So I went to Fantasycon

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It seemed a good idea at the time, so I signed up for a table at Fantasycon, it’d give me a chance to sell my books etc.

Finally the great day came, I loaded the car and drove the four hours it takes me to get to Scarborough, arriving in time to grab one of the last cheap car-parking places. So far so good.

I grabbed something to eat, then signed in, was escorted by red-shirts to my table on dealer alley and started to, quite literally, set out my stall.

 

So the con itself?

Well run, there was always plenty on. At times as we lounged at our tables on dealer alley it was a bit like being back at school. At the turn of the hour you’d see everybody pour out of one workshop or interview and scurry down the corridor to the next, clutching bundles of books, notes, freebees and suchlike as they went.

Watching from the semi-detached position of a dealer, it was obvious that there was a lot going on and there was plenty for people to enjoy. To be honest, from the dealers’ point of view, a couple of periods of tedium, relieved by retail therapy, could have been useful, but I’m not sure that’s a suggestion that would meet with much widespread enthusiastic acceptance.

By Saturday afternoon people were starting to flag. We were on the balcony and at one point I looked over to the entrance hall below to see arm chairs filled with dozing convention goers.

One small sadness for me, I saw very few cosplayers.

But as evening arrived everybody seemed to get their second wind. I was unchained from my table and unleashed on the convention. One nice thing about this event is that dealers were welcomed into the events. I’ve been to some where a dealer badge allows you to your table and that is it. But I had a chance to attend a number of fascinating interviews and readings during the evenings.

I also gave a poetry reading. Now whilst I am not a poet, I took some of the verses penned by Tallis Steelyard and read them. They were politely received by a courteous audience.

I had also been booked down to do a reading from one of my books. Given that this reading was at 11pm, I was a bit worried about whether there would be anybody else present, and if present whether they’d be both awake and sober.

Fortunately I was sharing the slot with Kit Power. If anybody doesn’t know Kit, check him out on his horror column at http://www.gingernutsofhorror.com/my-life-in-horror.html

 

He read a cracking story which is available in the anthology ‘Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers.’ https://www.amazon.co.uk/Easter-Eggs-Bunny-Boilers-Anthology-ebook/dp/B01AMSYLUO/

 

Free on kindle so if you’re into horror get it now.

Anyway Kit is much better organised than I am and fetched with him enough sober and wide awake people to pass as a respectably sized audience. Our readings went well, nobody threw anything, and we all enjoyed ourselves.

Sunday, exhausted, I packed up my stall at 1pm as dealer alley closed for the last time and loaded everything into the car for the long trip home.

 

A good weekend, met a heap of nice people, sold a decent number of books and had a lot of fun. I recommend the experience.

Sorting the monkeys at your circus, all for a Werther’s Original.

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You know what it’s like, I’d just go for a walk, nothing special, just round and about. But it meant that I somehow misplaced so much time chatting to people that I had to change my route which in turn led me into chatting to another couple of people. And one of the interesting things about being a churchwarden is the questions people ask you.

OK so some of it is technical stuff about when the sheep are going back into the churchyard to keep the grass down. But a lot of it is far deeper than that.

We had a couple of funerals. An elderly couple, the husband died and the day after the funeral they found the widow dead. It was sad, they’d no family, their son had died years ago and the husband had already been buried with him. They had good friends and kind neighbours but they’d lived for each other for over sixty years and she didn’t want to go on. They found her drowned in the dock.

So then it’s her funeral. If anything she got more people than her husband, and it was tough because they felt guilty. It’s that nagging question, “What could I have done?” Frankly they couldn’t really have done any more; her community had supported her as much as they could without trespassing on her dignity and independence.

And then at the end of funeral somebody comes up to me and asks if she’ll go to heaven, what with suicide and stuff.

So I just looked at him and explained gently, “I’m sorry, I’m just the churchwarden, you really want to speak to him at the front, he decides these things.”

“Oh, you mean the Vicar?”

