Not the Sky; a memoir

October 2019   This year, the 40th anniversary of my mother’s sudden death. The year too in which our aunty June, our mother’s youngest sister dies, also suddenly, and from the same breast cancer and its malevolent creeping secondaries that kill three out of the five sisters in that generation. This year, the publication of Not the Sky, a book that I could never have written until this time in my writing life, a book both funny and sad, a book about love.

Gail Ashton’s Not the Sky: a memoir up-ends a West Midlands working-class childhood and chaotic family to re-imagine the present.

She is like a balloon rising on an air. I call up to her, ‘You died. A long time ago now.’

 ‘I did no such thing,’ she says. ‘I’d never just up and leave you girls.’

From the outside lavvy to backyards and gardens, Ashton confronts long-held secrets, ghosts, and converses with the dead.  Meet inanimate objects, animals, and miscarried babies. Meet a dying mother demanding a will and a prize-winning rose bowl. Meet the estranged father with an email, some rescued football boots and two glasses of Asti Spumante. Or the great-aunt transformed to a skylark, the sister and a DNA kit, an abusive grandfather, and a failed guard dog.


not the sky full cvr


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Praise for Not the Sky

Memoir is not usually an exciting or innovative form, but here is one that is as multifaceted and startling as the life it documents, reflecting the toys, picnics, comics of a working-class childhood, as well as its ghosts, sorrows and secrets. Matthew Francis


Not The Sky is a prism throwing light on the many facets and fractures of family life. It is about the wisdom won through surviving part-time parenting. Breaches are caused by adult preoccupation, death and desertion but bridged by the tenacious love between sisters, love for dogs and wild animals and by her love of words. Gail Ashton’s book is remarkable for being without sentimentality or self-pity. She is able to find beauty in bleakness. Chris Kinsey


Gail Ashton’s hybrid novella/memoir Not the Sky plays with time, memory, and truth. This is not my usual reading matter but I was drawn in by the rambunctious, dysfunctional family and the narrator’s digressions and near-repetitions. The blunt midlands dialogue is interspersed with occasional lines of startling lyricism while at times the narrator’s wish-world of alternative parent-versions had a pleasantly dislocating effect on me as a reader, leaving me trying to tease out truth between the lines and then realising it doesn’t matter. I have not read anything like this before and, days later, find myself still thinking about it as its layers unfold. Angela France


Gail Ashton has created a vivid mosaic, composed of scenes and memories, of the wider familial context and its changing power relations as authority declines with age and children become adults. The result is both a compelling social history and a tribute to the survivability of the oppressed, told with panache and humour. Steve Ellis


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Poems from What rain taught us


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February 9, 2017 · 11:30 am

For the journey

think of it as a voyage, the poet says…Read me: What rain taught us



the world but

an hourglass

sifting blue

bones of light

through its hands ……


From immortality

we drown

in lost iambic

light easy as she goes


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More praise for What rain taught us

what rain full cover








John McAuliffe and Judy Kendall talk about What rain taught us


John McAuliffe says:

In the urgent poems of What rain taught us, Gail Ashton tests the limits of the lines she makes, framing and reorienting the spaces around their images, examining how images fade in and out of focus, navigating her way to an understanding of the terrors the poems describe. These poems see ‘the unspecified disorder of flowersand they make us grasp, too, ‘how sunlight frets// the shock of them, unfamiliar// with their dialect.’


Judy Kendall:

An elegant, carefully ordered collection with a deep-felt narrative, although for me the story really resides in Ashton’s distinctive tone, those humorous but serious conversations and intimate touches that What rain taught us offers.  Here, too, is a living and innovative conversation between poet and typographer which follows its own bold and peculiar trajectory to fly off mid-point with its text upon text, its half-hidden italics well suiting Ashton’s wry tone, and, at the end, a wonderful mirror-written piece juxtaposed by an asemic pixelated background to promise very interesting follow-ups in the future.

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In praise of rain

what rain front cover

advance praise for What rain taught us

Matthew Francis: Rain, moonlight and the words of old songs haunt these poems, with their interconnecting threads of language and unexpected twists and turns on the page. ‘Think of it as a voyage’, the poet tells us, and indeed by the end we have travelled a long way through the seas of the imagination


Jane McKie: In What rain taught us, Gail Ashton is at the height of her lyrical powers. But what makes this collection stand out is the marriage of experiment to musicality, and the result is an amplification of potency.  This collection, brave in content and form, presents a compelling, poignant and gripping narrative of life that sizzles with truth.




