Under the covers

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One of the most exciting aspects of indie publishing is having control of the appearance of your books.  I once spoke to a “professional” author (i.e. one whose books are published the traditional way, via a contract with a publishing house) and he said how much he loathed the covers of his books – and I thought that was very sad (a bit like having to admit that your children are ugly).  As regular readers of this blog will know, I have no visual artistic talent at all, but I know a man who does – and he is “my” marvellous cover designer Andrew, at Design for Writers.

I am about to publish a short business book called “The Solo Squid: How to Run a Happy One-Person Business”.  Andrew has done the covers for the Sam Plank books and for all the money laundering piggy books, but “the Squid” is a new venture.  His first requirement was for me to look at other business books aimed at the small business and tell him the covers I liked and disliked; among my dislikes were anything too shiny and corporate and American or anything too cute-sy and homemade.  And – of course – I wanted a squid on the cover.  (Inevitably, with my love of research, I spent a happy half-day reading about the differences between squids and octopuses, and the use of squids in legend, literature and medicine, and discovered that those who study squids are nicknamed cephalopodiatrists.)  Poor Andrew – imagine trying to make artistic sense of that lot.  But he worked his usual magic (which, like all magic, requires enormous amounts of work behind the scenes) and came up with two options:

Squid 1    Squid 2

I adored them both, of course, but in the end plumped for the blue/sea-green cover for a few reasons:

  • The red cover looks more mysterious – perhaps better suited to fiction than to a business book
  • The subtitle – and particularly the word “happy” – is much more obvious on the blue cover
  • The shape of the squid on the blue cover coincidentally quite closely matches the squid-like bullet points I have used in the text of the book
  • Some people said that they found the red squid scary!

Andrew is now completing the back cover and spine of the book and then it’s on to the next stages: ordering a paper proof (which I always do with a new title – I don’t bother if it’s just a revised version), final checking and editing – and then publication.

With many thanks to Andrew at Design for Writers for permission to reproduce his cover designs in this blog post.

And we’re off!

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I promised myself that after a suitable break to admire “Heir Apparent” I would crack on with “Greg 1” – the first book in my new series, to be set in Cambridge and narrated this time by a university constable.  Sunday was the day and I began by setting up the blank templates in the research/writing package I use (Scrivener) as this is always the symbolic start to a book.  Once the templates were there, of course I couldn’t resist starting my research, and I’ve been knee-deep ever since in the history of Cambridge.  I did consider setting this series a decade earlier (I’m never really happy too far from the 1820s…) but then I remembered that the University of Cambridge Constabulary was not created until 1825, so I’m back in my favourite decade – hurrah!

And once again I am amazed at how helpful people are when you say that you’re writing historical fiction and need their help with their area of expertise.  I have already been in touch with the current head of the university constables and she has invited me in to meet her and talk about their work – past and present.

And I know that I want Gregory Hardiman to have an army background, so I read up about possible regiments in the area, and who did what in the Peninsular Wars (he’s going to be a wounded ex-soldier), and found a combination that would work.  But I am treading with extreme caution: I come from an entirely un-military family and don’t know my adjutant from my ensign.  And although all historians are (quite rightly) nit-picking, I believe that military historians are the pickiest of the lot, so I daren’t get it wrong, but military history books are complicated to the uninitiated.  What to do, what to do – and then I thought of contacting the present-day descendent regiment of the one I had chosen for Gregory.  I put together some questions, which I daresay appear extremely naïve and basic to anyone military, and sent them to the “contact us” person on their website.  Less than 24 hours later, I have had a full reply to every question from the curator of the regiment’s museum.  How very, very kind – and it’s all really interesting too.  I now know that Greg lied about his age to sign up, because there were too many mouths to feed at home and he fancied guaranteed grub every day.  If you’re writing historical fiction, never feel shy about asking for help: I have never once been turned down.

The nitties and the gritties of indie publishing

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Much as I love being a self-publisher author – or what is now called an indie publisher – there is a lot to remember.  Writing the books is really only a part of it; keeping up with all the publishing of those books is administratively heavy and can overtake me at times.

