Reading your own audiobook: is it a good idea?

I’ve been reading a piece in this quarter’s ‘The Author‘ from the splendid Society of Authors, about the frustrations of listening to a reader making a poor job of recording your book, and being powerless to intervene. And anheadphones-with-microphone-on-white-backgr-clip-artother piece from Alice Jolly about the merits of the partnership arrangement with a ‘crowd-funding’ publisher, as exemplified in her experience of ‘Unbound’. Both are mainly about the relationship between the author, the book and the publisher.unbound

One of the benefits of self-publishing is that the author is never pushed away from important decisions about her book and expected to leave to others the question of cover, design, print run, other formats, promotion – all the things that so radically affect the link between writer and reader.

Very early on I considered who should abridge and read my books for the audiobook version. There were cost implications of course: doing it myself would save a lot of money. But the decision to trust myself wasn’t just about money. Abridging is tricky and requires a feel for the overall story, and who knows these books as well as the person who wrote them? Successful reading too necessitates a feel for the text and the context, accents, nuances of the characters and the plot, and here again the author – if she knows her setting as well as she should – is best placed to do justice to the words. If you have a teaching background, as I do, you’ve spent many years using your voice to engage an audience, and the skills don’t fade, even if you’re talking only to the microphone.

So I found a local recording studio and am doing everything necessary to prepare and read my own books. It’s hard and time-consuming, but I’m learning a great deal about the flow of the text from reading it out loud. And it’s restoring my faith in my own capacity to tell a good tale, after the thankless task of trying yet again to interest an agent. Have a look at an earlier post to hear my agonising about that.I’m asking again – do I need an agent?

If you can afford it, and if like me you have the power to make your own decisions, consider doing your own audiobook. Very instructive!

Writing about your own community

Every year in mid-December I borrow tables, chairs and crockery and invite all my neighbours in for the  ‘Street feast’.


The annual gathering took place last night: fourteen adults, two children and a baby celebrating his first birthday with us. Ages ranged from 81 to the one year old and we all packed into my relatively small space – not a buffet, a proper sit-down meal. It’s a logistical challenge, and this was the biggest yet, but every year I’m glad we do it. Our row of nine houses is just a part of our village in West Cumbria, and the conversation round the tables last night showed yet again why this part of the world is such a rich setting for an ‘offcomer’ writer: long histories, inter-connecting families, shared memories and concerns.

Offcomers must always be on the fringe but being part of a community like this is very satisfying: over twenty years in my Salford flat I knew only two of my neighbours to speak to. I was accepted here relatively quickly mainly because my son-in-law is well-known in sporting circles and makes me ‘OK’ by association. Acceptance into a community brings with it a sense of responsibility. Writing the trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ was my first attempt at fiction, inspired by this place and its people, and I felt a strong obligation to get my facts right, which means many hours of research and checking. Worth it though.

At the launch of my new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ last week in Whitehaven the Director of the Beacon Museum who welcomed us to her place said that my Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ was one of the first things she read on arriving in Cumbria and gave her an invaluable insight into the recent history of the place and its people. I was very chuffed by that. Last night’s party added to that sense of community and I loved it, as I always do.

A new chapter?


I knew this week would be busy but it’s been more than that: it feels like the start of a new chapter in my short writing life. Two events happened simultaneously. First, my new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ was officially launched, on Friday at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven, on the top floor (visible in the photo) with a superb view over the harbour and out to sea. It was a very enjoyable afternoon although I say it myself. One of the best parts was the introduction from the Director of the museum, Elizabeth Kwasnik – an off-comer from Scotland – who said that my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ had given her valuable insight into the recent history of West Cumbria and its people. The historian in me was very pleased about that.

Second, the night before the Beacon launch the new ebook version of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ appeared on Amazon and the Kindle Store, published this time not by me but by Fahrenheit Press, who specialise in digital publishing, mainly of crime fiction. I’ve been fascinated to see how they set about establishing their books – and now mine – on the radar of crime fiction readers, mainly using Twitter. Chris McVeigh, who started Fahrenheit Press has also written a blog piece about the details of the curious partnership between us, by which they publish digitally and I do the paperback version. Two different formats, two different audiences, two different approaches, and an interesting development in self-publishing. As I explained last week, Fahrenheit’s version of Cruel Tide on Kindle has a completely different cover. Click the link to see it. And while you’re there, check the new ‘Fatal Reckoning’ cover too.

Both these developments have made me think, yet again, about what I’m doing and what next. The setting in Cumbria has to remain central to my writing, no doubt about that. Also, I really enjoyed weaving fact and fiction in the trilogy, and want to do that again. Could I combine that approach with a ‘crime’ story, as I tried to do in the first book in the trilogy ‘A Good Liar’? Does the next book need to be the start of a new series, which might be more lucrative but can be restrictive too?

