Punctuation for the petty-minded

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I’m back from my hols in Ischia – an island in the Bay of Naples (it’s the less glitzy neighbour to Capri).  It has the most amazing Aragonese castle which we overlooked from the roof terrace of our Airbnb lodging, and which we toured for an afternoon (you have to read about what they did with the dead nuns).  I’d love to include it in a Sam story but I can’t think of any earthly reason how or why he would find himself in Ischia.  Perhaps I’ll save it for a post-Sam novel…

Before we went I visited our local library and selected eight books for the ten days; I finished them all, plus two from the shelves of the Airbnb (one of which I might have chosen, and the other turned to in desperation – it was that or a tome called “The History of Socialism”).  Two of the eight I enjoyed enormously: “The Street” by Bernardine Bishop and “Euphoria” by Lily King.  But one left me puzzled.  “The Hiding Place” by Trezza Azzopardi was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000, and the cover tells me that the Observer thought it “a scalding, thrilling book”.  It’s about the Maltese community in Cardiff, and is written in the first person by Dolores, the youngest of six daughters who grew up there in poverty in the 1960s.  Now it’s a good story, with an element not quite of whodunnit, but rather “heavens, what’s going to happen next?”.  But I found it a difficult read for two reasons.

Firstly, the author does not use inverted commas to indicate speech – just indents.  (And you know that I have strong views on inverted commas…)  But then indents are also used for new paragraphs, so it’s sometimes hard to tell whether it’s speech or explanation.  And secondly, the story jumps backwards and forwards in time, but with no indication of where you are except the text itself – in other words, you don’t know at the start of the chapter/scene and have to deduce it from what is happening.

So in order for a book to be considered thrilling and prize-worthy, does it have to tread new ground stylistically?  A bit like modern art, does it have to do something more/else than just telling a good story or showing a good depiction of something recognisable?  I’m not being a grumpy old woman (well, not much…) but I do wonder why I spend all those hours proofreading and checking, when I could simply leave in all the typos and pretend it’s an intentional stylistic affectation to show my impatience with the petty bourgeois norms of grammar and punctuation…

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A right royalty rumpus

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Part of being a self-published author is dealing with the money side of things.  I am extremely lucky in that, for me, writing is a hobby and so I do not count on it for my income.  (Just as well, considering it makes me £25 per week.)  I do hope that one day I will be able to rely on it a little more, but for the moment, it’s an enjoyable side-line.  And this is why I have never bothered getting to grips with the royalty situation.  (Isn’t that a marvellous word for something rather ordinary?  Here’s the explanation from etymologyonline, one of my most-used websites: “c. 1400, ‘office or position of a sovereign’, also ‘magnificence’, from or modelled on Old French roialte [12c., Modern French royauté], from Vulgar Latin regalitatem, from Latin regalis.  Sense of ‘prerogatives or rights granted by a sovereign to an individual or corporation’ is from late 15c.  From that evolved more general senses, such as ‘payment to a landowner for use of a mine’ [1839], and ultimately ‘payment to an author, composer, etc.’ for sale or use of his or her work [1857].”)

Don’t get me wrong: I have a fair grasp of how much I make from each copy sold.  (It’s a bit approximate, because it does vary according to country of sale, exchange rates, etc., but it’s about £1.10 per paperback copy sold on Amazon, and £1.10 per Kindle book.)  But what mystifies me is that every month I get five royalty payments.  Yes, five.  Three of them come accompanied by statements, while the other two sneak in alone.  The three statements cover purchases made in pounds, US dollars and euros.  But I have no idea what the other two payments are for.  On my bank statement all five payments say simply that they have come from “Amazon Media”.  And so I tot them up and bung them on the tax return.

