Sunday, 26 December 2010

REMIX stats on UK Amazon

  • At some time today, Kindle sales of Remix went over the 5,000 mark, and are currently ticking up like a taxi meter in a traffic jam.
  • On Christmas eve, I received my very first cheque from Amazon, for £194.22 (buns for tea!)
  • My royalties in the UK for the seven days up to Christmas were £256.62.
  • Remix has spent 74 days in the UK Kindle top 100 so far.
  • It has 50 reviews on UK Amazon, 41 five star, 8 four star and 1 three star.
  • I am amazed and delighted.
HAPPY NEW YEAR to all my bloggie friends

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Future Me

There is a website called FutureMe, where you can write an email to be sent to yourself at a date chosen by you in the future.

I've got one in their system awaiting its moment, though I can't now remember what my concerns were at the time of writing or when it will arrive. It's interesting, because it gives you a way to juggle time.

On FutureMe's site, you can read a selection of anonymous emails, and they make poignant reading, like this one:

stop it
Stop thinking about him.
written Apr 11th, 2005, sent 1 year into the future, to Apr 13th, 2006

Did she manage to stop thinking about him? Or perhaps they got back together...

Writers are no more bound by chronology than God; we can nip back in the novel's time and change things just like a Time Lord (how handy that would be in real life). So much power confuses me, particularly with the current book, where alternating chapters deal with each heroine. It's hard to ensure one of them doesn't get to Thursday while her alter ego hasn't moved beyond Wednesday morning.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


Amazon is my new best friend.

We haven't always seen eye to eye - I remember getting a bit huffy with it a couple of years ago, though I don't suppose it noticed and I've now forgotten why. And ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) is in my opinion a waste of time, a view coloured by my entry, Trav Zander, being kicked out in the very first cull.

But Amazon has done for me what YouWriteOn, Authonomy and two years of submissions to literary agents didn't succeed in doing; it's allowed me to offer my writing via Kindle to the paying public and see whether readers like it.

And the good news is that a lot of them do. As I write, I've sold 3,166 e-copies of Remix since publishing in August, mostly in the last two months. Virtually all those are Kindle sales. I couldn't have done this with the paperback, even if I'd spent every waking hour selling it, because publishers have a monopoly on the paper book trade it's impossible to crack. Even Eragon , often quoted as an indie success story, was a flop when it was self-published; this is a quote from Wikipedia:

Paolini and his family toured across the United States to promote the book. Over 135 talks were given at bookshops, libraries, and schools, many with Paolini dressed up in a medieval costume; but the book did not receive much attention. Paolini said he "would stand behind a table in my costume talking all day without a break – and would sell maybe forty books in eight hours if I did really well. It was a very stressful experience. I couldn't have gone on for very much longer."

I feel incredibly lucky that the launch of the Kindle in the UK coincided with the decision to self-publish my third novel.

Amazon, I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Novels need readers

A novel only half exists until someone reads it. The reader completes the process the author began, which is why it's so very unsatisfactory to be an unpublished writer.

I hadn't fully realized this until I self-published Remix. I'd got intimations from members of YouWriteOn and Authonomy who read and reviewed the first few thousand words, but until members of the public choose to pay for your book and spend hours of their time reading it right the way through, you don't know how important this is. These people have a different approach to fiction from writers, agents and publishers. They don't care if you have POV switches, or if your novel doesn't neatly fit into a genre; and no one has told them that books about rock stars never sell. All they care about is whether it's a good read; whether it holds their attention and entertains them for a few hours. Their priorities are so different, I've concluded it's only the stranglehold the publishing industry has on the bookshops that has kept them in business this long.

When I was writing my first novel, Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation, I had the naive idea that if you wrote a reasonably coherent book, you could get it published, and once in the bookshops, the Public Would Decide. How wrong I was. But with the rise of independent authors, who self-publish after rejection by the mainstream, and the advent of the Kindle, we are heading for the situation I imagined, where readers get to choose.

Which is no bad thing.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Revision and editing

I came across the manuscript of the first page of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it's awesome. This is not just because of the changes he made, all of which add to the powerful effect of the novel's opening - any competent writer knows from his own experience how different the final draft is from the first. You think of a better way of getting the information across, or a neater way of putting it; you add dialogue, or as Orwell did in his first page, take it out. (For the two versions, go here.)

No, it made me realize just how fortunate writers are today to have the magic of Word at their fingertips. I'd hate anyone to watch me writing on a bad day, or a tricky part of the book. I type in a rough version that's all wrong; add bits, change it, move it around, generally tweak it till it's better. Later I have further goes at it. At some time I read it aloud, and run it through Autocrit to pick up word echoes. If I'm considering larger changes, I copy the passage into a new Word document and let myself loose without inhibitions, knowing it's only a copy. I almost invariably keep this new version and splice it back into the text. Whatever I do, Word keeps the typescript neat and legible.

All George Orwell had to compose his masterpiece was a manual typewriter and a fountain pen. How on earth did he manage?

