Should Writers Avoid Getting Political?

Back to Reality, the novel I co-wrote with Mark Desvaux for the Bestseller Experiment podcast, has been having a good run with reviews since its publication in 2017. Folks have liked it a lot and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. To meet our rather ambitious self-imposed target of ten thousand copies sold by the end of the Glastonbury Festival (our book climaxes at Glastonbury) we’ve been dialling up the advertising and asking anyone who’s read the book to leave a review. That means I’ve been checking the Amazon customer reviews fairly regularly, and that’s when I noticed that we received our first ever one-star review for the book. At first, my heart sank a little, but then I clicked on the review and had a read and this is what I found…

For context, here’s the part of the book that the reviewer objected to. Our hero, Jo, has travelled back in time from contemporary England to ‘90s Hollywood. She finds herself on a late night chat show where she reveals that she’s a time traveller…

There are two things going on with this review. First is an inability to make a distinction between the protagonist and the authors.

This still manages to surprise some readers. To write crime thrillers, you don’t need to be a cop or a murderer, to write science fiction you don’t need to explore deep space, and you, dear writer, can write repulsive characters and not agree with their world view.

Although, for the sake of clarity, here’s where I stand on Donald Trump. The man is a misogynist, homophobic, racist, narcissistic fool and a failed businessman whose time would be better spent indulging in his sexual peccadilloes behind closed doors while the rest of try and save the planet from climate change.

In short, I’m not a fan.

But this is what writers do: we put ourselves in the shoes of these characters and try to imagine would those people might be like — and very often it can be based on personal experience — and we try to convey that in words.

As an aside, I think this is why there is such a liberal bias in the entertainment industry. Creators will try and see both sides of the argument in a story, character or situation and present them in a compelling way. That sense of fairness is very much a characteristic of liberals, especially in contrast to the meritocratic views of the right. 

The second aspect of the review is the disappointment in the reader that we’ve dragged the messy world of politics into their reading. This prompts the much bigger question: should writers get political? Sure, if you’re writing a political thriller it’s expected, but when you’re writing in an escapist genre like comedy, romance, science fiction or fantasy should the poor reader be inflicted with soap box politics? And is it worth it for the writer? Think back to The Dixie Chicks when they made disparaging comments about George W Bush and the effect that had on their sales. Isn’t it just safer to avoid any political content altogether?

Here’s the thing: all writing is political… if it’s any good.

Fiction isn’t like a family gathering where you avoid religion and politics. It should be a truthful reflection of what the creator believes, otherwise what is the point?

I’m not saying that our joke where Jo compares Trump to Hitler is some kind of profound insight into the human condition. Far from it. It’s simply the thing that stuck out for the reviewer. What that reviewer missed was the masses of other political content in the book. The themes of family, compassion, sexism, work, money and greed are threaded throughout the story, and if you don’t think those are political then you’ve not been paying attention to the world around you.

So, will we lose sales because we’ve upset some fans of Trump? Possibly. We’re hardly the Dixie Chicks, but to be honest if you’re a Trump supporter I don’t want your money. You’re going to need it when you realise you’re on the wrong side of history and need to pay for therapy.

In the meantime, I shall continue to write about the world through the eyes of characters that both attract and repulse me. It’s pretty much the only way I can make any sense of the chaos around me, especially that Trump fella… 

PS. To be clear, there are my opinions and not those of The Bestseller Experiment or my co-presenter -author Mark Desvaux…

Four things I learned from the publication of The End of Magic…

The End of Magic came out a month ago today!

And here are four essential “learnings” (ugh, what have I become?) from the last month…

A good launch is essential…

… but it’s only the start. The book had the most amazing launch week, thanks almost entirely to the gorgeous, wise and undeniably sexy people who had the foresight and canny knack of knowing-a-good-thing-when-they-see-it to support the book in its crowdfunding stage. When their copies arrived they shouted about it from the social media rooftops. Without doubt, this was the most exciting part of the whole crowdfunding experience: seeing them take ownership of the book and saying lovely things. And then one of them did this…

I mean, that is above and beyond… thanks, Jason…

They came to the book launch at Harbour Books and dressed up and made it a magical evening…

However, these good folk have lives to lead and cannot be called upon to sustain that kind of manic energy for long, and so it is left to you, the author, to continue to pimp yourself and the book for all eternity. You can only ride on the goodwill train for so long, and one of the biggest lessons learned from Back to Reality was that unless you continue to promote your book it’s in danger of sinking without a trace. Every week, new and splendid books come along to draw the eye of the reader, so how can you tome survive in the post-publication wilderness…?