But now change is a-foot.  I have received an email from CreateSpace (the print-on-demand company that I use, which is – like almost every business under the sun – owned by Amazon) announcing that “CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing will become one service”.  KDP is the service I use to sell my Kindle books, and CreateSpace authors seem to have little choice in the matter (pick your battles, as my grandma used to advise), so I have pressed the button to migrate my CreateSpace titles to my KDP account.  On the surface, this seems like a good development: I can now go to one dashboard to see all my sales – POD paperbacks and Kindle books.  But I can’t help thinking that things might not be that simple…  For a start, I’m going to have to wait longer for my £25: “CreateSpace pays monthly royalties 30 days after the end of the month in which they were earned while KDP pays monthly royalties approximately 60 days after the end of the month in which they were earned.”  And those royalties might well shrink a little, as they are calculated after the cost of production is deducted, and “some low-page count books will see an increase in printing fees when they are printed in the UK and EU”.  It remains to be seen how low is low when it comes to page count…

Deep thoughts for Thursday

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Things have taken a rather philosophical bent today.  I was listening to Radio 3 in the car this morning [for non-UK readers, it’s a classical music station] and the presenter said something along the lines of, “And next we have a rather interesting interpretation of Haydn’s [something or other] – I’m not sure what the conductor had in mind when he recorded this but let’s see what you think of it”.  This surprised me, because I am not at all musical and had always assumed that anyone competent could take a piece of music and play it, and it would always sound the same as someone else competent playing it.  But apparently not.

And then it occurred to me that writing a book is rather like writing a symphony or a concerto.  The creator – composer or author – has a clear idea of how it should sound.  They try to convey this through the selection of specific notes/words, and the use of musical notation/written punctuation that follows the accepted standard.  But in the end, you can only suggest – you cannot dictate.  You cannot dictate the mood of the listener/reader.  You cannot dictate the atmosphere in which the music/book is consumed – a dark room, a bright outdoor venue, a train journey.  You cannot dictate the message that the listener/reader will take from the experience.

And now, back to researching oysters.

The Fussy Librarian interviews the Very Grateful Author

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Heavens, the speed of modern communication quite dazzles me at times!  Less than twenty-four hours ago I indulged myself by replying to a very interesting email questionnaire sent to me by Sadye of the Fussy Librarian website.  This website is a big deal in the e-book world, as it (to quote its own description) “is the first website to match readers not only with the genre of books they like but also their preferences about content… We also only bother with the good stuff so you know you’ll see great reads every time you open our daily email.”

So you can imagine that I was delighted to be asked to take part in their regular “author Q&A” feature.  I expected it to sit around for a while, waiting its turn – but no!  It’s there today!  I’ll let you know if I see a spike in sales in the Des Moines area.  (Only kidding – I can’t track purchases that closely.  At least not legally.)

Build it and they will come

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I know, I know: it was but a few short days ago when I declared that I was – temporarily – abandoning all marketing efforts in order to concentrate on writing.  And to be fair to me (if I can’t be fair to myself, what hope is there?) I have indeed concentrated on the writing – or, more specifically, the plotting – of “Plank 6”.  And I can announce that I have a twisty, turny and frankly rather nasty plot in mind for you – I had no idea that I could be so unpleasant and devious.  But, in the odd manner of things, as soon as I turned my back on publicity it started seeking me out.

In example one, a review that has been pending since May, when “Faith, Hope and Trickery” was published, has just appeared.  It is on the website of Shots Crime & Thriller eZine and has been written by the lovely Pippa Macallister, whom I know from a local crime book group.  You can read it yourself, as I blush rather to repeat it, but let me just say this: “There is a wonderful warmth between [Sam and Wilson] and Sam’s wife Martha, which contrasts with the cold, hard reality of life in the areas where they live and work.”  You will also spot the typo in the title of the review: I am minded to leave this as it is, as I figure that people might notice it and – as the marvellous Oscar Wilde so astutely commented – “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

And in example two, I have been contacted by an e-book marketing company called The Fussy Librarian and asked to take part in their regular author Q&A feature.  I was recommended to them by my fellow – and kind and generous – historical fiction author Victoria Blake (if you haven’t read her novel “The Return of the Courtesan”, a real treat awaits you), and the questions the FL has sent to be answered are really interesting and quirky.  I don’t know when it will appear on the FL’s newswire (I haven’t even sent in my answers yet) but when it does, I’ll let you know.  The FL is based in Iowa in America, so it certainly can’t hurt to introduce Sam to a wider transatlantic audience.

A change of focus

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As regular readers will know, I try to put regular energy into marketing initiatives.  Which is a grand way of saying that I sit there with a bit of paper headed “How to sell Sam” and try to think of ideas.  Of course – as in most areas of life – the having of the idea is the easy bit.  Where I usually come to grief is actually doing it.  It’s not through laziness, but through knowing that I don’t earn nearly enough from my writing to indulge in all the marketing wheezes I would like to try.

