How to Sell More Books: Network! with Guest Author Chele Cooke

Photo of Chele Cooke, author of "Dead and Buryd"

Social networker extraordinaire, the author Chele Cooke

With social media now an established part of modern communications, self-published authors have at their disposal a huge armoury of networking weapons to raise the profile of themselves and their books. But which to choose?

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and GoodReads are currently the best known, but not every author feels comfortable with all or any of those. There is also the worry that if any social media currently in the ascendant may be be a bubble that is about to burst – who uses MySpace these days?

When most writers have day jobs and find it hard enough just to make time to write as much as they’d like to, it’s important to decide which of these – or of the many other networking choices – is right for you and your book.

I recently came across a debut fantasy writer – on a Facebook forum, as it happens – who impressed me with her particular approach to networking, including some routes that I confess I’d never heard of (showing my age here, perhaps!) She joins Off The Shelf today to talk about how she is using social networking not only to launch her debut sci-fi/fantasy novel, Dead and Buryd but also to foster her development as a writer.

Debbie: Hello and welcome, Chele Cooke! I first came across you and your book via ALLi’s private Facebook forum to which we both belong, and you immediately struck me as a natural networker. But you told me that you presence on Facebook is only the tip of your networking iceberg, and that you’re also very active in “RPing”. I had to ask you what that was! What exactly is RPing, how has it fostered your development as a writer and how is it now helping you spread the word about your writing?

Chele: It’s very nice to receive such a wonderful compliment right off the bat, as networking is something I’m usually quite worried about. As the new kid in school, so to speak, it can often be worrying that you’re coming off as pushy or asking too many questions.

RP (or Play-by-Post Roleplaying) has proved a massive influence in my writing. I started RPing as a young teenager, and it sparked my interest in writing and stories as a whole. Writing alongside others fosters a feeling of cooperation, as plots don’t always go the way you’d planned. I became used to changing ideas at the last minute and finding different directions to take things, which really helps me come up with a number of directions to take my writing now. If I feel that something isn’t working properly, I can change it.

The RP community is also incredibly enthusiastic about new ideas and when people decide to take their writing further. Different RP sites need to advertise themselves in order to gain members, and advertising my own writing is rather similar. I find that you have to be unafraid to catch people’s attention, but not too pushy as to annoy people. It’s a game of balances.

Debbie: In a way, RPing sounds similar to writing fan fiction, which is a great way of refining your writing and making new like-minded writer and reader friends. What part did fan fiction play in your development as a writer?

Chele: There is a well-known phrase that ‘you need to learn to walk before you can run’ and I am a big advocate for fan fiction for this reason. There are a lot of different aspects to learn when you start writing, from characterisation to setting, from grammar to plot timing. For a new writer, trying to take on all these things at the same time is, at best, tricky. By starting out in fan fiction, I took out some of those elements and focused on things like plot and sentence structure. The setting and characters (for the most part, I did have a few original characters in there) were already laid out, so I could focus on them less. Doing this meant that when I was ready to move on to my own original fiction, it was less to learn all at once.

Some of my fan fiction should probably be burned and never looked at again, but I have a number of stories that I’m incredibly proud of, and are still available online. In fact, I still get new notifications of people selecting them as a favourite, or leaving a review on pieces I posted years ago. I think they’re pretty good obscure advertisements for my new writing.

Debbie: Another social media that I’ve shied away from myself, and always wondered whether I’m missing something, is Pinterest, of which I gather you’re a big fan. How have you used Pinterest and what does it offer that other social media can’t?

Chele: I think RP and fan fiction have really bolstered my appreciation of a medium like Pinterest. These are often incredibly visual, with people creating graphics to advertise their work. As these are mostly non-profit, you get very used to searching the internet for images that represent part of your work. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing with Pinterest, giving readers a visual insight into my writing.

There is a big similarity between Pinterest and Tumblr, in which they are both very image based, but I personally find Pinterest easier to use for an advertisement purpose. You can collect all the images in the same place, especially if you’re working with multiple books, where as Tumblr is completely chronologically organised.

I think the important part with any social media platform is that you enjoy doing it. If you don’t enjoy it and updating it becomes a chore, it isn’t going to be as enjoyable for readers either. I really enjoy using Pinterest, and I think that shows.

Debbie: Coming back to the more commonly used social media, Facebook and Twitter, how do you use those two to promote your work?

Chele: Currently, I’m using Facebook and Twitter a little differently than I usually would because Dead and Buryd has only just been released, so much of my social media has been geared toward that. However, on a day-to-day basis, I use social media to let people know about me far more than I broadcast my writing.

