Taking cover

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Things have been a bit quiet on the Sam front in recent weeks as my day job – in the anti-money laundering world – has been very busy.  New legislation in Guernsey has required me to update five of my non-fiction books and negotiate the new publishing process (since migration from CreateSpace to KDP).  It seems to work fairly smoothly but the proof will be in the pudding – or rather, in the printing.

You see, I am in the middle of a frustrating discussion with KDP about the quality of their printing.  Whatever my gripes about their postage charges and time-frames, I was always been delighted with the print quality of books from CreateSpace.  After the migration I placed an order for twenty copies of “Fatal Forgery” with KDP, thrilled to see that the postage cost has dropped significantly because (a) they are now printed in Europe [Poland, as it turns out – at least in this instance], and (b) you get a discount on the postage for ordering multiple copies.  So twenty copies of an average paperback book cost me just £7.28 in postage (compared to US$32.99 for the same order from CreateSpace).

Sadly, it seems that the savings are being made elsewhere, as the books I received from KDP were not up to standard.  Of the twenty I ordered on 8 November 2018, eleven had to be sent back because the books were trimmed 5 mm too narrow, making the cover art fall off the edge:

WP_20181118_07_51_32_Pro    WP_20181118_07_51_25_Pro

KDP offered to send a replacement set of eleven copies – and they were worse!  They were not only printed wrong again (in exactly the same way – indeed, I’m not convinced that these aren’t the same copies coming back again), but packed loose into a large box with no packing material, resulting in knocked corners and bent covers.  And what’s that ugly bar-code sticker they have added?  For a month now I have been waiting for a resolution, with emails coming from KDP twice a week assuring me that my complaint is of great concern to them and that they are looking into it as a matter of urgency…  Thank goodness I always keep a few copies in stock, otherwise I’d now be finding it impossible to meet bookshop orders.

So I am reserving judgement on KDP as a worthy successor to CreateSpace and am investigating alternatives – other authors have good things to say about Ingram Spark.  I’ll keep you posted.

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The Microsoft grammar police

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Like most writers – and indeed humans – these days, I am a customer of the Microsoft empire.  I run Windows on my laptop and use the Office “suite” of programmes on several devices.  Out of laziness, and because I am a speedy and therefore sometimes inaccurate typist, I have always turned on features to auto-correct spelling and to underline uncertain spelling.  And along with this feature is the “grammar check” which underlines anything dodgy with a double blue line.  In the past those blue lines appeared very infrequently, and usually thanks to a typo, but recently they are peppering my writing – and I don’t think it’s me.

I’m going to confess something now, so promise me you’ll keep it to yourself.  I have never studied grammar.  Yes, I passed all of my English language exams with grade A, and yes, I read English at university, and yes, I taught English at secondary school.  But I somehow missed those lessons on parsing sentences and naming parts and identifying verb tenses and moods.  I have taught myself a little of it but don’t obsess about the theory, preferring instead to model my writing on the thousands and thousands of books I have read containing elegant and clear sentences.

But Microsoft does not agree and is constantly rebuking me.  In a recent email I wrote this (complaining about fog): “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that when the sun rises in a while we’ll be able to see it”.  And the word “while” was double-underlined.  And then this (talking about the Remembrance Day service I attended): “When the vicar asked us to think of a family member lost to war I had plenty to choose from.”  This time, it didn’t like the word “war” (although it was perfectly happy to see a preposition at the end of the sentence).  Both are baffling to me.  It also picks out the words “however” and “indeed” whenever I use them at the start of sentences, and tells me off if I put a comma before the word “and”.  (I did it deliberately then just to annoy it, but that is an instance when I would choose to use it anyway – if I want more of a pause between the two halves of the sentence than would be conferred by the simple use of “and”.)

Usually I ignore it, but my fear is that it will gradually beat me into submission and I will alter my writing style to please a faceless algorithm instead of real human readers.  And if we all adopt the same Microsoft-approved writing style, how boring that will be.  Rise up against the machine, I say!

Shopping for publicity

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It’s all been a bit quiet here recently, hasn’t it?  That’s mainly because just sitting and writing, with occasional forays into research, is not much of a spectator sport, but rest assured that work continues apace with “Plank 6”.  And here’s what else I’ve been doing recently:

  • Booked time with my fabulous cover designer – that’s Design for Writers – to make sure that they will be available to work on that sixth cover next summer
  • Done some fun, extra research on Regency jewellery in preparation for my November monthly update – if you fancy getting your mitts on that, you can subscribe by clicking on the map to the left…
  • Appeared in the magazine published by our local shopping mall, the “Grafton Press” – you can see it online here.

