Just like Cold Sores and Coldplay

It’s been a long time.  A health problem knocked me out of action for a couple of months, but now I’m back on track to making a full recovery.  Just like cold sores and Coldplay, I’m difficult to get rid of…

Despite doing absolutely zip to promote Amsterdam Rampant, sales have grown considerably since February:

RAMPANT SALES MAY 15

I’ve now sold more than 2.2k.  It took me 11 months to sell one thousand and then 3 months to sell the next thousand.  What happened?  Well, luckily I seem to be attracting Irvine Welsh fans, and the release of his new novel A Decent Ride led to a definite bounce in sales.  If you check out A Decent Ride on Amazon you will see Amsterdam Rampant snugly parked at second place in the “also bought” listing.  But hey, I hear you say, maybe Amsterdam Rampant fans are buying Irvine Welsh’s work?  Too right, dudes and dudettes.  I’m still waiting for the thank you telegram from Irv.

I’ve also seen a big spike in reviews on Amazon UK.  Over the first year I accumulated around 45 reviews, and now three months into the second I’ve got more than 90.  This is probably a combination of the increased sales and the addition of a ‘Dear Reader’ note at the end of the novel asking (pleading!) for reviews.  People have been very generous with their feedback – common themes are the book’s high pace, the familiar characters, the Amsterdam setting, the humour and the dialogue.

The whole review thing got me thinking about opinion, with a capital O.  I’m so grateful for the recent 4 and 5 star reviews that I could almost cry (for a Scottish male this mainly involves a Spock-like grimace).  I get up in the morning and check first thing, and there I am, sitting in rural Luxembourg eating my blackcurrant jam on toast, getting all Spock-like because some random punter has given me the Full Five with a gushing commentary.  Oddly, the rare one or two star reviews don’t really bother me, because it’s clear the subject matter isn’t for them (although you have to ask the question – what were you expecting from the title, cover, and synopsis – the novelisation of the Vicar of Dibley?)

The 3-star reviews are the most unpredictable.  They include one of my favourites:

“I enjoyed this novel but felt parts of it were under-developed: the relationship between Fin and Gilly had more to be said about it and the plot development with Eva’s betrayal didn’t quite ring true. Yet there were sections which we brilliantly written and which reminded me of early Iain Banks. Don’t imagine the Amsterdam Tourist Board will endorse this but it was a good read from a writer whose work I’d read again.”

… and also a confusing and puzzling one, from someone who probably knows me (part of my younger life was spent in Fife) and is vaguely unsettling as a result…

“This is an amusing little Scottish modern diaspora tale. School bullies, sexual experiences of both the willing and less so make up the backbone, set against a rather poorly illustrated Amsterdam. Not sure what a previous reviewer meant by ‘phonetic Scots’ as rendering the language subtlety maybe incomprehensible. The book reads to me as if written by a Fifer. No in Welsh’s league – ye ken whit I mean ya bam?”

It’s interesting to compare the opinion of the punters with that of the publishers my agent pitched the novel to back in 2010-11.  Bear in mind that the comments below date from previous versions of Amsterdam Rampant (when it was called Distillery Boys) and when it still needed a good edit, but I think it demonstrates the wide range of opinion that one novel can generate, and also what is foremost in the mind of the average editor/publisher:

SIMON & SCHUSTER:  Thank you so much for sending DISTILLERY BOYS, who as you know shared it with me.  We both enjoyed it – Neil Cocker has a vivid and entertaining style and a wicked sense of humour too.  Looking at our publishing schedule, though, we weren’t entirely sure how best to position it on our list and couldn’t help feel that it might not have a wide enough appeal to female readers.  So we have decided to pass, but we’re very grateful to have read and hope you find the perfect home for it elsewhere.

HEADLINE:  In any case, I have read DISTILLERY BOYS and enjoyed it very much – Neil is an instantly engaging writer, and the journey he takes us on is very readable (I did feel a little nervous, reading this one on the tube, but had to keep going, nonetheless), though I did feel there was perhaps something a touch strained in all the playfulness – as though he was perhaps trying a little too hard to underscore his point about the nature of our consumer society.  I also wasn’t really sure that the whisky theme was an appealing enough hook. So I’m afraid it’s a no from me, this time, though I do think he is a writer with potential.  Thanks again for letting me have the chance to read this.

