What’s Occurring (Part 1)

Now and again, I get the urge to talk about things without wanting to go on at sufficient length to fill an entire post. A mish-mash, if you like. A potpourri. (Completely by the by, but does anyone else’s brain insist on pronouncing the ‘t’ in that word, despite knowing that it’s silent? In my head it’s always pot-pooh-ree. Even more off topic, but does anyone else think that potpourri smells yeuch? My mum always kept a dish of the stuff in the hallway and I came to detest its perfumed fragrance.)

This, then, is the first part of a series of musings on the state of my writing career and associated matters. Oh, and for those who don’t know, the title is a catchphrase of one of my favourite sitcom characters, Nessa from Gavin and Stacey (though she used it in the interrogative: “Oh, Stace, what’s occurring?”). Since I live not twenty miles from Nessa’s home town, it seems apt.

Audiobooks
So I finished The Beacon audiobook and it passed the quality checks of both Audible and Findaway Voices. Findaway is the audiobook distributor I am using to publish my audiobooks in various places other than Audible and Amazon. I have taken my other audio titles (The Cleansing and the short story collections Pond Life and Ghosts of Christmas Past) out of exclusivity with Audible due to their shenanigans over returns—see Returns—and am distributing them through Findaway, too.

I can’t honestly say that going wide has yet proved to be worthwhile. Sales via Findaway have so far been sporadic and not at all lucrative, while I now receive a lower share of each sale on Audible (and it wasn’t great when I was exclusive). One sale through Findaway—actually more in the way of a borrow in some sort of library lending service I’ve never heard of—netted me the grand royalty of $0.10. Yep, that’s ten American cents, around 6 or 7p in sterling. And that’s for a novel over ten hours long in audio format. When I read that, and rubbed my eyes and read it again, I think a tiny part of me died.

The only saving grace is that the site in question was winding up its audiobook operation and perhaps such a pitiful royalty was all they had left. At least it shouldn’t happen again or else I’ll be seriously considering chucking in the towel on audio.

Marketing
Yep, the dreaded M-word. I’m heartily sick of marketing at the moment. It seems that whenever I try something new and begin to make it work for me, something outside my control changes and abruptly the method loses its effectiveness.

Take advertising on Amazon through AMS (Amazon Marketing Services). Putting aside the irksomeness of having to pay Amazon to make my books visible on its website so it can make more money out of me through my increased sales, I was having some measure of success with this a year or so ago. By ‘success’, I mean my books were gaining visibility and selling steadily if not spectacularly.

Then the price of advertising started shooting through the roof as, so I understand, the bigger publishers began to use the service more and push prices up. Since I’m neither prepared nor can afford to pay a couple of dollars each time someone clicks the ad for my book without any guarantee they’ll go on and buy it, Amazon advertising has lost its lustre for me. (You see, my cut for each sale is generally around a few dollars. If I have to spend a couple of dollars merely to get a potential buyer to click my ad and if, say, I make one sale per ten clicks, well, you do the maths. Suffice it to say, it’s not cost-effective to run ads at those prices.)

Then there’s Facebook advertising. I’ve only recently started dabbling with it and it began reasonably well, generating some sales and interactions from new readers. If a method of advertising can achieve both these things, it’s bloody great in my book. But something has happened, something I haven’t yet fully looked into, to do with changes Apple has made to its operating system that have had a knock-on effect, which seems to have stopped the effectiveness of my Facebook ads dead in their tracks. I clearly need to investigate in detail, but it’s the sort of time-sump of a task I hate and I need to psych myself up to perform it.

Social media presence
Perhaps absence might be more accurate.

I’ve never been a massive fan of social media. Even less so over the last few years in this age of polarisation and pandemics. It’s made me appreciate why it adversely affects some people’s mental health. The utter tosh bandied about as fact—and believed by many as such—is astonishing. And there’s so much vileness out there, so much hatred and unkindness, I find myself shaking my head, wondering what’s gone wrong with the world.

Still, I suppose social media is useful for posting links to new blog posts, promotions, releases and the like, which is pretty much all I use it for nowadays. Even then, there are so many other writers competing for attention, it often feels as though I’m shouting into the void.