“No, I mean the chap nailed to a cross on the stained glass windows. He’s the one who decides that sort of thing; it’s above my pay grade.”

 

And then today I get asked whether I approve of Gay marriage in church! I’m sitting on a roadside bench dressed in my working clothes with wellies and flat cap. Now it might be that this is the standard garb of the working theologian, in which case it’s an obvious mistake to make.

So we discussed the matter. I explained that various denominations had had a problem with ordaining women. I coped with this by just listened to him at the front. He said, and I briefly paraphrase, “A good tree can’t bear bad fruit. And a bad tree can’t bear good fruit…………You can tell each tree by its fruit.”

So I just watched those women I knew in the ministry and looked at what came of it. Well it was pretty obvious that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing so I wasn’t going to get in the way. Same with gay clergy, it’s just the case of having the humility to shut up and watch what’s going on.

Well the chap I was talking to seemed to think that this was sensible, but didn’t cover gay marriage.

So I asked him what he was, what summed him up? He thought a bit and said, “I think I’m a walker.” He looked to the lady who was with him for confirmation and she agreed.

So I said, “So you don’t define yourself by your heterosexuality?”

I’m afraid that for me, the first question to a wedding couple should be ‘who are you, what sums you up?” I’d hope that they would answer that they’re Christians, rather than telling me their sexuality.

You see, if they’re Christians, part of the Church, part of the community, known for the work they do and the help they give, then it’s obvious that they’ll want to marry in their parish church and I think that the parish, knowing them and loving and respecting them for what they do, will want them to be there.

But if they’re just a couple who want a pretty building so that they get ‘better’ wedding photos, why on earth are they bothering with a wedding service where they make vows in the sight of a God they don’t show any signs of believing in?

 

Anyway I think the couple liked the argument, the lady gave me a Werther’s Original

The advertisers are now the ones in charge?

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Rule one, “He (she or it) who pays the piper calls the tune.’

There are other rules which you might want to keep in mind.

Rule two, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

Rule three, “Pay peanuts, hire monkeys.”

 

These are all simple, while tried, maxims which have stood the test of time and are bitter and cynical enough to survive even into the internet age.

But it’s the internet age that is now showing how, deep down, these three rules still count.

As well as my time consuming professions of farming, writing books and suchlike, (all guaranteed not to put too much strain on my amateur status) I also do freelance journalism.

And here again we’re seeing a field of endeavour evolve in front of our eyes. When I first sent copy to magazines, I typed it using a typewriter, double spaced, and kept a carbon copy for myself. The good copy I put in an envelope and posted it, courtesy of the Royal Mail, to the editor.

Then we had fax, which probably wasn’t a particularly big advance.

Then we got word-processors and email.

Now the editor is the important person, the editor is the one who decides what is wanted, so as a freelance, you aim to write stuff in a style that the editor will like. He or she is the customer (editors are rarely ‘it’) and your job is to keep the customer satisfied. From the publisher’s point of view the editor should know their readers and ensure that the periodical is optimised to appeal to those readers, but that’s their problem. For the freelance it’s the editor who commissions, it’s the editor who decides.

Anyway over a similar period, magazines and newspapers got caught up with technology and went onto the web. The web is fabulous, provided you don’t want to get paid. Some stuff goes behind a pay-wall and I suspect a lot of people are like me, if google leads me to an article behind a pay-wall, I just go back to google and take the next suggestion that doesn’t.

But for magazines the web offers a possible future. You get rid of two big costs, printing and distribution. So you can make your product cheaper and still make the same money. But how do you collect the money?

If the reader isn’t willing to pay who do you turn to? Well a lot of print magazines and newspapers have relied on advertisers for many years. Some have entirely relied on advertisers, giving their paper away free. OK the reader gets a free paper but editors get remarkably nervous about upsetting advertisers and the editor can find his advertising department giving him a timetable showing what sort of articles they need to go with the adverts they hope to get. Even if the advertiser doesn’t realise it, doesn’t want it and would be horrified by the prospect, the advertiser can be dictating the content.