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January 26, 2017 · 12:06 pm

so what did rain teach us after all?

Once there was a book.  It said What rain taught us. On this, possibly the darkest January day ever when sky heaves with grey north west rain, it’s hard to know anything other than that story.

Read it here, and @gailashton2012#WRTU over the coming weeks. Pre-order it here or contact

what rain full cover

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Meeting Me Here: in conversation with Jenny Cooke

Like to know more about how Meet Me There came into being? Take a peek into the writing life? Read more: Jenny Cooke in Dialogue with Gail Ashton on Meet Me There (Cinnamon Press, 2015


2015-03-13 12.57.19Gail, what gave you the idea for this particular book at this particular time? And what was it about ‘Now’ that gave you the impetus to write your own contributions?

I’d been reading a lot of creative non-fiction, much of it with place at its centre: Simon Armitage, Robert MacFarlane, the Country Diarists. And memoir too like Jeanette Winterson’s and Hilary Mantel’s work and interviews. At the same time a number of personal events came together. Both my father and a close friend were given terminal diagnoses at around the same time and actually died within a couple of weeks of each other this summer. Both dad and Jill were associated in my mind with the midlands which is where I’m from. And with Jill she was a reason why we’d go back ‘home’ to visit her. With her going there was another kind of loss, another lost link with the past and its places. We were also looking like we were leaving our house here in Cheshire. Every year I’d said it was time but when it came down to it I realised I was going to find it really tough. So place, roots, nostalgic yearnings, the effect landscape has on me, all of this was running through my head. That’s the impetus for the book and specifically for my own chapter in it. And ironically we’re still here. Maybe that’s another book!

How long did it take to get this book together from start to finish?
This was unusually fast! From first pitching ideas to Jan Fortune at Cinnamon Press and opening up our dialogue, contacting contributors, and then to first draft, polished piece, and publication was just under a year. In fact the longest part of the process was probably our initial discussion. I had suggested a number of permutations – and, inadvertently perhaps, another book entirely – and we wanted time to think these through. Jan also wanted this book to be a celebration of Cinnamon Press and some of its authors which meant it had to be published in 2015, the ten year anniversary of Cinnamon’s beginnings. Likewise, I needed to come up with a remit that both allowed contributors free rein to write what they wanted to say about this theme and made sure we were all highlighting similar aspects of a writing process; hence the writing tips, references back to work published with Cinnamon, and so on.

Another thing that made it very easy for me as an editor was that once I’d introduced the idea to Jan she was able to come up with a list of possible contributors to celebrate the press. They had to be Cinnamon authors so that we could be part of the anniversary ‘party’ year (we were always aiming for the end of 2015, for that big Cinnamon party weekend in Northampton in October). And obviously they had to be interested in the theme. The process of deciding a best ‘fit’ for the theme of place – and of thinking about a range of styles and approaches – was all down to Jan. And that personal knowledge – borne of Cinnamon’s fabulous hands-on, family-oriented publication, every individual author matters route – does I think really come into its own when anyone reads this book. For me there is a clear sense that for these particular contributors place is integral to everything they write. And that even though we are all writing about the same thing every chapter is unique. That was important to me, that there should be contrast, light, shade, poetry, prose, memoir, fact, fiction etc, that pieces should both overlap and rub up against each other in all kinds of productive and interesting ways. I hope that readers feel the book does just that.


What did you gain, do you think, by working with the nine other contributors?

Oh a huge amount – as I always do when I’m editing. I was lucky enough to know some of the contributors already and it’s always a pleasure to work with people you like and with whom you’ve had some kind of contact before. Jan is my editor of course so I know her well, and love her work, and we’ve also co-edited a poetry anthology for Cinnamon (Only Connect). I’ve done the same with Susan Richardson too (In the Telling) while Sue, Jan and I have also been part of the Triskele mentoring service. And we’ve all met lots of times at readings and events, as I have Ian Gregson. I’ve read Mavis Gulliver a lot and Jim Perrin too who – you will know this – is a Guardian Country Diarist. Most of the people I was working with were new to me though and that has been a particular delight, getting to know them and their work and loving it. A couple of those working relationships are already proving both personally and professionally productive, and I so enjoyed meeting a number of them at the Northampton weekend on 2-4 October, NN Gallery.

