Writing · The Scribbling Student · University

Audiobooks, Advocates and Entertainment Seekers: Helena Sheffield guest lecture retrospective

Hi folks. This last week has seen a challenging adjustment for me, as it probably has for a lot of you. However, I know from my own experience that one of the best ways to deal with uncertainty is keeping to a routine. So, despite the fact my next scheduled writer’s lunch won’t now be happening as planned, I’m going to keep the regular posts going by looking back on some guest lectures I sat in on in the latter half of 2019. The first of these took place on the 24th October, when my class was joined by Helena Sheffield

Helena works at Penguin Random House as an audiobook marketer. Though this mainly involves the business of getting the right books to the right listeners, early on in her presentation she took the time to go through the many other roles that go into making an audiobook. In some respects, these were similar to roles you’d find in production of physical books. Producers, for example, make sure that the people telling the stories are the right fit for them, advising on things like intonation. However, there are other roles that are specific to audiobooks.

A role that often goes unappreciated is that of the audio engineer. The atmosphere and technology in a recording studio are paramount to how an audiobook is received, and this is what they help tweak to the right levels.

Audiobooks were initially a very niche market, but in the last year their sales have gone up by 43%, making them the fastest growing area of publishing. Helena’s consumer research divided the people that buy these audiobooks into two main categories: advocates and entertainment seekers.

Advocates

Advocates are heavy book-buyers and readers. They engage with publishers directly on social media platforms to support this pastime, but are also looking to build stories into their lives – hence why audiobooks are a good fit for them.

Entertainment Seekers

These are a newer audience, in comparison to advocates. They don’t buy books nearly as regularly, or engage with publishers as actively. They may not even see themselves as readers – but importantly, they are likely to be involved with digital entertainment (such as Netflix, Spotify and podcasts). It’s this that drives their engagement with audiobooks: they see them not as a book, but as another form of entertainment, akin to the things they’re already listening to and watching.

So, you have these two quite different types of consumers – but how would a publishing company like Penguin market an audiobook release in a way that would interest them both?

Case study: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

To answer this question, Helena took us through the marketing campaign that Penguin Random House utilised for The Testaments, sequel to Margaret Atwood 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale. Engaging the advocate audience involved pivoting around their previous knowledge of the property; for this reason, a year and a half before the audiobook was released they contacted Elisabeth Moss, who portrayed Offred in the television series. In between filming the third series – and often in costume – she recorded the narration for the book, and alongside publications on social media and in print channels, this really drove the sales from the advocate audience.

For the entertainment seekers, though, the approach was slightly different. These were people that were more likely to have watched the Handmaid TV series without reading the book, and they wanted to do something that would promote audiobooks as something different, that would fit into their lives without being too heavily associated with the books/publishing sphere. Their idea was to set up a series of listening benches in city centres and bookshops:

The white hoods you see jutting out from the benches at head height played extracts from the audiobook, making listeners look a bit like Handmaids in the process. Furthermore, people dressed as Handmaids (like the woman centre-left in the above picture) directed members of the public towards the benches.

As a whole, the book’s marketing campaign ran from April to June 2019, with the book itself published in September. The audiobook was the fastest selling that Penguin Random House had ever produced, and the multi-faceted, disruptive and recognisable marketing campaign was certainly a factor behind that.

If I’m honest, I don’t really listen to audiobooks that often. In fact, I only started my first one about a week ago (Jennifer Malone Wright’s Keeper vs Reaper, if you were wondering). Regardless of this, Helena’s talk really broadened my view of audiobooks and their place in the publishing industry as a whole.

Oh, and another thing: if you want Helena’s own recommendation for an audiobook, try out The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, as read by Stephen Hogan. Having listened to the five minute sample, I know you won’t be disappointed.


Helena Sheffield is the Marketing & Communications Manager at Penguin Random House Audio. She also runs the Penguin Podcast, and has published a nonfiction book, The Art of Hats. You can find her on Twitter @HelenaSheffield.

The Scribbling Student · University · Writing

Writers Lunch Retrospective: Craig Jordan-Baker

Before I started at university, I didn’t know all that much about writing as a field of academic study. At school, it was often lumped into general English Literature, or put aside completely in favour of English Language.

