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.

 

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.

 

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.

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!

 

A Quiet Pint with Walter White

 

Last night I went out for a few pints with Don Draper, Nucky Thompson, Frank Underwood, Walter White, Jimmy McNulty, and Omar Little.  They didn’t get on too well as a group.  Don, Nucky and Jimmy were getting wired into the whisky, Frank just sat there with this insufferably smug expression on his face, and Omar began asking very personal questions about where Walter worked – at which point Walter put on this weird little hat and started waving his hands around, and the barmaid came over and told him if there was any more funny business he would be out the door.  I then embarrassed myself by trying to engage them all in a group conversation about the recent clement weather – a grim silence as they glowered at me – before the night broke up spectacularly when Frank persuaded Nucky to shoot a politician at the next table, Don and Jimmy got into a punch-up over the barmaid, Walter started doing experiments on his beer (causing a minor explosion) and during the kerfuffle Omar robbed the till.

The landlord tells me I’m barred.

We love anti-heroes in the 21st century.  Correction: we love them on TV.  Brett Martin’s excellent book ‘Difficult Men’ covers the topic far more eloquently than I ever could, and raises all sorts of interesting questions.  The book traces TV’s evolution in the last 15 years from being primarily a formulaic, family-friendly medium into overtaking cinema and literature as the most cutting edge of art forms.  Martin theorises on the reasons, and speculates that plasma TVs are one factor (ie. TV can now be as beautiful as cinema) with another factor being boredom with the corporate blockbuster and canned laughter awfulness of mainstream TV.  He tells a great story about one of the tipping points of this transformation, when the writers of ‘Six Feet Under’ delivered their first draft of the script to the HBO management, fully expecting a rejection, only to be told: “Can’t you make it more fucked up?”

This week I just finished watching HBO’s latest great show, True Detective.  It certainly ticks the ‘fucked up’ box, while also being beautiful to look at and brilliantly acted.  The show is incredibly tense, very dark, and its two lead characters are once again anti-heroes – both alcoholics, one an adulterer, the other a misanthrope and drug user.  Yet we are sucked into their world and identify with them constantly throughout (although to be fair there are one or two blips where our empathy wobbles).

But exactly how much empathy do we need to feel for characters to keep on consuming a story?  Two of my favourite characters of the great TV shows this century have been from Boardwalk Empire – Jimmy Darmody and Richard Harrow – and to me they illustrate this conundrum neatly.  Both are cold-blooded killers, disposing of rival gang members in horrifically violent ways, but their shared back story as traumatised First World War veterans somehow makes them sympathetic characters.  It’s a very tricky balance for a writer to get right, and maybe it works better on TV, because there is the advantage of the visual medium.  As Don Draper gazes out of a New York skyscraper after his latest adulterous encounter, his empty, lost expression may remind us of the lost little boy growing up in the whorehouse and somehow soften us to his predicament.  Jon Hamm’s acting tops up our empathy.  Words on a page have to work much harder.

I wonder sometimes – have TV and books ‘swapped’?  Back in my formative years in the 80s and 90s, books were far more ‘cult’ than TV.  During my twenties there seemed to almost be two categories of books, the ones I studied as a student of English Literature – by posh dead white men – and the books that poured kerosene on the hillside and set the heather blazing: The Secret History, The Wasp Factory, Trainspotting, Fight Club, Morvern Callar, and several others.  All of these books featured complex characters that didn’t fit the traditional mould.  Sure, there was also cult TV back in the 90s but it tended to be comedy (at the time The Simpsons and South Park seemed to be the only shows that were discussed around the water cooler).

I found out about True Detective this way – through the recommendation of colleagues, topped up by hype on social media.  When was the last time I read a book based on the same word of mouth buzz?  Fifteen years ago?  Indeed, a recent Booktrust study showed that more than 60% of 18-30 year olds preferred DVDs to books – hardly surprising, but twenty years ago I think books would have fared better.  However, another study claims that the under 30s are now reading more books thanks to the ubiquity of all sorts of devices.  It’s hard to get a handle on the truth.

If we return to my imaginary night out with those cult TV characters, it would be difficult to imagine wanting to spend any time with them at all in real life.  None of them are particularly likeable, yet we are willing to spend many hours with them as they drink excessively, take drugs, cheat, steal, kill, and scheme their way through life.  In modern popular fiction these characters do not exist, unless they are represented as ‘baddies’, usually in crime fiction – balanced out by a Diet Anti-Hero lead character, a detective with a couple of forgivable flaws but ultimately still representing ‘Good’.  Something that is safe and bankable for the big publishing houses, yet as they stray towards this middle ground of anodyne safe fiction, they drift from telling real stories with edge and surprise, the stories we increasingly seek out in this golden age of TV.

When was the last novel featuring a genuine anti-hero that truly ‘tipped’ and sold loads in the mainstream, stacked high on promo tables in your nearest Waterstones?  I can’t think of one this century.