Sunday, 7 October 2012

How I came to self-publish an eBook

A few years ago it occurred to me that no-one had used the idea of someone travelling back in time in order to attempt to kill Hitler as the basis for a novel. I thought this rather surprising as it seemed like such an obvious idea and one which, if done well, could easily capture people’s imagination and do well commercially. I stored the idea away in my brain and kept it to myself.
Over the following couple of years I would occasionally give the idea further thought, and I began to see possible reasons for the non-existence of such a novel; it could involve a massive amount of research, for example, and also there were so many different directions in which the story could potentially go, it could be difficult to keep control of it. However, eventually I began to see a way in which the story could work and avoid some of these difficulties – but at this point I had still not convinced myself to commit to the task of actually writing the damn thing.
I’ve been writing songs for many years and I think I eventually got quite good at it but, although when I was at school I had written some short stories which seemed to impress the teacher, I was really quite in awe of novelists. I’ve been working in bookshops for the last few years though, and often I would pick up a bestseller, read the first couple of pages, and put it back down with disgust, thinking, “I could do better than that!” By the time of August 2010, my job was driving me mad (although this was for other reasons than the quality of the books we sold!), I was rapidly approaching 40, and I worked out I had enough savings not to work for six months or so. These savings had been dwindling anyway on a bookseller’s wages so, feeling that this may be the last time I would have a chance to do something rash, I handed my notice in and, four weeks later, I was jobless.
Putting myself in such a situation provided good motivation for writing the book, as did the fact that I told everyone what I was doing (although I refused to tell anyone what it was about). I was damned if I was going to spend six months watching daytime TV and make excuses at the end of it – I would get this book written if it killed me!
I had little more than a title, The Assassination Of Adolf Hitler, and what might be called the “arc” of the story when I began. I forced myself to write a thousand words a day. On a good day this would take me an hour and a half, an average day three hours, and a bad day five or six hours or more. On the whole, I was pretty good at achieving my daily goal, but there were days when other commitments made it impossible to find the time, or when I became stuck on a certain point and had to go to the British Library to do some research.
After about three months, I’d reached the end of the story and had written around 66, 000 words. This would have made a rather short novel, but I was not finished yet. I began to go back through the book and add a little flesh to the bones. Certain parts needed some elaboration, and there was still more research to be done in order to make the story convincing enough for the reader to suspend their disbelief. I took a couple of quick trips abroad as parts of the novel were set in places I had never been. This proved to be worthwhile and certainly prevented me making what could have been some embarrassing mistakes. Another three months after I’d come to the end of the story and had constantly been over it again and again and again, rewriting probably every sentence at least once, some of them probably twenty times, I finally felt I had a finished piece of work (which came in at around 81, 000 words).
I gave the manuscript to a friend of mine whose judgement I trusted and waited for the verdict. A week later we met up and he gave me plenty of feedback, both negative and positive. He made some good points and I did some more rewriting. The book got longer again and when I was finished it had reached 86, 000 words – around the average length for a novel.
I began to submit it to agents. I decided that I would only send it those who accepted email submissions. There were two reasons for this: one was that, yes, it was easier for me; the other reason was that I could see no reason why a literary agent in this day and age should prefer to be sent a pile of paper. Such agencies, I thought, must be stuck in the past – which is surely not what you would want from an agent. This approach may have been a mistake; perhaps a lot of other budding authors had used the same reasoning, and my chances may have been better if I had have sent the book to those who still preferred paper. Anyway, I tried about ten or eleven agents, but received only a standard rejection letter from each. Some of them took three months to reply; one of them rejected me within 24 hours! Apparently, it’s very bad etiquette to submit to lots of agents at the same time – supposedly they talk to each other and get annoyed about this. So I submitted to three at a time and let each of them know that I was submitting to a couple of others as well.
