book promotion, book reviews, book sales, publishing, reading, Uncategorized

Now, here’s something new – a reader!

Writer's Block

Well, the launch is done – phew! I’m a bit surprised at how tense I got – I thought I’d be more laid back. Too early, of course, to give a report, but the first impression is… mixed. Yes, it’s better than the last, but given that all I did then was post on my blog, that’s hardly difficult. This time I had a strategy – build up my mailing list and ask my subscribers to post reviews. I’d sent a free copy of Perfume Island to over a hundred, but so far none has appeared. Early days yet, perhaps – we shall see. But the only reviews so far have been from people I was in touch with before (you guys included – many thanks!).

On the other hand, it has been good to get a couple of messages from complete strangers telling me, ‘I enjoy your books so much.’ And it made me realise that I’ve never before experienced that sort of connection with readers. It gives me a glow inside that’s different from other satisfactions I’ve got from writing. For a couple of reasons, I think. Firstly, as I said, these aren’t people I’ve built an online relationship with – they’re people who’ve come across my books by chance or because they happen to like the mystery genre. And that’s the second thing – they aren’t writers but readers. Crucial as it is to engage with and learn from other writers, we’re not normal readers because we always have one eye on the craft of writing (‘Ah, what a beautiful / overblown / clunky sentence that is!’). So it’s rather strange to think that someone might be reading my book simply because they want to enjoy a good story. You might say it’s a bit late to be discovering only now what it’s like to have a few readers. Well, yes, I fumbled and faltered a lot along the way. But better late than never, you’re never too old to fulfil your dreams, yada, yada…

Will Perfume Island actually sell many copies? Probably not. But a few more than One Green Bottle (again, not difficult). And the prospect of having readers raises another issue: they’re following a series. What do I do with Magali now? Is she a brand? Do I owe it to my readers to keep her going? Well, here’s what Hugh Howie has to say: ‘A big mistake I see from too many aspiring writers is to follow up their first work with a sequel, and turn that into a trilogy, and write a fourth and fifth book while they plan their sixth and seventh. […] Plan on writing many great books about many awesome characters. Plan on writing three different trilogies in three different genres. Sequels aren’t bad; in fact, they can be critical to your success. What’s bad is only giving readers a handful of avenues into your imagination. Give them as many onramps as possible. Write short stories as well as novels. Write in different genres. Experiment and adapt to your sales and any critical feedback.’ (The full article, which covers many other points, is here.)

I found that reassuring. Because much as I like Magali, I don’t want to be wedded to her for the rest of my writing life. In fact, other ideas are barging to the front of the queue, demanding to be written. For the moment, though, I’m thrusting them back. A trilogy, at least – I can’t not write a trilogy. So this morning, with great relief, I stopped looking on Amazon every other minute and got back in touch with Magali and Charlotte in Mystery Manor (much darker, more thriller than mystery this time). Because if I don’t do that, I might lose my readers just when I’m starting (let’s be optimistic here) to gain them.

As for the marketing, I see no alternative to persisting with the mailing list. The first time people unsubscribed, I was dismayed. Now I’m pleased – it means I won’t be annoying them. And little by little, there’s a chance that of those that remain, a few will swell the number of that very select group I think of now as ‘my readers’.

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book promotion, publishing

What took you so long?

So, Curtis, Perfume Island is finally ready for release.

Ha! L’Arlésienne arrives at last.

I’m sorry?

A young woman from Arles in Alphonse Daudet’s play of the same name. She’s talked about all the time but never actually appears on stage. The term now applies to something we’re led to expect but which never arrives.

I see. Well, I hope it’s worth the wait. What took you so long?

You may recall it was about to come out last year, but-

You think I recall that? With all the other books I have to read?

Well, if you stop interrupting, I’ll remind you. My publisher at the time was… let’s just say I decided it would be better to do it myself. At which point I embraced self-publishing fully, stigma and all – well, there isn’t one, is there? Once you decide to go down that road, you can’t let doubts like that get in the way.

And what did it involve in concrete terms?

I realized my marketing strategy was non-existent. I kept reading that the best way to reach out to readers, and above all to keep them, was through a mailing list, so I set about building one. I’ve done a giveaway and two cross promotions, and now have a list of about 420.

Who are all going to read Perfume Island?

If only! No, but eight of them – people I don’t know at all – have already agreed join my launch team. Which basically means they get free stuff in exchange for writing a review and spreading the word when the book comes out. Of course, 420 is a tiny number – self-publishing guru Mark Dawson has 60000. But it’s a start. The next 12 months will be a test of how well this works. Right now, I’m just pleased that I did part ways with my publisher – having control over the whole process makes a huge difference. Even if I make mistakes, they’re my mistakes and I can decide how to fix them. And I’m finding that marketing can be enjoyable too, once you start to look at it as a creative, learning experience.

Any final message you’d like to give?

Just my heartfelt thanks to the Writers’ Co-op. It seems a long time ago when GD put forward the idea on Book Country. We’re hardly big, but the level of support is tremendous. And though we write in different genres, we share the same commitment to the process. Every word of encouragement has been precious. You guys rock!

15th November – release of Perfume Island. The Arlésienne appears!

 

 

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book reviews, reading

How The Other Half Reads.

Stolen off Slate, abridged because it’s so long. I’ve slashed way down, close to half. It’s still 1300+ words.

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If my snatch is illegal, somebody tell me and I’ll report it in my own words or delete it. Find it on slate.com in the Slate Book Review. The original title: In Praise of Reader Reviews.

