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John & Elvis by Matthew Langford

John and Elvis

I’ve been an Elvis fan since Heartbreak Hotel and a Beatles fan since Love Me Do. The number of books and articles I’ve read about both of them should probably embarrass me. You might think that I wouldn’t need to read any more, but John and Elvis by Matthew Langford takes a different approach and I recommend it to anyone interested in those times and those guys. What Langford has done that is different is to get inside the heads of both John Lennon and Elvis Presley in a way that makes you feel you understand why they did what they did in a way you hadn’t understood it before. I guess the best way of describing the book is that it’s a cross between a documentary and a novel – though a very fact-based novel.

It would be difficult to read this book without coming to the conclusion that Presley was as mad as a hatter and Lennon (to put it mildly) differently sane – but that’s probably inevitable when you reach that level of fame. Lennon pooh-poohs the very idea of religion but thinks it entirely rational to plan major life events on the basis of a study of numbers. Presley meets Ronald Reagan and finds himself wondering whether Soviet brainwashers have got at the President. (That’s right – Ronald Reagan. It would be difficult for most of us to imagine a less likely candidate).

When you get to the end of this book, you feel you’ve learned something about both Lennon and Presley that you didn’t know before. (You’ve also learned a few things about Paul McCartney, and a few others from that time). That doesn’t happen very often nowadays when you’re reading about people who have already been so thoroughly explored in print.

Strongly recommended.

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Where Are They? And why haven’t we found them yet? by Steven Lazaroff and Mark Rodger

This could be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

I bought this book because I had previously bought and enjoyed History’s Greatest Deceptions and Confidence Scams. That book wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough that I wanted to see what they’d written next. And I am so glad I did. Where Are They? shows what happens when writers gain confidence in what they are doing. This book soars to the heights – both in its subject matter and literally, as a masterpiece in conveying information.
The title comes from physicist Enrico Fermi who said, about theories that Earth should already have received extraterrestrial visitors and yet no convincing evidence of a visit existed, “Where is everybody?” The universe should be teeming with civilisations at one level of development or another – so where are they?
The book examines all the current theories that have been developed to answer this question. It takes no sides. It simply sets out the present state of knowledge. But it does so in the most brilliant, beautiful prose. So brilliant that I would recommend this book even to readers with no interest in the search for alien intelligence, simply because they will enjoy the limpid prose and the humour with which the arguments are presented.
Here is an example:

‘Imagine that you are in the same position as one of those alien astronauts being tapped up for a journey to Earth from the galaxy MACS0647-JD. It’s 13.3 billion light years away, so – if your civilisation has developed a form of transportation that will travel at the speed of light – the time spent on the journey is unimaginable. Would you want to do it? Leave the kids, your husband and your book club knowing that at the end of your journey you would encounter a civilisation a few hundred millennia less developed than yours? And that you couldn’t get home for nearly 27 billion years at the earliest, by which time your planet would in all possibility have come to the end of its life? And that, when you arrived on Earth, your body would have been renewed some eighty times, so you wouldn’t really still be you at all?’

Not a single prominent theory about the evolution of life forms has been left out. It’s also clear that the authors take a dim (they would probably say “realistic”) view of humanity’s fitness to receive visitors from another civilisation.
I’ll say it again: this could be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Do yourself the most amazing favour and READ IT.

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An Open Letter To The 20-Year-Old Faceless Girl On My Book Cover

As ever, Tara Sparling talks a lot of sense. The answer to the problem: take control of your own covers. Which you can only do by taking control of your own publishing. When I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly, I fell in love with Sharon. As I’ve said elsewhere, that would be a stupid thing to do, because Sharon woos the way a female mantis might — knowing that, when she’s done with him, the male may have to die. Scratting through pics of all sorts of women, I came on one that precisely embodied all the cunning, deceiving amorality I had put into this character — and that’s the pic that appears on the front of the book. God knows what a regular publisher’s marketing people would have done with the book — but I’m quite sure they wouldn’t have captured the true essence of Sharon.

Tara Sparling writes

Open Letter To The 20-Year-Old Faceless Girl On My Book Cover

I know it isn’t technically your fault. You didn’t ask to be there.

One day you’re just a working model standing on a beach, a clifftop, a bridge, or under a lamppost; the next, you’re blazing across bookshelves and bookshop windows, the cover girl of a bestseller.

I know you were just thinking to earn a few quid, getting your photograph taken whilst preserving your anonymity (because your job is to never face the camera, and girl, are you GOOD at that). You didn’t ask to be the Faceless Representative Of All Femininity. And yet, here you are.

