Monday, 29 April 2013

How to find a good book.

According to Nielsen, 149,800 new titles were published in the UK in 2011. Goodreads, who were presenting at the London Book Fair, said that the USA saw 350,000 new titles in the same year.

How on earth do my titles get found in all that mass of the good, the bad and the indifferent?

The answer, according to Goodreads, is online reviews. 39% of books are now sold online. When readers come to choose a book, word of mouth is obviously very important. Beyond that, though, they are largely driven by the online reviews. Everyone has heard of the success of 50 Shades of Grey. It's far from the best of the books of its kind, but it did generate a lot of interest online. Reviews draw attention to a book. More reviews means that the book is more likely to feature high on Amazon's list of recommendations. Reviews get you read.

To get the sort of momentum that started Fifty Shades rolling, you want 200 or more reviews. But even 20 or 30 reviews will make a big difference.

If everyone who had told me that they will post reviews of my books had done so, I would easily have 20 or 30 reviews. It would make a difference.

I can understand why people don't post reviews. It's something that they haven't done before and it takes time out from their day. They're not sure how to do it. In the end, though, it's easy and quite fun. Plus, my experience is that if you get into the habit of writing reviews you will find yourself being sent free books so that you can review them as well. I've come across some interesting authors in this way and some good work that I would not otherwise have seen.

If you have ever bought anything from Amazon, you will have an Amazon account. All you have to do is to log in to your account, go to the book you want to review and scroll down the page until you get to the "Customer Reviews" section. At the top of that there is a large friendly button that says, "Write a customer review” or “Create your own review”. Click on it. Rate the book (I know – the star system is horrible, but 5* books get read). Write the review in the box and click "Preview your review”. You will need to click this – you can't post a review without previewing it. Then click on ‘Publish Review’ and there you are! Everyone’s a critic.

If you really have no idea what to say, I've posted examples of the sort of comments I've had on my books HERE and HERE.

You can post the same review on Goodreads. You’ll need to join (it’s free), but that’s worth it as Goodreads offers a lot of help in choosing books. For some reason, there are usually more reviews on Goodreads and the quality of reviews is, I think, better than those you’ll see on Amazon.

Please review my books and other books you read that aren't getting massive promotional support in WH Smiths and Waterstones. A very few books get serious promotion. The rest are relying on word-of-mouth and, increasingly, that means online reviews. Give the authors a break. If you like them, tell everyone.

Monday, 22 April 2013

London Book Fair

Last week I went to the London Book Fair. It was my first visit, and it's certainly a spectacular event. It takes up the whole of Earls Court, which is a pretty big building. It's packed with booksellers, publishers, ancillary businesses, even somebody selling reading lights. There's lots of free gifts and hospitality and a general buzz about the place. It's all rather surprising because, corralled in a corner with the other authors, the impression I had was that the publishing industry is in a mess with no one having any real idea what the next year or two holds.

One thing that seems pretty certain is that you're going to find more and more writers producing blogs like this. No one is quite sure how blogs work but authors are now expected to market their own books and social media are definitely an important part of their marketing effort. Or, as one speaker put it, "A necessary evil.” So I guess I'll be turning this out, more or less once a week, for the foreseeable future. It's a good thing I enjoy writing blog posts, as they seem to take time that could otherwise be spent writing books. Still, it's all worthwhile, so long as my blog readers go out and buy my novels. You do buy my novels, don't you?

I'm obviously a complete beginner at this whole blogging thing. According to the same speaker, I should be aiming to have 3,000 Facebook followers. Even allowing that people following the blog are presumably more significant than people following Facebook, I think I have a way to go to build on the fourteen followers the blog has. With over 1,000 pageviews a month I obviously have more than fourteen readers (unless some of you are spending far too much time rereading my stuff). If you are a regular reader, it might be worth joining the site. (Click the blue button towards the bottom of the column on the right of the page.) This may make your life marginally more convenient and apparently will encourage Random House to pick up my next book for a six-figure advance.

In reality, of course, Random House will not be giving me a six-figure advance, even in the unlikely event of their buying my book. Publishers are apparently responding to the changes in market by reserving advances for books they know will sell, which means books by authors who have sold already (good news for Dan Brown fans) and for celebrities who may not be able to write at all but whose books will attract a more or less guaranteed readership from their fan base. And, if debut authors do get an advance, they are increasingly expected to spend some of it on doing marketing that used to be done by the publishers. Hence increasing numbers of writers are deciding that, if they don't get money or sales support from their publishers, they might as well do it themselves. This is one of the factors driving the massive growth in self-publishing. (Note that I'm not self-published. JMS Books is an independent publisher – a sort of half-way house between traditional publishers and self-publishing.) Self-publishing brings its own problems, though. The charming lady who suggested that she could promote my book for £2,000 was honest enough to point out that she was unable to guarantee any boost to sales at all. I shouldn't, she said, pay her the money unless I was prepared to write the whole amount off with no tangible benefit. In the fine tradition of the News of the World, I made my excuses and left.

What conclusions can you draw from all this?

I think it's safe to say that the next few years will see more and more authors producing more and more books. The total number of books that people read will go up, but (thanks to the incredible cheapness of e-books) the amount that is spent will likely decline. The average sales books make, except for a handful of heavily promoted titles, will be tiny. I was told that any book selling over a hundred copies these days should be viewed as a success. Only a tiny proportion (3%, if I recall correctly) will sell more than a thousand copies.

