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.