Saturday, 27 November 2010

What’s in a name?

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, I discovered the Lulu Titlescorer the other day. It’s a nifty little online tool; you enter the title of your novel, along with some information about the words it’s made up of, and it tells you what chance a book with that title has of being a bestseller. Apparently the program is based on an analysis of 50 years’ worth of fiction titles that have topped the New York Times bestseller list.

The bad news is that, on the basis of their titles at least, none of the three novels I’ve completed to date is going to get me onto that list: Grown-Up People, First Time I Met The Blues and The Celebrity Next Door all scored a measly 10.2% - barely above the minimum possible score of 9%. Slightly more encouragingly, my work in progress, Going Back, scored 20.1%. I’ve been regarding that as strictly a working title, to be replaced by something better at a later stage, but maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to discard it.

Out of curiosity, I ran a few randomly chosen famous titles through the program as well, to see if the professionals are any better at naming their novels. The results were mixed: Far From The Madding Crowd scored the same as me, 10.2%, while Portnoy’s Complaint and Bridget Jones’s Diary both managed a scarcely more impressive 14.6%. Catcher In The Rye (a title I’ve always disliked – shows what I know) did better, with 26.3%, but the winner in this hugely unscientific survey was Midnight’s Children, with a whopping 44.2%.

I’m not sure any of this proves anything, of course, but it does mean I can legitimately compare myself to Thomas Hardy in one respect at least.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

In praise of e (squared)

To be frank, I’ve had a bugger of a time at work recently, and one of the few things that have kept me sane has been a novel: e squared, by one of my favourite contemporary writers, Matt Beaumont.

It’s a sort of sequel to e, which came out in 2000 and was notable for being (to my knowledge, at least) the first novel written entirely in emails. Set in an advertising agency called Miller Shanks, it skewered that world deliciously – and e squared repeats the trick, with bells on. The scene has moved to another agency, Meerkat360, which is so bleeding-edge that the Creative Director hires an in-house hairdresser, clown and busker. Some of the characters from e reappear, and as the technology has moved on, so have the narrative modes: alongside email we get text messages, blogs, instant messaging and online news reports.

I’ve always loved satire, and Beaumont is a superbly scurrilous satirist. Almost every one of the 20-odd main characters is deeply flawed, and blissfully unaware of it. It’s no accident that the nearest thing the book has to a hero is a gambling addict who alienates everyone who cares for him – but his saving grace is that he knows he’s an idiot, unlike those who surround him.

All Matt Beaumont’s half a dozen novels are excellent, but the last couple have been a shade more thoughtful. e squared, though, is unashamedly frivolous and hilarious. As someone who works in the media (though not in advertising, thankfully), I’ve enjoyed being reminded how ridiculous what I do for a living actually is.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Twitter: take two

It seems I’m not the only one who’s been wondering why famous authors don’t tweet. There was a article in the Saturday Times a couple of weeks ago on exactly the same subject.

Since it was in the Times, and thus hidden behind a paywall, I can’t link to it, but I can relay a few snippets. Stephen Armstrong was inspired to investigate when a doppelganger stepped in to take the part of American author Jonathan Frantzen in a literary dispute, and he discovered, as I did, that the big names of literature – whether it’s the likes of Amis and McEwan in the UK, or Auster and Roth in the US – don’t use Twitter.

One plausible reason came from Tom Tivnan of The Bookseller. “Really big authors have the publisher take care of their marketing for them,” he said. “It’s the midlist authors, the ones who don’t make the bestseller list, who are the most active – if they don’t promote themselves, nobody else will.” Indeed – and imagine what it’s like for self-published authors.

An alternative view came from author Andrew Shaffer, who said: “Authors who are ambitious enough to write the kind of novels Franzen and Roth write need some distance from their own culture – observers and not participants.”

Meanwhile, another writer, Jonathan Myerson, believes that “literary fiction writers tend to lead boring lives. What would they tweet? ‘I’m going to my desk.’ ‘I’m sitting at my desk.’ ‘I’m leaving my desk.’ The more successful they become, the more boring their lives.”

