Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Letters to the Editor

I had a letter published in the Daily Mail yesterday. (Yes, I admit it, I'm a Daily Mail reader - I know, I know!!). It wasn't anything earth-shattering: it was just in response to an article in there last week about the re-publication of the 'I-Spy books' so popular with those of us who were children in the 1950s and 60s. The article only told half the story; the original books were issued in conjunction with the old News Chronicle, and were part of the culture of the 'I-Spy Tribe' - the kids who joined were called Redskins and earned feathers for their headbands by completing the books. Simple pleasures, eh! I found an old black & white photo I took of my friends from primary school when we were all members of a Redskin patrol - holding a pow-wow in my back garden - and sent it to the editor with a brief letter about it all. I didn't really expect it to be published, especially as it finally appeared (with the photo) almost a week after the original article, with my reference to it edited out so it seemed a bit 'appropos of nothing'!

I don't write to newspapers very often, but strangely enough, only the day after I'd sent that letter, I was being urged by other writers, on Facebook and internet forums, to write (again to the Daily Mail) in response to a reader whose letter appeared in the 'Debate' section of the letters page. He'd written in defence of self-publishing, which was fair enough - I've nothing against it, and who knows, might well end up doing it myself one day! - but he took the opportunity to have a sour-grapes-type dig at mainstream publishers, declaring that a lot of books published by them are rubbish and used an expression along the lines of 'formula type books like chick-lit'.

My books are often referred to as chick-lit; my editor doesn't agree; I don't know, I don't really care what anyone calls them as long as they enjoy them! And - well, what a stupid comment. If there's a 'formula' for writing them, I wish someone would tell me what it is! We all know that getting a book accepted by a mainstream publisher these days is incredibly difficult, no matter what genre. I decided NOT to retaliate to that reader's letter; it was ill-informed and best ignored ... if we'd all rushed to defend ourselves I think we'd have looked hysterical and 'protesting too much'.

But you know what? I actually started off my writing career at the age of nine-and-a-half, with a letter to the editor of 'Essex Countryside' magazine. It was in response to another reader's letter about a bird he'd seen in the fields, which he couldn't identify. My Dad (who taught me all I knew, back then, but have sadly mostly forgotten since, about nature in general and birds in particular), suggested I looked through his bird book and tried to identify it from this guy's description. Whether my diagnosis was right or not, I decided I'd write up and give him the benefit of my nine-and-a-half-year-old's wisdom. I was overjoyed that the letter was published, and decided there and then that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. In fact I did nothing of the sort, but that's another story!

Since then, I've only occasionally felt moved to send a 'reader's letter'. A previous one published in the Mail (several years ago) was in response to someone who'd written that 'mature people' shouldn't wear trainers, have holiday romances or eat microwave meals (amongst other things!). Isn't it amazing how some people think they can decide what other people should do! And a letter to one of our local papers about my hospital's no-smoking policy was given almost a full page and a huge headline ... they obviously didn't have much news that week!).

I know writers who have really got their career off the ground by writing letters to newspapers and magazines. It's a good way to get writing, and publishing, experience - and some magazines pay for readers' letters so it can pay off, in more ways than one. I certainly look for names I recognise in the letters pages of writing magazines, for instance - so it does get your name 'out there', too. But if you get embroiled in serious issues, I think you need to be prepared for retaliation. And with some people, like the writer of the 'mainstream publishing is crap' letter, it's just not worth the aggravation!


  1. I came here from Jane's blog.

    50s and 60s - good heavens! I was born in the 70s and adored I Spy :)

    It's interesting how people don't seem to be able to put their point of view without attacking others! I am a huge advocate of self-publishng, and love it as a way of doing things, but the only article I've ever written fully on self-publishing was one about when not to do it.

    You raise a very very important point. A lot of people write to letters' pages, comment on forums, and on blogs, in order to raise their visibility, to get noticed by the people they want to buy/publish/anything else their book. What many fail to realise is that no matter how right or wrong their point, if they put it in such a way as to suggest they are a total plank, then no one will want to work with them - no matter the quality of their work. Much better to use writers' sites and book blogs/forums as a place to meet other people who love books!

  2. Hi Dan - good to see you here. I agree completely - and also with the points you made on Jane's blog. I also worked at a day-job right up till my sixth novel was published, (and trust me, I didn't give up the day-job because I could afford to live off my writing earnings!) - and yes, my writing was slotted into evenings and weekends, and despite being with a mainstream publisher my advances didn't change my lifestyle one bit! I can totally understand your reasons for self-publishing and as I've said, I could well take the same path one day. The main thing is that we respect each other's views and don't get into 'dissing' the work of those who have made a different choice. It's sad when anyone does that, because I've found most other writers, from beginners to the mega-successful, to be fantastically supportive regardless of what they write, or where they're published.

  3. I used to love the I-spy books too, Olivia! And well done on getting your letter published in the daily mail. (I read the Daily Mail too and I'm proud of it - although I only have it on Sunday now.) I started out writing letters and I still do write them tp the newspapers and mags now. It's such a great way to get published - yes, it's onlt a small thing but you can win some great stuff. So far I've had three posh pens, one moleskine notebook, a night in a posh hotel, tow lots of £25 and a £50 Amazon voucher! It's such a lift to the self confidence.

    Julie xx

  4. I read your letter, Olivia, and wondered if it could be the same Sheila Norton. I actually enjoy the Daily Mail, apart from the editorial content and the "We're all going to die" headlines. They have a good book review section on Fridays and some very funny columnists.

  5. Yes Julie - I was actually thinking of you when I mentioned people getting publishing experience (and getting paid!) by writing letters! You have a brilliant track record there! xx

    And Kath, it's nice to know someone saw the letter! I like the D.Mail too - I just take everything in it with a pinch of salt! I don't usually read the paper till the evening and don't want to spend hours perusing a serious journal ... the Mail is easy to read and I also (being ex-NHS!) like the health pages.

  6. I wondered why you called me young - it was because I came in on the tail end of I-Spy, of course!

  7. Yep - that, combined with the fact that I have three children who were born in the 70s -and if I stop thinking of them as 'young', I start thinking of myself as 'old'! Noooooo!!!

    BTW, my daughters enjoyed the I-Spy books too. But sadly they didn't get the opportunity to join the I-Spy Tribe and become Redskins!