The fall of Falling Girl

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I reached a momentous decision today. I’ve basically unpublished my first novel, Falling Girl from Amazon. Why?

Well, there were a number of reasons really. If you believe (as I do) that your writing gets better with time and practice, then it follows that your earliest work may not be as good as your more recent output. I’ve heard it said that a first novel should be seen as a dry run, a place to make all your mistakes (or even more than usual anyway), and should remain locked in a desk drawer (literally or digitally) rather than published.

Which may not always be true obviously. But I was re-reading the prologue and first chapter earlier today and … I don’t know. I think there’s much there that’s positive. I just think that if I was writing it now, I’d do it differently. I believe I’d lose the prologue for a start. It’s quite different from the rest of the book and has a different POV. I’d say it’s a reasonable piece of writing in itself but, bottom line, the book doesn’t really need it.

There’s another reason. Since my first two books, which were both YA, I’ve switched to middle grade with Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. Maybe that only accentuates the difference in my writing I see between then and now.

And besides, Falling Girl is available for free on this site now anyway, and has been for some time. It does occur to me that, if I don’t believe it’s a good advertisement for my writing whether I should make it available in any form at all, even for free.

But I’m not ashamed of it. It was my first novel, an achievement I remain proud of, and I’ll always have a special affection for it. I worked very hard, paying for a professional critique and redrafting many times, including one fairly significant revision several months after the original publication. Many people have said nice things about it, and I’m fairly sure most of them were telling the truth. It’s not a bad book. I still believe it’s a pretty good one in fact. It’s more that I’ve moved on and I don’t think it’s a quite good enough reflection of where I am and where I want to go.

And no-one was buying it anyway. Would I still withdraw it if it was selling well? Probably not, if I’m honest. But it wasn’t, so that’s a moot point really.

My second novel, BASIC Boy, is still on Amazon as a Kindle edition, though the paperback is no longer available. I do think that’s a better book and I’m more comfortable with keeping it on sale.

Have you published a book and then withdrawn it from sale, or thought about doing so?

 

Why I’ve decided on hybrid publishing

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.41.33 PM

I’ve been neglecting this blog big time recently, being far too busy with life in general but more specifically with putting the finishing touches to Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer and completing the first draft of its sequel. But I’m resolved to blog more regularly from now on. Writing’s a solitary business at times and there’s such a great community on WordPress that’s well worth keeping in touch with.

Anyway – back to the main point of this post. When I posted my writing resolutions for 2015, high on the list (after completing DCFS) was to finally decide on whether to continue down the self-publishing route or to hurl myself into the purgatory of query letters, agents and slush piles hoping to win one of those vanishingly rare traditional publishing lottery tickets.

Both options have their pros and cons of course. For me, the biggest problem with self-publishing is that your book will almost certainly be lost in the crowd. And traditional / conventional publishing, despite the unbelievably high bar confronting prospective new entrants (unless you happen to be a You Tube sensation or random celebrity who may or may not be able to string three words together), is perhaps not a great deal better. Put bluntly, most books don’t sell very well, however they’re published. There are exceptions of course, but they represent a tiny percentage of the tidal wave of new titles published every year.

The fact that I’ve sold very few books so far hasn’t stopped me, mainly because I love writing for its own sake. However, I love it so much that I’d like to spend a lot more time doing it, and that’s not really possible unless I start getting a decent income from it.

So is there a middle way? Some way to improve your chances of success – to help you make your books as professional as possible and to have more chance of selling it? There is much talk of hybrid or partner publishing, and these terms tend to mean different things to different people. All I can tell you about is what I’ve decided to do, and why.

DCFS will be published by a company called Albury Books. They are not a conventional publisher but neither do they publish anything and everything that comes their way. DCFS had to be accepted in order to carry their imprint. I have no doubt that their selection criteria were nowhere near as rigorous as a conventional publisher’s has to be when confronted with a tottering pile of hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts and a budget that probably allows them to take on perhaps one of them. But the fact that Albury do have minimum standards was reassuring.

I also liked their website, the fact that they have a children’s book programme, and the appearance of the books they were selling. The covers looked quite professional, for instance. That is not the case with all hybrid publishers’ websites I’ve seen, some of which looked quite amateurish and were jam-packed with covers that absolutely screamed ‘self-published!’ and not in a good way.