The idea for this last one came to me a few months ago when I was walking through the Grafton Centre in Cambridge and spotted that they had their own publication, promoting the shops and businesses in the centre but also highlighting Cambridge-y things – presumably to tempt out-of-town visitors to return again and again.  And friends who work in periodical publishing tell me that freebies like this are always on the look-out for contributed content because they rarely have the budget to buy in the services of more than a couple of writers.  I contacted the editorial email address given in the magazine, suggesting a piece on local authors, and they sent back a set of about six questions – which, as you can see, basically form the piece.

So that would be my top marketing tip for this month: look around for local or trade publications that might welcome unsolicited contact, and think of a way to connect you and/or your writing to their target market.  You might remember that I managed to get into Flybe’s in-flight magazine last year, by writing a piece about London as a destination, while managing to mention Sam Plank or my writing in every paragraph…  I’m cunning like that.  If you can send them a fairly finished piece (with the Flybe one, I looked at past issues of the column and used the same questions to formulate my own submission), they might well use it pretty much unchanged, just to be able to fill a page with minimal effort.  And who knows who might be off on their hols on Flybe, or doing their Christmas shopping at the Grafton Centre – it might be that TV executive casting around for inspiration for their next Sunday evening costume drama, and there will be Sam and Martha, just waiting.

Hart’s and minds

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Is there anything an author enjoys more than talking about her books?  It’s certainly easier than getting on with writing the next one.  And yesterday evening was a great treat as I spoke to a small (I think we had eleven in total) but terrifically interested and engaged audience at Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden.  Hart’s – as a printer, stationer and bookseller – has been associated with Saffron Walden since 1836, and the current bookshop is part of the Daunt family but retains a very independent feel.  I’d had my eye on them for a while but I rarely look my best in Saffron Walden: it’s the usual destination for our Sunday tandem rides (there’s a local café that does a wonderful fried breakfast which is my reward for cycling twenty-five miles) and I’m always a sweaty, fly-dotted creature when I arrive.  Not the best image to persuade a bookshop that you are a serious writer of worthy tomes.  But one Sunday I just took a chance, and the manager Max was sufficiently impressed by my enthusiasm – or so desperate to get my pungent carcass out of his shop – that he agreed to stock Sam.  And when I suggested an author event, he kindly agreed.  And that was last night.

At such talks I am never sure which aspect is going to chime with the audience: the books themselves, or the history behind them (of policing and justice, or of London), or the writing process, or the self-publishing procedure.  And so I start with a general introduction – how I came to write the first book, why I wrote four more – and then (if the audience seems keen) open it up to questions.  Well, last night “keen” was an understatement.  I’d barely spoken two sentences before the questions started, and it didn’t let up for over an hour – fantastic!

I promised myself that I would always be completely honest in my answers, particularly when it comes to money issues – people need to know that it’s not the route to quick riches.  And in the spirit of full disclosure, I can report that last night’s event garnered me about £7.65 – that’s about 45p per book, and we sold seventeen.  (It’s not that the bookshop takes an enormous cut – their deal is to keep a perfectly reasonable 35% or 40% of the cover price.  It’s just that we self-published authors have to supply the books ourselves, so by the time I have ordered them from CreateSpace, sorry KDP – recent take-over – and paid for them to be sent from the US to me in the UK, and then given the bookseller his discount, I’m left with about 45p per book.)  As I say, not the route to riches – but just the most enormous fun and I wouldn’t stop doing it for the world.

Ups and downs

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I’ve snaffled myself a writing afternoon in the middle of the working week – don’t tell my clients – and have enjoyed the crazy research threads that you follow when starting out on a new plot.  Among my search terms today: apothecary, infarction, st martin’s lane, acne and butler’s pantry.  Allowing for trips down numerous research rabbit-holes, I am reasonably pleased with just under 890 words written in (what is currently) chapter three of “Plank 6”.

And as if to reward me, an interview I did with the Alliance of Independent Authors – which I joined last month – has appeared on their blog.  I can’t imagine there’s anything you don’t already know about why I love financial crime, but just in case – here’s where you can read it all again.

In other news, I hear from Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden that five tickets have been sold so far for my talk there next Wednesday.  It sounds like it’s going to be an intimate little session but they are often the most fun.  And once you’ve done a talk to three people in a tiny local library, five in a bookshop sounds like riches indeed!