And now I’ve come across another model. Rather than having your readers come to the webpage where the advertiser can tell how many visitors click on their stuff, you post the periodical out attached to an email. You then tell the advertiser that you’ve sent it out to 10,000 (or however many) people. You’re telling the truth and the advertiser hasn’t a clue how many of them read it.

But along with this I’ve known publishers decide that, actually, there are plenty of people out there who will write stuff for nothing, so rather than employ professionals, you just need an editor who will tidy up the free stuff (often press-releases issued by companies you hope will advertise) and frantically rewrite stuff found in blog posts and other strange corners of the web so it’s not easily traceable. This is a lot cheaper than actually paying people for independently produced content.

Now the reader might not like this, but unfortunately the reader is largely irrelevant, because the editor isn’t putting together a magazine to please readers and get more of them to buy, the editor is putting together a magazine to please advertisers and to convince them that their advertising budget is well spent.

And because they’re the ones paying, one can only assume that advertisers will get the publications they want.

Getting the most from Twitter with an underwear model

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One constant problem for authors trying to promote their books is to work out what is effective. You have only so much time in which to write, promote your work, and to live whatever passes as your normal life. This time has to be managed properly to get the most out of it.

So how does Twitter fit within your timetable?

I have no hard figures, but I’ve put together some observations which I can back with some numbers. Firstly Twitter is not some magic wand. Just having more people seeing tweets about your book doesn’t necessarily increase your chance of selling.

A couple of years back, purely by chance, one of my books managed to trigger some sort of ‘bot-alert’ and was picked up by five people who tweeted to their followers to buy it. Checking up on those five people they were all Americans, and if their photographs were anything to go by, they were people my late Mother might have described as ‘underwear models.’ Interspersed amongst their tweets about their lives, things they’d heard etc were tweets suggesting their followers might find a particular thing worth buying on Amazon. Anybody clicking on the link and buying would of course buy through an Amazon affiliate link.

Over a period of a couple of days my book was tweeted a couple of times to 250,000 people in the USA. In that week and the week that followed I sold one book in the USA. Sheer volume of followers is meaningless.

Over the last few years I’ve come across a number of businesses who claim to help you promote your book. This they do by tweeting about it to their many followers, claimed to be enthusiastic readers.

I’ve never used their services but I’ve monitored their effectiveness by watching the books they’re promoting on Twitter. Each book on Amazon that has any sales has an ‘Amazon Bestsellers Rank’. Crudely put, when somebody buys a copy the book goes up in Rank, (say from 300,000 to 200,000) and when nobody is buying copies the book slips slowly back down the ranking again. So I watched the Amazon Bestsellers Rank of books these companies were promoting, and used my own books as a control. Frankly their much vaunted Twitter promotion had no meaningful effect, the books being promoted slipped slowly down the rankings at the same speed as mine did when I wasn’t promoting.

Then look at your own Twitter page, examine your followers carefully. One thing Twitter does is suggest people who appear to be similar to you and who it suggests you might like to follow. Unfortunately for aspiring authors with books to promote, the people Twitter most commonly suggests appear to be aspiring authors with books to promote. Whilst writers do read, my experience is that writing eats into their reading time and they’re hardly the best market.

 

So how do you promote on Twitter?

I have talked to a number of people who have no interest in promoting books but who have vibrant Twitter pages and up to a thousand followers.

  • The first thing they do is post almost constantly. During every waking hour they’ll send at least one tweet, something funny, witty, or at least something that is interesting. Effectively they almost live on the phone, checking it regularly. Given that I only ever access my Twitter account on this desktop machine, by the time I think to look at it, an endless stream of babble has scrolled past since the last time I looked at it. Fourteen tweets I’ve not looked at since I started this article.
  • The second thing these people do is to ostentatiously not sell things. One commented that when she did send out a couple of tweets about a friend’s new book, she lost two hundred followers. We might have joined Twitter to sell, but very few people join Twitter to be sold to.

