Chasing Ghosts

As I ponder ideas for my next book, it occurred to me that novelists rarely consider the topic of risk.  In other areas of life we pay constant heed to it – can I afford to take out a mortgage?  Should I look for a new job?  We weigh up the pros and cons, the trade-offs between taking a calculated gamble and playing it safe, and decide what’s best for us.

Do novelists ever sit down at the outset of a project and consider this trade-off?  Or do we just get seduced by the glimmer of an idea, and spend the next two or three years chasing that ghost?

As I wrestled with this question, I decided to adapt a classic risk matrix used in the business world to help me consider my next project.  Here’s what my Novelist Risk Matrix looks like:

NRM 1

The vertical axis considers originality and complexity, the horizontal the estimated time taken to write the novel and the physical size of it.  Once you assess your idea using these criteria, it lands in one of four boxes…

VANILLA: low on originality and complexity, and short to regular in size.  This is the lowest risk category – genre fiction following a fairly standard formula.  The easiest to write and read, the writer runs a lower risk of rejection or of not finding an audience.  Vanilla does not necessarily mean that the book is lower in quality (although of course many people are snobbish about genre fiction) but it does mean you are competing on a busy playing field.

PIONEER: a short to regular sized book which is original and complex enough to veer away from genre fiction.  Pioneer books can sometimes create new genres – think of Harry Potter, which took an old-fashioned genre, re-booted the storyline into something original, and created a sensation.  While anyone nowadays writing a book about boy wizards would be firmly in the Vanilla box, when Rowling wrote the first book it was something of a gamble.

EPIC: a hefty genre book – think of the fantasy or sci-fi section in any bookstore where a high percentage of those print books are over 400 pages long.  The size of the project makes it riskier than Vanilla books, but it should still be fairly easy to plot a course and follow a formula.

BEHEMOTH: an original and complex book that’s also huge in size.  This represents the biggest risk for a writer – undertaking a massive project which may take several years, has no real precursor and potentially has no clear audience at the finish line.

To make it a bit more concrete, here are four novels plotted onto the Novelist Risk Matrix:

NRM 2

I’ve not read ‘Personal’ by Lee Child but a glance at the Amazon best-seller chart made it an obvious candidate for an example of a Vanilla book.  The 17th book in his Jack Reacher series, Child is writing to an established formula in an established genre.  There is practically no risk for him in writing Jack Reacher books, unless you count the risk that readers may eventually get bored of the character.

Moving north, Simon Sylvester’s ‘The Visitors’ is a good example of a Pioneer.  Sylvester took elements of established genres (crime, Young Adult) and fused these familiar components with the ancient Scottish folk tale of the selkies (seal people) into something fresh, surprising and original.  Additionally, a strong sense of place and vivid characters make it stand out from the pack.  It was probably not an easy book to write, and an agent or editor might wonder how to pitch it, but Sylvester’s gamble paid off – the novel recently won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and is building a growing reputation as a cult book.

Bottom right, Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin took a risk when he sat down to write the first book in the series, which is over 800 pages long.  While the swords n’ sorcery themes has an established audience, his highly explicit content did make it riskier than other books in the genre.

Finally, top right, the riskiest of the lot.  Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ is a great example of a Behemoth.  A novel consisting of four books following two separate storylines, one set in Glasgow and the other in the surreal dystopian city of Unthank, it took Gray almost 30 years to write.  A blend of Scottish realist fiction, fantasy and science-fiction, it is a totally uncategorisable book.  Imagine the drive and passion it would take to work on the same novel for nearly thirty years.  Luckily for Gray, his genius was recognised, but any novelist setting out on such a project would be well-advised to take a step back for a moment and consider the impact of such a project on their life (and sanity, probably).