I particularly enjoyed the way autobiography links with place, time and poem in this work. Was this part of your brief? Or did the writers all approach their chapters similarly?

As I said everyone was free to write what and how they wished. But isn’t it interesting that this is a constant? I’m still thinking this one through to be honest. I wonder why it’s so. I think because of the way we acquire our voices (see next question) but am interested to know what you think Jenny or what anyone else has to say about this.


You made the point in your answer that this theme was ‘a bit of a constant in all the contributors’, even though you hadn’t specifically requested it. My further Q is to ask if you think this has to do with the self-awareness/ awareness of surroundings and landscape of a creative person? This awareness can be etched deep into one’s mind and be difficult to handle I think.

I think it is difficult yes, not least because we don’t talk about such things. Our lives today are fast, transitory; as I tried to suggest in my Introduction, we never really get to know a place now like we perhaps had to in the past. I’m old enough to recall that when I was a kid most of our family lived right next to each other, a street or so away, maybe a mile or two, and often in the same house. I grew up in extended family homes where more than one generation lived cheek by jowl. And even earlier than that, it would be a matter literally of survival to know your patch inside out. I still dream that I’m walking these old roads and pathways. What’s that about do you think? I don’t think writers are special people really. Perhaps it’s just that to write well there is a need to pay attention to something, somewhere, somebody. Perhaps that’s the landscape you speak of.


In the ‘Afterword’ interesting points are made about ‘voice’ and ‘voice as place’. Can you comment on this?
I think Jan Fortune says this much better than me. But I think it feeds into the kinds of things I write about in my own chapter and which almost every other contributor touches on too – which is that as well as the dialect/mother tongue we all speak (and so often seek to lose) and which shapes us as people, a landscape has a voice. It’s where our mother tongue comes from, forged by a literal topography. It’s what gives a people their stories, dreams, memories. A place scalded by mountain streams has a different voice from one where desert winds sing out. When we inhabit a place we are marked by that voice. It never really goes away. Jim Perrin can move to the Pyrenees but his stories bear the lilt of the Mabinogion. Mark Charlton carries Newcastle in his blood. Mavis Gulliver writes herself into and out of islands on the edge of a northern hemisphere, and though they are not ‘hers’ by birth they give her a voice with which she writes…


My second Q relates to the next point you make, about, ‘landscape has a voice… with a link to our mother tongue’. I find this fascinating. It links to my belief that landscape has been created by a Creator, so although it’s autonomous it’s not a spirit in its own right, and yet it has a voice, I agree. I sense I’m getting into deep water here! Not quite sure where to go next.

Perhaps you’re talking about how voice can’t be fully divorced from a kind of spirituality. I may not share your faith Jenny but I’d like to think I grasp something of how a place has its own energy, its own ‘feel’ and that in turn gives it its voice. I don’t know. Does that make sense, or go some way towards chiming with what you’re expressing here?


I did have an experience once about language. I was 18 and in a lecture on Anglo-Saxon. The lecturer suddenly began talking to us, or reading something out in a foreign language. After a few moments I felt as if I half-understood it, as if it were just below the level of my conscious grasp. Afterwards he explained he’d been speaking Anglo-Saxon, as written by Alfred the Great, I think. I felt the link though. It made me want to reach back into the far past.

I think we do have that awareness still, that it is a primeval instinctual sense whereby we are tuned still to strange voices and events – or could be if only we knew how to use the old ‘technology.’ There will have been something familiar about that tongue. Not the actual words as such, but its patterns, its cadences, the whole sound and rhythm of it, for we still hear it every day in our own languages, in our stories, in the old tales we rehash and retell. When I interviewed Jane Draycott about her reworking of the medieval Pearl poem – by the anonymous Gawain-poet whose dialect was similar to the one you speak here in the north-west midlands – she suggested that we still had some innate grasp of the aural ‘romance’ of this poem, still understood its careful metrics even though we would never say or think we did.


What gave you the idea of including the suggestions/ ideas at the end for less- experienced writers starting to write about ‘Place’?

