Yet more foolishness re Amazon vs Hachette …

head slap

I’ve just read something that made my jaw drop so fast it bounced off the floor and back up again.

It was this New York Times article. Apparently many celebrity writers have joined a group, Authors United, set up by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie. This is of course not ‘all’ authors, or anything like, but predominantly the great, good and famous.

I wrote recently about my dismay concerning the determination of many to see the Amazon / Hachette dispute as some simplistic, good vs. evil, black-and-white affair, in which Amazon are totally and obviously the Bad Guys while Hachette are awarded the full benefit of the doubt. The fact that it takes two sides to make a fight, and that we don’t know the full details of the dispute, does not appear to register.

This has now extended to asking the US Justice Department to investigate Amazon for illegal goings-on, monopolistically speaking, on grounds that seem distinctly uncertain.

Just to be clear, by the way, as I stated in my earlier post, I do not believe that Amazon are necessarily totally ‘in the right’ either. Jeff Bezos may very well not be in possession of a white charger, racing to the rescue of the publishing industry, nor sport a dazzling halo. I just don’t think he has horns and a pointy tail either.

Anyway … what drove me to write this post were two quotations within the NY Times article. Because it’s not just been the willingness of some to shoot off various missives of righteous indignation, sometimes in the form of stupidly expensive full-page ads – and all directed at Amazon, mysteriously failing to lob similar pleas and threats at Hachette (I mean, they’re a party to this too, right? Why can’t they back down, if this dispute is supposedly so damaging?)

No, it’s the hyperbolic, bizarre and often frankly ludicrous comments about Amazon being the spawn of Satan and the death-knell of all culture as we know it. That, if they’re not stopped, within ten years we’ll all be illiterates living in caves, grunting helplessly while Mr Bezos urinates on our camp fires. Or something.

You think I’m exaggerating? Well take a look at these two quotes in the NY Times article. First, a gem from Andrew Wylie himself:

“It’s very clear to me, and to those I represent, that what Amazon is doing is very detrimental to the publishing industry and the interests of authors,” the agent said. “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America.”

Seriously? I mean, seriously? The end of literary culture? Wow. I knew Amazon were a pretty slick operation, but who knew they had that kind of power? (Though only in America apparently? I’m sure Mr Bezos intends nothing less than the total annihilation of all culture globally, thank you very much.)

And another thing – the phrase ‘to those I represent’ is telling. We are talking about those who have done very nicely out of the current system. I can only conclude that Wylie’s definition of ‘literary culture’ is limited to his own elitist little corner of it.

The second quote is even more mind-boggling. It’s from an author called Ursula K. Le Guin. She opines as follows:

“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author … Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

I had to read that a couple of times before I could take it in. And I thought, how can an obviously talented (and presumably intelligent) author misuse words, exaggerate and mis-represent so flagrantly? For one thing, Amazon refusing to discount certain titles and not delivering them very quickly amounts to ‘censorship’? Well that’s not how my dictionary defines the word, but I guess Ms Le Guin must be using a different one.

One of the supremely ironic things about all this is that Amazon are being given such a hard time for not discounting Hachette books, when (as is at the same time generally acknowledged) they are fighting for terms that would allow them to discount more than publishers like Hachette generally want them to. You surely don’t have to agree that such discounting is necessarily always a good thing, nor believe that Amazon is doing this for purely altruistic motives, to acknowledge that the anti-Amazon case is mind-bendingly inconsistent on this point.

But back to that last quote – the more I look at it, the more I think it’s not just hysterical. It’s actually offensive. There are many millions of people who are and have been the victims of the most awful tyranny and oppression. Who’ve been lied to through propaganda and censorship, had their civil rights trampled on, and in some cases been ‘disappeared’.

To be ‘disappeared’, I always thought, meant being dragged from your home, away from your family, then tortured and murdered, just for saying the wrong thing. As opposed to, for example, suffering a possible reduction in revenue through not having your book discounted or unavailable for pre-order on Amazon. To draw a comparison between the two, even for the briefest moment, is beyond ludicrous, beyond parody. It’s insulting, and it does no good at all for the cause of authors (and I mean all authors, not just Andrew Wylie’s pals). It doesn’t do much for the cause of truth either – which is something I would hope writers care a little more about.


Is Amazon actually evil?

