Wednesday 6 November 2013

Black Swans and the Value of the Unknown – Katherine Roberts

black swan
Not that long ago,  Europeans assumed all swans were white. Until the sighting of the first black swan in 1697, when Willem de Vlamingh explored the Swan River in Western Australia, nobody other than the Australians thought a black one could ever exist. Now we know black swans do exist, and they are beautiful as you can see.

Apart from this post being a good excuse for some pretty swan pictures, I'd like to introduce you to a book a friend recommended called Black Swan. In it there's an interesting concept called an “anti-library”, which argues that the unread books in your library are more valuable to you than those you have read.

Now, I know all the history lovers out there are going to say wait a minute! Surely the more books you read, the greater your knowledge, which makes all those books you have read valuable? Books, after all, define our history.

But even if you have read all the books in the world, then what about the knowledge – the “anti-history” if you like – that has not yet been discovered, or has been lost/burned/suppressed/forgotten along the way? Isn’t this anti-knowledge just as important? In fact such undiscovered knowledge, when it comes to light, can often change what was once widely accepted as true. Once, remember, everyone believed all swans were white. Now that black is known to be just another colour of swan, the current “anti-swan” is the pink swan nobody has yet seen… which is not the same thing as saying a pink swan does not exist, of course.

Ok, before you get too excited, I’ll admit to some digital fakery here.
But what in the green river, I hear you ask, do coloured swans have to do with the History Girls?

Once upon a time (i.e. 15 years ago, when I started my professional writing career), there was no blogosphere. Authors wrote books, and – if they were lucky or talented or persistent enough – got their books published, after which the publisher did all the PR, and booksellers did the bookselling. The author had very little to do with this side of things, except for turning up to do a reading now and again. I even remember my late agent telling me that I couldn’t write an article about my first book for a magazine, in case this clashed with something my publisher was doing, such as selling an exclusive extract to a national newspaper ( my dreams).

Over the past few years, all that has changed. Authors are expected to have an online platform and be available to their readers online. Fine maybe if those readers - like the lovely reader who has made it this far through my post - come to them. But not so fine if the author seeks out potential readers and hammers on their virtual doors (just think how you feel when a pushy double-glazing salesman calls!). I think publishers can just about get away with this, especially if they are giving away freebies such as review copies of hot new titles, but authors doing their own PR need to take care not to put their foot in it - the virtual door, I mean.

white swans

Let's go back to the swans. On publication day, that exciting debut author you know nothing about and are therefore rather curious to find out about, must become known - in the process losing some of their value. Whether this value is to booksellers in the form of actual sales figures, to their fans in a less-than-airbrushed photograph showing the odd wrinkle or two, to school librarians who might be disappointed to see their hero is actually shorter than they thought and wears glasses, or to potential readers exposed to a thousand and one blog posts, tweets and Facebook pages... the author is now part of the white swan crowd, doing the same things all the other white swans are doing. And as we all know, beautiful as white swans are, only the black ones (or the pink ones?) tend to stick in people’s memories.

So - paradoxically - unless you are a celebrity of some sort or have written a best-seller the world already loves, perhaps the best way to remain valuable as an author is to stay as mysterious as possible. Retreat behind a pseudonym, write under initials, use a digitally-enhanced photo, wear sunglasses, maintain online silence, paint yourself green, whatever it takes.
green swan anyone?
Which is why this post talks about swans and contains only a tiny bit of history. Please express your horror below.


Katherine Roberts has just finished her Pendragon Legacy series published by Templar, where King Arthur's daughter sets out on a quest for something that should not exist in this world... no, not a pink swan! Watch the trailer HERE

For more details of this series and Katherine's other books visit


Sue Bursztynski said...

So, what you're saying is, stay mysterious. Don't let your readers see you? :-)

Too late, I'm afraid! And kids like to get their photo taken with their favourite authors - heck, even I had two requests for photos this morning at a massive awards event and I'm a middle-aged overweight writer most kids haven't heard of! ;-)

Laurie said...

This must strike a chord with every ageing white swan as it did with me. The enviable life of J D Salinger. Royalty cheques without any obligation to Tweet.

Katherine Roberts said...

'Black Swan' is about a lot more than simply staying mysterious. But the excitement surrounding debut novels and their (as yet) unknown authors reflects some of the ideas in the book.

Whether it is actually possible to remain mysterious as an author writing today, I'm not sure. But maybe there is a balance between seeking the limelight and doing the real writing work - which needs to be done in the shadows out of the public eye (or at least mine does!)

Celia Rees said...

Interesting post, Katherine and I like the idea. Works for Donna Tartt!

Katherine Roberts said...

Ah yes Celia, but even Donna Tartt had to do a TV interview! (which I have to admit I enjoyed watching... anyone else see that?)