Yesterday, for instance, I was looking at my listings on Amazon and noticed that my free guide to the Sam Plank series – the little publication that offers the first chapter of each Sam Plank book as a taster and a lure – was priced at 99p, rather than free.  Nowadays you are not allowed to list items as perpetually free on Amazon (special offers only), but one way to achieve the same aim is to list the item for free on a competitor site and then ask Amazon to price-match that product.  My Sam guide is available on the Barnes & Noble website for just this purpose, and Amazon has always price-matched it on their UK and US sites.  But it seems that this is not a forever done deal, because – as I noticed yesterday – Amazon had unilaterally re-priced it to 99p (and $1.29 in the US).  Thankfully the mechanism for asking them to instigate a price match is now quite simple – there’s a template email provided in the KDP help system – but it does rely on the publisher (i.e. me) spotting in the first place that the price has been unmatched.  Anyway, email sent yesterday and price re-matched today, to zero.

Also yesterday, I went into my local branch of Waterstones to check that my titles are appearing on their ordering system, after all my efforts to be accepted as an indie publisher by Gardners.  And that was when I realised that I had failed to tell Gardners about “Heir Apparent”, which is therefore absent from their catalogue – and presumably missing out on thousands of orders up and down the land…  (For the record, I have yet to receive a single order from any bookshop via this hard-won Gardners route, but I am sure my day will come.)  I really must create a check-list of things to be done once a book is actually published, and stop thinking of publication day as the end-point – it’s only the beginning for the indie publisher!

(As for the title of this post, I once heard a speaker at a professional conference who was from France; his accent was divine, darlings, and my heart was completely won when he talked of having to adjust his bank’s procedures to take account of “ze nitties and ze gritties” of some new legislation.  From that moment on, the phrase has been a very welcome part of my vocabulary.)

Piggies and podcasts

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I know this blog is usually about my fictional writing, but I do also write lots of non-fiction to do with my day job (which is anti-money laundering consultancy).  In fact, my first foray into indie publishing (which used to be called self-publishing) was with my non-fiction titles, and specifically a whole suite of books with pink pigs on the covers.  These “piggy books” explain the anti-money laundering requirements to directors and staff in various jurisdictions, and six of them deal specifically with the UK.  Where is she going with all of this blather, I hear you cry.

Well, whenever the money laundering legislation changes I have to update the piggy books, and at 8pm on Friday 20 December 2019 the UK government updated its money laundering legislation.  And the deadline for businesses to comply with this legislation is 10 January 2020.  Yes, that’s in about a fortnight’s time.  (We knew we’d have this deadline because the legislation is based on European legislation, but frankly – with the general election and concomitant awfulness – we assumed that the government would simply miss the European deadline, figuring that there’s little that Brussels can do to us now.)  Rushing out the legislation just before Christmas, and with no publicity to warn affected businesses, is plain slippery.  And – for me and my piggies – panic-inducing.

As a result, I spent the weekend before Christmas close-reading the new legislation, marking up the old legislation to highlight the changes, and then re-writing the relevant sections of all six UK piggies, before re-formatting them and re-publishing them.  It took three long days, as I was determined that anyone coming into work today would have a new piggy available to help them with the new legislation.  And how many have I sold so far?  Not a one.  Bah humbug.

On a much more positive note, just before the piggies and I went into silent retreat, I caught up with a podcast of one of my favourite on our local radio station.  “Bookmark” is broadcast every fortnight on Cambridge 105, and its topic is “books and writing with a local slant”.  I was particularly interested in the episode from 14 December 2019 as the crime buyer at Heffers bookshop – the sainted Richard Reynolds – was talking about his Christmas book recommendations, and I had a book token burning a hole in my pocket.  I was scribbling down his suggestions when (at 44:40, not that I’ve played it over and over again…) he mentioned me!  My Christmas cup runneth over.

