25 things I’ve learned from 25 years in books…

December 1992: Charles and Di announced their separation, the NET book agreement was still in place, Amazon was still just a river to most people, and a fresh-faced bookseller started a temporary Christmas placement at Waterstones in Dorking.

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Me and Horrid Henry before the TV and movie money changed him…

I’ve been selling books for 25 years (I only meant to stay for Christmas!) and I thought I could share a few of the things I’ve learned on the way, though I suspect the final tip is the only one of true practical use…

25 things I’ve learned from 25 years in books:

1. Be professional and courteous to everyone you meet and work with. It’s a small industry.
2. Amazon is all about the customer. Keep that in mind with every dealing you have with them.
3. Formats may change, genres will wax and wane, but people will always want good stories.
4. Never confuse ubiquity with popularity. I can’t tell you how many celeb biogs I’ve seen crash and burn just because publishers thought that being on the telly meant that people liked them.
5. Meeting your heroes can be awkward, but you’ll be fine if you keep it short and sweet. Don’t expect them to be your best friend and invite you on holiday. And remember that they have good days and bad days like everyone else.
6. Authors who have a clear idea of what kind of career they want tend to last longer.
7. Series characters that move with the times stay the course: Rebus, Noddy, Batman.
8. The best editors combine passion and integrity, but aren’t afraid to make a few quid.
9. A big advance can be a curse and a blessing. If you don’t earn out, you’re screwed.
10. Authors can’t sit back and leave it all to the publisher and agent. The successful ones get out there and make it happen.
11. Never respond to bad reviews. Just enjoy the good ones and screw the haters.
12. Never badmouth another author. We’re all in this together and we don’t need to be flinging shit at each other.
13. And be pleased for their successes. Bitterness helps no one.
14. Never stop learning. There have been more changes in this industry in the last ten years since the invention of the printing press.
15. Survival is one part cynicism, two parts optimism.
16. Be loyal to people, not companies.
17. Always make time for a proper lunch break.
18. Write for yourself. Not the market. Trends come and go. You’ll always be you.
19. Changing an author’s name or adding an initial rarely makes any difference to sales. The reading public only care if it’s a good book.
20. Don’t believe your own publicity. Publishing, like any creative medium, is great at creating monsters, and it always happens when the writer starts to believe it when people tell them they’re a genius.
21. Success is not a bestseller, it’s writing what you love… though the money would be nice.
22. Of course people judge a book by its cover. And its title. And its review average on Amazon.
23. Tenacity is everything: keep writing and you can only improve.
24. Balance modesty and confidence and don’t get cocky.
25. And finally, and this is really important, when confronted with a multi-storey car park, always park on the roof. You’ll never forget where you parked (five years on the road as a rep!).

Happy writing and have a splendid Christmas! Oh, and if you’re looking for something to read in the bleak midwinter then Back to Reality will brighten your day!

And if you want to support our work on the podcast, we now have a Patreon. Do please support us and we can keep it going.

Till next time, happy writing,

Mark

 

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The Bestseller Experiment launches today!

A simple proposition: write, edit, publish and market a self-published eBook and get it up the Kindle charts… in a year. Fifty-two weeks. Yeah, a doddle…

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Oh, and while you’re trying to achieve this, and on top of all the other crap you have going on in your life, you’ll also be helping run a weekly podcast where you interview folk from the industry and maybe a few authors? Maybe even a few bestselling, mega-million-household-name-type authors?

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And yet, here we are… Luckily, my cohort in this exercise in insanity is the super-driven entrepreneur and life coach Mark Desvaux who could convince the most devout nun to abandon her vows and take up pole dancing (don’t worry, he only uses his powers for good, not evil).

Mark is also that wannabe writer who’s started writing a novel a few times, but has never finished one. He still has that joyous naivety that all it takes is a bit of application and before you know it you’ve written Harry Potter And The Cash Cow Of Azkaban.

I, on the other hand, am a cynical sod who’s worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty years and have seen more disasters than Donald Trump’s press office. There’s no way you can cynically take a dash of Dan Brown, add a smidgen of James Patterson, sprinkle it with EL James’s chutzpah and wait for the royalty cheques to come rolling in.

However, that’s not entirely our plan. While our book may end up the literary equivalent of the Hindenberg, we are totally convinced that there are writers out there who can beat us to it. Writers who might have a half-finished book in their bottom drawer, writers who just need a little guidance from the experts (that’s not us, let me make that absolutely clear!), and could get their work published and read by the masses.

So, if you think that’s you, or a buddy of yours, or you just like listening to fantastic interviews with the likes of Joanne Harris, Joe Abercrombie, Maria Semple, Michelle Paver, Scott Lynch, John Connolly, Michael Connelly and many more (yeah, we got some of those million-sellers recorded already, baby!), then join us. It might end in utter disaster, but it will be fun.

We launch today with three episodes, so you can really get your teeth into it, and they’re all fab. You can find the podcast on iTunes: http://bestsellerexperiment.com/itunes

Please subscribe so you don’t miss future episodes, and, if you like us, please, please, please leave a review and a rating on iTunes. I had no idea how important this stuff is to keeping your podcast alive. Apple use these as their major metric when it comes to making the podcast visible and easy to find! Without them, we wither and die… and I want this to fail because I was right, not because of some sodding metric!

If you’re not on iTunes, you can listen and download from our website: http://bestsellerexperiment.com/podcasts/

We’re also on Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, oh, and if you sign up to our newsletter you get a free eBook, The Writers’ Vault of Gold

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This really is aces. Updated every week it’s the highlights of our interviews, and by the time we’re done there will be about 80,000 words of advice from some of the best authors on the planet… For free! You’d be crazy not to.

