Saturday, 26 July 2014

Do we make luck - or is luck pure chance? by Jenny Harper

I've been thinking a lot about this question over the last couple of weeks. After all, I've just signed a four-book deal with Accent Press and I feel like the luckiest person alive. But was it luck? Or have I earned it?

In an effort to find out what others think, I have been digging around a bit. Journalist Marianne Power, in an article in The Mail in 2012, wrote, 'Serendipity is defined as a chance encounter or accident that leads to a happy – sometime life-changing – conclusion.' She discusses some recent research analysing people's good luck stories – which came to the conclusion that yes, there has to be an element of serendipity (that chance meeting, the fact that you wore such and such a dress on a certain day that got you noticed by the modelling agency etc etc) – but that to be 'lucky' you also need to be open to the opportunities that come your way.

Now, we all know what the publishing world is like right now. It's getting harder and harder for authors to get picked up by the big publishers, a few indies are making shedloads of money, most are working their butts off to sell a handful of copies. I've been feeling that I've entered this mad, mad world at just the wrong time. But being the person I am, I have persevered. Here are some of the steps that led to the 'chance encounter' that got me a contract:

Lucky step 1)
I joined the Romantic Novelists' Association at the suggestion of my friend and mentor Anita Burgh. I decided to 'pay forward' by contributing my expertise as a magazine designer and editor to the RNA, and taking on the design and production of Romance Matters.

Lucky step 2)
After a while I decided to stand for the committee. Again, I have been on a great many committees in my time, and felt I had something to contribute. The wonderful Katie Fforde serendipitously saw some logo designs mistakenly hidden among a sheaf of magazine designs, and set in motion a complete rebranding (again, part of my expertise). I took charge. More 'paying forward' – but also, incidentally, forging great relationships along the way.

Lucky step 3)
Through the RNA, I made friends. Many, many friends. Their support was inestimable. I made the effort to go to parties (in London), to conferences (all over the country, though never in Scotland). More learning, more networking, more hard work.

Lucky step 4)
I wrote a story for consideration for the RNA's Truly, Madly, Deeply anthology. It was accepted. This jolted me into publishing a couple of my novels that had not managed to see the light of day. Whatever you think of the books themselves, I made sure that they were as professionally produced as possible. A lifetime in the business stood me in good stead.

Lucky step 5)
I went to another RNA Conference, this time in Shropshire, 250 miles from home. I was introduced to Hazel Cushion, founder and MD of Accent Press. I wasn't pitching to her, merely telling her who I was and what I was doing. I showed her my fliers for my two books. She asked more. I told her of my plans to publish a third in September - and that Katie Fforde had kindly offered me a shout line for the cover. The long and the short of all that was - she offered me a contract and I am now an Accent Press author!

So: luck or hard work? Serendipity or planning?

I'm reminded of golfer Gary Player (or Arnold Palmer, or Lee Trevino - no-one can quite agree on this!) who, when someone commented on how lucky his putts were, said dryly, 'The more I practice the luckier I get.' The parallel I'm making is that I've worked very hard for this - not just by writing my books, but by offering my expertise to a great community of writers which, in turn, enabled me to forge a network of friendships that led me, inexorably, that evening, to Hazel Cushion and Accent Press.

Yes: the more I work at it all, the luckier I get. That's my view - what's yours?

Sunday, 20 July 2014


Time plays funny tricks on our memories. It seems like only yesterday that I first saw my name, and a story of mine, between hardcovers, but for the life of me I can't remember how I got involved with an anthology to raise funds for breast cancer research in the first place. Accent Press were the publishers and looking through the list of contributors I see there are quite a few from my short story agent of yore, Midland Exposure, so I'm assuming that's how I found my way in. That first anthology was called Sexy Shorts for Christmas and the year was 2003. There must have been a launch somewhere (although not a booksigning - I do remember that) because my copy has been signed by Christina Jones, Bernardine Kennedy, and Katie Fforde amongst others. Ah, it's coming back to me ....I think this might have been at the Groucho Club in London - anyway, I don't have photos of the day but I remember how thrilled I was that my short story was chosen. The second - Sexy Shorts for Summer - collected a few more famous names .....Veronica Henry, Adele Parks, Jane Bidder, and Carole Matthews being some of them. And from this I garnered the experience of my first booksigning - in W H Smith, Cardiff. Not all of us were able to attend that but with a few famous names in there I was giddy with excitement that I was involved. I passed on Sexy Shorts for Chefs because, well, I can cook for my family but a chef I am not and I didn't want to give anyone an upset stomach - or even kill them. But everything comes in threes so when the word was put out that there was going to be a Sexy Shorts for the Beach, how could I not seeing as I live just a hop and skip away from a beach? Catrin Collier was a new contributor, as were Dee Williams and Rosie Harris, along with many of the above, and also two writers who have since become great friends of mine - Jan Wright and Iina Brown. Alas and alack, I have no photographs to capture the moments for posterity. FaceBook and Twitter (and blogs!)were yet to appear in the ether so I don't think any of us saw it as social networking at all. My first experience of the glossy, glitzy, book launch with seriously big names - think Joanna Trollope,Judy Astley, Trisha Ashley and Elizabeth Chadwick (along with many of the above) was when my story, FROM RUSSIA WITH SOMETHING LIKE LOVE,was chosen for the first Romantic Novelists' Association anthology- LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT. For this I glammed up and turned up at The Cavalry and Guards Club. Again, I went without my camera, although I do have an official photograph of the line up. Back then writing a whole novel had never entered my head. But I was getting a feeling for this public stuff and so when I eventually did write one and my contract with my publisher, Choc Lit, insisted that I embrace social media, I did. My first, solo, booksigning was for TO TURN FULL CIRCLE.
And my second for EMMA: There's No Turning Back
The observant amongst you will notice I'm not shrinking violet (if a not very photogenic one!) and I've embraced the notion of the snazzy jacket to be noticed! And I have got to like booksignings because it means all my friends and family - and a few passers by who simply wander in for a free drink and a chocolate - gather in the same place. The atmosphere is always very buzzy but I confess to that dreadful sinking feeling you get before an exam that you might fail if no one turns up! Especially when the weather is foul which it was for my first solo booksigning. Happily for me - and for the Torbay Bookshop who have hosted me - both were a sell-out. But what now? Ebooks are the new kids on the block and taking over, aren't they? There was something hugely satisfying about signing my name and handing the book to a beaming reader, especially when it was someone I didn't know - friends and family being something of a captive audience on these occasions. I've had one full length novel and two novellas published as Ebooks now with another full length to come soon. But there's a part of me that thinks Ebooks aren't real. They can be deleted in an instant. And what if everyone who's downloaded our books does that? Is there no record of them anywhere as there is with books we can hold in our hands? My cousin, David's, nickname for me is Linda Luddite, because I took forever to give up my electric typewriter and buy a computer, go online. And a computer was fine in the end ... so I'm sure I'll learn to love Ebooks - in time!

