The joy of talking about writing

As you might have gathered from my last post, and others over the past few months, I’m seriously weighing the positives of writing and self-publishing against the negatives, and there’s no certainty that I will want to continue.balance sheet dreamstime_s_114698015

But when I think about giving it all up, one aspect of the process keeps calling me back, and it’s something that many writers would be surprised by: I love talking about my books and my writing, to groups large or small. I love just starting to speak, without notes, and sometimes without a plan or direction, and hearing what comes out of my mouth. It’s different every time, and responds to the nature of the group, their reactions, and their questions. I watch and listen and adjust how I reply. It’s fun and interactive and engaging, as I imagine playing a video game might be, although that’s something I’ve never done.

The people I’m talking to seem to enjoy it too, and tell me so. They’re used to people having a set speech, and my ‘off the cuff’ approach goes down well. Does it sell heaps of books?business-money-pink-coins.jpg Who knows? People do buy books from me at these events, and often not just the latest one but earlier ones that I may have mentioned. All my six novels are linked, by setting and by some recurring characters, and some readers really want to start from the beginning, which I applaud.

If I’m talking to a group in a library, I sell less, probably because these people use the library rather than buy their own. If it’s a Women’s Institute audience, the ladies often team up, each buying one of the series and sharing them around – which makes sense for them but isn’t great for sales! People in readers’ groups tend to want their own copies – hurray. However many or few I sell, the money’s welcome and the pile of boxes in my garden room is reduced still further, but that’s not the principal satisfaction.

I really enjoy talking to readers, but if I wasn’t writing, what would be the purpose and rationale for these talks?

If the talks about writing didn’t happen, I’d miss the ‘charge’ I get from doing them. Is that a sufficient reason for keeping going?

My new book arrives: how does it feel?

BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.inddI’m ruthless with my Twitter feed, regularly and systematically blocking anything I don’t want and refusing to ‘follow back’ until I’ve checked the person out. Too many ‘followers’ are just fishing for reciprocation, and I’m not interested. As a consequence, my Twitter line includes almost exclusively people involved either in books and publishing, or Cumbria and the Lake District, or any combination of those.Wasdale

 

In a sense those two threads dominate my thinking about my books and writing. I’m passionately interested in West Cumbria, an area I have loved all my life and where I’ve lived for the past decade and more. Part of my determination to begin writing fiction at a relatively advanced age stemmed from the need to write about this place and its history and people.

That’s the upside: the downside is that I’ve never been sure about the ‘genre’ of my writing. Which comes first for me – setting, characters, or plot? In the Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ the priority was clearly setting and characters. The main external dramas were provided by real events, and the internal dramas arose from the interaction among fictional characters, and between them and their surroundings, both place and time. When I decided to have a go at crime fiction, I realised that balance of those aspects would have to change, and that plot would have to be more important, but I don’t believe I’ve truly made that shift. Setting and characters still dominate, and details of the plot are much harder for me.

Maybe it’s that ambivalence about what my writing is really about that has made me less enthusiastic about the new novel than I should be. All my writerly Twitter acquaintances speak of the arrival of a new book from the printers with such excitement, much like the arrival of a new baby – unalloyed positive feeling. Or at least that’s how it appears. There are photos of piles of books waiting to be signed, glamorous launch events and brimming champagne flutes.pexels-photo.jpg

For me, the new book’s arrival last week was just another stage in the long tedious process of self-publishing which has felt endless and stressful, even though the whole schedule has worked without a hitch. I suspect that part of my anxiety about it is a hangover from the anxiety about the serious accident I suffered almost a year ago when the new book was in its very early stages, too late to be abandoned but too early to see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a while I couldn’t walk, or drive, or even type without pain. It would have been good to just relax into recovery but the unfinished book haunted and taunted me, and kept me awake. I resented it, and maybe I still do.

The arrival of a new book could feel like a milestone, and a relief, but it doesn’t, because now the real work starts of trying to sell the damn thing. Promotion requires unceasing optimism and enthusiasm and for me those are both in short supply at present. Should I be honest and admit that the book felt rushed? The background details of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 are rich, authentic and moving, but one of the characters is unconvincing and the plot allows authenticity to triumph over a more eventful – and satisfying? – ending. I’m always my own harshest critic, which is unhelpful at this stage.

So, for various reasons, when the books arrived I wasn’t overwhelmed with love for a much-loved child after a difficult pregnancy. It was more like ‘Here we go again. And they’re not going to like the ending. And do I really want to do this all over again in another year or so? And I’m supposed to be retired.’ Not very positive is it? Maybe I just need to pull myself together and stop whingeing.

Are eBook prices far too low?