You will need to pimp yourself

Unbound only publicise a few books, and I wasn’t assigned a publicist. It’s been quite sobering to be an author who can’t afford a freelance publicist (I was quoted two grand) and is left to their own devices. You’re definitely at a disadvantage. When I was published by Gollancz, you could be confident of reviews and coverage and festival slots because the magazines and websites know the terms of the unspoken deal: support our debuts and midlist authors and you’ll get the interviews with our big name authors… I had no such bargaining chip. However, I was lucky enough to know a few people and have had some great coverage in the likes of Starburst, BBC Radio Kent, and blogs, and I’ve managed to blag my way into various festivals. It can be exhausting, but it’s been worth it, leading to sales and more coverage.

I made Tweets like these with the Pixaloop app… https://www.pixaloopapp.com

Publishers will surprise you… 

A couple of weeks after publication I started getting messages from readers letting me know that The End of Magic was featured on a Bookbub newsletter. This saw me hurtling up the various Kindle fantasy charts and let to this little moment of happiness…

Not only that, but I was a Hot New Release (stop sniggering at the back)… and I was riding high in a number of other charts, too. Momentum was building and I had a clutch a really good customer reviews. Then…

Publishers will screw-up…

I’m planning to self-publish the book in the USA. My agent and I discussed this before we signed the contract with Unbound and I wanted to experiment with self-publishing and Amazon ads over in good old United States of America Land, and I was planning to do this after the Unbound edition had been published in the UK.

However, I got a message from a reader in New York telling me that I had been featured in an Amazon.com mailing. I checked and he was right: my book was available for sale in the US. Tut-tut, but these things happen and I dropped Unbound a line asking them to update the metadata on their feed to remove the book from sale in America.

Which they promptly did. And then someone must have ticked the wrong box, because it all disappeared from the UK, too.

For nearly 24 hours the eBook wasn’t available in the UK. I plummeted down the fantasy charts and all that great momentum was lost.

Such is life. To be fair to Unbound, these things are easily done and they responded rapidly… Ah well, easy come, easy go. 

Oh, and they put one of the chapters in the wrong place…

That was a fun weekend…

But, again, they fixed it fast and that’s all cool, but these little blips can test your nerves. Luckily I have years of experience with these kinds of screw-ups and the best advice I can offer is don’t panic, get on it fast, be clear and concise when describing the problem and never, ever refer to it as a disaster. The Titanic and the Hindenburg were disasters. Something going wrong with your book online is a minor glitch in the greater history of humanity…

What’s next…?

Nothing less than the conquest of America.

Eventually.

One of the issues triggered by Unbound’s release of my book in the US is that Amazon doesn’t believe that I retained the US rights to my book and I now have to prove it, which means sending them scans of signed contracts (which I don’t have) and getting Unbound and my agent involved. It’s a right old faff, but it will get sorted eventually.

After that I shall be using the Amazon and Facebook ad skills I’ve been developing with Back to Reality to send The End of Magic up the amazon.com fantasy charts and start earning some dosh.

Again, a huge thank you to everyone who has banged the drum or left a rating or a review online. You’re all wonderful and you should know that every time you retweet, like, leave a nice review or comment, you make an author’s day and this author will never take that for granted.

It started nearly a year ago…

My crowdfunding campaign for The End of Magic started on 14th February (how romantic!) 2018and the first pledge was from my aunt Marion. I got ten pledges on the first day… no day after that was ever that easy again! Almost 90 days of crowdfunding to reach my target, then months in the edit, copy-edit, proofread, cover design and then signing off on it and a few sleepless nights where I was sure there would be some disaster like all the pages being printed upside down.
And then last week, this happened…

My best George McFly impression…

It’s one of those moments that writers dream of and for me it became a reality and I could not have done this without the amazing support of everyone who pledged and spread the word.