PICADOR:  I enjoyed this but didn’t quite feel it was quite right for Picador. I would love to find a new young male voice for Picador but I think this was just on the lad side of lit for me.

HARPER COLLINS:  I am so sorry not to have come back to you sooner on Distillery Boys. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it — there is a real strength in the central narrative voice, and an originality in the way Neil uses language, particularly dialogue. He also writes very engagingly when describing dramatic scenes. My concern is that the story is a bit limiting in terms of its commercial appeal, as I didn’t find the branding work that interesting (certainly less interesting than all the sexual encounters!). So I’m going to pass this time, but thank you for thinking of me. I hope you get a massive offer from this other editor!

HODDER: Thank you very much for sending me DISTILLERY BOYS.  I’m afraid I’m going to pass, though it’s hard to say exactly why since it’s such a good debut novel.  It had me laughing out loud one moment and cringing the next!  However, while it’s very well done, I must admit that I have a few doubts about the commercial appeal of DISTILLERY BOYS to a wide audience (it’s quite male in appeal for a start, which can be limiting).  As you know, we have to be wholeheartedly behind every book that we take on, and I’m afraid that I just didn’t quite feel that measure of enthusiasm about DISTILLERY BOYS to warrant making it a priority above some of my other commitments.  But many thanks again for sending it to me, I’m very glad I had a chance to read it, and I hope you find a home for it very soon.

ATLANTIC:  Many thanks for sending me DISTILLERY BOYS by Neil Cocker and for being so patient! I thought the opening was brilliant and I love the quick-paced, edge-of-the-seat style and dark humour. However, as the novel progressed I found myself feeling less, rather than more, involved with the characters and so I think I’m going to have to pass. I’m sorry as I really thought I might be able to take this further and hope that someone else feels differently to me.

HEINEMANN: Many thanks for giving me the opportunity to consider Neil Cocker’s DISTILLERY BOYS. I read it with much interest, but in the end I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced that it would was suitable for the William Heinemann list. I thought the premise was very good, and it’s engaging and exuberantly told, but I’m sorry to say I didn’t like it quite enough. Sorry.

WEIDENFELD:  I hope it’s not rude to reply so quickly but I dived into DISTILLERY BOYS (the Hornby/Nicholls pitch got me!) and I’m afraid I just can’t see us making it work. There were some wonderful moments in the writing, and I think the author has real comic talent – I can’t stress that enough. But the novel as a whole didn’t gel as much as I had hoped – it was as though the caper elements were fighting with the more tender aspects instead of going hand-in-hand. And it would be difficult for us to find a place for this book – it’s too charming to work as enfant terrible fiction but, to my mind at least, the emotional pull of the central characters wasn’t quite strong enough for it to captivate the Nicholls/Hornby audience. But thank you for such an entertaining read, and I’d love to have a book with you soon!

CAPE:  This is not for me, alas. Fun, but with not quite enough substance…

POLYGON/BIRLINN: OK, it’s not the one. I’m sorry but my misogyny detector went into overdrive only a few paragraphs in. I really don’t like the style of this one, I’m afraid, or Vodka Angels [my previous novel] which I remember. A colleague who also read it is itching to send a copy of the Scum Manifesto to Luxembourg!  So, not for us.

Publishers seem to me to always be gambling on what the zeitgeist is, waiting for other publishers to make the first move before committing to anything.  In the 4-5 years since I received these comments, thrillers such as ‘Gone Girl’ have made mainstream publishers more open to darker and explicit material, so ironically Amsterdam Rampant might be more interesting to them nowadays.  But you can see from the above that the quality or entertainment factor came secondary in their thought processes to the commercial possibilities (which anyway is mainly guesswork judging by the perilous financial state of many publishing houses nowadays).

Reflecting on all this feedback just reminds me once again that self-publishing was the right option for me, because it answered the question of who I am writing for.  I imagine the person I am writing for completely differently nowadays – not an editor looking out onto a London skyline, but rather someone who downloads the ebook of Amsterdam Rampant on impulse one night, and then reads it on the train to work, transported away from the grind of the commute to the backstreets of Amsterdam and the rain-washed hills of rural Scotland.  I imagine that person reaching the final page and smiling to themselves, their life made a fraction better by my book.  The train squeaks to a halt; they realise it’s their stop, slap their Kindle shut and dash off the train; I see them from the window moving along the platform with a bounce in their step and a glimmer of mischief in their eye, before they merge into the crowds and disappear from view.