In some ways I started with that idea. I was thinking about writing a practical writing guide, if such a thing is ever really useful, one aimed at ordinary people wanting to write rather than an accompaniment to an academic kind of course. Then I wasn’t sure if I really believe that writing can be taught. Only polished and honed and refined. I don’t know. Then other ideas crowded in.

Yet in the end I think if you’re reading a book about how writers write you probably have some interest in the process of writing too. And/or you might be inspired enough by what’s in here to want to write your own versions of place. So, bits of my thinking crept back into the end product. I suppose I also have this thing about giving back. By that I mean that no writing exists in a vacuum. It comes from so many places and influences and weaves such a vast and elaborate thread. It speaks in so many tongues to so many other voices. And so at the very least it might acknowledge the communities of readers and writers with whom it’s in constant dialogue. Sorry. Banging on here….!


There is the fascination of so many different places written about in this book. Did you expect such a variety?

No I don’t think I did, even though that was of course what I was after, a book that took us to all kinds of places and back again. In part that was down to Jan Fortune’s careful and judicious selection which I talked about earlier. This is interesting isn’t it? Perhaps because I’m fairly insular in all kinds of ways I was half-expecting others to be the same. But of course they’ve all had such varied and fascinating lives. What is a common thread though is that so many of us somehow ended by writing about a version of home, whether a past or childhood place and/or where we currently live. And from there about ‘fitting in.’ Or not. Maybe this is something that matters to writers? Or a primeval thing. Or else we should all be on the psychiatrist’s couch!


How did you come to write your first book? Indeed, what was its title?
The first one was an A level/undergraduate book about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written as I was finishing my PhD in medieval literature and after I’d left school teaching where I taught English and Drama. It was a one-off, throw-away approach to Macmillan made after one enterprising kid I taught had been selling one of the revision ‘workbooks’ I always produced to those in other classes. Macmillan kept me on file then commissioned me shortly afterwards as part of a new series they were publishing.

My first ever creative book was Ghost Songs (Cinnamon Press). I wrote most of those poems – because I just had to – while I was on research leave from the university where I was teaching (and when I was contracted to write something else entirely!).


What do you enjoy about writing?
I don’t always enjoy it. It has a certain slog to it and technical hitches stress me out. I especially hate proof stage, particularly if it’s a big academic type of book with references and difficult or slack copy editors. I think it’s more something I have to do, even if it’s only doodling lines in a note book or blogging or creating a list. I like to write things down. Though I’m pretty good now with the old smart phone voice memos and Dragon Dictate. Lines come into my head all the time. Conversations take place in my head or I’m writing something in that imaginative space even as people talk to me in ordinary conversations. I know I tune out a lot but have perfected the art of seeming to still be there! I overhear things or see something and often immediately think I need to note it, commit it to memory as it would make a great idea for a book, which I then never write of course.


What do you find difficult about writing?
Everything! Mainly getting down to it. I always have lots of ideas but I’m neither good at the discipline required, that bum on seat get on with it day to day stuff, nor at finishing as I lose interest and patience towards the end. Though I do always respond well to a deadline which is sometimes the only way to keep me on board. I’m a dreamer and prevaricator. I do lots of things in my head and always write last minute. In between times I write in fragments and phrases, increasingly the shorter the better. I also like projects to be quick. This one suited me down to the ground with a definite end point in sight and fast publication process. I just need whipping into line I think.


Have you any idea/ feel for where you’d like to go next with your writing?
Lots of things on the boil, as ever. Who knows which, if any, I will follow at any one time? Memoir: I began this then put it down but now my father has died I think I will return to that strange place. I’m currently coming to the end of what could be my third poetry collection, What Rain Taught Us, title. I have had plans for a novel about Emma Hardy for a while now. And then there’s the continued fascination with place, kind of travelogue cum reportage cum memoir bringing together my interest in creative non-fiction and medieval afterlives.


Well thanks so much for being willing to think about this, Gail. I think Meet Me There is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Congratulations!

Interview by Jenny Cooke 22nd September to 31st October 2015
More about Jenny Cooke: 

Jenny Cooke lives near Macclesfield, Cheshire, with her husband, Francis and they both love art, music and the outdoors. She is married with three grown-up children and five grandchildren. She taught children with Special Needs for many years, including her grand-daughter who has Williams Syndrome and who has now learned to read. Jenny is seriously addicted to reading herself! Writing is a way of life. She has a Diploma In Creative Writing, with Distinction, from the OU (2011).

