I haven’t checked for sure, but I think I have sitting on my PVR the last ever episode of Agatha Christie’s “Hercule Poirot” and – spoiler alert – (as if that’s somehow going to abruptly stop you reading this) in it Christie gently kills off our portly, penguin-like hero. Now the TV station will probably go back to bloody Miss Marple episodes – I’d happily kill that irritating woman with one of her own knitting needles (solve that murder, you annoying old tart).
I’m going to miss Poirot. David Suchet’s portrayal of the character was masterful and included subtle, clever hints that his detective genius and incomparable skills of observation were maybe even born from an OCD or Bi-Polar condition (such as a moment he needed to ensure both his boiled eggs were exactly the same size, before he could start breakfast). For us mere mortals watching on, like all the rest of the show’s cast – and, of course, the reader’s of Christie’s novels – there was never a chance we might beat Poirot to the punch. Meaning, figure out who is the killer before he does.
Mind you, I’m not sure we’re meant to. Did Agatha Christie write her novels in such a way that the reader had any hope of identifying the culprit? I’ll admit, it’s a long time since I’ve read any of her work, preferring the TV versions. P.D. James did… sort of. Far be it for me to criticise a doyen of the crime writing business, but I found her books hard work, however I reckon she chucked in a few genuine clues among all those smelly herrings. PDJ is still with us, by the way, aged 93. Maybe she can knock off Miss Marple for me? It’s not like she’ll get sent to jail at her age. Hell, couldn’t she call it research?
Whodunnit? These days, it’s just not on the menu. Crime fiction is all about torture, guilt, self-mutilation, humiliation, near-death experiences, blood, gore and psychopathic problems – and that’s the police who are chasing the criminals. The innocent victims in these stories are pretty much having a Disney holiday compared to the hell our hero detectives are living as they pursue the bad guys.
The modern crime novel tells of the agonising journey our hero undertakes on his/her way to solving the murder and rarely do we actually care who it is, when we get there. It’s almost incidental. Yes, the result is important – does the damsel in distress strapped to the timber mill band-saw escape in the nick of time? But is it any big deal who is revealed at the controls? Not really. Hopefully they’re wearing proper, protective equipment for operating power tools, that’s all. We don’t want to encourage any irresponsible work-place practises.
I’ve written two crime novels and they’ve done well, particularly in Germany (where my enormous publisher has gone bankrupt… aaaaaargh! But it’ll sort itself out). If there is one recurring criticism of my books it’s that the villain was too easy to pick for hard-core crime fans. Why? Because I felt obligated to give them half a chance by dropping apparently not-so-subtle hints in the story. Nowadays, I wouldn’t bother – no one expects it or probably even wants it. It’s more important that my hero is a hypochondriac cripple with a drinking problem. And a dwarf.
By the way, I’m not complaining. When it’s done well, like any good writing, it’s great. I’ve recently discovered Stewart MacBride and read everything he’s ever done as fast as I could get my hands on it. Check out his DS Logan McCrae series of novels but, if you can, try to read them in order. It’s not a continuing storyline – it’s brilliant, darkly funny character development. Don’t worry crime fans, plenty of people get hung, stabbed and shot, too. Nobody just quietly dies.
Like Hercule Poirot did, bless his stumpy little legs and waxed moustache. Maybe I can start watching repeats? Then I can figure out the killer before him – maybe. He solved more than a few crimes in his time and remembering them all…
When I first started writing, the “Holy Grail” was to get the Big Publishing Contract. Just a modest seven-figure advance would do the trick. Then your life would be instantly transformed and you became a pipe-smoking, tweed coat-wearing “author” who occasionally interrupted a busy schedule of lunches with agents and publishers to bash out the next best-seller. Hmm… didn’t happen a lot, and it certainly didn’t happen to me – although the advances I received were exciting and I did enjoy numerous lunches with editors (without my agent, which sometimes got me into trouble!). So I’m not complaining. I was expected to be what you’d call a mid-list author – someone economically worth publishing, but I’d never be on a best-seller list (well, you never know…). There was a million of us, filling the bookstore shelves all over the world. And we were still successful as such, because even mid-list authors had to sell a reasonable amount of books to make the whole thing financially worthwhile for the publishers.
The new holy grail for writers now is very different. It’s “To Make A Living” and it involves a lot of hard work involving self-promotion and a lot of hours spent on the internet – just like now. A lot of writers dream about selling enough books to make it their full-time job and hell – some of them aren’t helping the system by pumping out a dozen 20K words “books” a year in a shotgun attempt to do that. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.
There’s another holy grail (yes, there’s two). Very different to Making A Living.
I’ve been playing music in bands and duos for many years, and I’ve done my share of playing to near-empty (and even empty) rooms, seemingly wasting my time and energy on a handful of punters. However, as a lot of gigging musicians will tell you, sometimes those small audiences are the best. You create a personal connection from the stage, share a joke over the microphone, and maybe a drink when you’re having a break. You often feel – and get – a damned sight more appreciation from a small audience who are actually listening, rather than playing for a room full of drunks who hardly know where the music is coming from.
See where I’m going here?
