Sam chooses the quiet life, for now

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I know I’ve been a bad blogger recently, and I apologise.  I’m trying to get a grip on the various calls on my time, and hope to see some improvement now that I have decided to cut down my work – my paid, day job as an anti-money laundering adviser – to four days a week from January 2018.

I have also set the publication date for “Plank 5” as Friday 9 March 2018, which means that I will start that scary countdown clock as soon as I have finished writing this post.

In other news, I heard this week that I have not been long-listed in the Mslexia Women’s Novel Competition 2017.  (You may remember that I asked your opinion on which Plank should be submitted, and you chose “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat”.)  Mslexia sent a very helpful (standard) rejection email explaining what they were looking for, which I thought might be useful to other writers out there, so here it is:

The one thing that really made the judges want to read on was a central character they believed in, who was unusual in some way, and – absolutely crucial, this – was embroiled in some kind of dilemma, quest or conflict.  Passive characters standing on the sidelines were less likely to engage our readers; however painful their internal lives may be, it’s vital that inner torment is expressed in action and plot of some kind.  If this applies to your novel, you might consider rethinking your main protagonist, to give them a more powerful personality, or simply to give them more to do!

As in previous years, there was a complaint about the use of prologues: ‘almost always an unnecessary device’ that often delays entry into the story.  This applied particularly to prologues set in a different time period, or featuring characters that didn’t appear in the main text.  When someone is reading a lot of manuscripts in one sitting, as literary agents and editors always must do, the need to be gripped immediately becomes especially urgent.  ‘My final selections tended to have a strong voice and plunged the reader straight into the story.’

Indeed all of our judges admitted regretfully that they had to pass over a great deal of exceptional writing because the pace was simply too slow.  In some cases this was because the writer spent too much time spelling out the details of the setting (in the historical and speculative fiction manuscripts especially); in others the dialogue was rather long-winded and repetitive.  And some marvellously creative texts seemed to meander or tail off, rather than propelling the action forwards.

Again as in previous years, many novels started either with the protagonist waking up, or with the words ‘It all began like this…’.  Nothing wrong with those beginnings in themselves, but anything that smacks of cliché is going be a turn-off for a professional assessing manuscripts as part of their job – and it’s such an easy thing to avoid.

It’s disappointing, of course, but as Sam would doubtless say, we’re not doing this for reward and recognition.  I hope he’s right!

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The book-buyer’s marketplace

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Whenever I give talks about writing – and I’ve spoken in libraries and bookshops, and to book groups, WI meetings and the Rotary Club – people are always fascinated to know about the economics of self-publishing.  Telling them how much it costs to self-publish – nothing! – always surprises them.  (Of course writing a book costs a great deal in time, and you might well choose to spend money on professional editing services, or a cover designer, or a pretty template for the layout of the interior, but you can actually upload a book to a self-publishing service for no payment at all.)  But what really surprises them is how little of the purchase price eventually makes its way back to the author.

If I sell a paperback via Amazon – cover prices are £7.99 and £8.99 for the Sam books – I eventually get about £1.30 of that sale.  If I supply bookshops directly – which entails me ordering the books myself and then selling them on to the bookshop – I get about 50p per book in the end (and, in one case, I am actually subsidising a bookshop because I think it’s the right thing to do, and I lose about 20p per copy that they take…).  And if I sell an e-book – Amazon lists them for about £3.10 – I eventually get about £1.10.  I’m not eyeing up that retirement villa just yet!

And a very interesting article on this subject – where to buy your books in order to best benefit the author – has appeared on the website of the Society of Authors.  It’s a very illuminating read and, as you might imagine, flies the flag for independent bookshops and local libraries.  If you have any choice at all in how you consume your reading material, it’s well worth having a read – some of the observations will surprise you.  (Although much of it is concerned with traditionally published books – they talk of buying in bulk from distributors, which is obviously only a pipe dream for the self-published – it is still useful to have the marketplace dissected in this way.)  Click here for the article.

The swings and roundabouts of sales

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I know that some of you read this blog with a more commercial eye, curious to know whether it’s possible to make a living at self-publishing, and I promised at the outset to tell you the unvarnished truth about all aspects of this writing adventure.  And this week I have mixed fortunes to report.