Or rather there you are, your twenty-year-old legs firmly planted on the soil of whichever dreamy landscape was photoshopped around you. There you are, your twenty-year-old arms lithe and long, clutching that old-fashioned handbag, quaintly addressed letter, or hand of a small child. There you are, facing away from me, your slim and trim twenty-year-old body…

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I Stopped Time by Jane Davis

I stopped Time by Jane Davis

Jane Davis won the Daily Mail First Novel Award with Half-truths and White Lies. This is, I believe, her seventh book. For some reason, it’s ranked by Amazon under Historical Fiction (which it is) as Women’s Fiction – which it is not. There’s no shortage of female characters, but that doesn’t make a book into Women’s Fiction. The themes of this book will be, or certainly should be, of interest to anyone – male, female, or somewhere in between.

The book tells the story of Lottie Pye, who believes for the first 30 or so years of her life that she is an orphan, only to find that her mother is still alive. Her father too, probably, though she never learns who he was. It also tells the story of Lottie’s son James, who believes for the first 80 or so years of HIS life that he was abandoned by Lottie; the end of the book sees him making his own discovery.

On one level, it’s a satisfying unravelling of a complicated story. On another, it’s an exploration of what it is to be human. On whatever level you choose, it’s a perfectly written book in which the author never puts a foot wrong. As each mystery is solved, each question answered, and each piece of the jigsaw falls into place, you think, “Ah, yes. Of course. That’s what happened. That explains everything.”

I don’t like giving books five stars. I do it reluctantly, because five stars should mean, “This book is quite exceptional.” If I could avoid giving this one five stars, I would.

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Weep for the Syrian refugee children

My heart bleeds for the Syrian children Cameron has agreed to take into Britain. These children will be in the care of local authorities. They’ll be “in care,” and if there’s one thing that children in care rarely experience, it’s care.

When I wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, my hero, Billy, survived his time in care and went on to triumph. I wasn’t writing out of ignorance. There are successes among children who’ve been in care; some have been public figures and some you may know personally. For every success – for every Billy – there are hundreds failed by the system.

Don’t blame the social workers; social work departments are underfunded and understaffed, and they can’t win because they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That goes double for care homes. It wasn’t a social worker who showed Billy the way out – it rarely is. In his case, it was a teacher. I could (though I won’t) name the real-life teacher I based Miss Taggart on. As Billy himself says when someone fails to understand his background, ‘I was lucky. More lucky than you can ever imagine.’

In a few years time, I don’t doubt that we’ll hear a few – a very few – heart-warming stories about people who arrived here as child refugees and have made their mark in broadcasting or the arts or some other field. We’ll also, if we can be bothered to listen, hear about hundreds of others: the girls who are on the street and the boys who are doing drugs and thieving. Weep for them. They’ll have received an inadequate education which will have fitted them for no other form of life. Just like the innumerable products of care we have on the streets and in the prisons today.

If you imagine that many of these children are going to be adopted, you don’t (and I speak as the father of adopted children) know much about adoption in this country. If you think that, after the initial well-publicised burst of activity, the care system is going to be adapted to suit their needs you don’t know much about that, either.

It will end in tears, and the children will be the ones crying them. And what will we hear then from the virtue signallers and the self-promoters and the politicians? Nothing. Not a damn thing.

What do we mean by selling? (A post for writers, not salespeople)

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.

A memoir you can believe

The Ambassador's Wife's Tale

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.

ISBN: 978-1-903070-90-1

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Let’s hear it for the Paddies

My relationship with Ireland is not one of undiluted love. When I visited Macroom, the Cork town from which my ancestors left for England in the 1860s, my reaction was, ”Yes. Well. I understand why they left and I’m glad they did.” At one time in my sales career, I was responsible for a distributor in Ireland and I learned then some lessons about commercial integrity that stood me in good stead later in countries like Nigeria. I once got through the gates at Lansdowne Road only with the help of some Welsh boys who kept me upright after rather too much Guinness and I spent a happy time sliding up and down wooden benches polished by countless backsides like mine; I cannot forgive the authorities who replaced that wonderful ground with the Aviva Stadium which is simply one more international arena that could be anywhere in the world. Aherne’s in Youghal is one of the two or three finest seafood restaurants I have ever been in but when they placed me face-to-face with a huge poster of Brian O’Driscoll touching down one-handed (I’m not sure where his other hand was; stuck up his bum, probably) I’m quite sure it was intentional. My describing him as “the ageing princess of Irish rugby” caused a chill in Anglo-Irish relations that may not have thawed yet.
But all is forgiven. The Irish have voted to permit same-sex marriage. I had no stake in this game; in all my six decades I don’t believe I ever looked at another man with carnal or amatory interest. As for the politicking, my own politics – to the extent that I have them at all – are based on agreement with PJ O’Rourke (a fine Irish name if ever there was one): “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.”
What Ireland has done is to say to the world, “the way other people choose to live their lives is none of your damn business. Now bugger off.”
God bless them.