Preparing A Just and Upright Man for publication as an audiobook – an audiobook in which I, the author, am also the narrator – has brought me closer to the people behind the text than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I empathise; but sometimes they make me laugh. Take this passage, which is part of what I dictated today:
Blakiston stood in the dark looking out of his window onto the silent, deserted road outside and thinking about the day. The dreadful sight and smell of Reuben Cooper’s burnt body. The strange interview with Martin Wale. Claverley’s account of so many children, all to be investigated if the death turned out not to be the work of malign fate. A man wandering the roads, who might be Irish or might not, and might be a killer or might not, but who at any rate must be found and questioned. The looming shadow of enclosures. A drunken farmer and an idle one, both to lose their livelihoods if he had anything to do with it.
And, underlying all, the painful recollections that never quite went away, of the woman he had expected to marry and the hurt of his loss. He would never allow himself to love again. Of that he was certain.
So, James, you’ll never love again? Listen, mate, this is a Romance. Capital R. Which I am writing. You, my friend, will love whoever I tell you to love.
That Kate Greener’s a nice girl – don’t you think? What? Not your class? Get outta here.
The Ghost reads like a book the writer had to write. For this reader, it was also a book the reader had to read to the end – despite the story it tells being harrowing at times. Dorian Cook had a childhood that didn’t lack love but was poor in material terms (though I never did fix the location – Manchester? Stoke? where?). As an adult he mostly presents to the world the appearance of a successful life – but buried in his past is an act of unspeakable barbarity committed by him and two other boys and it comes back to haunt and threaten him. The story effectively interweaves past and present and we get to know who and what Dorian is and how he became that person and to care what happens to him. The denouement is satisfying the way a good white burgundy you haven’t tasted in a while satisfies – you think, “Yes. Of course. That’s how it’s supposed to be” and I admired the way Andrew Lowe had given plenty of clues but still surprised me at the end. A first rate piece of writing by someone I hope we will hear more from.
See more reviews of other people’s books here
This post is targeted at writers who want to know more about the process of selling. I originally wrote it for the ALLi Blog, but at 2,800 words it was about 2,300 longer than it should have been so I’ve put a summary there – this is the original.
I’ve been a salesman most of my working life. The first book I ever published (in 1990) was Managing the High Tech Salesforce; last year I published The International Sales Handbook. I use the word “salesman” with pride. When the phone rings and the person at the other end begins with, ‘Let me say at the outset, I’m not trying to sell you anything,’ and it’s obvious that s/he in fact is trying to do exactly that, my response is, ‘Never say that to a salesperson.’ The reason some people try that line is because they think there’s something shameful about the activity of selling. There isn’t. Everybody is selling, all the time – but some are better at it than others, and some don’t admit to themselves that that is what they are doing. If you have ever proposed marriage, you were selling (and the product was yourself). If you manoeuvred so that some man or woman proposed marriage to you, that was an even better example of successful selling.
I remember years ago flying home from South America. The woman in the seat beside me had already asked what I did for a living and I had told her I was a salesman. Then she asked what I had been doing in the country we had just left and I said I had negotiated and signed a contract with that country’s Ministry of Transportation. She asked what the contract had been for, I told her and she said, ‘That sounds like a lot of money.’ ‘About $250 million.’ ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘You’re not a salesman at all.’ What she meant was that salespeople don’t do $250 million deals. Salespeople are grubby manipulators who sell things to people who don’t want them for more than they are worth but never in that sort of amount. She was, of course, English (as I am); other nationalities (and I include in that the Scots and the Welsh, both of whom have a lot more common sense than my own people) don’t take such a negative approach and I suppose it is mainly to the shy, retiring English that I am addressing this post. How did she think the Minister and his staff of knowledgeable engineers were persuaded to part with $250 million if not as a result of someone selling the idea to them?
So what, exactly, is selling? What sort of person is good at it? And how, if at all, does it differ from “marketing”?
