Showing off in the ‘summer’

Millom show

Millom and Broughton Show, Cumbria, August 26th 2017. 

On Saturday August 26th, all being well, I’ll be in one of the big tents at this agricultural show in the gorgeous show field behind Broughton village. With any luck it’ll be dry and sunny and plenty of people will be there, some of whom will make their way to the crafts tent. That’s where I’ll be, at a table with my books on display and a banner and posters explaining who I am and what my books are about.

I’ll sell and sign some books at a ‘special show discount’, hand out some bookmarks, and take names and contact information from people wanting the new book when it comes out next year. But the main purpose of the day, and the most enjoyable part, is meeting people. Some of them will seek me out, to continue conversations begun last year: others will have read some of the books but not met me before, which is great fun. Others again won’t know either me or the books and with any luck I’ll start them at book 1 – A Good Liar’ – and they’ll follow the series through. I know some writers find meeting readers to be a bit of a drag, but I love it.

The Cumbria summer shows are really about farming and all aspects of our farming communities. from tractors to poultry, flowers to jam. And there I am in the middle of it all. talking about local history and stories rather than the esoteric mysteries of novel writing. People love reading books set where they live, and I love talking about what my research uncovers and how I weave the characters and the setting together.

There’s a show somewhere around Cumbria almost every weekend day from June to September and I could have a ‘table’ at all of them if I had enough stamina and was sufficiently well-organised. Writing and selling my Cumbrian novels is a creative enjoyable hobby that just about pays for itself. I enjoy almost every aspect of it – apart from proof-reading which has to be farmed out to someone with the right kind of brain. Going to a few of the ‘summer’ shows is part of the enjoyment, but too many might be a chore. So I’ll be at Millom and Broughton on Saturday, possibly Grasmere on Sunday if my accident-related injuries allow for a second day, and then Eskdale and Wasdale in a few weeks. Financially the profit may be small, but the social rewards will be great.

You’ll have noticed the ambivalence about ‘summer’. As I write, it’s cold and windy outside with heavy showers rattling through every few minutes, much the same as most of this month so far. And the month is August! Any resemblance to real summer might happen – as it often does – in September as the kids head back to school. But that’s why England is so green, and Cumbrian lakes and waterfalls so beautiful. The Lake District mountains are glorious too, when you can see them. They say when the air is clear enough to see the view it’s about to rain, and when you can’t see the view it’s already raining. Hey ho.

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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.

 

Do readers need a ‘friend’ if the context is complicated?

Three years ago I was in the final stages of writing my third novel Fallout, which had as its backdrop the nuclear reactor accident at Windscale in Cumbria in October 1957.windscale-disaster-6-638

Deciding on that context for a story about finding love in later life was a gamble. For a start, the background might end up being much more interesting than the main story line. And dealing with a real event was always going to be tricky. It’s a touchy subject here in Cumbria even after sixty years: the final report on the incident used a phrase about ‘local errors of judgement’ that still rankles. (Actually the phrase was inserted into the report by the Macmillan government as a way of explaining the incident to the Americans without blaming the government’s own rushed reactor building programme.) And of course, because it was a ‘real’ incident within living memory it was essential for me – a local ‘offcomer’ – to get the facts right.

The inside story of the reactor fire was a complicated technical issue. How was I going to help the non-scientific reader to understand what was really going on, and why the key the decisions were made? The plan was to place a character on the inside of the Windscale whose job was to ask questions about the operation of the reactor. This character would act as the reader’s ‘friend’, gathering information in an intelligible way. in ‘Fallout’ this character was Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research facility near Oxford.

In my next book  ‘Burning Secret’ I face the same issue – explaining farming to a non-farming readership, and then clarifying the complications of a catastrophic infection that decimated our farm animals in 2001. I need a character that acts as the ‘guide’ to a specialist subject for a non-specialist audience. Talking to a local dairy farmer last week it occurred to me how to handle this. dairy_farmerLarge dairy farms often employ people to help with milking and the care of the herd, but during the outbreak restrictions were introduced that made it impossible for dairy farm workers to work normally, going home after work and coming back the next day. This particular farm asked a family friend from Liverpool to come and stay on the farm for the duration to help them, and the young man had no experience of farming life. He reacted to the everyday routines of the farm as you or I might, noticing things that the farmers took for granted, asking naive questions, making mistakes through lack of experience. In literary terms, this character’s function is somewhere between the Greek chorus and the gravediggers in Hamlet, and more emotionally detached than the farmers themselves as the outbreak spread ever closer. In a crime story, as this will be, the ‘stranger’ can also be a useful source of tension and mystery. Let’s see how it all turns out.