My fiction writing life will be shorter than many authors, simply because I didn’t start until I was 60. So if the number of books left in me is relatively small, what are my priorities? I don’t want to spend precious time churning out books that might sell but don’t really interest or inspire me. Needless to say, a new idea is already forming, but nothing I want to talk about just yet.

Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.

Recognition, reputation and expectation

I read something recently about how many readers will only buy books from an author they already know, and how much harder that makes it for people like myself who are just starting off. There are so many books available, and some of them are so poor, that you do need some assurance that your hard-earned money and space on your shelf aren’t both going to be wasted. I do it too. It’s understandable.

I’m just seeing a faint glimmer of hope, however, after years of plugging away, speaking to groups of readers in out of the way places, sometimes no more than half a dozen at a time, and getting occasional mention of my books into the local media. The new book seems to be selling more quickly than any of the previous ones. There could be all sorts of reasons for this. It’s the first attempt at crime fiction, and we know how popular that genre is. Even my daughter, who was vaguely interested in my previous books, greeted the new one with more enthusiasm and said she might actually read it! And we’re learning about how to promote the book ahead of time, on FB, on Twitter, in the local press, and by contacting people who’ve bought books from us before. Incidentally, we had a curt email from Amazon recently, saying that on no account could we ever contact anyone who’d used their website to buy from us. Fortunately the number of hard copy Amazon sales is low. I wish we could do without using Amazon altogether, but the Kindle sales are too good to miss and that still seems to be the most popular route to the ebook market.

I wonder if the main reason for more of the books being sold so far is that more people actually recognise my name on the cover. It’s possible: not a radical change but a gradual seepage into the local consciousness and the word-of-mouth network. And the cover itself may be helping too. It’s certainly striking.

I called one of the local papers last week just to tell them that I had a new book out. They’d run stories about the books before and I thought they might do so again. The initial response was pretty bland, but an hour or two later a young woman from the paper called me back, introduced herself and asked for an interview. We had a good long chat: I quickly realised how important it was to clarify that the content of the book was not drawn from local events, but from the enquiry into child abuse at a boys’ home in Belfast forty years ago. It had been through reading the report of the Kincora Boys’ Home enquiry that I’d begun to understand how institutional abuse could begin, develop and continue even though key people were in a position to know – and to stop – what was happening. I didn’t realise how much of that knowledge stayed with me until I began to write. Some of it, and what I have learned since, was horrifying and I had to tone it down. I wanted my readers to be clear about how the children and young people had suffered, but too graphic an account would be like abusing them all over again.

The other thing we talked about was how young women just like the young reporter I was talking to, and the WPC in the book, had struggled with their treatment in the workplace in the 1960s. There may be many things wrong with our lives in 2015, but as a woman I’m glad I’ve seen things change during my lifetime.

I’ve yet to hear how readers of the new book respond to its fairly dark message, which provides both the context and part of the plot. I’m afraid some of the male characters don’t come out well, but so be it. Two of the young female characters have been badly affected by behaviour which these days might put the perpetrators in the dock. Some of the previous themes in my trilogy also reflected their times and the place of women in society, but perhaps not quite as starkly as this. ‘Cruel Tide’ is not meant to be a polemic, and I hope it won’t be read as such. If the community it represents is deeply flawed, that’s just the way it was, and I hope my readers aren’t disappointed by that. They can’t be expecting a happy ending, as they haven’t had one yet, and the ambivalence is still there in the last chapter. Maybe I should have tied up more of the ends in a neat bow. Let’s see what reactions I get this time. I’ll let you know.




Can you extend your books’ ‘shelf-life’?

One of my gripes about writing and selling novels based where I live, in West Cumbria, is that some booksellers insist on describing them as ‘local fiction’ and condemn them to an out-of-the-way corner of the shop labelled ‘local books’, far away from anything remotely topical or current or interesting. I visited one of these dark places this morning, squeezing through the children’s section and right at the back. One of my precious books sat forlorn on the ‘local fiction’ shelf, its cover bent and scruffy, like a forgotten mongrel at the dogs’ home, silently begging to be taken home. That book must have been there a while: it’s got a long shelf-life, but on the wrong shelf.

One of the reasons for deciding to write historical fiction is that it doesn’t date in the same way as ‘contemporary’ fiction does. The fact that my trilogy is set in the first half of the twentieth century has a bearing on its ‘genre label’ but doesn’t surely preclude its being a relevant and readable set of stories with a central character who is perfectly recognisable in today’s world. The characters are timeless, even though the settings and the details of life are carefully embedded in their age.

The long shelf life I seek for my work is about their relevance to my community and to the readers who both live and visit here. Year after year, people visiting our special region will want something to illuminate its past, won’t they? I want that when I’m travelling. But visiting readers in bookshops also want something that’s visible, not have to ferret round in the back room. As a self-publishing author I enjoy the sense of control it gives me over the look and production of my work. The only thing I have no influence on is how booksellers treat my books. I understand that bookshop window space is at a premium, and that sometimes it is ‘sold’ to the highest bidder or the publisher’s rep with the most clout. I understand it, but it still annoys me. No wonder we self-publishers get a little paranoid about the continuing efforts of the traditional book business to keep us out of the loop, no matter how professional we are.