Jeff Bezos devil

Are you pro- or anti-Amazon? Or somewhere in between? Many people seem to be jumping to condemn them, especially now they’re in a not-so-secret dispute with the big publisher Hachette. Reading some of the increasingly lurid and extreme criticisms, I’ve felt my level of bemusement rising along with the rhetoric.

So, to get it off my chest, I wrote a piece on it a few days ago. I then had second thoughts about posting it, not because I changed my mind about the contents but rather because I’m never too sure how many people actually read longer opinion pieces like this. So if you don’t want to read it all (it’s about 1,400 words), here’s a very quick précis:

  • We don’t know the details of the Amazon-Hachette dispute, even though we can speculate.
  • So the fact that so many have jumped on the anti-Amazon bandwagon probably says more about their pre-conceived notions and/or their self-interest than anything else.
  • Much of the criticism levelled at Amazon has been extreme, hysterical, unfair, bizarre, short-sighted, hypocritical, or some combination of the above.
  • They are not a threat to the existence of books or literature – or at least, no more than the conventional publishing industry is.
  • Amazon aren’t perfect but they are generally very good at what they do.
  • They have, on balance, been a good thing for writers.
  • They are not an all-powerful monopoly, and what power they do have will not last forever.

That’s basically it. Do you agree or not? (And should I be saying ‘Amazon is ..’ or ‘Amazon are …’? Not quite sure.) Comments welcome.

And for those interested, here is the longer version …

Judging by the tidal-wave of criticism engulfing them during the past few weeks, since its dispute with the publisher Hachette first became public, you might easily conclude that there must be more than a whiff of sulphur lingering around the e-commerce giant. It certainly seems to have become highly fashionable to be anti-Amazon – a position that was increasingly popular even before the Hachette spat blew up, and has become exponentially so since.

Amazon have been accused of all sorts of things. A cynical monopoly, bent on using its dominant position to bully and control the whole publishing industry. (The fact that Amazon sells an awful lot of things that aren’t books doesn’t normally get much of a mention. Presumably TV manufacturers can look after themselves.) Attacking publishers, authors and readers. Even threatening the future of books, of literature itself. Tax dodgers. The mafia. Vladimir Putin. Darth Vader. I haven’t yet actually heard them being compared to the Infernal One, but I’m quite sure they must have been by someone, somewhere.

Here’s just one article summarising many of the criticisms levelled by Hachette authors, bookstore owners, and various industry spokesmen.

To be fair, I’ve also seen other opinion pieces that have attempted to restore some balance to the debate. See here, here, here and here for some examples. There are a number of reasons why I agree with much of what’s argued in these articles, and why I believe that the anti-Amazon frenzy is largely misplaced and bordering on the absurd. (Actually, more than bordering – it’s crossed the border, built a big house with a massive swimming pool, and taken up permanent residence.)

First, and most obviously, we don’t know the precise details of the dispute with Hachette. Too many people are assuming that it must be Amazon being greedy and unreasonable, because that fits in with an existing, widely-held narrative about them and their allegedly negative effect on the publishing world. But what if Hachette are trying it on? Or what if it’s simply a bit more complicated, less black-and-white than one of them being in the right and the other in the wrong? Things are rarely that straightforward in the business world.

Second, Hachette are not some weakling little indie. They’re a substantial multinational, one of the world’s leading publishers. Admittedly not as big as Amazon, but – crucially – be in no doubt they can hold their own in corporate guerrilla warfare. They know full well that the prevailing mood of the industry is solidly behind them, and that other major publishers will be secretly rooting for them. It’s not insignificant that it will soon be the turn of those other publishers to enter the ring with Amazon, and that the outcome of the Hachette negotiation and the precedent it sets will therefore be highly significant for them.

Also, the recent Apple saga demonstrated that the big publishers are not above collusion, and although there’s no suggestion that anything like that is happening right now, it’s clear that their interests are closely allied in this dispute. That might be another reason why Amazon doesn’t want to lose – they must know full well this isn’t a battle with Hachette alone. Also, Amazon are not the all-powerful mega-monopoly they are too often lazily portrayed to be. All those Hachette titles can be obtained from sundry other outlets, and already a number of those outlets have taken advantage of the situation by offering the affected books at a discount, including the new J. K. Rowling (sorry, Robert Galbraith). This is not a risk-free game for either side.

