More fun with numbers

Everybody loves a sequel, right? Terminator 2, Airplane 2, Dogma 2  (just in case Kevin Smith is out there reading this...). Back in 2015 I wrote a blog post that generated a bit of a debate with fellow writers - but no comments! - and it's time for a follow-up.

Since June 2015 two books has become four / five and I have a bit more experience of the other side of writing - namely, the marketing and promotions that accompanies publication. 

Perhaps it's no surprise that many writers and other creatives embrace the idea of magical thinking. Once you've faced a blank canvas or page and subsequently produced a piece of work that you only half recognise as your own, it's small wonder that you become open to alternative ways to viewing reality. It can manifest as superstitions, such as the lucky notebook or pen. Those with experience of NLP might consider this a form of anchor. I'll declare here that I have a special pen for contracts, but not one for getting them! Anyway, my point here is that I'm not against magical thinking if it serves as a motivation to do something. 

When it comes to reaching readers, which naturally encompasses sales as well, magical thinking can quickly dissipate in the harsh glare of numbers. The idea that 'if you build it they will come' is just that: an idea. The question is, what do you do if they fail to show up?

Most writers are looking for a magical formula that promises certainty and success, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Ah hah, they say, but I have a plan! And it's true, some writers will buck the trend and catch the wave at the perfect moment. After all, some has to win the draw for the lottery. Sean Platt, Johnny B Truant and David Wright have a more pragmatic approach: Write. Publish. Repeat.

I decided to experiment with my back catalogue. First up was Covenant, a magical fantasy that earned a clutch of good reviews but had never found a wider audience. Which is to say, it has never made any money! I found a Book Tweeting service online, which sends out 30 tweets a month from each of four accounts, with a reach of over 195,000 follows on Twitter. I confirmed they had covered fantasy novels before and, naturally, accepted that there were no guarantees. The tweets used quotes from the blurb I provided or key words, along with the all important title and sales link.

I opted for a trial month and then I'd look at the numbers for the following couple of months. Total sales for the month and tweets and the two months that followed? Zero. Nada. Zip. Ouch!

Next up in my back catalogue adventure was the collection of mini ebooks - themed collections of 100 or so gags. They're already priced as low as you can go (apart from free), so I thought I'd try something different. I would offer them for free, use TweetDeck to run my own short Twitter campaign, and pitch them as review copies to get some online feedback. 

The good news: 84 free downloads across the set.
The not so good news, and I have a feeling you're ahead of me here: zero reviews.

Here's what I take away from this:

1. Organic promotions are only effective if you already have - or are part of - an active community. Treat your readers with respect though and never forget that they are giving you their valuable time and some cash too.

2. If you decide to pay for marketing / promotions research thoroughly and invest in quality.
My experiences suggest that you do indeed get what you paid for.

3. Experiment. It's all a game of trial and review and adjustment. 

4. None of the above should interfere with the writing. After all, that's what writers do.

Thanks for your time.

Shadow State - using the force

Even if you don't believe in destiny you probably accept the word of Sir Isaac Newton. His 'three laws', unlike Isaac Asimov's (now that's what I call a literary reference), underpin not only our understanding of physics, but also of daily life and writing.

The First Law states that:
a) An object at rest remains at rest unless a force acts upon it.
b) An object in motion stays that way - same direction and speed - unless a force acts upon it.

Simply put, in fiction something has to happen in order for something to change, whether the outcome is progressive or regressive. You could argue that every twist and turn in a novel is really a Newtonian force zinging into the protagonist from an unanticipated angle.

I'm more of a plotter than a pantser when it comes to putting together a story, but I welcome an unexpected inspiration that careers towards me and knocks a character out of the picture or into it. Shadow State, the fourth book in the Thomas Bladen 'Spy Chaser' series owes a debt to Newton. I thought I had the plot figured out and my characters were moving purposefully towards the checkpoints on my writing roadmap. (I know, it makes writing sounds really romantic, huh?) 