To which all I can say is – I wish my life was that boring…

Monday, 6 September 2010

Wilko on wheels

I went to see Wilko Johnson at the Half Moon in Putney on Saturday night – my first proper blues gig for some time, I’m ashamed to say. Watching the great man up close and personal – from a position just a few feet from the stage – was a remarkable experience.

For those who haven’t seen Wilko, or the fabulous Oil City Confidential documentary about Dr Feelgood, the first thing to say is that he looks odd enough when he’s stationary. Bald, boggle-eyed and intense, dressed all in black, he sings into the mic and thrashes away at his stylish guitar (matt black with a shiny red fingerplate) in his own unique manner. (My friend Chris, who understands more about these things than I do, says he manages to play lead and rhythm guitar at the same time, which ought to be impossible.)

But it’s when the verse ends that it gets truly strange. Freed from the need to stand still, Wilko suddenly veers across the stage, extremely fast, soloing as he goes, with an almost trance-like expression on his face. Given that, from the audience, you can’t see his legs, you end up wondering if he’s on wheels, because surely no one can move that fast sideways. Sometimes, by way of variation, he shoots up to the front of the stage and back again, and it’s like an effect a cameraman might try, zooming in and out while keeping the subject in focus.

Meanwhile, off to one side of the stage, bassist Norman Watt-Roy is feeling every note, hunched over his guitar and sweating profusely as he twists and turns and grimaces and gurns. He’s the antithesis of the Bill Wyman school of bass playing.

With all this going on, it’s easy to forget about the music, a powerful, percussive r’n’b, including a few Feelgood classics for the old-timers in the audience (which was most of us). It’s just a shame that Wilko barely uttered a word from the moment he arrived on stage to the moment he left. I thought he might have wanted to share a few stories from his long, strange career. But clearly he prefers to let his guitar do the talking.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The great superhero rip-off

On the recommendation of Scott Pack, who I saw speaking at the London Writers’ Club last month, I bought a book called All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman. Scott himself provided the front cover recommendation on the edition I bought, which reads: “Buy it, borrow it, steal it but just make sure you read it.”

Well, I read it, and now I wish I’d borrowed or stolen it, rather than paying £7.99 for it.

Not that it’s a bad book as such. I can see why some people find it inspirational – it’s one of those symbolic stories that people can readily project themselves into, a bit like the crap that Paulo Coelho writes, though not that bad, fortunately. It didn’t do much for me; it was a mildly diverting short story, basically.

But here’s the thing. All My Friends Are Superheroes is being sold by Telegram Books at the same price as you’d pay for a 500-page novel. I know this because my Amazon order also included the latest Matt Beaumont novel, which is over 500 pages long, but still retails for £7.99.

However, Kaufman’s squib runs to just 108 pages – and of those, 15 or so are blank. And it’s printed in above-average size type. Let’s be honest, it’s basically a short story, or a novella if you’re feeling generous. And I can’t help feeling ripped off as a result.

This isn’t a criticism of Andrew Kaufman, who doubtless has no influence on how his book is priced. But it does suggest to me that the publishing industry has got a serious problem with its pricing structure. To use a musical analogy, I wouldn’t expect to pay the same for a three-track EP as for a 20-track album.

It also points the way towards new ways of distributing fiction. I’ve yet to download a novel for online reading, but All My Friends... is the kind of work I might be prepared to experiment with, at the right price of course. I would feel less cheated now if I’d done that, rather than shelling out for the printed version.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Too famous to tweet?

Having had it drummed into me by all and sundry that as an aspiring author, it’s essential to be on Twitter, I signed up a few months ago and now tweet whenever inspiration strikes.

Half the fun of being on Twitter is finding out what people I like or admire are saying, not least in the field of creative writing. So I clicked on ‘Find People’, then on ‘Browse Suggestions’ and selected the ‘Books’ category. A long list came up – but it contained few authors I’d heard of, and only one I had any interest in following. Maybe established, successful authors don’t feel the need to be on Twitter, I thought, and left it there.