So did this process help me?  Well, I realised that I simply don’t have the heart for an Epic or a Behemoth.  Like most writers, I have a day job, and pint-sized Amsterdam Rampant took me around three years to write.  So by that logic my next book will either be Vanilla or a Pioneer.  But I know myself too well – I can never really stick to a formula when it comes to writing a novel, so that puts me in the Pioneer box.  The trick is for me not to go too far north, but keep within touching distance of Vanilla – a novel that has a recognisable target audience, that follows certain conventions, but is daring enough to surprise and challenge the reader.  In ice-cream speak… a small spoonful of vanilla with a fist-sized scoop of chocolate, whisky and chilli.

 

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Avocado Economics

Another month and another skyscraper on the sales chart…

OCT SALES

What’s really pleasing about the October sales is that they were achieved without any promotions.  Promo sales accounted for around 70 of September’s units, so to shift 147 ebooks without any Amazon-driven marketing activity is quite a leap forward.  In the spring it looked highly unlikely I would hit my target of selling 1,000 ebooks in one year – but now if I flog 145 per month in the time remaining then I will break the barrier.

Cutting the price has probably been one factor, with more readers willing to take a chance on Amsterdam Rampant now that it’s the price of an avocado (94p).  It’s an emotive subject – how much is my book worth? – but something I’ve become less precious about as the months go by.

It’s also a topic that causes a fair bit of bluster in the broadsheets.  Recently, there was lots of coverage on the fight between Amazon and Hachette on ebook pricing, with some media sources heralding Hachette as heroically battling on behalf of writers to get a fair price.  The top literary agent Andrew Wylie went one step further, describing Amazon as having an “Isis-like distribution channel.”  An obvious comparison, given that many of us are currently gearing up to do our Christmas shopping with Isis.

It always surprises me when people rail against Amazon’s cut-throat capitalism eating into the cuddly niceness of the book trade in pre-digital times.  Ah, those good old days!  When we would go shopping in quirky independent bookstores, sipping Colombian coffee while sitting in fireside armchairs and leafing through the latest sensibly-priced hardback.  Hugh Grant worked behind the till of every one of these stores and amused us so with his foppish good humour, while his zany assistant John Hannah hummed Monty Python tunes and occasionally rode through the shop on a unicycle to storms of applause.  It was nice capitalism, not like this nasty Amazon version.

What rubbish.  The dissolution of the price-fixing Net Book Agreement in 1994 had already removed the protectionism which had enabled the UK publishing industry to insulate itself against the market forces unleashed in the 1980s.  Following the repeal of the NBA, big bookstores and supermarkets aggressively took over the scene, bulk-discounting books, offering 3 for the price of 2, and effectively biting into the author’s share of the pie.  Anti-Amazon crusaders such as Hachette were actively responsible in the shift to pay authors a smaller cut.  In the same speech, Wylie of the Isis comparison praised Hachette for fighting for a world where authors could take a 40-50% royalty from book sales.  He clearly hadn’t done his homework, because Amazon offers a 70% author royalty for ebooks over the price of $2.99 (30% under this price).

The truth is there are no moral crusaders or do-gooders at the top end of this industry, much like in any business.  And another truth is that authors always got a raw deal, because there were always so many middlemen taking their cut.  Personally I have no problem with selling my book for the price of an avocado and finding an audience in a slow but steady manner.  Consider the reality of a traditional print deal with one of the big houses – if your novel doesn’t make an impact in the first few weeks on sale, it’s not uncommon for the book to be withdrawn from the publicity machine, remaindered into bargain bins, or even pulped.  And that would be it – your novel dead and buried.

The big publishing houses stand to lose the most from the ebook revolution because of the unwieldy ecosystem they have built up over the decades – editors, marketing departments, accountants, long liquid London lunches – all paid for by the creators of books, ie. the authors.  Small presses have been far more nimble in adapting to the 21st century publishing model.  New print-on-demand technologies – printing presses which can print a book in small runs, compared to a traditional printer demanding a minimum run of 2,000 or so – mean that indie presses can bash out a small run of 500 print books, launch an ebook simultaneously, and engage the author as chief marketer.

