Changing up a gear

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I know I’ve been quiet recently; my excuse is that I was on holiday cycling along the Rhine (which I can recommend for both scenery and ice-cream – the Germans are mad for both).  But I am now home again and work on “Plank 6” is at the forefront of my mind.  There are two key deadlines: on 22 July I am off to Switzerland for my writing retreat (seventeen days on my own, just for writing), and then on 18 October I am hoping to publish the book.  For the writing retreat to be of most value, I need to make sure that I have all but finished the first draft by the time I go – which is only 28 days away.  I’m nowhere near that at the moment, so it’s full steam ahead, carving out writing time whenever and wherever I can.  And the writing retreat should – must – result in a draft that I can send out to my lovely beta readers, and then I need to allow time to incorporate their suggested changes, which could be extensive.  I’m getting the vapours just thinking about it.

And of course the inside of the book is only part of it: before publication I need to decide on a title and a cover and a cover blurb, and organise a launch event.  So no pressure, then.  Over the weekend I put together a list of about fifteen possible titles – some are rather dull, others could work.  I’ll narrow that down to five and then put it to the public vote, as usual, in July.  I’ve started looking for possible cover images and documents, but thankfully can leave colour choice to the cover designer – I’ll be interested to see what they add to our current suite of blue, gold, red, green and purple.

One small update: you remember the book-signing that I did at WHSmith in April?  I’ve been trying to extract from them the vast sum I made from the day (read all about it here) and it’s taken nearly as long as writing “Plank 6”.  They’ve apparently designed a new payments system and I’ve had to submit my details to be approved as a new supplier, along with my invoice.  I’ll let you know when the money arrives and I can treat myself to an extra box of Jaffa Cakes.

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Keep buggering on

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Goodness, that was a hard day.  Remember how non-writers imagine that writing involves sitting down somewhere picturesque, refreshments to hand, and waiting for inspiration to strike?  I learned fairly early on in the Sam series that it doesn’t work that way – or at least, only on a few blessed days a year – and the rest of time it comes down to discipline and bloody-mindedness.  Today was a discipline day.

I have taken to blocking out days in my diary for writing, on the grounds that if I wait until a free day presents itself, it never does.  The upside is that I do get writing time.  The downside is that I have to use it for writing, otherwise it’s a terrible waste.  Today was a writing day and so I allowed myself only until 8.30 am to clear any “day job” work and then I turned off that computer, left the office and went upstairs to my “study” (i.e. back bedroom, next to the boiler) and my writing computer.  And barring twenty minutes each for elevenses and afternoon teasies and an hour for lunch, I have stuck with it.

I was writing a key chapter – I can’t tell you what, with spoilers and all that – and I did manage to plough my way through it, clocking up just over 1,500 words.  I feel sure that most of them will fall by the wayside later in the process, but I always try to remember one of the most helpful writing tips I know.  I can’t remember where I read it or who said it, but here it is: you can always edit something, but you can’t edit nothing.

And now I’m going to sit in the garden.  Tomorrow is another timetabled writing day – fingers crossed for inspiration!

While I have your attention, may I just remind you that if you sign up here for my free monthly updates on the history behind the Sam books, you will get a free glossary of Regency terms to thank you.  And if you fancy reading the first chapter of each of the Sam books for free, you can find out how on this page.

All that effort – for nothing!

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I tell you, wrestling with Amazon is the aspect of the indie writer’s role that no-one warns you about.  As I mentioned a mere nine days ago, I have created an official guide to the Sam Plank books, which includes the first chapter of each book, to whet the appetite, and a glossary of Regency terms, as well as links to encourage people to sign up to my newsletter and indeed to buy the books.  I want to give this guide away – in Kindle form only – but Amazon is not keen on listing books for free.  This is understandable: they make their money by keeping a little cut of the price of each book they sell, and if it sells for nothing, they get nothing.  That’s not to say they don’t run their own promotions, listing Kindle books for free – indeed, you can always download free books from Amazon – but they like to call the shots, having made (I assume) the decision that the giveaway will increase sales in the future.

But thanks to excellent advice from members of the sainted Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), I knew that there was a way to force Amazon’s hand.  And this is what you have to do:

  • Create an alternative version of the book for uploading to Smashwords – another e-book distributor
  • Create an alternative version of the book for uploading to Draft2Ditigal – another e-book distributor
  • Upload the book to these two platforms, giving the price as zero – they both permit this, whereas KDP (the e-book publisher for Amazon) does not
  • Wait a couple of days for Smashwords and Draft2Digital to publish the book and distribute it to – importantly – Amazon’s main competitors, Kobo and Barnes & Noble
  • Find the book listings on those two competitor websites, showing the price as zero, and save links to those listings
  • Find – deep, deep, deep within the Amazon help system – the option that allows you to send a price match request to Amazon, including the links to the listings on Kobo and Barnes & Noble
  • Receive a standard reply from Amazon: “Thanks for the pricing information. While we retain discretion over our retail prices, I’ve passed your feedback on for consideration.  We’ll need a little time to look into your issue.  We’ll contact you and provide more information soon.  Thank you for your patience.”
  • Check the Amazon listing feverishly every ten minutes or so for four days
  • Cheer mightily when – this morning – the freebie appears!

