The approach of Gregory

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It’s nearly upon me…  One day soon, I am going to have to stop noodling around in the name of research and start writing the first book in my new series.  What is different this time is that when I wrote “Fatal Forgery” I didn’t know it was the first book in a series – I thought it was a standalone effort, if I even gave the distinction a moment’s thought.  And so when I came to start “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” – the second Sam book – I realised that I would have to continue with Sam as I had, with no planning, created him for his first outing.  I re-read “Fatal Forgery”, making careful notes of anything I had mentioned, carelessly, about his appearance or family or opinions, so that I could be consistent.  And with every book, I added to his biography – always dreading the day when I made a mistake and a scar appeared in the wrong place or he gained a sibling.

This time it’s different.  I already know that Gregory Hardiman – fairly sure about that name – is going to appear in five books.  This means that he needs to be rounded and interesting enough from the outset to make readers want to learn more about him, and that I will have to drip-feed what I already know.  With Sam, information was drip-fed by default, as I created it.  And this past weekend I spent several hours thinking about how I want Gregory to sound – literally and on the page.  I know he’s a country lad, Protestant, and that he served in the army in Spain – all of those will inform his diction, vocabulary and views.  I’m also conscious that I really don’t want him to sound like Sam, and so I am thinking that I will make him something of a poet – moved by beauty and nature.  Sam was moved by bustle and activity and being part of thriving city, but I think Greg will be a country mouse by comparison.  And as for appearance, well, I’m thinking stocky and sturdy (as a Norfolk farmer’s son would have been), handy with his fists, and self-conscious about his facial scarring.  Yes, he’s definitely on his way…

New fans for Sam?

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Well that was fun!  I was trying to think of anything I could do to make people feel a bit better and my husband suggesting offering a free book, and the first Sam book – “Fatal Forgery” – seemed the obvious choice.  I now realise that lots of authors are doing this, and it’s wonderful – I’ve snagged a couple myself.  (The more escapist, feel-good and light-hearted the better – I’m certainly in no mood for dark or dismal disaster.)

When I explored KDP to find out how to do this, it turns out that as my Sam e-books are listed with KDP Select – which means that they are sold exclusively through Amazon (and the exclusivity brings me a higher royalty rate from Amazon) – I can take advantage of a couple of promotional schemes that they offer.  And one of these is the chance to offer my book for free, for five days out of every ninety days.  (Obviously Amazon does not want people offering their books for free all the time, otherwise they make no commission on the sales…)  And I decided to take all five days in one hit, rather than spreading them out (which you can do).  I did consider doing a day here and a day there, but I thought that with the time difference (days are according to US time zones, not European) I would confuse myself and everyone else about when the day started and finished, and by the time I got the word out it might all have ended – so I went for simplicity.  I publicised the offer on this blog, on my personal and author Facebook pages, and via an e-newsletter that I send out as part of my day job (to people who are tackling financial crime every day, so I thought some of them might like to read about historical financial crime instead).  The one thing I forgot to do was to ask people to leave reviews, but here’s hoping that some of them do it anyway.

So how popular was my offer?  Here’s the breakdown:

  • Day one: 31 copies downloaded
  • Day two: 55 copies
  • Day three: 36 copies
  • Day four: 8 copies
  • Day five: 10 copies

So that’s a grand total of 140 copies.  Turning to my spreadsheet of “Fatal Forgery” sales, I can see that since it was published in July 2013 – and discounting this recent free promotion and another free promotion I did in January 2019 – I have actually sold 348 e-books.  I’m not sure what that tells us, except that people like free books!  (And that day two of the offer is the big one – by then, the word’s out.  But by day four, everyone who wants it has downloaded it, and I don’t think the word is spreading any further.  So perhaps – for commercial purposes – two widely-spaced two-day promotion periods would work better.)

During the promotion I did look every day at the Amazon list of 100 free best-selling e-books, always hoping that “Fatal Forgery” would appear, but it did not.  Nonetheless, I have had some lovely emails from people saying that they are already enjoying the book, and it’s a small thing that I can do.

Get “Fatal Forgery” for free!

