Writers and Writing





Extract from the novel – FEAR.

“Pearl, phone call.”

Her dad’s voice carried from the small wooden farmhouse to the water-melon field where she was cutting melons. She put down her knife and hurried to the house; her dad was holding the telephone on the end of its extension lead.

“Pearl here.”

She took half a blue towel from her belt and ran it across the back of her neck. Cutting melons in the heat of a fine Hawaiian day was hot work.

“What you mean to say is – Dr Pearl Fujiaka, medical doctor, with, in addition, a thesis on Jumping Genes.”

For a moment she could not place the voice, and stared into the distance at the bony figure of Jim Skinner, their only hired hand. Jim was backing up the trailer to load the melons. She would take them the following morning to the Hilo Farmer’s Market. Then it came to her.

“Professor Hounsley! What a lovely surprise.”

“Haven’t heard from my star pupil for quite a while now!”

“Well, you know how it goes, Dr Hounsley – busy, busy. And thanks again for all of that mentoring during your time in Oahu. Without you pushing me around I’d still be floundering about with that genetic project.”

“Pearl Fujiaka – floundering! Never. Stubborn as they come, I’ll give you that, but as bright as a morning over the Big Island.”

“Come on, Dr Hounsley, I wasn’t that stubborn.” She heard him laugh in his familiar chortling way.

“We’ll let it pass, Pearl, we’ll let it pass. I called to catch up on how you’re doing. Now that you’re a qualified doctor, have you taken up a post yet?”

“Not yet, Professor Hounsley. Since mum died I thought I’d stay for some time around the farm, for dad’s sake. Not that he wants pity. You know dad.”

“Pearl, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know about your mother. On the two occasions I met her she struck me as a strong lady.”

“You mean stubborn.”

“All right then, stubborn – like her daughter.” There was a pause then he said; “But things need to move on, Pearl. Your parents, both of them, sacrificed a lot to put you through Med School. The way to pay them back is to practice what you’ve studied. That job in Boston will come on stream in five months. I want you there.”

“I haven’t forgotten, Professor Hounsley, and thanks. Boston sounds exciting.”

“But that’s not what I’m calling about. Something has come up at CDC in Georgia. They’re sending a team to China. Something odd over there. Gender balance is now the rage in Atlanta. They need a lady doctor on the team. I talked to Ed Mackinteer. We go way back. I said I knew the very person. If you’re prepared to go to China, Pearl, it would fit in nicely. A bit over four months. Then the Boston job would be in the frame. What do you say?”

A long pause, then:

“I don’t know. China! Never been there. What would the job entail?”

“Something strange is going on in a river in the northeast. Something is killing people in a bizarre way. Don’t know more than that. The real work will be done by epidemiologists. I’d take the job, Pearl. A step up the ladder.”

She knew he was right. These last few months working on the farm weren’t just for her dad. She had needed that space to get over her mum’s death, too. Three months on the farm was enough. Hounsley was right. It was time to shake out of it: to move on. This China thing – would she be up to it?

Then Hounsley’s voice  came again:

“Two weeks training in Georgia, then China. Can I tell Mackinteer it’s a yes?”

She felt the heavy persuasion in his tone.

“Dr Hounsley, you’re still a big cuddly bear,” she said and laughed. He had been her mentor while doing her post-graduate studies under his stern direction as Visiting Professor to the Islands.

“Cuddly Bear, my ass! I heard it was Growly Bear.”

“So you knew?”

“You got it in one.” They both laughed. “So it’s a yes, Pearl?”

“It’s a yes, Dr Hounsley – I think. And thanks.”

When she put down the telephone she sat on the veranda steps and looked beyond the clump of red jade vine to Hilo Bay. In the distance two outrigger canoes were fast moving through the emerald-green water. Then the full force of what she had agreed to slammed home. Would she be up to it at all? She wondered did all newly minted medics have the same doubts when confronting their first real job? She had scant experience in water-borne infections. Indeed she had damn all real experience as a practicing doctor. She was comfortable with research, thanks to Dr Hounsley, but when it came to anything else! She should have told him she’d think about it. Now it was too late.