This put me in a similar situation to the guest speaker at last week’s writer’s lunch, Craig Jordan Baker, an academic and novelist.

He started off his talk by saying that he didn’t really have aspirations for a career growing up, having told his mum that he would be “at best a poetic bum, and at worst, a bum.” This was par for the course living on a Southampton council estate, where the idea of hope just didn’t figure into life.

Though I wasn’t raised in quite the same circumstances as Craig, one thing he mentioned during this early part of his talk did resonate with me. He openly admitted to being an oddball; feeling like an outsider because of this was what made him a voracious reader. Contrary to usual reasons, he read not to escape, but to understand the contexts of himself and others.

He talked about how, in his early teens, he read various Irish authors, including W.B Yeats, Seán O’Casey and Seamus Heaney. This forced him to attempt to understand the contexts of events that were happening outside of his own experience, in what he called “a world where history happened to people”. As an autistic person, I can definitely sympathise with this. Social interaction has always been an enigma for me, and one of the main ways I learnt how to deal with this was through media, including books.

He approached university with much the same attitude (despite the fact that he didn’t know much of what the university experience actually entailed). With a much more personable teaching style, he was able to form a rapport with his lecturers and as such, delve further into reading and writing as a way to learn about others. This was at odds with the ambitions of others on the creative writing course, who in his opinion saw the degree as a training programme for an eventual three-book deal with a major publisher. He, on the other hand, saw it not as a pathway to a career, but to becoming like the lecturers he looked up to: happy, fulfilled people who are passionate about what they do.

Nevertheless, many people in the creative industries don’t see the courses in the same way as Craig does. He notably brought up the views of Hanif Kureishi, an author and former Writer in Residence at Kingston University who (in)famously said that creative writing courses are “a waste of time” and that only a small percentage of those taking them have talent in the field. Having come across Kureishi’s thoughts several times over the last few years and felt plainly insulted, to witness Craig address them with a precision f-strike was a glorious moment.

His reasoning was remarkably simple: we don’t judge philosophy graduates on whether they become philosophers, or history graduates on whether they become historians. Yet, creative writing students always seem to be judged by their finding paid work as a writer. This, he said, isn’t only an impossibly high standard for the vast majority to reach, but it also sets these students up to fail.

In Craig’s opinion, these courses, like other humanities courses, should be more focused on giving students the skills to analyse, critique and, crucially, be uncomfortable. Through anecdotes of morris dancing and musical instruments, Craig demonstrated that, paradoxically, situations where you’re not the best at something are often the most freeing. Having experienced this first-hand over the last three years (both inside and outside of class), I couldn’t agree more.

After discussing his background, Craig moved on to talk about his upcoming novel, The Nacullians. A non-linear family saga, the novel focuses particularly on the city that the titular family live in, and how people relate to those places, wherever they are. The term ‘psychogeography’ was not one I’d heard of before the lecture, but this method of analysing how behaviour is impacted by someone’s geographical location, but it was a big passion for Craig and was thematically crucial to his novel.

Between the main chapters of the novel, there are five shorter interludes, based around aspects of the city (like parks, water and sky) rather than the life of the family. The family themselves are not aware of it, but as Craig pointed out, most of us rarely are.

It was a reading of an excerpt from the novel, including one of these interludes, that led into what rounded off the session: a workshopping exercise, where we were each given a map, and asked to write our own interlude about the places on there. I only managed a few lines on my map of the South Downs National Park. However, the evocative, omnipresent way in which we were taken across the city in Craig’s reading definitely stuck with me, as did the creative opportunities opened up by such an approach. On behalf of the group, I’d like to thank him for such an engaging talk!


Craig Jordan-Baker is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Brighton. He has published fiction in journals like New Writing, Text, and Firefly Magazine, and his drama has been performed across the UK, including an adaptation of Beowulf.

The Nacullians, Baker’s debut novel, is due to be published by Epoque Press in May 2020. You can pre-order it from their online shop now.

Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigJordanBak1.

