Tuesday, 25 October 2011

John Harding's Guest Post: 'The Apprentice', W.H. Auden and Me

Last week I posted my review of John Harding's novel Florence and Giles - and with Hallowe'en fast approaching, nothing more suitable for reading at dark o' night!

Here, as promised, is John's guest-post for Literascribe, a cogent, thoughtful and spirited exploration of the strictures and challenges of author 'branding': enjoy!

The Apprentice, W.H. Auden and Me

At first glance there doesn't seem to be anything to link the poet W.H. Auden and the reality TV show The Apprentice but there is and it's me. Leaving aside Auden for the moment, let's talk about The Apprentice which, as anyone who's ever seen it will know, isn't anything to do with learning a trade or making something, but all about selling. And the key to success there, as Lord Sugar hammers home every series, is not the product itself, but its branding. Branding means creating an individual identity for a product that the consumer will instantly recognise, be attracted to, and buy. It's the thing that makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd on the supermarket shelf.

These days of course books are sold in the same way as baked beans (although Waterstone's has just - somewhat belatedly - realised that selling three very different books by different authors isn't quite the same as selling three perfectly identical packs of washing powder). And in confirmation of this, read any of the growing number of books about how to market your novel and they all talk about the brand. As the author, the brand is you.

Play the branding name association game. Say Heinz and you think of baked beans; say P.D. James and it's crime; Stephen King and horror: Joanna Trollope and Aga saga; John Harding and ...? This is my problem. Even if you've heard of me, even if you've read all of my published books, you won't be able to fill in the blanks. I don't have a brand.

The reason is that I've written four very different books that are difficult to find a common slot for. I've had two publishers and both have been frustrated by this and I sympathise. It makes me difficult to market in an age when everything is pigeonholed, where there's so much out there that you get lost if you don't have a niche.

Increasingly publishers rely on the brand to sell the book. They're reluctant to spend money on advertising, with some justification. It's rarely cost effective. The only one of my books to have any advertising recorded my lowest sales. Marketing strategy seems to be left with two prongs. In my experience in-store promotion is the most vital. It's the main way the reading public is going to be made aware of your book. Publishers will always tell the author, 'We think this is a book we think will sell by word of mouth', but for the elusive word of mouth to happen some people have to see it and read it first, so they can talk about it and spread the word. If the book isn't prominently in the shops, this doesn't happen.

My current publisher didn't manage to get Florence and Giles into the shops in any great numbers. Smiths took 300 between their 600 shops, and it was only in 100 of the 300 or so Waterstone's stores, and then not very prominently. Even if this isn't the case and the book gets into shops, it's extremely difficult to establish a title in the public's mind, as publishers now believe books have such a short shelf life, typically three weeks to three months. After that all but the bestsellers disappear from view. By the time your first readers have actually got round to reading the book and telling their friends about it, it's no longer in the stores. Word of mouth is silenced before it begins.

One publisher I was speaking to recently questioned the wisdom of this, especially in the digital age, reckoning that these days new books have a much longer shelf life - he reckoned it at 18 months rather than three - even if they're not actually on bookstore shelves. And you can see the wisdom of this point of view. Some of the bestselling books on Amazon Kindle recently have been books that came out not last month or even last year but several years ago. There's a new equalising process happening on Amazon, where age matters much less than quality.

Talk to any author who's not a major seller these days and they will tell you the same. Publishers do virtually nothing in the way of promotion - the only thing I can think of mine doing with Florence and Giles was sending out copies wrapped in black paper with a wax seal (it's literary Gothic thriller) to a few celebrities and bookshops, with predictable results - and increasingly the task of selling the book is left to the author, who may be a good writer, but is not necessarily a good salesman.

If an author is clued up about Internet book sites - by which I guess I really mean Amazon - and has a Kindle (every author should these days) and is a consumer rather than just a salesman, he or she may know more about how things work than the publisher, who is often too busy to engage at this level. So it was that I suggested to my publisher than they lower the ebook price of Florence and Giles to 99p. On Amazon it's the publisher who fixes the selling price of ebooks. The point was that at nearly the same price as the paperback it was selling virtually nothing on Kindle. As a Kindle reader myself I understood that it goes against the grain for readers to pay the same price for a virtual book as for one that has paper, printing and shipping costs factored in. At 99p a throw the publisher makes very little and the author virtually nothing on each copy sold, but that's not what matters. Cheap ebooks attract casual browsers who will often take a punt on a 99p book that sounds good. If they like it they tell their friends - and that can be a lot of friends if they use social networks - and you start to get word of mouth. A 99p ebook isn't a profit maker, but it's a terrific marketing too. As word of mouth has started to spread about Florence and Giles, I've seen not only an increase in ebook sales, but in paperback sales too, as some of the people who've heard about it from their Kindle-reading friends have gone for the print copy. Fortunately I'm able to engage in a dialogue with my publisher, who readily accepted the suggestion, and it's working well.