What’s the best ‘crowd’ for ‘crowd-funding’?

Having done my deal with Unbound.com to publish my next book ‘Burning Secret‘ – a crime story set during the Cumbria foot and mouth disease crisis in 2001- there’s now a link unbound.com/books/burning-secret to the page where the project is explained, illustrated and presented in a video. Alongside all this information is a list of possible pledges that interested people can make, ranging from the simplest – the ebook of ‘Burning Secret’ – to the more elaborate, a customised tour of West Cumbria with the author (me) to find the key sites and settings of my novels. The project needs hundreds of these pledges, small and larger, to reach the target fund and get the book published.

2013-11-14-crowdfundingIt’s called ‘crowd-funding’ – a term only vaguely familiar to me before I started down this road. I wonder how it really works: do people actually pay money up front for something that may not appear for months, and if so what motivates them to do so?

Apparently Unbound are interested in this too, and the research they’ve commissioned seems to be saying that people like to feel part of the project: their willingness to join this ‘crowd’ is about being a member of a shared enterprise, an insider, a patron not just a reader.

I have to admit that as a pre-internet adult, growing up before ‘social media’ were even dreamt of, all this has been something of a mystery to me. More importantly, I guess it must be something of a mystery to many of my readers too. Book buyers of my generation expect the book to be finished and ready to buy before we pay our money for it. We might buy online, but this ‘pre-order and be part of the supporters’ club‘ notion may feel odd.

If that’s true, if the baby-boomer generation doesn’t ‘get’ crowd-funding, then I need to think again about finding those pledges. ‘You have to nag people,’ is the advice I get about this, but nagging goes against the grain. I feel I have a relationship with many of the people I’m asking for pledges, and that this relationship could be jeopardised by pushing them to behave in a way that feels unfamiliar. ‘Do this for me, please’ sounds whiney and manipulative.

Clearly I have some thinking to do, or perhaps I’m just reacting too quickly and the crowd-funding process just takes longer than I expected. In the meantime the necessary link  https://unbound.com/books/burning-secret is being widely shared, but the numbers of visits to the link far outweigh the number of actual pledges. Is this what happens?

Here’s the question, does the crowd ‘pond’ from which pledges are drawn need to be wide and shallow, or small and deep?  Maybe I should focus on getting a smaller number of high-level ‘donations’ and sponsorship, rather than chasing individual pre-orders. Any suggestions?

‘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.

 

 

Self-publishing with pride and integrity

Last week someone whose name I’ve already forgotten wrote a piece about all the reasons why she couldn’t possibly self-publish her ‘literary’ fiction. I read it expecting to find the usual catalogue of poor information and ill-disguised intellectual snobbery, and there it all was, again. Not sure why anyone gave the piece an airing, except that they probably knew it would cause a stir, and here I am responding to it like a fish to bait.

Whenever I read or hear these well-worn points I wonder who the writer has been talking to. It’s obviously someone who doesn’t care much about the quality of their writing, can’t be bothered with a proper editor, goes straight to ebook and spends much energy manipulating the publication figures to make their stuff appear to be a best-seller. Granted, living as I do in beautiful West Cumbria, I don’t know many writers, but I don’t recognise this person at all.

Here’s an alternative view of self-publishing, from my own experience.

My naive expectation that any agent would be interested in the early draft of my first novel was quickly dispelled. I could have spent more time trying repeatedly to find an agent – far more time incidentally than I have ever spent on promoting my books – but preferred to write the novel rather than begging letters. I’ve never had much patience, and like to manage my own affairs, and both of those propelled me towards self-publishing, along with a little money to invest with which to ‘back myself’ as my accountant put it. ‘If you cover your costs,’ he said, ‘you’ve succeeded.’

From the very start I wanted to produce a book to the highest standard I could manage. It had to be the best writing I was capable of at the time, well-edited, well-designed and look good on the shelf. This would be my legacy and I had to feel happy about it. Self-respect matters in self-publishing.