I had an interesting exchange recently with an indie publisher who’s been in the trade for many years and seen it all. This is what he said on the issue of eBook prices. “Things are tough for every indie publisher – readers seem to havebusiness-money-pink-coins.jpg decided that the price point for eBooks is 0.99 or free and as you know there are very small margins involved at that level”. Oh yes, the margins are very small indeed.

Self-publishing writers like me are attracted to eBooks for all sorts of reasons. The upfront costs are minimal compared with publishing ‘real’ books; you don’t have to decide how many to produce, balancing unit costs and the risk of coping with unsold stock; and there are no issues around storage. Cheap and easy, or so it appears.

But, if you want to produce an ebook to an acceptable standard, you may want help with editing, and proofreading, and the cover. All those need to be paid for, and the costs will far outweigh the cost of conversion to eBook format. And if you want people to buy your book, in whatever format, you will need to publicise and promote it. Any potential reader first needs to know that your book exists, and believe that they want to spend some money on it. Promotion takes effort and energy and can be frustrating, as you realise that ‘professional’ reviews are unachievable, the market is saturated, local media don’t care that much, and advertising is expensive.

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The promotional strategy that takes least effort is simply to lower the price, and here’s where the problem starts that all of us are currently facing. If a sufficient proportion authors are prepared to sell their work for £1 or $1, or even give it away to manipulate the ‘best-seller’ lists, how can we then persuade readers to pay a proper price, for a product that represents many many hours or work? It makes no sense to under-price, and thereby under-value, a book. It cheapens the writing process, and makes me – for one – feel like a mug.

 

If selling for these ludicrous prices were a rarity, and a temporary way to attract buyers, fair enough. But the ‘bargain’ price has now become the ‘standard’ price and the value of our work as writers appears to be permanently pexels-photo-266174.jpegdebased.

I would love to increase my ebook sales, but right now I’m simply not prepared to reduce the price to less than a cup of tea. Am I being foolish? Maybe, but I value my self-respect.

When is the author not really the author?

Two things are on my mind about this question: both of them were prompted by recent encounters with writers.

The first example comes from an author explaining his/her writing process. This writer finishes the first draft and gives it to three ‘readers’ for comment. Their suggestions are incorporated into the next draft, which then goes to the ‘editor’ for further suggestions, and here again some at least of these are used to produce the third draft.

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In this particular case, the text has now been developed by five people, but still it is considered to have been ‘authored’ by the original writer, who said –  in jest? –  that the names of all those who had contributed should perhaps be on the cover alongside the author’s name.

It may have been a throwaway remark, but it provoked my question about when the author’s apparent work is more, or less, than the author’s actual work.

In this particular case, the author is very well known and sells huge numbers of books all around the world. The first readers the author uses are people responsible for selling the author’s books in various countries. It is in their interests, therefore, for the book to be as attractive as possible, to increase the sales and their profits. They would not expect payment or acknowledgement for their work, as they are actually employed to maximise sales, and might even benefit financially from doing so.

The editor’s role is slightly different, one assumes, and concerned with the intrinsic quality of the book rather than only its commercial appeal. Prompted by the editor, more rewrites are undertaken by the author, and after some further discussion and polishing the text is sent for the final stages of editing and proof-reading. When it is printed and sold the author might/will acknowledge the role and assistance of all these people, but the reader will still believe that the author with their name on the cover actually wrote the book. In fact, it was most likely the author’s name, not the title, cover or subject matter, that made the reader buy the book. It has almost become a conspiracy of silence, to preserve the image of the author’s sole responsibility for the book’s final form.


The other nudge to my thinking about this issue was a recent journalistic fracas surrounding an article about a well-known British ‘celebrity’. This person had written a  new book and as part of the promotion was interviewed by a journalist. When the piece was complete, the celebrity and her agent leaned on the publishing editor of the magazine to change the article, to make it more favourable to the image they wanted to project and include more positive reference to the book. The journalist was outraged that this was agreed and her article was changed in this way, without her consent – so outraged that she insisted that her name be removed.

OK, these are different ‘genres’ of writing with different protocols. A key difference is that in the first case the author requests and welcomes amendments to her work, and in the second case the amendments were neither sought not agreed. But clearly the line between apparent and actual authorship is being blurred, and in each case the reader is probably unaware of what has happened behind the scenes.

Does it matter? Is the reader being duped?