I see writers on places like Twitter engaging in lengthy conversations and lively discussions, and I wonder how they manage to devote such time and energy to social media without it affecting their writing output. Maybe it does, but not that you’d notice. I take my hat off to them.

On the brighter side…
Hmm, that was all a touch doomy and gloomy. Sorry—I’m not trying to bring anyone down, but it’s how I feel about publishing right now.

Whenever I’m a little despondent about writing-related matters, I remind myself that it wasn’t too long ago that I was trying to fit in all this stuff around a full-time job, and later around a part-time one. Since November 2019, I’ve had the massive good fortune to be able to work full-time from home doing what I love. And I do love it: the writing, the publishing, the audiobook production. Not so much the marketing.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. In February 2020, I suffered the aneurysm in my knee that resulted in an emergency bypass operation and laid me up for weeks (National Heroes Service and Part 2).

Then we went into the first covid-19 lockdown and the pandemic has pretty much dominated our lives since.

But things on both those fronts are looking up. I had my first (and only) outpatients follow-up appointment in the vascular clinic for my leg last week. It was supposed to have taken place within three months of the op, but this was fourteen months later due to the pandemic disruptions. The doctor checked the pulse in my foot and declared it to be strong and healthy. When I told him that I haven’t smoked since February 2020 and I’m currently walking 16 miles a week, aiming to increase to 20 miles very soon, he said he couldn’t ask me to do more. He promptly discharged me. Happy days.

On the pandemic front, vaccinations in the UK are continuing apace and here in Wales businesses are being allowed to gradually reopen. I’m due to meet up with five friends at an outside table of our local pub this Sunday. These are mostly the same bunch of friends I went to Dublin with to celebrate our 55th birthdays and to watch the rugby the weekend before I suffered the aneurysm (In Dublin’s Fair City). To say I’m looking forward to seeing them all again and to imbibing a few pints would be understating it.

Of course, as the current horrendous situation in India demonstrates, we are not out of the woods yet with the virus and we cannot afford any complacency. Mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing continue to be the order of the day. We are yet to count the full cost in loss of lives and livelihoods. Nevertheless, it is nice to be able to look forward with cautious optimism.

Finally, in October we acquired a new addition to our family. He’s a little bundle of fluffy energy who has brought a great deal of joy into our lives. Say hello to Milo.

He’s eight months old, and is a cross between a Maltese and a Shih Tzu. We love him to bits.

 

Here endeth Part 1. There’ll be a Part 2 along sooner or later. Till then…

 

More On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

Another blogger who enjoyed The Cleansing asked if she could interview me for her blog. I was only too happy to oblige. The interview appeared in February 2014.

Congratulations for The Cleansing—I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What attracted you to writing an apocalyptic tale?

Thank you. I enjoyed writing it.

I’ve held a fascination for end of world tales since I was a boy. Books, films, computer games, some of the most memorable have been based in apocalyptic worlds. Difficult to pin down quite what the attraction is. I guess it has something to do with it being this world but not as we know it. All bets are off. No laws, no society, no civilisation, no checks or balance. What morality remains has to battle to make itself felt amidst the anarchy and struggle to survive. It’s man reduced to his basest, most bestial form.

The end of world scenario provides the writer with a blank page that he or she can fill in a wide variety of ways. I think that’s the main attraction of the genre to a writer. The possibilities are endless.

I particularly enjoyed how The Cleansing was set in various different countries. How else did you try to make the novel stand out from other apocalyptic fiction?

It wasn’t a conscious effort to make it different from other apocalytpic fiction I’ve read. Of course, I was well aware of its similarities to other stories. If I’d thought, however, that I was merely rehashing tales that had been done before without bringing anything new to the party, I wouldn’t have bothered sending it to my publisher. I still would have written it as it’s the only way to dislodge a story once it’s taken up home in the rattling space within my head. And The Cleansing had well and truly settled in for the duration. It was either write it or be stuck with a nagging lodger for the rest of my life.

As to how it’s different from other tales, I’ve not read a book that tells of humankind being wiped out deliberately to make way for new inhabitants. If such a book does exist, I haven’t read it but then I’ve only read a small fraction of the end of world tales that have ever been written. So it was a new take on the genre to me. I hope it will be to some readers, too.