Of course, Amazon can change its mind at any time and revert to the official price that I was forced to enter when publishing the book with KDP – the lowest they offer is 99p.  And it’s showing as free only on Amazon.co.uk at the moment – the other Amazons have yet to catch up.  But it’s progress and in the indie publishing world that’s to be celebrated, when nothing is ever as simple as you think it should be!

So now, folks, please make it worth all the anguish and send this link on to everyone you know so that they can all download the guide – it’s the gateway drug to the Sam series and we need to get pushing!

Guiding light

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As I mentioned, I went to the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival at the weekend and as well as taking part, I also had time to attend a couple of sessions as an audience member.  And at one of those I picked up an excellent tip, to create a free guide to the Sam Plank series.  The idea is that people who have never heard of me or of the books might – quite rightly – be uneasy about parting with their money but might be willing to download a free taster guide to see if it’s to their taste.

So today’s task has been to create said guide.  What I have included is the cover blurb and first chapter for each book and a shortened glossary at the end, as well as plentiful links to encourage people to sign up to my monthly newsletter and/or actually buy a book or five.

My remaining problem is listing it on Amazon for free; they are understandably not really in the business of offering free books (as they can’t retain a royalty percentage of nothing) but apparently there are dastardly ways and sneaky means of doing it.  But while I research that, there is no reason why I can’t start handing out the guide anyway – so here it is!

The Official Guide to the Sam Plank Mysteries book series

It’s in the form of a PDF (albeit formatted for Kindle-ish dimensions, hence the small pages), and I’d be delighted if you would download it with gusto and forward it in a wanton fashion to friends, family and even slight acquaintances.  And I’ll keep you posted on my Amazon endeavours.

Vanity, thy name is Susan

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On Saturday I spent the day as a speaker and an audience member at the quite unique Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.  It was launched in 2015 by my indie publishing heroine and friend (now that I have met her in person) Debbie Young, and apparently goes from strength to strength.  What is most unusual about it is that it is free.  There is no booking and nothing to pay – you simply turn up and go along to the things that interest you.  Hawkesbury Upton is a lovely village near Badminton in Gloucestershire and it is blessed with both a variety of public spaces that serve beautifully as book festival venues, and a resident population that seems happy to turn out in force to support the HULF.

As an author, I took part in a panel discussion on the theme of “Writing Influenced by the Day Job”.  The panel was chaired by an accountant and the featured authors were a military nurse, a commodities trader and an anti-money laundering obsessive.  And as a bookworm, I attended panels on the themes of “Around the World in 8-ish Books” and “The Best of British”, as well as a handy session offering some self-publishing marketing advice and a fascinating insight by a chap who is writing the “Oxford English Dictionary” (not single-handedly).  The 2020 HULF is already being planned, so get the date in your diary right now.

Between bookish matters I succumbed to vanity and attended a photo shoot with a photographer who specialises in portraits, e.g. the moody author ones you see on book covers.  I took the precaution of washing my hair and applying clear mascara – that’s about as much as I did on my wedding day, as I’m not very cosmetic-ky – and toddled along to look both moody and authorly.  From the selection I was sent I have narrowed it down to two contenders for my official author image to go on book covers, magazine articles, Booker Prize publicity materials, etc.  Which do you prefer?  (I have them both in black and white as well, but I thought you might like to see what I wore to be bookish.)

 

Visiting the source of Sam

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Yesterday I had a Grand Day Out at the Ingram premises near Milton Keynes.  Months ago – I forget how – I came across the interesting fact that Ingram (a book distributor and now parent company to IngramSpark, the print-on-demand service that I use for my Sam Plank books) runs open days.  You go along to their offices/factory and they give you a talk about their services, a tour of the printing bit and a sandwich lunch.  I really, really wanted to see the printing bit and my husband, being a production engineer, is always up for touring a factory, so off we went.  And I can highly recommend it as a day out.

