Friday, 24 February 2017

Death of a book salesperson

This week's blog post is about the business of selling books. It's quite depressing. If you're not interested in why over 99% of authors make no money out of writing, enjoy this photo of a ferret and then come back next week when we’ll be looking at something more fun.

This last week I have had to pay rather more attention than usual to the sordid details of sales figures. They did not make me happy.

There's no doubt that e-book's have dramatically transformed the way that publishing works. The rules have definitely changed. The problem is that nobody knows what the new rules are.

E-publishing has changed the way that writers write, but it has had even more effect on the way that books are sold. There are so many e-books that it has become impossible to browse even a fraction of them. So how do you make your book stand out and be seen?

The books that are most easily picked up are those which Amazon recommends or which appear near the top of Amazon's charts. The easiest way to get recommended is to sell an awful lot of books. So books that are near the top of the chart tend to sell better than others – but, of course, that's why they were near the top of the chart in the first place. But how to get there?

The easiest way to get a book into the charts is for it to be very like a book that has done really well already. Hence the plethora of series novels that you see on Amazon. Mine are no exception. Burke in the Land of Silver was followed by Burke and the Bedouin, followed by Burke at Waterloo. If you haven't got your own book in the charts already, the next best thing is for your first novel to be very similar to somebody else's. Hence the massive number of ‘me-too’ books about. One year it's vampires, then it's were-wolves. This year it’s damaged girls, preferably on some form of public transport.

There are problems with series books. For me, it's simply that in order to build on the success of my first bestseller, I have to start with a bestseller. Burke in the Land of Silver did get sold, read and (according to its reviews) enjoyed, but it didn't sell in the numbers required to top the charts. Burke and the Bedouin sold OK, but it certainly wasn’t able to ride the coattails of the first book. For those authors trying to ride the charts on the back of somebody else's bestseller, the problem is that if a particular kind of book becomes fashionable, everybody writes it. If you sit down now to write a book about a girl who breaks away from an unhappy relationship and is then driven to drink/murder/faking her own death, by the time you've finished it it will be one of several hundred books with remarkably similar outlines. Why should anybody read yours?

Well, why should they? One answer would be because it's free. Giving books away free on Amazon used to be a very popular way of trying to get visibility. The problem is that people build up huge stocks of books that they haven't paid for and which they never get around to reading. If they do read them, because they're the kind of people who like to read books but don't like to buy books, the odds are that they won't buy your next book when there are so many alternative free ones. Free books used to be seen as a valuable promotional tool, but they have fallen out of favour. My publisher, Accent, no longer uses them, claiming that they just do not work. I'm inclined to believe them.

You can advertise, of course. The thing is that a proper advertising campaign – even quite a small one – is expensive. My books are not unusual in that the e-books sell for between £1.99 and £2.99. You'd have to sell an awful lot of books for the profit to pay for a small poster campaign or one advertisement in a popular magazine. One way round this is to design a nice ad (Accent are good at this) and then put it on Twitter and post about it on Facebook. Hence the banner that appears at the top of my pages on Facebook and Twitter. Some people will even insert your cover into photos of street scenes so that it looks as if you have a real poster campaign but without the costs of buying all those poster sites.

In order for it to be seen on Facebook you either have to pay for it (and we’ve already established there is no budget) or you just post it on your wall. So posting on your author page it is. Unfortunately, in order to see this, people have to have already "liked" your page, so they're probably aware of you and of your books. The advert might have some effect, but it is probably very marginal.

What about Twitter? Maybe the answer is to tweet it and to get as many people as possible to re-tweet it.

The easiest way to persuade people to re-tweet your advertisement is to reciprocate by re-tweeting one of theirs. The result is many authors whose Twitter stream consists almost entirely of re-tweets of other writers’ advertising. This is, of course, spectacularly boring and their streams are therefore often read, I suspect, almost entirely by other authors desperately reciprocating away with their own re-tweets. If an actual customer wanders into the stream by mistake, they still won't see your advertisement, as it is now submerged in a welter of ads from every other writer your writing friends know.

