Saturday, 28 June 2014

Try before you buy...

Going to a bookstore isn't possible for everyone. But we all like to take a sneak peek at a book before we buy - especially if it's by an author with whom we're not familiar. I know I do.

Severn House, publishers of the Harry Tate series, and the new Marc Portman series opener, 'The Watchman' have come up with a solution. Through an arrangement with Aerbooks, samples of the books are now available as a web-based extract which readers can check out, to get a sense of what the writing is all about.

All you need to do is click on these links:

'Red Station' -
'Tracers' -
'Deception' -
and - the first Marc Portman,
I hope you'll feel free this fine weekend (or any other, come to that), to take a look at these titles and see if they take your fancy.
The next step is to decide where to buy, and that depends on your preference, be it your local book store or online or, if you happen to like signed hardbacks, through Goldsboro Books - that fine bijou bookstore in London's West End (who mail out all over the world and, for all I know, even beyond).
Happy reading and have a good weekend!

Friday, 27 June 2014

Don't Forget the Author

In the growing and long-running row between publishers and Amazon, the internet giant is seeking rights to publish their own edition of a paper book if stocks run out. They would do this using POD (Print On Demand) technology.

On the face of it, this proposal seems a no-brainer; after all, you can't sell a damn thing if the market stall is empty. Duh.

But hang on. What about the author?

As one of those lunatics with a foot in both camps (I'm published by traditional legacy publishers and I do my own thing on Kindle, because I like to make my business - and living - where I can), I'm very fortunate on both scores. I get to decide on my own covers and layout for my self-published books, but I'm also fortunate to work with a publisher (Severn House) who, six books down the line (the Harry Tate and Marc Portman spy series), still asks me my opinion on the proposed cover and blurb. Which is very nice of them.

But this isn't the norm, I gather, so I count myself lucky. Because it's not just marketing gurus who know the importance of cover design. Having conceived and written a book, the last thing any author wants is a cover that comes across like a damp handshake from a man in a grubby raincoat.

But whether you get a say in this process or not, what Amazon is proposing puts a greater distance between author and book. We sign away the rights to a publisher in the full knowledge of what we are doing. Fair enough. But having another party then jumping in to decide on printing, layout and design of the same product (even if, as has been suggested, they would want the electronic files - and therefore presumably the same design structure - from publishers), it would inevitably become open to change on quality, layout, colour, paper, structure - in fact all the things which make a book look good.

I've seen some POD books, and while some are good, some aren't. They look cheap.

This latest proposal has, predictably, prompted further charges of 'bullying' from industry sources. Although as I write this, and if BBC reports are true, it's the independents who have voiced concerns, while some of the Big 5 have refused to comment.

Why is that?

There are two ways traditional publishers can go on this issue. One is to cave in and agree to this, thereby in the process potentially handing over complete production responsibility to Amazon. Worryingly, this might appeal to some of the bean counters in the industry, who would see this is a way of cost-cutting. Authors? Who the hell are they? They signed on the dotted line, didn't they?

The other way (which I favour) is for publishers to grow some and say no.

There's an even simpler way of stopping this proposal in its tracks - one which they already control: they could make sure a book doesn't go out of stock in the first place.

After all, Amazon isn't the only company to have POD facilities.

As anyone who has worked in any sales industry will know, every product has its own momentum - especially when new. If that momentum slows or stops for any reason, it's very hard to get it back. Sometimes impossible.

And if there's anything more frustrating than the damp handshake I refer to above, it's the knowledge that readers cannot get your book even if they want it. Because they'll simply go somewhere else.

And there's not a thing we can do about it.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Why I wrote 'The Lost Patrol' - a ghost story that begins in WW1

Living next to a cemetery can have a fairly profound effect on a boy of 11 with a vivid imagination. Living next to a WW1 war cemetery in France even more so.

When I was 9 years old I moved to France with my parents when my father got a job as a gardener with the War Graves Commission, looking after allied cemeteries from two world wars. We ended up living next to a large Australian military cemetery on a hill, miles from anywhere, which meant spending lots of time mooching around trying to find trouble in which to get. Not that easy when all you can see is empty rolling fields… and endless lines of headstones in neat rows, with strict orders to leave alone.

It was actually a lovely place; quiet and serene, the only sound that of skylarks - if you could appreciate it for what it was. Unfortunately, prompted by boredom, I think my 11-year old brain eventually slipped into early fiction mode, seeing ghosts where there were none, supported by vague images of battlefields and trenches and feats of great courage.

I retained a memory for years after of shadows moving among the headstones in the evening, of men in WW1 uniform standing chatting, exchanging cigarettes and whiling away their time – of which they had a lot, of course.

This stayed with me, teasing at the edges of my imagination, until I decided to do something about it. That something became ‘The Lost Patrol’, a novel for young adults (and even old adults), about a group of soldiers lost in limbo after being caught in an artillery barrage and vaporised, presumed wrongly by their regiment to have deserted.

It occurred to me, what might happen to these men if they couldn’t move on, trapped by rumour and dishonour? Could they make their own transition to a final resting place? And would it work so long after the event?