The Ingram people we met were, without exception, extremely helpful.  The open day I chose was geared specifically to IngramSpark clients – they also do days for people who use their more commercial printing services – and we were a mixed bunch, from one chap who said at the outset, Manuel-like, “I know nothing”, to those of us who had been through the POD mill and were vaguely familiar with most of the steps.  That said, I did learn quite a few new things – for instance, I had always steered clear of IS’s Global Connect option but have now signed up, ready for the orders to come flooding in from India and China.  And the printing process is a marvel to behold, from the giant rolls of paper (they have stocked up, given Brexit…) to the wonderful Infinitrim machine that grabs a stack of books in its mechanical arm and then – whoosh! – trims them all with a guillotine blade.  (If I were the manufacturer I would have called it the Triminator and persuaded Arnie to advertise it.)  And exactly as promised, the books are indeed printing on demand: you see them coming out of the Infinitrim and each book is different – it’s not a “print run” in the traditional sense but the fulfilment of thousands of orders for individual books.  There is even a Tardis-like structure waiting to come into service to speed up sorting and packing the books after printing.  (No photos: we had to sign non-disclosure agreements and pinky-swear to secrecy.)  And the sandwiches are delicious.

Joking aside, I found the day useful for two main reasons.  Firstly, we were shown all the paper types and cover finishes and trim sizes, so now I know what’s on offer.  And secondly, we met the staff who will be the ones answering any IS queries – and they were so generous with their time that I feel confident that any POD problems I might have will be dealt with promptly and kindly.  In these days of webchats with robots and emails to help departments that go unanswered for days, that’s something to be celebrated.

Five hours and one cake

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I know you’ve all been on tenterhooks to know how today’s book-signing session went in my local branch of WHSmith.  Well, not well.  On reflection, this is probably not the shop in which to try to interest people in historical crime fiction by an unknown author.  The staff could not have been friendlier or more helpful; they set up a table for me in the upstairs book department for two hours and then for the next three hours they moved me downstairs into the general shop, by the main entrance (where it’s quite chilly, hence the fetching yellow jacket):

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Upstairs, there was no interest at all: everyone headed straight for the children’s books or asked me if there was a loo (there isn’t – luckily I have excellent bladder control).  It was good to see so many families in a bookshop, but I have to confess that they mostly bought sticker books “for the car/bus/plane”.  Downstairs there was a little more curiosity, although I am still mulling over this exchange: a woman stopped at my table and picked up one of my books.  “It’s historical crime,” I said, “set in London in the 1820s”.  She put the book down and said, “No” – completely deadpan – before walking off without another word.  No, it’s not historical crime?  No, I’m not interested?  Downstairs was indeed busier, but bestsellers here were chocolate (including Easter eggs), scratchcards and slime.  The most popular book seemed to be something called “Mrs Hinch”, which is about cleaning and was half price.

So let’s get to the hard facts: how many did I sell?  Two books (both “Fatal Forgery”): one to a woman who thought her banker brother would like it, and the other to a nice Slovak chap who was very excited to meet a real author and bought it to prove to his father that he had met an author “even though I probably won’t read it”.  As I had offered a special price on the books (which I had to buy and supply) and WHSmith takes 50% of the sale price, over the five hours I made 98p.  And to cheer myself up on the way home I bought a chocolate cake from Sainsbury’s for £2, so the whole day cost me £1.02.  It’s a good job I’ve resolved to hang fire on the marketing for a while – I can’t afford it.

Back to basics

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Ever since I entered “Faith, Hope and Trickery” for the Selfies Awards, I have been obsessed with book marketing.  The awards were to be judged on several criteria including “an effective and creative marketing and publicity strategy”, and this brought marketing to the front of my mind.  Whenever I had an hour to spare, I spent it not on writing but on marketing.  To be honest, it is the easier option: when l was struggling with a knotty plot point or a scene that wouldn’t go right, I would abandon it and do a quick marketing task instead – design a poster for my WHSmith signing event, or work on my monthly Sam update (pure research – my number one favourite displacement activity!).  Here’s the distraction poster in question:

WHS poster for station store

As a result, I have fallen behind on my writing schedule for “Plank 6” – not disastrously and irretrievably behind, but uncomfortably so.  And the irony is that all this marketing seems to make no discernible difference at all to book sales.  None at all.  Some effort is doomed: I spent a few hours answering questions about how my day job has influenced my writing and about financial crime in general for a promotions person ahead of the Selfies, and of course, because I did not win, no journalist was interested in my story.  And some effort is (for me) bad for the state of mind: at the recent London Book Fair I attended a lecture on “creating your author brand”, and the amount of guilt it has engendered is huge.   (No wonder the Sam books aren’t selling – I’m not a brand!  And reading the numberless tweets generated by influencers in the publishing world is exhausting and time-consuming, let alone responding to them in a manner that will intrigue them and “drive them to you” – like Uber?).  Much marketing effort simply goes into the ether and you hope that one day it will transmogrify into a sale.  The only thing I have done recently that has had any impact on “sales” is my five-day giveaway of “Fatal Forgery” on Amazon – and I’m not sure it’s much of a marketing coup to say that hundreds of people rushed for my product when it was free!

