Friday, 28 October 2011

Climbing the corporate ladder...

In an excerpt from his book "The Lowdown: Top Tips for Wannbe CEOs", Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury (publishers of the phenomenal Harry Potter series) talks about climbing the ladder in publishing...

Q: Let’s talk about education. Does a CEO, in your view, need a university degree?

A: No. But it’s pretty hard in the 21st century western world not to have had a university degree and get on the ladder - at least the corporate ladder. I think it’s completely feasible to do start-up businesses without a university degree, and you could end up as a great industrialist, and there are a few around the world. So I don’t think a university degree is essential, no. But it’s likely.

Q: What are the best three degrees (in your opinion) for someone with his or her eye on becoming a publishing CEO?

A: The three degrees by subject? Reading, Writing and Arithmetic! That’s a serious response. Governments try to get involved in the creative economy and they say, “What do you want us to teach at universities that would improve the quality of the graduates?” Well frankly, if they could come out reading, writing, and being able to add up, we’d be ever so grateful. And I imagine this to be true in many industries.

Q: So you think these basic skills are crucial for a wannabe CEO? 

A: Absolutely. And there are other useful skills apart from reading, writing and arithmetic. To get a little bit more specific: it’s the ability to paraphrase, to assemble thoughts into a coherent prĂ©cis - because business isn’t that complicated.

I rather like what the medieval priest cum philosopher, William of Occam, had to say: One version of the Latin is: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate - which I believe translates as "plurality should not be posited without necessity." In other words, it is an abomination to make more complex that which can be simpler. And of course most business-speak is making more complex that which could be simpler. So the ability to make the complex simple seems to me very important. In other words, “keep it simple, stupid.”

And another skill – which is really a subset of the previous skill – is to be able to round up or down when it comes to figures. If I asked you what your sales were last year, and you said “15,469 - and we’re hoping for 16,937 next year,” I’ve already gone blank. If you say ‘it’s 15 this year and 17 next year’, then I get it. The ability to round up and down and to do simple arithmetic in your head is a great advantage in business. I think spreadsheets have become an excuse for sloppy arithmetical thinking.

Q: What about graduate training schemes? Do you think they are worthwhile? 

A: They used to be called apprenticeships, and people would pay to be on them. Regrettably, now the employers have to pay for them! But yes, I do think internal management training schemes are really important. It does allow a company to get the best people. 

Q: And does it give you a head start in the company if you’re on one of these graduate training schemes?

A: You have to be careful. Partly it gives you a leg up because you are probably in contact with more senior people than you would be otherwise. On the other hand, it can have a negative effect because of jealousy, and the “blue-eyed girl or boy” syndrome. The company has to be very, very careful to take all of its people seriously and not to put graduate recruits on a pedestal, which they don’t really want or deserve. And it’s up to the “apprentices” to make sure they don’t try to lord it over people - especially when they are still learning the ropes from them! If they do, they should be kicked very hard.

Q: How do you go about making the most of the opportunities that come from getting started early on these schemes? 

A: I think it goes beyond the scheme. I think it actually is about business as a whole. By and large, businesses are structured by function or by geography or by product. So – for example - if you work for the UK toothpaste department of Unilever and you’re on the marketing side, that’s fine. But if you really want to get on, you’d better learn about soap, soap flakes, America, manufacturing as well as marketing. What I mean is, don’t just be interested in what you do - because when it comes to business, it’s about seeing the whole picture.

I think I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been allowed to be interested beyond my job description. Which is maybe why I no longer have a job description.

Q: So from what you’re saying, a graduate training scheme is great as a leg-up, but within that people still have to be self motivated?

A: Yes. And it separates the wheat from the chaff. In Macmillan, approximately half the people dropped out of the scheme after a year. And I think this is true in other companies as well. For instance, the British National Health Service scheme is reputed to have a 75% dropout rate. Not everyone is suited to every job, and not every company suits every person. Some end up doing the same job for thirty years because they never did get out and move up the ladder into a new job where they could learn new skills. In itself that’s okay – it just means they’re not going up the greasy pole. 

Q: Should wannabe CEOs do other kinds of training? Ongoing training, continue studying in their chosen field?