I’d become used to seeing the words on a screen and so to finally get a copy in my hands and see the ink on the grain of the page was really special. And then, my social media started going crazy… 

You lot are amazing…

I’m completely overwhelmed by the amazing support I’ve had from you all. I really mean it. There’s so much crap going on in the world, but you’ve proven again and again that there are communities of readers and writers and creators who help each other out and bang the drum for new and shiny ideas.

I thank you all again, and I really hope the book lives up to your expectations.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years in bookselling it’s that the launch day is just the beginning. I’m going to be on the sales, marketing and publicity warpath for the foreseeable future and anything you good people can do to help spread the word would be much appreciated: pop a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or social media… let your local library or bookshop know that it’s out… stop random strangers in the street and badger them until they– Actually, you can probably skip that last one…

Whatever you can do, thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re all blimming marvellous and I really hope you enjoy the book and I promise to stop banging on about it…

Till next time…

Mark

PS. Don’t forget, there’s a launch at Harbour Books on 15th Feb at 6:30– there will be cakes, wizards and I’ll be donating a pound for every copy signed and sold to Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy!

Five Things I’ve Learned In The First Month Of Freelancing…

How the hell is it February already? As you may know, I left my day job just before Christmas and am now unemployed/a freelance writer, depending on your definition… I mean, technically I’m unemployed as I haven’t actually earned any money this month, but I have been working my buns off putting stuff in place that should payoff further down the line. Here are five things I’ve learned about the freelance life in the last few weeks…

Get Up, Get Dressed

The temptation to stay in bed, especially at this most miserable time of the year, is overwhelming. But I have a son that needs to get to school and we live in the middle of nowhere, so I’m usually up at six am to get him to his bus stop and I’m home, showered, breakfasted and ready to work by seven thirty. A lot of people joked about me working in sweatshirts and jogging bottoms before I left Orion, but while I don’t go as far as wearing a suit and tie I make sure I’m fairly presentable just in case the postman arrives early. I wouldn’t want him seeing me in my nightie and curlers.

The routine I’ve fallen into is writing all morning with social media turned off (except for tea breaks where I have a sneaky peek at Twitter and FB) and then other admin stuff in the afternoon. It works pretty well so far and has proven to be fairly productive. I thought I would have plenty of spare time, but the days are very, very full.

To Do Or Not To Do

I’ve always been good with “to do” lists and planning my day, and this is a skill that’s served me well working from home. I have a daily list, which I hardly ever get through (and that’s fine, anything not done just gets carried over) and I have a big whiteboard with what I want to achieve during the month. Again, I missed the target on a couple of those, but I was being a tad overambitious anyway. But you can’t beat the satisfaction of drawing a line through them when you’re done. NEXT!

Get Off Your Butt

I was fairly sedentary at Orion, but I did have to walk from the station to the office and I would take an hour-long walk around London on my lunch break. I have an app on my phone that tells me how many steps I’ve taken and how far I’ve walked during the day and if I’m at home writing I can walk less than a mile! Not good.

Luckily for me there is an excellent coffee place a couple of miles away with a walk that takes me across some beautiful farmland, so I try and walk there after lunch each day to save my expanding backside. I think I’ve actually lost a bit of weight, but that might have more to do with the fact that I’m no longer sitting next to where everyone used to leave the snacks in the Orion office.

Hustle

This is the bit I need to get better at. I’m currently following an online course on digital marketing, I’m writing and prepping stuff for the podcast and that is taking up a ton of my time. What I’m not doing is looking for work opportunities. I’ve never had to do that before and it’s becoming very clear that the world will not beat a path to my door. What is pleasing is that when I’ve carved out the time to do shake the tree for work, it’s always been a positive experience. More on this next time…

Know When To Stop

There is an anxiety when you don’t achieve everything you set out to do during a working day and the temptation is to keep working until it’s done. I had a little moment last night when a couple of emails pinged in and I knew I could get these things done in about twenty minutes… but it was the evening, I was with my family and one of the joys of working from home is that we all eat dinner together and have a lot more time with each other. I marked the emails as “to do” and left them till this morning. Got them done first thing and no one died. Knowing when to stop is the biggest lesson I’ve learned this month.