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Breaking the Thousand

I did it!

On 13 January I sold my 1,000th ebook of Amsterdam Rampant, breaking the target I set at the outset of my epublishing project.  On 8 February I will reach the one-year anniversary of publication by which time (at current run rate) I will hopefully have sold more than 1,100.  December sales were strong and momentum continues to build in January, averaging slightly more than 6 ebooks per day…

Rampant Sales DEC

I’m even appearing pretty high up on Irvine Welsh’s “also bought” Amazon profile for Trainspotting prequel Skagboys which is one of my highlights of the century so far:

SKAGBOYS RAMPANT

Over Christmas and New Year we had our usual epic trip around Europe to see family.  My wife Anna had gone on ahead, and I followed a week later.  These trips are intensely nostalgia-inducing for me, because I have the rare chance away from work and study to read books, look out of the window on long journeys, and generally think about things.  Dangerous, really.

The journey to Poland started with an early morning bus ride out of Luxembourg.  It was just getting light when I reached the German steel town of Saarbrucken, the sprawling rust-red plant – a tangle of pipes, towers, and gargantuan machinery – looming at the side of the autobahn like some nightmare from a surrealist painting.

I jumped the train to Mannheim, and connected for Berlin.  On those long hours coasting through Germany I ploughed through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – occasionally looking out the window onto Germany, then returning to 19th century New Zealand on my Kindle.  It was around five o’clock by the time I reached Berlin, and I killed time before the next connection walking round the station and then sinking a cold glass of Berliner pilsner in a plastic and chrome wurst bar.  The final two hours of the journey were spent on a local train on the spooky fringes of eastern Germany, the train windows revealing little of the poorly lit train stations and shadowy villages.  Finally my 12-hour journey came to an end and I reached Anna’s home town of Szczecin.

Szczecin has always fascinated me.  Before World War II it was part of Germany and known as Stettin.  In the closing months of the war most of the German population fled westwards away from the advancing Red Army.  The ghost city was then resettled with Polish refugees, mainly from Vilnius in modern day Lithuania or Lviv in modern day Ukraine.

Anna’s grandparents were from Lviv and upon arrival in 1945, the city was still in chaos – much of it was rubble, and the corpses of German soldiers were piled in one of the city’s main squares, awaiting disposal.  The family were allocated an apartment in a grand tenement on one of the city’s grand Parisian-style boulevards.  A few weeks after moving in a German woman turned up on the doorstep with her daughter and explained she used to live there, and would like to collect a doll they had left behind.

Szczecin still carries the scars of the war – swathes of Soviet-era concrete map out the routes of the British bombers, and most of the older buildings are pock-marked with bullet-holes and shrapnel damage.  Yet the city carries its scars well – the economy is buzzing and there is a sense of energy and industry, reflected in the glittering ultra-modern malls and the SUVs backed-up at the traffic lights.  A bizarre urban myth is doing the rounds, popular among taxi drivers, that the city is riddled with underground tunnels which reach all the way to Berlin, and when the Germans inevitably return they will emerge from below the ground and re-take the city.  These taxi drivers watch too many zombie movies.  Ironically the invasion seems to be happening peacefully the other way round – local Poles are buying property across the border in Germany because it’s cheaper.

One evening my mother-in-law, Agnieszka, showed me what she’d dug up in her garden.  The family has had the same allotment since the early days of arriving in the city, a patchwork of gardens behind the train line which were initially allocated to Flemish railway workers in the late nineteenth century.  Last year, Agnieszka was digging in the garden and uncovered a toy soldier and a coin.  I examined the coin through a magnifying glass and could make out the word ‘Stettiner’ on its time-worn surface.  The toy soldier yielded more clues.  We googled German army uniforms and saw that his tunic, belt, and helmet matched the standard First World War uniform.  Agnieszka told me (through our usual mix of her few words of English, my few words of Polish, sign language and the ever-patient translation of Anna) that one time her father went to the allotment to find a large hole dug in the middle of the garden.  The story went that the German residents had been instructed to only take one suitcase with them when they left, and had buried valuables wherever they could, and then returned years later in the dead of night to reclaim their heirlooms.  The toy soldier and coin had perhaps been part of such a booty.