A: If you’re interested in your business, I think you do anyway. I think it’s a natural progression. For instance, I have no accounting training in any formal sort of way. However, if you’re really interested in the business, you’d better find out what accountants do. And the best way to do that, frankly, is to spend time with them. Or if you want to know about brand management, spend time with brand managers. I’m not sure how formal that would have to be. I did do a fair amount of external management training, but I think I probably learned more from just doing everything rather than going on courses. 

Additionally, these days there are vast resources available: you can buy loads of books, magazines, downloads, and so on, to learn new skills. Keeping up to date in this way is incredibly important.

Q: What’s the best way to go about finding out about how sales, marketing, finance and HR all work?

A: Go to the canteen, if there is a canteen. If there isn’t a canteen, go to the coffee machine. If there isn’t a coffee machine, go to the photocopier, or wherever it is that people congregate, and just talk to them. Just ask.

Early on, before computers gave us accurate statistics on sales, an editor’s job included finding out what a competing book had sold. Now it’s easy to look at a screen to find out what the last book by a particular author sold, but in those days there was no such thing. And if you asked the competing publisher, they would either not tell you – confidential you know – or they’d lie. So how did you find out? You rang up the author. They would probably show off about how well their book had sold, or else they would moan about their publisher and blame her or him for the lousy sales. Either way, they’d tell you a version of the truth. 

So remember that most people want to talk. If you want to learn about accounting or marketing or personnel, the best way to learn is to ask the people who work in those departments. They’ll tell you. People like to talk about their jobs, so asking people is the fastest way to learn. – Richard Charkin, 

“The Lowdown: Top Tips for Wannabe CEOs” is available in both eBook and audio formats.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Let's hear it for audio!

Sound editor Al Muirden is a fan - of audio books!

This week, I want to talk about something very close to our hearts here at CC - the often misunderstood audio book.

These days, we regularly read in the press how the eBook is challenging the traditional printed word when it comes to sales of published works and indeed, how successful the eBook has become - this is great news for Creative Content of course. Most purchasers get what the printed and eBook formats are about - unfortunately, this confidence isn’t always matched where audio books are concerned.

Don’t get me wrong - audio book sales are strong, especially in the US, but things could be a lot better if people just understood a little more about the product and what goes into making it special.

Whenever I mention in conversation that I edit audio books, you can most often see people eyes glaze over - I’m sure when I explain what I do to the uninitiated, people think that any old someone just goes in and reads the book out loud in some sort of dull monotone with no characterisation - oh dear, how wrong they are! I don’t think that booksellers quite get it either sometimes when their audio sections are labelled as Spoken Word - this immediately conjures up the old monotone/boring/send you to sleep idea for many - not good and also not accurate!

The bar is definitely set high when it comes to the skills needed by a great audio narrator. Most are actors and so already have the attributes needed to assume a character’s persona - in works of audio fiction, where there can be many such personalities, this is imperative. Lorelei, as an award winning audio narrator is at the top of the tree* - she and other quality narrators out there don’t just read the books when they record - they perform them, bringing life to the characters with accents and individuality - and in doing so make the words become cinematic and most importantly - bring the book to life!

Creative Content publish a lot of business and self-help titles and whilst in most cases there are no characters as such, a skilled narrator can make non-fiction titles a very interesting listen - believe me, I’ve heard a wide range of readers and subject matter and with a great narrator/producer/editor team, they are truly a million miles away from monotone! I even heard a Social Work title recently that included quotes from real trainees and the various people were all given the appropriate (different) accents by the narrator - this was then further enhanced in the edit and the end product was a fascinating listen.

So in summary, I’m saying that there are THREE formats out there, not just hardcover and eBook - audio is more than a match for its two more popular and well known brothers. Give your ears an airing and see how books come alive in audio! - AM    

*Aw, thanks Al! Cheque's in the post.... :o) LK

Friday, 14 October 2011

Interview with Roz Southey

Today we’re talking to Roz Southey, author of the Charles Patterson musical mystery series. The fourth book in the series, “Sword and Song”, has just published in eBook format.

We asked her to tell us a bit about how she writes.

 Did you set out to create a series-based character, or was that accidental?

