After approximately 10 days of Before and After hovering around the Top Ten list in two different categories (more on that later), some mysterious salesforce bumped the book not just into the top ten, but actually to the hallowed top slot. I genuinely felt a bit dizzy when I saw what it had pushed back.
Oh, it’s just Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Who?
Before this post starts to sound like a vomit-inducing, overly-premature victory lap I thought it might be interesting to go into what hitting the best-seller means and how you go about getting that much-coveted orange ribbon.
The short and predictable answer is sales. There’s no getting around it, people need to buy your book. A slightly longer answer would be that it’s sales in a condensed period of time. If you take a look just underneath where it says Amazon Best Sellers then you’ll see that it says “Updated Hourly”. So the simple answer is that during that hour, as Amazon measured it, Before and After sold more copies than Good Omens.
Now, I’m not attempting to downplay this, I’m thrilled that anyone buys my books, but it’s fair to say that Good Omens has been on the shelves for some time – it was released in 1990. So, even despite the fact that it’s had renewed attention because of the (nice and accurate) TV series, that’s pretty amazing that a thirty year old book can still hold the number one and two slot on a best-selling chart. Come back to me in 30 years and let’s see how Before and After is doing. More amazing still is that it’s pretty expensive as Kindle books go.
The other thing that’s worth noting when it comes to the best-seller charts is that authors get to choose a number of categories for Amazon to list their book in. My main categories you can see here:
Notice too that it’s dropped to #94 in “post-apocalyptic” now – I’m sure Gaiman and Pratchett are working on their boastful blog posts right now. When you first upload your book Amazon allows you to have two main categories, you can actually email the very helpful customer support team at Kindle Direct Publishing and ask them to list you in as many as eight other categories.
Clearly, this helps a lot because some of those categories are fairly niche and will require far fewer sales to hit the best-seller chart than others. Perhaps unsurprisingly the most competitive category is Contemporary Romance. My chosen battleground of science fiction> post apocalyptic is slap bang in the middle at #54 (of around 100). So it seems that if you’re looking to harvest as many of those orange tags as possible then according to this chart you should write a book about something that fits the following categories.
Romance -> Historical Romance -> Scottish Literature & Fiction -> Literary Fiction -> Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Nonfiction -> Religion & Spirituality -> Christianity -> Christian Living -> Spiritual Growth
Which rather neatly brings me onto my new book series: The Detective Morag Mysteries. The year is 1915 and Curtly Morag is one of the first to ever make the rank of detective in the fiercely misogynistic Scottish police force, she’s certainly the first atheist…
I love reading to people. Love it. When my wife and I first got together I’d read to her all the time (mostly Pratchett, cos you can’t go wrong with Pratchett) and I’ve read to all of my children until the point where they don’t really want me to. There’s something so warm and human about telling a story straight into someone’s ear that hits me right where I live.
Huh? What? Well, just that really. I’m doing a little experiment for the next two weeks where you can book a slot in my working week for me to read to you. It’s totally free and I’ll call at a time you designate and read about 10 minutes of Before and After to you. You could think of it as an audio sampler. We can chat and if you’ve got any questions then I’ll do my best to answer them, unless it’s maths related in which case I’ll get one of my children to help.
It’s kind of a weird idea, but I know that as my readers you’re looking for weird kind of ideas and I dig you for that. So why not give it a try?
Additionally, a few people have also asked if I’d read at their book club meeting and the answer is hellyes. If you’re doing Before and After at your book club just drop me an email and I’ll gladly come and read to you. I’ll also send you a list of the book club discussion points which I’m putting together for a later blog post. Depending on where you are I might need you to cover petrol, or bike wheel rubber, but it won’t be much. I’m also happy to talk about the career path of becoming an indie author and share what I’ve learned thus far. Primarily, never use the word thus.
Also as an aside Before and After is now a best-seller…no biggie.
Simply everyone is doing book trailers darlink! So I’ve done one too.
Actually, that’s a bald-faced lie – Iven Gilmore made it and I just chipped in with ideas and suggestions, then corrections to the suggestions, then alterations to the corrections, then…Iven punched me in the face and we finished it. Thank you Iven, I love you.
You’ll have to read the book to get an idea of quite wtf is going on here, but I love the little crescendo of chaos as the film builds. Given the size of my hero in the book, it felt appropriate to go with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of What A Wonderful World, rather than Louis Armstrong’s. Plus, who doesn’t love a uke?
Let me know what you think! If you like it, would you be a poppet and stick it on your socials?
You know when they say that it’s the thought that counts? Yeah, well, I had a thought about writing y’all a short story to wish you Happy Christmas. I discussed it with one of my story advisors (Frank, aged 9) and he liked it well enough, so yesterday I powered through it and churned that sucker out. 2,400 words.