At the same time, they had a digital idea of their own that I wasn't impressed by, which was to launch an ebook edition of Florence and Giles, combined with the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw which inspired it, priced at £2.99. I can see this might have seemed a great idea to anyone who doesn't spend time researching their book on Amazon, but I predicted it wouldn't succeed as a simple search reveals you can download Turn of the Screw for free on Kindle. they were charging an extra £2 for a book readers could buy for nothing. Predictably the rankings for this edition show it's sold virtually no copies. But the good thing is, other than that, my publisher is supportive of my online campaign, retweeting reviews, and responding to my suggestions about Amazon categories - it's better to put your book in a category where it can make the top 100 rather than one where it won't.

In the dozen years since I was first published, the Internet has opened up and it's much easier for writers to publicise their books via social media. In the last two or three months Florence and Giles has really started to build a buzz on Twitter after some great reader reaction and wonderfully positive reviews which have added to the good reviews it had in the national press.

For the author, engaging with social media is both a joy and a burden. A joy because I've met some terrific people on the Twittersphere, many of them other authors or aspiring writers, and have even gone on to turn a couple of those virtual friendships into actual meetings. It's also proved to be a great way to engage with readers who otherwise would never have the opportunity to have an exchange with a published author, except at the rare public appearance, and the feedback has been wonderfully supportive for someone like me, who, like many authors, finds self-doubt and insecurity a constant problem when writing a book. Every compliment on Twitter helps shore up self-belief for the book I'm currently working on.

I said online social media was both a joy and a burden. The burdensome part is that it's incredibly time-consuming. It can take up several hours a day, just responding to all my new friends, writing blogs like this one, doing podcast interviews and the like. And all of this time has to be factored in over and above my normal life, mornings spend writing a novel, afternoons reviewing and writing reviews, and of course, family life. Since I started promoting the book online a few months ago, I've hardly managed to get out to the cinema (a great passion) or to see old actual friends as opposed to tweeting to new virtual ones.

What I haven't managed to do is create that elusive brand although I have at least identified for myself what I would like that brand to be, which brings me back to Auden. Writing on the death of the Russian composer Stravinsky, Auden made the distinction between craft and Art: 'the draftsman starts work knowing exactly what the finished result will be; the artist doesn't know what he is making until it is made.' When you set out to make a table, you need to have a precise plan from the outset. Get your measurements wrong and the top won't be level and your freshly heated bowl of Heinz tomato soup will slide off the edge and hit the floor. When you release a sculpture from a block of stone, the excitement comes from not knowing quite what will emerge. It's the not knowing that's the whole point.

Auden goes on to say that an artist is always refining himself; once he has done something to his satisfaction, he forgets it and attempts next to do something new that he has never done before. This strikes at the heart of why I've never wanted to write the same book, or even the same type of book, twice, commercially sensible though that might be. Now I'm not making any claims for my books as works of art, nor am I presumptuous or pretentious enough to describe myself as an artist, far from it. But it's what I aspire to and for me that ambition is critical to writing a good book.

So there we have it, the pigeonhole I would like to create for myself, the brand I would like to establish: someone who will always do different from before, who will always attempt to do better next time, and, above all, will always try his level best to write you a good book. Is there a section for that in Waterstone's?

Thank you so much for this, John. Now some readers may have found some of the things John has to say as chillingly unsettling as his character Florence (author shelf-life, anyone?). However, I think most of us who are writing these days know that publishers have been known not to deliver quite as strongly as promised on the marketing front, that publishers often do want writers to keep churning out essentially the same or same type of story as first garnered them success, and that for any one unknown writer to make their voice heard is the biggest challenge of all.  Last week, Mike French, editor of The View from Here magazine, memorably said this is 'like standing out in a storm trying to make yourself heard to someone standing ten miles away or asking someone to hit you in the face with a large stick all day' (He's drawing attention for his novel The Ascent of Isaac Steward, by the way.)