Publications include 2001 Omnibus Edition of The Cross Behind Bars (Kingsway Publications, reprinted 2003, original book 1983, reprinted 11 times); The Fabulous Four Series of 5 children’s books edited and adapted by Jenny Cooke (Harper Collins, 2000); Light through Prison Bars (Kingsway Publications, 1995,reprinted twice); The Storm and Other Stories (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990). Jenny contributed to Gail Ashton’s Introduction, Meet Me There (Cinnamon Press, 2015), and has a regular column in Inside Poynton magazine. She was runner-up in the 2013 Poetry Competition, Inside Poynton magazine



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What every writer needs to know

catherine-czerkawskaWhy would you do it?

Is publication the aim of writing?

What happens to the money when you’re published?

What every writer needs to know.

Novelist Catherine Czerkawska guest blogs to answer these and other crucial questions about The Business of Writing


When Gail very kindly offered me a guest spot on her blog, I thought it might be useful to revisit the notion of writing as a business. I’d be the first to say that there’s nothing wrong with writing for love. One of my old agents used to say that the only good reason for writing anything was because you couldn’t bear not to write it. But even if we write for love, perhaps we should publish for money, except in very specific circumstances which I’ll discuss below.

It’s only recently that academic creative writing courses have snowballed. But there’s often one omission: an acknowledgement that somebody aspiring to a career as a novelist, poet or playwright might need a working knowledge of how to start up and run a small business. Many creative writing graduates go on to teach other people how to write, but with universities and colleges demanding more and more in the way of teaching and marking from their staff, many of them are also finding it difficult to juggle two demanding careers. Add to that the pressure to publish at all costs – and the woeful payments for academic publishing as Gail pointed out in her recent post – and it may be challenging for anyone in this situation to get a professional writing career off the ground.

A number of young writers seem to believe that there was some golden age when all of us earned a handsome living from our work. It never existed. Like now, a few people did quite well. A handful did very well. The rest of us hustled. I worked in an art gallery, then taught English as a foreign language in Finland and Poland. I wrote original radio plays, series and dramatisations of classics pretty much full time for years, while working late into the night on the novels and stories I really wanted to write. I worked on schools television. I did a bit of mainstream television work and some journalism until it all dried up. I also helped to run a pottery shop and then worked aboard the charter yacht my husband was skippering in the Canaries and wrote short stories and a novel in longhand in between visitors. Now I deal in antique textiles online when I can find the time but mainly, I get by on a mixture of traditional publishing with an excellent independent publisher, and some self publishing as well. I’d consider myself to be first and foremost a novelist.

With all the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I should have been more hard headed. For example, I wasted too much time on unpaid, speculative work for television. Much later, I realised it had been the script editor’s job to string me and a number of other writers along. That was how he earned his salary. We all do some speculative work in this industry. But to waste a couple of years on something as restrictive as television was a foolish business decision. Crazy, in fact. That time would have been much better spent on writing whatever I felt passionate about. Back then, however, just as there was nowhere to go with an unwanted television series, there was nowhere to go with a series of unwanted novels. These were not ‘unwanted’ in the sense of badly written. They were ‘nobody is interested in the paranormal’ or ‘historical fiction is finished’ kind of unwanted, just a couple of years before these genres became wildly popular all over again! Now, there would be Kindle Direct Publishing … and a 70% royalty every time somebody downloaded one of my books.

As a freelance, you have to get used to being self employed. You have to cost out your time properly. Of course when you’re writing obsessively, as most of us do, you don’t count the hours. But if you’re being asked to speak or teach, then you should be paid a fair rate, especially in situations where everybody else is being paid, such as school and college visits. You have ongoing costs such as heating, lighting and computer equipment. You have to get your head round the notion that if, as a self-employed freelance, you do a freebie that involves being away from your desk for a day or two, you are actually losing money by not writing.