I know what you might be thinking at this point. I know because I’d probably be thinking it myself: isn’t hybrid just a polite word for vanity? Ah yes, the dreaded vanity press, exploiting authors’ dreams, taking their money for over-priced services and giving poor value in return. Have I fallen into that trap?

Well, for me, paid publishing services are not a dirty word (or words) necessarily. Design, editing, distribution, marketing … these things, especially if done properly, all cost time and money. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who secures a conventional publishing deal, they won’t come for free (and even then, much is still expected of the author, especially on the marketing side). Sure, a self-publishing author can do much or even all of it themselves – but to what standard, and how successfully? Let’s be honest. Amazon is full of books that aren’t very good, or have lousy covers, or sell few or no copies. There are also many that are very good, look amazing and/or sell in decent quantities, but they are the exception especially on the sales.

So I have concluded that if I want to do things better, going it alone is not the best option. I need some help, and yes that’s going to cost me something. To some extent, how much it costs is up to me. Albury do not sell fixed-price packages or require you to buy services you don’t need. I have got the cover designed through them (see above) – they were OK with my own design but I decided to go professional this time, and I’m pleased with the result. They did require, as a condition of acceptance for publication, that a copy-edit of the text was done by a specialist children’s editor – but they did not insist that this was sourced through them. I could have gone out and found my own copy-editor. (The edit was a good thing, by the way – I’ve never had one before, and I’m certain the book is better for it.)

There are some things I’m still doing myself, and therefore not paying for, because I’m confident I can do them to a good standard. This includes the text layout and the set-up on Amazon. Albury will be handling the set-up in other distribution channels, on their own website and in POD. The standard of the POD printing of their books, by the way, is definitely a cut above what I’ve experienced with Amazon’s, and therefore I won’t be setting up this book in Create Space.

I have to sign a contract, but I get to keep a high percentage of the royalties. The percentage is higher than Amazon’s and certainly miles better than those of a typical conventional publishing contract.

But of course, a high percentage of diddly squat is still diddly squat. The idea is to sell some books. Which brings me on to marketing and publicity services. These are available through Albury but they cost, and I’m still evaluating the options here. Two things I know: there are no guarantees when it comes to sales, and even if I pay for some services the onus is still on me. If I don’t believe in the book, I can’t expect anyone else to. I’ll post more about the marketing another time.

If you have any views or comments on any of this, I’d be pleased to hear them. Thanks.

Why I designed my own book covers – and still wonder if I’ve done the right thing …

messy paint

Do you design your covers, or pay for someone else to do it? The advice available on this (as with most things) varies a lot. Some will say you should always use a professional designer; you won’t do a good enough job yourself, and you’ll just end up with the dreaded ‘self-published look’.

I have some sympathy with that view. You could say it’s slightly delusional and even kind of demeaning to designers, to believe that I can knock out a cover as good as an actual, real designer could produce. After all, graphic design and typography are real skills, just like writing – and, like writing, experience and practice makes you better. Someone who’s designed dozens of covers is bound to be better at it than me, aren’t they?

And I think most of us can agree on one thing: the cover is important. Along with the blurb, it’s one of the few things that potential buyers see before they buy (or not). So why compromise?

Well, the main reason is obvious: cost. It’s tempting to save the money by doing it yourself. It’s possible to spend hundreds of dollars or pounds on a cover; some top designers may charge even more. However, you can also spend a lot less, for example by using Fiverr to source a low-cost design. I’ve yet to try this myself, but I’ve heard good things. Then again, I wonder if there’s an element of ‘you get what you pay for’.

My own feeling is that producing your own cover is a bit like doing home improvement or DIY. I’m not a professional architect, builder, electrician or plumber, and there’s a lot of what they can do that I wouldn’t even attempt. But there are things I can do with minimal risk of disaster or death. I can wire a plug, fill small cracks, sand and paint, all in relative safety and producing acceptably good results. I learnt to do those things, followed some simple rules, and have done them enough to attain a reasonable level of competence. I know my limitations, and provided I stay within them then I’m probably OK.