Monday, 14 July 2014


Kate Johnson and Liesel Schwarz - best dressed?

I wrote this blog immediately after attending the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) promotional event at Blists Hill Victorian Town in early July. I loved the event and it certainly sparked a whole lot of ideas!

Ask almost any writer if they are good at marketing and they will say – NO! Yet as more and more of us are self-publishing or being taken on by small independent publishers we are expected and need to do more of our own marketing.  Even the larger publishing houses expect us to have (and maintain) our own blogs/web pages/twitter accounts, etc.

The ‘Meet The Author’ event at Blists Hill was a great example of face-to-face marketing.  It took place immediately prior to this year’s RNA conference. To fit in with the setting – a superbly reconstructed Victorian town – the event focussed on historical and steampunk romances.  Many of the authors dressed up – brilliantly!   
The whole Goods Shed was filled with tables laden with books. But it wasn’t just books.  There were also bookmarks, real histories, imagined histories, information on a specific theme (e.g. odours and malodours in history, along with sample perfumes), chocolates, quizzes, badges, fans… All this was intended to attract the interest of the general public and it certainly did.  There was a steady stream of visitors throughout the four-hour session, most browsing and chatting, a few buying.


Pia Fenton (Christina Courtenay) even gave an impromptu lecture on the history of perfumes to a group of visiting school children!

What did I learn from this event?
  • For the author, it is important to have fun, and to look like you’re having fun
  • Be friendly and willing to chat, but don’t be pushy
  • Items associated with your books are useful talking points, especially if they can be handled (Romy Gemmel and Anne Stenhouse’s toys were particularly popular, see below)

  • Don’t expect to sell many books.  The event is as much about getting your name out there and promoting future sales/library borrowings as it is about sales on the day.
  • A shared promotional event is both more enjoyable (less stressful?) for the authors and more interesting to the general public.

I’d be interested to hear from writers (and readers!) about other promotional events.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

In Which I Find an Old Friend in a Bookshop, by Jennifer Young

It’s amazing what you forget. Also what you remember and what, in the end, you realise you never knew in the first place.

Browsing the children’s sections in a second-hand bookshop in St Andrew’s the other day I saw a title which triggered memories. It was Carol Kendall’s The Minnipins, a book which I haven’t thought about in years but one which immediately reminded me that I spent years when my children were smaller looking for a copy, though without success.

When I pulled it out I had a clear picture in my mind of the cover of my edition, some several decades ago. This was the same (the edition dated from 1972). I turned it over and read the back. ‘Five rebels are exiled to the mountains from their sober, respectable Minnipin village, and find that the deadly Mushroom tribe is coming to attack their countrymen.’

Of course I bought it, tattered though it was; and of course I read it at the first opportunity. Time slipped away. The more I read the more I remembered; every time I turned a page I knew what was coming and yet I was still amused by the tiny twists which I’d either forgotten or never spotted. And it isn’t even (as far as I’m aware) a classic.

The book, though short, is obviously derivative and highly reminiscent of Tolkien with its little people living in a Shire-like land unaware of a gathering threat outside. (One of them, incidentally, is called Muggles so perhaps the derivation leads forwards as well as back.) And of course our band of misfit Minnipins save the day as the invaders attacks through old mines - aided by their magic swords.

Reading it as an adult I spotted much about the lessons of the book which I must have taken in subliminally as a child. The message is about being true to yourself, about learning to accept others for what they are, about not being self-important or being bound by your own history. It isn’t a classic but it really ought to be. I have plenty of musing to do on precisely why, on all the elements which made this particular book appeal to me.

When I Googled it I discovered that The Minnipins has a sequel. This leaves me with a dilemma. Read it - or leave the original in my mind as the almost-perfect stand-alone children’s book I thought it was? What would you do?