Writing

Writers Lunch Retrospective: Nathan Fidler

My ultimate career goal is to be a published author. That has remained the case throughout my three years at university- but in that time, I’ve also made more plans for exactly how I’m going to fill the inevitable gap between now and my publication. Various experiences, including the internship I did last year, drew me towards digital marketing and content creation as a job that could pay the bills whilst I continue to work on my fiction writing in my spare time.

Because of this, I was very glad to be able to sit in on a talk by poet and digital marketing professional Nathan Fidler, which involved both sides of his career.

Copywriting

His path to his current role, working as Assistant Head of Digital Marketing at Adtrak, was similar to my journey in many ways. Not only did he study a Joint Honours degree at the University (in Film and Creative Writing) but his working career also began in an ubiquitous industry: retail. One of the key messages in Nathan’s talk was that of persistence. Predictably, writing and submitting poetry for magazines meant that he had faced a lot of rejection. However, he noted that, in his initial role with Adtrak as a copywriter, his work often involved working on projects that didn’t really engage his creativity. The key to meeting the brief for clients, though, was to always approach these projects as learning opportunities. This is a philosophy that I have followed for many years now, and to hear that it would be a useful skill in the industry I want to go into was reassuring.

Something else that also made me feel this way was hearing about the surprising amount of free opportunities to upskill in crucial marketing practices, such as SEO (search engine optimisation). As I’m now less than four months away from graduating, I’ve been spending more time looking into future jobs. Though this is an exciting process, a lot of it is also disheartening – not least when I see jobs that would be perfect for me, but require more experience than I currently have. It’s the age-old conundrum: I can’t get a job without experience, but how do I get experience without having a job?

Enter Google Digital Garage. As Nathan explained, this is a service provided by the search engine, where anyone can complete modules allowing them to learn about various aspects of digital marketing. All of the courses are completely free, and for someone like me, who’s a relative newcomer, they represent a great way to boost my CV and show that I’ve got the drive to want to boost my skillset in my own time. The fact that you get a free certification at the end of most courses is a plus!

Lastly, one of the parts of Nathan’s talk that I most enjoyed was getting to learn first-hand about the projects that a copywriter works on day-to-day. I’ll take AdTrak’s work on VanVault as an example.

VanVault is a company that makes lockable boxes to prevent theft of tools from vans. Previously, their brand voice had been quite fear mongering, with the promotion of their products based on the increasing prevalence of tool theft and how their products were a consumer’s last line of defence. Seeing that taking this stance wasn’t driving the growth in sales that the company wanted, Nathan and AdTrak reworked VanVault’s brand voice – a key job in much of copywriting. Instead of focusing on the threat of tool theft, they changed the company voice so that their website and other materials instead centered around the level of security provided by VanVault’s products. That was a few years ago, and the change seems to have stuck – the slogan they created, “Always Stored, Always Secured”, is still in use of the website.

Poetry

Personally, I’m not big on poetry. I’ve written plenty before, but my aspirations lie more in prose. Despite this, I took in Nathan’s insights on submissions to poetry magazines with interest; after all, I can’t predict where my writing career will take me.

An obvious skill for being a professional writer is organisation – but sometimes it’s a little difficult to see how that works in practice. And therein lies the genius of Nathan’s Excel spreadsheet, sorted by publication and specific poem, and coloured-coded to indicate what’s been accepted, rejected or is awaiting a decision. Not only that, but it makes doubly sure that you haven’t submitted a piece of work to the same place before, and gives you a better idea of what pieces fit best with certain publications. Though this isn’t something I have an urgency to create right now, it’s definitely something I’m keeping in mind for the future.

Nathan’s talk was wider in range than its predecessors, but I gained a lot of new knowledge from it. Many thanks to him for taking time to share his experiences with us!


Apart from his work for Adtrak, Nathan has a film review blog, Fidler’s Thoughts. You can follow him on Twitter @FidlersThoughts.

The Scribbling Student · University · Writing

Writers Lunch Retrospective: Sarah Dunnakey and Kristina Adams

Since my last post in my guest lecture series, I’ve spent more time away from the blog than I would’ve liked. However, this week I’ll be catching you up on something a bit more recent; a writer’s lunch I attended.