Yes, for two reasons. One is mercenary: a writer’s books are more likely to remain in print if they are in a series - people finding later books always want to go back and read the first ones - and secondly (and chiefly), it allows the writer to develop the main character (or in my case, four main characters) over a period of time, showing them growing and changing which makes them much more real.

How do you structure the layout and plot lines of your books? Do you have a clear plot line, or do things twist, turn and develop as you go along?

I start writing with a clear idea of roughly what’s going to happen…but I have thought about the basic idea for some months beforehand and at some point I start seeing scenes in my mind: the opening scene, a couple if climactic scenes in the middle - usually the last scene too. When those characters in those scenes start talking to me, I know it‘s time to start writing. The first draft is always in long hand and then I transfer it to my computer for editing and tidying. I always build the books around a true event, person or trend from the 18th century. I liken this first draft to the sort of research I do as an academic: I’m not making any of it up; I’m finding out what happened. My subconscious mind is free to offer me all sorts of characters and plot twists that my conscious mind just wouldn’t come up with. Then I have to plan the novel in detail from the first draft, cutting or enlarging and making sure the plot hangs together an makes sense. This becomes the second draft, then finally when I’m convinced the structure is right I move on to tidying the language etc.

What is a typical writing day for you?

I like to start my writing day around 7:45am and I’ll do an hour or so, then have a walk and then another couple of hours. This is the really serious stuff and I’m at my best in the morning…and then I ease back a little over lunchtime and then get back into it mid-afternoon until around 5pm…and I LOVE Mondays as I always feel fresh, but it’s important to write regularly and treat it in a business-like way. I tend not to set myself a daily word limit.

 How do you go about your research?

I was lucky in that almost all of my research was done before I started writing novels. I did a PhD on music-making in the northeast of England during the 18th century. As part of that, I read my way through four centuries worth of newspapers form that period and took out all the references to music. There were also a lot of gossipy stories there, which I couldn’t use in my academic work, and it’s these I’ve used as the basis for the novel. I absorbed the 18th century by osmosis, so to speak, so the research was done painlessly. So many important events occurred during this period; I’m always amazed when people say it’s not very interesting as “nothing much happened”. This period has always interested me and I’ve learned so much more through doing my PhD. One of my editor’s comments relating to Broken Harmony was that it seemed that all that people seemed to eat was ale and game pie and nothing else, so I had to separately research that aspect - what people would have eaten! The other thing in trying to view a period in the past, is to set yourself IN that period and realize that the WAY people thought at that time is simply not the way we think now - and this can only come through reading things like 18th century newspapers -and by doing that you start to think as they would have thought on a daily basis. And having worked around this period for 5 years, I was just immersed in the whole period and the way people thought at the time.

Is there any one thing that your readers would be surprised to know about you?

I’m very much into local history and particularly the valley where I was brought up. We lived in a house which dates back to around the 1520s and on the window; various people from over the years had carved their names and dates. There were two I remember from 1804 and 1836, I think… so this to me was like history made real, when you live there every day. I have a very fluid feeling about time sometimes merging into one, past present and future, and I think my upbringing was what sparked my interest in history - the house is still standing and I am actually writing about the history of that house…oh and I’m a very keen gardener!

Roz Southey has a passion for the often contentious world of 18th century music-making in the north east of England; in fact, she has a PhD in it! Roz lives in the northeast herself and lectures at the International Centre for Music Studies in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Check out her website:

Friday, 7 October 2011

Feeling Festive

Is it October already?!

We can’t believe it’s almost a year since we were at the Poole Litfest! We had a great time – I chaired a panel of fantastic crime writers (Minette Walters, medieval murder mystery writer Michael Jecks and BBC TV Crime Correspondent Simon Hall) discussing the influence of true crime stories on their work. We were thrilled to have participated.

It’s amazing how many literary festivals there are in the UK: Lennoxlove, Chiswick, Lancaster, Bromley, Worcester and Crimefest, to name but a few.

One of the largest of them, the Cheltenham LiteratureFestival,  starts this week. There’s a fantastic lineup of events (including the lovely actress and writer Isla Blair, who will be ‘in conversation’ with her actor husband, Julian Glover). 
We’d love to know what you think: If you’re an author, do you find festivals a useful way to connect with readers and promote your work? If you’re a reader, what’s the thing you enjoy most about litfests?- LK