I find, and this goes for face-to-face networking as well as online-based relationships, that if you go into it with the intention of making a sale, people will quickly lose interest. Nobody wants to hear ‘buy my book’ screamed into a vacuum thirty times a day. I tend to focus my tweets and statuses more to my life. Sometimes this involves writing and where I am on a project, but mostly it’s things that I find interesting or amusing, little tit bits from my day. I find that if people are interested in me, they’ll be more likely to be interested in taking a look at my writing.

Cover of "Dead and Buryd" by Chele Cooke

Now on tour: Chele Cooke’s debut sci-fi/fantasy novel

Debbie: This post is appearing as part of a blog tour celebrating the launch of your debut novel. How did you go about setting up your blog tour and how is it going so far?

Chele: I’m finding blog touring very interesting, but I’ll admit, for a first-time author, it has been a little difficult. Blog touring, it seems, relies on connections, which I haven’t had all that long to create within the author and book blogging community. I think I probably would do better next time, when I have more of a background to my writing.

In general though, mainly I contacted friends and people I know through ALLi. There is a great feeling of cooperation, especially in groups such as ALLi, so I spent a lot of September hosting guest posts on my own blog, helping others the way they planned to help me. There have been a few hiccups with missing days, but I’m not letting it get to me. Hope for the best but plan for the worst, I guess.

Debbie: Of all the networking facilities that we’ve discussed here – the various social media and the blog tour – if you had to choose only one to promote your book, which would it be and why?

Chele: That’s a very tough question, because I use all of them for different aspects. I think that if I had to choose only one, I’d have to go with Facebook. There are so many little communities that you can become a part of, not simply for advertising, but because I find the conversations genuinely interesting. Plus, Facebook has the added bonus of being able to post a variety of different content, whether it’s texts, links, or images. Everything you post is right there, instead of linking you away to something else.

Of course, I’d rather have my selection of mediums going on. It’s far more interesting.

Debbie: Thank you so much, Chele, for that fascinating insight into how you’re using the combination of social media that suits you best. I really enjoyed your book, by the way! Good luck with the rest of your blog tour – I’m sure it will be a great success!

  • For more information about Chele Cooke, visit her website, where you’ll also find her many social media links!
  • To read  my review of Dead and Buryd, click here.
  • If you’re interested in finding out more about ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors, to which I also belong and whose blog of self-publishing advice I edit), click here.

How to Sell More Books: Diversify – with Guest Author Jessica Bell

Juggling balls

It takes balls to juggle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One way to raise your profile as a writer is to diversify, especially if you are self-publishing your work or being published by a small independent press. As I’ve said in a previous post, the best way to sell more books is to write more books – but that doesn’t mean you should focus solely on writing those books. It’s also worth seeking other ways in which to get your name before readers. This is especially true for self-published and independently published writers, who do not have the presence or klout of a big name publishing house behind them.

I’ve often heard writers dismiss certain networking opportunities such as Twitter by saying “But I don’t want to network only with writers, I want to reach only readers”. This irks me:

  • firstly because any writer who is not also a reader is not worthy of the title of writer
  • secondly, networking with writers not only refines your writing skills but also enables you to share best practice for reaching readers

If that’s how networkophobes want to play it, that’s their loss, but personally, I practise what I preach. I juggle all kinds of writing-related activities, not only writing short fiction (my first love) and blogging (a close second), but also creating WordPress websites for authors, writing about book promotion (see my handbook for the self-published author, Sell Your Books!, and reviewing every indie author’s book that I read.

Like most authors, I also have a day-job (part-time, in my case), working for a fabulous children’s reading charity, Readathon. Even better if you can engineer your day-job to feed into your writing. I’m lucky: in my world, all roads lead to books.

Meet a Master of Multi-Tasking, Jessica Bell

Head and shoulders of the author Jessica Bell

The ultimate multi-tasking writer, Jessica Bell

When I encountered the versatile and multi-tasking Jessica Bell on the fab Facebook forum of the Alliance of Independent Authors, I felt as if I’d met a kindred spirit. I was also hugely envious of her location: Greece, where she alternates between her base in Athens and her writing retreat workshops on the Ionian island of Ithaca. As well as writing fiction and non-fiction, poetry and songs, she pens articles for literary magazines, is co-editor of Vine Leaves, and writes and edits for English Language Training companies all over the world.  Jessica’s most recent publication is the latest in her Nutshell series of mini writing guides for authors.

With all that going on in her life (when does she ever sleep?!) she is an object lesson in how diversifying writing-related activities enables an author to reach a wider readership than if she focused solely on her novels and poetry. I was delighted that she could find time to join me here to talk about her lifestyle.

Q) Jessica, I thought Sell Your Books! was slim, but the books in your Nutshell series are positively snack size, resembling a partwork magazine. Personally, I find this a really practical format for authors who want to improve their craft but have no time or energy to read a big tome about it. (What author doesn’t comfort-buy bigger style guides that never get opened or acted upon? Just like recipe books and diet guides!) But why did you take this approach rather than combining all the tips into a single book?

