For those of us who feel that we have a book inside us – but are too scared to try and write it … Ali Hull Commissioning Editor for Lion Hudson talks to Paul van Rossum about what’s involved.
Why run a course for authors who want to see their books in print? Surely one just sits down, produces a masterpiece, sends it off to a publisher, and sits back and waits for first the contract and then the royalties to come rolling in? Isn’t that what happened for J K Rowling? Er, no. The last bit happened eventually, but not until a lot of other publishers had turned her book down, with perceptive comments about how school stories or books on magic don’t sell any longer …
So you have a great idea for a book, and are convinced that plenty of people would want to read it. What should you do (and, sometimes more importantly, what should you not do) to make that happen? That is what we will be covering during these days at Lee Abbey. For some people it will be a case of plugging away and maybe, one day, a traditional publisher will take them on and their book will be printed and published in the traditional way. For other authors, sometimes with books that can be just as well written, the only way to be published is to do it themselves – because the number of people who are interested in the subject they are writing about is simply too small (or believed to be too small) for a traditional publisher to produce the book.
What steps must a budding author take to be successful? Whatever way authors finally put their books before the public though, one thing is essential – writing is hard work, and writers must be prepared to put that work in. One writer, also due to be a speaker at the Lee Abbey Conference, who kept working and working at his writing till he got it right is Bob Hartman, author of The Lion Storyteller Bible. Bob, whose career has since been so successful, over a million copies of his books printed have been printed. But it wasn’t always like that, as he will readily admit. While still looking for a publisher, Bob met Lion’s children’s editor Su Box at Greenbelt in 1989, ‘at one of those workshops with editors and the odd published writer. She told me to send her the children’s novel I had written, and while Lion (nor anyone else!) ever published it, she did offer some helpful comments on extent and content. I think that would be less likely to happen today – so a writing course would definitely fill that need.’
Why did Bob Hartmann start writing? He told me, ‘I thought I had stories to tell (or retell) that children would want to hear. I wanted to bring the joy and excitement to them that I had experienced as a child when I read stories that appealed to me. I also wanted children to access and enjoy stories from the Bible, which is where a lot of those retellings came from. Doing this has brought real joy to my life. To see a child (or a roomful of children) respond to the story that you tell – to hear the laughter, to watch them go silent, to feel the tension build, to be together in the journey of that story is a genuine delight.’
What does he hope to achieve through the course at Lee Abbey Devon in May? He is hoping to pass on information from his own experience that will be encouraging to aspiring children’s authors. He says, ‘I didn’t have any formal training, myself. I learned by trial and error. Yet, I still got published. So I want to talk about practical tips for doing that, and I want to share my vision for what I think makes a good children’s book, all in the hope that people who come to Lee Abbey will see the possibilities for their own writing. It is so tempting to give up, particularly in the current publishing context. But I really believed that I had something to say, and an original way in which to say it, and I didn’t give up until I found a way to do that. I hope I can help others to find that determination and vision, too’. So what is your particular area of expertise Ali? I am a commissioning editor for the publisher Lion Hudson, whose lists include Lion’s Childrens, Candle, Monarch, Lion Fiction and Lion. We do books for all ages, but my area is books for adults, written by Christians but aimed as much for the Waterstones market as the Christian reader. That is a difficult but exhilarating challenge – but it is wonderful when we get it right.
Last year you set up Writers Essentials, a coaching and feedback service for aspiring writers. You run this with your daughter Sarah, also speaking at the conference, because you both had experience of seeing authors turned down without being given the detailed feedback they needed to understand why or to improve. So why do you think feedback is poor? I don’t blame publishers for this. The amount of time needed to give feedback and coaching is huge – and no publisher has that time. But where do authors turn to find it? We want to help authors work, and learn, understand, fix, improve – to see a different outcome in time.
What else will the course look at? Andrew Chamberlain is the final speaker on the course, and he will be covering some of the pleasures and pitfalls of self-publishing. With so many people wanting to be published, and with more and more money going towards maintaining those who have made it, rather than risking publishing new and untried authors, self-publishing is a viable option for many. But how do you do it? What can you do to make your book stand out for the right reasons?