During my time in Szczecin I usually have a bit of time on my own when Anna catches up with her mum or with old friends.  One afternoon I tramped past the city’s old gate down to the harbour area, wandered by the monument to the victims of the unrest of 1981, and ended up in a steakhouse/bar called Colorado.  I sat by one of the windows looking out onto the port, candle flickering at my table, and sketched out some ideas for the next novel.  Away from the pressure of work and study, my writer’s brain thaws from hibernation, and ideas tumble in.

Next up was Scotland.

We flew from Berlin to Edinburgh and spent a few days with my parents in North-East Fife.  It was my first time back for a year, and as I get older Scotland’s beauty astonishes me more and more, catches me off guard and leaves me breathless.  We walked the beach at St Andrews most days, the sun catching on the breakers, the hard-packed sand glistening with seawater and stretched shadows.

IMG_1417

The view from my parents’ house looks onto Tentsmuir forest, which by bizarre co-incidence is where Anna’s great uncle most likely spent several months on training exercises with the Polish Free Army before jumping into Arnhem in 1944.  Many of my schoolmates in Fife had Polish surnames, descendants of those exiled soldiers, the lucky survivors of Monte Cassino and the Netherlands campaigns.

Most evenings in Fife we went up to the village pub to drink and chat to the locals.  One night my dad told me a story I’d never heard before, about his time doing national service as a military policeman in Berlin in 1961-62.  One night he was called out to an incident on the wall, and arrived with his partner in the immediate aftermath of a shooting of an attempted escapee.  The young man’s body was crumpled in the space between the two zones; the East German guards were smoking, guns at ease, the deed done.  My dad and his partner watched as they collected the body.

We moved on to Edinburgh to catch up with my brother and some old friends.  One afternoon I had a spare hour and walked down the Royal Mile, past the old soldiers’ home where my great-grandfather, a London-Irishman by the name of Isaac Dunn, spent his final years.  The clouds cleared as I strode down the hill, the hard blue sky and glaring winter sun spilling light onto the granite buildings.  I walked down past the Scottish Parliament and felt a pang of regret that I had missed the referendum experience.  Europe is, as always, disintegrating and reforming like a half-frozen loch.  I walked back up Holyrood Road, past my old teacher training college, the nostalgia intensifying.

IMG_1771

Later that night I wound up on the same street with my brother Ian in an old favourite pub, once the Holyrood Tavern and now Holyrood 9A.  We sat at the bar and drank pale ale and reminisced about the late 90s when we’d been regulars.  Back then it was a wonderfully odd boozer – dark wood and beaten-up old sofas, an amazing jukebox and excellent beer, and a clientele of old men, teacher training students, and transvestites.  Somehow it worked.  The kilted landlord had wild long greying hair and a goatee beard and would noisily chuck anyone out who told him he looked like Billy Connolly (he did).  Our night ended at a takeaway, thick-cut chips drowned in salt and sauce, and the next morning I said farewell to Scotland.

Next was London.  Anna wasn’t feeling too well so I had some Neil-time in the afternoons (in the evenings we explored the Thai restaurants of Holborn).  Just like in Poland I put my Kindle in one jacket pocket and my Moleskine notebook in the other and headed off into the city to walk and observe.  On the first day I wandered the bookshops of Charing Cross Road and ended up in a pub near Trafalgar Square called The Chandos, which I frequented back in the early 00s on visits to see old friends.  Sitting in the corner of the pub, I read an ancient draft of my Lithuania novel (perhaps seventeen years old, then called Sea of Tranquillity) and sipped my pint of bitter; golden light dappled through the coloured glass windows, the raw and scrappy novel triggering all sorts of long-lost memories.

The next afternoon I headed in the other direction into Covent Garden, cut through the Seven Dials (where I spent a boozy day in 2002 with my Swedish pal Daniel, both of us at a crossroads in life and debating the meaning of it all) and wandered around the streets aimlessly, before settling in The Prince of Wales.  The barmaid heard my accent and wanted to talk about Edinburgh; still high from being back in that city of dreams, I was happy to.  I picked a corner table again and scribbled more notes on the next novel.  I decided to go to one more pub before returning to the hotel but it was already close to five o’clock on a Friday, and the pubs were bursting at the seams with post-work drinkers.  Eventually I found a quiet place near the hotel – The Dolphin Tavern, in a building which took a direct hit from a Zeppelin bomb in 1915.  At that moment, nearing the end of my break, it seemed that our triangular journey had, as always, been stitched together by a shared European history of war and renewal, destruction and rebirth.  At those moments, trying to make sense of a Scottish-British-Polish-Dutch-Luxembourgish-European experience, I tend to flounder, but marvel at the fact that we have had 70 years of peace in Europe.  And agonise that it may not last much longer.