When I asked the bookseller who had banished two of my three books to the ‘back room’ he seemed to say that a book will be given ‘prominence’ in his crowded shop only when it is new. For a few precious weeks just after publication the third book in the trilogy was indeed in the window, but I don’t have a new book out this summer, so that brief honeymoon is over. Producing a new book may provide fleeting visibility, but what else can I do to keep the existing books in sight, literally and metaphorically?

I could buy advertising space in appropriate papers and magazines, but the cost is usually prohibitive. And I could create my own ‘stories’ for the local press to use. These might be appearances at various events, with some text and the all important pictures. Or it could be a local story, linked to the settings of my books. There have been some good opportunities recently, which I’ve tried to exploit through social media, but not very effectively I fear. This coming week will see a programme on BBC4 about Sellafield, a rarity in itself with the secrecy that surrounds the place. Some people watching may realise for the first time that a reactor fire in 1957 was almost a disaster, with only local know-how and courage saving the day. They could deepen that understanding immeasurably by reading my third book ‘Fallout’ which tells the inside story of the fire through the fictional character of Lawrence Finer, a nuclear physicist seconded to the plant, but how do I let people know that this novel actually exists, and where to find it? Good PR boosts the shelf life of a book, but the effort needs to be made repeatedly There’s definitely a limit to this, and the law of diminishing returns will have an impact too. Refreshing the PR is all part of the author’s constant support of her own sales, and it’s hard work.

I suppose what I really want is that my books should be on the ‘English Classics’ shelf, as enjoyable and relevant in ten or even fifty years time as they are today. That’s ambitious, but I can still live in hope.


Self-doubt: necessary or a waste of energy?

One of the many things that made Margaret Thatcher anathema to me – even now after all these years – was her apparent complete absence of self-doubt. It’s a ‘fundamentalist’ trait, I suppose, which manifests itself in similar ways whatever the beliefs of the believer. I have a reputation – undeserved, surely – for expressing myself quite forcefully at times, about Margaret Thatcher for example, but underneath it all I am frequently assailed by self-doubt and one of those times seems to be upon me now.

The ms of Cruel Tide is with my editor Charlotte and I’ll get it back for approval in a week or so. We’ve corresponded and talked at length about several previous drafts, but even so waiting for her editing suggestions feels like waiting for an exam result. Did I do a good job? Is it really crime fiction or just another character-driven story with ‘events’ like the trilogy that went before it? Was it a good idea to link it to the trilogy, or was that choice driven by commercial considerations? Is Cruel Tide as well-written as it should be? Does the dialogue work? On and on the questions go. I could lay some of them to rest perhaps by re-reading the text yet again, but I daren’t, and anyway it may be too late. Once the production machine begins to hum along there are few opportunities for major changes. Tweaking only from now on, and I do want the book to be ready for the shops well before Christmas. Now I’m thinking like a publisher rather than a writer, but when you self-publish you have to be both.

I was hoping that sales would be quite brisk as the summer moves on and more visitors arrive in the lake District, but things seem to be slow. Ebook sales go up and down without any explanation, and I can’t tell whether any of my promotional activities have any impact on anything except direct sales, which are always good when I’m ‘performing’ somewhere. Fortunately I so enjoy the ‘performing’ element of this work that I will continue to do it regardless of whether it sells books or not. Sometimes I yearn for a larger audience and somewhere other than a village hall or church rooms to do my work, but it’s the same old problem of breaking in to the ‘festivals’ circuit that many self-published authors like me face. What does it take to get enough recognition to be asked to do things that will build a reputation for quality? I know I can engage and entertain larger audiences as I’ve done it for decades in my previous life as an education presenter, but no one in the book business would take any notice of that. On paper I’m another elderly unagented northerner who writes and publishes old-fashioned stories, and I’m popular on the Cumbrian WI circuit. Nothing wrong with that, but it may not get you noticed by people wanting to sell tickets for ‘Words on the Water’ in Keswick or the Hay Festival. I look on Twitter at fellow-writers  enjoying their contributions to book festivals and I think ‘I could do that!’

Nothing like a good moan. My partner thinks I should have more faith in myself. ‘Keep going’ he says. ‘The books are good, and eventually someone who matters in the book business will notice them.’ Maybe he’s right, but I’m not certain: the doubt is not enough to stop me thinking about the next book, however, and the current mood will probably pass. In the meantime I wonder if all this introspection is just unnecessary and a waste of energy. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to live the life I have and afford the luxury of high-quality self-publishing. I’ve been writing fiction for less than five years and hopefully getting better with practice. Self-doubt is probably appropriate and realistic and OK. Get over it.