Unbinding from ‘Unbound’, without regret

If you’ve read last week’s post you might not be surprised by my decision to ‘unbind’ from ‘Unbound’. This is not a criticism of them: all the people encountered there were friendly, supportive and helpful. But it does raise a question about the suitability of the ‘crowd-funding’ notion for some writing projects.crowdfunidng-piggie-bank

It was a new notion for me, first encountered at a Society of Authors conference last year and put aside as interesting but too ‘trendy’ for someone as internet-wary as I still am. I didn’t pursue it, but then Unbound came to me with an offer and I was flattered enough to think it was worth a try. So I got involved, made the promo video, went to the crowd-funding workshop, read it up, made a plan and followed it through, although it all felt rather surreal. I couldn’t understand why anyone who didn’t already know my writing would feel sufficiently enthralled by my earnest talking head video and sketchy outline to commit to pre-ordering a hefty hardback book over a year ahead of its appearance.

I wasn’t hopeful about attracting ‘cold’ sponsors, but thought I would get support from people who know my work and were already looking forward to the next book. Three months later, reflecting on the decision to withdraw from the project, I’m beginning to get the process in perspective. What went wrong?

Well, I was right to be sceptical about attracting ‘new’ sponsors, of whom there were very few forthcoming. What surprised me more was the deafening silence from most of my existing readers, very few of whom made those necessary ‘pledges’. I asked some of them about their reluctance. They said, variously, that they don’t like buying via the internet; that hardback books are too heavy big-book-featureand cost double what they would normally pay; that they’d rather wait until the book is out and buy ‘the usual way’. I couldn’t say to them, ‘If you don’t pay upfront the new book won’t happen’ because we both knew that wasn’t true. The new book will happen, in the same way as all the previous ones, without the fanfares, trade edition, big launch and other bells and whistles. It might find a small and more local ‘commercial’ publisher, or I’ll commission a team to help me and publish myself, as I’ve done before.

What else have I asked myself? Does non-fiction draw a larger ‘crowd’ than my relatively ‘quaint’ and page-turning Cumbrian fiction? Does it help if your potential supporters are younger and more internet-savvy? Is the day of the ‘special edition hardback’ dead and gone? Would Penguin Random House – the publishers of the Unbound paperback version six months after the hardback – expect high volume sales and ‘remainder’ the book too quickly? My books sell slowly and keep on selling, year after year, as new people discover them and follow the series through. This business model, such as it is, goes against the grain for contemporary publishing. We were always going to be uneasy bedfellows, and for the time being at least we’ve agreed on an amicable separation.

 

A writer’s dilemma: what’s the priority?

Social_media_fear writing-cycle

After my last novel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ came out in 2016, I promised myself a break. Five books published in five years, and I needed some time out. So six months later I’m looking back and reflecting on what the break has taught me, so far.

Firstly, it’s clear that I was right to step off the conveyor belt for a while. I needed time to get my head up and look around without worrying every day about the next target and the immediate tasks. Secondly, with less intensity to occupy my head, I began to dawdle more over social media and realised how much of it is trivial ‘noise’. Thirdly, and connected to the other two, I resented the pressure I felt under as a self-published author to spend more time marketing, promoting, blogging, tweeting, just to keep sales of my books ticking over. If I stopped for a while, no one else would help: it was down to me alone. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have someone else to share that load, to care about my sales and push the books onto shelves on my behalf.

After the second search for an agent, and the same negative outcome as before, I’ve given up any expectation that my books are attractive to someone looking only for the next best seller. I’ve sold thousands, and they’re all still selling, but it’s a trickle, not a flood. London-based publishing seems distant and uninterested in what I’m doing out here in the sticks (or is it ‘Styx’?). So forget about an agent. If I need to, I could go straight for a small publisher, preferably not in London, who doesn’t rely on ‘agented submissions’ and is prepared to read my backlist to see what I can do. There aren’t many of those, but it only takes one to change my life.

 

The next stage in reflection on this unpromising scenario came recently while I was away in Canada and offline for a week or two in the far reaches of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan Inner Passage. What a relief it was not to have to check my KDP sales reports and the ‘pledges’ for the crowd-funding that was supposed to finance my next book – more of that next week. In my clearer head, the images of the new book were turning. I wasn’t writing anything, but I was thinking about the story for once, not the sales, and noticing how much more satisfying that felt.

Maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the story is my priority. Yes I’ll need an editor at some point, and when the story is as good as I can make it I’ll have to think about how people will find and read it. But not now. For the next few months I want to be a writer, not a self-publicist.

Do ‘special deals’ on books really work?

I’ve just put the ebook of ‘A Good Liar’ on GoodLiar_COVER.indda Kindle store special deal for a week, starting April 1st. I have mixed special deal -stock-photo-limited-time-offer-price-tagfeelings about doing so, but it’s just for a week, and we’ll see how it goes. If it encourages people to read the whole trilogy, as ebooks or paperbacks, it’ll be worth the angst about reducing the price to less than a cup of coffee.