Among my oldest friends are two people who edit and design books, mostly non-fiction, but I trust and respect them for their passion and their skills. We have worked closely together on each of the four novels I have written so far, with the fifth due out in November 2016. After the first one took three years to write, it’s been one book each year, and hard work. Most of that time is spent on research and planning, the writing and editing will take around five months, and I’ll fit any promotion activities around the core business. All the books are on Kindle, and in paperback. My sales come from local shops, a Cumbria-based distributor, the usual national distributors, Amazon and my website as well as ebooks, which tick along at about 30 each month with very little push from me. Last year I also made over £2000 selling direct to people I met while doing talks to groups around Cumbria, almost all of which were in the evenings when I wouldn’t be writing, and were also very enjoyable. I’m on Twitter and half-heartedly on FB, have my own website and write a weekly blog post. My limited social media activity is mainly about keeping up with family news and promoting my beloved Cumbria.

Each book costs about £5000 to produce and print, and various running costs include a small amount for storage and help with fulfilling orders and keeping track of the finances, neither of which I want to do myself. It’s hard to quantify precisely, but I just about break even. The first book ‘A Good Liar’ has already been reprinted, and the second is down to the last few dozen copies and will be re-printed shortly, with a new cover incidentally as I’m not convinced about my original choice. Reprinting is much cheaper than the first run, while the selling price remains the same. ‘You do the math’. Each new book stimulates sales of the previous ones and increases my ‘shelf-presence’ as an author. I make all my own decisions about the content and production of my novels: they may not be the best choices in commercial terms but they are consistent with my own values and notion of quality, and I’m happy about that.

Do I make much money? No. Do I feel proud of what I’m doing, after a life-time of longing to write fiction? Yes. Do I recognise the self-publishing writer portrayed in the post I read last week. No. That’s not me.

‘Proactive promotion’:investing time, not money

I’ve just done an interview with Paul Teague for his forthcoming podcast series about self-publishing and it got me thinking about the challenge which faces all self-published authors – how to get people to notice your book when you haven’t got the budget for promotions that traditional publishers have.

Let’s assume that you have no money to spend on promotion: what can you do at no cost? First, there’s the local newspapers in your area. Every day, or every week, they have papers to fill with local news. They don’t have the staff or the time to sniff out stories of interest to their readers, and you can help by taking your story to them, in a form that they can use with minimum effort. If you have a tame PR person among your acquaintance, get them to show you how to write a press release, and then do one to send out. Alternatively, look at the newspapers and magazines that people who might be interested in your book would be most likely to read, and analyse the articles in there. How long are they, what kind of headline, and content, and style? Write something like this about your book, thinking of a ‘hook’ that might attract the interest first of the editor and then of their readers. Visual stuff helps too. Do you have a picture of yourself holding the book, or talking to a group about it? Is it of good enough quality to go straight into the paper alongside the article you’ve written? If so, send both the piece (with the word count in brackets at the end) and the picture to the features editor with a note explaining who you are, and ask if they could use it. In my experience, they will, and you now have a few hundred words and a picture in your local newspaper for nothing.

What about your local library? They often have readers’ groups, or do special author events. If you write or see the person responsible locally for organising these groups, tell them about your book and what you might enjoy talking about, and see if they’re interested. Don’t expect to be paid for the talk or your travel. This is a ‘loss leader’, but they will promote the event, again with a blurb and a picture around the area and probably online as well, and if you ask they will invite a photographer from the local paper to come and take the picture for publication with a short caption explaining what you were doing, what the book is about. That’s two promotion strategies in one shot, and again it costs you nothing but your time and travel.

Local radio? They need to find newsworthy local stories for hours of air time every day. Check out the presenters online, listen to what they do and then decide which of them and their listeners might be interested in your book. Write, email or call them and be persistent if needs be, without being a pain. Send your chosen person a copy of the book and a summary of its content, and some ideas about what you might talk about. The presenters often have a journalism background, so a well-presented press release would be familiar to them too. Radio is far easier to get access to than television. They might be wary of whether you will come across well on radio, so if you’ve had any prior experience in this field they would find that reassuring. They won’t pay, and might suggest that you go to the nearest studio and have your interview from there. My suggestion would be that you go to where the programmes is being made and have a face to face conversation with the presenter, which comes across far better, and you have then you have actually met the presenter, which will help if you want to go on the programme again with your later books.

All these approaches take time, but without them you may have a great book and no buyers. Doing any of these for the first time may seem difficult or nerve-wracking, but so it is with anything new, and your confidence grows with practice and experience. The second step is so much easier than the first. There’s lots more you can do: this is just a start.