With both Falling Girl and BASIC Boy, I had good ideas of what I wanted the covers to look like. Furthermore my ideas were quite simple, not requiring expensive professional graphics software or a high level of design expertise. They were concepts that I was reasonably sure I could execute to an acceptable standard, and so was comfortable having a go. Now, I’m fairly happy with the results. I don’t think they scream ‘look at me, I’m so self-published!’ (or maybe they do? If I’m deluding myself, I hope someone will put me right. The covers are below.)

Anyway … from the research I’ve done, I would say it might be worth having a stab at your own cover if one or more of the following apply to you:

  • You really can’t afford to pay even a low-end design price.
  • You have a very good idea what you want to do – and it’s not too ambitious.
  • You are aware of, and stick to, basic layout and typography good practice. If you don’t know what they are, there are a lot of resources and advice (much of it for free) available online. See for example my references below.

I won’t go too much into ‘good design practice guidelines here’ – but, I will share just a few that I’ve used as guidance for my designs of my two covers:

  1. Try to use a simple, striking image, rather than over-complex, over-busy design.
  2. If you use your own image, ensure it’s good quality; if you use a downloaded stock image or photo, make sure it’s not an over-used one.
  3. Use contrasting covers.
  4. Use an asymmetrical design.
  5. Don’t use a common text font like Times or Arial – rather, use a less common, display font (many of which can be downloaded for free) (Comic Sans? Don’t even think about it … unless your book’s an ironic meditation on the evils of Comic Sans – and even then I’d think twice.)
  6. Space the text out, rather than squash it up, for an easier-to-read and more professional look. (Sorry about the technical typographic jargon … you can just tell I’m an expert!)
  7. Your overall design must reflect the book’s genre / subject well – and as the market is today, not twenty or thirty years ago.

No doubt there are many other ‘rules’ too – and some are in the books listed at the bottom of this post – but the above seemed the most important to me.

Points 1 to 4 are about making your cover stand out – bearing in mind it must catch the eye even at thumbnail size (as it will appear on an Amazon search results screen for example).

Points 5 and 6 are about the typography looking professional and easy-to-read.

Point 7 involves having a good working knowledge of the genre and market. What do the covers of other, similar books look like? You want yours to stand out – but not look so different that the casual browser won’t recognise the kind of book it is.

With my two covers, I tried to follow the above guidelines – but a couple of weeks ago I decided to refresh the designs. In particular I noticed that they weren’t very good on point 6, i.e. the text was a little ‘squashed’. So I opened it up a little for Falling Girl:

Before:

fg-cover-24mar14

After:

FG cover Oct14

It’s subtle I grant you, but a little better I hope.

I did the same for BASIC Boy – but, more noticeably, also blew up the ‘demented ghostly space invader’, making it more ‘in yer face’:

Before:

bb-cover-april-14

After:

BB cover Oct 14

But, for goodness sake, if you think that (1) either cover sucks or (2) the ‘before’ is better than the ‘after’ in either case, please tell me. I’m a self-published author: I can take criticism, in fact I expect it. (On the other hand, if you like the covers, that would be nice to know too.)

For my current project, Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, however, I’ve yet to find much inspiration re the cover – and the one vague idea I have had so far I’m not sure I’d be able to execute very well. So that may well lead to my first foray into Fiverr. Mind you, I’m not even yet sure whether I’m going to self-publish or to propel myself into the gruelling agent/publisher-query marathon. If the latter, it’s probably not worth spending time or money on a cover at this stage.

Do you design your own covers? How do you think you did? Any experience of using designers, on Fiverr or elsewhere? Comments welcome as ever.

Footnotes

In Make A Killing On Kindle. Michael Alvear is very much of the ‘you must get a professional cover design’ school of thought. He has no time for do-it-yourself – he thinks your efforts will inevitably suck. I don’t necessarily agree, but looking at some of the covers of self-published titles on Amazon, I can see where he’s coming from.

On the other hand, both Derek Murphy in Book Marketing is Dead and Rayne Hall in Why Does My Book Not Sell? allow for the possibility of decent self-produced covers and give some useful design tips.

 

Improving my book: manuscript critique vs beta readers

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I wrote last week that I’d finished the second draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, and that my next priority to get some outside input – people who can help me clarify what’s good about it (hopefully something), what could be improved … and what stinks. For me, this step is absolutely critical.