So what to do? I write this blog. Besides posts like this, which I admit is likely to appeal to a rather specialist market, I write a lot about 19th-century history. I'm wondering whether to produce a short book based largely around posts that I have already written on Waterloo. I produce over 50,000 words a year, which is a good part of one of my novels and thousands of people read what I write. Presumably some of them find it enjoyable or useful but there is no evidence at all that my blogs sell any books.

I took myself to the middle of Wales, which is always a pleasure, and gave a talk about James Brooke, but there was no sign of any significant increase in sales of The White Rajah. I have been to a couple of book groups in the London area and this, I think, does improve sales, if only by selling copies to the people who are members of book group. I'm happy to do this again (you can contact me at It does lack potential as a mass-market tool, though.

Books are, of course, competing with all the various forms of electronic entertainment that vie for our limited leisure time. I have piles of books, both real and virtual, by people whose work I would really like to read, but which I haven't got round to yet. I know many other people are in the same situation. I even know friends who have bought my books but who simply haven't had time to read them yet. “I'm saving them for my holiday," is a fairly common refrain but, thanks to Kindle, even on holiday you have a whole library of books to choose from.

What's the answer? I really don't know. Self-publishing, recommended by many friends, has the advantage that you keep a higher proportion of the money your book makes and have more control over its sales. Because you are focused on just your titles you will probably give them more attention than a publisher who has a range of books to look after. But, on the other hand, you won't have the publisher’s experience and you presumably started writing because you enjoy writing, rather than because you wanted to become a bookseller.

You can concentrate on becoming famous. It's a fair bet that if I were on Big Brother or assassinated the Prime Minister or walked naked down Whitehall, some people would pick up my books out of curiosity. Tempting as some of these options are (particularly the second, if I'm honest), I don't think I'm going to go for them. What I do instead is to reveal rather more of myself than I'm particularly happy with here and on Twitter in the hope that you'll decide that I'm a nice person and be interested enough in me to read my work. Hence my posts about my Christmas holidays and my tango adventures. Some people make this work for them. Zoella famously became a bestselling author without actually writing a word herself simply because she is so attractive in her videos. I don't think it really works for me: I’m not nearly as pretty as Zoella and considerably less bubbly.

Over the next few weeks I will be thinking quite hard about the direction to go. If you enjoy reading my blog, now might be a good time to buy some of the books and convince me that it's worthwhile. If you don't have £2.99, you could at least write a comment to persuade me to continue with this.

I'll keep writing because, like most authors, I have an almost obsessive need to do so. How my writing is going to reach my readers, though, remains an open question.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Tango Fire

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I can get quite enthusiastic about Argentine tango. This week I went to see ‘Tango Fire’ at London’s Peacock Theatre and I thought I’d take the opportunity to chat about it, not least because if you live in London and dance tango the current conversational opener is “What did you think of ‘Tango Fire’?”

Quality tango shows (and this is definitely a quality tango show) cater for a very wide audience. There are those of us who know and love Argentine tango. There are Strictly fans, who want to see the same sort of showy tango (or, more often showy sort-of-vaguely-tangoish) dancing they see on Saturday night TV. There are people who might want to learn to dance themselves. And there are people who just want a good night out with beautiful women flashing their legs in spectacularly acrobatic poses.

The best tango shows have to cater for all of these audiences at once and ‘Tango Fire’ did about as good a job as you’re going to see. That hasn’t stopped friends of mine denouncing it as a Vegas style travesty of the dance and I'm sure that other people will have complained that it was not nearly flashy enough. The sets are simple, the lighting effects sophisticated rather than brash, and the concept almost minimalist. Five couples danced on a bare stage with a classic tango quartet playing behind them. It could so easily be a disaster, but the skill and commitment of the dancers and the range of the choreography (by German Cornejo) produced an evening that ended in a well-deserved standing ovation.