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In the middle of all the other crazy things on the news, I think the strangest fact I have learned this week is that one of the current bestselling books on Amazon is “The Eyes of Darkness” by Dean Koontz.  It’s about a mother trying to find her son in a world devastated by a virus called Wuhan-400.  Now I don’t really care whether Mr Koontz is in fact a soothsayer – what surprises me is that people want to sit in their homes, under lock-down, and read about a fictional pandemic.  Perhaps the Koontz story ends well and readers take comfort from that – but I’ll never know because even if it were the last book on earth, I would not want to read a book about a pandemic.  No, I’m escapism all the way: for me, one of the true miracles of reading is that it can transport me to places and times and situations that I could never experience in reality.

I assume that lots of other people feel the same way as I do and are looking to fiction to take them out of themselves.  And to help with this, I have decided to offer the e-book of my first Sam Plank book – “Fatal Forgery” – free on Amazon until the end of Thursday.  (I would do it for longer, but I sell my Sam e-books through KDP Select – i.e. they’re available exclusively on Amazon, and I get a higher royalty rate because of this.  And one of the rules of KDP Select is that you can offer a free download promotion for only five days out of every ninety.  It’s a commercial decision: if I give my books away for free, Amazon makes no commission on the download.  Entirely understandable, but I thought I would explain why it’s a time-limited free download offer.)

So if you would like to download the e-book of “Fatal Forgery” for free, please do so.  (That’s an international Amazon link, so should take you automatically to the correct Amazon site.)  I can guarantee that the plot is entirely free of any mention of plague, pestilence, pandemic, virus or pox.  And please share this offer with friends and family – the more the merrier.  Perhaps you’re setting up a virtual book group, and a free download for everyone would be a great way to start.  I hope you like the book – and if you do, perhaps you would consider leaving a little review on Amazon.  So get downloading, everyone, and happy reading!

Horse artists and bird stuffers

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With a whole weekend of social isolating at my disposal, I allowed myself the luxury of a deep-dive into Pigot’s.  What, you’ve never used this amazing resource?  Let me enlighten you.  James Pigot started out as a publisher of general directories and in 1811 he began publishing trade directories for Manchester.  His big project – the Commercial Directory – was first published in 1814, and in 1823 he expanded to other cities, including London.  And in 1830 our hero brought out his “National Commercial Directory; Comprising a Directory and Classification of the Merchants, Bankers, Professional Gentlemen, Manufacturers and Traders of the Cities, Towns, Sea-Ports and Principal Villages of the Following Counties, viz Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire”.  Catchy title!  But it does what it says on the tin: it’s basically the forerunner to the Yellow Pages.  And for getting the flavour of daily life at the time, it’s fantastic.

Pigot 1830

For instance, in 1830 Cambridge was the place of business for four artists (including one “horse artist”), two bird stuffers, four breeches makers, thirty-three butchers (four of them women), several chymists [sic] (including “Isaiah Deck, practical chymist to the Duke of Gloucester, and mineralogist”), numerous “coal and corn merchants” (not a combination we would imagine today), plenty of (non-university) professors and teachers (including the polyglot Frederick de Boetticher, who offered lessons in Italian, Spanish, French, German, Dutch and Russian), 110 pubs and taverns – and one dentist, one piano tuner and one coroner.  It certainly tells you a great deal about people’s interests, concerns and priorities.

I am also taking this opportunity to plan ahead with my monthly behind-the-scenes research newsletters, so do sign up if you’d like more fascinating detail about life in the 1820s, in both London and Cambridge.

It’s alive!

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Many moons ago I wrote about my efforts to be listed on the Nielsen catalogue, so that my books could be ordered through – and supplied to – any bookshop in the land.  The Nielsen people were lovely and helpful but the system was convoluted, and in the faceof its ongoing silence I have never quite had faith that it is working for me – perhaps the emails are going into a spam folder.  Every couple of months I log in to check that there isn’t a queue of dozens of orders waiting for me, unloved and unfulfilled, but of course, nothing.

And then this morning – there it was!  An email from Nielsen BookNet with the subject line “New Book Order”!  With trembling fingers I opened it.  Someone wanted a single copy of “Heir Apparent” – so not exactly a bulk order, but someone out there, somewhere in this fair nation of ours, had taken the trouble to request, nay, demand that their bookshop acquire my book for them.  And which shop is it?  In which distant county does it sit, serving customers I shall never meet and of whose lives I know nothing?  Well, it’s Heffers.  Yes, the bookshop only seven minutes’ walk from my own front door.  The bookshop that already stocks my books, and has done from the very start.  It’s a mystery, but I have clicked the button that says that I shall attend to the order forthwith, and in about an hour I shall walk briskly into town and hand over the book.  I’ll save on postage and – if feedback is encouraged from the bookshops – I should get a top rating for speediest order fulfilment ever: five hours from placing the order to receiving the book.  Amazon, eat your heart out.