For one thing, I’m reading the book aloud to my two sons. The other thing I’m doing is getting another adult to review the manuscript. I know of two common ways to accomplish this. First, find someone (or more than one person) to be a beta reader. Or, second, to pay for a manuscript critique. I’ve chosen the second option. Why?

Well, there are several reasons:

  1. By choosing an established, reputable literary consultancy (I’m using The Writer’s Workshop) you know you’re getting someone who knows that they’re doing, an experienced editor and/or author who’s been there, done that. WW use a pool of published authors, from which they select the most suitable to review your manuscript.
  2. I’ve used WW before and I’ve always been impressed with the results. You get a pretty detailed report (typically about 8-10 pages) which identifies problem areas, along with suggestions for improvement. There’s always some very perceptive stuff in there. There is usually also some encouraging feedback about those things that do seem to be working.
  3. The report can also give advice on where to go next with the book, post-revisions. My first two books are self-published, and I totally buy in to the ideals of indy publishing. But it’s unavoidably true that most books sell very few copies – and most of the biggest success stories there have tended to be in certain genres. DCFS is a children’s book, and I believe that’s an especially difficult market to succeed in with self-publishing. (If anyone has any views or experience about that, I’d be very interested to hear it.)

I have no doubt whatsoever that Falling Girl and BASIC Boy were much the better for having been critiqued in this way, and for me then implementing the majority of the reports’ recommendations.

Just to clarify one point, however: the critique is not a line-by-line edit, nor a proofread. The WW report is an assessment of the books a whole, including the plot, characterisation, dialogue and general writing quality. If you need a copy-edit or a proofread, that’s a separate thing – and, in my view, a second draft is much too early for that. There’s no point in proofreading something that’s bound to be at least partially, if not extensively re-written.

The most obvious drawback of the critique is the cost, which is dependent on the length of the manuscript. Fortunately DCFS, being a children’s book, is relatively short – the second draft is just under 27,000 words. For that, the WW critique cost just under £300 (i.e. around $500).

For some, of course, spending that might not be an option. You might also take the approach that, if you view self-publishing as a business, how likely are you to earn back the money? Well, if my first two books are anything to go by … probably not.

But then, I don’t view my writing as a business. I’d love it to be, but so far at least I haven’t had the sales to make that a reality. Instead, I see it more as my hobby. Some people have fairly expensive hobbies. They might renovate old cars, play golf or tennis or join a gym; I do less expensive things like running and cycling, and spend the money on improving my writing instead. That way I can justify spending money on things like this.

Of course, I don’t want to waste money, and apart from the critique my costs are minimal. I publish on Amazon, doing layout and design myself. I also do my own proofreading (wisely or not, I’m not completely sure). So manuscript critiques, so far at least, have been my only major expense. I see improving my writing as the area where paying for outside help adds the most value.

Asking for beta readers to review the book would, of course, avoid this expense. But I haven’t gone down that route, at least not this time, for three reasons:

  1. Finding the right beta reader might not be quick or straightforward. Anyone’s opinions are valuable – but some probably more so than others for this purpose. I’d want an experienced editor who knows a lot about about writing for children. In reality, it’s hard to avoid having to pay for that kind of expertise, along with the time and effort involved.
  2. Time. People are busy, writers certainly not excepted. It might take a beta reader some considerable time to get round to doing their review.
  3. If you don’t pay money, there’s bound to be a reciprocal element – i.e. someone reviews your manuscript, and you review theirs. That’s fine, and in many ways I’d like to be able to do that. But at the moment, I’d find it very hard to find the time.

If you can live with and/or mitigate the above drawbacks, then I can see that beta readers would be a good option. Especially if you already have one or two that you know and trust. But for now, for me, for this particular project, the paid critique seemed the better way to go.

Now the question is – will I be brave enough to reveal the feedback (warts and all) on this blog? Of course I will! [crosses fingers …]

 

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.

 

Revealed! My Writing New Year’s Resolution for 2014: I’m going to, er … write …

Idea

OK I admit it’s a bit late, being nearly the end of January and all that, but believe me it took a full month of heavy-duty mental gymnastics to come up with that one.

And yet, all joking aside, it’s not quite as obvious as it sounds. During the past three months or so I’ve been wrestling with the reality that being a self-published author involves a lot more than writing. Or more precisely, a lot more than writing the ‘real stuff’, the stories and the books, those things I always wanted to write which is why I ended up doing all this in the first place.