The performance starts with the sort of exhibition that you might see performed at tango clubs around the world, although you will be lucky if you see this standard of dance. Gradually, as the dancers work through a repertoire of traditional tango music, the kicks get higher, the speed gets faster and the moves get more and more outrageous, while still remaining true to the basics of traditional tango.

It helps that the company is made up of experienced tango dance couples. I have seen tango shows where the performers have come from other disciplines and learn the tango just for that show. However good they are as dancers, the lack of experience usually shows. (This is also part of the curse of Strictly.) Then, in some companies, dancers will move between partners during the evening, while here the fact that people were mainly dancing with their long-term partners meant that they danced with the intuitive understanding and connection that such relationships bring. That meant, too, that while the show was tightly choreographed, each couple was able to express their response to the music in their own styles. It went some way to dealing with the problem of stage tango, which is that the dance is essentially about improvisation and this is often difficult in the setting of a theatrical performance. Here I felt that I was watching couples expressing themselves in dance, rather than stepping mechanically through choreography that had been laid down for them, which can unfortunately sometimes be the case.

After the interval, the music changed to more modern tango with Piazzolla featuring prominently. For some reason Piazzolla seems to be out of fashion in London at the moment, so it was lovely to hear his music and see the dancers pushing the boundaries of tango. Sometimes the boundaries were less pushed than trampled over as numbers moved way beyond anything I have seen described as tango before. Still, you had to admire the astonishing athleticism shown as women were lifted above heads, thrown across shoulders and tossed down onto the ground in performances that were as much gymnastic display as dance. Yet the movements, however extravagant, were always smoothly executed and spot on the beat. Was it tango? Much of the time, it was not, and purists were duly horrified. But the first half clearly was tango and if we want to go a little wild (says the man who likes to dance his partner up and down any convenient staircase), why shouldn’t we? Not everyone in the audience accepts the authority of the Tango Police and Strictly fans paid for their tickets too.

There were legs, of course: lots and lots of unbelievably long legs, doing things that most people’s legs will never do. The women were shown off in a succession of stunning costumes. Yes, some of them probably crossed those boundaries again. A body stocking with a few tendrils of glittery green plant providing a minimal degree of modesty probably could have been rethought. And hot-pants raised a few eyebrows (though I’ve seen women dancing in very short shorts socially and the men they danced with never objected). We’re back to the fact that you have multiple audiences. There were (it seems a rule for tango shows) an astonishing number of costume changes catering for people who like yards of billowing fabric and for those who consider that the average erotic dancer is hideously over-dressed. Again, you must accept that the show has to appeal to everyone and that therefore not all of it will appeal to you. Let a thousand costume changes bloom, as Chairman Mao almost said.

The orchestra, in these things, can sometimes be a bit taken for granted. Here, though, they were astonishingly good and the audience loved the occasional breaks from the dancing when we just had the chance to listen to them. The musical arrangements allowed each performer the chance to shine, showing themselves as wonderful soloists as well as generous members of a quartet. The singer, though, did not appeal. Tango singers are not as other vocalists. The tradition of tango songs is built on loss: loss of place, loss of love or, as in the Piazzolla classic ‘Adios Nonino’, loss of a parent. The singer’s voice should convey experience and loss and, often, the influence of far too many cigarettes. In Argentina you may be told that to truly understand tango you must have suffered and Jesus Hidalgo has clearly not suffered enough. His boyish charm and beautifully modulated voice would have been great in another show but it was the most obvious weak point in this one.

Altogether, a brilliant evening, rounded off with the chance to dance in the bar. The lesson there may not have transformed respectable English couples into tangueros and tangueras in one evening, but I was impressed by the enthusiasm of both teachers and pupils and the progress made from a standing start. It’s a shame that there was no advice given on where people could go to learn more. Based on my own experience (other teachers – good, bad and indifferent – are also available) I recommend that people in London could try Bianca ( who can be demanding but who will really improve your dance, or Alex ( generally regarded as one of the nicest people on the London scene and a wonderful teacher.

