Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Decoding a novel

It's easy to forget just how remarkable books are; black symbols on white paper or screen create images and concepts in our mind which can make us laugh or weep. The strange process of reading, once it has been acquired in childhood, is forgotten and taken for granted. This is a miracle that enables a truly good book to transport us to another world and consciousness in a totally absorbing way.

A reader reviewing Remix said, "... as I was reading it, it played through like a film in my mind. Very rarely a novel appears like a film to me and it's a sure fire sign that I'm enjoying it."

When I write a scene, I observe it as if it were a film; so the film playing in my mind was transcribed, published, sent to her Kindle, then replayed as a film for her. Interesting to speculate on the differences between our respective films; Caz's workshop imagined by her will not be the same as my image of it, as it's based on places she has never been to - but if I've done my job well it'll be none the worse for that. (I wonder what her Ric Kealey looks like? Drop dead gorgeous, of course...)

Thinking about this, it occurs to me that books are written in code, and only the right reader is able to correctly decode them.  It is a joy for a writer when a reader totally 'gets' her novel, and of course, not everyone will, even with the most popular authors. Myself, I reckon my decoding of Jane Austen or Mary Renault is in the high nineties, percentage-wise, but for Dan Brown, DH Lawrence or Dostoevsky it's down in the low thirties.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Doomed, we're all doomed!

It's been a week for prognostications of doom about the future of publishing, with Ewan Morrison writing at inordinate length about how grim everything is in The Guardian, and Graham Swift maintaining the rise of digital books could even mean authors would stop writing (yeah, right). I wondered whether the invention of the printing press had met with similar reactions, and pootled round Google to find out.

I got a bit waylaid...

Apparently, the Black Death was the catalyst that speeded transition from hand-copied manuscripts on vellum to printed books on paper. Many monks closeted in crowded monasteries fell victim to the plague, leaving fewer scribes; the price of manuscripts, already hugely expensive, went up. A vastly reduced population became better-off as they inherited from those who had died. They bought new clothes the way you would, thus making lots of rags available for the production of paper; the cost of paper books went down.

Printers now decided what to print, rather than the Church. It made sense to print the books readers wanted. They realized that the real market was not for big heavy volumes of the Bible and religious tracts, but for smaller and cheaper books on a wide range of subjects. The Church was no longer in charge of the dissemination of knowledge, because it could no longer control what people read. It got rather cross about this, but there was nothing it could do to halt the rise of the new technology beyond issuing dire warnings to an unheeding public.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Writing the next novel...

Jonathan Morris said about writing a screenplay, There are three stages of writing a script: being unable to start it, being stuck in the middle, and being unable to finish it. Just like novels, then. It's a wonder so many get written.

One of my favourite quotes is Lynne Truss's, concerning well-meaning friends who enquire how you are getting on with your book. "It was peculiar," they say to one another, when I pop out of the room. "All I said was, 'How's the novel?' and look, she bit my hand." I know from personal experience this also applies to silversmithing, and no doubt all other fields of creative endeavour. Stick to asking where your friend is going on holiday is my advice.

How terrible life must have been for Harper Lee after she had written her one and only hugely successful novel. To Kill a Mockingbird is a hard act to follow. She worked on another book, called The Long Goodbye, but eventually put it away unfinished. During her long life, how many kindly people have asked her what she is writing now? Ditto Margaret Mitchell, after Gone With the Wind won a Pulitzer Prize.

And I bet JK Rowling, in spite of all her riches and success, is currently fretting about her next novel, or lack of such. Just don't ask her when it'll be out.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

My first year of Kindle self-publishing

Exactly a year ago today I published Remix on Amazon for the Kindle. I didn't blog about it, because I wasn't expecting much. If I could magically whisk back in time and tell my younger self she would sell over 40,000 e-copies of her books by the same time next year, she'd be astonished. And so is the older me, except I've had time to get used to it.

August 2010 I sold 3 copies of Remix on Amazon. Near the end of September, I lowered the price, and sold 78 that month. In October, it was 700, and Remix went into the UK Kindle top 100. That Christmas, the Kindle turned up in lots of UK Christmas stockings. Sales exploded. In January I sold 5,939.

Many factors affect sales, and most of them you can't control. As you sell more, Amazon makes your book more visible - but the opposite happens if your sales falter. As Remix sales dipped towards the end of March for a variety of reasons, Replica was out with beta readers and I was designing its cover. Replica was published 9th April 2011, and Remix fans sent it straight into the top 100. In May my sales were 7,196. Remix has spent over eight months in the top 100.

Like many writers, I dreamed of mainstream publication, and spent a year submitting Remix. But as someone who has always been self-employed, and as a single mother, I'm used to doing everything myself. I've enjoyed learning how to do covers and formatting, and writing a blurb is much easier than writing a synopsis.

Publishing is changing so fast, who knows what is round the corner? Is this a brief golden age for indies, an opportunity that will vanish as the industry gets its act together? Maybe. But it's really nice while we've got it.

Grateful thanks to Amazon, and especially to all my readers.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Book promotion or nagging?

Anyone who's brought up a child knows that nagging doesn't work (not sure what does work with a teenager, but that's a subject for another blog).

So there is simply NO POINT adding a sombre, "Please enjoy responsibly," to a radio advert for alcohol. That is so not going to make the listener think, "Dear me, in that case I'd better not go out with my mates and get ratted tonight as planned." Similarly I doubt all the messages on cigarette packets persuade smokers to desist. The thing about nagging is that it's irritating, so people tune it out.

Indie authors, who have to market their own books, sometimes forget this. Every now and then, you come across a post like this:

Hi everyone, my thriller The Tattooist is on special offer for 99p!

What starts as just another murder investigation for DI Beverly Richards gradually turns into a nightmare, as a ruthless serial killer known as The Tattooist slays and mutilates lots of attractive young women and a few children and pets too, then tattoos clues on to their skins to taunt the police.

In a unique twist, the killer begins to hunt the cop hunting him! Beverley must find him and stop the slayings before he slaughters her, her twins, and her pet lop-eared rabbit, while simultaneously dealing with a hard-drinking boss who wants her taken off the case. Not to mention unfinished business with a man from her past who may not be what he seems.

Time is running out for Beverley – can she beat her demons and survive a final show-down with The Tattooist?

Happy reading!

Perhaps they worked, in the early days of the Kindle; but now, I think there have been so many of these posts, often inappropriately posted on half a dozen threads simultaneously, that potential readers mostly screen them out. On the US Amazon forums, such was the proliferation of Buy my book! posts that Amazon has declared zero tolerance, banning even discreet book links in signatures.

Writers need readers, and won't get them by badgering.