A) You know how in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she says that in order not to be overwhelmed, a writer needs to focus on short assignments? She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how that little picture frame reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. Basically, if you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole. I believe the same applies to learning the craft of writing. If writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting and piece by piece it will come together.

Cover image of Adverbs & Cliches in a Nutshell by Jessica BellQ) Will you combine them into a single volume once you’re done, or will this be an ongoing series ad infinitum?

A) The plan is to release one book every six months, and I’m hoping to write at least six, so it will be a while yet before there is a single volume. But once they’re all written and released, yes, a box set is definitely an option I’ll be exploring. But that could be another two years away. We’ll see.

Q) I was slightly surprised that you’d grouped adverbs and clichés together. Like all careful writers, I avoid clichés like the plague (ho ho) but hadn’t considered adverbs to be necessarily (oops!) undesirable. Are they really equal crimes of laziness?

A) Before I answer this, writers need to understand that they aren’t always going to be a problem. You don’t need to go overboard trying to eliminate every single adverb in your manuscript. Because sometimes, they just work. Same with clichés. They serve a purpose. Especially in dialogue. Of course, it also depends a lot on your character’s voice. Because they come naturally, we frequently utilize them in everyday speech (see?). But in fiction, too many adverbs weaken prose. It’s considered “lazy writing,” because it means we don’t have to show what’s happening.

If your manuscript has too many adverbs, it most likely means that the emotion you felt while writing it is not going to translate to the reader in the same way. Because the way in which one experiences things isn’t always the same as the next person. As writers, it’s your duty to make readers experience your story from a unique point of view. Your point of view. Adverbs stunt this.

Q) I loved the hands-on format of the book, prescribing set exercises for the reader, each sample to be read and considered four times, in four different ways. Is this the sort of activity you include in your writing retreats? If so, did the books evolve from your experience of running the retreats? If not, where did you get the idea for this format?

A) No, this idea didn’t come from the retreats. I make a living as an editor/writer of English Language Teaching materials for various publishers worldwide, so I guess “breaking down” the language is a technique I’m used to incorporating in ELT lessons. It’s effective there, so I thought, surely it’s going to be effective with fiction too.

Q) Can you tell me the themes of the next books you have planned in this series?

A) I haven’t finalized all my topics yet, because I need to start writing to see which ones lend themselves well to this format. But my list of possible topics include: superfluous words, crafting natural dialogue, subtext and conflict, weaving in relevant back-story, chapter endings, characterization, avoiding stereotypes, making setting count, using the six senses.

Q) Are you promoting each book in the series in the same way or, if not, what have you learned from the earlier launch that has made you launch this one in a different way?

A) Yes, I think I’ll stick to my current marketing plan. Seems to be working well. The only different thing I’m doing this time around is encouraging virtual tour participants to interview me in real time on Facebook and Twitter. I think it’s fun to follow a conversation as it gives people an opportunity to actually engage and interact, rather than just leave a comment on a blog and not really know if I’ll respond. Though I do try my best to respond to everyone!

Q) Turning now to questions about your career, I’m impressed by the diversity of your writing activities and by your energy. Just reading the list of the links in the footer of your email is exhausting! Did you set out to formulate this “portfolio career” approach, or has it just evolved? In what order did they accumulate?

A)  Haha, no I did not set out for the long list. I just had some ideas and wanted to bring them into fruition. My mother always said, if there’s a will there’s a way. (Hey, look, cliché!) If I want something enough, I do it. Full stop. There’s no such thing as failure in my vocabulary. There’s try. And try again. I can’t really remember in what order they happened. I think all my ideas started to come together at once!

Q) How do these activities feed off each other or cross-fertilise?

A) Well, they’re all writing related, so I do try to link them together on occasion. One recent example is the vignette contest my literary journal ran for the chance to win a scholarship to the writing retreat I run. Nice smooth connection there. And both organizations benefit.

Q) I envy you your locations—Athens & Ithaca. How do those settings affect and influence your work? Do you speak Greek and, if so, do you find yourself using more words that originate from Greek? (I once did evening classes in Greek and used to holiday there before I had my daughter, sailing round the Ionian, often mooring on Ithaca, and I loved discovering the Greek roots of English words.)

 A) There is a lot about Greece in my debut novel, String Bridge, but I have to say that Greece had already started to influence me when I was a kid. I must have been about eleven. I remember sitting on a rock by the sea in a little place called Monemvasia. I was so inspired by my surroundings that I needed a way to express it. This is when I started writing poetry. In the end (well, beginning), Greece is what sparked my passion for words.

Also, I would never have got my first job as an editor if I hadn’t moved here. As I said above, I make a living as an editor/writer of English Language Teaching materials. There is no need for this sort of thing in an English speaking country. So I guess, I have Greece to thank for giving me the opportunity to pursue this career path. If I had have remained in Australia, I probably would have focused more on my music.