Third, much of the most strident criticism of Amazon has come from those with the most invested in the status quo, such as high-profile Hachette authors who have done very nicely from the conventional industry structures and business practices. Now those authors are entitled to defend their livelihoods of course. But never forget that this industry has given us inflated e-book prices, celebrity-penned ‘novels’, and Stephanie Meyer and an endless stream of Meyer wannabees. It is not necessarily the guardian of high literature, even if it’s very quick to claim that mantle at times like this.

Fourth, there’s a not-so-faint stench of hypocrisy clinging to much of the more strident down-with-Amazon rhetoric. Big publishers are suddenly earnest cheerleaders of the small bookshop, when until recently they’ve been too busy cozying up to the big chains to notice. Those same big chains have spent years trying to extract the best possible terms from publishers, yet now Amazon are vilified for doing the same thing. Big-name authors complain that Amazon have cut the discounts on their books – and yet the same company is criticised for forcing down the price of e-books, a move that will apparently destroy conventional publishing and the livelihoods of authors (and note how those two things are implicitly conflated). It’s not apparently such a big deal that publishers attempt to inflate e-book pricing while paying the same desultory royalty rates to authors. I know that publishing is a business, and a risky and (the rare Fifty Shades-like mega-hit aside) not outstandingly lucrative one at that. They have every right to fight their corner. But, please, spare us the woe-is-me, shining guardians of literature act. It doesn’t wash.

Fifth, it seems disingenuous at best to seek to blame Amazon for many of the changes that are sweeping the industry. To be sure they’ve driven much of this change, taking a key role in popularising e-books for one thing. But they invented neither the e-book nor the Internet. Electronic publishing was happening anyway. Of course, the major publishers would far rather have carried on controlling the whole thing themselves, rather than some upstart e-commerce company yanking the carpet out from under their feet.

I might also add here that the fear and loathing of Amazon misses the point that they won’t be dominant forever. The biggest players come and go. They always have and always will. Change was their making and change will one day be their undoing. It won’t be the defenders of the status quo, but another bright young upstart that works out the next big thing and does it quicker and/or better than Amazon.

Finally, I really think that Amazon has been a power for good in many ways. They have made a vast selection of competitively-priced books more easily available to everyone. They have made self-publishing easier than ever before (though they didn’t invent that either!) – and at royalty rates far higher than those offered by conventional publishers. (Not that you can directly compare them, as Amazon don’t of course provide all the value-add services of a conventional publisher. The whole topic of whether Amazon has been a generally good thing for writers or not is a complex one – but I think on balance they have.)

Crucially, their customer service is, in my experience, generally excellent and clearly superior to that offered by most other large (or even small) companies. When you deal with Amazon, they make it seem so easy you wonder why no-one else can get it right. Everyone plays lip service to this but very few other big corporations really take it seriously enough. This is no small thing – and I believe that it’s if and when Amazon stop excelling in this area that it could all start going wrong for them.

Note that none of the above seeks to paint Amazon as a paragon of virtue, an alloyed good thing in the world. They are a big corporation. They negotiate hard and take no prisoners. And sometimes they make mistakes. But they are exceptionally good at customer service, they have (for better or worse) enabled countless indie authors to realise their dream of getting their books ‘out there’, their website has made online shopping easier than ever before, and – best of all – they’ve managed to annoy a lot of people who probably deserved to be.

And they’re not actually evil.


How much do you value bookshops?


Let me tell you a true story. In 2012 my family went with some friends on holiday to Scotland. One day we were visiting a very pleasant, bustling little coastal town, popular with tourists. Strolling down the street we came across a bookshop. It was an independent, not part of a chain. I’ve always loved bookshops and find it vaguely painful to pass one without going inside – so, with the luxury of time on our hands, we did.

It turned out to be one of those TARDIS-like establishments that didn’t look very big from the outside but opened up pleasingly once inside. It was a well-stocked, attractive-looking place, and it had a decent children’s book section. Our party included a total of five kids, ranging in age from four to ten, so this was good. I’d already spotted an interesting looking tome in the shop window, our kids love to browse, so we were all set for an enjoyable experience. And the bookshop was pretty much guaranteed some sales – which, according to this recent article, was an opportunity they couldn’t have afforded to pass up too often. Or so you might think …

Before I proceed with my story, I want to pick out two quotes from the article in question. It’s about the ongoing decline in the number of independent bookshops in the UK. Specifically that means traditional, physical outlets – what in the US are usually called bricks-and-mortar stores (a phrase I find unreasonably irritating, by the way – the geeky pedant in the back of my brain keeps shouting ‘but the shops in malls are made of concrete and glass, surely? Wouldn’t physical be a better, more accurate term? – and shorter too!’ – but that’s just me).

