As you might have gathered from my last post, and others over the past few months, I’m seriously weighing the positives of writing and self-publishing against the negatives, and there’s no certainty that I will want to continue.
But when I think about giving it all up, one aspect of the process keeps calling me back, and it’s something that many writers would be surprised by: I love talking about my books and my writing, to groups large or small. I love just starting to speak, without notes, and sometimes without a plan or direction, and hearing what comes out of my mouth. It’s different every time, and responds to the nature of the group, their reactions, and their questions. I watch and listen and adjust how I reply. It’s fun and interactive and engaging, as I imagine playing a video game might be, although that’s something I’ve never done.
The people I’m talking to seem to enjoy it too, and tell me so. They’re used to people having a set speech, and my ‘off the cuff’ approach goes down well. Does it sell heaps of books? Who knows? People do buy books from me at these events, and often not just the latest one but earlier ones that I may have mentioned. All my six novels are linked, by setting and by some recurring characters, and some readers really want to start from the beginning, which I applaud.
If I’m talking to a group in a library, I sell less, probably because these people use the library rather than buy their own. If it’s a Women’s Institute audience, the ladies often team up, each buying one of the series and sharing them around – which makes sense for them but isn’t great for sales! People in readers’ groups tend to want their own copies – hurray. However many or few I sell, the money’s welcome and the pile of boxes in my garden room is reduced still further, but that’s not the principal satisfaction.
I really enjoy talking to readers, but if I wasn’t writing, what would be the purpose and rationale for these talks?
If the talks about writing didn’t happen, I’d miss the ‘charge’ I get from doing them. Is that a sufficient reason for keeping going?
I’m ruthless with my Twitter feed, regularly and systematically blocking anything I don’t want and refusing to ‘follow back’ until I’ve checked the person out. Too many ‘followers’ are just fishing for reciprocation, and I’m not interested. As a consequence, my Twitter line includes almost exclusively people involved either in books and publishing, or Cumbria and the Lake District, or any combination of those.
In a sense those two threads dominate my thinking about my books and writing. I’m passionately interested in West Cumbria, an area I have loved all my life and where I’ve lived for the past decade and more. Part of my determination to begin writing fiction at a relatively advanced age stemmed from the need to write about this place and its history and people.
That’s the upside: the downside is that I’ve never been sure about the ‘genre’ of my writing. Which comes first for me – setting, characters, or plot? In the Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ the priority was clearly setting and characters. The main external dramas were provided by real events, and the internal dramas arose from the interaction among fictional characters, and between them and their surroundings, both place and time. When I decided to have a go at crime fiction, I realised that balance of those aspects would have to change, and that plot would have to be more important, but I don’t believe I’ve truly made that shift. Setting and characters still dominate, and details of the plot are much harder for me.
Maybe it’s that ambivalence about what my writing is really about that has made me less enthusiastic about the new novel than I should be. All my writerly Twitter acquaintances speak of the arrival of a new book from the printers with such excitement, much like the arrival of a new baby – unalloyed positive feeling. Or at least that’s how it appears. There are photos of piles of books waiting to be signed, glamorous launch events and brimming champagne flutes.
For me, the new book’s arrival last week was just another stage in the long tedious process of self-publishing which has felt endless and stressful, even though the whole schedule has worked without a hitch. I suspect that part of my anxiety about it is a hangover from the anxiety about the serious accident I suffered almost a year ago when the new book was in its very early stages, too late to be abandoned but too early to see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a while I couldn’t walk, or drive, or even type without pain. It would have been good to just relax into recovery but the unfinished book haunted and taunted me, and kept me awake. I resented it, and maybe I still do.
The arrival of a new book could feel like a milestone, and a relief, but it doesn’t, because now the real work starts of trying to sell the damn thing. Promotion requires unceasing optimism and enthusiasm and for me those are both in short supply at present. Should I be honest and admit that the book felt rushed? The background details of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 are rich, authentic and moving, but one of the characters is unconvincing and the plot allows authenticity to triumph over a more eventful – and satisfying? – ending. I’m always my own harshest critic, which is unhelpful at this stage.