So it's all the more heartening when the efforts of writers and publishers pay off and the readers do hear the murmur, the whisper in the grass. A few months ago I interviewed Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, who published straight to Kindle and went on to win a publishing deal with HarperCollins. John Harding has shown the acumen to advise his publishers to take a hit on the profits on Florence and Giles in order to raise public awareness of his book - and by Jove it's working!

Looking forward to your next one, John, in the sureness that it will be joyfully unpredictable. Oh, and by the way, I'm one of those readers who came across Florence and Giles on Kindle and have since bought the print copy, to have and to hold.

The link to my review of Florence and Giles is here. John's website is here. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnRHarding.

Meanwhile, my new Fictionfire Focus Workshops are coming up in November and December - go to the Focus Workshops page on my website for details of dates and topics. Booking is also open for my spring day courses: Write It!, Edit It!, Publish It!, Market It! - details here.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Florence and Giles by John Harding: mastery of language and narrative voice

I'm so delighted that the lovely John Harding is going to guest-post on Literascribe, but before he does, I thought I'd say something about his latest novel, Florence and Giles, which I read a few months ago and have been recommending to everybody ever since. John has written four novels, all very different from one another, which can be a problem, given publishers' preference for writers who plough one furrow and one alone. Florence and Giles is a Gothic story: The Times said of it 'imagine The Turn of the Screw reworked by Edgar Allan Poe.' Yes, it has elements of Henry James (but is, thank God, far more readable!) and elements of Poe - but its appeal is more subtle and original than that of pastiche Victorian creepy story.

John says that 'the first thing that came to me was Florence's voice' and for the reader, this is what captures and holds the attention. His central character is a little girl living in the standard-issue Gothic mansion, orphaned, forbidden to learn to read - though she circumvents this by sneaky visits to the house's library. She devours books and acquires a strange language all of her own, part-naive, part-scarily adult, which breaks grammatical rules all the time. Nouns become verbs, verbs become nouns - ordinary language is subverted and refreshed for the reader. You become alert to nuance and shades of significance because you are constantly being startled by these small linguistic ambushes.

At first I feared I'd find such verbal precocity an irritation - or even twee. But before long I was totally seduced and enchanted. Like her language, Florence inspires sympathy and wariness - her preternatural calculation of meaning and intention is unnerving, her vulnerability makes you want to protect her, her love for her younger brother, love which drives her to extreme actions, is utterly believable.

You find yourself beginning to think like Florence and to find her phraseology natural and right. John achieves the same sort of economy Shakespeare achieved when compressing whole clauses into single telling words: Shakespeare's Antony, facing defeat by Octavius Caesar, asks his servant whether he'd want to be 'window'd in great Rome', his lover Cleopatra fears that 'rhymers' will 'Ballad us out o' tune' and that she'll see 'some squeaking Cleopatra boy [her] greatness/I' the posture of a whore.' With similar economy, Florence refers to how her first governess 'tragicked' in a boating accident. She talks of a 'puzzlery of papers' and a 'twiddlery of thumbs', of how she and her brother, when happy, 'had halcyoned it for four whole months', how in the isolated house, she 'fairytaled in my tower, Rapunzelled above all my known world'.

The novel is peopled with strong characters, my favourite being Florence's gangly asthmatic friend Theo van Hoosier. The scariest is the second governess, Miss Taylor, who tries to take control of Florence's life and rob her of that which is most dear to her. The duel between the intense, resourceful young girl and the chilling determination of the older woman is absolutely riveting.

The other focus of interest in the novel is the question of Florence's reliability as a narrator. As with The Turn of the Screw, there is doubt for the reader about what is and what may be. We are shown and told a great deal but we have to make judgements and discriminations. We're desperate to know and wonder if we ever will know. Florence and Giles is rich in atmosphere and description, has twists and turns and genuinely scary moments. When you've read it, you'll be very careful about looking into mirrors ...

In my next post, John will talk about his experience of promoting Florence and Giles and the whole issue of author 'branding'. John's website is http://www.john-harding.co.uk
You can also follow him on Twitter @JohnRHarding
Florence and Giles is available on Amazon and has been a great success on Kindle.