Friday, 19 November 2010

The cost of selling to bookshops

I made a couple of visits to local Waterstones, hoping to interest them in selling Remix. The manager at the London Wall branch ordered six copies. Telling my daughter about this modest triumph, I said, "Of course, they could all come back again a bit the worse for wear in a couple of months." She asked what I meant, and I explained the system for selling books to bookshops.

The publisher sets a cover price, in my case £9.99, and a trade discount; I went for the full discount, 55%. So the bookshop pays £4.50 per copy. The print cost to me is £3.48, so I make £1.02 per sale. The bookshop decides what to charge for my book, and I certainly hope it's less than the full £9.99 (must go and check) because it's crazy for them to make five times what I do, and anyway, no one will buy it at that price.

But bookshops also require returnability. If my books don't sell, because the price is too high, or nobody notices them tucked away spine out on a low shelf, Waterstones will return them to me and get their money back. I still have to pay the printer, so I will be £20.88 worse off, unless I can re-sell these books second-hand.

"But that's retarded," said my daughter.

She's right.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

My first author interview

I fear I'm boasting again.

Simon Royle, author of soon-to-be-published futuristic thriller Tag, interviewed me for his blog, and I realized I've never been interviewed before in my capacity as a writer. Simon read Remix, too, and said he enjoyed it and it made him laugh out loud.

To see my moment of fame, go here.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

News round-up

This is going to be a bitty blog post about this and that.

First, I was tickled pink to read this fabulous review of Remix in The Romance Reviews, written by Michelle R. Her one reservation was that she would have liked more 'deets between the sheets'. I have to admit I favour letting the reader do most of the work in this area. I reckon if I've made the characters live on the page, readers will know how they make love. But I might attempt a little more in the current book. My daughter will tell me if it doesn't work, kindly but firmly the way she does.

Remix has now been in the UK Kindle top 100 for twenty-seven days; highest position 14. It has seventeen reviews, fifteen 5-star, two 4-star. I've sold over a thousand ecopies on Amazon. I'm rather pleased.

I'm pressing ahead with the WIP, An Unofficial Girl. It's currently at 30,500 words, and the plot is thickening nicely. Beth has found a derelict flat to move into. The real flats I explored in March 0n which hers is based have been sold, properly fenced off, and now have builders busy completing them.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Publishers price fixing for ebooks

Yesterday a group of big publishers started to put into practice what they call 'Agency pricing' of ebooks. This means that retailers are no longer allowed to discount the price they decide to charge. Amazon has reacted by adding the tag This price was set by the publisher below agency prices - though it's also easy to identify these books by their higher price usually ending in 99p.

When this happened in America, sales of those books fell. The same will happen here. Publishers are okay with this, as they think that if the dead tree book is cheaper, readers will buy that, which suits them just fine. They are comfortable with the status quo. They'd really, in their heart of hearts, prefer ebooks to go away.

However, what they are leaving out of the equation is piracy - the illegal downloading of ebooks free from the internet. Right now, you have to search to find the book you want, but as more Kindles sell in this country, it will become as easy as downloading a film or music is today. (Not sure how to do it? Ask any teenager.) Kindle owners don't want to buy the paperback, they want the Kindle version. And they get annoyed if they feel they are being ripped off, particularly when they have paid £149 for the Kindle in the first place.

Caroline P said on the Kindle forum: I can't believe I'm saying this... because I have never ever downloaded files illegally. Not even once. And now I'm considering it. Because if publishers want to rip ME off, maybe it's not so wrong to rip them off?

I have to say I'm watching the publishing industry shoot itself in the foot with some enjoyment. Their loss is my gain, and the gain of any independent with a realistically-priced ebook to sell.

*See also the Bookseller's article.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Ongoing Authonomy saga...

This morning, the revamped Authonomy is up and running (if rather slowly). So what are the big changes they have put in place?

Well, my two gold stars on Torbrek and Remix are now medals. This is to clear the way for a brand new star system, where you can rate books with one to six stars.

Here's how it's described:

6 stars – Excellent: Publish it. I’d buy it myself and recommend it to everyone!
5 stars – Very good: Should be on the bookstore shelves already!
4 stars – Good: Shows real promise.
3 stars – Average: Readable, but still needs work.
2 stars – Poor: Unlikely to attract readers in its current form.
1 star – Awful: Pulping is too good for it!

I think this is a bad idea; when I joined a beta Authonomy in 2008 from YouWriteOn, one of the things I liked was that it was not possible for people with a grudge or rivals to mark down my book. The worst they could do was not back it. This system is open to abuse - the revenge review was a known phenomenon on YWO.

Harper Collins say multiple accounts (sock puppets) will no longer be tolerated. But a quick look round shows that many of them are still there. They'll need to work on this, if they mean it.

The ranking system has changed. This can only be good, as it was not working big time before; some writers are already grumbling that their books which they have laboured (!) to get high in the charts have dropped overnight. I notice there's a book written entirely in Bulgarian at number 31 in the chart - interesting. Time will tell whether the new system works.

