Henley Hall Press’s first title, to be published to be published in 2022, will be On Free Thinking, a book of essays to challenge received wisdom.

The second in the pipeline is Companion Planting for Sceptics by Susanne Lumsden. ‘Companion planting has been a passion of mine for many years, since the time when growing marigolds hinted at an invading army of garden gnomes.  I’ll explore this topic in a fact-based way. While I’m an enthusiastic practitioner, I’m a sceptical one.’

Other books in the pipeline:

On 8 January 2021, maverick genius Elon Musk tweeted for critical feedback on how to spend his fortune. (He is now officially the richest man in the world, with a record-breaking $188.5bn as of 7 January 2021.)

Btw, critical feedback is always super appreciated, as well as ways to donate money that really make a difference (way harder than it seems)

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 8, 2021

While we all might argue that a holiday at the Montpelier Plantation Inn would make a difference to us, perhaps that’s not what Elon Musk had in mind.

So what would fulfil the Musk criteria?

The key is his aside that making a difference through money is ‘way harder than it seems’.

My late husband, Charles, would have argued that Foreign Aid was an example of just that. Or, as he paraphrased it, a case of poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries.

Here’s my first suggestion, based on Elon Musk’s reputation as a freethinker.

Now that free speech is increasingly under attack in the liberal West, why not support Toby Young’s Free Speech Union (www.freespeechunion.org).

I am sure that gold membership would be thrown in for free.

Image credit

Here’s another idea.

St Michael’s Church in Brimfield, Herefordshire, a listed building dating from 1100 (with many rebuilds and restorations over the centuries), is fundraising for £10,000 for repairs.

But just to take a belt & braces approach in case £10,000 is below Elon Musk’s radar.

In the past I have been guilty of giving authors free advice (my tips go beyond directing everyone to  the W&AY or telling them to acquire an agent!).

My resolution is that from now on, once I’ve posted a note of helpful books and organisations, I’ll only answer questions in return for a donation to the church.

Brimfield PCC
Sort Code: 20-53-22
Account No: 50641618
Bank: Barclays

Ask away!

When I started out in publishing, newspapers devoted real space to book reviews, publishers took their A-list authors out to lunch at The Ivy, and social media was considered a daring new invention.

The closest thing to a ‘woke’ debate was the use of ‘he’ vs ‘she’ vs ‘they’.

Commissioning editors were free to choose books. Yes, you needed ‘buy-in’ at acquisition meetings, but from heads of sales, rights and marketing, not from junior assistants.

It would have been something of a Bateman moment to have had juniors refuse to work on books. You took the rough with the smooth, authors with halitosis along with those who brought doughnuts for the publicity department.

Had anyone predicted that Richard Dawkins would be no-platformed by a university (Trinity College Dublin), I would have snorted with derision.

We’ve since seen a complete turnaround.

Public debate has taken a whole new direction. Social media sites facilitate the instant spread of speech. But as the user base has grown, so has its power. A good servant maybe, but a bad master.

When JK Rowling was vilified on Twitter for her comment about ‘people who menstruate’ being, in fact, women, her publishers, Hachette, stood up to employees who objected to being asked to work on her new book, The Ickabog.

She also received celebrity support, The Sunday Times reporting that:

The actress Frances Barber and the playwright Tom Stoppard are two of the 58 signatories to a letter which says that JK Rowling is a victim of ‘an insidious, authoritarian and misogynistic trend in social media’.

I admire the signatories for putting their heads above the parapet to face the Twitter mob, and Hachette for standing up to staff. ‘Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of publishing,’ they said, with unintended irony given that the same group cancelled plans to publish Woody Allen’s memoir after protests.

Unfortunately, not all authors receive the support that Rowling did.

Gillian Philips, a longstanding HarperCollins author, was dropped overnight for backing Rowling through the hashtag #IStandWithJKRowling.

This is just one example of the thuglike movement whose self-appointed witchfinders stifle debate.

Political commentator Douglas Murray is perhaps not entirely tongue-in-cheek in yearning for ‘good old-fashioned publishing vices’:

What we would all benefit from is a return of some good old-fashioned vices including studied indifference and high-handed dismissal. If somebody at a junior level says they feel unsafe because something will be published with which they disagree, the CEO should say: ‘Well, I think our company is unsafe with someone so dim in our employ. Your veto does not work here. Bog off.’

If the corporate giants won’t stand up for authors against this new McCarthyism and organisations such as PEN are selective in whose rights of free speech they support, it’s up to the independents.

To quote my latter-day hero, Piers Morgan, on the Rowling debate:

When I go into a bookshop, I expect to be confronted by all sorts of books containing views I don’t agree with, by authors I personally despise. We live in a democracy, not a woke totalitarian state.