This is a model that’s currently thriving in my native Scotland, where creative writing graduates run the small presses and recruit authors from a pool of fellow creative writing graduates in their circle, then build up a scene around spoken word events and the like.  Depending on your view, this is either a literary ponzi scheme or a nurturing literary community which has sprung up to combat the giant London-based publishing houses and their dumbed down production line.  Scottish indie presses such as Freight, Cargo and Sandstone have all achieved remarkable things in their short lifetimes to date.  Interestingly, in each case their founders have published their own work (or at one time aspired to) on their own label, meaning that these presses partly grew out of a determination to self-publish.  This background means that the owners are distinctly sympathetic to the challenges facing authors – I came close to getting a deal with one of them for Amsterdam Rampant, and the dialogue and engagement was terrific.  Compare that to the dialogue with the big houses – long delays, then a few muttered platitudes via your agent.

Ironically, these days the big houses scout for talent in the Amazon ebook bestseller lists, looking for indie books which have built up a readership through word of mouth.  Selling our books for the price of an avocado is one of the few weapons indie authors have in the face of the goliaths, because we already have day jobs that pay the bills, and after years of rejection we have all the patience in the world.  The simple truth is that we have nothing left to lose, and this must scare anyone who works in publishing.

 

The Library of Life and Death

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”   William Faulkner

At the age of seventeen I developed an obsession.

It started, like most obsessions, with questions nobody could answer.  One November morning I got on the train to Edinburgh, nervous about going to the city, unsure what secrets I would uncover.

New Register House was easy enough to find – hidden in plain sight just behind a burger joint on Princes Street, a proud Victorian building caged in by spiked railings.  Once through the main door and past security, into that sanctum of quiet punctuated by the sound of rolling trolleys, the building had a feeling of mystery and magic that was instantly addictive.  I still remember taking my allocated desk and looking up past the row upon row of stacked records towards the skylight dome high above.  Knowing that on those shelves, where porters shuffled around retrieving records, the secrets of my family history were carefully stored – the scrawled signatures of my ancestors inked onto birth and marriage records, the only evidence that they had once lived.

On that first day I sketched out the bare branches of my family tree and uncovered enough sketchy information to say with some confidence – I know who I am.  I know where I’m from.  There were no aristocrats, no famous people, just a family story common to the vast majority of Scots – some lives lived in rural poverty scratching a living from the land; but many, many more lives lived in the suffocating grip of heavy industry, in the shadow of pit bings and smoking chimneys; immigration, migration and emigration; typhoid and tuberculosis.  The Cockers came from Aberdeenshire, farm labourers who moved to Motherwell to work on the railways.  My paternal grandmother’s side all went back to Northern Ireland.  My mother’s side were entrenched in the industrial communities of the Falkirk area for two hundred years, the ironworks and mines, but also with an offshoot that reached back to an unknown part of Ireland.

Despite several further trips to that library of life and death, there were two mysteries I never solved.

The first: my great-grandfather Jimmy Burns.  The black sheep of the family, a violent alcoholic who had served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War.  There were family whispers of military prison – the suggestion that he had in fact spent most of the war in prison – to go along with the known tales of his drunken terror campaigns once he returned from France.  The records yielded no information.

The second: my great-great-grandfather William McAldin, an Ulsterman who disappeared from all Scottish records after 1905.  No further records of him appearing at subsequent family weddings (he had five daughters) and no record of his death.  Where did he vanish to?  The library racks remained silent.

I drew up the family tree and gave copies to relatives.  It felt like I’d got as far as I could go, and those blind alleys would remain dark forever.  I left school and went to university and soon enough developed another obsession: writing fiction.

Fiction writers, just like genealogists, are usually obsessed with the past.  I started writing, like most fictioneers, with a slightly glorified diary of my own recent past.  First up were scribbled fragments about my experience of working in an Aberdeen dairy factory in the summer of 1992.  The factory still haunts my dreams to this day: a dark and cavernous Edwardian building with clanking machinery, blasts of refrigerated air, and swirling milky puddles underfoot.