Yes, I do speak Greek. But it can get a bit rusty at times. Mainly because I work all day with English that I hardly have the chance to use it. Regarding Greek words, um … I don’t think so. Unless I’m hungry. 🙂

Q) Your poems and fiction are gaining more readership and recognition. To what extent has this been fuelled by your other writing-related activities? (I’m trying not to use the clichés “author platform” and “greater than the sum of the parts” here!)

A) I believe that all these writing-related activities mean that I need to be online quite a lot. As a result, I’ve become visible, to quite some extent, through social media. And to be honest, I couldn’t live without it. I’m quite isolated being an English writer in a non-English speaking country, and I need to promote my work to the English-speaking world.

The key to social networking, though, is to engage in conversations, interact with your audience. Saying, “buy my book, it’s great” all the time, isn’t going to sell it. But saying “hey, what do you think about blah blah blah?” and actually eliciting opinions from others, means you are saying something that people are interested in. And if they’re interested in what you’re saying online, then it’s likely they are going to investigate you further. It’s a long process, and hard work. But it certainly pays off.

How’s this for statistics? I’ve been blogging and engaging in social media, pretty much every single day, since March 2010. And only this year, three years later, have I started to see true results. It takes effort, persistence, stamina, but most of all love and passion. Because this ‘being visible’, (and let’s sign off with a good old cliché, hey?) doesn’t happen overnight!

Juggling balls

No caption required 😉 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanks again, Jessica, for sharing so many inspirational tips and lessons, and best of luck not only with your latest Nutshell book but with all your many literary undertakings!

To find out more about Jessica Bell, including her latest Nutshell book, please visit her website:

To read my review of Adverbs and Clichés in a Nutshell, please click here.

To network with other writers via the Alliance of Independent Authors, click the yellow and gold rosette in the sidebar on the right of this page.

How to Promote a Book that Defies Categorisation: with Guest Author Dan Holloway

Cover of Evie and Guy by Dan Holloway

Cover image copyright Veronika von Volkova

Self-publishing offers the author the freedom to break industry rules, such as writing books that do not fit into an established genre. But with such freedom to innovate comes a  greater marketing challenge. With any  book that defies classification, you need to promote not only the book but also sell the concept before you can expect readers to buy it.

I’ve recently been following with interest the progress of some interesting genre-defying books, all self-published:

Then a few weeks ago I spotted the bravest, boldest genre-buster that I’ve ever seen: Dan Holloway’s novel Evie and Guy, written entirely in numbers. Here was a book that was going to need some serious concept-selling. I’m not saying for a moment that there’s no market for such work – it’s just harder to define and reach it.

I am therefore absolutely delighted that Dan Holloway, novelist and performance poet, is joining Off The Shelf today to give us some insight into his motivation for writing such a ground-breaking novel, how he is promoting it and how he will measure the success of this book, compared with his previous work.

By the way, this post is much longer than usual on Off The Shelf, but do please read it to the end, in particular for Dan’s liberating views on what makes a book successful – a refreshing antidote to the industry’s obsession with sales statistics and Amazon rankings!

Q) Dan, can you please describe briefly the concept behind Evie and Guy and why you wrote it in the form of numbers?

A) Um, no, probably not, but I’ll try. The last time I described it, as briefly as possible, I took 500 words plus. Anyway, in short, I wanted to create a different reading experience. Because language is, in the philosophical sense of something constructed that represents nothing, a fiction, when we think of ourselves or of characters in language we are always removed from them. Our concept of them, and of ourselves, is constricted by what language tells us. Reality is very different, it is made of experiences, but whenever we think about ourselves, rather than purely experiencing, we are back to being trapped by language. What I wanted, among many other things, was to offer the possibility for readers to get beyond that facade, to experience reading the book as something sensual, experiential, and not distant and conceptual. That is only a very small part, but probably the important part – I want to free readers to experience their lives in a way that is more real.

Q)  It may come as a surprise to many self-published authors, used to thinking that Amazon is all (especially when it can be hard to get indie books distributed via bricks-and-mortar stores), that you do not sell your work via Amazon. Indeed, when I first read about Evie and Guy, I headed over to Amazon to check out its reviews and was surprised that I could not find the book on there at all. Later, I decided that it might be a strategic move to avoid the book becoming an easy victim to thoughtless reviews by people who haven’t understood the concept – e.g. “I ordered a novel but all I got was a book full of numbers! One star!” But I see that you do not have any of your work listed on Amazon (although you have an author profile page). Why is this?