So, for various reasons, when the books arrived I wasn’t overwhelmed with love for a much-loved child after a difficult pregnancy. It was more like ‘Here we go again. And they’re not going to like the ending. And do I really want to do this all over again in another year or so? And I’m supposed to be retired.’ Not very positive is it? Maybe I just need to pull myself together and stop whingeing.
The story so far… I tried putting one of my books on the Kindle free list. 115 copies were downloaded, and quite a few readers were reading ‘pages’ during the four days of the promotion and shortly afterwards. No way of knowing whether there will be a longer term impact on sales.
Last week I tried another of KDP’s suggested strategies, where the price gradually increases over four days – I think. Seemed complicated, but I gave it a go with another of my books and kept my eye on the ‘promotion’ results. Nothing. Nada. Nichts. Not a single download, at any of the ‘staged’ prices, and no impact on the ‘pages read’ numbers. I deliberately didn’t do a lot of Tweeting etc about the ‘promotion’ as I wanted to see whether price alone was the reason for people choosing to download.
The conclusion of these two deeply unscientific investigations is that you can guarantee a high level of interest in your ebook only if you give it away, for free. I find that pretty depressing.
In the past week I’ve experienced another form of ‘promotion’, which started small and then stepped up. Much of my readership is based in Cumbria, where all my books are set. Many of my readers are pre-digital, and the limit of their internet engagement will probably be Facebook, reading but not posting. There’s an FB page run by a a group in my local town and I use it to check dates, events, things for sale. I posted that my new book would be out on June 6th and a few details about it, and the post was shared quite widely. One of the people who saw it was obviously a local reporter looking for a story, and he rang me and asked a few more questions. The exchange took about five minutes and I thought no more about it.
The following day, this was the front page of the North West Evening Mail, based in Barrow-in-Furness and read all over South West Cumbria. There was a fuller article on an inside page, with quotes from my website and more information. It doesn’t raise my international profile, but the people who read this will get their signed paperback copy and pay the full price on the cover. Maybe thinking small and local is the way to go.
Well, I put ‘A Good Liar’ on the Kindle free ebook list last week and 115 copies were downloaded over the five days of the offer. At the same time the number of (KENP) pages being read of both ‘A Good Liar’ and ‘Forgiven’, which is the next book in the series, both went up markedly. There may or may not be a connection. This week I’ve tried another Kindle promotion strategy, putting ‘Forgiven’ into the process where the price progresses from low back to the ‘normal’ of around £4 over four days. No noticeable increase in downloads as yet, but I admit I’ve been too busy to do anything about telling anyone about the promotion. At least there’s some income from this strategy, but it doesn’t look particularly effective so far.
More news on that next week. In the meantime, I’ve sent the new book ‘Burning Secrets’ to the printers and can do no more with it until the delivery arrives on May 31st. I know I should be more proactive about promotion, but I need a break after the struggle to get all the production stages completed on time and make all the necessary decisions. And I had a big birthday party to organise and then enjoy – which I did, very much. Loads of people came from away, and it was great to have a steady flow of visitors on the following morning, so we could catch up properly.
I could have put flyers about my new book on the tables at my party, and made a little speech about it, and had a draw for a free copy, but I just didn’t want to to do that. This was an important personal occasion, and the books are about what I do, not who I am. Does that make sense?
Hitting the big 70 puts things in perspective, and running around pushing people to buy my books isn’t top of my priorities. There are many readers, especially in Cumbria, who enjoy the books and say so, and have been anticipating the new one for some time. I’ll do the usual round of meetings, talks, festivals and radio, and hope that will draw some new readers in too. The ebook and Amazon sales will be picked up by my US distributors Fahrenheit Press and its charismatic MD Chris McVeigh,who knows the book selling business far better than I do. I could do with a similar ‘champion’ here in the UK – someone who loves my work and knows how to promote it – and does so for love, not money. Maybe that’s unrealistic, and lazy!
When I started writing it was really all about setting and character: there was a background story line, but after a while that declined in importance and the interplay of the characters against the West Cumbrian backdrop became the main driving force.
Readers love the Jessie Whelan trilogy for that reason. No one ever comments that the surprises of the plot kept them reading: it was all about what would happen to the people and the interest of the background.