And then...out the corner of my mind's eye, this speck of light, this flicker of 'what if' from the muse slammed into my carefully constructed plot. Okay, carefully might be overstating it a bit. But the result was surprising. A character did something unexpected and I had a choice of whether to run with it and see where it led, or to rein them in and remind them that it was my ball and therefore my rules. I went with Plan A, trusting the character I thought I'd created - we can debate that one on a chair and couch some other time - and ended up somewhere else. It was different to my original vision and I liked it. Writers like to be surprised. It keeps us on our toes and it's a great reminder that we are engaging with a fluid and mimetic imagination. 

You could say that Shadow State is something of an experiment in places. It features many characters from the series and a couple of new ones. It redraws the map in places, as far as loyalties go, and it peels back the layers a little more of the characters we think we know. It plays with some of the conventions and, I hope, it adds something special to the canon.

If you're drawn to British spy thrillers that give a nod to Len Deighton, John le Carre, Raymond Chandler, and Harlan Coben, Shadow State might be just your cup of coffee. Intrigue, action, sardonic humour and swearing - what's not to like?

Thomas Bladen thinks he is in control. He's wrong. When Thomas is confronted by a Shadow State operative, he is given a stark choice - expose a defector or face the consequences. But who is the real enemy? A stake out becomes a rescue, an intervention leads to murder and loyalties are stretched to breaking point. Soon Thomas is forced into a dangerous game, turning the Shadow State against itself. 

"Good spy thriller with a appealing flawed hero in Bladen. Liked the London life evoked!"

Shadow State is published by Joffe Books. Come and meet Thomas Bladen.



The Information Game

Even before I became an emerging author (that middle ground between no longer debut and nowhere near established!) I thought it sensible to turn a well-worn adage, 'write about what you know', on its head. Far better, in my opinion, to say: 'know what you're writing about'.

That usually means one of two things:

1.     Direct research.
2.     Indirect research by plundering your own experience, and sometimes other people's.

While the novelist Leigh Russell made a trip to the Seychelles for her novel, Journey to Death, my research tales are of a more bargain basement variety!

For my debut espionage thriller, Standpoint, I wanted to know about Harwich International Port. Unfortunately, I went at it with some gusto and my enthusiastic request to see detailed maps and to know about the locations and practices of Customs staff probably had me pegged as an inept smuggler. Perhaps I should be grateful that I never received a reply, especially one that involved the removal of my front door. I did, however, pick up a useful police contact.

When it came to writing the sequel, Line of Sight, I found useful information on and for matters relating to mob and job. I also drew upon memories and anecdotes from brief stints working in Belfast, and those of a friend who'd served in the Armed Forces out there.

By book three, Cause & Effect, I must have got better at asking questions. Plus, I now had a little credibility from the previous two novels. In my explorations I inadvertently found out something about baggage scanners that I'm not allowed to reveal, a bank provided information about bankcard fraud - on the condition that I don't name them, and someone from the Ministry of Justice referred me to the excellent for a question about prison procedures in 2004. Sadly, my query involving aerosol spray paints drew a blank so I fell back on my imagination. It seems there are some things that even the Internet can't tell us.

In almost all of the above cases the information I acquired (or failed to) was largely for my own benefit. Very little of it made the cut and I've yet to have a review that picks me up on my research (not so with the British slang, swearing, sex, violence, etc.). One thing I did learn, which still surprises me, is that I already knew several people with firearms experience.

A sprinkling of facts, at the right time and in the right manner, adds to the realism of a fictional world and encourages that suspension of disbelief we're always hearing about. Readers want characters and books that live on in their head after the final page, and we want them to want to return to the worlds we create.

Next time I might take a gander at international politics and US intelligence policy in post-war Europe.

About me
I have written three Thomas Bladen espionage thrillers, published by Joffe Books in one volume as Spy Chaser and also available separately - Standpoint, Line of Sight, and Cause & Effect. Shadow State, the fourth book in the series, is due out later this year. You can find details of all my books here.

13/11/2016 - Shadow State is now available on Amazon!
Amazon US