A) Ah, this is another tricky one. I took my books down from Amazon when the tax row broke. I have had a considerable amount of flak for it, most of it focusing very rightly on the fact that Amazon are not the only ones paying (legally) very low taxes. I absolutely accept that, but I also think that everyone who protests will, just by existing, be a hypocrite in some way or other, and if we let the fact we couldn’t do *everything* stop us from doing *anything* then I’m not sure I see how that makes the world a better place. So yes, it’s a flawed stance, and I’m happy to admit that, but I didn’t feel good about myself as someone who in another hat campaigns on social justice issues when my books were on Amazon. Now they’re not, I feel happy. That will have to be good enough.

On the review subject, that’s a negative (despite this absurd notion I see bandied about too much about judging indie books as good because they have x or y number of 4 star reviews on Amazon or Goodreads – I mean, has no one watched the beginning of Dead Poets’ Society where RobinWilliams’ character mercilessly rips into the idea you can measure quality?) I want my work to provoke strong reactions, positive and negative – my main influence is Tracey Emin, after all, who has had goodness knows what said about her work. Good art should do that. If you don’t offend people you’re probably being lazy.

Q) What is your preferred route for selling copies of your work, and why? e.g. through your own website? other online stores?

A) To pre-empt what I think may come in a later question, it varies according to the format of the book. I always have a stock of paperbacks with me, which I take anywhere I’m reading. That is the very best way I think to sell to readers who are then going to go on and read and maybe fall in love with your book – they’ve already heard you, they know you (which is more personal than “look inside” samples) and want to know your work, so whilst you may never sell huge numbers, you are very likely to attract a very high percentage of “true fans” to use Kevin Kelly’s term.

When it comes to e-books, most of mine are available as free downloads from my website – this will in time become all of them, when I stop touring my poetry and get some time. I like the “pay what you can/want to model”, and encourage people with a little note inside the book to do so by Paypal. I would rather they pay after they’ve read the book, when they know what it means to them – I basically want readers to feel happy with whatever they pay (or don’t pay).

I sell through a number of bookshops, but I choose them very carefully and tend to build relationships where I will put on events so they gain something in terms of audience, and they sell my books. That both supports independent bookstores who are doing great things for readers, and again is built on relationships, which is how to get those readers who will really engage with you. Bookstores in general are not a particularly great place to sell because of the discount they take, which can mean either you make nothing or your books are a silly price, so I think it’s far better to focus on selling direct, be that through your website or in person, and to do your bookstore selling with a few stores you know well so you build relationships for the long term.

Q) What have you done to promote Evie and Guy so far? Which of these things have worked well, which not so well?

A) So far, aside from the occasional tweet and Facebook status, I’ve built on relationships, sending information and a pdf to everyone I know who might be interested, be they friends or bloggers, but most of all people I know in magazines and the media who deal with this kind of experimental/literary fiction. The response has been extraordinary – of the biggest websites in the field (3:AM, Metazen, Pank, htmlgiant, The Millions), 3:AM have featured the book on their buzzwords page, and Pank and Metazen have said they’ll review it. Sabotage, the biggest review site for underground novellas, have done a very detailed interview with me which will be out shortly. Several bloggers have written wonderful reviews.

It’s hard to gauge success because of the pace things move. Blogs about the book have certainly resulted in downloads, and there was a big spike when I got the 3:AM feature. But lots of reviews are still forthcoming because the bigger sites have longer waiting lists, so I don’t know.

The next stage will be a more focused campaign towards the mainstream media, and then the Folio Prize Academy members. It’s very different from anything out there, and yet I’ve spent so long researching and getting it just right that I’m confident there’s no hint of gimmickry about it. Which I hope makes it ideal for media coverage, but that remains very hard – and there’s always a nagging doubt I thin still that because you’re a self-publisher it must be a bit of a gimmick, you can’t actually have thought as deeply as you have, or had such complex intentions.

Q)  You are a performance poet with an impressive list of events and achievements in that field. How important a role does your live performance play in helping you to sell your books and find new readers?

A) I treat it as completely separate from my novels, although many people I’ve met in poetry audiences have gone on to read my novels. But for my poetry books, it’s essential. Live performance and YouTube are the two most essential things for the kind of poetry I write. I could blog and tweet till I’m blue in the face, but performance poetry is like music – people fall in love with it when they hear it. I think that teaches a really important lesson – that you really have to think about your readers and go where they are, not where you feel comfortable. And if those two things don’t coincide, you need to have a real think about whether you want to spend decades doing this.

Q) Has having a substantial following for your previous work been a help or a hindance? Like other authors who shift genres, did you consider testing the book under a pseudonym so that it stood completely alone on its own merits and in its own right? Or is the nature of your back catalogue such that people expect you to innovate, so that they were already primed to expect a book as unusual as Evie and Guy? (Trying to avoid using the dreaded phrase “author platform” here…)

A) A help and a hindrance. I made a valuable mistake when I published a thriller a couple of years ago. It sold several thousand copies and people came to associate me with it. But whilst I liked it, it was far from my best book, and I just haven’t been able to write another one. I’ve ended up pretty much expunging all records of it because it got to the stage where people only wanted to talk about that, and that caused all kinds of problems for the writing I was trying to get people to see. I think if I did it again, I’d have put that out under a pseudonym.