What do we mean by selling?
Cliché time: selling has been described as “the gentle art of giving the other guy your own way”. And it is a cliché; but the important thing to remember about those is that they become clichés because they are true. I’d like you to accept that definition of selling, and I’d like you to agree that what we writers want is for people to buy our books. I know, because I’ve met them, that there are writers who don’t give a toss (or say they don’t) whether anyone buys their books or not. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that a blog post (like this one) about selling for writers is not intended for those people.
What sort of person is good at selling?
Not all clichés are true. (See? I lied to you a paragraph ago. I expect that fits much better with your idea of what salespeople do). One of the commonest ideas about selling is that you have to be extrovert to be good. Rubbish! The best salespeople (and who better than me to tell you this?) are introverts who have learned to present as extroverts. If you don’t know what’s going on inside your own head, how on earth do you expect to work out what is happening in someone else’s? A cliché that is true: “The good salesperson is two ears and one mouth, in that proportion.” You have to listen more than you speak and when you listen it’s important that you HEAR. The general idea of conversation in this country seems to be that one person allows the other to talk at him or her and in return the other then allows the first person to talk at her or him. No one listens and it’s certain that no one hears anything. You have to detect what the other person’s needs are, what that person likes and doesn’t like and the reasons they may have for being drawn to or turning away from your sort of book. You’re not going to do that unless you hear what the person is saying. There’s more. In Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, I have Billy say something that I’ve often said myself: ‘Good salespeople hear the words nobody speaks.’ You have to develop (and introverts can be good at this but extroverts are hopeless) the ability to pick up how someone is reacting to you, even though they haven’t put it into words – and then you have to decide what to do about it.
Writers are not, as a group, famous for being likeable and one of the things I enjoy about ALLi is the way the majority get on with and support each other. I said the majority. I knew within ten seconds of meeting one member that he had conceived an immediate and visceral dislike for me. We’ve met twice more and those meetings simply reconfirmed my immediate feeling. So; should I have done anything about it? My answer was (and is): no. A risk analysis says he could harm me if he chose – he could give my books poor reviews and, if he acted as a judge for any contests or evaluations of books, he could mark me down. But so what? That can happen anyway. The universally loved book no more exists than the universally loved person. If this had been the Minister of Transportation and a $250 million contract depended on his regard I would have worked hard to cultivate it, because the most basic fact you need to know about selling is: people buy from people. In this case, I saw no downside that I cared about and I let it go.
What’s the difference between selling and marketing?
If there is a difference, then for our purposes it is best ignored. When I was a sales and marketing director, I felt I had my sales hat on in face-to-face meetings with customers and prospects and my marketing hat when I was planning advertising campaigns. To that latter I would now add social networking, which we didn’t have in those days. From the point of view of the writer, selling is when you are in effect saying, ‘Buy my book’ (though for heaven’s sake don’t use those words) and if you want to you can regard your social networking as marketing. Ask yourself, though: does it really make any difference? I suggest the selling/marketing debate is irrelevant to indie authors. I know that some people swear by marketing plans, but I find them of limited value because the reality is: nobody knows what works and what doesn’t, and what worked for a writer starting out three years ago probably won’t be effective now. There is one plan you should make, however, and that is the plan that says how much time you are going to allocate to writing and how much to selling.
So how do you do it?
We’ve had a number of threads on the ALLi Facebook page recently on what it means to sell your books and I’ve contributed – indeed, I started one (A tedious, balls-aching journey). More than 30 people liked it, so I suppose it must have rung some sort of bell. I’ll suggest some rules; I’m sure others will have useful additions to suggest:
Write the best book you can.
Most of my career has been spent selling a premium product at a premium price. I could never see the pleasure in selling discounted trash. There are far too many books on the market and some of them are of such high quality that is difficult to see how we can compete – but, on the other hand, some are absolute dross. (I know that no one at ALLi ever likes to say that but they all know that it’s true). Put yourself in a position where you can be compared with the best and not with the rubbish. And while we’re on that subject:
An original, innovative product outsells a me-too and goes on doing it.