Oh, and I’ve got a book out…

The other thing that’s taking up my time is the imminent release of The End of Magic! I’m planning a launch, I’m hustling for publicity and reviews and I’m driving to book stores, handing out samples and posting reviews copies… It’s all go. Which reminds me – a huge thank you to everyone who supported the book by pledging at Unbound and then posted their photos online. It’s been quite overwhelming…

Till next time!

You are cordially invited…

… to the launch of THE END OF MAGIC!

Come and join me at the wonderful Harbour Bookshop in Whitstable for the launch of The End of Magic!

There will be special guests, magic, booze* of some variety and cupcakes (free while stocks last… though if no one turns up I will stiff my face with them).

*Probably wine… not magic wine… but then who knows where the evening will take us…?

And it’s for charity! For every copy signed or sold on the night, I will donate a pound to Nordoff Robbins, a charity that does wonderful work in music therapy. They also organised one of the best gigs I ever went to, so it’s time to give something back.

RSVP by commenting below, or check in on the event page on Facebook. And tell your friends!

I’m really looking forward to seeing you there. All the best and thanks as always for your amazing support.

Mark

Spot UV triumph

I’m delighted to confirm that the paperback of The End of Magic will have lovely, shiny spot UV finishes that will really make it stand out on a display and look utterly gorgeous in your hot little hands. Compare these two images:

The black and white image shows where the spot UV will be…

So, just imagine this finished cover with all that spot UV shininess…

Cover art designed by Mark Ecob: http://mecob.co.uk

Hey, I’m excited! Gimme a break!

Not long now…

The End of Magic is available to pre-order now…

Cover art designed by Mark Ecob: http://mecob.co.uk

And the most amazing people have been saying very nice things about the book…

Cover Reveal for The End of Magic

Behold the cover art for The End of Magic as designed by the magnificent Mark Ecob

I’m a very happy author and this is everything I had hoped for. There’s still time to pre-order and get your name (or the name of a loved/pet/significant other) in the book and you can do that by clicking here!

I’m leaving Orion

After fifteen years, three months and eighteen days I will be leaving the good ship Orion for the rocky shoals of freelance life.

Why? When? Who? What??

Well, long story short, there was a big sales restructure here and with it came the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy and I grabbed it with both hands. It was just too good a chance to pass up. I have a very long list of things I want to do and now is the time to do them. Like what? Well, the Bestseller Experiment podcast for a start. We’ve had a tricky second year to say of the least, but leaving Orion will afford me the time to do all the things we’ve been wanting to do in the last year, including REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED on a big stick with a sponge on the end.

Orion is an incredible publisher with a genuinely passionate team and some of the best authors in the world (that’s not hyperbole, that’s just bloody true and I can prove it with two felt tip pens and a whiteboard). I have made some incredible memories that will stay with me for a lifetime and I’ve met many of my personal heroes. It would be terribly bad form to drop names, but as Michael Palin said to me once, “Show me those photos of you with Keith Richards, Nick Mason, Richard Wright and David Gilmour.” To which I replied, “Sorry Mikey baby, I’ve loaned them to Christopher Lee, and Judi Dench wants them after that…”

When you have a 9-5 day job you see more of your colleagues than your own family some weeks, and I’ve been fortunate to be working in what is simply the best sales department in publishing. I don’t want to start reeling off names because I would inevitably forget someone, but special mention must go to Jo Carpenter, Dallas Manderson and Ian Diment. Ian was my line manager at Orion and the sweetest man you could meet, with a passion for music and books and a unique dancing groove that was the sensation of many a sales conference. His passing in 2010 devastated us all, but also brought us together in grief. We will never forget him.

Dallas is a one-off. A gentleman of publishing whose negotiating technique is to to deploy Wodehousian courtesy combined with an astonishing attention to detail. I never wanted to disappoint Dallas. Not because I feared his wrath, but because I knew he cared and worked harder than all of us combined to ensure that our authors got the best sales possible. Publishing hasn’t been the same since he retired.