My feeling is that, so low had Authonomy sunk from its bright beginnings, that any change has to be for the better. But it hasn't so far done enough to make me want to return.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

I wasn't expecting THAT...

One of the nice things about writing is the surprises you get - the characters who emerge from their minor position in the crowd to take centre stage, demanding a name and a key role in the plot. I've just had that - one minute the guy was a nonentity at the back of the room on his computer, the next he started needling his boss. Now he's heading for an affair with one of the heroines.

Or the story; how many of us write the story we set out to write? (Apart from those organized souls who do a summary of each chapter before they start.) With any luck it'll be better than planned, but it's never quite the same. Like those Hogwarts shifting staircases in the movies, suddenly you're heading in a different direction. And that's when the book really starts to move.

Here's to wayward characters and pleasant surprises! I'm off back to writing.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

REMIX paperbacks and trailer

There's been a delay, as Lightning Source lost my revised files (how could they do that?) but today the first paperbacks of Remix were delivered, and they do look nice. I shall be sending out the pre-orders this afternoon.

I'm pleased to see that Aphrohead Books has discounted the cover price of £9.99 to £4.91 + p&p of £2.75 if you get to them through Amazon - this is why I'm giving bookshops the full 55% discount, which few self-publishers do. It's a competitive market out there.

The Kindle version is selling well - as I write it's at #1 in Contemporary Romance. See widget in sidebar for overall ranking. Woohoo!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Publishers and agents

Publishing is in an interesting state of upheaval right now. It's broken, and when it's fixed it isn't going to be quite the same.

I'm going to suggest that one major reason for this is the decision publishers took some years ago to relinquish the slushpile to agents. I'm sure on paper it made sense. No doubt they worked out the time and the cost of looking at all those desperate typescripts, 99%+ of which were no use to them, and thought they'd save some money. Agents were willing to take on the job; for free they'd filter out all the rubbish and pass the gems on to the publishers. Win/win situation.

Except it hasn't worked out like that. Of course it's worse for writers, who now have to pass two gatekeepers instead of one. But nobody in the industry cares much about writers. The problem is that agents aren't interested in taking a chance on a new writer, in the belief that two or three books on, they'll write a best seller. (Publishers used to do this; Longmans stuck with Mary Renault for several now-forgotten books until she struck gold and justified their faith.) Nor are they interested in acquiring a midlist author, because a modest advance of a few thousand pounds, though most new authors would jump at it, just isn't worth their while. 15% of 5,000 is £750, hardly enough to put a gleam in an agent's eye.

But worst of all, agents are, it seems to me, giving up on the slushpile. They are always moaning about it (funny, you don't hear owners of gold mines grumbling about all the rock they have to shift) and I have a dark suspicion a lot of it is shredded unopened. What made me decide to self-publish was my last round of five submissions. I included stamped postcards for agents to post so I'd know Royal Mail had done its stuff. Only two postcards returned. I received three form rejections, one of which had no letter heading and was signed by an intern, so I don't know who it came from.

Gone are the days when a rejected author shoved his manuscript to the back of a drawer. These days, we self-publish. Some of these books are bad. Very bad. And some of them are so good they will change the face of publishing for ever.

*See also this article from The Independent.

Friday, 1 October 2010

REMIX Book of the month on KUF!

UK Kindle Users Forum

Kindle Users Forum is a brand new UK site for the small but burgeoning group of Kindle owners. It's an elegant site, friendly and well-run, with just the right amount of moderation.

I was pleased when my novel, Remix, was one of a list of ten books suggested for KUF's first Book Club Book of the Month, and even more delighted when it won with 20% of the votes, beating Room and The Book Thief into joint second place. Although several members had read and enjoyed Remix, price may have been a consideration; my novel is the cheapest at £0.86, while Room's price, the most expensive, actually more than doubled in September to £6.50 as its publisher cashed in on its success.

Members will read Remix during October, and discuss it in November.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Life rankings

Like most authors with a book on Amazon - in my case, the Kindle version of Remix, I'm obsessed with my book's ranking in the chart. As I write, Remix is #1 in Contemporary Romance, #21 in Adult and Contemporary Romance, and #259 overall. By the time you look, it could be anything.

Those charts have the power to make one elated or downcast, and unless one's book is sitting at #1 in every possible chart, there is always something to wish for. And if one's book was at #1 in every chart, one would wish for it to stay there forever. [Note to self: must try to be more like Dalai Lama or Marcus Aurelius.]

Which made me realize how lucky we are there are few overt rankings in life, once one has left school. (JK Rowling's primary school teacher arranged the class in order of her perception of their intelligence; JKR was near the bottom, and never forgave her.)

Imagine if we were able to view our rankings, changing on an hourly basis, for our success as an earner, a parent, a spouse, a driver, a lover; if there were marks for looks, which dipped when your hair needed a wash or you had a nasty cold, or for niceness, which dived every time you were sharp with a telephone salesperson.