You will need to know about National Insurance and pensions and when to employ an accountant. You must think about how and whether to try to find an agent. And will this hypothetical agent be less than enthusiastic about the small publishing company that might be a good fit for a writer who wants to juggle self and traditional publishing at the same time?
You need to find out about copyright law in the UK and elsewhere, about plagiarism and piracy and balancing the need to be wary with the need to be realistic. You should know about options for self publishing and exploitative vanity publishing and the difference between the two. You have to stop thinking about publication as a prize. You need to start reading the terms and conditions of competitions that ask for all rights in return for very few rewards other than the dubious pleasure of ‘being published’. This is quite different from volunteering for not-for-profit or charitable concerns. Many small magazines and blogs are labours of love by all concerned and if you want to contribute in a spirit of the same, of course you must go for it. But do it mindfully, because you want to, not gratefully because you think you should.

You need to learn about managing promotion and publicity which you’ll be expected to do to a large extent, even if you are published in the traditional way. If you don’t want to go down the self publishing route, and even if you are among the few who get the offer of a proactive agent followed by a three book deal with a major publisher, you are still going to be a self-employed sole trader. You’ve watched the Dragon’s Den. Just how much equity do you want to give away? And what will you be getting in return?

These days, ‘being a writer’ will probably involve some combination of writing for money and for love, publishing in various ways and maybe running another business on the side. It can be a difficult, demanding, precarious, fulfilling, exciting and occasionally lucrative enterprise. But it will still be a business.

Finally, in the UK, the Society of Authors, ( the professional organisation for writers of all kinds, is invaluable in giving contract and other advice and will tell members all they need to know about whether the terms being offered are fair. You will pay an annual subscription, but the professional advice you receive will be beyond price.

Catherine Czerkawska

Look out for Catherine’s latest novel The Physic Garden (Saraband Books)



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Ten reasons why I will never be JK Rowling

This blog post has been updated after it generated comment on Facebook. Huge thanks to Catherine Czerkawska.

me on fire






A student once overheard me and my Head of Department discussing books. My HOD expressed surprise on hearing I’d had an advance for a book and congratulated me on sales so far – some 1500 copies. Later the student commented on the paltry sum I’d had upfront – less than £1,000 – and declared though the book sales figures sounded great I was hardly Alanis Morissette, was I? Later that same week my friend’s daughter struggled to grasp the concept of universities demanding their lecturers both teach AND publish books; you mean they want you to have a second job, she said. Unpaid?

There are many reasons we write; not least, for many of us it’s a compulsion as much as a joy. This piece is not about any of those reasons. It is not a complaint either, even if it might seem like it sometimes 🙂 Call it a putting the record straight. Here goes: ten reasons why I will never be JK Rowling.


I don’t have an interesting back-story or a full-on media presence. I am not young and beautiful, photogenic.  I don’t win the big ones, Man Booker or whatever. I’m not a man! I’m not fresh from a CW MA, or well-connected; sometimes I’m not connected at all and bits of me don’t join up (but that’s another story).

What I am is  mid-list, middle-aged, fair to middling, experienced. I write. I teach. I think I do both well: I get book contracts, reviews and a following (of sorts). My workshops gather praise and get a high footfall, all those at Cinnamon Press’s birthday bash in Northampton last weekend for instance (cheers!). I successfully mentor other writers.

Do I earn much from this? I’m an ordinary writer. Do I heck!


Everyone thinks we do it for the money. That with the price of books and those hundred grand book deals we read about in the papers we’re rolling in it. That we get film and Tv spin-offs. That we even get the full price of the book.

I have news. We do it for the luuurrrve, baby.


Most writers I know earn their bread and butter from teaching in universities or on some of the better known courses such as Arvon, Guardian or Faber Masterclasses. They have day jobs or,as I do, rely on family and loved ones to feed and clothe them.

Our royalties fall year on year. More of us download ebooks or don’t read at all. We buy direct from Amazon: news flash. Every time we do that rather than go direct to the author or their publisher, the writer usually receives a lower royalty, depending on their publisher and the kind of deal they’ve done with Amazon. The lovely Cinnamon Press pay the same rate regardless of where books are sold. My ‘big’ academic publishers generally do not. And one publisher I was with used to pay nothing. That’s right. Zilch. Nada. Zero.

Ebooks should give us an appropriate share of the cash. Sharon Blackie and Catherine  Czerkawska kindly pointed out that an ebook royalty rate of 25% plus is common. Unless like me you’re also publish academic books where sadly publishers often pay out only in single figures. Thanks to this advice I shall be renegotiating in future, as should all of us.

