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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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.

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.

 

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…