The concept is simple: every two weeks, our class is joined by one or more people with experience in the writing industry. They share their story with us, and we have the chance to network with them. What’s more, refreshments are provided!

Sarah Dunnakey

Our first speaker was Sarah Dunnakey, a fiction author and quiz show question writer from West Yorkshire. Her first novel, The Companion, was released in 2017, and though it went on to be published by Orion, the road to this milestone was a bumpy one.

Sarah admitted that, when starting out, her issue was not a lack of ideas, but an inability to bring those ideas to completion. A desire to fix that led to her getting involved with local writing groups and competitions. Winning the latter got her a place on a weeklong Arvon course, where she was able to develop The Marzipan Husband, a story that would later be broadcast as part of BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines programme. She emphasised that all these events were linked by one thing: opportunity. Seeking opportunities, and taking advantage of them whenever they arose, was something that Sarah identified as key to her career, and that of any author who wishes to be successful.

However, she tempered this with a warning of just how much time achieving that success would take. The process of finding an agent (which is still the best route into getting traditionally published) was a long one, something which Dunnakey attributed to her work floating between genres. The Companion is set in both the present day and the 1930s; its protagonists are a twelve year-old boy and an older woman. Though the bigger publishers are always looking for new talent, they’re also looking for certainty – in other words, books that fall neatly into one genre or another. Because Sarah’s novel didn’t do this, it took her a good while for the book to be taken on. This is something I talked with her individually about, and she encouraged me to keep working on my novel, which is in a similar position, and see then what it turns into.

Furthermore, even after her book was accepted for publication, there was a further 18-month period of more edits to the novel. Though this did involve things directly related to the novel’s publication (such as cover design), structuring and pacing were also checked over again.

One thing that Sarah advised us of was to be prepared for an active role in our book’s journey to publication. Despite being a big publisher, Orion’s publicity team could only do so much to market her novel. As such, Sarah herself needed to some of the legwork as far as this was concerned – and not just through social media. Sarah was contacted to write other short stories, blogs and articles – and, in a nod to her full-time job, hosted literary quizzes. Every author has at least one unique selling point, and the key to carving out a niche in an industry where almost 200 million books were sold in the UK in 2018 is capitalising on that.

Kristina Adams

A similar thread ran through the presentation of our second speaker, University of Derby alumna Kristina Adams. Unlike Sarah, all of Kristina’s works were self-published, which comes with its own set of challenges.

One of the biggest ones is the constant need to learn. When you self-publish, you oversee every aspect of a book’s production – from the proofreading to cover design, finances to marketing. It was for this reason that Kristina took time away from writing proper, giving herself time to up her skills in SEO, advertising and algorithms – non-creative, but crucial aspects. This investment paid off – in 2019, she published five books in twelve months.

Of course, this wasn’t achieved without a few mistakes being made. Feedback is good, but early in her career Kristina took advice about her writing at the wrong times or from the wrong people. This led to some conflicting advice that served to be detrimental to her writing – and she urged us to be aware of exactly who we were consulting, and whether what they say is reoccurring often enough to be something we take onboard.

Personally though, the thing that stuck with me most from Kristina’s presentation was her reminder to practice the art of writing consistently, but not at the expense of our own well-being. As she writes in her book, Writing Myths, “Hares that don’t practice will quickly fall behind tortoises that do.”


Many thanks to both Sarah and Kristina for giving up their time to speak to us.

If you want to keep up with what either of them are doing, you can visit their websites (Sarah’s here, and Kristina’s here.)

Kristina also runs The Writer’s Cookbook, a blog on all aspects of writing.


The Scribbling Student · University · Writing

Writing, Publishing and Platforms: a guest lecture retrospective

Though writing is a solitary activity, much can be gained from meeting others in the industry. Their experiences will often differ from yours, and might leave you with some invaluable advice about areas you’re not particularly involved in.

This was something I had the opportunity to do this past Thursday, as part of one of my new modules in my third year of university. Though Portfolio Project has the usual mix of writing exercises and workshopping, one of its more unique elements is the bi-weekly series of guest lectures, where people from across writing and publishing talk about what they’ve done in their careers, and the advice they’d give to students like us.