For instance, last week I travelled down to London on the train from Cambridge – a journey of about an hour.  I looked around the carriage and nearly everyone was reading.  A-ha, thought I: wouldn’t it be good to give them all a sample chapter of one of the Sam books – just enough to fill a bit of their journey and pique their interest, so that they rush to their computer or bookshop and order the entire book.  I could hand them out on the train, or stand by the stack of Metro newspapers – after all, people who pick up a paper are self-declared readers.  But I wouldn’t want to give out scrappy photocopies – they would need to look nice.  Perhaps a book-sized leaflet, with stiff covers…  And this would, of course, cost quite a bit.  Back to the drawing board.

It’s not that I do nothing.  After all, I have my monthly Sam updates for subscribers – feel free to join us by signing up here.  We are a small band but a merry one – just today we have been enjoying an overview of the history of barbering (Sam was an apprentice barber before he was a constable).  And I have just persuaded Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden to hold an author event for me on the evening of Wednesday 10 October 2018 – so if you’re local (or even if you’re not – Saffron Walden is a delight to discover) please do come and join us.  (It’s not on the Hart’s website yet, but you can be sure that I won’t be keeping quiet about it once it is featured.)

But I will admit that marketing – unsuccessful marketing, which seems to be my specialism – can be rather depressing.  And so I have decided that for the next month I am going to stop thinking about selling the books and instead spend all those thoughts on writing the next one.  Hopefully this will remind me that I do this writing thing because I love writing.  Writing, not marketing or selling.  So let’s see how that goes.

Making a deposit

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For the most part, self-publishing is a grand adventure and to be recommended.  But there are some regions of the publishing world that are very hard to navigate solo, and one of these is legal deposit.  Back in the mists of time (OK, it was January 2017), I had a brainwave: I would get myself registered as a publisher with Nielsen.  Nielsen is the key book distributor here in the UK, and when a bookshop wants to stock a title, they generally order it through Nielsen.  Nielsen then contacts the publisher and orders the copies to be sent on.  In theory, if I was listed as a publisher, a customer desperate to get their mitts on a Sam Plank novel could go into any bookshop in the country and place an order which would make its way from bookshop to Nielsen to me.  What could go wrong?  Well, I have indeed been listed as a publisher with Nielsen for eighteen months now, and how many orders have I received?  Not a single one.  Hey ho, as they say.

But it’s worse than that, my self-publishing friends.  My books – the five Sam Plank novels and the dozens of non-fiction titles that I produce in my day-job guise as an adviser on money laundering – are all published as print-on-demand paperbacks by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.  In South Carolina.  In America.  Not in the UK.  Here in the UK we have a regime called legal deposit.  It’s been around since 1662, and the current legislation – the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 – requires that “a person who publishes in the United Kingdom a work to which this Act applies must at his own expense deliver a copy of it to an address specified by any deposit library entitled to delivery”.  Fair enough.  But a few weeks ago I received an email from the legal deposit people asking for one of my non-fiction titles – which are, as I said, published in South Carolina.  In America.  I explained all of this, but they insisted and so I sent them a copy.  A week later another demand arrived, for another book.  I bleated “South Carolina” again, and this time they said that perhaps I should have a word with Nielsen, who supply them with their data on books published in the UK.

Heavens, Alex at Nielsen is a nice chap, and I got the impression that he likes nothing more than a mystery.  The two titles in question have ISBNs which show that they are indeed American publications – South Carolina, don’t you know – but the spreadsheet showed their place of publication as UK.  Hence the legal deposit demands.  Alex was on the case, and within a day emailed me to say that they had tracked down the error, worked out had gone wrong, and rectified it.  My publications now all show – correctly – as being American in origin and therefore beyond the grasp of legal deposit.

I’m not being mean about it, and of course I support the concept of legal deposit to preserve the nation’s published output (as the British Library would have it).  But if I have to source and supply a copy of each of my books “at [my] own expense”, that’s quite an outlay: each has to be ordered from CreateSpace and shipped to me before I send them on to the five legal deposit libraries – each copy would cost me about £15 in total, and I have nearly forty titles!  (Forty titles times five libraries times £15 is a staggering £3,000.)  It’s not something that occurred to me at all when choosing my print-on-demand publisher, but I’m now thanking my lucky stars that I opted for one in South Carolina rather than Southall or Southampton.