Everyone who has ever sold a me-too (a product offering no significant new features that is introduced to compete with one already on the market) knows that it will never usurp the original’s place as market leader and that the only way to sell it is by cutting the price. If you’re tempted to write another Fifty Shades or you want to be the new Lee Child, forget it. The market is happy with the Lee Child it already has and as for Fifty Shades – are you simply going to repeat whatever it was (I haven’t actually read the book) those rude people did there? In my view, this is one of the mistakes the big publishers make at present and indies don’t need to follow them. Write the original book you want to write.
You’re going to have to spend some money.
Make your mind up to that; if you’re not prepared to spend money on cover design, editing, print runs, business cards, bookmarks, flyers and other promotional material, you’re going to fail. I can hear now, because I’ve heard before, the protests that “I’m as good an editor as any professional and I don’t need to expend scarce resources in that way”. Protest away; I think you’re wrong. I’ve also heard, “I can’t afford to do that. I just don’t have the money”. Well, if you don’t have it you don’t have it. Bad luck. But don’t expect big sales. That’s how the world is: the rich get richer and the poor get trampled on. Believe me, I do sympathise. And I’ll go on sympathising until I see you with a coffee, or a glass of wine, or chocolate, or…well, anything other than a dry lentil roast. Examine your priorities.
Get “I need to sell my books” into your mind and keep it there.
Successful selling doesn’t come by accident. However callous it may seem, every time you meet someone you should be assessing whether or not that person is a likely purchaser of your book(s). If the answer is “no”, that’s fine – but if there’s any possibility that it might be “yes” then you must do something to put the idea of buying one of your books into her/his mind. And that means telling the person that you are a published writer.
Don’t be afraid to sing your own praises.
I’m not suggesting braggadocio. Just be prepared to take your space and say, ‘Yes, I’m a writer. Yes, people do read my books and you can order them from bookshops or buy them online if that’s what you prefer to do. Am I someone you should have heard of? No – but this may help.’ Then hand over your promotional material (see below) and settle down to answer the questions you are asked. After a while you’ll find you enjoy it. And be enthusiastic. Another cliché: Selling is the business of transferring your enthusiasm to another person.
Think about what it is that should make your book saleable and generate promotional material accordingly.
I’m talking here about what is usually called the USP, or unique selling proposition. You need to work out – from your own experience of writing the book and from what reviewers have said about it – what it is that should make someone buy your book rather than someone else’s. Then you need to incorporate that into your promotional material and your patter. What do I mean by patter? This:
Attend as many book signings, launches, literary festivals et cetera as you can get yourself invited to and work out in advance what you’re going to say to people who want to talk about your book.
When you’re at these functions, forget what a shy introverted person you are and go for it. Someone is walking past your table, looking at your books but not stopping? Pick up a bookmark and one of each of your flyers and press it into their hands, saying – for example – “You can never have too many bookmarks”. More than half of them will then stop and say something about one or more of the books you have on show. Tell them about the books – how you came to write them, what’s special about the characters, anything. After a while you’ll find you’ve developed a regular form of words that say what you want to say. This is your patter. You will find that experience changes the patter – the more you learn from people’s reactions, the better you will become. Never hesitate to change a flyer in the light of what you learn this way – if it’s important enough, change the blurb on the back of the book, too. Talk to everyone you can, and that includes other writers. At Indiefest 2015 I was on the next table to Clare Lydon. Her books are nothing like mine and straight old men like me are not her target market (we fail on all three of those words) but she is an engaging, likeable person with the confidence to present herself well and I learned quite a bit from watching and listening to her. (The day you think you’ve learned everything you ever will is the day I suggest you check into the old people’s home). And remember:
No-one else can sell your books as well as you can.