But it nagged away at me, and the other day I decided to test the theory. I quickly jotted down the names of my favourite contemporary British novelists and had a look online to see if any of them had a Twitter feed. It’s fair to say the results were not encouraging.

Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Nick Hornby and David Mitchell all have websites that are clearly maintained by their publishers (though McEwan does at least have a presence on Facebook). Matt Beaumont (being rather less famous) has a website that looks like he maintains it himself, and Jonathan Coe’s site contains a blog. I was momentarily excited to find an Iain Banks Twitter feed – but it turned out to be a ‘placeholder’, maintained by his publisher in case he ever decides to tweet. He’s more switched on to modern media than most, though – his website trumpets the launch of his new iPhone app.

The exception to the rule is Stephen Fry, one of the most followed people on Twitter (he’s currently got 1,619,347 followers, which makes my 8 look a bit puny) and famous as an enthusiastic adopter of new technologies – he already has an iPad app, for instance. Then again, he hasn’t published a novel since 2000, so he’s hardly an active novelist.

So what can we conclude from this? That full-time authors are too busy writing to tweet? Or that they don’t feel the need to use social media to build an audience, since they’ve got major publishers and their PR departments to do that for them? Or maybe it’s a gender thing: my favourite authors all happen to be male – maybe female writers are more into social media? (Though that’s not borne out by my experience of Twitter in general.)

Whatever the reason, it’s a shame: I’d like to know more about the authors of the books that inspire me to write, and Twitter is a great way to share insights into the life of a writer. I’ll try to remember that if I ever hit the big time.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Twisted logic

I’ve been a fan of John Irving ever since I took The World According To Garp on an Interrailing trip around Europe in the 80s. It was one of those life-changing novels, unlike anything I’d read before, and I’ve followed him loyally ever since.

My enthusiasm has been waning in recent years, though, and having just finished his latest, Last Night In Twisted River, it’s fallen a little further. Not that it’s a bad book, not at all. But there are things about it that are highly irritating, and since one of them is to do with writing, I’ll focus on that.

The central character in the book, Danny, grows up to become a successful novelist, and as Irving describes them, each of Danny’s novels is based on a significant incident from his life. To give just one example, in the 1960s his girlfriend offers to bear him a child so that he can be exempt from service in Vietnam under a law passed by President Kennedy. He becomes a so-called ‘Kennedy Father’ – and subsequently writes a novel called The Kennedy Fathers in which the main characters go through exactly the same experiences.

There’s lots more in this vein, and it’s not the first time Irving has used this device: a character has striking and unusual experiences and then writes novels that retell them, with only minor variations in the details. It’s almost as if Irving is trying to tell his readers that you don’t need any imagination to be a writer – just have an interesting life and write about that.

Of course, every novel is autobiographical to the extent that everything that makes it onto the page comes out of the writer’s head. But (speaking for myself, at least) most of us mingle experience and invention, and keep on doing so until the end product has no obvious real-life counterpart. If one of my friends read a scene I’d written and said “I remember that party” or “You’ve described x to a tee”, I would regard myself as having failed as a novelist.

Irving is clearly aware of what he’s doing – at one point Danny even expresses anger that critics insist on regarding his novels as autobiographical. Maybe I’m missing some subtle point, and the reader is supposed to pity Danny for his lack of self-awareness. But to me it just reads like a non-writer’s idea of the way writers come up with their plots.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

A definite article

Hot on the heels of my radio debut, my first online interview is now available to read in issue 2 of arts magazine The Kaje. I was interviewed by Jason Newton a few weeks ago, and the article is accompanied by a moody picture taken by photographer David Tett in a back street near my office one lunchtime. Oh, it’s all glamour being a published author, believe me.