Those of you who also self-publish will know what I’m talking about. It’s not just the editing, the cover design, the setting up and optimising your books’ online presence. It’s also the other bits and pieces – author platforms, review requests, blogging, the general trying to get your writing noticed.  Of course you can pay for someone else to do some or all of this stuff, and I’ve no doubt there are many skilled and enthusiastic people who will do a decent job of that. But I’ve also realised that there’s no sure-fire way of making people buy your books, at least not without spending more in the process than you’re likely to get back in sales.

I confess that while beavering away at my first two novels, I cheerfully ignored most of the above. I just concentrated on making my books the best I could make them, and that was time-consuming enough without worrying about anything else. But all that ‘else’ was always there – the elephant in the room, if you like.

And then, soon after completing and publishing BASIC Boy, that hulking great cliché tapped me on the shoulder with its trunk, said ‘Excuse me? Haven’t you forgotten something, old chap?’ (Yes, it was a talking elephant. Bear with me.) It then proceeded to scare the cat, ransack the refrigerator, and finally sit on my laptop and refuse to move until I’d promised to create an author profile on Goodreads.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve found I quite like having my own website, and I’ve very grateful to those who’ve liked my posts and followed my blog. But I’m under no illusions that I’m creating more than the tiniest ripple in the huge Pacific Ocean of the Internet, and – bottom line – it all takes time. And so I haven’t written very much – you know – real stuff recently.  A couple of short stories, yes, but that’s all.

I’ve begun to feel a bit like a car factory, the owner of which had the bright idea one day of taking almost its entire staff off the production line and sticking then in sales, marketing and publicity. Which quickly led to two big problems.  First, too many people tripping over each other, not really knowing what they’re doing because they’re skilled at welding or painting or electronics and don’t know a thing about selling stuff. Second, no-one’s making any cars any more. Which, ironically, really becomes a problem if and when, somewhat miraculously, the people who don’t know much about sales actually start getting quite good at it, at which point they’ll be taking orders they suddenly can’t fulfil. ‘Result? Bankruptcy all round!’ (That’s a quote from the superb 1951 Alistair Sim version of Scrooge, one of my favourite movies of all time. Yes, my brain really is that random.)

I have tried to write. I’ve had three or four new novel ideas bouncing around inside my head, but none has kept still long enough to do much with. For each one I’ve got as far as sketching out a rough outline, even writing the first few hundred words – and then it’s gone. My enthusiasm for the idea, that is. It’s ridiculous, because I know I can do it. I have written two novels already, after all. I know how many hundreds of hours of work it takes and I’m not afraid of that. I enjoy the process, however much of a slog it might be at times, and I get a real buzz from it.

So what’s the problem? I’ve concluded that I just need to give concentrated blast of good, solid time to at least one of these idea, to really get my teeth into it, to keep pummelling away until it starts to morph into something I can really work with. Last year, between the last two drafts of BASIC Boy, I did make a good start on a third YA novel. I churned out a fairly detailed outline and nearly 20,000 words of the first draft. That’s a pretty solid start. So why didn’t I stick with it?

Because I started obsessing about the fact that BASIC Boy, despite positive reviews and encouraging comments, wasn’t selling. Neither was its predecessor, Falling Girl. I’ve done much in the intervening couple of months that’s been of value. I’ve now got the website, the Goodreads presence. But so have zillions of other people, and I keep feeling that I’m running like hell and still falling behind. I really don’t have a clue how to sell more books. It’s not a nice feeling.

I could of course give up on selling books and write for the sheer joy of the art, which is basically what I’ve been doing anyway. But my dream is to write full time, which would mean giving up the day job, which means selling lots and lots of books, which isn’t happening.

So I’m going back to that third novel, at least unless and until I have a better idea. (It’s a dystopian virtual reality fantasy; provisionally title Upland, but I that doesn’t really grab me and I’m hoping I think of a better one.) And if I get any bright ideas about how to promote my writing in the meantime, I’ll follow them up. I know I can’t just ignore that side of things.

But in 2014 I’m going to write more and worry less. I just hope that elephant sits quietly in the corner and behaves itself.

 

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 …

5. Eighties-pop-star-holding-my-book.com

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 …)