The first couple of weeks back in the host country is always tough.  Luxembourg experiences hard grey winters, even more so than Scotland (at least the grey skies there blow over once in while).  Even if you’re not an expat, the January blues bite deep, but as an emigrant there is a sense of dislocation and confusion, of waking up in the mornings and for the first thirty seconds not remembering where you are.  Then gradually you remember the life you have built in the new country – work, friends, an altogether different view out the window.

And this year, I have something that makes me smile on those icy and dark January mornings – more than one thousand copies sold of Amsterdam Rampant, a book that prompted one publisher to tell me “I just can’t see who would buy it.”  Well, my friend, one thousand people have bought it, and it’s only the beginning of the journey.

 

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.

 

7 things I’ve learned from epublishing

 

It’s three months since I began my epublishing adventure (click on Epub Stats above to see the sales figures and other numbers).  But what have I learned so far?

1. TIME IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MONEY – Success seems to come from a steady online presence: tweeting every day, blogging regularly, contacting readers and other writers, joining community forums, and so on.  I underestimated how much time I would need to do it all properly.  The fact that I’ve not blogged for 4 weeks reflects the same old story of 60-hour working weeks and weekends spent studying for exams – and I’ve actually found it quite difficult to spend money promoting Amsterdam Rampant.  BookBub rejected me, I think because they tend to go for books with more than 100 positive reviews (basically I would pay around 200 dollars to get put on their mailing list, which they estimate would generate around 500 sales).  There are numerous tweeting services, where for 20-30 dollars they will tweet about your book to their hundred thousand or so followers.  But in general the marketing of ebooks is not really an established business model yet, and the best way to do it is on your own, hacking through the jungle, putting in the grind on a daily basis.  I’ve not had the time and this has hurt my project.

2. THE POWER OF FREE – perhaps the most amazing experience I’ve had so far was when I ran a 2-day free promotion through the Amazon KDP Select programme.  You have to firstly commit to sell exclusively through Amazon, so I ‘unpublished’ Amsterdam Rampant from the other sales platform I was using, Smashwords (I’d not sold one ebook through it anyway, so it wasn’t a big loss).  Once signed up to KDP Select, I could select one of two promos – discounted or free.  I couldn’t use the discounted option as I’d tinkered with pricing constantly up to that point and didn’t have the required stable period of 30 days at the same price.  So I opted to go for free.  Wow.  Within the first hour there were around 65 downloads and complete strangers were tweeting that Amsterdam Rampant was free.  The STV website in Dundee kindly published the link and mentioned that the Dundee Book Prize readers “couldn’t put it down” during the judging process.  At the end of the first day more than 500 e-copies of Amsterdam Rampant had been downloaded all over the world.  I spent the weekend studying for my MBA but checking online intermittently, while also tweeting every hour or so.  I excitedly watched the download graph jump every half hour, eventually hitting 781 free downloads over the 2-day spell.  Even more exciting though was my progress up Amazon’s charts.  At one point I reached number 12 in Amazon UK’s free literary fiction chart, and was the only living author in the top 12.  One minute I was studying MBA stuff, the next minute I was checking my chart position – “BOOOOOM!!!  Jack London boy, you down!  Dickens ya gadge, I’m coming fur ye!”  There are few sights more ridiculous in this world than a middle-aged Scotsman kung fu dancing around his living-room in Luxembourg while jabbering in an ill-advised fusion of African-American slang and Scots dialect.

3. AMAZON TEACHES YOU GENRE – it’s been really interesting to monitor the Amazon function “Customers who bought this item also bought…”  Based on the sales and free downloads it seems Amsterdam Rampant is mostly bundled in with crime, violent adventure stories, and comic novels. I was always confused about what genre the book belonged to, which is no bad thing.  But it’s made me reflect on what I will write in future, and rethink my priorities, for example…

4. I’VE GIVEN UP ON THE SCOTTISH SCENE – perhaps the main goal I had when I first started writing was to pen something that would be considered as ‘Scottish Literature’ and would enter this hallowed canon.  I spent too long knocking on this door.  I left Scotland almost 12 years ago and the scene there is dominated by the old guard, while newer upcoming writers all seem to know each other through creative writing postgraduate degrees (just take a look at the biography section of any Scottish magazine or anthology and probably 60-70% of the writers have one of these degrees).  It’s taken me this long to realise that being around a thousand miles away from a ‘scene’ is a major handicap to breaking into that scene.  So I’ve finally decided – my scene is now epublishing, and the world.  I am letting go of Scotland.