We'd never get anything done.

Monday, 20 September 2010

A self-publishing success story

Interview with a successful independent author

Eric Christopherson is the author of the thriller Crack-Up, which tells the story of Argus Ward, a former U.S. Secret Service agent who runs a protection agency catering to the rich and famous. His best-kept secret is his status as a high-functioning paranoid schizophrenic. One day, he turns psychotic for the first time in twenty years, and lands in a secure psychiatric facility, charged with the murder of his most famous client.

The reason I’m interviewing him here is that he’s self-published, and been remarkably successful in selling his book. To date, he’s sold over 6,000 copies of Crack-Up in ebook format, and as I write Crack-Up is at 18 in the Amazon Technothrillers category; a feat that most self-publishers, including me, would love to emulate. Of course, it helps that his book is a gripping read.

First things first: how did you come up with the idea for Crack-Up?

It’s highly autobiographical. Just kidding. Psychology (my undergraduate major) has long been an interest, and one day I thought: “Wouldn’t it be fun for readers of thrillers to read a book told from the perspective of someone who suffers from delusions and hallucinations? They wouldn’t be able to tell what’s real and what’s not.” The bonus was that the disease is very interesting in its own right, as I discovered through my research. But I didn’t have a plot to go with the character, and the idea noodled in my brain for years before one finally came to me.

Why did you self-publish?

The first literary agent to read the book (Joe Veltre, a former editor at Harper Collins and St. Martins) fell in love with it and tried hard to sell it over a period of years, ultimately without success. The most frequent reason cited for rejection by the editors who considered purchasing the book was a belief that readers would have a hard time identifying with a protagonist who suffers from a serious mental disease. But that really hasn’t proven to be the case, based on feedback from actual readers.

With the book rejected by major publishers, I had the option to turn to small publishers or to self-publish, and in July of 2009 I self-pubbed, after reading about Boyd Morrison, a thriller author whose book had also been rejected all over New York until, two years later, his agent resubmitted the novel and it finally sold to Simon and Schuster on the strength of thousands of Amazon Kindle sales. Initially, I was hoping to repeat his experience.

Initially? Have you changed your mind about mainstream publication?

Yes, I've changed my mind to some extent. A year ago, I would have jumped on any offer from a major publisher, but now I would weigh whether to do so carefully. If I were to be offered a six figure deal then that's nothing to sniff at as well as an indication the publishing house would really get behind the book, but if it's five figures, then I might actually be better off financially in the long run by holding onto my rights and continuing to self-publish because the book isn't likely to get a big push, I'd have to give away most of the book's future earnings, and publishing houses are now--thanks to the digital revolution--trying to hold on to book rights in perpetuity and I'd likely never get my rights back--unless big publishing folds due to all the recent and pending upheavals. I don't think it will, but it could look very different in five years. I predict that half the people now working for one of the Big Six publishing houses in America won't be by 2015 and that all the books they publish will be blockbusters, seven figure deals. The great thing about making predictions five years ahead is if you're wrong no one will remember but you, and if you're right, you can dig out the evidence...

What made you decide to concentrate on e-publishing, rather than bring out a paperback, or do both?

There’s a service called “Bookscan” that can be used by the publishing industry to track print sales, and I didn’t know whether I’d sell well, and therefore preferred not to have Crack-Up sales be tracked, lest the numbers haunt me down the road when, or if, I decided to approach major publishers again with the book. The sales numbers, as it turned out, have been quite good, so I don’t have that excuse anymore, and the truth is I’m lazy at self-marketing. There’s a bit of work involved in getting a print edition together. One day I’ll find the motivation, I suspect, so that people without ereaders can buy the book.

I think the most difficult thing about selling a novel, however good it is, is to get the ball rolling initially; to attain visibility on Amazon. How did you achieve this?

I was very lucky. I uploaded the novel on Amazon and then did nothing. I sold only one book in the first two weeks, but it was to a woman known as “RedAdept”: a frequent reviewer and commentator on the Amazon Kindle boards. She loved the book enough to tout it in a discussion thread or two, and within two days I’d sold over two hundred copies and reached #1 on the Amazon Movers & Shakers list. It was this experience with Crack-Up that spurred Red Adept to start her popular book reviewing blog (see I still have no personal website and although I recently established a Facebook fan page I really haven’t used it (told you I was lazy).

I noticed that Crack-Up has a lot of enthusiastic reviews on Amazon. How important were reviewers in helping to sell Crack-Up?

Crack-Up has never been reviewed except by readers and by Red Adept, but simple mention of the novel on Kindle-related sites is very beneficial. For example, Crack-Up sales peaked in June of this year, cracking the overall top 100 in the Kindle store after a mention at: A few other blog sites have been kind enough to mention the book, each time bouncing sales. I’m sure all the five-star reviews on Amazon help to sell the book, but I don’t know to what extent.

You must have learned a lot during this process. Is there anything you would do differently?