One small niggle about the article, though: the book is referred to throughout as ‘The First Time I Met The Blues’. Buddy Guy didn’t start his title with a definite article, so I didn’t either. Indeed, to my way of thinking, it sounds rather prosaic with an initial ‘the’.

Moreover, with my journalist’s hat on, I might comment that the first principle of good sub-editing is to checking the facts, and that this kind of slackness is simply further proof that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I might, but on this occasion I won’t.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Confidential thoughts

I finally caught up with Julian Temple’s excellent Dr Feelgood documentary, Oil City Confidential, the other night. A few thoughts that arose while I was watching it:
  • That Wilko Johnson is a bit odd, isn’t he?
  • The songs I knew Dr Feelgood for - the chart hits like ‘Milk and alcohol’ and ‘Down at the doctors’ – were actually recorded after Wilko left the band. I never realised that
  • Dr Feelgood were to the early 70s what The Yardbirds were to the early 60s: a shot in the arm for British blues, a shot of pure adrenaline. I wish I’d seen them live at their peak, but it was before my time
  • Did I mention that Wilko Johnson really is quite odd?
  • It’s also odd that no one really followed the Feelgoods’ lead. The accepted wisdom is that the energy and on-stage aggression of the band was a major influence on punk, but I’m not aware of any blues bands who picked up the baton and ran with it. Maybe it’s just that punk was so all-pervading that any potential new young blues bands went down that path instead
Talking about the Feelgoods also gives me a chance to repeat one of my favourite pieces of trivia: that every member of the band had the same name. Bassist John B. Sparkes kept his, drummer John Martin became The Big Figure, guitarist John Wilkinson became Wilko Johnson, and singer Lee Brilleaux’s real name was Lee John Collinson. What’s more, when Wilko left the band, he was replaced by Gypie Mayo, whose real first name was (guess what?) John, and he in turn was replaced by Johnny Guitar. He was eventually replaced by someone called Gordon, and that’s when the rot set in.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Amazon mystery solved!

Good news! I’ve finally worked out how a self-published author (ie me) gets paid by Amazon:

1) Customer buys book through Amazon
2) Amazon notifies a sub-contractor (Bertram Books) of the order
3) Bertram notifies Nielsen (the organisation that issues ISBNs) of the order
4) Nielsen notifies the publisher (ie me) that an order has been received
5) The publisher (ie me) supplies the book to Bertram, who then send it to the purchaser
6) The publisher (ie me) then submits an invoice to Bertram

Simple, isn’t it? Except that it took me several emails to find out about step 6, which is by no means obvious. It seems that the brave new world of self-publishing still has a few kinks that need ironing out.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

In the hot seat

I did my first proper ‘press’ interview today, for a new online arts and culture magazine called The Kaje. It wasn’t remotely stressful, since (there’s no point denying it) I enjoy talking about myself and my writing. Answering questions about my other books did remind me that at some point soon, I’m going to have to get back to my new novel, which I started in the autumn and then put on hold while I set about publishing, and then publicising, First Time I Met The Blues.

Still, the effort is paying off in various small ways. MyWatfordNews, a local free magazine, is going to run a piece about the book next month, and I’ve also been asked to write a first-person piece for Blues In Britain magazine. It all helps.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

I wanna tell you a story

One of Lisa’s favourite jokes is that I should adopt the first name ‘Page’, so that I can advertise my latest publication with the line “Buy the new Page Turner now”.

Joking aside, I love being told that one of my book is a ‘real page turner’, because frankly, if you can’t write a story that people want to keep reading so that they can find out what happens to the characters, you’re not doing your job as a novelist.

My perspective on this is rooted in my university days, when I studied French and German literature. This mainly involved reading landmark texts that were seen as having advanced the possibilities of the novel, whether it was the stripped-back brutalism of post-war German authors like Böll and Grass or the impenetrable nouveaux romans of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet. Some of these authors were stronger on plot than others, but as far as my supervisors were concerned, that was very much secondary to the ground-breaking techniques the author displayed.