Health warning: dancing tango can take over your entire life. You are at serious risk of having far too much fun, meeting lots of lovely people, learning Spanish and spending all your money on flights to Buenos Aires. Shows like ‘Tango Fire’ can be the first step on a pathway to addiction. Probably best to stay home with a nice cup of tea.

A word from our sponsor

Burke in the Land of Silver grew, in part, from my love of Buenos Aires, where most of the story takes place. But there is no tango in it at all, because in 1806, when the story is set, the tango had not yet been invented. It was an interesting time, though, with a British invasion in which a real-life James Burke played a significant role. If you're interested in the history of Argentina, or just want a good read with cunning spies, wanton women and a small war, give it a go.

Friday, 10 February 2017

A writer's life

It's been a busy time on the blog lately. The Christmas/New Year period always generates a lot of posts about books for Christmas presents, and reviews of the year past and thoughts of the year to come. Then there have been several overdue book reviews that I had promised to write and finally got around to.  One way and another, this is the first Friday morning for a long time when I have sat down with no idea at all what I'm going to write about.

I thought I would ramble on a bit about the realities of this writing business. Not that it's really a business. I used to be in business and, although there are other things that matter, in business the bottom line is quite important. In writing, not so much. It's brilliant that people can now get e-book's so cheaply, but it has produced a situation where there is much less value put on the written word and it is very rare indeed for anybody to make any money out of writing. I'm not complaining about this – nobody made me take up writing – but it is worth remembering  the economic realities when you think about how writers spend their time nowadays.

The sheer number of books means that it is very difficult for anybody's work to get noticed. The best advertisement for a book is another book by the same author. Every time I produce a new book about James Burke, for example, sales of other James Burke books lift. There is therefore pressure on all writers to produce more books as quickly as possible. This leads to the situation where it is easy to find yourself writing two books at the same time.

That's where I am now. I recently finished a new book about James Burke fighting in the Peninsular War. This was sent off to a couple of trusted people for comment. Meanwhile  I started to read up the background to the next James Burke book which is going to be set in Ireland. (Fortunately  many authors write Napoleonic War stories out of sequence. Otherwise it would be difficult to  imagine another Burke book  after  Burke at Waterloo.) Researching the English in Ireland has been  quite fascinating and rather depressing. It does not show them at their best. Still, after reading some 18th-century pamphlets and a couple of frankly rather dull biographies, I began to sketch out a plot and started writing to see if it was going to work. Ten thousand words in, I think  it may well make an interesting addition to the Burke canon, but at this point I got the Peninsular War story back from one of my readers. He'd been a while, but he had been very thorough indeed. He knows a lot about the Peninsular War: rather more than me. The upshot was that, though he was very positive about the book and said he liked it, he has pointed out some errors that will mean a significant bit of rewriting.

I'm therefore in the situation of simultaneously writing a book set in Ireland at the very beginning of Burke's career as a spy and another one featuring a much more worldly-wise and cynical Burke in Spain some years later. Keeping these two periods, places and plot-lines in my head at the same time is rather disconcerting,  but not at all unusual at this stage of the game. At least it's not as bad as when I was writing a book about John Williamson, set in the mid-19th century, at the same time as I was revising a book about Burke set in 1815. Just remembering the language they would be using, the clothes they would be wearing, and the social attitudes of the time and not muddling the two did create problems.

English torture in 18th century Ireland: pitchcapping

Besides trying to write two books the same time, I spend a while on Twitter. Whatever your views about Twitter (and I must admit to having doubts myself) it is very effective. I know that many people reading this blog will be here simply because they have followed a link from Twitter and I really like people reading this, so Twitter is a necessary evil.  Not always an evil either: last week, for the first time, I tried asking for help with a historical question on Twitter and, rather to my surprise, got some very useful answers. So there is more to Twitter than ranting about Donald Trump (or even ranting from Donald Trump).

I'm on Facebook too, although Facebook doesn't  demand constant updating in the way that Twitter does. Or at least, it doesn't the way that I use it. Some people suggest that you should be posting  to Facebook once or twice a day, but if you do follow my page you'll see that once or twice a week would be more accurate.