I should really get a website and solicit more blogger reviews of Crack-Up and make a dead tree version available. I’m sure I’ve squandered lots of potential sales by being lazy with the self-marketing and with getting a print book in place.

The good news is with ebooks, as opposed to print books, one doesn’t have a short time in which to make the book a success. For example, my best sales month with Crack-Up came 11 months after publishing. The passing of time often rids a print book from the store shelves but actually helps an ebook on Amazon by associating it with other ebooks and making it more visible.

Thanks for the invitation to discuss my book, Lexi. I feel less lazy today!

Crack-Up is selling on Amazon Kindle Store for the amazingly small price of £0.74, also on Smashwords for all e-formats - why not check it out?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

In praise of paper books

Today I have a guest blogger, Jim Buck, musing on what he likes about traditional books as he waits for the arrival of his brand new Kindle:

1) Bookshops are my favourite shops. I love the mystery of used bookshops; and the congregation of like-minded souls in Waterstones and places like it. If I meet someone in Waterstones, I know they are basically OK. Bookshops are the nearest I get to church attendance.

2) I love the smell and feel of a new book; its like the thrill of a new lover. It might all end in discord and discard, but I'm a little richer for the experience.

3) I love browsing other people's bookshelves; it tells me more about them than anything else; their whole history is there to see.

4) Sitting opposite someone on a train who has their nose stuck in a kindle is a less aesthetic experience than seeing an interesting book cover.

5) I have had books autographed by Doris Lessing and all sorts of interesting people. What will they do when presented with my kindle? Reboot it?

6) Some of the most enjoyable reading experiences I have had have come about through me having to read a book because no other one is available e.g when sharing a villa with friends and you exchange books, because you are read up.

So if the kindle is isn't here by the end of this week, I think I shall cancel.

Jim Buck

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Imagine agents chasing writers...

I was thinking about the people who post comments on literary agents' blogs - the ones that make you wish they'd get up off their knees and behave with a little dignity, however genuine their enthusiasm may be. You know the sort of thing:

Amazing post! Really awesome, N****n. I'll keep this by me when I write. Extremely helpful. And may I say how funny you are...

It got me wondering about what it would be like in a world where there was a shortage of writers, so that anyone who produced a readable book would be pursued by agents desperate to sign him. I went into a pleasant daydream about agents reading this blog telling me how fantastic my latest post was, and what an insight into the world of authors it had given them, while dropping discreet hints about how good their literary agency was.

Back to the real world. I've designed some beautiful bookmarks to promote Remix, which should arrive from the printers shortly. If you meet me, there is no chance at all you will not find yourself the proud owner of one of them.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Changes at Authonomy

I gave up on Authonomy a couple of months ago. The forum, completely unmoderated, had been taken over by bores and bullies, the charts were a nonsense (anyone prepared to spend months spamming, swapping shelves and voting for themselves via sock puppets could reach the top). The 'top talent spotters' achieved their status by backing each new book as it arrived before anyone else did, without even a glance at the synopsis. Harper Collins' editors couldn't be bothered to do the reviews for the top five punctually. And the site no longer even works very well; it's slow, often fails to bring up the page you want, and Reply With Quote on the forum works only occasionally.

When Authonomy started its slow downward spiral, about Christmas 2008, those of us who'd been there from beta days and loved the site made suggestions as to what could be done to remedy the situation. Long threads full of excellent ideas ran for months, all of which Harper Collins ignored. I blogged about it here and here.

Yesterday, Harper Collins announced on their blog that it was time for a change:

In recent months, we'll admit that the site has been suffering from a kind of 'vote inflation' where support was given (or traded) very freely and as a result the rank of all books has been somewhat cheapened... It is time to return to these original ideals, where your authonomy bookshelf holds the very best of the books that you have found on the site, where your five favourites grow virtually dusty on their perch until your head is turned by a new read and the decision to swap out a book becomes an agonising predicament. We want the charts to mirror more accurately a community consensus, and for the feat of reaching an editor to be based on something other than months of superhuman networking effort.

We listened to your comments on how to improve the site
[ha!]and took much of it on-board [double ha!]. We hope the changes we’ll be making will move authonomy in the right direction.

What they don't say is why they have waited so long to intervene. I have a theory. I think it's all about the bottom line. At first, the mayhem on the forum had the fascination of a multi-vehicle pile-up. People flocked to gawp, and got dragged in. It was busier than it had ever been. And with a corrupt chart, bad writers saw that a gold star was within their grasp, if they used the new ways to pimp their book. Authonomy was buzzing, so why would HC change anything?

Then it got to the stage where you needed 60-70 backings to move up one place; it took a year to struggle to the top five; no one ever got a contract for their efforts; a lot of people got sickened by the brawling on the forum. Members left.

In my opinion, HC is now bringing in some of the measures we begged for over a year ago because the site is in serious decline; falling numbers means falling revenue. It's all about money.