Anyway. Here are the two quotes:

“The book trade, the government and the general public need to realise that if we don’t take action now, the future of our bookshops – and therefore the health of the publishing industry and reading itself is at risk.

“It’s great that there are so many ways now to consume literature but the independent bookshop is a crucial part of our culture and I would hate to see them disappear from our towns and cities.”

(Emphasis is mine in both cases.)

I wonder what you think of those statements. I suspect I’m far from alone in being broadly sympathetic, to the second one at least. I’ve already mentioned my affinity for bookshops. If my wife and I go shopping together, the ideal scenario is a clothes store and a bookshop in close proximity – then we’re both happy. I’ve also mentioned in a previous post how much I love the good, solid, unashamedly old-fashioned book made out of dead trees, and that I like to consume both paper and e-books simultaneously (well not absolutely simultaneously, but you know what I mean).

I do think bookshops are important, and I do try to buy actual books from actual, bricks-and-mortar physical stores on a reasonably regular basis, even when I know I could probably buy it cheaper from Amazon. But I also buy books from Amazon and I refuse to feel guilty about it.

Because I sometimes find physical bookshops to be – if I’m honest – slightly frustrating places. For the Amazon generation, accustomed to the ability to quickly find whatever you’re looking for from a vast available choice, scanning the frequently disordered and thinly-stocked shelves of the average bookshop does not strike me as being always the best use of valuable time. Unless you really are content to browse at leisure with no little or no preconceived idea of what you want to read next. Most independent bookshops are on the small side, but even the larger ones cannot realistically compete with the choice available online.

One of my favourite recent discoveries is Erin Kelly. Having read one of her novels, last year I went looking for another. This was actually her first novel, and it has been adapted for TV in the UK. I decided to try to buy it in a physical bookshop. Could I find it? Could I heck. Even the Oxford branch of Waterstones, a sizeable chain store, didn’t have more than one of her books.

Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise bookshops, especially small ones, for not having a particular book. But like I said, this was a good-selling, contemporary, mainstream title that’s recently been on TV. It’s not in the Fifty Shades of Grey League, but I would expect most general interest bookshops in the UK to stock it.

But then some bookshops don’t help their cause by wasting their precious floor space by opening cafes and selling toys instead of carrying more, well, books. Diversification seems to be the in thing, but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a good idea. In one independent store I visited last year, I couldn’t see very many books at all for all the racks of greeting cards and novelty pencils; in fact if the sign outside hadn’t said ‘bookshop’ I might not have guessed what it was. If I want a cup of coffee, I’ll go to a café. If I want stationery, I’ll go to a stationery store. Some bigger stores might have room to spare to diversify, but I suspect most really don’t.

But I could have asked a bookshop to order that Erin Kelly book, couldn’t I? Yes, I could. And in the past I’ve sometimes done that. But, to be honest, why not then just order it myself online? Surely the whole point of physical bookshops is that you can see, browse and hold the books themselves?

But what about the human touch? Good old fashioned customer service? Ah yes. That brings me nicely back to my story.

In that bookshop in Scotland, my first inkling of trouble was when I was almost knocked over by a thunder-faced woman bustling down the aisle. She did not appear happy. She looked, in a word, stressed. Now I know what you’re thinking, and let me say I’m the first to admit that my kids are not always 100% perfectly angelic. But, honestly, we’d been inside that shop roughly three minutes and the kids had been OK. Seriously. They were not screaming, running, vomiting or hitting anyone. They were chattering enthusiastically. They were picking up books (not dropping, throwing or drawing on them). They were happy to be there, and my kids being excited by books is something I’m extremely keen to encourage. I would hope that bookshops might be too.

A few minutes later, as I was approaching the counter with a book in hand, I noticed that the above-mentioned stressed woman – who it seem was someone senior in the shop, perhaps the proprietor – was conversing with my ten-year-old daughter. Well, hissing more like. She (the proprietor) then turned to me, upon learning that I was the father of the errant child, and loudly informed me, in front of the whole shop, that my daughter had bent the cover of the book she’d taken off the shelf and had been carrying around the shop. (My daughter had done that because she wanted to show her friend, presumably because she liked it.)