Next was the summer of 1993, working on a summer camp in Maine.  I wrote a sort of travelogue when I returned, which strived mainly to capture feeling and sensation – the oppressive darkness of the Maine forests, offset by the orchestra of crickets and the brilliant dark blue star-filled skies; a train journey through West Virginia in heavy fog, houses appearing suddenly through the mist; the ragged angles of the Rockies, the scorched panorama of the Nevada desert.  I wrote a bad short story about my trip to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house in Saint Paul, but again it was mostly fragments and fleeting impressions.

Next came Lithuania, which I blogged about previously, and then Amsterdam (multiple blogs).  As I ponder what to write about next, I feel myself drawn again and again to these fleeting glimpses of place and atmosphere rather than sitting down with a concrete story in mind.  One of my favourite pieces of writing of all time is a sequence in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in which the main character, living in a warehouse apartment in the depths of the New England winter, catches hypothermia.  It’s a stunningly beautiful piece of writing that adds little to the story.  But it makes for beautiful wallpaper.

A few years ago I read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and in it he discusses what he calls the Narrative Fallacy.  In simple terms, this is about how we tend to construct stories around unconnected facts – a good example being the causes of the First World War, where historians have tended to line up a chronological succession of events and have built a narrative around what Taleb argues was just a collection of things that happened.  Similarly we do this in our own lives, the kind of “how I met your mother” stories which tend to be embellished and expanded as the years go by.  Both of my novels had their roots in this kind of reflection – the first being “Young Scottish guy goes to Lithuania to teach English”, the second being “Thirty-something Scottish guy moves to Amsterdam to work in whisky business.”  I started with those basic facts of my existence, the fleeting glimpses of experience, and then eroded anything factual through the process of writing and re-writing, like the slop and hush of the sea gradually erasing a coastline.

This attraction to the atmosphere and experiences of my own past is probably one of my flaws as a writer.  It doesn’t exactly make sense to decide “I want to write a novel which somehow captures the feeling of walking down an Amsterdam canal-side in late October with lights reflected in the water” but in the end that was pretty much what I did, and the multiple drafts were a kind of punishment for my initial lack of focus.  So the next time, will I do things differently?

Well, my worry is, probably not.  Instead of thinking about stories with a beginning, middle and end, perhaps moored in a standard genre, the ideas creeping into my head are again those fragments of atmosphere and experience – a weekend I spent in subzero Berlin five years ago; my summer in Maine; Edinburgh immersed in sea-fog.  And also, my family history keeps resurfacing when I think about the next project, and in particular two stories.  Because, thanks to the internet, in the last couple of years I solved those two family mysteries.

The first?  Jimmy Burns, the black sheep.  I found 16 pages of his military records online, water-damaged scans and barely legible.  Slowly I pieced together the story of his First World War.  Signing up for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the 2nd of December 1915 at the age of nineteen.  The block capitals ‘RC’ stencilled at the top of the form, revealing the recruiting officer’s – and Scotland’s – oldest prejudice (as a Roman Catholic, obviously the Dublin Fusiliers would be his regiment).  The other blotted, torn pages tell the story of his next three years.

Wounded twice; hospitalised due to pneumonia, flu or diarrhoea three times; his regiment disbanded and reformed twice due to the scale of losses; deprived of pay twice for absence from parade.  And then, one month after the war ended, court-martialled for “offering violence to his senior officer” and sentenced to 18 months in the military prison at Boulogne, of which he served six.  All of this by the time he was twenty-two.

The second mystery – William McAldin, who vanished after 1905.  I found him on a ship’s manifest in 1906, travelling from Glasgow to Montreal.  The two words under destination already hinted at his fate: ‘Sydney Mines.’  A few minutes of Googling and I found his name listed in the Nova Scotia 1910 death records.  It would cost me ten pounds to find out how William died.  I keyed in my credit card number and the PDF downloaded onto my desktop.