And Jo Carpenter has this uncanny psychic ability to know when something is wrong and she was always the first to ask if she could help, and I’ve lost count of the number of times she’s been my advocate and saved my butt… Oh, and she gave me the job based on little more than my ability to do terrible impersonations of Michael Caine and Sean Connery (it was a different time).

I’ll be gone by the end of the year. Orion have handled this really well. My Mum was made redundant a few years ago and her employers did everything wrong and it all ended up in a legal mess and was horribly stressful. Orion have played a very straight bat with me and for that I am very grateful.

So what will I do with all this spare time? I want to write, I want to be my own boss, I want to earn money doing it, and I especially want to REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED on a big stick with a sponge on the end.

Wish me luck. I reckon I might need it…

Gift books for Geeks this Christmas

Geeks. We’re tricky buggers to buy for at Christmas. Yes, our loved ones might know that we like that thing with the spaceships/dragons/zombies, but where do they even start when it comes to selecting that special gift book…? Here! That’s where! Just forward this blog in the safe knowledge that whatever they get you, it’ll be awesome.

Below are some of my favourites for this Christmas*

Support your local bookshop! Order a copy of these books from them and help ensure that our High Streets thrive. However, all the links below are to Amazon UK for reasons of a) convenience, and b) I have an affiliates thing with them and I get 5% of each sale, and c) I have no shame.

Star Wars Icons – Han Solo

Just gorgeous. A chronicle of everyone’s favourite smuggler from conception to casting, through to movies, comics and novels with fold out pages, replica storyboards, little surprises tucked away in envelopes and more. This is the sort of book that’s nightmare to reprint so get in fast. Buy from Amazon.

Inside Black Mirror

Buy from Amazon

A terrific oral history and making-of book of the four series so far of Black Mirror. Compiled by Jason Arnopp, this takes you episode-by-episode with creator Charlie Brooker, Exec Producer Annabel Jones, and collaborators including Jodie Foster, Jodie Whittaker and other people not called Jodie. Essential for fans of the show.

The Incomplete History of Secret Organizations

Buy from Amazon

I’ve loved every minute of A Series of Unfortunate Events and this glorious behind the scenes book is ahead of the game with details and photos of the final series (coming in Jan 2019)… I must confess, I’ve had a glimpse and it looks as sumptuous as ever.

Star Wars Alien Archive

Buy from Amazon

Choc full of Cookies, wampas, Biths and banthas this is crammed full of proper geeky insider knowledge (Porgs have forward-facing eyes to help them catch fish, apparently) for Star Wars fans of any age and for fans of the movies, novels, cartoons and comics.

The Electric State

Buy from Amazon

Simon Stålenhag is probably best known for his crowdfunded book Tales from the Loop, which showed children playing among abandoned robots in the aftermath of a particle accelerator experiment gone wrong. The Electric State continues the post-apocalyptic theme on a journey across a ravaged America. This is sublime storytelling and a feast for the eyes (and the Russo brothers have snapped up the film rights!)

Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down

Buy from Amazon

Another incredible piece of production, this behind-the-scenes book is made to look like a well-thumbed library book, wrapped in plastic, stained and with a thorough breakdown of how the show was made and its ’80s inspirations. I saw a pre-publication copy of this at the MCM Comic Con and snapped it up there and then.

TV Geek: The Den of Geek Guide for the Netflix Generation

Buy from Amazon

I loved Simon Brew’s previous Movie Geek book, which was like my favourite nerdy movie conversations down the pub, and this is very much in the same format. Endlessly fascinating with chapter headings like Key questions raised by watching Peppa Pig, The symbolism of Peaky Blinders and Spoiler Culture and its effect on outdoor filming, and written in Den of Geek’s positive style, TV fans will lap this up.

The Books of Earthsea

Buy from Amazon

And I’ve saved the best till last. Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea was the first fantasy I ever read. More than Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, this is what first fired my imagination when it came to magic and dragons. This complete illustrated collection, illustrated by Charles Vess, includes Le Guin’s last ever story Firelight, written when she knew she was dying. It reduced me to a sobbing wreck, and I can think of no better reason to recommend it. But just… look at it…

Buy from Amazon

*Full disclosure: some of these were donated by publishers, but only after I begged/cajoled/threatened them for copies because I really wanted them, and some I bought myself…