OH. HOLY. NIGHT. IT. SUCKED.
In nearly the first paragraph the concept fell apart. The characters were loathsome. It became ideologically perilous. The sentences themselves were fraught with rusty jagged edges that caught your jumper as you walked past them.
I’m currently in the phase of processing this that therapists call “dangerously raw”. I splurged out the details on Twitter, so I’m going to link the tweets in here. This is solely so I don’t have to write the suckiness out again. Anyway, Happy Christmas readers.
A footnote because these things gnaw at me. I thought reticulated meant when a creature is segmented like a worm or snake and it can move through a wave like process of shuffling each segment. I was wrong, I’m not sure that has a name – please let me know if I’m wrong here too. Reticulated is the name of a pattern where a network is created by lines. Think of a python or squinting at the motorway network map. As you were.
In my journey towards publishing Before and After, I’ve been learning a lot about the self-publishing process, with the help of the rather impressive guys over at a company called Socciones. They support Indie Authors to get their books onto Amazon. Indie Authors is the sexy, preferred term rather than self-published authors, because that has too much baggage and suggests a Chartered Accountant wondering why no one will publish his memoirs about spreadsheets.
I’m sure they wouldn’t object to my saying that it’s not actually impossible to do the work yourself, but there was quite a lot to do in a short space of time so I thought I’d recruit some help. They were friendly and helpful to me on Twitter and so I thought I’d go with them. So far, so excellent.
The stuff that they’re doing is mostly around the admin of the book. There’s typesetting the manuscript. This is where you take the Word document and change it into a file that Kindle readers know how it should be displayed. There are some basic formatting choices but this is more for the print-on-demand paperback than for the Kindle version, as readers can obviously change font size and line spacing themselves. I tend to have my Kindle on settings so large that you could read over my shoulder from a different county, so as ever with design stuff I will defer to the opinions of others.
They are also setting up an Amazon ads page so that I can play with that and see if I can get a reasonable return on putting out little ads on Amazon.
The idea is that if I can figure out what sort of keywords my readers would be typing in then I can pay X pence per click and have my book appear at the top of their search results. I’ve been researching and it seems to me that possible keywords are:
Type 2 Diabetes
Living like a hermit
Violent post-apocalyptic hellscape
Best-seller charts here we come!
I’m also working with my good friend Iven Gilmore to make a short book trailer for Before and After. I made the cardinal sin of briefing quite a complex and involved trailer, which Iven then dutifully went and started to make only for me to realise that it wouldn’t work, thus undoing all of his good work. Bad Shanahan, sorry Iven.
Other than that the book has now gone out to the ARC team. This handy little initialism stands for Advanced Reader Copy. This is where you hone, buff and polish your manuscript and send it out to very kind people who agree to read it and give you feedback on it. Their role isn’t to spot typos and spelling errors, although depressingly it seems they often do that too. Ideally, when the book comes out they’ll be in a position to review it, so that people wondering if they should buy the book will have an idea of what people think.
It’s three weeks today that the book is launched. That seems surreal. I’m in a weird space with it now. I feel sickened by it, but also there’s a deep connection of love to it. It’s like those awful marriages that end up with husband and wife stepping pointedly around each other in the kitchen, one waiting to get to the cutlery drawer, while the other waits for their toast to pop up. No, carry on. No, I’ll move. It’s fine. For clarity, our toaster is next to the cutlery drawer but Em would just push me out of the way in the above scenario.
I’m not saying I hate the book – I really don’t. I think it’s just part of this weird relationship you have with an idea, where it first blows your socks off and unrolls the turn-ups from your trousers. Over time, that novelty necessarily wears off because you spend so long shaping the idea and working with the characters. By the end you’re not best-placed to have any sense of the thing’s innate value because it seems old and all you spot are the scratches. Man, that’s depressing, no wonder arty types drink so much. Does make you wonder if Donatello spent a few hours after knocking David out thinking, “I reckon I could have done his knob better. Oh well, fuck it.”
The pre-sale page of the book on Amazon should go up hopefully by Wednesday and I’ve got some PR going out this week too. Not sure what will come of it but it’s nice to be working on something concrete. Well, that and starting to wonder what the next book will be…
Yikes. This is all getting alarmingly real. I’m currently writing the third and final draft of the book and so far it’s been three days of weeping, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. The key to the difficulty is in that terrifying word: final.
Decades of following English international sporting teams has conditioned me so that I come out in a rash at the mere mention of the word final. Finals are hopes dashed. Finals are repeating the words “but we could have had it all!” endlessly into the froth of a pint of lager. As each chapter gets done I have to essentially declare: yes, this is perfect and precisely how I’d like the reader to receive these words. How do you do that? I suppose the alternative is that you find yourself two years down the line starting your 48th draft and realise that you’ve whittled your stick down to a match, but, boy, what a match!