 

So how do we do it then?

Like all social media, you can only get out of it what you put into it. You have to create a community around you that you can talk to. But you’ve got to listen and respond to people who respond to your tweets.

 

  • Do the simple things first. If you have a blog or a Facebook page you can set up the systems to that they automatically post to Twitter whenever you post anything on them. Hopefully this allows you to get interesting content out there and people are drawn to you. All without having to waste time doing something.

 

  • Live on your phone. If something happens, somebody says something, tweet it. I wouldn’t recommend you sink to the level of tweeting photographs of your meals, unless there is something newsworthy about them, but if the barista cracked a joke as they served you coffee, tweet it. The aim is to get people following and enjoying your tweets. Then when you slip in one along the lines of, “Really chuffed, got a new review for my latest book” with an Amazon link, it’s a natural thing.

 

  • Respond to your followers. Engage them in banter. If one of your followers says something witty, profound, or newsworthy, like it and retweet it. Don’t be afraid of promoting somebody else. It helps people realise you’re not some self-absorbed ego-manic, but a real person who is happy to help somebody else.

 

All this can be done without knowing anything about the mystery that is hashtags, taking part in wider discussions and getting involved in the trending debates. I openly confess to being in two minds about these. Yes posting a tweet in a discussion which ten or twenty thousand people are following might get you some more followers who fall under the enchantment of your wit. On the other hand it could get you involved in a flame-war or lose you some of your existing followers who never realised that you were a misguided idiot who held bizarre opinions on the EU referendum.

 

Finally, remember people follow you because it’s fun. They have fun reading your posts. Ideally you will have fun posting your posts. You’re trying to create an atmosphere where these people think of you as fun and interesting and might well feel that your books could also be fun and interesting. If you’re not enjoying doing it, frankly, don’t do it. Life is too short.

The Essential Thai Holiday Guide

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Obviously I frequent strange and exotic places. It comes with the territory. Not everybody has dangled their feet in the foaming waters of the Clogger Beck, or watched the tide scour the bank away at Plumpton. But there you are. Some of us have it and some of us don’t.

Still, I was walking home and there, in the middle of nowhere, lying at the edge of the road, where the tarmac meets the grass verge, was ‘The Essential Thai Holiday Guide.’ I confess to being a little bemused. Round here people throw many things out of their cars. McDonald’s drinks cups, Kentucky Fried Chicken packs, pizza cases, pregnant cats, garden waste, builders rubble, and in one case, a full three piece suite just dumped in our lane.

Note when I say dumped in our lane, I mean exactly that. The lane is the width of a car and somebody had opened the back, dragged the three piece suite out and just left it, abandoned, blocking the road.

But this is the first holiday guide that I remember. Indeed I fell to pondering on the matter. Had somebody travelled here with their holiday guide, and finally realised that they weren’t in Thailand and hurled the guide out of the car window in frustration?
It’s an easy mistake to make; Barrow in Furness has so many things in common with Thailand, beautiful beaches, gloriously hot summers, lady-boy bars and beautiful, slim and exotic women. We even have boats pulled up on the beaches!

But why do you carry a guide to Thailand in your car? And why do you just finally sling it out of the window into the road?

And now it lies there, a parable in dead tree form. A metaphor for life, it initially held out almost infinite promise. But slowly and surely battered by life, the inexorable decay brought on by pounding wheels and driving rain it has moved slowly and surely from glorious dream to paper-mache road kill.

The fate of the small publisher.

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The problem with the revolution in publishing is that many more people can become publishers, but should they?

 

The question that we have to ask is what can small publishers offer? We now have the technology that allows any author to produce an e-book and sell it through Amazon. With a little more technical know-how this can be extended to the rest of the electronic formats. With only slightly more know-how the author can organise print on demand and sell their own paperbacks.

So what is the publisher for?