I can’t sell that book now, complained the bookshop woman. (In fact, knowing my daughter, in all probability she was about to nag me to buy it for her.) She stared at me accusingly, as if I’d personally sanctioned the wholesale desecration of her shop and its contents. I felt about ten inches tall. I mumbled an apology. I returned the book I’d been carrying, the one I’d been about to buy, to the shelf. I then ignored my sons’ requests for other purchases and removed myself and my family from the shop as quickly as possible.

The results of all this were as follows. Ten-year-old girls in tears: one. Embarrassed and confused parents: two. Sales for bookshop: zero.

Now I admit this is not typical of my experience of customer service in bookshops. But ever since the Scotland Incident I’ve felt rather self-conscious when taking my kids into similar establishments. What if they make too much noise? What if (gasp) they slightly bend a cover?

It’s one reason why I don’t subscribe to a certain view of the books retail business. The one that has this spectrum of goodness with independent bookshops at one end, selfless bastions of culture, halos glowing atop their flowing, literature-loving locks; then from that moral high ground we proceed downhill through chain bookshops; then online retailers other than Amazon; and finally, at the extreme opposite end, at the very bottom, Jeff Bezos gnawing on a baby’s thigh bone.

Amazon are not perfect, and there are strong arguments that their dominance of the book market is not a wholly good thing. But the fear and loathing they inspire in some quarters is a thing to behold. As far as I can see they are a highly entrepreneurial organisation that is simply very good at what they do. Sometimes they make mistakes. No doubt they can be prone to exploit their dominance in a way that’s not to everyone’s taste or advantage. But every experience I’ve had of their customer service has been either good or outstanding. They offer an exceptional range at low prices. They have helped to drive the revolution of e-books. And they’ve never, ever made my daughter cry.

I’ll say it again: I like bookshops. I’d prefer to see them survive and prosper – the good ones at least. And I acknowledge that it’s a tough business, and I admire those who stick at it for the love of books. It’s easy for people like me to snipe from the sidelines. But the world has changed and is changing, and no particular business model has a divine right to survive. It therefore seems to me that instead of moaning about Amazon and spreading alarmist clap-trap about the death of publishing, culture or reading itself being dependent on their survival, independent bookshops and their defenders might want to adopt a more proactive, creative, customer-focussed mindset that doesn’t involve raging at Amazon, declaring themselves ‘Kindle-free zones’* or generally straining, Canute-like, to resist the tide of progress.

(* I have seen at least one bookshop in the UK proclaiming this on a sign in their window, and another with a similar message. The precise purpose of this escapes me, beyond attempting to make a proportion of its customers feel guilty.)

Now I’m quite sure that there are many excellent independent bookshops who are taking a more positive approach. No doubt it’s still not easy for them, but I wish them all the best.

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that in the future more independent bookshops will have to specialise. Trying to be generalist outlets, matching the range and price of the online giants, is a battle they can never hope to win. Subject specialism is one possible approach. Another is to jump on the localism bandwagon. If I had the money and time, I’d like to open up a bookshop showcasing Oxfordshire authors, including the self-published. My own books would be sold there, naturally; I mean, that would be one of the perks, right?

What do you think about physical bookshops? Do you think it’s vital they survive? Do you regularly buy from them? Do you think Amazon are the villains of the piece, the heroes or somewhere in between?

My five worst book marketing ideas

Balloons image

Giant ghost hands! Eighties pop stars! Helium-filled balloons! It’s all here!

By making the borderline-certifiable decision to become a self-published author, I have embraced the joy of writing, of creative freedom, and the satisfaction of seeing the product of hundreds of hours of hard work actually on sale. But I have also taken on the sole responsibility for marketing and selling my work. Which isn’t exactly easy when your books are like microscopically tiny needles in a planet-sized and rapidly-expanding haystack of self- and conventionally-published books.

And while I’d like to be content to remain at number 11,467,232 on the Amazon sales ranking (OK, I may have made that number up, but it’s too depressing to check what it actually is), I do continue to cling to the deluded fantasy of one day actually making a living from writing. Which, however you look at it, means shifting some books, preferably sometimes in return for actual money.

So how do I sell enough books to make my dream come true? How to find a market beyond my immediate family and friends? In fact, how on earth do I even get my books noticed?

Of course there are lots of conventional answers. Hone your craft, become the best writer you can (completely agree). Don’t publish until you think it’s really good enough (ditto). Try to make your cover not look like it was thrown together by a colour-blind Photoshop novice who thinks Comic Sans is cutting edge typography. Try to get unbiased reviews which are hopefully broadly positive yet don’t look like they’ve been written by your mother. Blogging, your own website, social media … hmm.

