21 November 2011

So no one likes pirates eh?

By Helen

What is it with publishers? I hear over and over that "no one is interested in pirate novels.”
Um. Didn’t they say that about wizards a few years ago when a certain Ms Rowling was being turned down left, right and centre?
And, er, didn’t they say that about vampires? You can’t move in a book shop now without being stabbed by fangs.

The reasoning behind this publishers’ statement? “We know there are not many people interested in pirates because there are not many pirate books being published."
If you can make sense of that way of thinking then you are a better pirate than I am.

The truth is, pirate novels are not being published because publishers keep saying this load nonsense!

You’ve only got to look at Facebook to see that there are just as many pirate people as there are vampire people. Probably more, actually, especially in the USA. A good proportion of my Facebook Friends are pirate people. Even dressed as pirates in their image photos. Now I know there are also Facebook people dressed as Harry Potter wizards and Vampires a la Twilight / Anne Rice / Dracula but by the boatload? No.

Have publishers and agents, anyone in the publishing world come to that, taken the time to look at how many Pirate Fests, Pirate Ren., Fairs, Pirate Weekends, Pirate Look-a-like events there are in the US? OK admitted most of these are along the coast, but I attended one in Salt Lake City. Quite a way from the sea.
How many “Act like a Vampire” days (nights?) are there? None as far as I am aware.
How many “Wave your wand like a Wizard” days? None, as far as I am aware.
But September the 19th is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Widely celebrated by adults more than chidren.



The UK Whitby Goth Festival which takes place during the nearest weekend to Halloween is littered with pirate people, so I am reliably informed. Goth and Pirate are, for some reason, closely intertwined. I don’t just get ghouls and ghosts and witches knocking at my door on 31st October. I get a fair smattering of pirates as well.

Pirate stuff sells. Ask any “trinket” type dealer. Pirate flags. Pirate eye patches. Pirate hats. Socks with pirate skull & crossbones. Earrings, hair bands, bags. Put a S & XB on it and it will sell. Have publishers/agents any idea of the buzz that is already going around regarding the anticipation of Jack Sparrow returning to the big screen?

When P.O.C. #1 The Curse of the Black Pearl first came out the movie even took its maker – Disney – by surprise. They were expecting a small family movie, its intention to boost interest in the Pirate Ride at Disney Land (Disney World?) That’s why Tortuga is in the movie; it is a scene from the ride. That’s why the gaol is in the movie; the dog with the keys is a character seen during the Disney ride. Before the movie, there was no Jack Sparrow anywhere on the ride.

Along came Johnny Depp. Everyone, around the world knows who Jack Sparrow is.
Depp’s classic, brilliant performance re-awakened the universal lust for fictional pirates among the adults. Especially us ladies.
We like rogue characters who are dastardly charmers. That’s why vampires took the literary world by storm. They are SEXY. That’s why vampires are popping up in nearly every genre of novel you could think of.
If only someone with a bit of savvy would realise that pirates in fiction could be an even greater lure! Jack Sparrow proved it, but publishers are somewhat like the Royal Navy and see pirates as naughty people who should not be encouraged, The stuffy upper echelons who look down on a bit of rough.
Disney totally underestimated the lure of a sexy pirate character. So is the publishing world.

Some of my readers already know this, so skip the next paragraph if you like. But for those who don't:
I fell out with my ex-agent because she wanted me to write a pirate novel for teenage boys. I refused. I wanted to write a sexy pirate novel for adults, particularly for females. The women – young, old, who loved the P.O.C. movie and who, like me, wanted more. Wanted to follow on with something to read. Wanted – craved - a pirate fix.

Beyond Frenchman’s Creek, a trilogy by US maritime author James L. Nelson and children’s/teenage stories, there was virtually nothing available. And as for pirate fantasy fiction? Forget it! There is nautical fiction by the harbour full. C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower. Alexander Kent. Patrick O’Brian. The Kydd series. But pirate fantasy?

The forums were full of “Does anyone know of a good pirate novel?”
No one did.
I was among those people asking. I could see there was a demand, so I wrote Sea Witch, a pirate-based adventure fantasy and I stuck to my guns, determined to write a pirate yarn for the market that was clamouring for them. Adults.
My ex agent said I was wrong. I will never forget her saying, scathingly, that Disney’s movie was for children, I therefore had to write my story for children.
The consequence of going against her was being somewhat brutally dumped by her and, simultaneously, by my publisher.
Like Disney she underestimated the movie. Like Disney she failed to register the adult interest. Disney, however, realised the error and movies 2 and 3 quickly came along. We’ll not go into the fact that neither of them were anywhere as good as movie 1, the point is, Disney quickly understood that their children’s movie mostly entertained the grown ups. It therefore does not need much working out that this same group of people want similar reading matter! We haven’t got it because publishers won’t publish it. Arghh!

Perhaps I was wrong to challenge my ex-agent. Maybe my instinct gut feeling was nothing more than personal stupidity. After all, no one was interested in Sea Witch. It did the rounds but I do not know if it was rejected because it was not a very good book, because ‘pirate fiction doesn’t sell’, or because no publisher was interested in a failed historical fiction author.
In hindsight I should have written it under a pseudonym. Preferably a male pseudonym. As men are not supposed to write romance, women, it seems, do not write nautical fiction. (what is it with publishers??!!)

My historical fiction was picked up in the US by Sourcebooks Inc, and I think their interest is proving to be worthwhile. They did not want Sea Witch though. For the same reason as above. At least, that is what they said.

I took advice about Sea Witch. I asked several knowledgeable people to tell me what they really thought of it, including author Elizabeth Chadwick (I know she won’t mind me mentioning her) I valued her opinion because on top of her being one of the world’s best historical fiction authors, her experience and her knowledge is vast and I knew she would be honest. If my book was pants she’d say so.
She loved it. She loved my Jesamiah. In fact, she even went as far as saying she thought Sea Witch was the best of my books. The love I put into writing it shows.

So I decided to self publish with a small independent publisher who immediately grabbed it for their embryonic, even smaller, mainstream imprint. At least they could see that there is a market for pirates!
Given my limited marketing opportunities and the smallness of my publisher my sales figures are not exactly a treasure chest of gold, but I do not have the weight of a huge publishing company behind me. My small publisher and I cannot afford to send dozens of copies of Sea Witch, or the other two in the series, Prate Code and Bring It Close to the vast army of the blog reviewers. Add to that, I have the disadvantage of my books being classified as self published in the US. They are not. I do not pay to have them published. Yes I pay a freelance editor. Yes I commissioned new covers – beyond this I do not pay a single piece of eight towards the publishing production process. But they are Print On Demand books, which is assumed to be self published. So I am struggling against that inaccuracy as well.

Another pirate book came out recently: The Pirate Devlin by Mark Keating. I’m half way through reading it. A good yarn, though of course I’m bound to say I think mine is better. (I expect Mark would say the opposite. Fair enough.) I’ve picked up on a couple of historical inaccuracies, but that’s only me being pedantic. I’ve no doubt there are inaccuracies in my books too. The point is, Mr Keating’s book is a decent pirate read. It has all the right pirate elements (although mine differs in that the Sea Witch Voyages are also part fantasy, not straight nautical fiction) I’d go as far as saying that the Pirate, Devlin, the main character, should rank among the genre of nautical fiction as proudly as any of the Kydd or Bolitho books. But then so should my Jesamiah. He would if I had the backing he deserves.

I don’t know why, I don’t keep abreast of the whys and wherefores of other people’s books, barely having enough time to keep up with my own, but for some reason the hardback version of The Pirate Devlin was published as paperback under a different title; Fight for Freedom.
Now, this is only my opinion, but I prefer the original title (and not because I didn’t read the small print on Amazon and ordered a copy of both books, only to discover they were the same. You can bet your life I’m not the only short-sighted reader.)
As an author I think it is bad enough for readers to have to cope with UK titles and US titles – and as an author I hate having to write Harold the King UK title / I Am The Chosen King US Title; The Forever Queen US Title / A Hollow Crown UK Title. The title ‘Pirate Devlin’ says what’s in the tin. ‘Fight for Freedom’ doesn’t. I’d not have bought the second because of the title (to me it says war story, to be honest) PIRATE Devlin is what caught my attention.