Where publishers such as HarperCollins are wrong is in thinking that by sacking or cancelling an author, the problem will go away. It won’t.

Similarly, universities have safe spaces, and Twitter now allows its users to ‘mute’ Tweets ‘that contain particular words, phrases, usernames, emojis, or hashtags’. But the more we’re protected from opposing views, and dissent is dismissed with slogans such as ‘hate speech’, the less resilient we become.

With offence now legally in the eye of the beholder, the annexation of books, programmes, performances and, indeed, jokes will continue.

From Fawlty Towers to Animal Farm to Little Britain, popular culture has been edited to avoid offence. And no doubt Shakespeare’s plays will soon either be bowdlerised or include prominent warning signs – along with the Bible.

Even where books fight their way through censorship, they can be denied the oxygen of publicity by the escalating no-platforming.

Objecting to the practice, as long ago as 2014, journalist Sarah Ditum wrote in the New Statesman:

No platform now uses the pretext of opposing hate speech to justify outrageously dehumanising language, and sets up an ideal of ‘safe spaces’ within which certain individuals can be harassed. A tool that was once intended to protect democracy from undemocratic movements has become a weapon used by the undemocratic against democracy.

When it’s not just the Rod Liddles of this world who are targeted, but authors as wide-ranging as Germaine Greer, the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore and Brett Easton Ellis, to name but a few, publishers should heed the warnings.

As Murray said: ‘Free speech is like oxygen – you only notice it when it’s starting to run out.’

And as François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire) almost said: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Publishers who turn a blind eye to the no-platforming of authors such as Woody Allen, or who argue that it’s okay to be anti-Jewish because of Zionist policies, are on a slippery slope. Even Robespierre found himself in line for the chop by the end.

And now thrown into the mix we have the Scottish Hate Crime Bill. With vague definitions such as ‘stirring up hatred’, the amended bill could have serious implications on freedom of speech. Could such a bill lead to authors like J.K. Rowling facing jail time or other legal sanction for comments on public platforms?

And the initial Metropolitan Police decision to interview podcaster Darren Grimes (subsequently dropped pending a review of the ‘proportionality’ of the investigation) on suspicion of stirring up racial hatred for his interview with historian David Starkey raises similar questions. As Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, puts it:

In a free and democratic society, it is paramount that journalists and broadcasters are permitted to interview a wide range of people, including those likely to make controversial remarks.

Threatening them with arrest if their interviewees say something offensive will have a chilling effect on free speech, which is the lifeblood of democracy.

But perhaps the real danger is the more subtle one of self-censorship.

In George Orwell’s words: ‘The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.’

The difference between our private thoughts and public utterances grows wider. Orwell again:

To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

While I applaud the work of organisations such as Academics for Academic Freedom  and the Free Speech Union, our goal should be to make their work redundant.

That is where publishers, agents, authors and their regulating bodies come in.

And where I hope, in a small way, to play my part.

The internet has revolutionized the world. We can now access a wealth of information in just a few clicks of our smartphone. However, combined with social media, it has also created a culture of instant gratification.

What does this mean for websites?

First, load speed is crucial. Research shows that 47% of users will leave a site if it takes longer than two seconds to load.

Google is said to aim for under half a second. Test out your site using Google PageSpeed Insights.

But a site’s ‘usability’ is much more than just load speed.

What is readability?

The idea of website readability began in the late 1990s when Jakob Nielsen – ‘the king of usability’ – conducted the first in-depth study on how users engage with websites. His article, How Users Read on the Web, revealed that users do not read but instead scan pages for select words and sentences.

Of course, this study is now over 20 years old, and consumer habits have changed. As a society, we are far more used to computers, while the rise of smartphones and responsive design has changed how we interact with websites.

How people read web content

Nielsen continued his research into eye tracking, and a 2006 study utilizing heatmaps revealed that users tend to scan websites in an F-shaped pattern. This means they do not read linearly as they would normally but instead read across the initial paragraphs before scanning down vertically and then across again. In the heatmap image below, the areas shown in red are those the eye is first drawn to, with orange and yellow next, while blue signifies text that might never register.

The implication for website developers is that they need to adapt a page’s layout to take advantage of hotspots, rather than presenting text as though for print.

Websites also need to use a different writing style, adopting a shorter and punchier format that sees headings and bulleted lists alongside bite-sized paragraphs.

Building on this report, in 2008 Nielsen found that people tend to read just 28% of the words on a page! A global study in 2019 found that these patterns were similar regardless of language or culture.

However, recent reports have shown that user reading habits are evolving further due to the rise of comparison tables and zigzag layouts. In addition to the F-pattern, gaze patterns might include a lawn-mower pattern, where users read along left to right before dropping down a row and reading from right to left and so on.