Then I turned to crime fiction, in which the twists and turns of events and revelations have to be managed differently, but in the first two crime books the two leading characters were still centre stage. ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ are mainly character driven, despite the skull-duggery of the plots. The tension is not so much ‘who dunnit?’, but ‘would the wrong doers be brought to justice?’ There was little in the way of police procedure as neither of the two main characters were senior police people, and the police were more concerned with covering things up than searching for evidence.
In the latest book, set in 2001 when everything about policing had changed, police behaviour and procedures are more central. The setting – the disastrous Foot and Mouth epidemic – is also vital, and now I wonder whether the delineation of character is as strong as before. As I re-write and ‘polish’ the question bothers me. In terms of ‘genre’ is this book quite different than the previous ones, and if it is, does that matter? It’s a good story, with enough twists and turns to keep things going. The body count is low – but that’s OK. I’m increasingly tired of dramas that need death after nasty death to sustain the reader’s engagement. After a while, whatever the professed authenticity of the setting, too many crime stories turn out like ‘Death in Paradise’ or ‘Midsomer Murders’. Or is that what happens when crime is adapted for TV? Is it ‘episodic’ presentation that causes the structure of the story to change? Surely what matters is not how many bodies are discovered, or even how they died, but why: what drives someone to attack another? Motive, opportunity, means, in that order. Or are we so jaded that we demand ever more violence?
My final final deadline for the current manuscript is within a day or two. Once the damn thing goes away to the editor I will celebrate for a few days before I have to think about it again. If I had a ‘publisher’ I might be able to relax a little for the next few months while the book makes it way to publication, but when you self-publish every aspect of what happens has to be organised and monitored by yourself. It’s exhausting! As my next big birthday approaches, I’m wondering – again – how much longer I want to carry on. I still have a list of things I enjoy and want to do – sewing, drawing, singing, keeping fit – all of which take time and commitment. The curse of writing is that it seems to squeeze out everything else. I have to give this dilemma some serious thought.
I live in Cumbria, the most north-westerly county of England, and one of the most beautiful. Both sides of my family came from here, it was the place where all my childhood holidays were spent, and when I moved back here to live twelve years ago it felt like coming home.
When I decided, just after moving here, that I would write the novel I’d been planning for years, there was no doubt where it would be set. This place is essential to the world in my head that drives my stories. But I was wary of making the immediate location of my story too identifiable: my neighbours, the community I am part of, might not take kindly to being so clearly recogniseable, and as an ‘offcomer’ I didn’t want to sour the relationships that are important in a rural environment. So I anonymised my village, changing its features slightly and giving it a new name. When the action moved further afield those worries receded and I included real places, with their real names. In fact many of the people who read my books love to follow the locations. It’s as if my mention of places they know, peopled by imaginary characters, validates where they live.
That’s fine as long as the characters are reasonably real and mostly well-intentioned. But when I turned to crime fiction for my fourth book, I had bad people doing bad things, and didn’t want to upset the current inhabitants of my locations, so I anonymised the specific locations yet again, even though the physical geography of the area remained the same, recogniseable to anyone who knows the area.
Changes of name are one thing, but actually changing the landscape of this area strikes me as quite different. It breaks the authenticity that a sense of place in fiction demands. If the setting is all a figment of your imagination, you can do what you like with it. But if you say that this is, for example, a Cumbrian story, then I feel that you should respect the land that is called Cumbria and not mess with it. At least that’s my view.
One crime story I read was ostensibly set in the Lake District, the national park located within Cumbria, but the writer didn’t seem to know the area well at all. He had travel distances and times between places that bore no relation to reality. He had wildlife that didn’t belong there. The lack of authenticity annoyed me so much that I put the book down.
Recently I heard another author talking about his novels, also based in the Lake District, although he lived elsewhere. He was so keen not to locate his stories in anywhere recogniseable that he actually changed the landscape, including new valleys and hills that couldn’t be found on the map. For some reason, I found this hard to take, perhaps because he was messing with a place so important to me. This sounds petty, but the landscape is so precious and eternal that I don;t want it to be treated like that. We create fictional people, of course, but landscape that is half real and half a fabrication? No, not for me.
Is this too precious? I wasn’t even even born here and I’m being proprietorial about the place. But the fact remains that I don’t want to read books in which the setting is an invention, despite the title that claims that the setting is real.