My ambivalence about this stems from knowing how much time and effort any author puts into writing and publishing their work : setting a very low price seems to under-value all that. But, on the other hand, if you want people to read and enjoy your stuff, making the price temporarily very attractive is a way to achieve that. One of the joys of self-publishing is that you can make those choices yourself.

It was recording the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ that reminded me what a good story it is. The engineer who helped me – Tom Tyson, at the Music Farm in Egremont, Cumbria – is not a great fiction reader, but he was so hooked after the second recording session that he had to read the rest of the story for himself to see what happens.

Jessie Whelan is not an easy character to deal with: she’s self-centred, impulsive, and sometimes insensitive, but she’s had to battle all her adult life, and it shows. She’s also – despite years of abstinence – very interested in sex, which pulls her into a relationship that she could, and probably should, have avoided. Some scenes were really hard to read while I was doing the recording, not just because they portray sexual assault but because Jessie doesn’t really know whether to blame the perpetrator or herself. It’s not in her nature to feel like a victim, although the reader can see that’s what she was. How did Tom react while he was listening to it, I wonder? I didn’t ask him, but I will.

In the meantime, before the next trip to the studio to finish off the edits, I’ll put the ebook version on special offer for a week and see if I can introduce new readers to the trilogy. Maybe some of the millions of Lake District and Cumbria visitors will enjoy the story, and deepen their interest in this wonderful region. I hope so.

 

 

Algorithms for Marketing? What?

I was talking self-publishing with an old friend who writes and publishes in a different genre to me, and does very well. Most of his sales are on Amazon, both paperback and ebook formats. ‘It’s all about algorithms,’ he said, and I nodded sagely. I should have said straight out that he’d have to explain, but I didn’t. Since then I’ve cast around to understand what this is about, and ended up – as we all do – ‘googling’ the term to see what turns up. This appeared, in an article by someone called Samuel J.Woods, who is clearly American from his spelling of ‘behavior’. It was helpful, up to a point…

16602455-abstract-word-cloud-for-algorithm-design-with-related-tags-and-terms-stock-photo“An algorithm is a set of (well-defined) instructions for carrying out a particular task. It’s, for the most part, deterministic, predictable, and not subject to chance. It works for all cases and gives a (presumably) correct answer.

Lots of people approach marketing this way, especially with the lure of “Big Data”.

You look for predictability in buyer decision-making and behavior, so you can scale a campaign.”

OK. Still not quite sure what you will do next after this analysis. And I’m wondering how much time this process might take, or at least how long it would take me as a data novice. My friend did say it took a long time, but he clearly felt it was time well spent.

Part of me thinks I should ‘get with the programme’ as the Americans say, embrace the new world of Big Data and grow my sales that way. But the other part of me thinks that life is short, especially at my advanced age, and maybe I should spend my time doing something more enjoyable than sitting at the laptop. Last year, my ‘direct’ sales, that is books sold direct to the reader by me, were greater than all sales through Amazon or my website. I know it’s wasteful to work in this way: I can only be in one place at once and sometimes I have to drive quite a way to reach my buyers. And I have to entertain my potential readers first, with a talk or discussion of some kind. Groups are sometimes quite small and I know it doesn’t make sense commercially, but here’s the thing – I enjoy it. It helps that I live in a stunningly beautiful area so the driving is often scenic. And I meet hundreds of people, mostly women, who love my stories and tell me so, and share stories of their own.

Now I’m doing a deal with a California-based book publisher and marketer who lives and breathes algorithms and reckons he could increase my digital and POD sales, especially in North America. He’s explained the dark arts of his expertise, but most of it sailed well over my head. I could do all this myself, or I could get him to do it and share the profits – if there are any. No brainer really. So we’re talking about the two crime books, for a year’s deal. I can carry on doing everything I do now, talking to my readers, publishing and selling ‘real’ books to them and the distributors and bookshops. The new deal marks my tentative entry to the brave new world of algorithms.

I’ve just noticed the title of the article from ‘Samuel J. Woods’ quoted above. The title is ‘Algorithms are cool, except they don’t work for marketing: heuristics do.’ What? Back to the definition of ‘heuristics’ that follows:

“A heuristic… is an experience-based technique that helps in problem discovery, learning, and solving. It basically helps you come to a “good enough” solution — close enough to the best, optimal, solution. It’s like a set of educated guesses or “rules of thumb”.

If you approach marketing this way, you have a greater chance of success (in generating leads, sales, or what have you). Why?

Because marketing is, inherently, unknown and disorderly.”