Will they do enough to turn the site around, and change the current bad ethos? I really hope so, but I'm not sure they grasp the scale of the problem, or will act with the necessary ruthlessness to put Authonomy back on track. It may be too little, too late.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

You should not have come here, human...

For those of us who are having a puny human day (like a bad hair day, but more all-encompassing).

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Career choices for 19th century women

I was thinking about Emma, and I realized Jane Austen could easily have written the book from Jane Fairfax's point of view. I doubt I'd like it as much, and I think she made the right choice, but it would still have been a good book. We'd get to meet the Dixons, and we'd have less about Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley (a pity, as he's my favourite Austen hero). Its theme would have much in common with Jane Eyre. This got me thinking about career choices for educated impoverished women in the 19th century.

If you were working class, the options were greater, if unappealing. You could toil on the land, be a servant, serve behind a bar or work in a brothel. But for genteel young ladies, marriage was the main provider: failing that, they could become governesses or teach. And that was about it. Mary Wollstonecraft tried being a lady's companion, then set up a school. Writing was as uncertain a way of earning a living then as now, and few achieved it.

Being a governess was not generally much fun. Governesses occupied an uneasy position between the gentry and the servants, were paid little and seldom had a change of scene, their happiness completely dependent on the family for whom they worked. One can see why Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice was willing to marry the tiresome and unattractive Mr Collins rather than face such a fate.

Jane Fairfax says, when Mrs Elton misinterprets a comment as a criticism of slavery: "I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade. Governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies."

I feel sorry for the children, too, taught by such reluctant teachers. Little Adele in Jane Eyre, parentless and needing affection, gets a chilly response from Jane, who clearly has no interest in her pupil and discharges her duties without enthusiasm. I said this to my daughter, who argued that she could tell that Jane would have been good with Adele, even if it was not in the book; look at how she was loved at the school she taught at. "Lowood?" I said, dubiously.

But it turned out she'd got her confused with Esther Summerson in Bleak House.

(The picture is by Rebecca Solomon; compare the daughter of the house in pink, enjoying the attentions of an admirer, and the poor governess drably dressed, her mind not on the child.)

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Typography and the self published novel

I've been preparing Remix for publication as a paperback (with my own micro-press, Hoxton Press) and thought others might be interested in some typography tips I've learned.

I believe the way a book looks matters enormously, and there is more to consider than you'd think. I'm lucky because I enjoy formatting, and have an obsessive and nitpicky nature that enables me to carry on tweaking until, as far as I can see, there's no more to be done.

I'm not going to discuss page numbering, headers and section breaks, though I know a lot of self-publishers have problems with them; I'll cover them in another post if there's any interest in this one.
  • Choose your font carefully; don't just go with Times New Roman. For instance, Minion, Bembo, or Warnock Pro are all recommended by Penguin typographers. I settled on Adobe Caslon, which comes in many weights and has a capital Q to die for. Consider using a different font for chapter headings, numbering and headers.
  • Don't be put off because the font you want is expensive. You can often find free font downloads on the internet. This is a good site here.
  • If preparing your text in Word rather than a specialist program like InDesign, go to Tools, Options, Compatibility, and tick Do full justification like WordPerfect 6.x for Windows. This has a magical effect on the spacing; the text immediately looks better.
  • Adjust the space between the lines till it looks right. Go to Format, Paragraph, line spacing, and choose Exactly from the drop down menu. Select a number of points 3 - 4 greater than the font size. For instance, if you are using 11 point font, try 15 point spacing. Experiment and see which looks best printed out; compare with published books.
  • Aim for around 66 characters on a line, which is said to be the easiest to read. Indents should be no more than three characters.
  • Go to Format, Paragraph, Line and page breaks and turn off Widow and Orphan control. If you leave it on, many of your pages will be shorter, looking messy. (But you will then have to check manually to avoid pages with just one line or word on them.)
  • Hunt for crowded lines of text, or lines with too large gaps between words, and improve them with an optional hyphen where you can. (Press Ctrl and -.) An optional hyphen will disappear if you make changes and the text flows so it is no longer needed.
  • Read the whole text, checking for spacing, particularly around italics. You will often find putting in a judicious extra space makes all the difference.
  • Print it out, and check it again. Make changes, print it a second time and check.
  • You're done.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Reviews and stars

This morning I wrote a five star review of a socket spanner set I bought on Amazon for a bargain £8.07 including delivery. I did it because I was pleased with my purchase, so cheap and so good, and wanted to spread the word.

That's the sort of reaction I'm hoping for my ebook on Smashwords. Good reviews and ratings will make it rise in the chart and increase its visibility, and make it more likely to be considered by people looking for something to read. Of course I want it to be a success.

But the nice thing is, at this stage there isn't much I can do about it. I can jump up and down on forums, squeaking 'Look at my book!' but if people look and don't like it, I can't change their minds. Which is just how it should be. The public always has the last word. And readers don't have to review; it's entirely voluntary. They don't get anything out of it, and have no reason not to be honest. (I haven't noticed other writers touting for a reciprocal review, though I'm too much of a newbie to be certain yet.)