Still not convinced? Then check out our trailer for a quick peek…

Like I said, this is going to be fun.

Oh, and to the chap who left a comment on our Facebook page bemoaning the whole exercise and declaring that Graham Greene would never have stooped to this… it’s called the Bestseller Experiment, not the Timeless Literary Classic Experiment.

That’s next year…

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At the foot of the mountain – starting a new writing project…

Jon Wright and I are just starting out on a new writing project, TOP SECRET PROJECT X. I know, catchy! This is immediately coming off the back of over a year’s solid work writing a script that we hope to get into production this year, and we wanted to have something ready to follow it up with (always helps to think ahead). So we’ve gone from hurtling at a hundred miles an hour, steering skilfully round familiar bends, to suddenly pushing a clapped-out old Vauxhall Viva uphill to the nearest garage.

Starting a new thing can be very daunting indeed.

It’s taken us about six months to get around to the actual writing bit. Time is great aid to fomenting ideas, and it’s a luxury a screenwriter doesn’t often get, but I would recommend using it whenever you can. Take any intriguing idea you have, jot it down, nurture it with seedling ideas and before you know it, new ideas will be presenting themselves to you at three in the morning, demanding that they be implemented immediately. Here’s one I made earlier…

Late night scribbles can produce surprising results...
Late night scribbles can produce surprising results…

This one started with lots of talking — initially with a conversation outside a pub — then continued with more chatting in places where tea is served, and then long phone conversations about situations and characters, and then we progressed to tentative emails. With each of these gently flirtatious stages we’ve been collating nuggets about characters and situations and themes, and now we’re at the stage where we’re putting together the actual building blocks of a story.

The nitty-gritty starts with character work. On our previous project we were adapting someone else’s script and didn’t feel that we had a good enough grip on the characters, so we wrote monologues for each of them, bouncing drafts back and forth between the two us, adding more interesting details and texture until we really knew who these people were. That was when we finally felt that we had taken ownership of them and the script, and our writing after that became a lot more instinctive: the sports car swerving round tight bends.

So, this is where we’ve decided to start with TOP SECRET PROJECT X: character monologues, like pieces to camera, confessional and candid and revealing, and it’s a great way to get a story that’s driven by characters and not set pieces. There are lots of blind alleys, things we’ll get wrong, but it’s worth it for the things that shine and excite and inspire. We’re off to a great start, but there’s still a very long way to go, that clapped-out Vauxhall Viva is still very heavy and the mountain is very steep. In the meantime, here’s a bit of Paul Weller to chivvy us along…

 

The painting above is The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer um) 1818 ~ by Caspar David Friedrich, and is how all writers should visualise themselves when embarking on a new project, and not hunched over a laptop wondering if they can have another chocolate Hobnob yet.

 

My Jazz Chord Theory of Creativity

I found myself with a free afternoon yesterday, not something that happens often these days as any spare time I have tends to be dedicated to writing, but I’m in a lull on one project and stuck on another, and so I found myself plugging my guitar into a pedal board and amp, and I started thrashing out a few chords.

Inspired by its inclusion on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY soundtrack, I thought I’d have a go at learning David Bowie’s splendid MOONAGE DAYDREAM and was surprised by how simple it was: lots of nice major/minor chords, a very easy riff and a straightforward melody.

And it got me thinking about a half-baked music analogy I have about creativity. When rock bands start out they begin with the simple stuff: twelve-bar blues, major chords dropping to minors, and a cool hook. Stuff that’s basic, but highly effective, hitting people right in the feels…

Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy and making people feel totes emosh since the dawn of time.

But as an artist progresses in their career, they understandably want to try something more complex and challenging, and, if you’re a guitarist, this means that sooner or later your favourite band will start using complex jazz chords…

Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.
Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy jazz, but in quite small doses. It just doesn’t engage me emotionally in the way that a big, stupid rock song does. Just as I prefer Bowie’s early stuff, I suspect that it’s songs like STARMAN and LIFE ON MARS that are paying the mortgage at chez Bowie, rather than anything he’s recorded in the last twenty years. It’s also why the musically straightforward 1970s-era Pink Floyd continue to sell more than the jazz odyssey stylings of their early Syd Barrett stuff or, say, Captain Beefheart…

Of course, this theory is full of holes: if anything, the Beatles’ songs became more straightforward as they progressed, Kate Bush’s stuff was always complex musically (though her early albums are arguably more tuneful), and it probably doesn’t apply to classical or opera, though Beethoven’s Fifth (Duh-Duh-Duh-Duuum!) is as rock n roll as classical gets.

But you get the idea: the simple stuff works. It will always have a greater reach, audience-wise, than the introverted, “clever” stuff.

And here comes the big, clanging, G-major analogy that I’ll be trying to apply to my writing: I won’t be putting too many jazz chords into my stories. I might think I’m being clever by killing the hero on page 35, or starting in the middle of my story and working backwards via flashforwards, but some poor producer has to pitch that idea to raise money, and nine out of ten of them will always go for the simple sell.

That’s not to dismiss “simple” as “easy”: keeping a story truthful, engaging and emotional is hard enough as it is. So why make life more difficult for yourself?

And so my creative aim in life is to hit the same simple and moving peak as Bowie who has Mick Ronson open a song with a big, fat D-major chord as he cries, “I’m an alligator!” There’s no greater achievement in art…