As a result, I have been doing some authorly soul-searching.  The key fact is that I work full-time.  I have very limited time for my fiction-writing.  And although I hope one day to be a full-time author, at which point I will immerse myself in the commercial side of it too (recognising completely that successful self-publishing is not an indulgence but rather a business), at the moment I simply cannot do both writing and marketing to an acceptable or effective level.  And as it would be nonsense to concentrate on marketing if there is nothing to sell, the writing wins.  I will continue with the bits I enjoy – this blog, and the monthly Sam updates – but I will be retreating from Twitter and other more ephemeral platforms, as I just can’t keep up.

Self-publishing makes you smile – proof!

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Apologies for the radio silence: it has been a mad fortnight.  Entirely my own fault, as I work alone and am in charge of my own diary, but everything except the absolute essentials of work and survival shopping/cooking have been on hold – apart, that is, from attendance at the London Book Fair.  For the first time ever.  And as an award shortlistee (is that a word? perhaps nominee is better)!

Of course I had heard of the LBF (as I thought it was trendy to call it, until I heard the old pros talking simply of “London”) but had never really felt entitled to attend before.  And to be honest, much of the show – fascinating though it is to wander around – is intended for publishers and booksellers and agents, looking to schmooze each other and make deals.  If you were an author looking for an agent or a publisher, it would be a handy place to do some research; you can see at a glance which “lists” would welcome your work, and with the lure of a (vastly overpriced, as always at these events) coffee and pastry you might even be able to set up a meeting or two.  I simply enjoyed seeing all the stalls and fantasising about being “author of the day” at an LBF of the future…

But back to the award.  As regular readers will know, I was – amazingly and thrillingly – chosen as one of eight shortlisted entrants for the inaugural Selfies Award, created to recognise writing and publishing professionalism in the self-published world.  I am told that more than fifty entries were received, so getting down to the final eight – and as a part-time author – pleased me enormously.  We were an entirely female shortlist, and it was a delight to meet the other seven authors on the day.  We were all a bit giddy by 4.30pm when we were shepherded onto the low stage of the little theatre set up in the “Writer’s Block” area of the fair, and we each had to announce our name and our book title.  I didn’t win but was consoled by the fact that both the winner (Jane Davis, with her book “Smash all the Windows”) and the runner-up (Jane Steen, with her book “Lady Helena Investigates”) were just the loveliest women.  I entirely forgot to take any photos myself but I hope that the award sponsors IngramSpark (through whom I publish the Sam books) won’t mind me borrowing this one from their Twitter feed:

Award

That’s the overall winner Jane Davis being announced and the runner-up Jane Steen on the right, with the biggest smile in the universe!  (You’ll also spot the purple book cover of “Faith, Hope and Trickery” on the banner behind us – so many people complimented me on that cover.)  Look how happy we all are – that’s self-publishing for you!

Boxing clever

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As many of you will know, the “indie” (independent) publishing world is very co-operative, very inclusive and very helpful.  I belong to a marvellous organisation called ALLi (sounds like “ally” and it’s the Alliance of Independent Authors) and their members’ forum on Facebook is the place to go with all manner of writerly and self-publisher-ly queries.  The joy is being able to follow in successful footsteps of those who have gone before, and it is in that spirit that I have created my first box set of Sam books.

Before you get too excited, I should clarify that it is an e-box set of e-books – nothing physical here.  The idea is that readers of series really like series, and box sets appeal to them.  If you set the price right it can represent a saving on buying individual titles – and readers do love a bargain.  And if your series is longer than the box set, you are encouraging people to persevere further into the series.

As for how much work is involved, it’s not too onerous.  Obviously you have to create a single file out of the separate book files – for me, this was a fairly simple cut and paste exercise, with a bit of jigging to create one glossary out of two.  You then have to put an overall title at the beginning; in my case, I went for the rather predictable “The Sam Plank Mysteries Box Set One: Books 1-3”, with the three separate titles listed below.  (I said “Box Set One” in case I decide to do another one with later titles.)  And then I put bookmarks and hyperlinks into this title so that people can jump straight to the book they want – although I imagine that most people will read straight through, and the Kindle keeps your place.

Then there’s the cover.  I did contact my cover designer to ask about cost but decided that I could do something myself that is just good enough.  After all, the individual covers are eye-catching and beautiful, so I simply created a single image out of the three covers.  I have no talent at all for design, so I went to the ALLi forum and put up two different options for the cover – and people very kindly suggested various improvements (including having the faces looking at each other instead of turned away, although I do worry that the yellow fellow is now staring rather too appreciatively at the red girl).  And here it is:

Box set large 2

With combined interior file ready and cover assembled, all I had to do was upload them to KDP – and decide on the price.  The total price of buying the first three Sam books in Kindle version is £9.97 so I priced the box set at £5.99 – in effect, people get the third book free.  I uploaded it yesterday, and so far I have sold one.  As ever, I’ll keep you posted.