Making e-books Visible: belated Happy Birthday, Mr Dickens by Julia Jones

I was the after-dinner speaker at the Royal Orwell & Ancient Yacht Club on Saturday. (Its members think that it's called the Royal Harwich Yacht Club but readers of The Salt-Stained Book and A Ravelled Flag know better.) It was that happy moment when the talk is over, the people who hated it have fled and the friendly ones come to chat or bring a book to be signed. "I'm so sorry," said a charming woman, "I read both your books on my Kindle while we were away sailing and I've only just realised that means I've nothing to ask you to sign."

Frankly my signature's like a crab on crutches but I was sorry too. It had been such a companionable evening that I would have liked to scribble something for her that would have recorded our brief meeting. Names, date and place would have been enough. Perhaps, another time, I'll take some postcards with the bookcover image and a web address. Instead I said, "Ooh that's exciting, would you go on Amazon and click Like for me?"

Secretly what I meant was "Would you please give it some stars and a review?" but I still find that almost too hard to say. I was surprised that I even got the first bit out but I'd been given firm instructions by Amanda Craig, children's book reviewer of the Times who has recently seen her bookreview space cut from once a week to every three. She's very clear that there are scarcely any authors, whether independently or corporately published, who can expect anyone else to do their marketing for them. Amanda's a well-established successful novelist whose publisher is putting her backlist onto Kindle. "Get 500 downloads of A Private Place," she's been told, "And we'll guarantee you another paperback reprint."

Promoting one's own book is hard, whoever has published it: promoting an e-book is harder still. I went to the mystery novel convention, the Bouchercon, in Indianapolis some years ago and was almost buried under the whelter of book marks, book bags and promotional copies that novelists were foisting on their possible fans. One local TV presenter came to the welcome session and began hurling copies of her novels into the audience. I ducked. Others leaped to catch them as if they were mass-produced bridal bouquets.

On the final day of the convention there was a giveaway. A huge room with long trestle tables and maybe sixty novelists sitting there with free copies to hand out. The punters were given three scraps of raffle ticket which they could exchange for the books of their choice - if they made it to the front of their chosen queue. The scrum to get through the door and first to the prestige writers was intense: the melancholy of those individuals still sitting there at the end with undiminished heaps was heart-breaking.

I can't help wondering what the Bouchercon looks like now? Self-publishing and therefore self-promotion is big business in the US - virtual as well as tangible. But you can't chuck an e-book into an audience: you can't dish out ready-printed book marks or book bags. You can network, you can facebook, you can tweet but who is going to see or hear you amid the roar of electronic traffic?

Henry Porter included some staggering statistics in his rebuttal of Jonathan Franzen in Sunday's Observer. The amount of information passing through our minds has risen threefold over the last thirty years he claims. An office worker processes an average 20,000 emails each year (and this is rising by about 14% each year); an American teenager is likely to send and receive about 3339 texts each month; Facebook gets over 100 billion hits each day; while Twitter records about 1 billion tweets every week.

Speaking as someone who isn't entirely sure how many noughts there are in a billion these numbers seem seem dauntingly large. Whatever would be the use in trying to add to them? I discovered a Goodreads group called "How to promote your book on Amazon". It explained to me that if I made clever use of the tags at the bottom of each book entry I would gain entry into various 'communities' I might even gain a ranking within these communities if other people also clicked my tags. I imagined myself at the R.O & A asking some salty sailor to go click my tags ...

It was at an earlier yacht club gathering that I met Doug, a Californian who was working as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty.
He was frustrated because he'd ordered a paper copy of my story to be waiting for him in an Irish port. Then wind and weather had changed the ship's plans and he'd not been able to collect it. I hadn't even thought of electronic publishing then. Iain, who lives on a houseboat, said he only ever read electronically because of considerations of space. Lindsay, a photographer, was fascinated by the technical challenges involved. We were all sitting on board an elderly classic yacht - and my e-publishing career began.