Putting aside the fact that I’m currently writing a blog on my own website, I do have an issue with the whole social-media-as-a-marketing-strategy thing. For one thing, I can barely find enough hours in the day to write – which as all writers know is absurdly time-consuming – on top of my full-time day job, family commitments and other extraneous stuff like food and sleep. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that most of those authors with zillions of Twitter followers or Facebook friends got most of them because they were already successful, either as a writer or (frequently) something completely different. Now I’m sure there are other very good reasons to do social media beyond its sales-boosting potential. But, frankly, given the choice of how to ration my strictly limited time, I’d rather be writing my next book.

All this preamble is really just to set the scene, and perhaps provide a smidgen of justification, for the insanity that follows. You see (confession time): sometimes, late at night, my brain befuddled after hours of hacking away at the eighth draft of something or other, I allow myself to fantasize that maybe, just maybe, there’s another way. That there’s some amazing, quick, fail-safe, brilliantly successful way to promote my book that, miraculously, no-one else has ever thought of. That the very next day, when I get up, I’m going to make it happen. Whereas actually, that very next day – and sometimes much sooner – is when I realise that the reason why nobody else has ever tried to promote their book that way is because it’s dumb, bizarre, suicidal, ludicrous and/or borderline illegal.

So, in the interests of full disclosure, and to cleanse my guilty soul, here are the five worst book marketing ideas I’ve ever had. I have actually entertained these ideas, with varying degrees of seriousness, for upwards of several minutes. Which amply demonstrates what a deeply strange and disturbing place my mind can be.

So here they are, in all their, erm, glory, along with the glaringly obvious reasons why they would never work. (Aside from the common factor of complete impracticability.)

1. The big hand on Big Ben

The front cover of my first book, Falling Girl, features a ghostly white hand. (Which actually belongs to my eleven-year-old daughter – though she’s made me faithfully promise never to reveal that embarrassing secret … oh, whoops.) So obviously I thought – why not get / hire / buy / borrow one of those flood-lights that often light up famous and / or historic buildings at night, create an overhead projector transparency of that white hand and – hey presto, a giant ghostly white hand is projected on the side of – well, the Tower of London, Big Ben, etc. etc.

… and then, just to ramp up the sheer ludicrousness of the plan, what about arranging for it to happen on New Years’ Eve, the state opening of parliament, or any other event where TV cameras are present? And then everyone asks what that giant white hand means, social media is a-buzz, and I sell truck-loads of books.

What would actually happen

  • The chances of a shabbily-dressed, suspiciously-behaving individual with something under his jacket getting anywhere near Big Ben – especially on New Years’ Eve – are vanishingly slim. I would most likely end up in a police cell being interrogated by a terrorist squad cop armed with wicked electrodes and halitosis.
  • And the plastic hand picture would melt on the hot flood-light. The smell of burning plastic – yuck.

2. Balloons over England

I’m sure everyone has had this idea, right? Print of loads of cards bearing mysterious ghostly white hand motif (see above). Attached to dozens / hundreds / eight (depending on budget*) helium-filled balloons. Release. Eventually they all come down. And then everyone asks what all those mysterious white hand cards mean, social media is a-buzz, and I sell truck-loads of books.

(It even occurred to me that a west-north-west wind would be ideal, so as to carry the balloons from Oxfordshire down across London. Result: the spent balloons would rain down on grateful and intrigued publishing industry movers-and-shakers. Probably.)

What would actually happen

  • Not much.
  • I’d feel too guilty about littering the countryside and choking wildlife with bits of latex and card. Publishing industry movers-and-shakers don’t tend to take well to that kind of thing.

(* Probably eight, let’s face it. Looked up the equipment on Amazon. It’s expensive.)

3. Guerrilla bookmarks

Bookmarks are boring, right? Wrong! While browsing through the shelves of hyper-selling paperbacks in a major store one day, brooding on the massive unlikelihood of my books ever rubbing shoulders with such exalted company, I hit upon a brilliant wheeze. I’d print out some high-quality bookmarks on my inexpensive inkjet printer, featuring my book. Then I’d slip them on the shelves while no-one’s looking. Result: while leafing through The Hunger Games or The Hobbit, unsuspecting punters would stumble upon free advertising for my book – and obviously, inevitably order them from Amazon in their thousands.