Her father came out of the house with a plate of diced pineapples and sat down beside her.

“That was Dr Hounsley,” he said. “I recognized the voice.”

She took a piece of pineapple. There was silence between them. She knew by the way he didn’t look at her that he knew she’d be leaving the island. He was second generation Japanese. Her mother had been born in Montana. Her dad, as was his nature, didn’t speak much, letting the silence carry meaning. Finally he said:


“Atlanta for two weeks. Then China. After that, the Boston Job. Three more days cutting melons,


“Skinner will do that. Tomorrow we’ll go visit your mother’s grave.”

They sat for a long time on the veranda, with the slopes of the enormous Mauna Loa volcano rising up behind them. A whiff of acrid smoke. Peli was by her cauldron brewing up a fresh lave lake. Then her father said:

“Wherever you travel, Pearl, remember your mother – and perhaps now and again, a little thought for your dad, too.” He did not look at her; his eyes set in the distance.

“Dad.” She squeezed his arm. “Dad.” It was all she could say.





It is common to talk of nature as though it is set aside from us, as something other than what we are. When we walk into a woodland we bring our presence with us. The woodland immediately undergoes a change by our being there. Birdsongs – Jays’, magpies’ and blackbirds’ – warn all of what has come among them. Other birds go silent and flit away. Animals, too, move back. What had, but a moment before, been an ‘atmosphere’ of woodland without humans is changed by our presence. Myriad things become more alert. Our intrusion is a felt thing that slips off through the trees.

Different forests display different comportments. Some are open and inviting, others are enfolded and enclosed. Those that are truly inviting are inspirational, like an open birch wood in springtime: a place of white bark trees and fresh green canopy, with waves following waves of bluebells pushing back into the distance, in an invitation to dance with the joy of it all. Such woodlands are more than their appearance. We take from such places an echo that there is something deeper than what we can see. If we could but sweep away what it is that hides this deeper presence from us, we would experience a birch woodland, in all its breathtaking complexity, in a way that would force us to our knees in acknowledgement of the mystery of it all.

In such a woodland everything has its place, from the century-old trees to the leaf mould on which we walk. Such a forest is not a forest of trees alone, but the breath of deer, the movement of beetles under bark, the eyes of  hawks staring down, the webbing of spiders in numbers beyond count, the loose scales falling from the wings of butterflies, the snore of owls, the listening of mice, the streams of tree-life water moving up into the tallest canopy, the silence of fine snails slipping over wet grass, the hum of midwifeing insects, too numerous even to imagine. The very soil beneath our feet adjusts from one moment to the next to the movement of iron and potash, phosphorus and manganese, and other minerals, in their ceaseless upward procession to feed the swaying clouds of leaves above our heads.

The intensity of the very breeze that flows past us is less, or more, than the day before, and will differ again tomorrow because of the thickening of trees or the thinning of the woodland by the collapse of a monarch riddle with fungi. Even the strength of sunlight or rain coming down is different from one day to the next, when one more bud leafs out or two more leaves fall. And then we perceive a little, within the limits of what we can understand about such things, that no forest is identical with what it had been but a moment before. If we had eyes to comprehend it all we would truly see all forests as existing in a fog of continuous change, nothing remaining the same: a leaf less, a caterpillar more. And we too, surrounded by all of that transfiguration, are also changed. We walk from the woodland altered; and behind us, by our temporary presence within it, the woodland too has changed.