Surveying the reader-scape

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One of the great pleasures of being an indie author (indie being independent – so self-published, published through a small publishing house, etc.) is the community you join of other indie authors.  I have recently signed up with ALLi – the Alliance of Independent Authors – and am very much enjoying reading their guidance, advice, discussions and debates.  I am also hoping that my own profile will appear on their website one day, so I will keep you posted.

One very well-respected indie author whose work I follow closely is MK Tod.  Her introduction to historical fiction – like mine – was a teenage obsession with Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, and she now writes books with a WWI setting.  However, she has also made a study of people’s reading habits – albeit mainly people with a love of historical fiction, as they are the ones who find her blog and therefore her “reader surveys”.  She has just published the results of her fourth such survey, containing the thoughts of 2,418 respondents from around the world, and it is well worth reading.

From my perspective – as a keen writer and rather unsuccessful seller of historical fiction – there were a couple of questions whose responses I was most eagerly awaiting.  The first was “In historical fiction, which time periods do you enjoy?”.  And I am relieved to see that mine (nineteenth century) is the second most popular (after twentieth century).  Nineteenth century settings are particularly popular with women, and with those aged over thirty – which perhaps explains the requests I have received for “more Martha” in the Sam books!  And the second was “Reflecting on your fiction reading, how relatively important are the following factors?” – including plot, characters, authenticity and so on.  As Ms Tod herself deduces from the responses, “feeling immersed in the novel’s world” is the most critical factor for readers, followed by “authenticity” and “superb writing” – and as readers age, “superb writing” becomes increasingly important.  This is a great relief to me, as I spend so much time – granted, I love doing it, but still, it takes effort – on making my setting, language and characters as authentic as possible, and encouraging readers to follow Sam into the heart of London in the 1820s.

As someone hoping one day to make a living from writing, I was also interested to read about people’s book-buying habits and preferences.  And this survey – which, again, has an historical fiction bent – tells me this about my target audience:

  • They get their books mainly through Internet purchase or borrowed from a library
  • 75% of them “frequently or exclusively” use print books
  • Their most trusted source of recommendations is friends, followed by well-known book review sites or blogs
  • They enjoy reading articles about an author’s work, and following authors on Facebook and Twitter
  • They don’t use social media as much as I had thought, and the feature they most value on social media (when they do engage) is book reviews.

Traditionally published authors have entire marketing departments at their disposal, to track and react to this sort of information.  For those of us working alone – the indies – MK Tod has provided an invaluable service, and my own thanks go out to her.  This will certainly inform my future marketing plans.

Press here for publicity

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As regular readers will know, one of the hardest aspects of being a self-employed author is the marketing.  It’s not the time it takes so much as summoning the ongoing enthusiasm and imagination – particularly in such a crowded marketplace, when every author and his dog (probably literally) has a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and an Amazon profile, all screaming “Buy my books!” (or, in the case of the dog, “Take me out for a walk!”).  Marvellous though it is that anyone can publish their books these days, it does mean that you have to work so much harder to be spotted in the throng.  But it sometimes seems that the old ways are the best.

I mentioned a little while ago (or did I?) that next month I am doing a talk at the latest bookshop to stock the Sam Plank series – Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (just the other side of the Cambridgeshire border, in northern Essex).  The shop has its own website with an events page, and I have also listed the event on Sam’s Facebook page.  But what else to do?  The manager of the shop suggested asking the local newspaper, the Saffron Walden Reporter, to publicise the talk, as – if you can believe such a thing still exists – this local weekly paper is delivered free to every address in the town.  Thankfully I have some experience of writing press releases, which I know reporters like as it saves time and fills space, and so I looked up the paper online, checked which reporter’s name was on the book-ish stories, and counted how many words were in the average piece before crafting my press release and emailing it to her.  I also suggested that it would be jolly helpful to have the story appear a fortnight before the event to give people time to get to the bookshop to buy tickets, and then of course we would need to print more tickets and hire a marquee and a warm-up act and lay on extra buses…  I may be straying here into the realms of fantasy.

But, dear reader, it all worked – and here is my press release (with a few improvements, I must admit) in today’s Saffron Walden Reporter.  The bookshop is on standby for the hordes of ticket-seekers, although my own husband has now dropped out as something better has come up.  (To be fair, he’s had a bellyful of Sam over the years.  It can’t be easy sharing your wife with a dead policeman.)

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…

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.