The novel is exciting and fun to read, while also being tragic and upsetting in places. Is it important to move your readers as well as entertain them?

Vitally important. As a reader, I better remember books that have moved me than those that have merely entertained me. As a writer, I want readers to feel some sort of emotional reaction to my work, though I’d settle for them being merely entertained over feeling indifferent. I don’t deliberately set out to provoke particular emotional responses. I think that they are a natural by-product if a story is worth telling and is told well.

The Cleansing is part of a trilogy. Do you know how the final book will end or is it still evolving?

I can see in my mind’s eye the climactic scene that occurs at or near the end of the third book, but I don’t yet know how the characters will reach that point. They may take off at tangents that will result in a different ending – characters can be untrustworthy like that – or unforeseen events could occur that push the action in a new direction. That’s part of the fun of writing without an outline; it’s also a little scary.

Do you find the structure of trilogies restrictive? Why do you think they are so popular?

This is the first series I’ve written, though I didn’t set out to write one. It quickly became obvious when I was writing The Cleansing that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. I didn’t want to write something the size of a brick because I felt that nobody would take a chance on buying a book that size by a virtual unknown. So a trilogy seemed the natural solution.

As for being restrictive, I’m actually finding it to be quite the opposite. Instead of trying to condense the plot into one novel, I have the freedom to explore the world more fully. If characters choose to deviate, that’s fine. There’s time and room for them to get it out of their system before finding their way back to the main action.

I’m not so sure that trilogies are universally popular among readers, at least not when the subsequent books have yet to be published. As a keen reader myself, I understand why. If the first book in a trilogy is captivating, the reader naturally wants to read more immediately. By the time the sequel comes out, readers will have moved on and some will have lost their sense of wonder at the first book. It may not be recaptured on reading the sequel.

However, from a writer’s point of view trilogies are attractive. For a start, writing the first book is nowhere near as daunting as writing a book three times longer. Moreover, the writer will have some idea how well the first book is being received while he pens the sequel. He will have the benefit of reader feedback that may shape the direction the sequels take. He will have the opportunity of answering questions posed by readers of the first book as he develops the sequels. Those questions may even prompt ideas that will enrich the sequels in ways the writer might not otherwise have envisaged.

When will the sequel be published and does it yet have a title?

I can’t tell you when the second novel will be published for a very good reason: I haven’t finished writing it yet. When it has been finished and edited, it will then be up to my publisher, Smithcraft Press, whether to accept it for publication and, if so, where it will fit into its schedule. I can tell you that the full title will be Earth Haven Book 2: The Beacon.

I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic novels. What are your favourites?

So am I, though I’m an avid reader of many genres so haven’t read as many apocalyptic novels as I’d have liked. Too many books, not enough time. Of those I have read, the three that instantly spring to mind that I’d have to name as my favourites are, in no particular order:

The Stand by Stephen King. Many apocalyptic tales begin after – sometimes a long time after – the apocalyptic event took place. What I love about The Stand is that the novel opens just before the event begins so we watch it unfold. I also liked the fact that it was not a traumatic event such as an asteroid strike or nuclear war so that our infrastructures remained intact. (The Cleansing is very similar in these aspects.) Certain elements of the tale didn’t appeal to me so much and I would have liked to have seen a little of what was happening outside the United States, but as a whole the book is a fantastic read.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the book has a haunting lyricism and sense of mysticism that stayed with me long after I finished it. Just writing this is making me want to read it again.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy. Bleak, depressing, pessimistic… I found it utterly compelling. This seems to be a Marmite book, but I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It’s not often I find a book to be truly unputdownable, but this one was. Simply superb.

What was your favourite read of 2013?

My reading highlights included catching up on some classics such as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury; my first, but not last, venture into the world of John Le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl; and the moving Joyland by Stephen King. But my absolute favourite read of the year, though I did not anticipate it being so, was World War Z by Max Brooks. I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction but picked this up on a whim as a holiday read. Boy, am I glad that I did! The structure is unusual: a series of interviews with key players or witnesses in the zombie war that has recently ended. The advantage of the format is that we get to see the war unfold through many different points of view. Thoughtful, intelligent, it dragged me in and kept me totally engrossed to the end. Wonderful.