Taming the squid

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“The Solo Squid” – my book about how to run a happy one-person business – has hit the same wall as the Sam Plank books: everyone who reads it says that it is good, but not enough people are reading it.  I don’t want to fall back into Twitter (for the reasons explained yesterday) but I do want to get the squid message out there, and so I have created a new Facebook page.

The theory is that the Solo Squid page will showcase the book, yes, but will also share tips and ideas on the theme central to the book: enjoying working alone, and being satisfied with that work status (i.e. being content with a one-person business and not plotting world domination).  To keep it manageable I plan to source and share one piece of squisdom every day or two, and I am going to be ferocious about keeping to the squidology – no veering off-message.

Like so many marketing ideas, it may die a death in a month or two, but that’s the nature of the marketing beast.  On the other hand, I should practise what I preach, and in the book I advise forgetting about formal marketing strategies: “Rather, I recommend starting at the end and asking yourself this one question: what can I do to make sure that my clients remember me in a positive light?”  And if my FB page can offer a helpful idea or a crumb of comfort to a lonely or struggling or exhausted solo squid, who then tells other solo squids about it, then I’m happy.

(And in case you’re wondering about my fictional life, I can assure you that each weekend I am immersed in research for the first Gregory book.  I have been reading a wonderful tome called “Annals of Cambridge”, which is a highly subjective – and at times unintentionally hilarious – record of the main events that happened in the city, organised by year.  And in 1830 we had this gem: “On 3 December 1830, apprehension having been entertained from the excited state of the labouring classes in many of the adjacent villages that there might be some disturbance in the town on the following market day, 800 of the [6,500 male] inhabitants voluntarily attended at the Town Hall and were sworn as special constables. Not the slightest disturbance occurred.”  I can guarantee that that little over-reaction will find its way into a Gregory book.)

Bye bye birdie

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As some of you will know, I serve in a voluntary capacity as a magistrate (perfect for crime research…).  A large part of our work is sentencing, and at this stage in the proceedings a defendant will often say in mitigation, “But miss, I’ve got mental health”.  We know s/he means just the opposite, but every time I hear it I reflect how grateful I am that, for almost all of my life, I have indeed had mental health.  And in a bid to keep things that way, I have decided to stop using Twitter in my private and writing lives – although I shall keep a very inactive account for work purposes, so that people can find me.

When I realised that my narrator Constable Sam Plank would live beyond one book, I decided to hide behind his name and created the @ConstablePlank Twitter handle.  I did this on the advice of more experienced authors, who said – without exception – that the key to selling lots of books was to have an active social media presence.  And (like everyone else) I have no way of knowing whether that is true: it is impossible to know what proportion of readers were alerted to the Sam books via Twitter (or Facebook or this writing blog or Amazon searching or shop displays).  But what I do know about Twitter is this:

  • Anything that I post on Twitter can just as easily be posted on Facebook or this blog
  • My tweets – like everyone else’s – disappear within hours, if not minutes
  • Nearly all the tweets I read from the authors that I follow are – like mine – attempts to sell more books, which becomes rather dull quite quickly
  • Too many tweets are unpleasant in tone
  • Twitter sucks up too much of my time, as I seem to be addicted to scrolling through yards and yards of irrelevant tweets.

This is to take nothing at all from those of you who enjoy tweeting and/or enjoy reading tweets.  It’s just that I have not got from it what I was hoping (over and above book sales), which was an insight into the writing process and the lives of other writers and therefore a sense of community.  (Plus, if I read the phrase “hand sanitiser” once more, I may indeed get mental health.).  So for now, @Constable Plank is no more.

Desperately seeking squid-lovers

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Only a quick update today, as I am working overseas this week – on the Channel Island of Guernsey – and writing has to take a back-seat.  But yesterday morning I had a spare hour and spent it sending emails to the editors of magazines that serve communities of people who are likely to work alone, telling them about “The Solo Squid” and offering to send a review copy or write an article about the joys of solo working.  On my flight the previous day I brainstormed a list of possible communities – accountants, therapists of all sorts, florists, etc. – and then researched suitable publications and the names of their editors.  I wrote a succinct email and tailored it to each magazine, and off they went.  None of them bounced back so I assume they reached their targets.  And so far I have had a response – positive or negative – from no-one.