A new series for a new year

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As you know, I am spending my December working on a non-Sam project – it’s a non-fiction book about running a happy one-person business.  I’m calling it “The Solo Squid”; it just came to me one day (as I thought about how a solo entrepreneur has to do everything, from mending the printer to chasing the unpaid invoices, as well as actually doing the work – so the eight arms of the squid are only just enough) and everyone I mention it to says that they love the title.  I have finished the first draft and the editing of that starts today, while on the cover front (so to speak) I am at the exciting point of waiting to see what the miracle-workers at Design for Writers have managed to create for me.  I’m hoping to publish the Squid early in January, which will be an exciting start to the new year.

But I have not abandoned historical fiction, not by any means.  As regular readers will know, I have decided that I am going to put the final Sam book on hold (not least because I cannot bear to say goodbye to him) and instead get started with the first book in my new series – that’s “Hardiman 1”.  The new series is set in the same era – the 1820s – but this time in Cambridge, my home town.  Gregory Hardiman is a university constable, which gives him licence to move around the city and stick his nose into all the colleges and departments (which may not have been called “departments” in the 1820s – perhaps “schools”?  I’ll let you know…).  And one thrilling difference between Sam and Greg is that university constables still exist!  Yes, I can go and meet Greg’s current day successors and ask them all about the job.  I have been in touch with the University Marshal (an office now held for the first time by a woman – a former bomb disposal expert, no less) and she has invited me to come in and meet her and her constable colleagues in the new year.  Even more exciting (is it possible!), her email says this: “As a Constabulary, we continue to use many of the items that were in use in the 1820s”.  So I may be able to actually see items that Gregory would have used.  January is going to be a fabulous month.

Sam and the cephalopods

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Is there any better way to spend an evening than locked in a closed bookshop and talking to avid crime readers about the Sam books?  Short of having Daniel Auteuil and Luca Zingaretti as waiters, handing out cherries coated in dark chocolate (the cherries, not the actors – although…), I can’t think of how to improve the experience.  And so you can imagine how thrilled I was to be invited to read at the Heffers annual “Murder Under the Mistletoe” festive crime fiction event.  “Heir Apparent” was even in the window of the shop:

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It wasn’t just me, of course: I was one of ten authors featured, and we each read a three-minute extract from our latest book and then gave our recommendation for a good book to read at Christmas.  I chose a passage from “Heir Apparent” that doesn’t talk about the crimes at the heart of the plot – inheritance fraud and identity theft – but rather examines the relationship between Sam and Martha, and that between Sam and John Wontner.  I think it was well-received – at least, people laughed in the right places.  Not many of the other readings had much humour, and one is still giving me nightmares.  And for my Christmas recommendation I chose “The Prayer of Owen Meany” by John Irving – he’s one of my very favourite authors, and the description of the nativity play in “Owen Meany” is one of the very funniest things I have ever read.  As Victoria Wood would have said, it made me snort chips up me nose.

In other writerly news, I am working hard on the text of “The Solo Squid” – my non-fiction handbook on how to run a happy one-person business – and am moving onto the exciting stage of thinking about the cover.  I’ve done my research into the differences between an octopus and a squid (both have eight arms, but the former has a round head while the latter has a triangular head with two fins as well as two long tentacles and a backbone) and have told the marvellous team at Design for Writers my ideas of how the cover might look (with reference to similar business-y books on Amazon whose covers I like or dislike).  From this unpromising sow’s ear, they will create their usual silk purse.  He’s no Sam, but I hope the squid will gather his own fans – perhaps I should give him a name…  Only squidding!

Double delight

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I know I’m meant to do it for the love of it, and honestly, most of the time I do: Sam, Martha, Wilson and I sit in my back bedroom (grandly called “the study”) and between us we put enough words on the page to release a new adventure every eighteen months or so.  And it is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to spend all those hours on something so self-indulgent and enjoyable.  But I cannot deny that it is thrilling to get recognition for the effort and the hours and the words.  And in the past couple of days, I have had double recognition!

