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.


Karen said...

Is there a section for that in Waterstone's?

If there isn't there jolly well should be! So frustrating all this pigeon-holing malarkey.

I heard about your novel a while ago, meant to order it and forgot, but was reminded by seeing Lorna's post on Facebook, so Internet buzz does work - I'm just going to have to embrace it!

A thought-provoking guest post :o)

AliB said...

Hi John and Lorna - what a great post, covering so many of the issues facing writers today. As someone who tweets, blogs (i.e. has a platform?) I particularly sympathise with the difficulties of branding, having veered from genre to genre, because each one presents a new challenge.
BTW have just started F&G - already hooked.

Lorna F said...

Karen, I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

AliB - I'm glad you enjoyed the post - we're all in this platform creation game together! Delighted you're hooked on Florence!