Well, anything’s possible, so I placed a teenage boy, Robbie Greene, on a reluctant holiday in the area and bored as only young boys can be (I knew what that was like). As it turns out, he's not alone. But he's the only person who can see these spirits wandering among the headstones and looking for somebody to help them get away. Because if they don't, a fresh horror awaits them: beings known as the ‘Dark Ones’ are coming to drag them down into a place where there is nothing; no Heaven and no hell, no future and no past.
Robbie has trouble dealing with this at first. Because ghosts don't exist, do they? But they do exist and their leader, the enigmatic Sergeant Stone, is very persuasive. And frankly, as far as Robbie's concerned, anything's better than boredom.

‘The Lost Patrol’ (which has a fair bit of dark humour) is all about coming of age, of finding something deep inside, of courage and hope and facing up to things you never imagined, to fears you didn't even know you had.
Just as thousands of ordinary young men did a hundred years ago in 1914.
But mostly it’s about that thing we all think about from time to time: what if… ?
'The Lost Patrol' - available on Kindle:


Update to 'Beginners' page in Writing Magazine

'Play the Part' - or getting inside your character's heads, might have been another way of putting the focus of July's 'Beginners' page in Writing Magazine. It's a useful trick if you can pull it off, if only because it allows you to step aside from your own persona while writing about a character, and absorb yourself in how he or she might talk, think or behave. Do it well and it will project itself onto the page and avoid all your characters sounding similar.

It's also much more enjoyable for a writer to inhabit these parts - especially the villains - because it allows us to get down and get dirtier than we might otherwise be. I've found from experience that it makes the writing easier, too, because once inside their head, the dialogue, mannerisms and actions pretty much write themselves.

The idea for the article came to me after seeing a mediaeval re-enactment group staging battle scenes over a weekend, during which time they dressed, ate, drank and lived their parts, including scripted running battle scenes in the nearby forest with much clashing of battler-axes, swords and other weaponry. (There was also a fair bit of abuse in the air, but since much of our modern-day foul language seems to originate from the middle ages, you can't say they weren't staying in character).

Mind you, one member (a large and intimidating man with an awesome battle-axe, did fall out of character at one point when he pulled out a phone and was heard to say, 'OK, mum - I'll be leaving shortly. See you later.')


Sunday, 15 June 2014

It's hardly all Amazon's fault...

‘A Living Wage for All Amazon Workers’ (£7.65 is the figure quoted in the Living Wage campaign) sounds an admirable title. And the book itself was placed on the Amazon website to draw attention to the wages paid by the internet giant to their staff.

But the book was a spoof and has now been withdrawn.

No surprise there.

The people responsible are no doubt chuffed with themselves that they managed this.

But while I sympathise with the workers involved, have the campaigners stopped to think that most authors would love to earn a living wage from their writing, but that most have to have second jobs?

This all comes amid a large volley of criticism of Amazon/Kindle, accused variously of being evil, bullying and a whole lot more, responsible for closing down bookshops and vilified across much of the publishing industry.

Hang on. On that last point, didn’t Waterstones do the same? Remember Ottakers (their rival bookshop chain?) The best bookshops anywhere. Bought them, rebranded them, changed them beyond recognition (including stopping authors being involved with readers). Killed them dead. And in the process piled books high and sold them cheap, with 3-4-2s if the publishers were willing to buy the space.
Indies couldn’t compete. RIP many indie bookshops.

I find the whole anti-Amazon campaign surprising, frankly. Especially when millionaire authors are stacking up against them, too. The Pattersons of this world may spit against Amazon, but he’s hardly your average struggling author. The irony is, Amazon has contributed to his massive sales figures.

The fact is, we all have a collective responsibility for the Amazon/Kindle dominant position (and I'm happy to admit that I rely on them like most other authors):
Publishers because they didn’t see it coming.
Agents ditto.
Authors because we (most of us) are listed by and also buy books from them.

But there’s a level of hypocrisy in much of the ranting from the industry and others.

Publishers are happy to use Amazon as a marketing/distribution tool – something which would cost a fortune if they had to do it all themselves. Some have also benefitted from what is as a visible and searchable source for new authors – ie: a slush pile – as the creation of the Kindle self-publishing tool has given them easy access to promising authors, along with a ready-made audience.

So they are both critic and beneficiary.

Agents are in a similar position. They might not like Amazon, but they have to acknowledge that sales via Amazon creates income for them and their authors.
Authors (see above).

Book buyers can spot a book in a bookshop, then check Amazon to see how much it costs, and have it within days or minutes, depending on the platform.

Quite simply, Amazon is a behemoth created by astute businessmen, a lazy industry and modern market demand. The fact that they use clever tax schemes to avoid paying too much money to the exchequer is down to clever lawyers and accountants and not so clever tax authorities and law makers.
But they're hardly alone in that among big businesses.

What will happen if the anti-Amazon crusaders get their way, which is to see the giant cut down to size – or worse, closed?
Will the critics hand back any income derived via Amazon?

Will it help those workers laid off – you know the ones currently 'not earning a living wage'?

Would bookshops be willing or able to fill the gap?

Would publishers spend more on marketing and distribution?

Would authors earn a living wage?

No, is the answer. The horse would have bolted. Close the door and turn off the light.

The only thing that would change is that authors would eventually find another way of getting their work out there. Like the music world, they would change the way business is done.

Because that’s what happens when the existing business model cries 'unfair' but refuses to help.



Monday, 2 June 2014

Update to 'Writing Stuff' tab - see above.

June's issue of Writing magazine features a new 'Beginners' article - 'Make Yourself Visible' - and a new debut author - Sarah Sky.