The first of these involved crime authors Roz Watkins and Jo Jakeman. Though they both wrote in the same genre, their paths to publication differed in many ways. This was clear even as they discussed the initial stages of getting an agent; Jo did a creative writing course from Curtis Brown Creative that had involvement from literary editors and agents, while Roz took a more theoretical approach, reading books on the creative writing craft and joining a local writing group.

Both their approaches gave them good foundations to improve their network, but the two authors agreed that the best way to get your name out there was by entering writing competitions. Jo, in particular, won the 2016 Friday Night Live competition at York Festival of Writing, which led to interest from Majacq Scripts. Furthermore, competitions are valuable even if you don’t end up winning – as Roz, who was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association’s 2016 Debut Dagger award told us, these accolades all go on future cover letters to agents.

When it came to what happened after securing an agent, Jo made a significant point – despite the stories we hear of certain authors being the subject of international bidding wars, that is very rarely the case in real life. At the start, you may only get interest from one or two publishers – but regardless, we were cautioned on jumping at the first offer. Jo had originally been contacted by an ebook publisher, but knew her vision for Sticks And Stones included a physical release, and so waited it out until she got an offer from Harvill Secker (an imprint of Penguin Random House) that fitted with this. Thinking about what you wanted your book to be in terms of genre and format was one of the big takeaways I got from the lecture.

By far the most informative part of the lecture was hearing Roz and Jo talk about their shared experiences of working for large, world-renowned publishers. Despite the size of the publishers themselves, and the glitzy events it can allow you access to, Jo noted that the team you work with on books is actually quite small. You only work with your editor, your publicist, etc – and if you’re lucky enough to get a multi-book deal, the publishers won’t actually give you that much guidance on exactly what to write next. Aside from maybe including the same characters (as was the case for Roz with DI Meg Dalton) you’re largely given free reign, which was stated to be both liberating and nerve wracking.

As the lecture finished, the audience was given the chance to ask their own questions. Mine centered around another intimidating aspect of being an author – promotion. I’ve already got a social media presence, but the thought of future book signings and festival appearances fills me with dread. I asked them how to develop these skills without shelling out on the media training offered by publishers. The answer I got wasn’t the one I was expecting; contrary to popular belief, Jo told me that tons of appearances actually isn’t integral to boosting your profile. Indeed, plenty of well-known authors don’t have any social media presence, and instead focus on smaller scale, local interactions, such as with bookshops.

Writing resources are plentiful, but there’s something about getting advice from real people, with tangible knowledge of the industry. This week’s guest lecture was a great experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I can learn from the next ones!


Roz Watkins is the author of the DI Meg Dalton crime series, which is set in The Peak District. Her first book, The Devil’s Dice, was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award, was the Times crime book of the month, and has been optioned for TV. Her second , Dead Man’s Daughter, came out in April 2019. You can follow her on Twitter @RozWatkins.

Jo Jakeman was the winner of 2016’s prestigious Friday Night Live competition at York Festival of Writing. Her debut novel Sticks and Stones was published by Harvill Secker in 2018, and later released as The Exes’ Revenge in the USA and Canada. Her second novel, Safe House, is out on October 31st. You can follow her on Twitter @JoJakemanWrites.

My Writing Process · The Scribbling Student · Writing

Characters vs Plot: Where I Get My Inspiration From

There are many things that are accepted as building blocks of good writing. Two of these are a solid plot, and well-rounded characters.

Any story worth its salt will have both of these at its centre. However, either of them can serve as inspiration for writers looking to start their next piece.

For me, it has always been the plot that has initially inspired my work. Blood Devotion’s initial inspiration came from an English teacher’s prompt way back in Year 8, involving a poet who’s also a supernatural being. Of course, the story has evolved to become much more since then, but the point still stands that it was originally started by one plot idea. Especially in the early years, a plot would always be the thing that I put together first, with the characters then built around that. I feel like this allows me to get a good overall view of how any characters would progress through a story, and allows me to think about how they might react to flashpoints (as I know beforehand when they will occur).