The 1-page certificate showed three deaths stencilled into narrow columns, the first of which was William’s.  His occupation was listed as “shot-firer” – the specialist who rigged up explosives to expand mine workings – and his cause of death: “Compression of brain caused by fall of stone in mine.”

So there it was.  The vanished William McAldin, lost in a mining accident and buried at the Brookside cemetery in Sydney, a grave which has never been visited by any of his kin.  And I wondered – why didn’t anyone in the family know this story, or pass it down?  Had he run away?  Or did people just keep this tragedy quiet?  I imagine that Nova Scotia landscape, the boiling Atlantic ocean nearby, those thousands of immigrant lives that passed through the mine’s black mouth – the Scots formed the largest immigrant group, followed by English, Russians and Italians, but there were also French, Poles, Lithuanians, Caribbeans and others.

And when I think of that cemetery on the coast, and that faded, unvisited gravestone – or Jimmy in that recruiting office 99 years ago – I think to myself, there is the next novel; there, in that fleeting glimpse of a boy soldier, or in that tumble of stone in the Canadian underground blackness.

 

Fishing Shacks & Skyscrapers

 

Another month roars by, and sales of Amsterdam Rampant have spiked yet again…

Rampant September

My sales chart looks a bit like one of those upstart Chinese new cities – a row of fishing shacks mixed in with the skyscrapers.  What’s the story behind September’s towering obelisk of 146 sales?  I can’t say for sure, but it’s probably a combination of three factors.

Firstly, as mentioned in last month’s blog, I ran a Kindle Countdown promo which boosted sales at the beginning of September (76 sold in 3 days).  Secondly, following the obligatory 2-week price freeze after my promo (price fixed at the £1.90 mark) I decided to cut the price below one pound to see if this boosted sales.  Thirdly, at around the same time I started to realise that I was becoming part of a miniature scene.

Now, I should point out that this scene I’m involved in does not involve me dressing in fishnet tights and a rubber thong and playing volleyball in a basement nightclub (yes, I lived in Amsterdam too long).  Sorry to disappoint you, but this scene is purely literary.  Those of you who shop on Amazon will be familiar with the scroll-bar “Customers who bought this item also bought…” underneath the product description which helpfully lets you know that people who bought your beloved Barry Manilow Greatest Hits CD also purchased the Engelbert Humperdinck… Best Of.

Underneath Amsterdam Rampant, three British indie writers are prominent – Escobar Walker, Ryan Bracha, and Mark Wilson – and a bit further on, well-established big-sellers such as Irvine Welsh and John Niven.  Click on Escobar’s book Bowling Ball (Glasgow’s rough n’ ready answer to Trainspotting) and you’ll see that his customers tend to buy Irvine Welsh books.  Click on Irvine Welsh’s books and a few scrolls through the “Customers also bought…” and you will see Escobar, Ryan, Mark and myself.

So I have become part of a minor virtuous circle of Northern British cult fiction, where one sale pinballs into the next, up, left and back again.  I dropped Ryan a note via Twitter and he had spotted a similar pattern.  Following our entertaining Twitter chat I sold 9 ebooks in one day – a record outside of launch and promos.

Shortly after this, the Liverpudlian fanzine editor, blogger and counter-cultural revolutionary Phil Jones – a big fan of aforementioned Ryan Bracha – posted a generous review of Amsterdam Rampant on both Amazon and Goodreads and kindly recommended it to his Goodreads friends.  I dropped Phil a note and another entertaining exchange was had.  Sales have since edged upwards to average 5 per day.