I was delighted by the number of sales I made at Indiefest 2015. I made almost none at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival. The only differences that I can see were: (a) my books at HULitFest were right in the corner behind others where it was difficult to see them and (b) we, the writers, were not standing behind our books and talking to the punters as we had at Indiefest – someone else was doing that for us. The difference that makes was clear when I had just finished speaking on a panel about historical fiction and a man who had been in the audience said, ‘I liked what you said. I’d like to buy one of your books. Which one do you recommend?’ So, do everything you can to make sure that you are the one making the sales pitch.
Carry your promotional material with you at all times and distribute it widely.
I gave an example of how I had used a bookmark and flyers in the A tedious, balls-aching journey Facebook post I mentioned earlier. Other people added to the same post wide-ranging examples of how they had done the same thing. I’ve given away bookmarks and flyers on trains and aircraft; in service station car parks; in restaurants and hotels and even on a park bench. (Never in bed, but I bet there’s someone in ALLi who can tell that story). For this to work, you have to be prepared to talk to people and I recommend “Do you read?” as a good introduction. If the answer is that they don’t, then you may as well find something else to talk about but if they do, say something along the lines of “Publishers don’t do this any more except for their biggest names so we have to do it ourselves” and hand over what you have with you. The shy may find it helpful to remind themselves that they are not actually selling their books when they do this – they are giving the person something. For example, the lady on the train was reading a book but had nothing to keep her place in it. My bookmark solved that problem – and she had a constant reminder of me and what I had written. People like meeting writers and talking about their work. All you have to do is let them know that you are one and to do that I’m afraid you really must initiate the conversation. After the first three or four times, it will come naturally. Trust me; I’m a salesman ;-).
Salespeople know that the person most likely to buy from them now is the person who bought from them before – even if the experience was not 100% good.
So what are you doing to capture your existing readers? When they finish one of your books, do they find the address of your website, a list of your other books and an invitation to subscribe to your newsletter? When you’re at a literary festival, do you have on the table with your books a form they can fill in in order to subscribe? (If you want advice on that, ask Clare Lydon – I watched her and she’s brilliant at it).
You build your customer base one name at a time – and that’s also how you lose them.
This is what I used to tell my salespeople and all you have to do is substitute the word “reader” for “customer”. Of course we all dream of the book launch that sells a million copies and makes us financially secure for life. Sadly, a dream is what it is. Building a reader base that will stay with us is a long drawn out affair – something we should expect to spend years on. Pay as much attention to that one reader who emails you, writes to you or stops you in the street as you would if you were addressing a hall of 1,000 people. S/he will notice if you don’t.
There’s a lot more I could say, but this blog post is already far too long and it’s time to give you, the reader, space to add your own comments. Fill your boots.
I think this, from JJ Marsh, is the most warming review I’ve ever received.
You can read more about the book here.
You can listen to the opening of Chapter 1 of Sharon Wright: Butterfly by clicking on the link above. This is the beginning of what will become an audio version of the book, but it should also help those who prefer paperback and e-book reads to decide whether this is a book for them. It’s read by Lucy Lowe, who makes a splendid fist of the South London accent – but she does much more than that.
At the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, I read an extract from the book that includes this exchange:
‘What did you mean,’ Buggy said, ‘about Carver being peculiar?’
Mitchell stared across the table. ‘You’re right. The man kills people for a living. Nothing strange about that. Just your loveable English eccentric.’
Carver is, of course, as mad as a hatter. He is a hired killer who believes that he is normal and everyone else is nuts. I wasn’t sure how successful I had been in showing that, but listening to Lucy’s reading it comes across loud and clear. I’m also delighted with the way Lucy gets into Sharon’s head – Sharon is another character who doesn’t fit with most people’s idea of “normal” but Lucy gets her perfectly.
I hope you enjoy the reading. You’ll find more about the book here.
Oh — and if you like downloads you can listen to, you’ll find here the first story I ever sold to the BBC.