What would actually happen

  • Not much.
  • In big stores, someone is always looking. It’s called CCTV. And said stores would probably be less than enthused by my cluttering their shelves with tawdry smudged bits of card printed on a cheap inkjet.
  • Two words: store security. I have no desire to become the first person ever to be apprehended for putting stuff on a store shelf. Kind of the reverse of shoplifting. I’ve no idea whether that’s actually a crime. I don’t plan to find out.

4. Getting shirty

A sinister, distorted space invader image adorns the front cover of BASIC Boy. I do think it (and possibly the title too) would look quite good on a tee-shirt. It’s easy to get your own designs produced relatively inexpensively. What if I produced some and gave them away or sold them very cheaply? (I’m looking to make money from books, not clothes.) All those people walking down the street, mobile adverts for my book. It could even become a cool brand it its own right.

What would actually happen

  • The economics don’t work too well unless I deal in any great volume. Tee-shirts may be relatively cheap, but it would still be a significant expense to give them away. (The same goes for branded USB sticks, baseball caps, umbrellas or surgical support stockings. Big money, not much hope of recouping it.) So this little enterprise would have to pay its own way at least to a degree, but …
  • In the world of fashion, I’m not just out of my comfort zone. I’m on a different continent from my comfort zone, and that continent’s on a frozen far-flung planet in the outer reaches of the next galaxy but three. There are probably zillions of budding clothing entrepreneurs hoping that their design will be the next big thing, and many of them will have far more reason to be hopeful of success than I can be.
  • So the net result is likely to be that instead of being an obscure wannabe in just the book industry, I get to be one in the clothing industry too. Great …


Pretty self-explanatory, this one. I send free copies of BASIC Boy – which has a 1980s theme – to various pop stars of that era, especially those mentioned in the book. I ask them to send me a picture of them holding my book. Possibly I offer to make a donation to their chosen charity in return. I put the images on the above-named website. Pretty soon it’s the latest thing. Famous musicians, the young and trendy as well as the grizzled veterans of yesteryear, practically fall over themselves to take part. Harry Styles from One Direction literally begs me for a copy. My daughter finally admits I’m totally cool and not embarrassing after all. Social media is a-buzz, my books sell by the truck-load, etc. etc., you get the picture.

What would actually happen

Given that celebrities are not generally known to be especially fond of self-publicising nutcases asking them for favours, we can comfortably conjecture any or all of the following:

  • Not much.
  • And if it did – very slowly.
  • Might start to cost me a small fortune in donations (so at least someone might benefit I suppose).
  • Restraining orders.
  • Psychiatric assessments.
  • My daughter will not admit I’m totally cool and un-embarrassing.

So there you have it. Feel free to mock – I probably deserve it. Though as I said, I wasn’t quite crazy enough to actually do any of the above*. But would you be tempted to pull any of these stunts? Have you done anything similar? Did it work? Did you sell a ton more books? Or is your next title a scintillating expose of jail conditions – from the inside?

Oh well … back to the social media I suppose. Now where did I put those balloons …

(* OK … I did hide half a dozen bookmarks on the shelves of Asda Walmart in Milton Keynes. What happened? Not much …)

BASIC Boy: A Digital Ghost Story

View or download a free sample (first three chapters): BASIC Boy sample

BB blog cover 8oct13

You’ve heard of haunted houses … but what about haunted computers? What do you do when there’s literally a ghost in the machine? When the past collides with the present and something sinister’s come along for the ride?

Cal Stubbs has big problems. It’s not just that he’s struggling to get used to his stepdad Rob, who’s weirdly obsessed with stone-age computers (what the heck’s a ZX Spectrum anyway?), while his real dad’s gone to ground.  It’s not even that his geeky best friend has more luck with girls than he does.

No. It’s definitely more the creepy nightmares and the freaky messages coming through on the laptop from some sick psycho troll.

Meanwhile, back in 1984, the teenage Rob has a dark secret. He’s done something terrible … and a kid who died but won’t stay quiet is hell-bent on making him pay. And, mad though it sounds, the price might be his future stepson.

As Cal gets more disturbing messages and Rob struggles to remember exactly what happened in 1984, they soon realise that a malevolent shadow is breaking through into the present, intent on wreaking havoc. How do you fight a ghost that can program a computer? They’d better figure out how and quickly, before time runs out …

Available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions



Falling Girl: A Ghost Story

FG cover KDP 23jul13

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy and a menacing ghost in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions