I first encountered Alison Morton on Twitter, where I spotted her doing a terrific job building up a buzz about the imminent publication of her alternative history thriller Inceptio, set in 21st century Roma Nova, an intriguing country created to take over where the Roman Empire left off.
Although Alison lives in France, she chose to self-publish her book in England, but her target market was worldwide. How will she manage it? I wondered, as I followed her progress from cover reveal (and boy, what a cover it is!) to launch events on either side of the English Channel. I was therefore delighted when Alison kindly agreed to spill the beans here on my Off The Shelf blog. Read on to benefit from her excellent advice – and I’ll be very surprised if you don’t want to read her fabulous new novel by the end of the interview! (My own review, free of plot spoilers, is here.)
Q: Thank you, Alison, for kindly agreeing to this interview! When I first ‘met’ you on Twitter, I didn’t know anything about your personal circumstances – I just recognised the beautiful Pont du Gard in your header photo, which made me realise we had something in common – I holidayed there two years ago and was blown away by the Roman remains there. (Oh, the power of Twitter header photos!) To set the scene for the interview, could you please explain where you live and how you divide your time between France and the UK?
A: I live in the middle of nowhere. Well, in the middle of nowhere in France to be inexact; south of the Loire, mild enough to be comfortable in winter, yet not hot enough to fry in summer. The gorgeous and impressive Pont du Gard is ‘down south’ but retains a special allure for me; power, practical engineering and sheer beauty. But that’s the Romans for you. A French speaker since the age of seven and sometime student here, I don’t find France such a foreign country as some parts of the English-speaking world. But thanks to the rich variety of transport links to the UK, I’m back and forth at least every other month for conferences, events, and most recently the launch of my debut novel INCEPTIO.
Q: Did you write the book while living in France, inspired by the amazing Roman remains around that area, or did you write it in England, before being drawn to live in an area in which it almost feels as if the Romans have never left?
A: Two events separated by many years inspired me.
The first was when I was eleven and fascinated by the mosaics in the Roman part of Ampurias (a huge Graeco-Roman site in Spain). I wanted to know who had made them, whose houses they were in, who had walked on them. After my father explained about traders, senators, power and families, I tilted my head to one side and asked him, “What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?” Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain, maybe early feminism surfacing or maybe it was just a precocious kid asking a smart-arse question. But, clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, “What do you think it would be like?”
Real life intervened (school, university, career, military, marriage, parenthood, business ownership, move to France), but the idea bubbled away in my mind and the INCEPTIO story slowly took shape. My mind was morphing the setting of ancient Rome into a new type of Rome, a state that survived the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire into the 21st century, but retaining its Roman identity. And one where the social structure changed; women were going to be leading society.
But what triggered me into writing INCEPTIO? One Wednesday before we came to live in France I’d gone to the local multiplex cinema with my husband. Thirty minutes into the film, we agreed it was really, really bad. The cinematography was good, but the plot dire and narration uneven. ‘I could do better than that,’ I whispered in the darkened cinema. ‘So why don’t you?’ came my husband’s reply. Ninety days later, I’d written 96,000 words, the first draft of INCEPTIO.
Q: Living in the age of the internet, creating a global presence should be easier now than ever before, or is that an illusion? How tricky was it to spread the word across multiple countries (and Amazons!)?
A: The key is persistence. Yes, we are blessed with instantaneous communication, a raft of clever software to promote our message and easing of cultural barriers, especially in the English-speaking populations, but… (You knew there was going to be a ‘but’). Everybody else has the same advantages. You still have to have something remarkable and appealing to say. Forming friendships across time zones is not such a problem. Engage, reply and be nice. The biggest problem is the time taken to keep up with everybody, so choose the most rewarding connections. You can interpret ‘rewarding’ in the way you want, but take care to ensure you include personal as well as commercial reasons.
Q: When engaging with global social media such as Twitter or GoodReads, have you been consciously targeting a specific country, and if so, how? Or is the location of the tweep/Facebooker/GoodReader no longer relevant?
A: No, I haven’t set out to target a special area. Living in a different country from my native one, I know that countries often have multi-lingual reading populations, e.g. the British communities in France. As I had more connections to the UK than any other country, I started there. But in the age of widely used social media, I don’t think it matters where any social media correspondent lives. The only things to be careful about are cultural sensitivities and time zones. I’ve got to know people living in every part of the world and my blog stats pretty much reflect that. As a culturally-open person, I love it!
Q: Is there a big British ex-pat community local to you in France, and if so, has that been critical in gaining you local attention? (I know I met a very helpful British expat in the local equivalent of B&Q when we were having a technical crisis with our camper van near Pont du Gard!) Do you belong to any local book groups or writers’ groups in France, and if so, are they English or French?
A: There is a lively, if scattered, British community in my area and they came in droves to my French launch! We have two large social media groups supporting a plethora of events, a dedicated English language magazine for the department, The Deux-Sèvres Monthly (for which I write about writing and publishing!), and the region, Living Poitou-Charentes, and numerous special interest groups from craft and chickens to cars and line-dancing, plus the wonderful ‘Paperback Jan’ who runs the book exchange and is organising my local book tour. Oh, I started the ‘bookclub thouars’ in my local town (in English). I wrote a press release in French and delivered it in person to the two daily newspapers. One interviewed me beforehand and the other came along on the day and did a great write up.
Q: Given the setting of your book, it sounds to me as if it should be of interest to readers not only in the UK and France (and the rest of the former Roman Empire!) but also the USA. Did you have an international audience in mind when you wrote it or is that pure chance?