I know, I know: it’s only a day since I sent the emails.  And I assume that the editors of some of these publications are part-time or volunteers or inefficient – or all three.  Working full-time and being pathologically efficient myself, I sometimes forget that.  Readers of historical fiction tend to gather in online communities, even thoughtfully subdividing themselves into relevant categories – lovers of historical crime, or devotees of Regency fiction.  But marketing a niche, non-fiction book is hard!

War and squeace

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The past week has had a split personality: of the time I was able to allocate to writing (rather than working, or unloading the dishwasher, or talking to men about guttering – not a euphemism but a boring reality) I spent half on researching the British army in the early nineteenth century and half on thinking of ways to promote “The Solo Squid”.

With regard to the military research, I think it’s probably no spoiler to say that life in Wellington’s army was pretty grim: one chap wrote to his mum about staggering off the battlefield and carrying his own severed arm to the nearest farm, where the farmer gave him cognac for the pain before cauterising the stump and slinging the arm onto a bonfire.  I assume the arm he had left was his writing arm…  I can safely say that my brain is now chock-full of handy nuggets of infantry info that I will probably never mention but which give me a lovely feeling of security as I inch towards meeting Gregory for the first time.

And as for the squid, it’s a tricky one: finding potential readers for a book about working alone is not easy, as such people by their very nature tend not to congregate.  But I am taking comfort from the five five-star reviews that have appeared on Amazon and am now concentrating on thinking of clever ways to get the book in front of the right people.  I went into Heffers (our local university bookshop) today and asked the chap in charge of the business section to promote the squid from the bottom shelf to the waist-level “ledge” which is considered the ideal place to catch the passing eye, and I think we can agree that it is a great improvement:

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And in the middle of the night I had a wheeze of an idea.  I am a dedicated reader of “Good Housekeeping” – it’s my version of fantasy, as I gaze upon the pages of elegant homes and nutritious meals.  And they often feature women at work – women who have started their own companies or had a world-changing business idea or (as this month) who run charities.  And the squid, I thought, could offer two perspectives: running a one-person business, and being happy at work.  I researched the features editor and – as luck would have it – she has written her own book about happiness.  So I emailed her this morning with my terrific idea, and we shall see.  Perhaps you should all write in to “GH” and say that you were considering taking out a subscription but had been put off by their lack of articles on how to run a happy one-person business….

Apologies for the awful title of this post, but it seems that the word “squid” lends itself to fanciful thinking: one reviewer has written about the book promoting “squidology”, while someone else mentioned its “squisdom”.  How I wish I had thought of them.

Juggling constables

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I rather fear that my blog posts at the moment are a bit dull – there’s not much to say when you’re knee-deep in research.  But I am finding it a mental challenge to live with two constables at the same time.  There are six Sam Plank novels out there and I want to take every opportunity I can to promote them and acquire new readers.  In this endeavour I have help from all sorts of lovely people, including – today – Helen Hollick, who has featured a conversation with Martha Plank on her historical fiction blog Let Us Talk of Many Things.  In an imaginative departure for her blog, Helen periodically features conversations not with authors but with their characters, and today it is Martha’s turn.

At the same time, I am ramping up the research for my new series – the Gregory books – which will be set in Cambridge (but still in my beloved 1820s).  This involves long hours in the library (don’t feel sorry for me – it’s my version of paradise) and even the outlay of £20 on a comprehensive and chunky history of the university (I figure that I’m planning five Gregory books, so it’s a bearable investment of £4 per book).

But what should I do about my monthly updates?  These go out to subscribers on the first of each month (do sign up – I’m currently writing for a very select and loyal audience of thirty-one!) and so far have concentrated on the research that underpins the Sam books.  Indeed, all nineteen updates have been called “Sam Plank update”.  Shall I re-brand them?  Or keep that title and just explain each time that the research – although still late Regency and therefore equally of interest to Sam fans – is being done to furnish Gregory with his life and backstory?  It doesn’t matter one jot at the moment, I suppose, but when the Sam books are picked up for a blockbuster Sunday night telly drama and I’m having to beat journalists off with a stick, I want to have my author profile and presence all neat and tidy.  In the meantime, turn away now if you’re squeamish: I’m off to research facial and eye injuries caused by muskets in the Peninsular Wars.