Thank you so much, Sam! Roll on Book 2!

No, thank you! Giving up space on your blog for my ramblings is greatly appreciated.

Audiobooks – Part 7

To quickly recap, my three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks were:

  1. a soundproofed workspace;
  2. differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3. learning how to edit and master.

The only item I haven’t talked about is the second part of number 3: mastering. You’ll be glad to know that this will be a much shorter post than the last one on editing.

Before embarking on this enterprise, I had no idea what mastering an audio track even meant. I’m still not much the wiser, except that I know it has to do with making the recording sound as good as possible by, for example, making the sound levels consistent throughout the recording. In other words, it’s a process whereby the track is optimised so that it sounds a lot more professional than it did before it was mastered.

Am I sounding a little vague? That’s because I am. And more than a little. Anyway, the point is that you don’t need to understand the tasks involved in this process to be able to perform them and produce audio of sufficient quality to pass Audible’s quality control checks.

If you’ve been using a second track to disguise fades (see Part 6), you’ll first need to mix both tracks together into one: in my version of Audacity, select ‘Mix – Mix and Render’ from the dropdown ‘Tracks’ menu. Then you’re ready to start the mastering process.

Before we go any further, here are a couple of links you’ll need.

If you’ve already begun the process of narrating your audiobook, you should already be familiar with the first—it’s ACX’s Audio Submission Requirements. When I first read these, the techncal jargon in some of the sections made my eyes spin. But it’s okay—you don’t need to understand most of it.

This is the godsend: Audiobook Mastering. I stumbled across this page when desperately seeking a straightforward method and explanation of how to master an Audacity recording. I downloaded a couple of the plug-ins they provided, followed their instructions and—hey presto!—finished up with a mastered audio track that passed Audible’s quality control checks.

I believe this page has been updated since I first came across it—and Audacity has definitely gone through a few upgrades that I haven’t kept up with—and the plug-ins might be called something different to the ones I use. To avoid causing confusion, I’m not going to talk about what I do. Suffice it to say, follow the three simple steps set out in the instructions and you hopefully won’t go wrong. They even provide a plug-in that enables you to check the track to see if it complies with ACX/Audible’s requirements.

If you do as they suggest and your track doesn’t pass the ACX check, they go on to talk about other things you can try to get it to conform to Audible’s requirements. I’m thankful to say that I have never needed to take any of those additional steps. Here’s hoping that you won’t either.

And essentially that’s it. Before exporting your MP3 track, you’ll need to add a short clip of silence at the start (by generating a half-second clip of silence from the ‘Generate’ dropdown menu) so that your opening clip of ambient room sound (what ACX’s requirements refer to as ‘0.5 to 1 second of room tone’) is preserved during export. Otherwise, it could be lost and your track won’t then satisfy Audible’s requirements—I was going to add a link to where I found the advice to do this, but I can’t recall where it was; probably some online forum. Whatever, it was darned good advice.

 

That’s really all I can say about the process of producing an audiobook. I hope that some of it, at least, will be of use to anyone embarking on the process for the first time.

In the meantime, I’ve recently completed the audio version of The Beacon, the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy. (Here’s a link to the UK Amazon page  where you can listen to the free sample.) It took me substantially longer to narrate and, in particular, edit than it did to write in the first place. Now I need a rest from audiobook production before embarking on the third book in the trilogy, The Reckoning.

Much to my delight, The Beacon has passed both Audible’s and Findaway Voices’ quality-control checks. So the process set out in Part 6, long-winded though it is, still works.

Findaway is an audiobook distributor who will make the book available in around forty different outlets. Due to the kerfuffle with Audible and its shenanigans over returns—see Returns—I have removed my existing audiobooks from exclusivity with Audible and distributed them, too, through Findaway.

Whether this proves to be worthwhile remains to be seen. I might report back at some point in a Part 8. And maybe I can discover a way to specifically promote my audiobooks—if I do, I can feel another Marketing for Muppets post in the offing, though I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Until next time, stay safe and happy listening!