5. THE INTERNET IS A GLASGOW POST-PUB PARTY – the internet is a noisy, chaotic place, full of yammering loonies, kind strangers, utter bawbags, funny people, and the occasional psycho.  Exactly like a random post-pub party in an unfamiliar Glasgow tenement.  At the outset of the epublishing project I was apprehensive of trolls and nutjobs.  But in fact all of the people I’ve interacted with so far have been kind, generous, interested, and helpful.  Epublishing has reinforced my optimism about humankind.  Sure, at some point I will get stuck in the corner of this chaotic shindig with a yammering loony, maybe even bump into the nutter in the kitchen, but so far this has been one hell of a party.

6. FUN BEATS FEAR – Before epublishing I was feeling beaten up, worn out after years of trying and failing to sell the novel through the traditional channels, always on edge and waiting to be judged by editors, readers, interns… putting the book out there has liberated me completely.  The fear has disappeared, and the fun of it all has brought my confidence back as a writer.

7. THE WELL IS FILLING BACK UP – at the Dundee Book Prize dinner in 2012 I chatted to Scottish writer Alan Bissett (one of the judges) about his next project.  He used a metaphor I like, saying that he was “waiting for the well to fill back up again.”  Thanks to epublishing, I feel that happening now – ideas for my next novel are starting to trickle, glistening, into the well.  Three years ago I bashed out around 30k words of a novel that was unlike anything I’d written before – part science-fiction, part allegory of Soviet Russia / Industrial Victorian Britain.  In my head it’s now growing into a trilogy, a hybrid of Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and Joseph Stalin’s life story.  All a bit messy, but it’s thrilling to be having ideas again.

Nine months to go – bring it on!

 

Peppermint-Green Shellsuit

It was a weekly ritual.

I would leave work around six o’clock and drive – usually through rain and darkness – to a supermarket on the outskirts of Stirling, where I would buy a chicken caesar sandwich and a raspberry smoothie (always the same, it was part of the ritual) and sit in my car eating, rain pattering on the roof. Sometimes, I was nervous; other times buzzing, too excited to think straight.

After the sandwich I would drive along cobbled streets in the direction of Stirling castle, getting closer. Park the car and step out (usually into rain and darkness) and walk the final short distance to the Tolbooth.

Part of the excitement was never knowing what awaited me in that room at the top of the stairs – sure, there were the regulars who dispensed wisdom, and occasionally fire – but there were also the wildcards, the wanderers, in off the street to reveal their dreams and secrets.

One evening I walked into the room and there was one such wildcard. He was wearing a peppermint-green shellsuit and sunglasses and rocked in his chair as if thinking about swinging on it. On his feet – crisp white trainers, no socks.

The tutor asked what brought him to Stirling Writers Group.

“I’m looking for someone to write my life story,” he said.

Silence.

“I was a DJ back in the 90s. Had a number one record. Was a drug addict. Lost it all.”

More silence.

“Elton John’s hairdresser wanted to have a homosexual affair with me!”

He delivered this line with a note of impatience, as if to say – “I’m not going to reveal all my secrets, but this is a taster of the delights in store when you spend two years ghost-writing my memoir.”

After the tutor gently explained that the writers in the room wrote fiction and poetry, and worked on their own projects, she suggested that perhaps he could consider recording his story on tape, and get someone to type it up?

His face brightened. During the break he disappeared back out into the night, never to be seen again.

The wildcards maybe lasted two or three meetings at most. But the regulars, the trusty worthies, set my life off on a different course.

If you are afflicted with an urge to write, typically it manifests itself in the early stages as an entirely solitary pursuit – something that takes place on your own, behind closed doors, a secretive activity that causes mild embarrassment (overall much like masturbation, according to Stephen King). For the rookies, there can be a delicious thrill in those first forays into writing, heart beating and head spinning as we scrawl or type stories that no-one will ever read or hear.

Some people never leave that first, solitary stage, happy that their only audience is themselves. It stays as a type of therapy; a creative release. But at some point, the solitary writer will at least contemplate moving to Stage Two – sharing their stuff with others.