Mostly though, it’s been a huge help. I’ve had a reputation since I started the Year Zero Writers collective in January 2009 (and probably before then) for being an awkward curmudgeon who did the weird and wacky stuff and always backed it up with pages and pages of largely incomprehensible critical theory. And I have always engaged with blogs about the more weird and wonderful sorts of literature. So people know both to expect something weird, and that probably it’s not just weird for the sake of it but has a serious purpose, which makes it much easier to persuade people to interview you (as does having a reputation for saying what you think, and for not being afraid to put people’s backs up to speak out for something you believe in). It also meant that I’d got to know a lot of people who were interested in this kind of book. I think you can’t say too many times how important it is to engage in the community you’re writing for, and to do so over a sustained period of time.

Q) I see one reviewer has likened Evie and Guy to a piece of art, rather than literature, and I understand that response. But it occurs to me that by writing the book entirely in numbers, you’ve invented a new form of language, a kind of numeric Esperanto – the book could be read as if in any language (although, tiresomely, you would have to transpose the months and days for the American audience, of course!) Had you thought of having your intro translated and testing it in other countries?

A) I think it would be interesting to see how it was received in other cultures. That’s an interesting thought. I write a lot about Europe, especially post-communist Eastern Europe, and a lot of the theoretical baggage that goes with my writing has its most natural home in Europe, specifically France. I work a lot with the Anglo-Breton poet Claire Trevien, and Andrew Gallix, who teaches at the Sorbonne and founded 3:AM, has been very supportive, so I may well get the intro translated into French and see if with their help I could put it out in France. French media and readers are much more receptive to literature that isn’t ashamed of its ideas than the British media, so in many ways it would be a perfect fit. Thank you for suggesting it! (Note: since things have moved on and Dan is now engaged with two translators to develop a French edition!)

Q) It’s early days yet, but what have you learned from the launch of Evie and Guy – is there anything you’d do differently, if starting over? Anything you’d recommend to others with a similarly experimental book to launch?

A) First of all, I’d say get in touch! Second, I’d say two things – become part of your literary community. Join the conversation, say interesting things, have opinions and argue for them.

And do your research. Experimental fiction is a ruthless world. On the one hand there is a whole multitude of readers waiting to snipe and call you all sorts of names for doing something they don’t understand, so you need a thick skin. But on the other hand, make sure you know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing, make sure there is absolutely no element of gimmickry, and make sure it really is pushing the envelope you think you’re pushing, because on the other side from the sniping hordes are the afficianados and they’re a hundred times scarier, and if they feel like you’re floundering or maybe have some derivative elements you haven’t acknowledged, they’ll tear you limb form limb.

It’s too early to know if I’d do anything differently, but one thing I do a lot that I wish I didn’t is apologise. If I’m with other writers especially. When I’m blogging, I’ll happily talk about “building a poetics of hope” or having grand ambitions to free readers from the shackles of language, but when people talk about what they’re writing, I’ll shuffle to the corner and mumble “oh, it’s just some weird stuff” because I have this underlying feeling that people don’t really take me seriously because my aims aren’t commercial. I would advise everyone never to apologise for their work, but I need to work on it harder myself.

Q) It seems crass for me to ask you about the prospects of commercial success for Evie and Guy: to have written such a book at all is in itself a huge achievement. After all, no-one could call Van Gogh a commercial success in his own lifetime… But what would have to happen for you to consider Evie & Guy a success – not only commercially but in other ways too?

A) There are three things I think I want for Evie and Guy. The first is the grand overarching aim of beginning to chip away at the assumptions people have about what a novel can or should be, and beginning to free people from thinking about themselves in terms of language. I guess actually those are two things, though the second is somewhat intangible (albeit I’ve already had a handful of emails from readers almost in tears at how moved they’d been by the book, so I would say already that’s more success than I could hope for). The former I think I’d measure by the way the media is willing to talk about the book, and the public conversations it sparks.

Second, I would like it to come to be known as the book that changed how self-publishing was seen artistically. That again will be very easy to measure, in terms of what people say about it. It will in many ways be the hardest to achieve, because I think most of the most prominent people in the self-publishing community are nervous of the book, and to a certain aextent of me. Self-publishing has changed a lot since I started, when the underground literary firebrand pumping out a weird mix of avant-garde theatre and politcal pamphleteering was pretty much the norm. No, it’s very much a respectable commercial choice, and people I get the sense are a bit nervy about me because I haven’t gone diving further underground like many from the early days, nor have I gone to a small press like many others have, but I’ve hung around trying to bring the conversation back to art all the time. I also honestly don’t know how many people share my view of what it would mean for self-publishing to be taken seriously artistically. What I mean is that I’d like critics to feel happy trawling self-publishing for exciting new ideas and cultural innovation. I don’t know how much others in the indie movement really care about that.