Part of the reason why so many books will have such low readership is that many of them are appallingly badly written. I do the odd bit of reviewing and quite a high proportion of the books I'm sent I do not review as, "This book is barely literate and should be avoided like the plague," is not really a terribly helpful thing to say. Unfortunately, as you trawl through the millions of books available online, separating the wheat from the chaff is becoming increasingly difficult. In theory, this is one of the things that mainstream publishers can do. The fact that a book is published by Penguin or Macmillan should mean that it meets at least a basic quality level. However, when a leading publisher produces a celebrity autobiography by a woman who proudly claims never to have read a book in her life, you have to wonder what quality standards are being imposed. Whether or not you like mummy porn, there is no serious doubt that there are better examples out there than 50 Shades Of Grey, but that hasn't stopped Random House paying E L James a seven figure advance. I think it is fair to say that you will still be on your own trying to find the good stuff in 2014.

Given that mainstream publishers are viewed with increasing suspicion by their authors and offer no quality guarantees to their readers, it's a pretty fair bet that their market is due a major shakeup. We've already seen two of the biggest houses – Random House and Penguin – merging and we can expect to see most second-tier publishers either merging or going under. The winner, of course, will be Amazon. Its infernal star rating system and all those reader reviews provide at least some sort of guidance when you come to choose a book. (Some people might have preferred GoodReads, but since Amazon bought GoodReads, it's likely that the one major challenger to Amazon as an arbiter of reader taste will soon be toeing the party line.) Amazon are moving into publishing themselves and it's a fair bet that most of the recommendations that will pop up when you log into the site will soon be books that they have a direct interest in. This doesn't make them bad people. Amazon have been ahead of the game for a while. Seeing a slot between the new world of digital self-publishing and the old school mainstream behemoths, they are moving into grab it with a single-minded ruthlessness which I can't help but admire. On the other hand, a world in which Amazon is the only significant commercial publisher is likely, in the long-term, to be good news for neither writers nor readers.

It's going to be a tough old world out there. Writers will carry on writing and you, dear reader, will, I hope, carry on buying their books. And an agent expressed the faintest glimmer of interest in something I'd done. So, despite the gloom, we’ll soldier on. People have been telling stories since the dawn of time. I guess we'll probably still be telling them come the London Book Fair 2014.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013


March has been a very strange month. For most people, this would be a reference to the weather – colder than January and the coldest since whenever. But I was thinking more about what has been happening on my blog.

Readership of the blog has been rising fairly steadily for a while and hit a record in February. But in March there was a massive increase in page hits, which cleared over 1,000 for the month. I'm a bit sceptical about Blogger’s figures and this number must include quite a lot of robots and things like some of my own page views, even though it's not supposed to record those. But it certainly does seem that the blog is becoming much more popular. The thing is, I have absolutely no idea why. I do get some comments here, but not many, so I'm really flying blind when it comes to guessing what attracts people to read it.

March posts included some stuff about contemporary events in Borneo, and a series of posts about S A Meade and her novel ‘Lord of Endersley’. There was an item about the Army Museum and the new exhibit relating to Cawnpore and a mention of Public LendingRight. There was also one post about my own novel, because, after all, generating interest in my books is supposed to be what the blog is about.

The posts about Borneo do seem to have generated quite a bit of interest, although that can't explain all of my increased readership, because there were no posts on that in February, even though the upward trend seems to have started then. What we had in February, purely as a piece of self-indulgence, was a series of articles about dancing tango in Buenos Aires. I'm delighted that people enjoyed these, but a bit surprised at how popular they seem to have been. Perhaps I should write a book about tango.

Whatever is encouraging you to read this, I'm glad you're here. I hope you continue to enjoy it. If you write something in the comments, I'd be grateful, and it makes it easier for me to write the sort of things you want to see.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013


The war in Borneo seems to be coming to an end, with the Borneo Post reporting today that all of Sabah is in the hands of the security forces and denying claims that a further hundred armed intruders have entered the state. Military activity is continuing, though, with security forces holding 32 people captured in the waters off the island. Firearms, knives and axes were seized.

There remains surprisingly little coverage of all this in the Western press. At least the Daily Mail has noticed that some of the indigenous people of Borneo are getting a raw deal and have covered the legal steps the Penan people are taking to recover their own land from the loggers.

The main problem that indigenous peoples in Borneo used to face was from logging companies, but now palm oil plantations pose an even greater threat to the people and fauna. (If any of you saw the recent BBC TV programme with Terry Pratchett in Borneo, you'll know what I mean.) A video that my Borneon friend sent me suggests that the levels of corruption that surrounds land sales means that there is little that people can do to resist deforestation. It's worth watching.

James Brooke thought the Dyaks romantic, representing the Noble Savage, beloved of many 19th century thinkers. He wanted to see them protected from a Malay governing class that exploited them and failed to protect them.

My book, The White Rajah, tries to show the moral ambiguity of European rule in the Far East. For me, the position of people like Brooke was ambiguous. Terrible things were done under his rule, but he did offer protection to the Dyaks that was lost when the Brooke Dynasty came to an end. We can reasonably ask who is going to protect them now?

Thursday, 4 April 2013

I'm dreaming of a white Easter

I usually spend Easter in Wales and last year I posted a photo of lambs there, which people seemed to like. It seemed appropriate, as Easter marks the coming of Spring and seeing the lambs in the fields at this time of year brings promise of a new year and Summer to come.

This year's photo was taken only two or three miles away from where those lambs were feeding last year. The fields, needless to say, were pretty well empty.

It's been a funny old year so far. Fingers crossed that things get back to normal soon.