Hand on heart I'm still a paper person but I read Jan Needle's The Bully on my Kindle last weekend with complete enjoyment, eschewing the temptations of secondhand market place copies. Producing a professional quality paperback to sell through traditional bookshops is thrilling when it works, expensive and depressing when it doesn't. One reprint too far and all the good work of a first edition can be wiped out and suddenly the office space is full of unopened cardboard boxes gathering dust. Many people, not only sailors, want or need to live without clutter and that may mean without physical books. Those people don't need persuading to use an e-reader, they need to see what's available for them to read. Visibility.

Reviewing's important - and I hope Cally Phillips's indie e-readers site flourishes. I also hope that we soon get over the feeling that independently published books have to be protected from the rough and tumble of the mainstream book world. It's just been announced that there's to be a new Alliance of Independent Authors, separate from the established Society of Authors. We're not a different species, we're all writers, trying to reach out to readers.

Charles Dickens, whose two hundredth birthday was on Tuesday, was endlessly innovative in the format of his stories -- weekly instalments, monthly instalments, volume publication. He used multiple publishers, he self-published, he self-promoted but above all he connected with his readers. He achieved this in person through his reading tours but the true connection was virtual. He connected with his readers though words and imagination. Perhaps it may still be true that writing to the best of our ability and talking about our own and others' work with honesty and enthusiasm is better than tag-clicking or fretting about our position in the ratings.

Peter Duck's bookshelf


madwippitt said…
I love to see a bookshelf and run a finger along the titles ... Good to see a Hornblower on there! I've downloaded the lot onto my Kindle as I no longer have my Dad's collection to borrow - and it worked out far cheaper buying the omnibus versions than buying paper copies, even at 1p a copy from Amazzon, once the postage had been taken into account. And some Ransome - but what's that Nancy Blackett? 'Under sail with Arthur Ransome' the subtitle reads when I squinted hard enough to make it out ... what is it? I need to know more!
julia jones said…
I love to see a bookshelf too. Peter Duck's collection changes casually but some titles are fixed. (One of the books - not in this photo was my inspiration for The Salt-Stained Book) My parents used to read the Hornblower stories to my brothers and myself as we all snuggled down in our bunks after a day's sailing. It gave us a family stock of shared jokes and allusions. The Nancy Blackett book is by Roger Wardale and focuses on Ransome's biography through his boats. It's possibly my favourite item of Ransomiana (though I'm also a fan of Captain Flint's Trunk and enjoyed The Last Englishman about AR's murky time in Russia)
Dan Holloway said…
I wonder if a nice photo is one way to replace a signing. You could even take your own camera to use for such purposes, and e-mail people teh photo, which would be a great legitimate (provided you explain the wotnotteries) way of getting people's e-mail addies for your mailing list.

I do find Moo are absolutely wonderful for cards to give out - quality is fabulous
Jan Needle said…
you bad person, julia - you didn't put your name on it. as you mentioned one of my books (thanks) people might think it's me blowing me own trumpet. incidentally, everyone, i didn't even know the bully was on kindle. i've checked my contract, and did indeed give the publishers the erights. they never told me it was up though, and i'm ashamed to say i never check statements or anything, which is obviously very thick of me. from now on, i hang on to them.

good mention of the cally phillips indie e-readers site. we're in an electronic age, whether we like it or not (and even if i don't know how to reproduce the indie site link in julia's post!)so let's get electronic! cally needs professional writers to do reviews. think on...

9 February 2012 11:04
julia jones said…
Mea maxima culpa. And here I am struggling to get to grips with the promotional aspect and forget my own name. Heigh-ho.
Thanks for the photo tip Dan. I'd struggle to do it but it is certainly a good idea.
And Jan I'm reading a book for Cally even now - ok? If I do an extra will I get out of trouble?
Jennie Walters said…
Fascinating post, Julia - and great picture of you on the high seas! I love the image of your parents reading stories to you in your bunk; what could possibly be cosier than that? Can't imagine anything snugger....

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