You may remember that back in October 2016 I scored something of a coup when I convinced the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to stock three copies of “Portraits of Pretence”, as it is about art fraud.  I supplied the copies – as I do for most bookshops – on a sale or return basis, and they very promptly paid my invoice for the three copies supplied.  I sidled into the shop from time to time, feigning interest in other items but really checking out the bookshelves, and the trio of “Portraits” was still there.  This week I decided that it would be impolite, and not in the spirit of our original agreement, to stay silent, and so I contacted the stock manager and asked her if she would like to return the books, and she has – I collected them this morning.  To be fair, the staff tried hard: they put the books on different shelves, spine out, front out – they tried it all – but it seems that their visitors buy non-fiction art tomes rather than novels.

On the other hand, Sam is going great guns at Daunt Books in Cheapside.  I find this particularly pleasing because it is directly over the road from where Edward Freame’s bank is in the series (actually a Café Nespresso in real life).  This week Daunt ordered eight more books and my husband kindly delivered them on his Brompton folding bike and collected cash payment for the eight that had sold – some of which found its way pretty sharpish into the till of the aforementioned café (pedalling/peddling is thirsty work in hot weather).  It’s a busy bookshop, this one (it’s not the famous Marylebone Daunt – it’s the City cousin) and the customers are very much my target audience, with their interest in financial (mis)doings.

In short, it’s eight out and three in, and as long as I’m in credit, I’m happy!

(Review) points mean prizes!

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I have written before about what a thrill – what a tonic – it is for authors to get reviews.  It tells you that people are reading your books (phew!) and not just buying them.  (I know that you still get the money, but it’s sad to think of someone buying your book, reading a couple of pages and then abandoning it – much nicer to know that they have finished it.)  And it gives you invaluable insight into what is working and what is not.  “Plank 5” now has much more about Martha in it than I had originally planned, because the overwhelming call from reviews (and other feedback) is “we want more Martha”.  But I don’t think I had quite grasped the mathematical significance of reviews.

I can’t find the original source of this picture, but it is being widely circulated by authors and writing websites:

How reviews help authors

As you can see, Amazon – and most self-published authors (including this one) rely heavily on Amazon sales – decides which books to promote based on how many reviews they have received (and, I assume, how positive those reviews are).  This seems to me an entirely sensible approach: if lots of people have bought a book and enjoyed it enough to say something about it, chances are that others will enjoy it too.

So where are Sam and I with our Amazon reviews?  On the Amazon UK site, “Fatal Forgery” has 27 reviews, “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” has 13, “Worm in the Blossom” has 10 and “Portraits of Pretence” has 11.  And on the Amazon.com site, the numbers are 8, 1, 0 and 3 respectively.  (No, I don’t know why the reviews aren’t shared across all Amazon sites – they’re the exact same books, after all.)  In short, I have a way to go before I start troubling those “you might like” lists too often.

What many readers don’t realise is that you don’t have to have bought something from Amazon to be able to review it on Amazon.  Of course you need an Amazon account before you can post reviews, but if you’ve bought one of my books in a bookshop, or direct from me, or have read a library or borrowed copy, you can still review it on Amazon.

So can I put out another plea, please?  If you have read any of my books, could you take a minute to put a short review on Amazon?  Honestly: a star rating and a single sentence will count to the total – this re-post from last year shows how simple it can be.  It really does seem that on Amazon, points mean prizes.

Sam and Dan: compare and contrast

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I am sorry that I have been so silent recently.  A combination of two things has kept me away from Sam.  First there was the coming into force on Monday of this week of new anti-money laundering legislation here in the UK (which has required me to update all of my “serious” day-job books, and do all sorts of other activities to spread the word).  And the second was a dental infection (I’ll spare you the details – and thanks be to everything that I don’t live in the 1820s, with their rather more rudimentary and robust approach to dental treatment) that has sapped me of energy.  But I’m coming back from the brink now, and fully expect some quality Sam time this weekend.