Meanwhile, my new Fictionfire Focus Workshops are coming up in November and December - go to the Focus Workshops page on my website for details of dates and topics. Booking is also open for my spring day courses: Write It!, Edit It!, Publish It!, Market It! - details here.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Historical Novelists event at Goldsboro Books

It was a week for getting out to listen to and meet other writers: on Tuesday I was at Kellogg College, here in Oxford, where students on the M.St. course in creative writing read their poems and excerpts from their fiction.  They were incredibly young and incredibly confident in their delivery. Really impressive stuff. Dr Clare Morgan, who is in charge of the course, read from her novel A Book for All and None, which involves an academic quest for the truth about Virginia Woolf and Nietsche. The guest reader was Philip Pullman who, as ever, gave wonderful readings from  The Amber Spyglass and from his new version of selected Grimm's fairytales. He set about enchanting us all with his verve, his sense of pace and pitch - and doing the voice of Iorek Byrnison in a startlingly loud growl that contrasted dramatically with his usual urbane huskiness!

Underside of St Martin's portico
On Thursday I set off for London, not the place I'd normally choose to head for on a day of extraordinary heat ... Goldsboro Books were holding a special event in and outside their shop in Cecil Court, near Leicester Square. I arrived mid-afternoon, so amused myself by visiting St Martin's in the Fields and the National Portrait Gallery.

Interior of St Martin's in the Fields
Chrysanthemum in the NPG cafe
In the NPG, it was great to rediscover my old favourites - although one of those, the portrait of John Donne, had been taken off the wall for conservation, dammit. Went round Glamour of the Gods, the gallery's exhibition of photographs from the golden age of Hollywood. Gorgeous, dahling! Loved the pictures of Gloria Swanson - wearing an extraordinary white peacock headdress - , Louise Brooks, Garbo and Gilbert, Clark Gable with a young Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor while filming Suddenly Last Summer. Harlow, Dietrich, Rita Hayworth (starting to sound like Madonna's lyrics for Vogue!), Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner ... Too, too delicious! Both disconcerted and reassured to see an example of the huge amount of retouching that went on, back in the days before the digital airbrushing of looks, to create that Hollywood gloss, that ethereal supramortal glamour. My favourite was the show's centrepiece photo of Rock Hudson in his heyday, looking haunted, vulnerable and utterly, gorgeously male.

Early evening, then, and on to Goldsboro Books, and its gathering of authors and readers devoted to writing about and reading about earlier times. It was an extraordinary event, bringing together writers who write about everything from the ancient Romans through to the middle of the 20th century, by way of Anglo-Saxon warriors, Crusader knights, Tudor detectives ... in fact, detectives of pretty much every era. Writers devoted to intrigue, crime, adventure, religion and romance. Writers bound to justify and explain their knowledge of background to fans eager to adore and equally eager, perhaps, to catch them out!

Copious quantities of wine were drunk and 'medieval pie' was served (like a blend of mince pies and bread and butter pudding!), books were bought and signed. Everyone was happy. Luminaries like Bernard Cornwell were there. I tried, and failed, to see C.J. Sansom (regular readers of this blog will know how keen I am on his books). Stella Duffy, Laura Wilson, Barbara Erskine, Michael Jenks, Elizabeth Chadwick, Robyn Young, Harry Sidebottom, Manda Scott ... that's just a selection.

Karen Maitland
Well, I wasn't going to come away without buying a book or two, now was I? I treated myself to Rory Clement's latest Tudor mystery, Prince, and to Karen Maitland's The Gallows Curse - and I had excellent chats with both of them. I've read Karen's two previous medieval novels, Company of Liars and The Owl Killers - and think they're superb. She knows her era in exquisitely horrible detail! She pulls no punches in the depiction of the dark and superstitious lives of her characters and her stories are rich in texture and voice. She's especially good at depicting the lives of women and the spiritual oppression of the time. Rory's books - Prince is the third in a series featuring John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous Bill - are going from strength to strength. They're dynamic, pacey adventures which make full use of his knowledge of Elizabethan intrigue and treachery, featuring famous characters like Drake, Essex and Cecil.

Doug Jackson and Robert Fabbri - through a lens darkly:
forgot to use flash because I'd had too much wine!
I was also delighted to make the acquaintance of a fellow-Scot, Douglas Jackson, who writes both thrillers and historicals (The Doomsday Testament, Caligula - part of his Roman trilogy) and of Robert Fabbri, who writes about the Emperor Vespasian, starting with Tribune of Rome.

So many books to read, so little time! Visit the Goldsboro Books website to find out more: the bookshop is an excellent source of signed first editions if you're a collector. I'm sure after the success of this event and of their previous Crime in the Court evening, there will be more opportunities to meet and greet the authors you love!

Finally, I'm delighted to announce that novelist John Harding will be guest-posting on Literascribe in the next few days, talking about his varied output as a writer and his latest (absolutely brilliant) novel, Florence and Giles.