Firstly some authors do want handholding through these technical bits so there is still a job to do there, but it is now very much a subsidiary one. Production also includes such things as editing, proof reading and providing covers. These services can be very expensive if done properly. It is a matter of some contention whether these costs should be carried by writer or publisher.

The second and most important job is selling the book. This involves such things as organising publicity, getting word out there, getting it in shops and in front of the reader.

There are two problems with this; one is that in the world as we know it, in all candour, nobody really knows the infallible route to success. (This includes Amazon and the big name publishing houses who are as in the dark as the rest of us.) Indeed, for all the endless stream of websites offering to pimp your book for you, it’s probably still true that word of mouth is the best seller. The other problem for the publisher is that in spite of what the author might hope, most publishers realise that the author has to do a lot of the work. The best the publisher can probably do is guide them so that they do the work in the areas where they get the best return on their efforts, and also perhaps open doors so the author can strut and fret their hour upon the stage to new and more influential audiences.

The downside of this is that all this costs money. You cannot publish a book for free and it’s probable that ninety percent of books most small publishers publish will lose them money.
Hence the small publisher is really somebody with a proper job that pays the rent, (and subsidises the business.) Some people do up old houses as a way of reducing themselves to exhausted penury, but running a small publishing business will probably achieve the same effect for less physical effort.

Obviously there is the hope that the small publisher will discover a writer whose sales put the company back in the black and help fund all those hopefuls who haven’t yet made it. This appears to be one of the popular ‘business models.’ I use the phrase ‘business model’ because it’s a little more flattering than the more accurate ‘delusion.’ The main problem with the model is the successful writer. No sooner do they become successful and prove they can sell books than a bigger company comes along, offers them money, and whisks them away from you. The small publisher is effectively left with the writers none of the bigger companies want.

 

Is there any way round this?

Specialist nonfiction might be a way forward. You’ve got a product which is easier to market, and the target audience is better known.

Another option would be to build on top of an existing enterprise. Somebody who has been successfully publishing roleplaying games could be able to sell fiction relevant to the games to the buyers of the games. Again, you’re selling to a target market who you know. Games Workshop with their associated ‘Black Library’ is perhaps one of the most successful versions of this.

 

There are probably other successful business models out there. But what you must remember is that whilst writing books can be anything from an art form to a type of therapy, publishing them has to be a business, because if the bills cannot be paid, the publisher cannot exist.

A short trip to Strasbourg

EU parliament buildings

Must be well over twenty years ago now, might be twenty-five. I was sitting in a meeting (well actually I was probably chairing it, which is how I stayed awake) when one committee member suggested we have a trip to Strasbourg to the European Parliament.

There wasn’t a lot of interest until he explained it would be expenses paid. At this point we all perked up. He was a member of one of our three main political parties, and explained that the EU had a fund which paid out for EU citizens to visit the EU parliament. He pointed out that in our constituency (as in all the others he knew about) the three parties tended to ensure that they send a fair number of their members on this jamboree every year. He’d been twice.

So he contacted the appropriate EU office, sorted the paperwork and a bus load of us, members of a farmers’ training group with no political affiliation whatsoever, went on a jaunt. Actually I didn’t go, my lady wife gets horribly travel sick on buses and somebody had to stay at home to milk, so I sent my parents instead. Luxury coach from South Cumbria to Strasbourg and back, three nights in decent hotels, and when they arrived at the Parliament building they got their expenses paid to them in cash. It was a fixed rate and I think that by the time they got home, their trip had cost them about a tenner apiece; the EU had picked up the rest of the bill.

 

Now it seems other member states used this scheme a lot. Many used the EU money to ensure that every school child got to visit the European Parliament and have everything explained to them. They felt it helped make them feel part of the European Community. In this country it seemed to be largely hogged as a perk for party members.

Now I don’t know whether the EU still funds this stuff, but it did strike me that if our MPs want to think of reasons why the people of much of England and Wales felt that they got nothing out of the EU, that it was remote and meant nothing to them, then a fair proportion of the blame for that falls at their own door.