failing to invest in the future for decades. So small wonder they don't have one.

E-books enable the long-suffering author (even the non-tech-savvy author, thanks to the good offices of Smashwords) to distribute their books direct to the reader. We don't need agents and printers telling us what can be published and what can't. We don't need bookshops. We certainly don't need book distributors. No longer do we need to waste small forests printing books for pulp.

What we need is what we have always needed. Good writers. Good editors. Good channels to market that actually understand that their job is to SELL THE BOOK. Not simply pile shelves with stuff by celebs that sells itself, or work a scam to make money from truckloads of waste paper.

Well, I know some good writers. Know a few good editors. I'm still waiting for the channels to market.
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Published on December 18, 2010 12:20 • 191 views

August 10, 2010

My fellow moles and I detect some seismic tremors in the publishing and bookselling edifice. "Vanity publishing" is out; "indie publishing" is in. So instead of one or two blessed individuals passing through the eye of the commercial publishing needle we can now all churn out books in a quality-free-for-all. Is this really a good thing?

It simply isn't sustainable to heap all the cost and all the effort of creating, producing, marketing and selling a good book on the shoulders of each individual writer. At the moment, everyone else in the production and distribution chain has their cut of the income before anything gets back to the poor old writer. We are told to do our own marketing without any market data, let alone resources. The most talented, I suggest, are also the most fragile, and in such a harsh environment many good writers will give up long before the loud, confident and wrong brigade.

It's a major achievement for an amateur writer with next to no guidance or resources to write a half decent novel - yet a goodly number achieve it. Many more would do so with a modicum of sympathetic editorial support. About time some out-of-the-box thinking was applied to the end-to-end system of writing, editing, publishing, distribution and sales, if you ask me.

What's that? Oh, you didn't. Well, that's the beauty of the internet. I can say it anyway
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Published on August 10, 2010 11:57 • 382 views

July 2, 2010

Just returned from Winchester Writers Conference, I note a small revolution in attitudes towards self-publishing and self-published authors over the 3 years I have been attending this event.

I hope we can move on now to discuss as a community of creative people - writers, agents, publishers, editors, tutors and booksellers (and all those who support them) - how to more effectively manage the essential capitals of our business. By "the essential capitals" I mean:

- the money without which nothing can get done;
- the talent and creativity without which there is no product to sell;
- the communication without which there is no audience for our work
- the mechanics of production
- the distribution network.

One of the conclusions some of us came to is that the product - the value - we are promoting is not the book. It is the story.

Instead of throwing up its hands in despair at the size of the "slush pile" the industry at large should be considering how to nurture and coach the creators of stories.

Instead of running around trying to offload dross by celebrities it should be providing a dynamic support network which exploits all the ways and means of engaging with the audience and persuading them to part with their money for the entertainment provided.

It would be a good step towards solving the problems of the publishing industry if those of goodwill actually identified the problem they are seeking to solve.
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Published on July 02, 2010 06:07 • 174 views

January 10, 2010

It seems to me that one of the problems of the publishing industry at large is the desire of manufacturers (publishers) and retailers (book outlets) to treat books - stories - as a consumer commodity. A five minute wonder that sells like hotcakes today and is forgotten tomorrow, like the latest fashion items.

Books aren't like that. A good book stays with you long after you've read it; sometimes for life. I was sufficiently taken with a series of tales read in my childhood to name my daughter after one of the characters. The stories (the Punchbowl Farm series by Monica Edwards) were about a family trying to reclaim a farm that had been left to run wild. The backdrop was the conflict between the boy who wanted to bring in modern farming methods to make it a going concern, and his loyal sister who liked the wilderness it had become. It may of course be just coincidence that the young lady I named after the sister went on to do a degree in environmental science and now works for a British wildlife trust.

Stories are a vital part of the glue that holds society together - a good book can shape your thinking. We need to hear our own stories - everyday tales of love, loss and struggle. We need to hear other peoples' stories, to see how this global village of ours looks from their perspective. We need stories of wild imagination that test our capacity for excitement, horror, and romance. We need the "what if" stories that encourage us to imagine the unimaginable.

We need writing that entertains, but also that moves and inspires us. The pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap mentality does not give us these stories. Writing like most things is one part inspiration to nine parts perspiration, and serious writers need encouragement, support, training and investment to deliver their best work. It is my contention that the industry which makes its living from writers' talents is selling them short. In the process, I believe it is also damaging its own means of production.
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Published on January 10, 2010 04:11 • 194 views • Tags: creativity, environment, publishing, storytelling, writing

Authors in the frontline

S.A. Rule
S.A. Rule's Blog about books, publishing, writing, music, Shehaios, fantasy, and anything else that flits through her mind.
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