Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mike Smith, address to Rotorua Writers Group, 5 November 2011

Mike Smith address to Rotorua Writers Group, 5 November 2011

Hi, thanks very much for that introduction.

I am excited about meeting the writers’ group today. I am also a little nervous so I asked Marj if I could use a whiteboard so I can chuck up some headings to assist us.

The first heading is Background and I will write up the names of my companies. We have two companies:

• Business Media Services Limited
• Trade and Media Services Limited

I will go into some more background on the companies and why there are two of them in a moment.

First, some background about me which I hope will help to put this into some context for you.

Somebody once asked me: “What would do if you couldn’t write, Mike?”

My reply was: “If I couldn’t write, I couldn’t breathe.”

What I really wanted to say was that if I couldn’t write, I would die, but I thought that was a little too dramatic.

I guess I wanted to convey that writing is what I do, how I live and who I am.

Funnily enough, though, writing is a bit like breathing isn’t it? There is good breathing and poor breathing.

Experts tell us that shallow breathing, just using the top of your lungs, is actually unhealthy and deeper breathing using your diaphragm is much better for you.

So it is with writing. That is why I commend the work being done by Marj and the team here.
I grew up in Auckland, in a place called Point England and for primary school went to Saint Pius the Tenth Convent, in Glen Innes, and then to Sacred Heart College.

I guess I was what you might call a clever kid but life wasn’t always straight forward, as this note I wrote when I was 10 suggests. We must have been told to keep a diary for a month; February 1962 goes like this – it starts at February 1 and ends for some reason at 21. [Note: I have left in some of the spelling etc.]

5 – Back at school. We are sent into room 5. Everyone working hard.
6 – Had a fight with Chris Dudley and got thirty lines.
7 – School is settling down.
8 – I was playing on the jungle jims and fell off and almost broke my neck.
9 – Found out we had to bring book money in. Not much of a day. End of a tiring week.
12 – Had a great surprise. Found out I was going into a new classroom by myself and a few girls from Room 6, and Paul Andrews class.
13 – Got the first whack of the year.
14- - First time we had home work in the year.
16 – Played releasey and got caught twice but got freed.
19 – I helped bring in new desks for our new classroom.
20 – Settling down in new classroom.
21 – Not much of a day. I did lots of silly things.”

I read my old reports from Sacred Heart College the other day and the overwhelming comment seems to have been “Michael must try harder” – that is in all except English.

After school I started and stopped a number of careers and jobs until one day at this place I was working I teamed up with a young school leaver whose father, Allen Brown, happened to be the racing editor for the New Zealand Herald. Because he knew I liked racing and writing, he suggested I go and see his father for a job where I could combine both talents. When I did, Allen Brown said they no longer hired people off the street and I should go to get a Journalism Diploma if I wanted to pursue this career.

So I did that and ended up working at the Waikato Times in Hamilton, where I met my wife, Sue Wilkie. We came to Rotorua so Sue could take up a position as chief reporter at the RNZ radio station here. When I approached the Daily Post for a job, the then editor told me he wouldn’t employ me because my wife was the radio station chief reporter.

So I set up a freelance news agency doing what was then described as photo-journalism – basically taking photos and writing stories on contract to various national and international publications. Eventually, I was picked up by the National Business Review and worked full-time for them from Rotorua between 1984 and 1991. By that time, we had a couple of kiddies and I knew I had to upskill to go further, so instead of spending money we couldn’t afford, I took a job in Singapore and the family lived there for a couple of years.

Returning to Rotorua in 1993, I set up Business Media Services Limited and a year or so later, Trade and Media Services Limited.

BMS is much as the name says – it is a business that provides media services, such as contract writing, editing and publishing – to clients, be they companies or individuals.

TMS grew out of the work I had done in the forestry area, including visiting and writing what are called multi-client studies on forestry in New Zealand, in post-apartheid South Africa and in Latin America. As such, TMS provides an information and news service on forestry in countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and Uruguay.

Although these two companies are quite separate – one providing services to clients and the other building up our own publications – they have had one thing in common…and that is facing the challenge of digital publishing.

For TMS, the Internet and now digital publishing has been a boon. Most of our subscribers, I would say a good 90-plus per cent are international. Most want information and news “now”, so the Internet delivery of information and digital publishing’s flexibility really suit this work.

It is through BMS that I offer a number of services of most interest to people like yourselves. Companies or individuals contact me if they need help in putting a publication together – this can mean me writing stories for them, me editing their work, or me taking the work right through to publication. Sometimes it is all three.

For individuals, typically it works like this:

• Sometimes, people have an idea for a publication, and I am happy to give them some direction if that is all they require. Naturally, this is on the understanding that if they pursue the idea, it would be a good idea for them to come back to me on completion.
• Sometimes, people come to me with completed manuscripts and I can assist them with that – more on that in a moment. And
• Sometimes, people come to me with books they have published themselves and ask me what to do next.

It is fair to say that I am quite encouraging when people come to me with an idea. It is often in the execution of the idea that we trip up, isn’t it?

An example was the local chap who was going to take a couple of months off work to do a book on high country run owners in the South Island. The idea was that he would drive around the South Island and bowl up to these run owners; take photos of them and their grand estates, and put them into a book. Not a bad idea when you think about it.