Then, of course, there's writing this blog. Some weeks are shorter and easier to write than others, but I generally produce around a thousand words and some of these words are even (I hope) intelligent and considered. It's fun, but it takes time (and –  that point about business again –  contributes  not at all to my diminishing bank account).

This week I've also been talking to the organisers of a historical festival about maybe being one of their speakers. I've done this before and it's huge fun, as well as being  quite gratifying to the ego. You can be sure that I will be blogging a lot about it if and when it's confirmed.

So that's how I've been spending my time. I keep being told that people want to hear about authors' writing lives, so now you know the sad truth. All right: I'm not dwelling on the Spider Solitaire or the time spent looking out of the window or the hours that vanished down Internet wormholes when I just wanted to check how people ate oysters in 1794. Still, this does give you a taste, however expurgated, of the writer's life. If it hasn't put you off writing, it probably should have.

Have a lovely weekend.

The inevitable plug

Another thing about being a writer is that you are increasingly expected to sell your own books. Yes, I know you thought that's what publishers were for, but life has changed. Everybody tells me that I should make sure to urge you to buy a book every time you visit this blog. This week's recommendation, given that I mentioned it in the post, is Burke at Waterloo.

In 1814, the war with France seemed to be over. Paris was an occupied city. Bonapartist loyalists, though, were planning the assassination of Wellington. Burke was sent to thwart them. He hunts the assassin from Paris to Brussels but then Napoleon escapes from Elba and everything changes.

Caught up in the preparations for a new war, Burke's hunt seems suddenly unimportant but then the assassin  strikes again. Burke's mission and the war against Napoleon come together in a dramatic climax at the battle of Waterloo.

Burke at Waterloo is available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback. Click on the cover to be taken to the Amazon site for your country.

Friday, 3 February 2017


I've just had notification of my payment for Public Lending Right (PLR). For American readers (and UK readers that are not that interested in this sort of thing), PLR is a payment that is made every time one of your books is borrowed from a public library. It's a very small sum per loan but most of my books are sold on Kindle and, after Amazon and my publisher have taken their share, I get only a very small sum per copy sold. (What do you expect when you can buy them for £2.99 or less?) So it turns out that my PLR payment is worth having. It represents about 0.01% of the minimum wage for the time spent writing, but it is an acknowledgement that people have been reading my books and, hopefully, enjoying them. It means a lot to me. So, if you are one of those people who have borrowed any of my books from a UK public library, thank you.

Many libraries now lend e-books. If you live in London you should be able to get The White Rajah free online. You'll need to join your local library, if you aren't already a member, but that will be free and does bring other benefits, like being able to borrow all the rest of the books. The London Libraries Consortium may be lending out other books of mine – have a look and see. (Some boroughs – including mine – are on different systems.)

Of course, people can only borrow my books if they are available in their libraries. Most libraries have a simple system for requesting new purchases. How it works will vary from library to library, but it doesn't usually take long. Why not ask them to buy one of my books? If you are asked for details, like the ISBN number, the quickest way to find these is to look for the details on Amazon. If you click any of the book covers on the right of this page, it will take you to the Amazon page for that book.

Getting my books – or any books from less well-known authors – into public libraries is a very good way of getting them seen by far more people. And, it turns out, it's a good way of enabling a starving author to buy a crust of bread (or, in a good month, a whole loaf). On the whole it's a good thing that costs you nothing and takes remarkably little effort. Could you do this for me and, perhaps, for one other lesser-known writer you've enjoyed lately?

The unashamed sales pitch

I post on this blog about once a week. Occasionally, as today, I write something that might directly get people to buy (or, in this case, borrow) my books. More often I am writing stuff about history or reviewing other historical novels. Lots of people read the blog every week, but rather fewer buy the books. As I've just mentioned, all of my books are available on Kindle for £2.99 or less. If you enjoy the blog, you might even enjoy the books. I would be very grateful if you would click on the links and buy one.

Thank you.