A: At the risk of sounding marketing un-savvy, I just wrote the story that was bursting to get out of my mind. Travelling, living and studying in several countries has made my awareness of national boundaries fuzzy, so INCEPTIO wasn’t targeted anywhere in particular. I didn’t choose the initial nationality of my heroine – she came out like that. Indeed, I had to do a lot of research and consult several American English speakers to try and get Karen’s voice right. Luckily, she had an English father, which would explain any language blips. It was my critique partner who lived several years in the US who pointed out that it would be very attractive to North American readers. I’ve already had some lovely reactions, so I’ll be turning my sights there next month.
Q: Will you be translating your book for publication in French? And Latin?
A: Aha! I’m a qualified French to English translator, a Member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, so I can give you the expert’s answer. 😉 However fluent, translators at professional level only work into their own mother-tongue. There are so many cultural connotations with language that a non-native, however clever and experienced, may miss. My own favourite is ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier’ which mostly people born and bred in the UK would instantly associate with the children’s television programme, Blue Peter. All the words are simple and easily translatable, but the connotation is lost outside the UK, even on English speaking non-Brits. So if INCEPTIO was sold to France, it would be translated by French translator specialising in literary translation. As for Latin, jocabunda? (You are joking, aren’t you?) (Ed: Yes!)
Q: How and why did you choose a British company to publish your book, and did the physical distance make a difference to the process?
A: I knew I didn’t want to DIY publish as I didn’t have the time or skills to do a thoroughly professional job. My aim was to emulate the best mainstream publishing products, both paperback and e-book. I researched, asked other self-published writers and consulted publishing gurus. I analysed information provided by the three companies I’d selected as ‘finalists’ and drew up a list of questions. I then interviewed each company for nearly two hours, plus followed up with email exchanges.
Yes, this is a lot of work, but you are spending your hard-earned money so owe it to yourself to make sure you’re spending it efficiently. Irrespective of nationality or distance considerations, I chose SilverWood Books (SWB) for their knowledge, openness and for being book-orientated rather than purely services orientated. If there aren’t books on the home page of a services provider’s website, ask yourself why.
The other important thing when you’re paying for services is to ensure you keep all your rights. Unlike many providers, SWB made that crystal clear both in their information and documentation. SWB offer different publishing packages or you can pick and choose from a menu of individual services depending upon what you want.
SWB have not only delivered the promised services in a collaborative and consultative way but also provided on-going support, vital for an inexperienced author. In addition to a well formatted and designed e-book uploaded to a variety of platforms, I have a high-quality printed book with a gorgeous cover that is selling so well that I’ve had to order a second print run. ‘Hand-holding’ is built into the ‘Tailored’ package I chose. It included very clear and detailed instructions about proofing, editing; what to include in a bio; voluntarily offered background information; guidance on how to decide on the next steps, e.g. cover design, print-runs; comprehensive information sheets on dealing with bookshops, interviews, presentations, social media, Goodreads; plus a willingness to answer any question promptly and completely. Attitude is very important and theirs is first-class. They introduce paid-for add-on services without any pressure, plus suggested enhancements where appropriate. (Ed: the cover won an award for indie book cover design run on Joanne Phillips’ website here.)
Q: It’s early days yet, but do you know so far what proportion of your sales have been made in each country? How different do you think the experience have been for you if you were based in England?
A: I understand from SilverWood Books that most e-book sales are from the UK with a very respectable number from the US and a few from France and Germany. This is what I expected. I think it would have been the same wherever I’d been based. In the UK, Waterstones ran out of paperbacks at my launch and I had to provide them with my own stock to satisfy demand. I’ve posted a fair number off around the world and sold paperbacks well here in France and hope to do more on my French book tour. The one thing I won’t be able to do easily is book signings in my ‘home’ area in the UK. I will, however, try to organise an event whenever I’m in England, if I can. Consequently, the majority of my efforts will be online.
Q: Can you please list your top “do’s” and “don’ts” for new expat authors keen to maximise sales at home and abroad?
- If your biggest target is the UK, really try hard to do at least one event there, particularly your launch. Your former home town is the ideal place. The photos taken there have great PR value in the future.
- Take advantage of any expat community groups to organise signings.
- Write editorial/articles in your local English language publication, but don’t over- push the sales aspect. Give something out – information, anecdotes, hard facts, your experiences.
- Network with other expats a) for pleasure b) to find out about further signing venues.
- Embrace social networking to stay visible and encourage sales – the world is your market. Start your blog/Facebook author page a year before you plan to launch your book. It will establish your presence firmly and make a great springboard.
Q: Having really enjoyed INCEPTIO, I was pleased to hear you’re planning a series of Roma Nova books. Will you do anything differently when you launch book 2? (if you can bear to think about it yet!)
A: At present, I can only think that I’ll do the same. I anticipate the launch of PERFIDITAS will build on the sales of INCEPTIO and I won’t be back ‘at the beginning’. And if people come across PERFIDITAS first, then I hope they might want to buy INCEPTIO. to find out what went before.
Alison, thank you so much for such long, thoughtful and enlightening answers that I’m sure will be of enormous interest not only to other expat authors out there, but for anyone hoping to build their own international empire of readers. I think the biggest thing that I will take away from your experience is your advice about perseverance. I’m afraid I can’t resist the temptation – I’ll just have to end this interview by saying that Roma Nova wasn’t built in a day!