I understand better now why the big monolithic publishing houses are so terrified of Amazon.  It’s a little like the Catholic church and monasteries losing the monopoly on alcohol production during the reformation – suddenly all these creative revolutionaries are setting up illicit stills in their back yards and brewing the booze of the future.  Or a little more recently (!) the rise of punk music in the late 1970s, when the big record labels were gorging themselves on traditional rock and sugary pop, and up came punk through the still waters like a ragged and bloody shark – stitched together in bedrooms and garages by the disenfranchised, but propelled forward by an energy of such force that it ripped a huge hole in the business model.

So, another amazing month.  The brave and lonely followers of this blog know that I tend to finish each blog with a rambling and tortured metaphor on my latest experiences – so here goes.

When I first epublished Amsterdam Rampant, launching my novel on the internet felt like arriving in a dark and foreboding city late at night – spilling out of the train station into a rain-slicked street, traffic screaming by, intoxicated citizens arguing in the shadows, the sound of breaking bottles and the dull thud of techno all around.  And standing at the empty taxi rank, my bag at my feet with everything I own inside – wondering if I will make it through the night unscathed.

Now I know the city is not so foreboding.  Lights are flicking on in the skyscraper windows; the dingy bar-fronts hide welcoming interiors smelling of soup and freshly ground coffee; the citizens’ rowdiness is just an over-the-top friendliness.  The trick is to step out into the traffic and stride across the road towards the heart of the hubbub.

Like a Rolling Stone

After a really good June and July, things keep getting better on the sales front for Amsterdam Rampant.  Check out how sales improved in August…

RAMPANT SALES AUG

Things were already going well in August (I had surpassed July’s sales two-thirds of the way through the month) and then I ran an Amazon Countdown Deal from 28th August to 4th September.  Here’s how it works – if you sign up to Amazon’s KDP Select programme (in doing so you agree that Amazon will be your sole sales platform) you are allowed to run one promo every three months.  You can choose from a 5-day free promo, which I ran in April/May, or a Kindle Countdown – this is a 1-week discount with a countdown clock next to the reduced price-tag indicating how much time is left before the price reverts to its standard.

In the 7 days prior to launching the Countdown Deal I sold 11 ebooks.  During the 7-day promo I shifted 110 ebooks on Amazon UK at a reduced price of 0.99 GBP.  This jump in sales shot me up the Kindle charts for ‘Literary Fiction – Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense’ and at one point I reached no.27, overtaking Scottish heavyweight Ian Rankin in the process:

AMAZON NO.27

I also scraped into the top 3 thousand ‘paid books’ on Amazon UK, which was exciting as there are supposedly more than 2 million ebooks available on the site.  So it was yet another amazing experience on the epublishing journey.  In September things are continuing to go very well (I’ll tell you more next month).  The only downside so far has been my first troll review – ‘Craig’ gave Amsterdam Rampant 1 star on Amazon.com and reviewed it thus: “Piece of worthless trash.”  However, considering that he also gave 1 star to the complete works of Charles Dickens (“Absolute garbage”!!!) and Levi’s jeans I’m not too concerned about his global influence.

The last few weeks have been hard going as I’ve been working on an MBA assignment and also preparing for my corporate finance exam – I do this on Saturdays and Sundays, while of course Monday to Friday I’m putting in the usual long hours in the day job.  Which leaves only the odd half hour here and there to work on my epublishing project.

A couple of weekends ago I had a rare weekend away – I jumped on a train down to Augsburg, Bavaria.  I was only there for a couple of days but it felt like being transported to a different dimension.  On the Saturday night we sat on the terrace of a pub in the eerily quiet city centre and ate schnitzel and sauerkraut washed down with the excellent local beer.  The next day we wandered the city, its ancient buildings glowing in the late summer sunshine; when it got too warm we ducked into the tranquil shadows of one of the city’s churches, or – much more satanically – went to a cafe to continue our burgeoning relationship with the local brew.  Finally, on Sunday afternoon when the sun was mellowing to fading gold, we stumbled across the Riegele brewery and next to it a beer garden.  There was a canteen serving traditional German food and the brewery’s tipple (from all of 20 metres away).  Century-old chestnut trees provided a canopy overhead; we sat down at one of the many picnic tables and sipped the amazingly clean beer while chestnuts dropped from the branches above, splitting open as they struck the gravel – and at one point, a black squirrel liquidly dashed between tables and clawed its way up a tree trunk.  At moments like that – sitting in the balmy afternoon, hazed in golden sunshine and woozy with a beer buzz – it feels like all the hard work is worth it.