Finding that it had taken months and months of waiting just to receive around ten standard rejections, I began to think seriously about self-publishing the novel as an eBook. Perhaps I should have been more persistent – after all, Kathryn Stockett was apparently rejected by 61 agents before she found a taker for The Help, one of the biggest selling books of recent years. However, given the nature of the story, I was worried that someone else might get in there first – shortly after I had finished writing the book, there had been a Doctor Who episode called Let’s Kill Hitler and a Stephen King novel about someone travelling back in time in order to prevent the assassination of Kennedy. So partly for this reason, I did not feel I could afford to wait years trying to find a publisher.
I had heard about some authors finding considerable success from self-publishing eBooks, but I don’t know whether these are one-off flukes, whether these authors were somehow very good at tapping into the public consciousness, or whether they were just good at doing self-promotion (and perhaps being a bit sneaky with it). Anyway, this is the road I have now gone down.
I got my friend Frances Barry to design a cover for the book. Frankie, as I know her, has had a number of charming books for young children published, so may not seem an obvious candidate for this particular job, but when I saw her cover design for a CD by a band called Milk Kan, it was clear to me that she was not just good at drawing cute ducks.
I decided to use a company called BookBaby to distribute the book; of course, this cost me a little bit of money, but it probably saved me considerable faffing about. Perhaps it was not necessary, as it seems easy to publish directly on Amazon, which is where the vast majority of eBook purchases are made. But I did want my book to be available to those who own a Nook or Kobo as well. Originally I wanted to make the book available for free for a limited time, but it seems that Amazon only allow you to do this if you publish directly with them. So I’ve made it as cheap as possible (77p!) to start off with, although I intend to put the price up a bit once I’ve received some good reviews. As an unknown author, though, I still feel that I should keep the price fairly low, so I don’t think I’ll make it more than £2.99.
When the book went on sale, I texted, emailed and Facebooked just about everyone I know, and I must say that the response has been great. Even people who have not got a Kindle have been buying it and reading it on their computers or their phones. Apparently, it will be 45 – 60 days before I get any actual sales figures, so all I have to go on for now is the Amazon sales ranking. The highest I saw this figure go to was about 4, 000 the weekend it went on sale and I was emailing everyone about it. Since then I’ve seen it slip it down to around 65, 000, but when I checked today it stood at about 29, 000. These figures do not sound very impressive and I doubt whether, at the moment, the book has reached many people outside my circle of friends. Whether it will eventually do so or not I have absolutely no idea, but those who have read or are reading it do genuinely seem to be enjoying it.
Of course, what I’m really hoping is that the book will take off on a large scale and publishers will come beating down my door, enabling me to give up the day job and write full time. But I also know that it’s a very crowded marketplace out there and my chances are probably slim. It won’t matter how good my book is if no-one knows about it and, while I might be willing to spend a bit of money on advertising, I cannot afford to throw money away on dubious schemes which may or may not work.
As for the book itself, I think it has its flaws but I did the best job I could with it and, for the most part, greatly enjoyed writing it. It’s unapologetically my attempt to write a bestseller rather than a literary masterpiece. My main goal was to keep the reader hooked – although I think I have managed to sneak in some history, some food for thought, and maybe even a little art, I hope that this has never been at the expense of the story.
If any of this has piqued your interest, you can read the beginning of the book for free and maybe even buy it here:

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sergeant Buzfuz (record review)

Sergeant Buzfuz

Go To The Devil And Shake Yourself


This fifth CD by London antifolkers Sergeant Buzfuz is one that leader Joe Murphy has been promising (or threatening) for some time - a concept album consisting entirely of songs about the history of the popes! Those who dislike organised religion should not worry, though - the stance here is iconoclastic throughout and largely concerned with exposing the hypocrisy of the Catholic church. A typical lyric is "Anacletus II liked to rape nuns / His sister was the mother of some of his sons." Some will no doubt assume that Mr Murphy was rapped over the knuckles too much as a child at Catholic school, and that this project is some kind of self-indulgent attempt at revenge. However, as I understand it, it's more a case of the songwriter being inspired by reading about the history of the popes and finding enough juicy stuff in it for, well, a whole album of songs.
     The first two songs here have already appeared on previous Buzfuz albums, albeit in slightly different versions, and the record features an enormous amount of words, especially in the first half. Fortunately, just when this threatens to become exhausting, the second half (or "Side 2: The Schism") changes the tone of the album with songs which are less wordy and let in some welcome space, allowing the music to breathe. The band have clearly realised the danger of all this becoming tedious and have worked hard to ensure that a great deal of musical inventiveness and versatility is on display to keep the listener engaged. The second half also moves away from the folkier sound of the earlier songs to achieve a sparser effect with more emphasis on electric guitar and bass - a fondness for The Fall making itself felt, for example, on the catchily-titled "Gregory XII vs Benedict XIII".
     An impressive array of instruments are heard throughout, including mandolin, violin, cello, hammered dulcimer and the appropriately Gallic accordion on stand-out track "Sur Le Pontiff D'Avignon". The record is also often surprisingly uptempo, notably on the closing title track.
Joe Murphy the songwriter has not made things terribly easy for Joe Murphy the singer on this collection but, although not blessed with a pretty voice or vast vocal range, I think he acquits himself very well here - his voice has character, authority and enough tunefulness to see you through.
     The subject matter may be sure to get a few eyes rolling heavenwards but, personally, I find it refreshing to hear a songwriter pushing the envelope in this way as, although there's nothing wrong with songs about girls and cars, there are quite a few of them already, and there has, when you think about it, been a notable lack of songs about popes until now. All in all, an impressive achievement all round - great cover painting by Brian Mackenzie too.

Martin Dowsing

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Ledfoot (record review)


Gothic Blues Volume One


Tim Scott McConell has been around. Originally from Florida, he's been a member of several bands over the years, signed to major labels and supported big name acts such as Bob Dylan. He's even had a song covered by Bruce Springsteen. Now resident in Norway, in recent years he's been forging a solo career under the moniker of Ledfoot and building a reputation in intimate venues such as London's 12 Bar Club, where I was lucky enough to catch him last year. It was one of those rare occasions when the entire audience becomes aware that they are witnessing something very special - in this case, a truly captivating performance by a charismatic individual equally proficient as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. That night, we all felt as if we'd been let in on a well-kept secret - and one which, surely, could not be kept for very long. With his long white hair, mascara'd eyes, silver jewellery and countless tattoos, Ledfoot had the look of a genuine rock 'n' roll survivor - and one who had probably come close to becoming a rock 'n' roll casualty on more than one occasion.

    The aptly named Gothic Blues Volume One is an entirely solo affair recorded over a few hours with no overdubbing. It's easy to see why Ledfoot is going it alone these days - his twelve-string slide guitar work has such a full and atmospheric sound that a band would only get in the way. Notable themes to be found in the thirteen songs featured here include disillusionment, imprisonment, self-destruction, the imminence of death and the futility of religion. There's no redemption for the characters who inhabit this world - just endless days of hard times and struggle as they stumble from one bad relationship or dead end job to another, with only the frequent benders in between to relieve the frustration. Despite the darkness of Ledfoot's vision, however, the record is, somehow, never a depressing listen, but instead feels somewhat cathartic. The stand-out track for me is probably "How You Lose Your Innocence", mainly for its simultaneously catchy and haunting melody, but the quality is remarkably consistent throughout and there's not a weak track to be found. Album closer "Wicked State Of Mind" features what may well be the record's most passionate performance, and one that's sure to send a shiver up the spine as he sings "look into my eyes, you'll see they're as cold as ice".
    I have two minor quibbles with this disc, and neither involve the music; firstly, it would have been nice if someone had proof-read the CD booklet, which is full of mistakes, and secondly, the volume comes up rather low in comparison to most CDs these days - surely this could have been addressed during the mastering. However, this is still a spellbinding collection of first rate songs, and one can only hope that Ledfoot finally begins to receive the recognition he so clearly deserves. Roll on volume two!