As a result, I left college with a rather jaded view of narrative fiction. What saved me was an edition of the literary magazine Granta called ‘Dirty Realism’. It celebrated a new wave of American writers like Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips and Richard Ford, and the introduction placed a great emphasis on their common talent for telling stories above all.

It seems so obvious now, but this came as a great revelation to me at the time, and a validation – it was saying that if you wrote fiction, you didn’t have to display technical virtuosity or create a new form of literature: it was okay if you just told stories. And when I started writing novels, that was what I set out to do. And if this means that my books will never be studied by future generations, well, I think I can live with that.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Available from all good bookshops?

My interview on Lorna Milton’s BBC Three Counties show yesterday was a qualified success, I think. Those who heard it said I sounded confident and professional, and having reluctantly listened to the MP3 my friend Andy kindly recorded and emailed to me, even I can’t find much fault with it.

I was slightly thrown by a question about what kind of people would enjoy my book (I suppose I should just have said “People from Watford who like the blues”, but that sounds rather limiting, doesn’t it?), and ended up waffling to no great effect for what seemed like some considerable time. But apart from that, I was okay.

It was still only a qualified success, though, for the simple reason that I didn’t get a chance to plug my website. The trouble is that I don’t want to promote myself as a self-published author, for fear of not being taken seriously; I reasoned that if you present yourself professionally, people will assume you’ve been professionally published.

But this ruse can work too well: Lorna gaily assured her listeners that my book was “available in all good bookshops”, and I didn’t get a chance to correct her on air. (I did explain after we’d gone off air, but I don’t know if she mentioned the website, as I asked her to do.)

Anyway, I’ll know better next time, if there is a next time. In the meantime, I’ve had 10 minutes of fame: that leaves me five more, according to Andy Warhol’s dictum - at least, in Beds, Herts and Bucks.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Listen up

As promised, details of how to listen to my interview on BBC Three Counties tomorrow afternoon:

Radio: 90.4, 92.1, 94.7, 95.5, 98.0, 103.8 and 104.5 FM and 630 and 1161 AM (but only if you’re listening in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire or Buckinghamshire, or nearby)

Online: you can listen live by clicking on the ‘Listen live’ button here, or afterwards by clicking the ‘Listen again’ button on the same page (which will take you to iPlayer)

I’m on Lorna Milton’s show, which starts at 2pm – I’m due on at around 3.30pm.

Wish me luck...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Radio on

A major step forward in my efforts to promote First Time I Met The Blues: I’ve been asked to appear on BBC Three Counties Radio to talk about it. The three counties in question are (of course) Beds, Herts and Bucks, and given that the book is mainly set in Watford, there’s a local angle that obviously appeals to them.

The interview is on April 12th - I’ll be doing it down the phone from a studio in central London. I’ll post full details of how to listen to it nearer the time.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Amazon mystery

One of the beneficial side effects of buying your own ISBN number, as I did for First Time I Met The Blues (and, indeed, my next nine books - they come in batches of 10) is that you automatically get a page on Amazon set up for you. Having been advised that Amazon take a hefty cut of all sales, I went ahead and set up my own website anyway, so that I could sell the book myself and keep all the dosh, but it’s useful to have an alternative (and universally known) sales outlet.

However, it’s not entirely clear what happens when someone orders my book from Amazon. A friend did so over a week ago, and received a confirmation email saying ‘We’ll notify you via e-mail when we have an estimated delivery date for this item’ - but they haven’t notified me, the bookseller, at all. And I haven’t checked my bank account, but I very much doubt they’ve paid me my royalty either.

Because the purchaser is an old friend, I can reassure him that he’ll get his book one way or another. But what happens when a stranger follows the same route? They’re not going to be very impressed that their order hasn’t been fulfilled promptly and efficiently, and I’m the one who’s going to look bad.