The trip refreshed me greatly.  With all the work and study I feel pretty beaten up at times but it’s great to have my ebook project running in the background, a reminder that if you put in the hard work upfront and discipline yourself to do a little every week it is still possible to achieve things – even when your schedule seems totally overwhelming.

Halfway House

In the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town there is a famous alley called Fleshmarket Close.  From the top end of Cockburn Street you enter through a granite gateway to be immediately confronted with a dark and shadowy staircase plummeting down in the direction of the train station.  For a first-timer it looks dingy and uninhabited, potentially dangerous, but after a few steps down into the gloom you will see a greasy spoon takeaway, a barber shop, and further down the alley’s glacial slope, first one pub, then another.  The second pub is called The Halfway House.

Back when I lived in Edinburgh, I used to drink in the Halfway with my brother Ian.  It’s one of those hidden gems in the city – a beacon of hospitality in the unlikeliest of places.    My abiding memory of the pub (possibly fabricated by my nostalgic subconscious) is on one of those damp, foggy Edinburgh nights, when the haar (a sea-mist unique to Scotland’s east coast) was hanging thick over the city, its tendrils slithering around the buildings.  On those haar nights you feel like the city has been untethered from Scotland and is drifting off into the clouds like a cumbersome granite Zeppelin.

On this particular evening Ian and myself were on one of our habitual tours of the traditional pubs, swapping stories and banter in a succession of silent howffs.  Drowning in haar, we tumbled into the close and made our way down steps slippery with greasy drizzle, ahead of us the golden glow of the pubs burning through the fog.  And through the door into the Halfway, into a gentle hubbub of light and chatter and music, taking seats at the bar from where we could look out the window and watch the haar solidify, tightening its grip on the city.

On my epublishing journey I have reached The Halfway House – 6 months in to my 1-year project.  So while I’m safely entrenched at the bar, pint of hoppy IPA in front of me, what are my thoughts before stepping out into the fog again to complete the rest of my journey?

Well, as the brave and lonely few who follow my blog know, I set out to sell 1,000 ebooks of Amsterdam Rampant.  With slightly more than 6 months gone, I’ve sold 226.  So, while I’m some way off the 500 target for the half-year, there are many reasons to be optimistic.

A couple of months back I added a new indicator to my statistics page – ‘Readers Reached.’  The reason I did this was that I thought again about what I really wanted to achieve and decided that finding readers who liked the book was more important than simply shifting units.  While selling my ebook is a great feeling, I’m also delighted if someone out there in cyberspace decides to download Amsterdam Rampant during a freebie promo, or also borrow it via Amazon Prime.  So my ‘Readers Reached’ figure basically adds up sales, freebie downloads and borrowed ebooks to come up with a number of how many people have downloaded the ebook.  So far 1,235 readers have been reached, and considering that I will run another free promo at some point I will hopefully break the 2,000 figure by the magic 12-month mark.

From a business point of view, I’m so far making a loss of -291 GBP.  However, given that my expenses at the outset were 643 GBP, I am making progress in clawing that outlay back, and should be back in the black by the end of the year.  Also, I bought two covers with a view to doing a regular switcheroo to see which cover shifted most units.