Typically this involves giving those pages to someone that loves them, usually the worst possible idea. The beloved either gives meaningless feedback – “that’s nice, dear” – or much much worse, attempts a critique, which usually ends in an argument or a sulk. And so the writer retreats back into his or her garret, ego wounded; or maybe decides to venture forth into the unexplored territory of a writers’ group to find out if their beloved was right.

Writers’ groups are not for the faint-hearted. The first time you share your work can be a terrifying experience – watching as the others unfold their print-outs of your novel extract; then your voice trembles as you read your piece aloud; and then the excruciating silence shortly before the feedback begins.

In my ten years of attending writers’ groups I met all kinds of colourful people, and had many unforgettable conversations and debates. In total I attended five different groups – one in Scotland and four in Amsterdam – and certain common themes developed.

For example, I found out that women are generally better writers than men. Even women starting out tend to have that instinctive notion of writing for an audience, of writing for others. Men often come into the group with the expectation that others will discover their genius. In several groups a certain type of male writer showed up – a guy who would confidently critique the work of others for a few weeks, often insightful but sometimes a bit too harsh, until eventually he would bring in some of his own writing. And usually it would be a shock, because after weeks of confidently spouting off, we expected him to be, well… good. And instead he’s reading boomingly from his reheated thriller, with his vision of himself as the hero. And of course, when the other writers stick the boot in to his purple prose, he storms off never to be seen again.

Men also tend to be the worst at listening to feedback. One very nice fellow – who we’d given feedback to before on numerous occasions – read the first chapter of his new novel, which introduced twenty-four characters (we counted). Several of these characters also died in that same first chapter.

Another common type was the promising writer with no confidence, who came to the group, fragile and needing to be delicately handled. Maybe three times I saw it happen – a writer who wrote some quite brilliant stuff, and needed nudged in one direction or another, coached and cuddled, but who would be scared off by an insensitive comment (perhaps by Reheated Thriller Man – see above). The disappointment when they never came back always cut me a little – but soon I would reflect that it was maybe for the best, because every writer needs skin thick as rhino hide.

And now Stage 3 looms – sharing my writing with faceless, anonymous others, with no right to reply. As I inch closer to self-publication (hopefully next weekend) it occurs to me that a different quality of thick skin will be needed. Difficult as it can be to listen to some tough feedback in a writers’ group, at least it is in a controlled environment. The rules of engagement are clear, and policed by the others in the room. If you get tough feedback and everyone within those walls agrees, then it’s a fairly straightforward way of finding out that something needs to change.

Launching an ebook on the world opens it up to all sorts of uncontrollable feedback. Arguably the worst kind of feedback is none at all – you publish a book, tell everyone you know about it, then never hear another peep. And then there are reviews – which, I imagine I will be desperate to get, but terrified of at the same time. Just like the younger version of me sitting in my car all those years ago, rain drumming on the roof, I await this next stage of my writer’s life with a heady mix of exhilaration and trepidation.

Fiction v Reality

While the cover contest poll has been running over the last week (winner to be announced soon!) some friends have asked me – is Amsterdam Rampant about you? Is it a memoir loosely dressed as fiction?

The question makes me uncomfortable. Why, you may ask? Well, if you’d read the novel and rephrased the question thus: “Hey Neil, this book packed full of sex, substance abuse, disreputable characters, black comedy, and occasional violence – is it about your life?”

It may come as a relief (or a disappointment) to those friends when I say that practically all of the novel’s content is fiction, but it got me thinking about this unusual process of creating a ‘realistic’ novel. If you write fiction about a grizzled private detective or a plucky boy wizard, you never get quizzed if your writing is actually about you – nobody asks JK Rowling if she spent her childhood (before the sex change) as a speccy wee lad with magical powers. But if you write fiction that aspires to convince the reader that what they are reading is believable, then inevitably people start to enquire about the fuzzy borders between your own experiences and events in the book.

So how does a literary or ‘realistic’ novel creep into being? My impression is that firstly there is a collection of experiences, a ragbag of second-hand stories, and the writer starts to mentally build a connected narrative in his or her head. At the beginning it’s like getting a random jumble of different bits and pieces in an IKEA flatpack, without any instructions. Does any of it fit together? Can a recognisable structure be built? Probably not. So then it’s a case of getting entirely new parts, finding screws and nails that’ll do the job of holding it together, watching it fall apart a couple of times, sanding off rough edges, adding layers of paint to change the appearance. And the end result is often utterly distant from the experiences that sparked the idea for the novel.