There’s a complete lack of information about such matters on Amazon’s seemingly comprehensive website, so I’ve filled in the enquiry form. I’ll let you know the upshot.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Novelist, publisher, teacher and eccentric

At work recently we were asked to name our heroes, and in particular people who had shown great integrity throughout their career (which I interpreted as meaning people who stuck to their principles, essentially). Later, one of the company’s directors asked me about my choices: “Obviously I know all about Bruce Springsteen and John Peel,” she said, “but who is JL Carr?”

A fair question, and one that is comprehensively covered in his Wikipedia entry (which is where I lifted the title of this post from). As authors go, he’s not actually that obscure – two of his novels were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and two have been turned into films. But he’s not exactly mainstream, either. He summed it up very well when asked by a journalist to provide a ‘dictionary definition’ of himself towards the end of his life:

“James Lloyd Carr, a back-bedroom publisher of large maps and small books who, in old age, unexpectedly wrote six novels which, although highly thought of by a small band of literary supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World.” (I love that ‘by himself’.)

The key thing about his novels for me is the way he creates a world that is idiosyncratic, yet recognisably related to the one we live in. And despite the fact that the stories are set in different parts of the UK (not to mention Africa and the US), this world is a coherent one, not least because certain characters appear in several of the books.

Indeed, the Quince Tree Press editions of his novels make a point of drawing attention to this. A minor character in one book may be the hero in another; others crop up in several books, contributing to the plot without ever playing a leading role. Some of them are encountered first in their youth, and later, in a different book, in extreme old age, and spotting these recurring characters is one of the pleasures of reading a Carr novel.

It’s an idea I’ve shamelessly nicked: to date I’ve completed three novels and started a fourth, and one character (Nigel Scullion) appears in all four. In Grown-Up People he’s a second-tier character, a friend of the hero; in First Time I Met The Blues and the as yet unpublished The Celebrity Next Door he’s not even that important; but in my new book Nigel finally gets to be the lead (well, joint lead). Other characters from Grown-Up People are also scheduled for walk-on parts.

And why not? Once you’ve created a character, it seems only natural to let them have a bit of fun. Carr understood that, I think, and that sense of fun transmits itself to the reader.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

My hometown

Recently I’ve been dipping into The Book Of Watford, a lavish publication that my friend Stuart found in a second-hand shop and gave me for my birthday last year. Subtitled ‘A portrait of our town’, it’s a collection of historical photographs of Watford accompanied by extracts from the local papers, and it makes for fascinating reading.

But while the details of the evolution of the town are lovingly covered (with particular emphasis on roads and buildings), there are some glaring omissions. In the entire section on the 1960s, for instance, there’s only one mention of the local football team and none at all of music. (And don’t get me started on the similar holes in the account of the 70s and 80s – but that’s a topic for my other blog.)

I’ll happily acknowledge that Watford wasn’t exactly renowned for either its football team or its music scene in the 60s. But the former did experience the greatest success in its history, gaining promotion to the Second Division in 1969. And as for the latter, I refuse to believe that kids in Watford weren’t going out on a Friday and Saturday night and grooving to local bands – facsimiles of more successful acts, no doubt, but no less worthy of attention for that.

I set my novel in Watford because it was the nearest town to where I grew up, and because there was no famous blues band that originated there, which made it easier to invent one. But quite honestly, it could have been set anywhere. If you had a time machine and you were able to return to any town in Britain on a Saturday in 1966, I’ll bet that you could find teenage boys who went to the football in the afternoon and a gig in the evening, whether they were in Wrexham or Walsall, Bury or Brighton. It was a universal experience – and for a book on local history to exclude it entirely seems quite extraordinary.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The old ones

On the Word magazine blog, a recent thread involved contributors listing the first 11 gigs they ever went to. Depending on their age, most people’s lists were full of bands from the prevailing youth movement of the era – prog, punk, ska, new wave, baggy, whatever.