I tried to convince him to do some groundwork first – like getting a list of run owners and contacting them first…as they may not be too keen on a bloke from Rotorua landing on their doorsteps asking to look around the homestead. But this would take too much time and he was determined to do this during his holiday…so I gave him some advice on the best way to approach the job.

For somebody like me, completed manuscripts are really quite exciting. I am interested in people, although I should stress that this doesn’t necessarily make me a “people person”. There are two main ways in which a completed manuscript can be handled:

1. I can – on a paid contract basis - read the manuscript and provide the writer with an assessment of the best way forward, or
2. I can be convinced this work will turn into a book quite nicely and proceed from there.

Whether your work falls into one or two is based on experience and feel. I can give you a couple of examples.

Assessment - One of your members recently came to me with a completed manuscript, looking for some advice on whether it was worth taking forward and what he should do with it. I am currently reading the work. So this is a paid service, which will result in the production of a written assessment of the manuscript, including advice on not only the writing but also suggestions for proceeding. In assessments, one thing common for most writers, is the matter of “voice”…by which I mean the sound and feel of the voices you use when writing.

Book – if the manuscript is ready to go, I can decide whether it might be something we would publish ourselves or provide what is essentially a literary agency service. Publishing can involve either writers paying us to publish to book on their behalf; or we publish and give the writer a percentage of each sale. A young woman, who lives with her dairy farmer husband in Waikite Valley, came to me with the manuscript of a science fiction-fantasy novel she had written. It was about 320 pages long and the first of a series of three. I was quite excited by this book, because it had a start, a middle, and an end. It still took us a year to get it up to what we could say was a publishable state, before approaching publishers or agents.

Why this process took a year of going backwards and forwards tells us something of the way the publishing world is working today and brings us to a discussion about how to best get published in a digital world. So I will now address this aspect.

Publishing is a bit of a numbers game. And the numbers have been quite interesting recently. In this section I will use a number of terms, such as e-books, which means a book published as a file of some sort, either live online or delivered as a file to the reader’s computer or uses new reading devices like Kindle or Apple’s iPad.

The Economist newspaper reported recently that in the first five months of this year sales of consumer e-books in America overtook those from adult hardback books. Just a year earlier, hardbacks had been worth more than three times as much as e-books, according the Association of American Publishers

Amazon, the US online shopping giant, now sells more copies of e-books than paper books.

The drift to digital versions of publications is predicted to speed up as bookshops close down. Sue recently found a Borders gift card I had been given for Christmas. Quite worthless now, yet only a few years ago, who would have thought it?
As writers we love to have hard copies of our books in our hands and in the hands of our readers. Who can blame us – there is nothing nicer is there? However, the scope for having your book published in hard copy form is surely and steadily reducing.

This is because the rise in digital publishing has combined with the global financial crisis, or the GFC. The combination of these two factors (or DP + GFC) has led to a huge squeeze on publishers…and writers.

Today, more and more publishers are more and more downsizing their staff in an effort to cut production costs. This means, in-house editing goes and the editing of your manuscript is contacted to an outside editor.

For writers, this means that your work must be increasingly “ready to publish” before it is even presented to a publisher for consideration. Publishers will, for example, only see additional editing costs. So it is advised that you should have your manuscripts edited first, so there is a minimum of costs involved for the publisher.

Okay, you could say this is a bit of a plug for my work but I am a founding member of the NZ Digital Publishing Forum and this is the message we get from larger, established publishers.

Publishers have less money available for large production runs of books in the hope they will sell. I was told recently by a publisher that really the New Zealand market is mostly focused on gardening and cookbooks.

That is one of the reasons we have gone international in a bid to get Sarah’s fantasy book published. It just wouldn’t be published locally. So our first effort is to try to secure her the services of a North American literary agent and a publisher.

This is where the Internet becomes useful. Before digital publishing came digital marketing, and I have experience in this aspect through my work with Trade and Media Services Ltd, our southern hemisphere forestry information service, which you might recall has almost all its subscribers offshore.

Using Internet tools such as web sites and Youtube, we are able to establish a presence for writers and their books which can help them rise above the pack. So agents and publishers can see from the start whether the person behind the book is marketable or the genuine article.

We can also use digital publishing tools to our advantage, making available a sample of the book for prospective agents and publishers to scrutinise. In Sarah’s case, we converted her book for downloading from the web site – there it can be purchased for US ninety nine cents to download as an e-book; or purchased for US nineteen dollars and ninety five cents as a hard copy book.

This is a proof copy of Sarah’s book we produced via Amazon. I should say that we did all this work here in Rotorua and had the book produced in the USA. But before you rush out and say “Oh, I can do that…” remember that

• On the advice from editorial assessment, the manuscript was edited and re-edited;
• the book was placed into a pre-publication format for digital printing;
• the design was done to a professional standard; and
• above all else, it was part of a wider marketing plan.

You could do that yourself to a certain extent but this is where assessment and editing comes into the picture. I believe this is a vital step in this new world of digital publishing.

To go back to my analogy at the start of writing and breathing – loading an unedited story to the Internet and/or sending it off to a publisher in today’s economic climate is akin to shallow breathing. It is fair to say that the sounds of strangulated huffing and puffing have risen to a cacophony on the Internet. So my plea to you today, is before you jump into action to send your manuscript off – whether it is to a publisher or even a competition, spend a little time and a little money on editing. You may then breathe easier and give your story the oxygen it deserves.

Thanks very much for listening to me today.

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