Em said I had to push on through so that’s what I’m doing, wise wifely counsel. I’m also keeping myself busy by working with Yo on the cover design. I say working with, but really she does all the work and I just nod and say things like, “Can that font run right to left?” or “Would it work in mauve?” Yo smiles politely down the phone and gets on with the vital business of ignoring me.
I’m actually going to let Yo write a post about how the cover is decided because frankly she’s the one who knows what’s what, but I thought you might like an image that she made which shows an array of covers that are also nominally in the same category (the jolly post-apocalypse category, although Before and After is perhaps the first ever post-apocalyptic weight loss book – how’s that for a niche?)
Do you have a favourite from these? I’m an Atwood guy all the way.
So…I re-read the book while we were away at half-term and it turns out that I’m actually pretty proud of it. I don’t know if it has artistic merit exactly, but it talks about some things that matter to me, I think it’s a fun read and I’d like to share it with people. I’ve also had the early beta reader feedback which has been encouraging and given me lots to work on next. So, full steam ahead!
That means that in the coming weeks I’ll probably be asking you your opinion on various aspects of the book, from the cover to the inevitably horrible author photograph (still think I might go with this one…)
The first thing I’d like to get your thoughts on is the tagline which designer Yo is thinking about adding to the front cover. Now, I know you probably haven’t read the book at the moment (more on that coming in a later post) but which of these taglines would tempt you to read a book by a random author with a publicity headshot like that?
I’ve been having the conversation around publishing vs self-publishing with a lot of different people recently. To those who aren’t au fait with the publishing world there’s often real surprise, especially around the earnings details, so I thought I’d put together a post about my current thinking in case it helps anyone else and to explain my current quandary.
First a bit of background. In total, so far, I’ve published three books. Two of those – the Not Going to Uni Guide and the MAN v FAT Weight Loss Manual were published in conventional ways i.e. with a publisher (Pearson and then Headline) who paid me an advance to write the book and then I negotiated a percentage of future book royalties for when I’d “earned out” my advance. So in theory when you’ve earned beyond your advance you start receiving a percentage of the retail price per book. Typically, this can be anywhere from 5%-15% depending on the skills of your agent and how much clout you have at the negotiation phase. The publisher receives the rest.
The other book that I did was the Staggered Groom Guide. That was self-published. We paid to have about 5,000 copies printed (which cost around £3k) and then listed them on Amazon, through the I Am Staggered site and via affiliates. We held all the stock and then posted them out whenever an order came through. The finances for that were simpler, we had production costs (design, copy, printing, postage) and anything that was left over from the retail price was revenue. I think typically it ended up being about a fiver per book. In the end I think we had a box or two left, so we more or less sold out. We considered doing a second print run but by that point we’d started to think about selling Staggered so it wasn’t really on the cards.
On the plus side of working with a publisher there is undoubtedly the consideration of ego. Being published, getting an advance, working with an agent all sounds incredible, especially to anyone who has always dreamed of being a writer – it’s the way it’s supposed to happen. Plus, saying “I’ve got a meeting with my publisher on Monday” is never not going to sound cool. Conversely, you mention self-publishing and your mind drifts towards people writing endless fantasy epics that merge the worlds of Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. There has been some improvement in recent years with the breakout success of self-published efforts like The Martian, but it still has the stigma of vanity project to it.
In theory, publishers also have a PR network going for them that will boost the sales of your book and give you insights into getting the biggest readership for your book. There’s also the simple fact that they’re taking the risk. If your book doesn’t sell then you’re sat on the advance and the publisher is out of pocket.
On the negative side of working with a publisher is pretty much everything else. I was surprised on both occasions just how little the publisher actually did compared to my expectations. Once the book was agreed it pretty much came back to being my responsibility. Because they want as much time as possible to look at marketing the book, they want the finished manuscript as soon as possible. I think I had four weeks for the Not Going To Uni book (around 50k words) and 7 weeks for the MAN v FAT book (60k words). I’m not sure why but I always thought that the actual process of completing the book would be more of a collaborative process where I would bring ideas/chapters/suggestions and the publisher would use their experience to help shape things. As it was, more or less everything was left to me. That’s great in one way, but I’d expected more.
The other real surprise was my misconception that the publishers would take the lead on the marketing of the books. Not so. You’ll notice that the majority of books published these days are connected to authors or organisations who have a significant online following, whether it’s Mrs Hinch, A.N. Other YouTuber or MAN v FAT – publishers essentially bank on you being able to sell your book to your existing readership. They use that as the break-even audience and if your book expands beyond that, then great. If not, then they’ve not risked too much. To be fair, that makes sense. As stated, they’re taking the risk by putting up the advance, so naturally they want to ameliorate that risk by going for someone with an existing readership.