I can’t actually list my first 11 gigs with any degree of accuracy, but I know that at least two of them didn’t fit that pattern at all. I spent the summer of 1982, before going to university, working as a cleaner in a printing works near the town of Ludwigshafen in West Germany. It was a grim and lonely period of my life, but one of the few consolations was that I did get the chance to go to some great gigs. Not in Ludwigshafen, which is rather like a German version of Stoke, but across the Rhine in neighbouring Mannheim, an altogether classier town.

It was in a theatre there that I saw two classic blues acts that summer: Sonny Terry (b. 1911) and Brownie McGhee (b. 1915), and the comparatively youthful Albert Collins, who was around 50 at the time.

I’m making a big deal about their ages because it was a major factor in the impact of their performances on me. Terry was blind and had to be led onto the stage by a helper; he wore a belt with pockets that contained his harmonicas, presumably in a set order so that he could reach for any particular harp and know where to find it. As for McGhee, he limped on stage with the help of a walking stick and played the entire concert sitting down.

I can’t recall any specific song they performed that night, but their raw, acoustic country blues had an ageless feel that plugged you right in to the medicine shows of the 1920s where they first started playing. If I’d had any doubts beforehand (from my limited exposure to the blues via the likes of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton) that this was music with a history, it vanished right then.

As for Collins, he was my first exemplar of the showmanship of the blues. He had two big gimmicks. One was to emphasise the ‘ice-cold’ sound of his guitar with instrumentals whose titles made full use of the thesaurus – ‘Frosty’, ‘Deep freeze’, ‘Icy’ and so on. The other was an extraordinarily long guitar lead that allowed him to free himself from the confines of the stage - most memorably on one song when, while playing a solo, he disappeared from view altogether, only to reappear (to huge cheers from the audience) up in the balcony. He never missed a note.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Tweet inspiration

(I suppose I could have gone with ‘Tweet home Chicago’, to fit the blues theme, but let’s be honest, it would have been a bit of a stretch.)

So I’ve finally taken the plunge and signed up for Twitter. Everyone keeps telling me it’s a great way to market yourself, and I need all the help I can get. I’m still feeling my way, so if you’ve got any tips, send ’em my way. All advice gratefully received.

Oh yes, you’ll be wanting the address (username?). It’s timturnerbooks

Sunday, 28 February 2010

We have lift-off!

To my relief, the launch party on Wednesday night went well. About 25 people turned up, which was enough to make the room feel comfortably full – there were the usual late apologies for absence, but you have to expect that.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the event, and my reading, and – most importantly – I sold all 37 copies I’d brought with me. (Why 37? That was as many as I could carry in my holdall without giving myself a hernia.) Mind you, I only found out afterwards that my brother-in-law had been indulging in some creative marketing – two copies for a tenner, that sort of thing. I would have preferred it if he’d cleared it with me first, but I can’t really complain: as he said, the important thing is to get the book into people’s hands, by any available means.

So now the real marketing effort begins. I’ve got a book about marketing books which suggests that, once the book is published, you “apply the ‘one a day’ rule by doing something every day to support your book’s sales effort”. That sounds like sensible advice, and I’ll be doing my best to follow it.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Tonight’s the night

Just an hour to go until the launch party for First Time I Met The Blues. I’ve done this before, for Grown-Up People, so I know more or less what to expect, but doubts still creep in. What if no one turns up (a wet Wednesday evening in central London - why wouldn’t you go straight home?), what if they don’t buy the book (though my crack sales force should see to that), what if they don’t like my reading?

I have at least taken the precaution of timing and practicising the extract I’m going to read (it takes just over 10 minutes, which should be acceptable), and I’ve always been good at this kind of thing. I could never act, but in productions from junior school right through to university, I was often cast as narrators of various kinds. And at school I was chosen to do readings at the Remembrance Day assembly and that kind of thing. So not too many worries there.

Anyway, better go. My hour in the spotlight beckons. More soon.

Monday, 15 February 2010

What Eric did next

First Time I Met The Blues is by no means a history book, but in the course of tracing the career of The Hornets, it does also tell a version of the story of British blues in the 60s and beyond. And, not least because the band’s guitarist, Des, is obsessed with Eric Clapton, old Slowhand plays a leading role in that story.