Which is something else that publishers have failed to realise. Dragons. Wizards. Vampires. Pirates. They are key words which attract fantasy readers like bees to honey.
I assume the reason Hodder decided to change the title was because “pirate books do not sell”?
This is a hunch, I may be wrong, but maybe Mr Keating's book didn't sell entitled as The Pirate Devlin because it was not marketed to the pirate/fantasy community but marketed into the general fiction/nautical fiction genre? Fantasy readers don’t only read fantasy you know. They like horror, and thrillers, and a bit of romance. They like rollicking good adventure!

Keating’s tag line “Sharpe at sea” (which is similar to mine: “Sharpe, Hornblower and Indiana Jones at sea) also screams that publishers have missed the point by nautical miles!

As good as Bernard Cornwell’s fiction is, Sharpe was not popular until it hit the TV screen. And what made the TV series so popular? Who rather. Sean Bean. It had nothing to do with the books, but everything to do with SEX APPEAL

Publishers. Listen Up.
 Pirates ARE Popular! Sean Bean, Johnny Depp – Pirates - they ooze sex appeal! Can’t you see that? Pirate novels with a sexy hunk of a pirate (like my Jesamiah) will sell, given the right opportunity. Target the Goth set, the vampire/wizard readers and the ladies - not the Hornblower and Patrick O'Brianites (there is very little “sex” in nautical fiction)  We want the fantasy of a romp with a womanising, sexy pirate. Savvy?

I wish I had a supportive agent behind me. I wish I had a larger publisher with the means to tap into the mass marketing machine. I wish I had the backing of more people with eagerness and enthusiasm. I wish I had the money to promote my Sea Witch books more.
I haven’t any of that, its just me and my pirate, on our own.

But most of all, I wish publishers would stop being so negative. To say Pirates don’t sell, makes pirates not sell.
Start saying “Guess what? Sexy Pirates SELL!” who knows what might happen? Wizards and Vampires have gone off the boil. Step forward that pirate….

I feel a change in the wind says I....




Blogger Jules Frusher said...
I so agree with all of the above - I think so many publishers are just so blinkered unless the word 'celebrity' comes into it somewhere. There is a huge market for well-written pirate books like yours - all it needs is the publicity to let the people out there know about them - and you're already on top of that. Just know that I will support you in any way I can on this issue :-)
Blogger Elizabeth Chadwicksaid...
I think your Jessemiah Acorne novels are brilliant Helen, and I have to say that thay knock pieces of eight out of the Keating title. I wish a publisher would wise up too!
Blogger Helen said...
Thank you, it's nice to know I have some support out there! (especially from two very lovely ladies! :-)
Blogger Jennifer said...
I am a huge Jesamiah Acorne fan and I would not even place myself in the "fantasy" reader category. Your Sea Witch series is just that good! One does not need to like fantasy to like pirates (I cannot stand reading about vampires and werewolves). Jes will win the hearts of any reader who picks up one of the books. Stay true to yourself and your writing, your passion comes through every page and I would not want that to change. I will not even go into my displeasure of US/UK titles being changed.
Blogger William Russeth said...
It is really silly that publishers do not make decisions by evaluating the quality of the story. With several pirates being women and some pretending to be men, it seems like a wonderful opportunity for a women's POV and wild adventure.
Blogger Judith Arnopp said...
Hear, hear, Helen! Publishers cant see beyond the end of their very short noses. The majority of bestsellers are only bestsellers because they are all that is on offer. Like UK television, there is no variety anymore, someone needs to take a risk! Give me a sexy pirate over a fag puffing, drink sodden private detective any day!
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Agree completely, and wish our joint publisher was larger for positive marketing. At a recent 'writers workshop' event in London. Donna Condon (Piatkus commissioning editor) said historical fiction IS making a comeback (not for kids though), so your pirate books ARE in vogue. I often wonder if these publishers EVER ask the public what they would like to read.
Blogger Under The Black Flagsaid...
So true!!!Propably the publisher living in another planet.
Blogger Helen said...
At the New Writers' Book Fayre in Nottingham this weekend (just got back) guess what ones of all my books sold first? Yes. The pirate series.
Blogger D Michelle said...
Hear Hear! Well said and everything that goes with it! Publishers have a choke-hold on what the public in general want to read. Or rather, they did have a choke-hold but that's being loosened even as we speak. Well done Helen for having the courage of your convictions to go for it! More power to your elbow, I'm certain you'll stand the industry on its head!


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