Martin Dowsing

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Gus Garcia (record review)

Gus Garcia

 Brazilian Gus Garcia has been resident in London for a few years now, and put out an excellent three-tracker, Many Hiding Places, back in 2009. This follow-up took some time for an EP but it was worth the wait - the results show real progress and it's obvious that Gus and his co-producer Dan Cox have worked hard to ensure that this eclectic collection of five songs sounds as good as possible.
     There is little discernible Brazilian influence in this music - British rock and pop from both the sixties and the later Britpop era seem to have played a greater part in the development of this particular artist. Having said that, this EP is no mere homage as Gus has delivered a convincing and individual work of artistic depth and maturity.
     Opener "Clocks and Crocodiles" is a charming, upbeat affair, although the theme of disillusionment - which seems to run throughout the songs here - breaks through as he sings "whistling for the land I do not come from, it's such a struggle, much more than I hoped", suggesting that life as an expat has not always been easy. The next track, "Rhythm", is a slightly manic pop number which gives Gus a chance to show off his impressive vocal range on the choruses, not that he ever sounds like he's showing off - indeed, his voice is both confident and, for the most part, easy on the ear in the best way. Although his voice does not betray his origins, it still manages to sound like him rather than an impersonation of an Englishman. "Two For One" contrasts effectively with the previous song, being a slow ballad picked out on an acoustic guitar until the electric guitar and drums finally come crashing in over half-way thrrough. The drawn-out melody on this song does not always display Gus's voice to its best advantage, but it features some nice lyrical imagery as the narrator ponders the tales he has heard about a place "where worries are just blackbirds in the night", but remains sceptical as he's "no fool no more". The fourth song here, "Medieval", is also the title track, and it's no wonder that it's been chosen as the centrepiece - this is a monster track by any standards, a superb arrangement with a strong melody, big drum sound and an unforgettable guitar lick. Always an enigmatic lyricist, one doubts whether anyone other than Gus will ever work out what this song's about, but when it sounds this good, who cares? The EP closes with "The Sailor", an echoey, atmospheric piano-led number about a sailor having to abandon his love and return to the sea. As another complete contrast to all the previous songs, it makes for a fitting end to a collection from an artist who is hard to pin down but never fails to intrigue, surprise and come up with a damn good tune. ( )

Martin Dowsing

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Castle Of The Living Dead (1964) DVD Review

Just after the Napoleonic wars, a troupe of travelling players accept an invitation to perform at the castle of Count Drago - a sinister nobleman who has allowed his embalming hobby to get somewhat out of hand...
Another recent release from Odeon Entertainment, this turns out to be surprisingly good in many ways and should be a real treat for vintage horror fans. The black-and-white photography, art direction, locations and musical score are all splendidly atmospheric. Donald Sutherland makes an intriguing film debut in two roles - he plays both a police sergeant and an old witch straight out of Macbeth who even speaks in rhyming couplets! Christopher Lee as Drago (with goatee and dark circles around his eyes) is his usual imposing presence. The script has some nice touches but misses an obvious opportunity to make Drago a more complex, interesting character. The film was shot in Italy with all of the dialogue dubbed on later; it has to be said that the dubbing is not terribly well done and also features a peculiar mixture of accents. The good news is that the film has been digitally remastered for this release and presented in its original aspect ratio. The cover has Michael Reeves (of Witchfinder General fame) prominently credited as Second Unit Director, which seems a little desperate. The only extra is the original trailer.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Mr District Attorney (1941) DVD review

This DVD is a recent release from Odeon Entertainment, and a rather surprising one at that; the film is obscure and largely forgotten - and, indeed, probably only really of interest to diehard Peter Lorre fans like myself. It's a light and zippy affair clocking in at a mere 68 minutes, and leans far more towards comedy than the crime drama or even noir that some may expect. Having said that, the film is never dull and there is plenty of snappy dialogue (one character is described as being "colder than a penguin's beak", for example). The mostly second-rate cast do rather well, the direction is always competent if seldom inspired, and there's even quite a good car-chase climax. Peter Lorre is hardly stretched and there's not enough of him, but he has one memorably menacing scene which he underplays nicely. All in all, worth a look for those who enjoy Hollywood films of this vintage, and the print quality on this DVD is excellent... shame about the depiction of the hotel clerk, though - a cringeworthy racial stereotype unfortunately typical of this period. The DVD has no extra features.