I’ve already written about the iconic place of Five Live Yardbirds in British blues mythology, and the next LP that Eric appeared on was, if anything, even more important to blues fans. The very fact that John Mayall, one of the godfathers of the blues scene, tinkered with the name of his band (brand?) suggests how important it was to him at the time. He named the album after the band, Blues Breakers, and changed the artist name to ‘John Mayall with Eric Clapton’. You can’t say he didn’t recognise the main attraction for record buyers.

Behind the famous sleeve (it’s sometimes known as ‘the Beano album’, after the kids’ magazine Eric is reading) is an LP that’s less guitar-heavy than you might expect. But Clapton left The Yardbirds for Mayall’s band (with a couple of detours on the way) because he wanted to play proper blues, not pop, and this is certainly a proper blues album, suffused with Mayall’s authentic-sounding vocals, harp and organ as much as it is with Clapton’s guitar.

You can hear that guitar to best effect on the Freddie King instrumental, ‘Hideaway’, and on the monumental ‘Have you heard’, which contains one of my all-time favourite guitar solos, a gut-wrenching effort where Eric gives it everything he’s got.

I won’t waffle on about it any more. If you don’t already own it, go and find ‘Have you heard’ on Spotify and listen for yourself. You might just see why Des was so obsessed.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Word is spreading

A quick progress update: my shiny new website is up and running – indeed, you may even have come to this blog from there. If you can think of a good reason to do so (or even if you can’t), please link to it from any site you run or contribute to. It all helps with the Google rankings, where I’m still all but invisible compared to David Williams’ book.

I’ve already had a couple of helping hands: David Eldridge has posted the cover (designed by his company) on the Two Associates blog, and those nice people at the London Writers Club included a picture and some kind words on their most recent email newsletter, which you can subscribe to from the website.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Ready for launch

Finally, after much prevarication and other delays too tedious to mention, I’ve fixed up a time and place for my book launch. It’ll take place on Wednesday, February 24th at Charlotte Street Blues in central London. More details nearer the time.

I went to another London Writers’ Club event last night. The speaker, Will Atkins, is head of Macmillan New Writing, which specialises in publishing previously unpublished novelists, and accepts submissions directly (rather than via agents). It all sounded great – until we established that they’d received around 12,000 submissions to date, and plan to publish eight books a year. You do the math, as they say in the States.

I may yet give it a go, but I won’t be holding my breath. In the meantime, self-publishing seems like an even better idea than it did before.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A site for sore eyes

Right, where were we?

Well, the big news is that my new website is finally starting to take shape. I got a first look at it at the weekend, and spent much of Sunday uploading the copy. It still needs a few tweaks (not least because formatting text in WordPress turned out not to be quite as straightforward as advertised), but the developer is working on it and I’m hoping to make it live in the next week or so.

In terms of marketing, the website is the biggest difference between my first and second forays into self-publishing. Back in 2002, I had a launch party for Grown-Up People, and I paid Xlibris for a selection of promotional materials (business cards, bookmarks and postcards) containing details of the book and how to order it, which I sent to anyone who I thought might be interested. I did the same via email, but the sum total of my efforts still came to fewer than 100 copies sold, and none to anyone I didn’t know personally.

Having a website to promote First Time I Met The Blues should, in theory, make it easier to market the book. For starters, I can send the link to anyone who I think might be interested – not just friends and acquaintances, but likely sources of publicity as well. Then there’s the possibility of people finding the site via a link from another site – assuming I can get anyone to create those links – or a search engine. (Type ‘first time i met the blues novel’ into Google and this blog comes up in second place on the listings, beaten only by my nemesis, David Williams.) And once they’re there, they can order the book and pay me using PayPal. Simples, as the meerkat says.

The website won’t just flog the book mercilessly, though: I am planning a couple of other features that readers, and potential readers, will hopefully enjoy. But more about that when it’s ready to unveil to the world.