EBooks have arrived. They are gathering in flocks at an eReader near you. But, where a change of this magnitude is offered as an alternative, a struggle with the traditional is inevitable. The wish to hold to the old, to the familiar, grates up against the new. It is not many years ago, on Friday nights, people queued on street corners to use public telephones. The few phone booths that remain have largely degenerated to drop sites for call cards. Mobile phones saw them off. Horses, too, drawing a bewildering assortment of buggies and carts, were once common. The advent of cars saw the horses off into retirement pastures. Today, the sight of a horse-drawn cart causes us to turn heads to watch it pass by.

And now books. The publishing industry is staring into a blizzard of electronic delivering systems that are forcing words from book pages and on to reader platforms. Attempting to put numbers on the scale of this change is difficult. Transparency, and easy access to information on this, is the difficulty. But, it is thought that close to half of the fiction books now read in the USA are read on eReader devices. The eBook has arrived.

The primary reason for this change, other that the obvious one of convenience, is price. EBooks are commonly half the price, or less, of their printed cousins. There is no printing, storage or distribution costs. At the touch of a button the book is on your reader platform. Publishers are in trouble. Because of this startling price differential they will not be able to compete or turn aside this ‘new way’.

Writers need also to embrace this new reality. Not only embrace it but see it for the opportunity it presents. Writing is a business. Let me say that again to all writers – what you are engaged in is a business to make money for you: a business where you are entitled, or should be, to get a fair return for what you do. Yes, you might enjoy writing and take great satisfaction from creating a wonderful story. But that does not mean that you should be paid poorly for what you do. An architect can take immense satisfaction in creating a beautiful building – but he or she will also get well paid for their efforts. Writers, even pretty good ones, fret at the low and the sporadic nature of their income; and at the difficulty of getting a mortgage when there is no consistent revenue stream in place. Unless they have a ‘real job’ the world of a writer is a tenuous one.

So, how might the possibility of eBooks improve a writer’s circumstance? There are no guarantees in this life. But the first question to ask is who is making money from books? It can commonly take several dedicated years to write a book. Now what? The writer looks for an agent. If he or she is ‘lucky’, and gets one, agents will charge 10% or 20% (sometimes 25%) of what the writer will earn from his or her book. And, if from there you get to the stage where a publisher takes on your book (and there is no guarantee of that, even with an agent on hand) you may get as little as 10% of the price of the book.

With the book now out, advertising is key to generate sales. Advertising makes potential readers aware that the book exists. Advertising is expensive, but without it your book is dead before it even gets started. If you are well known, publishers will push money into advertising your book because they know that sales will result. And, in defense of publishers here, nobody should blame them for that. It makes good business sense: the bang for the buck idea. They are in the business of making profit – and no apology. But the lack of an adequate publicity campaign for an unknown writer, or to put it another way – for most writers – does nothing to generate an income. So, of all the fingers in the pie, the least return goes to the very person who created the work in the first place. This is bizarre. It needs to change.

And change will only come about by writers taking matters into their own hands, and becoming more responsible for the outcome of what they have created. Spreadsheets and flowcharts now drive the publishing industry. Profit is the business of publishers. We should hold no illusions about that. Nor should we criticize them for it. Given the same circumstances writers would do exactly the same. Writers would therefore benefit by following this example and commit to maximizing their profit. Put the emotional baggage aside. Once the manuscript is finished it becomes no more than a product for sale like soap powder, hub caps and washing machines.

I know . . . I know, many writers only see a real physical book, that they can hold in their hands, as an achievement. I had that experience myself when Planet Dancing was published. Writers will feel that the other, an eBook, well, it’s not a ‘real’ book is it? This resistance to change drives writers back into the very system that gives them a dubious return on their work. And, remember, it is sales, and what you get to keep from such sales, that generates money for the writer.

