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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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.

Momentum

So, another few weeks whizz by.  Strangely, despite being too busy with work and study to dedicate much time to my ebook project, sales of Amsterdam Rampant are picking up.

At the end of June I ran another free promo – as a member of Amazon’s KDP Select programme I have access to one promotion every 3 months, and I opted for the freebie, which gives you an allocation of 5 days to run the promo.  Back at the end of April I ran a 3-day free promo and 781 people downloaded it – this time round it was a more modest 216 downloads over 2 days.  During the promo I broke into the top 50 free ebooks on Amazon UK and hit no.2 in the Amazon UK Kindle charts for free literary thrillers…

AMAZON CHART

After the first two months of publication (during which I sold around 100 ebooks) sales had tailed off to around 15 per month, ie. only one every other day.  But immediately after the June promo ended, sales bounced, and I sold 12 in the next 5 days.  In July it’s now stayed pretty constant, with 24 sold after 15 days.  So while not exactly flying off the virtual shelves, it’s encouraging to see momentum building a little.  On some days I’ve scraped the top 10k paid books on Amazon UK (usually I’m in the 50k-200k zone).

I’m not exactly sure why sales have picked up.  It could be down to a number of factors.  Firstly, the Dundee Book Prize recently published its 2014 anthology on the Kindle Store, and in my ‘keywords’ on Amazon I have included ‘Dundee Book Prize’, so anyone searching for this would likely see Amsterdam Rampant pop up.

Another possibility is that I’ve started to get a presence on Goodreads.  For those of you who don’t know Goodreads, it’s a social networking site for book-lovers, and owned by Amazon.  In recent weeks I’ve got 5 ratings and 2 reviews – again, not many – but enough to perhaps get me popping up in recommendations and in search engines.  So far all ratings/reviews have been in the 3-5 star zone, giving Amsterdam Rampant an average of 3.6.  The reviews have been interesting too, discussing the novel’s flaws as well as its strengths, but with an overall positive tone which I think has helped build credibility.  I’ve also signed up to the Goodreads author programme, and will need to do a bit of work to build a profile, link to the blog, add novel extracts and so on.  Another little scrap of cyberspace to plant my flag on…

So let’s see what the next few weeks hold.  If momentum continues and more reviews filter through, things could really start moving…

 

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!