It's great when somebody loves my book, and tells me so. But I am grateful to anyone who takes the time to share their thoughts about my writing. The correct response to any review is thank you. One just has to hope there aren't too many where one is typing thank you sobbing over the keyboard.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Ebooks and pbooks

Love them or hate them, ereaders and ebooks are going to be big.

For £149, readers in the UK can now order a Kindle with Wi-Fi and 3G that is lighter and brighter than earlier more expensive versions. Wherever you are, you will be able to download books; many, including the classics, free of charge.

Readers here, like those in America, will embrace the new technology because it's just so darned handy. I remember sitting in the Fracture Clinic at the Royal London Hospital, envying the American woman next to me who had a whole library in her handbag (and with the waiting times at that clinic, I could have read several entire books during my four visits, the longest of which was nearly six hours).

It's good for writers, too; because while publishers are clinging to the notion that ebooks should cost about the same as a paperback, writers can sneak into the gap in the market, self-publish an ebook on Smashwords and Kindle, charge a minimal amount and make a decent profit.

I've just epublished Remix on Smashwords: it's available in all formats, and for a week, in the hope of drumming up reviews and ratings, I'm offering free downloads. Just go to Smashwords and use this coupon code: QE49G.

I'm covering all bases. A paperback version will be along shortly.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Final decision! (Possibly...)

Right. This is the title, and this is the cover.

Almost certainly.

I think.

*clears throat*

Actually, no, it's REMIX.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Name my book

As suggested by Norm, I'm asking my trusty blog readers to come up with a better title for my book than Heart of Rock.

The original title was Catch a Falling Star, then Jade Goody used it, so I had to find a new one. Although there is no copyright on titles, it's an advantage to have a unique one so people can find it on Amazon.

Left is the cover, and here is a brief synopsis:

Ric Kealey is the charismatic lead singer of ├╝ber-successful band, The Voices in my Head – and he died three years ago. Caz Tallis restores rocking horses in her Hoxton studio. When Ric turns up, shabby and alive, on Caz’s roof terrace, she is drawn into investigating the murder that led him to fake his own death.

The prize for a title I use? I will name a character in my next book after you, or give your pet a walk-on part.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Fretting over the cover

Book covers are important; people really do judge a book by its cover.

Vital for sales, they will attract a reader to pick up the book or click on the image - or not. Publishers decide what you get, because they are the best judge of what will sell. It must be nail-biting for an author, waiting to see how his book will look, when he has little or no say in the final decision.

A recent favourite of mine is the beautiful and witty cover of Gary Corby's soon-to-be-released The Pericles Commission; browsing yesterday in Waterstones I thought that the images and lettering on books has never been better - even though they are subject to fashion, and are now more genre-specific than they've ever been.

It's a bit daunting for anyone like me who plans to self-publish - but at least I won't get lumbered with something I hate. I've resumed my tempestuous love affair with Adobe Photoshop 7.0, and the image here is my best effort so far.

The purpose of this post is to get a reaction from readers of my blog. If you click on the picture it comes up larger. What do you think? Would you pick this up in a bookshop? Should I have the boasty quote on the front? And what would you expect the novel to be like going by this cover?

Honest opinions, please, don't spare my feelings.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Endings and beginnings

We are constantly told the first page of our novel is vital in grabbing the attention of a reader. Ray Rhamey in his blog Flogging the Quill analyses what works and what doesn't for readers who send him their first chapter. He often suggests that the writer is starting in the wrong place, and gets his readers to vote on an alternative beginning. My friend Alan Hutcheson told me to start Trav Zander a couple of pages in, and everyone preferred his first line: "I wish to acquire a dragon."

I think endings are as important as beginnings - after all, it's the last thing your reader reads, and you want her to put the book down with a satisfied sigh, not hurl it across the room.
Jane Austen knew what happened to her characters after the novel ended, and would sometimes disclose a tantalizing detail in her letters, for example that Jane Fairfax died early. But she doesn't tell the reader that.

Do all novelists know what happens after the last page? I do. I know what Trav and Isolda do next, and who Caz marries. I'm not prepared to reveal anything after THE END, though, even supposing anyone was interested, because the point at which your story stops is important. With Jane Austen, it was invariably the marriage of hero and heroine, and a couple getting together remains a popular happy ending to this day. After the ceremony, they subside into domesticity, children and contentment - and who wants to read about that? Poor Jo in Jo's Boys, married to a dreary middle-aged German and fostering lots of children makes one grind one's teeth, after her feisty start in Little Women.

Much as I like a happy ending, I prefer to leave the ends of my books a little open, so that the reader is left speculating on what will happen next, rather than tying up every loose end too neatly. Just as long as they don't get it wrong...

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Tell me about your baddie

I realized the other day I like virtually all my characters, even the unpleasant ones, with very few exceptions. Can this be because they all represent a facet, however minor and repressed, of my own personality? They let me explore my undesirable traits I strive to control in real life. Perhaps my villains and baddies are like the Queen's corgis, who being dogs and not royal get to misbehave in a way Her Majesty would never allow herself to.