But thankfully my marvellous writer friend Debbie Young has stepped into the breech, and has chosen “Portraits of Pretence” as one of the pair of books in her inaugural “Recommended Weekend Reading” blog post.  In this post, she compares Sam to the policeman hero of another series of crime novels, set slightly earlier and written by the lovely Lucienne Boyce – and they have a lot in common!  For those who don’t know her, Debbie is a talented writer and a voracious reader and reviewer – it’s very well worth following her blog.  And when she praises my lovely Sam, well, what can I do but re-blog?  Many, many thanks to Debbie.

I did consider simply putting the whole blog post in (I’m quite new at this re-blogging lark) but I’d much rather you toddled over to Debbie’s blog and met her for yourself.  So here it is: Debbie Young’s blog post.

Death and birth

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I know what you’re thinking: I’ve been idling away my time in the sun and not getting on with “Plank 5”.  Well, it’s not true: Sam, Martha, Wilson and I have had a lovely few days together while my husband has been away, and I can report that I have now written a quarter of “Plank 5”.  I know that sounds like slow progress, but with a publication date of March 2018, I’m happy with it.

As tends to happen with my writing style, the plot is developing in unforeseen ways.  I have just killed off someone – no-one central, so no need to worry – and had to do quite a bit of research around that.  I was about to dump the body in Carnaby Market (a fruit and veg market alongside the now-famous fashion street) until I consulted the marvellous British History Online Survey of London (a terrific resource, which describes each individual street and its history) and discovered that the market had closed in 1820 and been replaced by new homes – plus ça change and all that.  So the poor fellow is instead in an alleyway between two new buildings.

I have also spent some time making sure that my character records are complete.  For each recurring character I keep a record of anything significant that I have said about them in any of the books – appearance, family history, marital status, food preferences, odd habits, etc. – so that I can be consistent.  After all, there must be at least a dozen of you out there who have read all the Plank books, and you would notice if someone tall and dark suddenly shrank and went blonde.  My latest challenge has been the Atkins family tree.  George and Louisa Atkins run the Blue Boar coaching inn in Holborn, now home to Alice Godfrey and little Martha, and in “Worm in the Blossom” I casually mentioned in passing that they had six children.  Of course, I did not realise that I would like the Atkins family so much that I would keep hold of them for future books, and now I need to sort out their family tree.  If only I hadn’t made them so fertile…

The man from WH Smith, he say…

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…no.  As you may remember, I took my latest book – “Susan in the City: The Cambridge News Years” – into our local branch of WH Smith.  They weren’t keen on considering the Plank books when I took those in, but I thought that a book by a local author, a collection of columns that had appeared in the local paper, might have local appeal.  I had visions of a lovely yellow display alongside the newspaper…  The manager said that he would put the proposal to head office, and perhaps then I should have heard the distant knell of doom.

Anyway, I called in today and was told that, in the “current challenging book market”, WH Smith does not want to take on any new books until the start of their new financial year, in September.  I nodded politely, but inside I was saying, “Whaaaaaaat?”.  As everyone in the book world knows, physical books – as opposed to e-books – have made a strong recovery in recent months: indeed, sales through bricks-and-mortar shops rose by 7% in 2016.  And as for the idea that WH Smith is not going to put out any new titles on their shelves until September – I suspect that this is piffle.  If that’s really the case, they’re going to kick themselves for missing out on the new Ian Rankin paperback (due out on 15 June) and the new Jamie Oliver hardback cookbook (due out on 24 August).

Mind you, I can see how taking on my title in one branch might be too great a risk for head office.  I was offering them five copies, with them keeping 35% of the cover price, on a sale or return basis.  So if their copies did not sell, they could return them to me in any condition and not pay my invoice for £25.97.  Thank goodness they spotted that threat to their commercial survival – and handed any sales to the other two local bookshops that are stocking it, and to the online retailer they really dread.  Harrumph.

(And in case you think this is simply an enormous bunch of sour grapes, it’s not the refusal that has annoyed me: it’s the dissembling.  It’s the same as the email I received earlier this year from a small airline that I use regularly, informing me that, “in order to improve the customer experience”, they will no longer be offering free drinks on their flights.  We all know they’re doing it to reduce costs and increase profits – and why not? they’re a commercial airline, not a charity – so why the mealy-mouthed not-justification?)