Amsterdam Rampant Final black red FA (5)      amsterdam_DEF_1 (1)

After publishing with the black and red dangling man cover, it really felt right for the book, and now I’m not sure if I’ll use the blue floating townhouse cover.  I love both but I had underestimated that feeling of ‘fit’ that I would get once the project was underway.  If I had only bought the first cover, my current loss would be -88.34 GBP.  Anyway, while I may incur other expenses (eg. at some point I will try out some marketing services) overall it looks like I will break even for the year, and hopefully even make a small profit.

Away from the financials, I’ve had a total of 19 reviews on Amazon (12 on UK and 7 on dot-com) and 6 reviews/ratings on Goodreads.  The engagement with readers has been really encouraging.  I benchmark myself against other Scottish novels published in the last year and it seems I am a little ahead of the average in terms of review numbers.  It’s another sign for me that self-publishing is an eminently viable option.  The supposed advantage of traditional publishing is that you get some kind of marketing machine chugging away in the background, but my impression is that these days most publishers kick a novel out into the wilds to fend for itself.  In these austere times most authors are expected to invest a chunk of their time marketing the novel they wrote but that someone else published – why not publish it yourself and own the entire end-to-end process?

Another thing I’ve mentioned before is that liberating feeling of release.  Prior to self-publishing I’d been tinkering with Amsterdam Rampant for more than three years, going through multiple versions in the hope of finding the magic formula that would appeal to a publisher.  Instead, self-publishing forced me to confront a far more important audience – the faceless mob of unknown readers – and edit it into something that I believed would please readers rather than publishers.  It feels like I have finally let go of the novel, unloaded it, and by telling the story I am finally released (much like the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem, which takes me clumsily back to the whole fog metaphor).

So now, I gaze out into the haar from my comfortable position at the bar, bracing myself for the next stage of the journey.  Six months ago it all seemed quite daunting.  Now I know there is nothing to be afraid of.  I tip back the dregs of my pint, say a cheery farewell and head back out into the unknown.

 

Major Uptick

I spend a chunk of my day job ploughing through company financial reports, trying to sort the facts from the spin.  My passion for fiction is useful, because most companies have a knack of wildly exaggerating the story of their progress.  Rarely do you see business-speak and reheated mince blended together and rearranged so spectacularly on paper.  Gloriously meaningless words such as ‘cascading’, ‘re-profiling’, ‘scalability’ and ‘uptick.’

So in honour of this smoke-and-mirrors gobshite, I would like to confirm that there has been a major uptick in sales of Amsterdam Rampant in the last month.  While JK Rowling and James Patterson can still sleep soundly in their beds (for now anyway, although I am doing ninja cartwheels in their back gardens at night) it’s been a very nice bounce indeed.  Check it out (you can click to enlarge):

UPTICK SALES

What is encouraging is that people I don’t know are now buying the ebook in reasonable numbers.  In the first couple of months I was bombarding all my social networking connections with endless spams and many of them took mercy on me and bought it.  After this you see a downtick [Neil glances off stage to where a corporate gimp nods encouragingly] during the next few months when I was running freebie promos and working out how to reach a wider audience.  And now, finally, the momentum I mentioned in my previous blog seems to be building, the snowball trundling down the hill and gathering a light dusting of ice powder on the way.  In February, my launch month, 40 people bought Amsterdam Rampant from Amazon UK – I knew most of them, probably.  In July, 41 people bought Amsterdam Rampant from Amazon UK.  I don’t really have a scooby who they are.

My feeling is that all manner of connections and inter-relationships are slowly coming together, like rusty machinery grinding into life.  As mentioned in my previous blog, my Goodreads profile has been growing.  Also, Amazon seems to understand Amsterdam Rampant better – the novel appears now on all manner of “also bought” links, most notably Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (yes, my mother is very proud.)

The whole experience continues to be a total eye-opener.  I always assumed I wrote Scottish Literature, when instead it seems I actually write booze-sex-gangster-supernatural thrillers.

Anyway, I’m enjoying the uptick.  And now, as I dance off stage in front of a crowd of euphoric shareholders, an overly optimistic song kicks in…