Starving in a garret

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I am a – very proud – member of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, which was set up in 1977 to collect and distribute to authors the money they are due from “secondary uses” of their work (such as when schools photocopy books, or libraries lend books).  Apart from this sterling work, the ALCS also works as a campaigning organisation to promote the right of authors to be treated – and paid – as professionals.  And they have recently published the findings of their survey “Authors’ Earnings 2018: A survey of UK writers”.  Although I am only a part-time writer I submitted my information – and awaited the results with trepidation (as, of course, I hope one day to become a full-time author).  This may be an unrealistic dream…

Some highlights – or rather, lowlights:

  • the median annual income of a professional writer in the UK is now less than £10,500 [in 2017, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation declared that the income level considered to be a socially acceptable standard of living for a single person, was £17,900]
  • based on a standard 35-hour week, this works out at £5.73 per hour [the current UK minimum wage for those over 25 is £7.83]
  • if you take into account all writers – part-time and occasional as well as professional – the median annual income is a measly £3,000
  • in 2005, 40% of professional writers earned their income solely from writing – in 2017, it was just 13.7% [as earnings from writing fall, professional writers need to supplement their income with other activities such as teaching, editing, etc.]
  • but the creative industries in the UK are now valued at £92 billion and are growing at twice the rate of the UK economy as a whole – which suggests that the contribution of writers is being significantly undervalued.

Rather depressing, isn’t it?  I’m very lucky in that I can afford to do my writing as a rather expensive and time-consuming hobby, but can you imagine a society where no-one can afford to be a writer?  So come on: buy those books, go to those readings, write those reviews – and hug an author!

Stiff competition

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Last Wednesday I had some pretty stiff competition.  I was invited to speak at a literary event in a local village, during their annual week of festivities, and on the night I shared a platform with properly-published, best-selling author Sarah Vaughan (she’s even had her most recent book, political thriller “Anatomy of a Scandal”, promoted on London black cabs and on posters in the Tube – she’s that professional an author!).  Not only that, but Sarah and I were battling for attention against “Mock the Week” regular Hal Cruttenden (performing at a comedy event in the same village) and the entire England football team playing Croatia in Moscow.  Nonetheless, a fine band of about thirty people turned out to hear us talk about crime, writing, and crime writing.

Sarah was a lovely person, and since we met has been very generous with her time and her contacts, but I will admit that sharing a stage with her reminded me that I have a long way to go.  She happened to mention that one of her books has over twenty editions in translation, and that the Italian edition alone has sold over twenty thousand copies.  Twenty thousand!  All five of my novels, in all editions, have sold a total of just over 1,400 copies.

But am I daunted?  I am not!  Now that I have sorted out just which year I am writing about, I find that 1829 is a cracker of a year.  We’ve had the hanging of grave-robber William Burke and the first appearance of the Metropolitan Police – and it’s only the end of June.  Added to that, it was a very cold year with a wet, thundery summer and then London snow in early October – very atmospheric.  As Sam might say, we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do, not because it makes us money.

Good with words, hopeless with numbers

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I am a very organised person.  I have the equivalent of a B at maths “A” level (I did the International Baccalaureate instead, albeit in the pre-computer dark ages).  These two parts of my character have united in the Sam Plank series, in that I (a) plotted all remaining six books in the series as soon as I had finished the first one and realised I couldn’t live without Sam, and (b) decided that the books would be set in consecutive years (“Fatal Forgery” in 1824, “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” in 1825 and so on).  Simples, as they used to say.

And so I find myself beavering away on “Plank 6”.  I’ve been researching inheritance law and body-snatching (the former more confusing, the latter more gruesome).  And I’ve been setting it all against the background of events in 1828.  Yesterday I was putting together my supplies for the Shelford Feast (I’m speaking at their Literary Evening tomorrow – we’re up against England in the semi-final…) and printing little price-lists for the books.  Against each book price I wrote a little description of the book – and realised that “Faith, Hope and Trickery” (book five, and published in March 2018) took place in 1828.  You see my error.

It’s not hard, is it?  I have ten fingers for the complex calculations.  If book one is set in 1824, of course book six will be set in 1829.  Back to the drawing board.