Born to look backwards

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My husband is away for the weekend (doing a long bicycle ride somewhere up north – I really should listen more carefully…) and so I have awarded myself a mini-retreat for writing.  I have turned the dining table into my desk, and am spending two days – one and off – gazing out into the garden while enjoying the company of Sam and Martha.  And it strikes me that I am rarely happier than when retreating into the past.

The signs were always there.  As a little girl, my favourite book was “The Little White Horse” by Elizabeth Goudge – I still re-read it once a year.  The religious symbolism of the story quite escaped me (indeed, I saw it only when I shared it with my book club and they hated it for its religious overtones – the lesson is never to submit a beloved book to this sort of scrutiny!) but I was enchanted and captured by its setting: the west of England in 1842.  When my mother allowed me to stay up and watch evening television dramas with her, my very favourites were “Upstairs, Downstairs” (London, 1903 to 1930), “The Onedin Line” (Liverpool, 1860 to 1886) and – of course – “Poldark” (Cornwall, 1783 to [eventually] 1830).  When I went through the inevitable teenage girl phase of reading overblown family sagas with occasional scenes of torrid sex, I eschewed the modern Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz in favour of anything by Susan Howatch – particular favourites being “Cashelmara” (Ireland in the late nineteenth century) and “The Rich are Different” (London and America in the interwar years).  As an adult with my own money for television boxed sets, I wallow regularly in “Cranford” (Cheshire in the 1840s) and “North & South” (Manchester in about the same period).  In my everyday life I favour dresses with a 1950s cut, and drive a car from the 1980s.  And I must say that in today’s current political climate, the past seems much safer place to be.  Now, I must head back to 1828 – Sam is attending a religious meeting on the City Road and cannot believe his ears.

Susan on the Shelf

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OK, so it’s not a shelf – and it’s not quite the oak table – but yesterday I was delighted to see “Susan in the City” on the ledge at Heffers.  This is a, well, wooden ledge that runs at about chest height around the mezzanine floor of the bookshop, with the books angled towards strolling browsers, so it’s a prime place to be.  And I am sure you agree that the yellow cover of the book is very eye-catching:

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In other news (I know I sound busy, but as all writers will know, it’s much easier to do all of this sort of stuff than to write, and you can still kid yourself that it’s “writing”…), I went into WH Smith and was told that the local manager has sent “Susan in the City” to head office for approval, and that he is going there today on other business and will chase for an answer.  I’m to enquire again next week.

And you may remember that I donated five copies of “Susan” to the Cambridge News (the newspaper in which the columns originally appeared) as prizes in a reader giveaway.  The competition is now closed, and the organiser told me that “we had 30 entries in total – the majority came from Cambridge addresses, with a few from Ely along with a couple from Newmarket and Haverhill.  The five winners reside in Balsham, Sawston, Fulbourn, Stetchworth and Cottenham.”  (Local readers will know what that means – all five are villages outside Cambridge, not Cambridge the city.)  I don’t know quite what I expected, and of course it’s impossible to gauge how many people saw the competition, thought “That’s interesting, but I never win competitions so I’ll just go and buy the book”, but I’m not thrilled with only thirty entries.  The five books cost me £4.50 (sounds cheap, but I bought in bulk and had them delivered by carrier tortoise to save money), so that’s 22½p per person for the publicity!  So maybe not too bad.

Plank in the Wild

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I have decided to add a new page to my author website, called “Plank in the Wild”.  This will replace the hugely unsuccessful “Plank Q&A” page, which – in a whole year of existence – has not received a single question…

Plank in the Wild” will be a bit of fun, featuring Plank books out and about.  So if you have any photos of your Plank books that you would like to share, please do email them to me – I’ve put up a couple to get us started.  Let me know if you’re happy to appear in the photo, or would rather be cropped out.  And if *pause while I imagine this degree of wonderment* you ever see a stranger reading a Plank book, please oh please oh please photograph them surreptitiously and email it to me.  It is the stuff of which my authorish dreams are made.