Plot was also the first inspiration for A Star to Steer Her By, a story I’ve talked about on here before. I’ve been a sucker for mythical creatures for as long as I can remember, mermaids especially, and when I looked more into the mythology behind sirens I found myself intrigued by the stories of how they seduced male sailors. I wondered whether the same would happen if that sailor happened to be a woman in disguise, and this hook was what led to the story’s evolution.

However, there have been instances where character has come before plot in inspiring my work. Doing things in this order is particularly useful when I’m writing fanfiction. In these instances, a key part of my process involves making sure the characters I’m writing are as true-to-life as possible. These stories are being read by people who know the media inside out, so if the characters don’t act in the way they’ve come to expect, your story will instantly turn them off.

The same is true of my original stories. Lockett travels across the world, making deals and breaking hearts, but what makes those exploits unique is his response to them. Connections is a great example of this – in contrast to my other works, that have huge casts of characters, it only focuses on two: Lockett, and the person he’s getting his drugs from, a Spanish dealer called Pello Oquendo.

Pello is older than Lockett, more experienced, and the fact that he gives as good as he gets when it comes to insults makes Lockett unsettled. The deal is done relatively quickly, partly due to Lockett feeling uncomfortable, but Pello offers to show Lockett some spots around town. Their uneasy friendship is only explored properly once the pair settle in a bar to smoke weed amongst the locals. Here, Lockett unveils his true feelings – Pello reminds him of the good, interested parents he never had. It’s through the character of Pello that the reader gets a peek behind Lockett’s egotistical veneer, and the nature of the drug business in general. As Pello himself advises, “it’s all about connections.”

As you can see, currently I don’t favour plot or character as my main source of inspiration. In my experience, getting married to either of these is worse than using both of them in tandem, switching between the two when your story calls for it. Whatever path you choose, if utilised correctly plot and character-based stories can both be valuable to you and the reader.


When you’re writing, what inspires you first – plot or character? Let me know in the comments section below!

The Scribbling Student · Writing

Divers and Diaries: What Made me Want to Be a Writer

Though they come from similar places, liking writing and writing as a career are further apart than they first seem. Every professional writer has made this jump, and in today’s post, I’m going to tell you the story of how I did it.

My writing journey can be traced back to a single moment in childhood. In a Year 2 class, we were given the task of writing a story about a superhero and their exploits saving the day. The details are fuzzy now, but I can distinctly remember that mine wore a old-timey diving suit and rescued someone from a falling bridge.

An artist’s impression of what my superhero probably looked like.

One thing that I also remember is how it felt to get a certificate for that story in a school assembly. It was the first time I’d ever been awarded for my writing, and though I’d go onto bigger things in the future, at the time it was an incredible experience, and served as validation that people actually liked my work.

That certificate might’ve given me a taste of the good stuff that was to come, but it wasn’t what made me decide to become a writer. That came a few years later, when I was in Year 6.

By that point, I’d recieved my own laptop for use in class. As my handwriting is basically illegible even now, I was given a laptop to help me with writing in class. It was on this that I completed many early pieces of fiction, including one that was written for an in-class exam.

By sheer force of will, I’ve managed to find the paper that we used on that day.

Again, I can’t exactly remember now where I said Tom and Sara went on their day out. I think it was walking somewhere, but that’s not the important part; it was what was said afterwards.

Once the exams had been marked, the class teacher Mr Harrison went through them with the group. It was then that he took the time to single out my diary entries as the best out of all of them.

That would’ve been motivation enough in itself – but even that wasn’t what left the biggest impression on me. After he had finished reading my piece, he told the class that, in the future, they should look out for a name on a book cover: T. Owen.

This endorsement came as a shock. I basked in the praise for a while, but I didn’t immediately realise what level of skill Mr Harrison was actually alluding to. It was only in the weeks afterwards, as I got involved with more and more writing projects, that I realised that Ienjoyed this far more than I’d expected to.

Maybe Sir had actually seen something in me.

By the the time I turned 11, I had decided that I wanted to achieve that dream of having my name on a book cover. My sights were set on becoming a full-time writer; I’ve been chasing it ever since.


What moment in your life did you realise you wanted to be a writer? Let me know in the comments section below!