The marvellous Jo writes a book review blog called JaffaReadsToo (Jaffa being her feline office manager) and on her regular feature Hist Fic Saturday she graciously published a blushingly lovely review of “Heir Apparent”.  Jo has been a supporter of the series since “Fatal Forgery”, when I was casting around for reviewers of historical fiction and she kindly agreed to take a punt on a complete unknown (whereas now I have reached the dizzy heights of “not quite unknown”).  I was particularly nervous about sending her “Heir Apparent”, as it has the most complicated plot so far and – with Jo’s sharp eye – I knew that any inconsistencies would be laid bare…  Thankfully she and Jaffa have given it their paw-print of approval – calling the Sam books “perhaps one of the best historical crime series I have read” – and I can breathe once more.

And then yesterday I was travelling home on a crowded train, having been separated from my phone all day by the welcome distraction of a family gathering, when I spotted that the wonderful Helen Hollick of the Discovering Diamonds book review website has named “Heir Apparent” her Book of the Month for November 2019!  She had already published a lovely review, so this is an unexpected extra plaudit – and comes with the spiffy badge that you can see on the left of the page.  Helen, it goes without saying, is a doyenne of historical fiction – as both a writer and a reader – and her opinion is one of the most valued around.  I did a mini dance of delight on the train (95% internal, so as not to alarm other passengers) and then had celebratory fish and chips for supper.  What a week!

A bookshop no more

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This post is not about my writing – which is fairly dormant at the moment, as I take a little rest and concentrate on the day job – but it is bookish in tone.  Last week I had a few days at leisure in Porto, in Portugal, and one of the prime tourist sites there is a bookshop.  It’s called Livraria Lello, founded in 1869 in the university district of town, and one of the oldest bookshops in the country.  Its current home – a magnificent and quirky pale building of turrets and curlicues – was opened in 1906.  But for tourists other than book-lovers and students of architecture, the attraction is that it is rumoured to be the inspiration for a bookshop in the Harry Potter books (Flourish and Blotts in Diagon Alley, apparently – I have not read any Potter…).  Some people even claim that JK wrote the first book in the shop, which is unlikely as there’s barely room to sit down – a café seems a more likely location, and anyway, according to her own website, Porto was only the start of things: “Taking her notes with her, she moved to northern Portugal to teach English as a foreign language, married Jorge Arantes in 1992 and had a daughter, Jessica, in 1993.  When the marriage ended later that year, she returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh, with  Jessica and  a suitcase containing the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Regardless of the truth of the matter, Lello is now a tourist attraction of such magnitude that in order to get in you have to go to the ticket office two doors down, pay €5 for a ticket (redeemable on purchase of a book) and then queue up to get into the shop itself.  Now I’m not against this process: if you’re running a small shop that attracts five thousand visitors a day, most of whom would simply gawp and not buy a thing, what else are you to do?  And it is certainly a gorgeous place – here is the façade:

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And this is the wonderful staircase:

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And the stained glass ceiling:

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What I did find disappointing is that it is such a rubbish bookshop: it’s all style and no substance.  There is a bored-looking chap dressed as Harry Potter posing for photos, and a whole backroom given over to HP books and merchandise.  Although visitor numbers are controlled, they are not controlled enough, and as I tried to browse the shelves – you know, to actually buy a book – I was bumped and jostled and even asked to move because my bright yellow coat would “ruin our photo”.  I asked one member of staff if they could help with a question about stock and they said no, “because I’m looking out for shoplifting”.  And when someone did say they could help me, it was to confirm that they had no books on writing, or on literary criticism – and this in a bookshop right next to the university.  So here we have a bookshop that is now functioning only as an attraction, with nothing of substance in it – a gorgeous cover with no pages inside.  The Lello brothers – prominent members of Porto’s intellectual bourgeoisie in the late Victorian period – must be turning in their graves.

Sign up, sign up!

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It’s all a bit quiet, isn’t it?  There’s always rather a lull after the publication of a new Sam Plank book, but please rest assured that I am not resting assured: I am working on the next two books.  The immediate project is my book on being a one-person business – almost certainly titled “The Solo Squid” – and the follow-up, to be embarked on fully in January, is the first book in my new Cambridge-set series.