Today’s online, ebook, self-publishing allows you write whatever you want and, as long as you write it well, you can enjoy a small, appreciative audience who will support and encourage you with more sincerity than a bunch of faceless Facebook Likes. From there, things can only grow as long as your writing grows, too.
We’re talking about how you write. I’m suggesting you don’t write to attract a Big Publishing Contract, and you don’t write with the ambition To Make A Living. You write to satisfy yourself first (you have to impress the hell out of yourself, that’s very important) then you write to satisfy a potentially small, but very discerning audience. It can be anything you want – any genre you want, right? That’s not an issue any more. Just don’t be tempted into designing and shaping your writing for a large audience – to get lots of sales. You don’t have to sell any amount of books to stay in the game now. Aim for a small, loyal following first. Achieve that and everything else should look after itself.
A week or so ago a chap called Hugh Howey, a successful novelist who also decided to self-publish with great effect, published a report that analysed the top 7000 ebooks on Amazon (or something like that- sorry if I’m not quite correct). The trick was – or is – that Amazon doesn’t make public any sales figures, only rankings, so it’s always been a bit of a mystery whether or not these top-sellers actually came with high sales. Like, how many books do you need to sell to be within the top 7000? Only Amazon knows.
Except Hugh had a mate, who wrote some software that crunched all the data, and it came back with some unexpected results. Mainly that self-published authors own a lion’s share of the ebook sales, rather than the “Big Five” publishers they’re supposedly, futilely competing against. It’s all being greeted as a bit of an epiphany – a watershed moment in publishing that proves so-called traditional publishing is dead, or at least dying, and dedicated writers no longer really need a “real” publisher to be successful themselves. A lot of high-profile, self-published writers are crowing a kind of “I told you so,” line and flipping a finger at the big publishing house. They’re saying that new writers should consider self-publishing first, before approaching established publishers and agents. It’s the true path to literary riches. The publishing revolution hasn’t just started – the battle is apparently already won according to some of these guys. I doubt the big publishers would agree. They were slow off the blocks when ebooks began getting serious, but they’ve already adapted very, very quickly and can only get better at it.
Among all the debate and rhetoric it’s rarely mentioned that you still need to write a really good book to find success either way. A really good book. The best thing you’ve ever read, let alone written. Ever.
But okay, for the record here’s my brief summary of the argument and you can make up your own mind.
First of all, there is no argument.
Aiming to self-publish a novel means you don’t have to feel obliged to conform to current, popular genres. You can write and publish anything you like, whereas traditional publishing is always trying to stick to the latest formula (e.g. Harry Potter or Twilight-like stories in recent times). You’re increasing the risk no one will ever read your book, but you’ll be writing with a passion and heart that doesn’t really happen when you’re trying to satisfy a market. That’s a good thing. Heaps of established writers – myself included – are self-publishing works that were originally rejected due to considerations of the market at the time, and even the whim of an editor in a commissioning meeting. However, writing the novel is just the start. You need it professionally edited or at least “read” by a pro editor who can give you objective feedback. A very good cover needs designing – standing out from the crowd on Amazon or Smashwords isn’t easy. Then you’ll need to promote the hell out of your book on social media, websites and such, because among many, many other problems you have to solve, your book will be pushed off the front page of the “latest releases” in about ten minutes flat. Here’s a warning, by the way. A lot of writer’s forums and blog sites are run and patronised by other “writers” who couldn’t string a decent sentence together to save their lives, and as soon as they get a whiff that you’re publicising a new, completed book your post will be deleted and your user name blocked. Pathetic, but true. This social media self-promotion bizzo is a lot more difficult than you’ll ever imagine.
If a traditional publisher makes you an offer (or even a smaller publisher or digital publisher like my own Momentum Books) just about all the above isn’t your problem, except for the promotional thing. You still have to promote yourself. In exchange for dealing with the difficult logistics of your novel (editing, cover design, etc) , the publisher exercises most of the control over your book and pays you a royalty less than you can give yourself as a self-publisher, depending on the self-published price structure you might have set and the distributors you sell through.
The truth is there isn’t any choice to be made. It’s not a case of one or the other. As a writer trying to successfully publish a book (anybody can whack it up on Amazon and say they’re “published”) you need a business strategy that looks at both forms of publishing. If your novel is a bit “out there” and would struggle to fit into popular genres, then maybe self-publish and see if you can build a readership before showing the results to a publisher. If you’ve written a formulaic crime novel (with your own brilliant twist, of course) it may be worth approaching an agent or publisher straight away – these people are looking for new writers and books, don’t forget. That’s the business they’re in. They just might write you a big, fat cheque.
That’s if you’ve written a really, really good book, don’t forget. Did you forget that bit? Need I mention it again?
Yes, the publishing revolution has started and, according to Hugh Howey, we may be a lot further down that track than we’d realised prior to his clever mate and number-crunching report. My best advice is, don’t be sucked in by the vitriolic and sometimes petty spats you’ll find on the net. When you’ve finally written “The End” under your treasured manuscript (actually, haven’t seen that for years!) and start looking at publishing options, keep an open mind. You can investigate a lot of different possibilities without drawing a line in the sand between self-publishing and traditional publishers.