This brings me back to the question of eBooks which can be read on various electronic platforms (Amazon; Nook; Barnes & Noble; Apple; Kobo, Overdrive; and others, as well as Tolino in Germany.) which give your work at least the potential to be read by millions across the world. Here is an interesting thing to consider; If you sell an eBook through Amazon at a price between $2.99 and $9.99 you get to keep 70% of the price. But, if you say, hey, my book is worth $14 – that’s fine. Above a price of $9.99 you get 35% of the take. But, even that is way above what you would get from a publisher selling your creation in book form. And going the eBook route you are not paying an agent 10% or 20% on the sale. EBooks give control to the writer on how their books reach the buying public, and at what price. But, it needs to be stated that it is up to the writers to generate their own publicity and to put their books into the ‘news’. With this new technology in place writers, at least now, have a choice on how best to sell their product for the best financial returns. How best to present your book for publication, as an eBook, is for another article – so keep tuned in.

Well, what do you know – I’ve just seen a horse and cart pass by!



Irish Writers and tax exemptions.


Revenue is recommending the abolition of tax exemptions for artists. One of the reasons that is stated for this is pressure from Europe because such tax considerations breached EU guidelines.

Few writers in Ireland make a living from their work. Removal of this tax consideration will make matters worse. The original idea in setting up this tax advantage was to give assistance to ‘creative’ artist: this was shamefully re-interpreted over the years to allow a ragbag of autobiographical works by many politicians and sports stars to avail of the tax break. What had been a wonderful and imaginative idea, at its inception, degenerated into farce. And now threatens the livelihood of genuine ‘creative’ artists.

So what might be done?

If the EU sees this artistic exemption to be out of line with European thinking then the Irish government will see to its removal. Yet, the government puts great emphasis on the creative talents of its people at every occasion when it speaks abroad. So, if this talent is to be encouraged what might be done when the tax exemption is no more? I can only offer a view for the benefit of writers in this. (Artists in other areas of work might wish to raise their voices in similar manner.)

One thing that the government might consider in the way of helping writers, when the tax arrangements are abolished,is to arrange through the Arts Council six NEW, and SUBSTANTIAL, creative writing competitions per year. Two of these might be for novels, one published and one unpublished, and two for short stories and the remaining two for poetry. In all of these cases the prizes should be considerable to focus the best efforts of writers, and to offer them a meaningful financial assistance for what they do.

This can be done – it simply needs government lateral thinking to make it happen. This process will get by the EU regulations on the tax issue and make again money available to genuine creative writers.

I offer this as a suggestion to all writers in Ireland to consider. I am not suggesting that this is a perfect solution, and will not help a large number of artists, but it will get by the EU concerns and get the government off the hook in that regard.

You might wish to make comment on this, whether you agree or disagree, or have a totally different idea on what approach we might take. Comments can be left on my blog or on my website – contact@pmccusker.com

We need, together,to reach a consensus on a suitable response to government on this. If we do nothing – we will have no cause to moan.



Writers & Writing – The Economics of Being a Bag-man.

An English writer who had a novel published, with scant publicity from his publisher, had a plan. He would bring copies of his book from bookshop to bookshop to generate sales. In confidence he told me of his experience.

The publisher’s wholesale price was £7.50. Because he was the author he would be allowed a discount of between 35% – 40%. They settled on 40%. This meant he could buy copies of his book for £5 (ignore the pennies). He bought several hundred copies to test out his plan, and went from bookshop to bookshop.

Some shop owners took two copies ‘to see how things would go’. Others agreed to take as high as ten copies. These were exceptional. All deals were on the understanding of ‘sale or return’. And all demanded 35% on the retail price.

The retail price was critical if the author was to make a worthwhile return. So where to set the retail price? Too high a price and ‘sale or return’ would loom large. He settled on £9.99 (say £10). Out of this the shop would take £3.50, and with the wholesale price to him of £5, this meant that for each book sold the author would get £1.50. Compared to the ‘take’ of the others it seemed little indeed.

His difficulty was compounded further when he factored in his ‘time’ spent going from shop to shop, some at considerable distance from his home. And when he considered the transport costs in making deliveries, and the cost of return journeys to pick up unsold copies – the whole adventure became questionable.