However, my aim for this week is to beef up the number of people subscribing to my monthly update on the research behind the scenes of the Plank books (and, soon, the Gregory books).  The theory is that I do so much research for the books – both while I am deciding on the plots and while I am doing the actual writing – that it seems a shame to leave it to languish.  So I choose a theme each month and write an update, for your delectation and amusement, and perhaps to help other writers with their research.  It takes a bit of time to put it together – each update takes about a half-day to write – and so I am keen for them to be read by as many people as possible.  But I’m stuck on twenty-five loyal readers.

I’m very grateful for you all, of course – except for that twenty-sixth person who unsubscribed after I published an update on contraception (I think she expects the Regency to be all fluttering fans and dainty suppers, but of course we wouldn’t have had the Victorians if they hadn’t had sex in Regency times).  So please, if you know anyone who might be interested, do point them in the direction of the monthly updates (the sign-up ink-splatter appears on the left of every page of this website) – new subscribers get a free Regency glossary as a welcome gift, and I do regular competitions and giveaways.  Here’s a taster of what was in the November update, on education in Sam’s time:

As for girls, you’ll note that Sam talks of the two sons of the family being sent to school – their sister Lizzie was not given the same opportunity.  Charity schools did accept girls but they were offered a different curriculum, concentrating on Bible reading, needlework and singing.  Their upper- and middle-class sisters suffered a similar fate: most of their education focused on the skills that would make them attractive wives, such as embroidery, music and drawing.  Martha has the basics of letters and numbers – from when her father needed her help in his tavern – but it is only when she meets Sam that she learns to read properly, and for pleasure.  Indeed, it was not until the nineteenth century that reading gradually became a private rather than a public act; in the first three decades of the century, if you could read you were expected to read aloud and share your reading with family, friends and workmates.

Kind words and five stars

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I can breathe again!  “Heir Apparent” now has three reviews on Amazon (the UK version – I still don’t understand why reviews on one Amazon site don’t automatically appear on all Amazon sites) and they are all five-star.  Here are a couple of lovely extracts, which warm the cockles of my authorly heart:

  • “‘Heir Apparent’ is certainly the most complex case the experienced constable has had to tackle; it concerns the question of stolen identity and the law of succession in the early decades of the nineteenth century.”
  • “The biggest draw is enjoying the company of [Susan’s] characters, so well-drawn, realistically flawed yet hugely likeable (for the main characters), and although the villains are suitably villainous, they too are three-dimensional, with their reasons for erring clearly drawn”
  • “I love how many times pie is mentioned.”

All authors agree that Amazon reviews are important.  Sometimes we can forget that Amazon – no matter how big and no matter how global – is just a shop.  And all (most) shops care about is selling things to customers.  So Amazon tries to put its most tempting items in front of potential buyers – and the most tempting items are the ones that other buyers have bought and loved, and indeed loved enough to come back and rave about how much they loved them.  Hence the value of the review: if someone has read your book and thinks it’s terrific and tells Amazon how pleased they are, that will help your book rise up the rankings at Amazon, and it will be shown higher up the search results, so that more potential buyers can spot it.  Interestingly, you don’t have to buy a book – or anything, I suppose – at Amazon to leave a review for it on Amazon.  So if you have read any of my Sam titles, even if you’ve borrowed it from a friend or bought it somewhere else, and you liked it, please consider leaving a review for it on Amazon.  (The only restriction is that to be able to leave reviews on Amazon, you have to have spent at least £40 – US$50 on the US site – on Amazon in the past twelve months.)

And I am just putting the final touches to my free monthly research update, which will be sent out to subscribers on 1 November.  This month it’s about education in Sam’s time, so if you’re interested in the research behind the Sam books (I can’t shoehorn it all into the books – there’s far more in my files than I can ever use), why not sign up now?  I occasionally offer giveaways and competitions too – who could resist?