Ebooks and ebook publishing have certainly been rocking the boat a lot harder lately. We’re still all in that same boat, though.
Every cloud has a silver lining, or so they say, which sounds more like a bit of meteorological bullshit to me, but anyway…
With my German publisher Weltbild going rather inconveniently bankrupt I’m faced with some interesting choices. I’m not too worried about Weltbild. It’s a very large company and no doubt it’ll restructure and emerge from the mess in a better state — although there’s a risk they’ll use the insolvency to avoid paying its author royalties for the last 6 months. That might prompt an interesting foul- language post! In the meantime I’m left with writing stuff for fun, just for the hell of it, (which is always the best way to write by the way), because there’s not much point in writing more crime novels for my German readers until I know for sure it’ll ever see the light of day (sorry, German fans, but as I said, I’m sure it’ll all come out in the wash).
I’ve been looking at a few unfinished manuscripts that were curtailed, because no one thought there’d be a market for them. One is another And In The Morning war story and I was surprised to discover I’d written almost 60,000 words before shelving it. The problem was, I think, we believed there’d be a glut of such writing with the 100th anniversary of WW1 on the horizon, but that shouldn’t discourage a good story, right?
The second manuscript is a science fiction/thriller thing that has, as far as I’m concerned, a really unique premise. So unique that, so far, no one else “got” what I was trying to do when I showed around the initial chapters and the consensus of opinion was it would be a waste of time. I’m daunted by the premise myself! I reckon the idea is great, but can I make it work?
Maybe that challenge is exactly what I should be taking on? And after all, I’m not saying for a moment it’s a best-selling, genius idea, but unique books come from unique ideas and if none of us pursued these things and ignored the criticisms, literature would be a pretty bland place.
It’s also true that regardless of all the argument, debate and shit-fighting over the self-publishing industry, it is an option for manuscripts that traditional publishers won’t accept. These days, unwanted novels don’t have to languish in bottom drawers undiscovered.
That war novel is nearly half-finished though. Probably I’ll work on that first. Of course, there’s more than the beginnings of a new John Maiden (from Missing Pieces) crime book on my hard drive. If Weltbild pops up in a new suit and asks for it again, I suppose that’ll have to take priority… Bastards better pay the bills first though!
Okay, for a laugh I’ll add my voice to the chorus of comment on the latest Dr Who episode — the 50th anniversary. Ever since Russell Davies took over and resurrected Dr Who the show has often been burdened with an over-arching story line, a plot-within-a-plot a bit like The X Files where each weekly episode possibly — but not always — also contributes to some kind of grand conspiracy. Back in the old days the Doctor dropped into the 18th century, or maybe Mars, got into some deep shit, escaped and all was good (although I also remember there was regularly a cliff-hanger ending, but never a season-long story line). So this final episode that posits that Gallifrey wasn’t destroyed after all is a big call in the overall scheme of Dr Who stories. It flies in the face of 50 years of Dr Who mythology — that he’s the last remaining Time Lord. As a writer, would you dare fool around with a 50 year legacy?
I was thinking it was a very brave call indeed, but then I figured, “After fifty years, what the hell else are you going to do?”
Can you imagine any other show, book or story that has 50 years of scripted history to remain faithful to? Huge task! So go for it, I say.
As for the document-drama afterward the poor bugger who brilliantly acted and resembled William Hartnell was obviously born for the role. Who knew all that shit went down? However, the brief glimpse of his successor… Not even close. Never mind.
No offence, but the new Doctor being a bit older should get rid of the sexual tension that’s been hanging around for the last few series. It was a bit un-Doctor like, if a lot of fun, but maybe also getting a little complicated. The Amy Pond/Rory thing was getting a bit weird really. Don’t get me wrong — Clara Oswald is fantastic. She will be a crowd favorite for years, I suspect. Gets my vote.
Mark at Momentum sent this screen grab of my books’ Halloween promotion being featured on iBooks. Brilliant! Fantastic to be on the iBooks headline flappy-turn-over thing on the main page. It’s going to be really interesting to see what sort of results this kind of promotion achieves. Not sure just how long the special 99 cent pricing will stay available (normally they’re $4.99) so if you’re interested, get in now. It’s not just iBooks by the way. Amazon and other online book stores are running the promotion, too.
Huge thanks to the crew at Momentum for putting this together.
This cover is great although it kind of represents only half the story, which begins with a bunch of witchcraft and sorcery from centuries ago. Then the narrative shifts to the modern day, super-computers and a sort Ghost In The Machine theme. Oh, and there’s a haunted German U-Boat from World War 1 – a part of the novel that’s based on a true story. You can find out more on my The Devil’s Numbers page here.
I’ve started uploading the tracks to my soundtrack, “And In The Morning” which, of course, accompanies the book of the same name. I’ve been working hard on remixing and re-recording some of the songs (I started the project when the print version was originally released) but I fell into the trap of trying to work on too much music at the same time. You go deaf to the subtleties of the mix, balance, overall mastering… so I’m checking the songs and uploading them one day at a time. Here’s a link to the playlist (Soundcloud’s version of an album, I guess). Hope you like it.