Back to the drawing board. Stick to what you enjoy, and don’t expect that any single approach to marketing is going to be enough.

 

‘Viral marketing’and local success

Last night at a local Women’s Institute meeting I heard a young man talk about how he and his wife have developed a plant nursery over the past seven years or so. Dull? It was rivetting, a saga of enthusiasm, aspiration, challenge, set-backs, perseverance, commitment, hard work, adverse weather and current growth – both commercial and horticultural. What kind of promotion and marketing has worked for you, he was asked. ‘Word of mouth’ he said. ‘If two people find us, a mile off the main highway and on the road to nowhere, and if those two people have a good time and each tell two, or three or ten people about it, then the business grows, and it costs us nothing that we wouldn’t be doing anyway, ie giving our customers a good experience.’My words, perhaps, not his, but that was the inference.

These people are BUSY, running a seven day a week outfit, developing the site, growing and selling their own plants and raising two young children. They won’t have time for sitting at the laptop, doing all the internet-based social media marketing stuff that we are told is the only way forward for a new business. And they are successful, doing what they love and are good at.

So what did I gather from all this, as someone trying to write and publish one novel a year, which is also pretty time-consuming? Tom Attwood’s story about the Halecat Nursery confirmed what I’ve been learning myself about the relative ‘efficiency’ of different forms of ‘promotion and marketing. We’ve learned that meeting people matters, and that nothing spreads sales faster than word of mouth. The most successful bookshop for sales of my book is the one where the person who owns and runs it tells each customer how popular my books are, that they are set in places they know, and that I live just minutes away and bring in the books myself. The single largest income stream in my book sales is the thousands of pounds I make every year through direct sales. I’ll do a talk somewhere, explain about how I write my books, the research, the stories, the challenges, and then I sell copies to people who are interested in them. It’s ‘book signing plus’, and it works.

In rural areas like ours there are many opportunities for people to come together and listen to a speaker, and an author like myself can gain an audience by simply making yourself available, and being prepared to plan as far ahead as these organisations do. Numbers may not be great, but there were forty or so people listening to Tom last night and he did a really good job. He brought lots of plants with him, made a fair amount of money from sales, garnered a small fee, and – more importantly – encouraged everyone there to come and visit the nursery, tell their friends, check the website. I’ve no doubt that the impact of his personal presence was far more effective than seeing a Tweet or an advertisement somewhere. People love plants grown locally for local conditions. People love books written locally with local stories and locations. If that’s the niche in this crowded market, then it pays both of us to address it.

That’s not to say that a writer like me can ignore all the internet-driven routes to market, but it’s clear to me that ‘viral marketing’ inspired by personal contact works really well, and it’s much more enjoyable than sitting at a keyboard.

 

 

How do people know your book exists?

If you click on the link below you’ll hear an interview I did with Paul Teague about my ‘self-publishing journey’.

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Part of that interview, towards the end, deals with the business of ‘promotion’ – how do people get to know your book exists? That was a question I asked myself right at the beginning of the process, having decided that writing for myself, or just for friends and family wasn’t going to be enough for me: I wanted people to read my stories and realised that I would have first to let them know the books existed and then to encourage and enable them to find and buy them. This would have been an issue for a traditionally published book too, but the publishers have more to spend on promotion than I could afford. So, how could I promote my books at minimal cost, in order to get sales and a readership?

When Paul Teague asked me about this aspect of the project, I realised how much I’d learned along the way, and that I’ve become increasingly pro-active. If I wanted to get on local radio, I had to ask the presenter and producer to have me air-time, and did so. If I wanted a review in a local magazine, I asked for that too. Sometimes it didn’t work, sometimes it did, but it was always worth asking. Just before the new book – working title ‘Truth Will Out’ – appears in November 2016 I will send an ‘Advance Information’ sheet to my all current sales outlets and local media. This will have all the details of the new book, cover image, ISBN, synopsis etc, to alert them, and through them their customers/listeners/readers. Hopefully this will generate people willing to buy when the book is launched. It all helps. And if the local media pick up the same information, they will help too with a short piece, or a photo, and that increases the coverage. After all, you’ve given them information to fill their pages, which is what they want.

There are so many ways to promote your work beyond the usual FB page and repeated announcements on Twitter. If your work appeals only to an internet and social media savvy clientele, that’s where you pitch it, but you may need a much more wide-ranging promotion strategy. For my Cumbria-based fiction, local people and visitors are main main pitch, and a regular visible local presence helps.

If you’re going to self-publish, ask yourself – how will people know my book exists, why should they buy it, and how can I make that easy for them? It’s not rocket-science, you just have to think it through from the buyer’s perspective, not your own.