By Laura Miller

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Amazon reviews. Every author has a war story about absurd one-star reviews written by dolts. But here’s my semi-shameful secret: I like reader reviews. I often make a point of seeking them out. You can find reviews on Amazon and (even more commonly) on Goodreads that are as considered, thorough, and well-written as anything that used to appear in your local newspaper. But actually I don’t care much about those reviews. I go to reader reviews to see how the other half reads.

Crucially, the internet has made it simply impossible for me to kid myself that there’s a widely shared agreement on what constitutes good writing or a good book. This, I realize, will be viewed as the violation of a sacred trust by some of my fellow critics, who see our role as that of knights defending the citadel of Literature from barbarian hordes waving Fifty Shades of Grey.  Not only do I think the citadel can take care of itself, but I always want to know what the barbarians are so worked up about. Besides, some of them are not actually barbarians at all, just tired, overworked women who have finally found a bit of recreational reading that hits the spot.

I’m especially intrigued by reader reviews written by people unfamiliar with the vocabulary of literary criticism. They aim to describe experiences that most of us recognize but that can be hard to articulate, and they have to make up the language for it as they go along. Sometimes they acquit themselves pretty well, as in the following review, of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, posted by one Jesse Messerli:

To me it seemed like the author had a few ideas for completely unrelated stories, and because none of them were really that good on their own, he decided to combine them all and try to connect them in some way in order to reveal something about the nature of man. After reading the previous reviews I kept expecting it to get better. I kept waiting for some magical revelation that would make it all worth it. I felt as if I was trudging through piles of garbage in hopes of finding the treasure at the end. However once I got halfway through I find that there is no treasure, but I have to turn around and trudge back out of all the garbage and see if there is treasure back at the start. When I finished that I realized that there is no gold nugget hiding anywhere, just miles of trash.

Few professional critics could get away with such a passionately querulous outburst, not to mention that comparison to trudging through piles of garbage—it’s so over the top—and yet isn’t that exactly how reading a frustrating book feels? While I enjoyed reading Cloud Atlas myself, my heart goes out to Messerli. I’ve been there, pal.

In perusing reader reviews over the years, I’ve noticed two words cropping up approvingly again and again, words that rarely appear in professional reviews: “fast” and “flow.” These, I’ve concluded, refer to much the same quality, something that violently disgusts my most discriminating literary friends: cliché. A “fast read” is a book that “flows,” in prose that calls no attention to itself by virtue of being utterly familiar. You can swallow it in huge gulps and finish in a few hours, if you’re not too picky. Eventually, I’d discover C.S. Lewis’ astute explanation of the appeal of clichés for readers who consume books solely for their diverting plots. They like this kind of writing, he writes,

…  because it is immediately recognizable. “My blood ran cold” is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.

The story flowed effortlessly and keep [sic] the interest going,” wrote Martha Silcox of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a book whose hackneyed prose makes me grind my teeth. Fiction that flows never calls upon its readers to slow down and contemplate or admire any of its parts. It also doesn’t feature narrative gaps that oblige the reader to puzzle out what’s going on.

I’ve learned to accept that a good number of the books I adore are in some part simply unintelligible to many readers.

The lament that “nothing happens” in a novel often means that the main character or characters don’t drive the novel’s action or events; things happen, but they happen to the characters rather than being caused by them. People want to read about characters they like and identify with, which often means characters who take charge of their destinies instead of passively moping around being “whiny” (another common complaint). What literary critics seem to most prize–beautiful sentences–barely seems to count at all. Reader reviews will occasionally praise an author’s style, but so many of them describe The Da Vinci Code as “well-written” that to me the phrase has come to seem meaningless.

Reader reviewers often take critics to task for praising a “bad book” simply because all of their peers do. Often they seem to believe that critics have conspired to sell the public a bill of goods on hopelessly pretentious writers with nothing of interest to say—or at least to overinflate the work of their own impenetrable darlings. But reader reviews also offer lovely instances of serendipity, when some naïf encounters the work of a much-touted modern master with no notion of the author’s renown.

One of my favorite reader reviews ever is for Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League, by Cleo Birdwell, published in 1980. Literary insiders are aware that Birdwell is a pseudonym of Don DeLillo, the revered postmodern novelist, who apparently wrote this manifestly fictional “memoir” solely for money. Every reviewer comes to a new DeLillo novel knowing that he’s thought to be a genius, and once an author’s reputation is that exalted, I’ll level with you: It can indeed affect your response to the book. But stevie@interport.net had no inkling of this in 1998, when he wrote on Amazons’ Amazon page:

A friend of mine found this book in hc for 75 cents in k-mart when i was around 13. she got it for me because i was a huge ny rangers fan & wanted to play hockey. the book turned out to have little to do with hockey, but was truly different & funny in a seinfeld kind of way. there are certain moments & phrases from it that i will never forget. i lent it to one friend who loved it as much as i did, and then another who was not impressed and eventually lost it. i have never ever seen another copy, and it appears that she never published anything else. cleo birdwell, where are you???

I sometimes think that may be the most honest rave Don DeLillo has ever gotten.

So I’ll never denounce the abundant proliferation of reader reviews, not even the ones that lambast my own book. One-star reviews testify to a loss of faith, and they wouldn’t get written if that faith didn’t keep rising up in the first place. Each review represents an instance of someone taking a chance, opening the covers of a book and allowing an author’s words into her head with the hope that something magical might result. And I just can’t see anything bad about that.

 

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