When we do get royalties, that’s anywhere between 4 and 7 per cent of the PROFIT on a book. Not the asking price (nowhere near). What’s left after everyone else takes a cut. It will take 6-12 months after publication for a writer to start receiving any royalties – and may already have taken up to two years to write the thing in the first place. When most publishers pay out these royalties, they do not pay out until the sum exceeds £50; it often takes a long time to get there  (I’d love to see this practice challenged in court!).

If you’re a poet – even a ‘name’ – we often don’t sell over 300 copies of a book. Ditto academic books. Unless you’re prepared to hustle for readings and events, get onto social media, and generally put yourself out there actively pumping up your sales the chances are you won’t sell much of anything at all.

Many of the places you blag, beg, push yourself into will ask you to work for free. Some are offended if you refuse. There’s this balance between weighing up your chances and the potential of an event – which may cancel out the freebie – and rightly expecting to be paid for a service. Would a doctor be asked to operate for nothing? Your local electrician to give a free trial house rewire?

Once, at a free public reading in Manchester Central Library, someone stole one of my books.  If they’d been in need the chances are I would have given it away. It was the taking of something after an evening’s entertainment, complementary wine and nibbles, and books on sale at half price that offended.

We all see people throng a reading, put money through the tills of the cafe or bar, and leave having bought nothing. If you’re one of them maybe next time you’ll think again.

But if you’re one of the many wonderful folk who turn out in all weathers, buy from us or our publishers, ask us to sign our work, contact us to express delight or share a thought, give us a five star review and just appreciate us, then thank you. And thank you again. Again. You’re why we write, keep on writing. You’re why we traipse to readings at the other end of the country in miserable weather with nowhere to stay. You’re the love (aaahhh big cheese).



Filed under creative writing

What you never told your best friend: how to make a writer happy

I’m British. I don’t blow my own trumpet. As a child of net-curtain twitching, aspirational working-class parents I was frequently told to stop showing off. I cringe at the thought of having my photograph taken. I die several interior deaths if I’m asked to talk about myself, promote me or my work, big myself up in some way or another, or otherwise self-promote – unless I can hide behind the anonymity of email or social media.  As my own worst enemy I hang back at conferences and events, never chat to the right kind of well-connected people (only the ones who look like I’m feeling), and on the whole think no-one would be interested in me or my work. If you’re my friend you know this about me. So why don’t you know I need a bit of a nudge in that direction and you’re the one to help?

front coverThanks to Roz Warren’s recent Mslexia article ‘Tribal Loyalty’ (Mslexia, Issue 67, Sep/Oct/Nov 2015) these are all the things I can never say to your face.

I need you to do what I can’t for fear of being a swankhead or a bighead: brag about me! To everyone and anyone – and give them precise details of how to find me and my work.

Tell everyone. Tweet about it, Facebook it, share it, like it. Retweet my tweets. Email everyone. Blog about it, or get someone who blogs to do it for you. Get on the phone and canvass for me.

Tell your library: order a copy. Ditto your local bookseller, Book Club, writing group.

Review it on Amazon and GoodReads. Star rate it.

Hustle and help to get me a slot to read, talk, workshop. Wherever. Whenever. Pull in connections.

Some of you can’t do this. But if you can afford it, buy a copy of my book and buy extra as presents too where possible. If I give you a book it’s for a reason, a thank you or to appreciate you. But you could always get another copy even if it’s at discount from me direct. Or swap a book with me if you’re a writer too; then we can review each other or guest blog on each other’s site.

Come to my launch party, just to swell the numbers and cheer me on. Arrange a party if I don’t have one; a small gathering in a pub is fine. Bring everyone you know – neighbours, colleagues, friends of friends – and some you don’t. Come on. I came with you to that Ann Summers night. Look where that got us!


PS: I have two books out this year, Meet Me There (creative non-fiction) and Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture (a reader-friendly series of chapters about how all things medieval creep into the present in all shapes and guises).

And two poetry books from Cinnamon Press, The Other Side of Glass and Ghost Songs. I’m presently working on a third collection.

And before I forget: thank you. Really,  thank you. You’re a pal.


Filed under creative writing, Meet Me There