And the rise of search engines and search results has led to the pinball pattern of reading, which sees users scan the page in a nonlinear fashion, bouncing around from paragraph to paragraph.

Final thoughts

We are going to become an increasingly digital society, with website visitors more impatient and task orientated. It’s necessary to plan for short attention spans by providing succinct information in the right position on the page.

Understanding how users engage with your brand is crucial and can help you stand out from the crowd. If you want to discover how readable your website is, look at the archived articles from Jakob Nielsen and the team at Nielsen Norman Group here.

In a nutshell…

People tend to scan rather than read online. Plan your content with this in mind and present information with a clearly thought-out hierarchy

To draw the eye’s attention, use:

And don’t forget to keep your text concise – aim for about half the word count as for printed text, using shorter sentences and plain English.

Finally, use ‘front-loaded ‘sentences (where the important information is placed upfront). A discursive style may be more elegant but is redundant if the user never reaches the main points.

Further Reading

How People Read Online: New and Old Findings

The Plain English Campaign: Tips for Clear Websites

Does size matter when it comes to choosing a publisher?
Most authors have heard about the pros and cons of big publishers versus smaller ones – larger publishers generally have more money to spend while smaller publishers are thought to take more care of the books on their lists, especially with regards to editing.

Is this really the case?
Over the years I’ve worked for a conglomerate (the Penguin Group), medium independents (Harrap and Faber), and a few small publishers, including my own. In my experience, this polarisation does not hold up. Yes, large publishers have more money to splash around but that’s no guarantee your book will receive a greater promotional spend. Similarly, working with a smaller publisher does not necessarily mean authors receive more attention or higher standards of editing.

Let’s start with editing…
A small publisher once commissioned me to market a book called Modern Life is Rubbish! My brief was to select enticing snippets from the book to spice up the press release. An uphill task.

I assumed that I had been given an unedited draft by mistake. When I later joked to the publisher about ‘life being too short to read beyond the first paragraph’, there was a stony silence before he replied: ‘I spent all weekend editing it’. Shortly afterwards, perhaps understandably, my marketing services were no longer required.

Clearly, the publisher and I had a very different understanding of the meaning of the word ‘editing’.

In my early days in publishing as an editorial assistant at the Penguin Group, I received a robust grounding in the successive editorial stages ­– structural/developmental editing, line-editing and copy-editing – deemed by Penguin as essential for producing a good book.

For the publisher of Modern Life is Rubbish!, however, editing appears to have meant typesetting and proofreading – processes at the final stages of book production. No wonder I thought I had been given the original manuscript!

Another issue with regards to editing is expense. Freelance editors can charge more than £40 an hour, which many small publishers can’t afford, especially when the hours start to mount up – a decent editing job takes time.

The moral is, don’t take professional editing as a given. Instead, ask about the editorial process. In my view, a book needs at least two editorial stages (excluding proof-reading). First, the stringent process of structural- and line-editing, and only after this, the final copy-edit.

Does working with a large publisher guarantee a big promotional spend?
Well, no.

While it’s true that bigger publishing houses work on a much larger scale than smaller ones, the really big marketing spends – such as in-store promotions – are limited to a few books.

It’s a sad fact that book sales are as much a function of visibility as of merit. The cost of creating a bestseller through the sort of front-of-store displays you see in WH Smith, for example, are eye-wateringly expensive. Ditto Amazon’s online equivalent – I once had to sign a confidentiality agreement just to be shown their Christmas promotion prices!

A book’s sales expectations are set at the publisher’s commissioning meeting, when the costing is circulated among the sales and publicity departments.  Authors do not attend these meetings. Whereas publicists tend to be more upbeat, sales look at the worst-case – or realistic – scenario, depending on your point of view. Ultimately, the promotional spend for your book will be proportionate to its sales estimates.

This may sound harsh but it’s simple economic reality. The main problem is the lack of transparency and the fact that some editors try to shield their authors from dispiriting sales projections.

The moral of this tale is to make sure you know the score from the start. Otherwise, you’ll be imagining jolly lunches at The Ivy only to discover you’re in Costa Coffee territory.

What’s the story with self-publishing?
As self-publishers don’t have traditional routes to market, they’ve had to work extra hard to develop their own paths. And many of them are doing it rather well, thanks to an increasing number of online forums, blogs and organisations offering how-to knowledge on everything from DIY video making to the best software for formatting ebooks. The result is a burgeoning market, with promotions on a shoestring showing a particular wealth of creativity.

In a nutshell…

In another post I’ll be discussing the questions I wish I’d asked as a first-time author.