In Heart of Rock one of my favourite characters is Jeff Pike, The Voices' drummer, rich, impulsive, rude, foul-mouthed, a sexual predator; but also mixed-up, needy, with an abusive childhood and an undeclared love for the hero, lead singer Ric Kealey. He was fun to write.

So what I want the writers reading this to do today is tell me about one of your less agreeable characters: book title, character's name, what is horrible about him and why you like him - if you do. A brief quote, if you can find one that sums him up, would be good.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Speech marks - double or single?

Which do you like? And which do you use?

I prefer double, but I've always used single in my novels, for the simple reason that the key is right there, conveniently to the right of the semi colon, not requiring the Shift key. For double, it's Shift and 2. I believe on USA keyboards it's more accessible, which may be why they've stuck to double while in the UK these days we use either.

Now I am cursing myself for taking the line of least resistance. In order to accommodate American readers when I e-publish, I made the change in Heart of Rock, and it's been far from straightforward. Find and Replace changes all the apostrophes, too, and it takes hours to track each one down and correct it. And I care about apostrophes.

I'm not sure I've succeeded, either; I think I'll have to print the book out and read it through, possibly with a ruler under each line. Which is really annoying, as the typescript was, as far as one can ever say, typo-free.

Instead of an appropriate image, here is a nicer one of the blackbird who makes himself at home in my workshop. He's sunbathing.

Sunday, 27 June 2010


In my occasional and arbitrary series on punctuation, I have reached one of my favourites, the ellipsis. I like it so much I have to be careful not to overdo it, for fear of giving my typescript a fly-spotted appearance.

You can use ellipses:
  • to indicate missing words in a quoted passage
  • to let a sentence trail off in an intriguing manner
  • in dialogue to suggest hesitation or reservations
Lynne Truss writes amusingly and authoritatively about the ellipsis in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but oddly doesn't mention how handy it is in dialogue.

Dialogue in a novel is not like genuine conversation; it lacks the repetition, the scrappiness and the verbal tics of the real thing. You'd drive the reader mad with a true depiction of the way people speak. No, good dialogue in a novel is a stylized version of speech which yet convinces the reader that it is natural, and for this the ellipsis is invaluable.

My current heroine, Beth, lacks confidence, and at the start of An Unofficial Girl lets people walk over her. One way I show this is the hesitant way she speaks, just asking for people to interrupt. I don't know how I'd manage without those three dots.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

What agents want

My sister bought me a book she'd enjoyed and thought I might like, The Last Time They Met, by Anita Shreve. It didn't sound quite my sort of thing: crimes of passion, incest, negligence, loss and guilt, but I started to read it. And stopped again. Here are the first two lines:

She had come from the plane and was even now forgetting
the ride from the airport. As she stepped from the car, she

Word echoes: from three times, she three times. Now I know no normal, non-writing reader would notice this, or mind it if he did. Goodness, look how popular Stieg Larsson's novels are, and on one of his first pages, I found five sentences in one short paragraph beginning with She. But you'd think an editor would pick it up.

Of course, what made it a real turn-off for me is the fact that as an unpublished author, I'm constantly being told that any error, particularly on the first page, will cause my typescript to be tossed in the shredder. If my writing is not polished till it shines, it has no chance of getting read by an agent's assistant, let alone reaching the shelves of a bookshop.

I no longer think this is so. What agents are looking for, it seems to me, is not a polished book; nor is it a book that they fall in love with (whatever they say). They are looking for a book they believe they can sell to a publisher.

That's all.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

I'd prefer to blame Royal Mail, on the whole...

This round of submissions I've taken to enclosing a stamped self-addressed postcard for the agent to post to let me know my chapters have arrived. The messages I put on them are getting increasingly frivolous:

Your chapters are now with our team of readers, being passed eagerly from hand to hand was the latest.

And the worrying thing is, three out of five haven't come back.

Is this because Royal Mail has lost my submissions, or my postcards? London deliveries are now so unreliable, this could easily be the case. Or have my envelopes joined a tottering stack of similar unopened submissions, waiting till the lowliest intern has time to send the lot form rejections? I can imagine that, too.

Unpublished writers are told to do our research; personalize our query, check out the writers the agent represents, submit in the exact format the agent requires. It's a downer to feel that this doesn't mean our submissions will necessarily even be read. My feeling is that the slush pile has now become such a burden to agents that they prefer to find their authors elsewhere. I've been approached by one agent via Authonomy, and by another after submitting a short story for a contest.

No wonder people pay Cornerstones or The Literary Consultancy hundreds of pounds in the hope of being thought good enough for referral to an agent, or throng to literary festivals to pitch their novels in person, or spend £99 on a day's writing workshop at Harper Collins' headquarters. These days, unless a new writer is very lucky, he needs to find some shortcut that avoids the slush. Any ideas?