All these years later it is actually quite difficult for me to trace the novel back to its specific sources. But of course it started with my move to Amsterdam in 2002, which was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. One week I was living in a bedsit in smalltown Scotland, driving through the rain to my workplace in the middle of nowhere. The next week I was living in an apartment in Amsterdam’s canal district.

It was the first time in my life I’d lived on my own. In those heady pre-crisis days, the boom years of 21st century globalisation, the company didn’t blink twice to pay for an apartment for me for six months. I felt luckier than I’d ever been in my life. I have always been a walker, and in the evenings and at weekends I wandered around the city, down its backstreets and alleys, soaking up its atmosphere. As touched on in the previous blog, the city combined beauty and ugliness to an extent that was breathtaking. A twenty-minute dander could encompass the majesty of the Prinsengracht – golden age townhouses overlooking shimmering canals – and the trashy, toxic, sleaze n’ junk food buzz of the red-light district. Every day was full of new people, new sights and sounds. But it was lonely too – while my work was very social, there were times outside of working hours when I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life. Which was not always a bad thing.

The idea for the novel slowly grew out of that first couple of years in the city.

When friends (male and female) came to visit me in Amsterdam they typically only wanted to do one thing: go for a look around the red-light district. Even if there was an acceptance that it wasn’t exactly a zone full of happy human beings, there was an inexhaustible fascination with the idea of a small part of the city given over to explore taboos. On a few occasions revellers visited came on consecutive weekends, meaning that I was dragged around the red-light district area and Belgian beer bars from Thursday through to Sunday; and then my friends would depart, leaving me to pick up the pieces back at work on Monday morning, before it all started again four days later.

As the months went by, I began to realise how paper-thin the dividing wall was on the expat scene between ‘normal life’ and a taboo-breaking life of sexual and narcotic indulgence. In an attempt to make some friends in Amsterdam I’d joined various expat groups. One night I was out with two other British guys around my age, and we were sitting in a tiny (and famous) Belgian beer bar called Gollem. We’d quaffed three glasses of Kwak, a potent beer served in a test-tube-shaped glass, when one of the others started talking about the red-light district, before swiftly moving on to the very specific windows he’d visited. Upon which my other drinking buddy hooted with laughter and revealed he’d also visited a couple of the same windows and indulged himself with the occupants. I was a little shocked.

Then a colleague told me a story that finally made me put pen to paper. He too was bombarded with regular visitors from Scotland. One Monday night, after his friends had left following four days of partying, his doorbell rang. He opened the door to find a young man dressed in tight clothing standing on his lobby. The young man explained that he was here for the appointment, which puzzled my colleague further – until he clicked that his friends had booked him a male escort as ‘a joke’. The joke almost became even unfunnier when, upon realising that he wasn’t going to be paid for his services, the rent boy pulled a knife. Luckily my colleague was able to scare him off with some loud Scottish swearing.

The seed continued to gestate over the next 3 years while I worked on finishing my first novel. By 2007, the idea for Amsterdam Rampant had crystallised – the new novel would be about a guy called Fin McPhail who gets caught up in the city’s dark side, has somehow kicked the trapdoor open to its underworld, and at the same time a crowd of old friends invades his life for a weekend of partying. Two worlds colliding. How did Fin get into this mess? How is Fin going to get out? These were the questions I needed to answer.

A writer friend, upon seeing some early chapters, told me I was being too mild with the subject matter – what it needed was more sex, bolder storylines, faster pace. I realised he was right. My previous novel, The Vodka Angels (a literary novel exploring the 20th century history of Lithuania) had failed to find a deal, the most common feedback being that it was not a commercial prospect. There could be no holding back this time. My new novel would need to be like an HBO show set in Amsterdam – uncompromising, outrageous, a rollercoaster ride through neon and darkness.

The story gathered momentum the more I wrote, until I reached the tipping point that many writers talk about – when the characters develop a life of their own, and suddenly you are no longer sure who the story belongs to and how it’s going to end. That summer I would occasionally go to a pub called Mondo on the edge of the red-light district, sit on the terrace and watch the human traffic go by – my novel taking shape in the shadows, fiction slowly stealing reality.