Since I self-published the Staggered Groom Guide by printing it and posting them out to purchasers another player has entered the arena: Kindle Direct Publishing. Essentially, self-publishing onto KDP means that your book can be on Amazon and available as a print-on-demand product (i.e. they don’t print a load of books, they just print a physical copy every time someone orders one) for free. Yep, free.
The real eye-opener with KDP is that depending on what the price of your book is then you would make around 70% of the retail price. A typical Kindle book price would be around £3, which means you’d take just over £2 of that. The book also lists on Amazon and makes it easy for anyone around the world to buy your book. Of course, it does potentially lock out anyone who reads on other e-readers (kobo, etc), but there are options within KDP where you can also sell via your own site and through other e-tailers. I’ll hold my hands up here and say that’s something I need to look into a bit more.
I think the crux of the question is that if the majority of work falls on your shoulders when working with a traditional publisher, and you receive a commensurately smaller slice of the pie – why would you bother? Does my fragile ego really need that much underpinning? I should issue a hearty disclaimer here and say that that your mileage may vary with a publisher. It could be that I should have been better informed of the expectations with previous books. Or it could be that publishers do a lot more work with other authors, I don’t know. However, that’s my experience in a nutshell.
So for now, the quandary I have is whether I should even bother to approach publishers at all for Before and After? After a lot of reflection I think I’m going to ignore them entirely and just focus on self-publishing. Hopefully, I’m going to be writing a lot more books in the future and I think the joy of getting a book out to readers in the way that I want to, marketed in the way I think it should be is just too tempting. I have a real advantage in that I already have a brilliant team to work with who can help me design and create the best possible version of this book that I can. Plus, if I can retain a greater percentage of the retail price then over time it makes more business sense.
The clincher is the fact that if the book’s out there and gets a good reception then there’s nothing to stop me approaching a traditional publisher (shortly after amending this blog post to say how much I love working with publishers) and seeing if I can get a deal on the basis of the success of the self-publishing. So, onwards, to researching how to make self-publishing work!
Think of all the mediocre fiction that Twitter has saved us from. As a writer I find that I’m able to justify spending hours on the microblogging site where WAGS and Trumps go to war. It’s an addiction, especially when I can get away with farting out crap like this:
If you multiply the hours of procrastination by the number of writers then you’re probably talking about a million titles per year that Twitter saves us from. Let us be thankful. For me Twitter is just a way of plugging myself directly into the unfolding insanity of Brexit with its deadlines and red lines. Again, that’s an addiction. How I yearn for the days when news was tremendously boring, but in reality I know that it has always been this scintillating, it’s just never been done in full view of the public before.
Fortunately, when it comes to my own deadlines I’m a pro. Never missed one yet and I never intend to. There’s just something in me that won’t let me even contemplate missing one. I get a really curious line of sweat on my neck when the thought occurs. My only greater fear is if I was on a stage without knowing my lines. Consequently, when I swore blind that the second draft of the book would be done by the end of September I disappeared off to Devon for a week (sorry Em:) and pulled a series of 14 hour days to get it done.
It’s actually turning into something I quite like. It finally has a name… Before and After: the Shut In at the End of the World. I keep changing the capitalisation every time I write it, so I should probably decide on one version and stick to it. The book is currently with a number of beta readers who have very kindly said they’d read it and give me feedback. It’s a nervy wait. The feeling of exposure reminds me of the time when I stood naked in the front window of the house spread out like a starfish stuck to the glass. I stayed there until our neighbour saw me and ran to tell his mum. I was 35*.
One other piece of news: I’ve written a short script for 2000AD’s Future Shocks which draws heavily from the horror of HP Lovecraft. If it gets knocked back I’ll stick the script on here for you to enjoy.
Finally – if you haven’t heard Ghosteen by Nick Cave yet, then give it a listen as it’s amazing. Also, I’m really, really enjoying Quarehawk by Michael Walsh, which also features the Mancunian poet Mike Garry – here’s The Visitor, which is lovely.
Naturally, I had to find him on Twitter…
*That’s a true story but I was actually 6. Don’t ask me why I did it, I was fucking odd.
Whaaaaat? Where’s this free short story you promised me? Well, I’m sorry to say that it’s had to be hidden as it has been entered as part of the MMU Short Story Competition. So until that’s done I’m not allowed to have it on the web. Sorry. There’s plenty of short fiction around the site to read and if that doesn’t satisfy, you could always follow me on Twitter and berate me there.