Third, I’ve made no secret of the fact I want to win the inaugural Folio Prize (set up as an alternative to Booker), both personally and because that would be a huge moment for self-publishing. And when I stop being apologetic, I think that Evie and Guy actually has the potential to do so. I think there’s a huge paucity of artistic ambition in the current literary scene in the UK, especially among self-publishers. We are happy to encourage people to dream of earning a living from writing, why not encourage them to want to change the world through art?

So, whilst it probably sounds ridiculously arrogant to say I’d like to change the world and win artistic prizes, I think it’s important for would-be writers to hear others saying that. There’s a £10,000 prize for the Folio Prize, so I guess that’s commercial. And as a broke writer, it would be a godsend, but I don’t think I could ever equate success with money. I am very lucky to have a day job. It doesn’t really pay the bills and rent, certainly no more than the bills and rent, but many people don’t have even that, so I am incredibly lucky. Of course it would be nice to be able to write full time. On the other hand, if I had that time, would I really use it? I don’t know. Having an hour a night to scrawl and the bus ride home to think focuses the mind incredibly and intensifies the result I’m sure.

Dan, thank you so much for being a guest here, and, of course, I wish you huge success, in every respect, with Evie and Guy

To find out more about Dan’s work, and to download a copy of Evie and Guy for yourself, please visit his website:

Dan is also happy to respond to any questions left here on Off The Shelf, so do please feel free to leave a comment for him! (NB All comments are moderated before they go live, to guard against spam, so please don’t worry if yours doesn’t immediately show up!)

How To Sell More Books: Write More Books

Prolific writers sell more books! Here’s how you can too.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s bestseller status is no mystery: she wrote lots and lots of books  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Listening to an inspiring talk in my local public library by M C Beaton, crime writer and Regency romance novelist (an unusual combination!), I was vividly reminded that any writer increases his or her chance of becoming a bestselling author –  and just as importantly, a regular seller – simply by writing more books.

We can all name writers who have secured literary immortality with a single, shining bright novel, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, never out of print since it was published in 1960. But it’s far easier to name bestselling authors who have written many books.

Who are the most prolific authors of all time?

In this list of the all-time best-selling fiction writers, the number of books each had written leaps off the page:

  1. Agatha Christie – 85
  2. Barbara Cartland – 723
  3. Danielle Steele – 120
  4. Harold Robbins – 23
  5. Georges Simenon – 570
  6. Sidney Sheldon – 21
  7. Enid Blyton – 800
  8. Dr Seuss – 44
  9. Gilbert Patten – 209
  10. J K Rowling – 9

With just 9 books to her name, J K Rowling, who we tend to think of as being an all-time, record-breaking phenomenon, has actually sold only (ha!) 350 million books, a small fraction of the more productive Agatha Christie’s total sales of (wait for it) 2 billion.

Profilic author M C Beaton giving a library talk

Thriller writer M C Beaton tells a group of fans how to sell more books

Of course, quantity alone is not enough. There must be quality, to entice the reader to keep coming back for more. But your work doesn’t need to be all in the same genre.  If you plan to straddle different genres, it’s a good idea to write under different pseudonyms so as not to confuse or mislead the reader. A writer’s name is effectively a brand, and the reader has certain expectations of that brand, which need to be met. Somebody picking up an M C Beaton, for example, expects a thriller, and not the 100+ historical romances which this highly prolific author has published under her real name of Marion Chesney and various pen-names (Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Jennie Tremaine, and Charlotte Ward).

M C Beaton: A Role Model for Would-Be Prolific Writers

Now in her 70s, M C Beaton still produces at least two thrillers a year, one in each of her most popular series about her unconventional detectives, Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth. Her many fans (of which I am one, as you’ve probably guessed by now!) snap them up the minute they’re published, because they know they will enjoy them. They don’t care what the title is, they’ll simply buy it because they are confident in the brand. “Oh, good, it’s a new Agatha!” or  “I’m so looking forward to the next Hamish!” comes the cry. Many readers, once they find an author they like, will work their way through that writer’s entire works. I’m sure you have your own favourite authors that you treat this way.

An avid reader herself, M C Beaton gave a vivid example of the power of an author’s brand.

“I bought ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ by mistake at an airport,” she admitted, “because I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a P D James I haven’t read!'”

A writer who follows up a successful novel with regular new books of similar quality will gain more sales.  Of course, these books still won’t sell themselves: they will require active and effective promotion. But any book that follows in the wake of a successful predecessor will have a greater chance of success.