His experience? He would never go that route again. It was simply not worth it.

Was he particularly unlucky, or do others have similar tales to tell? Writers benefit from hearing about such experiences. We can learn a lot from each other, so your comments would be most welcome on this, or on any other aspect of writing.



How do you decide on the price of your eBook?

I got some queries on a shorter blog on this subject, so the following might help to flesh out this problem on pricing.

You, as the author, must decide on the price. Clearly you want to maximize your income. The price you set looms large in this ambition. So, think carefully on this question of price. Set it too high and reader resistance becomes a factor. Set it too low and there will be a feeling that it can’t be any good at that price. That is your dilemma.

Then there is the emotional run of things that you, the writer, brings into your decision. ‘Spent three good years writing this novel and it’s a damn good read. Therefore I will demand a high price’. Wonderful. All very understandable, a reaction like that. But the problem is that the buyers out there are not at all exercised by the thought that you spent three years writing the thing. All right, so the world is unfair. Nobody understands you: and you steeped in genius! The buyer is largely focusing down on price. Yes, if you are a well known writer you can expect a high price for your latest creation. But, if you are unknown, as a writer, no matter how wonderful the writing or what extraordinary epic you have produced, you need to grub down into the reality on pricing – and set your price at a lower level than an established writer can demand. If, in time, you make it into the big sale numbers, at that stage you can increase your price.

EBooks, compared to their printed cousins, are cheap to produce. Readers expect such electronic books to be cheaper. Whether you agree with this or not it is a fact. So don’t try to compare prices: an eBook is a different product.

There is one enormous benefit to eBook authors in all of this. Other that those printed books sold through outlets like Amazon, printed books are limited in reaching potential buyers by the number of shops stocking the books, and indeed by the positioning of the books on the shelves. And the shelf life of a printed book can be very short. If it is not generating sales it can quickly be withdrawn and returned to the publisher. EBooks have the potential of reaching readers across the world and they do not suffer the threat of a short shelf space.

So, you finally make the decision to go the eBook route. Great. So, what about the price?

Amazon is interesting on this question of price. If you price your book somewhere between $2.99 and $9.99 you get to keep 70% of the price. This is far more than you would ever get for a printed work. So, a low price for an eBook offers the prospect of giving you a higher return than a higher priced printed book.

Above the price of $9.99, or indeed at a price lower than $2.99, your take drops to 35%. There is little reason to go into why this is so – it is just the case. So, for best returns, on balance, it seems good sense not to drift higher on price than $9.99. As an aside, non-fiction books can expect to get higher prices as they are not so price-sensitive.

As in many aspects of life things are never straight. In this matter of pricing, some writers claim that when they set their price low that they got few sales, but that when they raised their prices more books were sold. Anyone like to explain that?

American readers appear to be more sensitive to pricing. You should consider this if you intend to aim at the USA market.

At the end of your head-rattling in trying to come up with a suitable price it still seems best to settle somewhere between $2.99 and $9.99. Midway between these prices might be a place to look at. But something else you should be aware about in this matter of price – although you may set a price that seems reasonable, Amazon, Apple and others, may set the price higher or lower on their platforms. Welcome to the mysteries of business!

In the end it is your call on a decision on pricing and I wish you all success on your decision.



eBook Publishing

How does a writer decide on the price of his or her eBook?

Now, there’s a question!  And that decision must be made by the author.

Clearly the intent is to maximize income. The price you set looms large in this ambition. So think carefully on this question of price. Set it too high and reader resistance becomes a factor. Too low and buyers may feel it can’t be much at that price – and pass. Who said life is easy!

If you are unknown, as a writer, no matter how wonderful you write, or what extraordinary epic you have produced, you need to grub down into the reality on pricing, and set your price at a lower level than established writers can demand. If, in time, you make it into the big sales numbers, then you can increase the price. And raise a glass as well.

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