The problem with memoirs by politicians and diplomats is that they are written by politicians and diplomats – people who throughout their professional lives have exercised such selectivity and economy with the truth that when you pick up the book you know you probably can’t believe a word in it. Juliet Miles is a diplomat’s wife and her approach is very different. Instead of seeking to set the record straight for posterity or settle old scores, she simply recounts what life was like in the countries to which her husband was posted. That was particularly interesting for me because I lived for three years in one of those countries (Libya) and I have spent (and still do spend) a great deal of time in another (Saudi Arabia). When you read what Juliet Miles has to say, you know that she is telling it exactly as she saw it and the insights into what went on behind the scenes are fascinating. Add to that that she has a sense of humour that informs the book from start to finish and you have a book that should be required reading for anyone with an interest in recent British history and foreign policy.
See more reviews of other people’s books here
A student at the American University in Amman asked if she could interview me as part of her course work. Of course I said yes – young women in the Middle East need all the help they can get (Etihad Airways emailed its customers in the run-up to International Women’s Day. The email had a lovely picture of a spa in which women could be pampered – no doubt while their menfolk got on with the serious business of running the world. I don’t think they’d quite grasped the purpose of International Women’s Day). Anyway, here’s the interview.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I’m a man, old enough to have been born during the Second World War, and British. As a child, all I wanted to do was travel and I’ve lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica. I put those things first because they have had a profound effect on who I turned out to be. My family gave me a respect for education. Most of them were coal miners and I was showered with books as soon as they realised I liked to read. The message was clear: work hard at school, learn as much as you can and you’ll never have to go down a mine. The one thing no miner wanted was for his son to go down the pit. I knew I was going to be a writer from the age of ten, when I stood on stage at my primary school and read a story I had written to the assembled pupils and their parents.
What books have you written?
The first book I published was 30 years ago: Managing The High Tech Salesforce. It’s out of print now. The books I have out at present are:
A Just and Upright Man, the first in the five-book James Blakiston series set in northeast England during the 1760s
Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
The International Sales Handbook
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
My writing will go in whatever direction it goes in. What I hope is that I will continue to write books that people want to read. But – let’s be frank – I’d like to see my books made into films.
Who or what is your inspiration?
There are so many. Writers build on those who have gone before and my influences include Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Julian Barnes, Hemingway and so many more. Cormac McCarthy taught me the value of a moral frame of reference and Elmore Leonard taught me to write simply. From TS Eliot and WH Auden, though of course they were poets and not novelists, I learned what value rhythm can add.
Have you ever used real life experiences in your book?
Yes. But please don’t ask what they were because I won’t tell you.
How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
12 in total, and I wish I hadn’t written some of them. My favourite is Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper because it says what I wanted to say about the importance of taking responsibility for yourself.
Give us an insight into your main character of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. What does he do that is so special?
Billy McErlane is born into an appalling family in the northeast of England – in fact, to an appalling mother because he never knows who his father is. Surrounded by temptation, he falls and in fact spends time in jail, but he knows there’s a better life out there and he works to win it for himself. I suppose you’d call it a coming of age novel. Billy has an IQ of 147, but it is his gift for photography (and the help of other people) that allows him to remake his life.
How did you come up with the title?
Oh, that was easy. When Billy is born his mother registers his name as Zappa McErlane which causes him all sorts of trouble as a child – his peers at school make up rhymes like “Zappa’s on the Crapper” and “Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper”. When he’s ten years old he changes his name to Billy.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes, and I’ve already touched on it, but it’s summed up best in an extract from the book. An American priest, the Reverend Humphrey Catalan, is talking to Billy about his past:
There was a cultural thing here. I’d been born with a few serious handicaps and, yes, I’d overcome them but there was still part of me that was ready to accept them as a crutch and what the Reverend Catalan wanted me to know was that that was not the American way. ‘Other people were dealt shittier hands than you, son, and some of them did okay. Come to that, a lot of people got much better cards than you did and some of them are in jail, or bankrupt, or dead. Or maybe a combination of those things. When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. And what about that maths teacher? What about Regus? He believed you when he didn’t have to. What about those teachers who gave up their time for you and didn’t charge a cent for it? Where do you get off holding grudges?’
It isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. That’s the message of the book.
What genre of books do you like to read? Do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself?
I read most things. Genres that I don’t and won’t read include erotica, books about vampires and the paranormal. Other than that I read anything that looks good – though I do have a weakness for detective fiction, as long as it deals with personalities and motivations and not with police procedures.
Who are your target readers?
Human beings. Yes, I know, that’s an easy out – but I want to get into a reader’s heart and I don’t care who s/he is.
What compels you to write?
I wish I knew; I’d do my best to get rid of it. I have to write. I can’t not write. And that’s been true since I was a young boy. I still spend a lot of my time travelling and I usually wake up at about four in the morning and start writing. Life would be easier without this compulsion, but what can you do?
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Getting inside the head of female characters is tough for me. When I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly I had to work very hard to understand what motivated her. I think that’s normal – I hear about women writers who write authentic male characters and male writers who do the reverse to perfection, but when I read what they write I find that I don’t agree.
Are you currently working on something new?
Poor Law, the second in the James Blakiston historical series, is due out in August and I’m working on the final revision right now. I’m 50,000 words into another novel – I’m superstitious about saying too much about it till it’s ready to go. And there’s a book called When the Darkness Comes which has occupied me on and off for five years; I simply don’t know when I’ll be satisfied with it.
Do you read much? And if so, who are your favourite authors?
I read in the evenings – two novels a week on average. I have a large number of writers whose work I love; right now anything by Charles Cumming, Julian Barnes, JJ Marsh or Margaret Atwood will get my undivided attention. I just read Unravelling Oliver by a new Irish writer, Liz Nugent, and it may turn out to be the best book I read this year. If you haven’t already discovered it I recommend it without reservation.
What is your favourite motivational phrase or quote?
P J O’Rourke: “The only inalienable human right is the right to do as you damn well please. And the only inalienable human obligation is to damn well take the consequences.”
Where can you see yourself in 5 years time?
Oh, Lord. There have been so many changes in my life I just can’t answer that. But, wherever it is, I’d like to be among friends. And I’d like to be smiling. I’ve told my family that I want my gravestone to read, “He had a lot of laughs”.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write. Write. Write. Follow your own star. Never give up.
Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
I know this is disgraceful, but I only watch television if there’s rugby on, and I only watch movies made by either the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen. So I just don’t know – I don’t see enough actors, male or female, to have a view.
Do you start with an idea and see where it leads you or do you plot out the complete book before you start?
The currently fashionable division is between planners and pantsters and I’m a pantster (I fly by the seat of my pants). I never know where the story is going till half of it is written. I’ve had some surprises, I can tell you.
How long does it take you to write a novel? Do you work for a set period each day?
Eighteen months. Yes – 4.00 a.m. till 12.00 a.m. if I’m at home; 4.00 a.m. till 7.00 a.m. if I’m on the road.
Most writers have some other thing they’re passionate about, what’s yours?
History. I’m fascinated by the way people lived, and how life was for them.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Not a sausage. The book went through five revisions and that’s enough.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Sometimes my heart ached for poor Billy and what he went through. And I wasn’t alone. An American reader emailed me to say, “You bastard, how could you do that? Hadn’t the poor kid suffered enough?” All through the last third of the book I was thinking about the reader and what I was thinking was, “You think you know where this is going. Don’t you? You think this is a standard boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back story. Don’t you? Boy, do you have a surprise coming”.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
That only a complete damn fool would be a writer :-). But I also honed my understanding of point of view, how to say what you want to say – and how to do it in the minimum possible number of words.