And never has it been easier to promote your books effectively than in our digital age. Whenever you publish a new book, you can blast out publicity via social media and online bookshops for next to no cost, other than time and effort – an advantage never enjoyed by Agatha Christie.

There are terrific tools for boosting serial sales available to all self-published writers. Here are three top tips:

  • To the end of each book, add the beginning of the next one in the series, with the planned publication date, to whet the reader’s appetite and  allow them to make a mental note to buy it as soon as it comes out.
  • Create your own mailing list of your fans by embedding a sign-up form on your author website, so that you’ll be able to contact them directly as soon as the next book is published.
  •  Offer free downloads of the first book in a series to hook new readers, and if they enjoy it enough, they’ll buy the rest of the series.

Try not to liken yourself to a drug-dealer, but bear in mind that you’re aiming for addiction! A more comfortable analogy is to aim at writing the literary equivalent of the proverbial Mars bar: a strong product to which people will want to return regularly, rather than working their way through the rest of the sweetshop without a backward glance.

How to Write More Books

When you establish yourself as a writer of a series, or as a serial writer of a specific kind of book, the trickier task is actually not to sell more books, but to write more books in the same vein that your established readers will love. Again, as writers in the digital age, we have so many advantages over the prolific writers of the past. Can you imagine the sheer physical labour for Leo Tolstoy of writing War and Peace with a quill pen? It would certainly put me off redrafts.

Here’s how M C Beaton, now 74, still manages to turn out at least two books a year – an impressive feat even in a much younger author:

“I get up in the morning and look for opportunities to distract myself from writing, such as defrosting the fridge. I have to force myself to write, but once I start, I do it in a very focused way, for two hours at a time, in a very concentrated manner. That way I write five pages EVERY DAY.”

By making this regular, achievable appointment with the blank page, she has turned her writing into a habit. It’s a part of her daily  routine. For her, to keep writing is the norm. Any writer who really wants to write more books would be well-advised to follow her example. It’s obviously easier to achieve this if, like most writers, you’re not also having to hold down a day-job, but it shouldn’t be impossible to find at least half an hour each day to produce one page and so produce 365 pages a year. Even a single appointment with yourself to write for two focused hours just once a week would produce five pages and an annual manuscript of  250 pages – a perfectly respectable book-length manuscript. If you’re not able to commit to that practice, and have so many other things in your life that you’d rather be doing, you have to ask yourself how much you really want to write more books.

But don’t be downhearted: even my high-achieving hero M C Beaton has her moments of weakness. I’ll share the endearing admission with which she ended her talk:

“The most beautiful words in the English language are ‘The End’.”

Good luck, keep calm, and keep writing.


How A Small Writers’ Group Achieved Big Success

Had great fun today meeting a reporter and photographer from the local paper with a group from my village called the Hawkesbury Writers.  This small band of writers has lovingly compiled a second volume of community history, The Next Generation, due for publication at the end of the month.  The first book in the series, A Monument to Hawkesbury, was published in 1985 and still sells well.  Its profits have benefited community groups for all ages, from Playgroup to the Evergreens (senior citizens).

The writers interviewed the older villagers to come up with a fascinating first-hand account of how village life changed between 1920 and 1985.  The account is a startling reminder of how much society has changed within the villagers’ lifetime.

Having become involved only towards the end of the project, I wrote a brief contribution to the book about the arrival of mains water in the village, having recorded the memories of an elderly neighbour who died in 2000.  I used to spend hours listening to her tales and just wish I’d had the foresight to write them down after every visit!  A true writer should never go anywhere without a notebook and pen – or a mini voice recorder, if that’s how you prefer to work.   Proofreading the final copy of the whole book was truly a pleasure.

This book has been published with the assistance of a grant from the Quartet Community FoundationIf you are considering publishing a book related to local or specialist issues, it’s well worth investigating the availability of grants from relevant organisations and trusts.

There will be further celebrations for the launch of the book on Sunday 28th November, when a small party will be held in the village hall, attended by the writers, many of the villagers they interviewed, and friends and neighbours who are keen to snap up copies hot off the press!  Then it will be on to the next project – a record to take us up to the millenium.   A great achievement for a great village community.  Hats off to Hawkesbury Upton!


In the Pink


Author Helen Hart

In the pink - the author and her website!


When it comes to websites, I’m convinced that less is more.

This is certainly true of the crisp, new site that I’ve just finished off for the author Helen Hart – as much as any website can ever be said to be truly finished.

The plain white background sets off the colourful masthead photo of a shelf full of the books she writes for the young teenage girls, and the flashes of fuschia pink, used as an accent colour throughout, adds the essential feminine touch.

The site will be of interest not only to Helen’s readers, but also to aspiring authors, who are already visiting her pages of writing tips in droves.  Click here to take a look at the site for yourself – and prepare to be dazzled!