How does one promote a book which is not carried by book stores and which is not advertised?  For me, this has been the question, since my publisher does not wish to sell to bookstores and does not advertise books for its authors.  Selling to bookstores is a problem, because the large chains demand big discounts and all bookstores insist on full refunds for copies which go unsold.  (The online booksellers demand big discounts, but they buy their stock outright.)  Some publishers (the large, famous ones) work on a ‘push strategy’ where they advertise heavily and insist that the bookstores carry stock.  Other publishers (like mine) operate on a ‘pull strategy’, which means that they depend on the author to create demand.

How can an author create demand?  I have offered to do book signings on the basis that one can at least sell the autographed copies.  But, it’s not easy to find bookstores that are interested in arranging signings for authors that aren’t yet famous.  At one  time, my publisher was arranging book signings for its authors, and I asked for half a dozen bookstores in strategic cities.  None was interested, but there was one bookstore in Bangor, Maine (somewhat out of my way) that volunteered to take me.  I declined: the travel expenses would have dwarfed my royalties.

Then, I tried to persuade small, independent bookstores to carry my books on the basis that I would own the books until they were sold and would replenish them on demand.  None was interested.  They are very protective of their shelf space.

My publisher is now emphasizing the sale of foreign rights at big trade shows around the world.  They take their portfolio of  authors to book shows, and sell distribution rights (usually of ebook copies) within the various countries.  I’m going to give this a try next year.  My publisher also recommends that its authors have a blog (like this) and a website (I have one), as well as postings on social media.  I’m not convinced that Twitter and Facebook add value above and beyond a blog and a website.

Of course, I let all my friends and business contacts know about a new book when it is published, and, in the case of Efraim’s Eye, I have sent copies to the literary editors of the major UK newspapers.  They should be interested.  The central plot involves an attack on the London Eye, and much of the setting is in England.  We shall see.

One can hope that a novel one has written will go ‘viral’ like Fifty Shades of Gray or Thursdays in the Park, the new ‘Granny Sex’ novel.  My wife has read both these novels; she says they are badly written.  But in each case they have a secret appeal.  In the case of Fifty Shades of Gray, the appeal is sado-masochistic love, and in the case of Thursdays in the Park, it’s about a woman in her sixties falling in love again and having sex.  Neither book was strongly promoted by its publisher, but Fifty Shades of Gray has sold something like 50,000,000 copies, and Thursdays in the Park probably won’t be far behind.  For someone who tries to write quality literature, these examples are (mildly) frustrating, but I’m not about to seek a kinky theme for the sake of sales volume.

It is interesting to note that Pippa Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister and sister-in-law of Prince William, has obtained an enormous amount of publicity lately.  In addition to the photographs of her (she is a very attractive young woman), she is quoted as offering tips from her recently published book, Celebrate: A Year of Festivities with Family and Friends.  The book, unfortunately, has been panned by the critics and is reportedly not selling well.  Pippa’s publisher must be gnashing his teeth, having paid Pippa (it is rumoured) an advance of £400.000 and now having to shell out for publicity shoots.  Moral of the story: promotion isn’t enough; one has to offer something that the public wants.

Efraim’s Eye

Efraim's Eye

My third novel, Efraim’s Eye, has now been published and is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

Briefly, it is about a lone wolf terrorist who has a fanatical hatred of the British, and who is financed by his half-brother.  Efraim intends to destroy the London Eye and kill the eight hundred passengers.  Standing in the terrorist’s way are a middle-aged British financial consultant and a beautiful Israeli charity worker.

A (nearly) full synopsis is as follows:

Efraim has designed a plan to sever the supporting cables of the London Eye, using shaped charges, causing the Eye to fall over into the River Thames.  All 800 passengers will be killed or drowned in their capsules.

But first, he must call on his half-brother to provide the funds with which he will buy the ingredients for the shaped charges.  Having obtained the money, he travels to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Chechnya, where he obtains the RDX high explosive, the polymer binder, and he has the casings manufactured.  He kills two Taliban who try to steal from him, and a Russian agent who tries to entrap him.  He visits prostitutes and agonises over the Qur’an’s proscription of ‘unclean women’.

Efraim’s half-brother, Yusuf, is chief executive of the Moroccan chapter of the British charity, Global Youth Enterprise.  GYE provides loans and mentors to young entrepreneurs who have a business idea, but no funding.  The CEO of the British GYE suspects that all is not well in his Moroccan chapter, and he engages Paul, a senior financial consultant, on a pro-bono basis, to assess the Moroccan chapter.

Paul is a well-to-do, widower in his late fifties.  He has worked in large practices, has joined Charitable Consultants LLP., and now has his own practice in the City.

Paul is joined in Marrakesh by Naomi, the operations director of the parent GYE.  An Israeli by birth, in her mid-thirties, and beautiful, she speaks seven languages, including Hebrew, Arabic and English.  In their week-long assessment of the Moroccan GYE, they find much that is wrong, including lack of financial and operating procedures, lax board governance, and rumours of fraud and embezzlement.  But they can’t find proof of illegality.  Yusuf’s evasiveness and hostility frustrate them at every turn.  Efraim appears threateningly, and his malevolence reminds Naomi of events in her childhood.  She draws close to Paul and they become lovers. 

Reportedly, Efraim is a fiery, fundamentalist imam at a minor mosque, and secretly, Paul and Naomi attend Friday prayers.  Paul records Efraim’s talk and Naomi confirms its venomous intent.

On his return to England, Paul informs Sarah, his divorcee lady friend, of his affair with Naomi, and Sarah leaves him.  On hearing Paul’s report, the Accreditation Board of British GYE decides that the books and bank accounts of Moroccan GYE should be properly audited, and Paul is sent back to Marrakesh to perform the audit.  A careful inspection of the bank statements reveals that fraud has been committed, but they lack the evidence of embezzlement until Naomi finds it.  Paul and Naomi secretly hear Efraim speak again; he gives clues that his target is the Eye. Just before fleeing to England, Naomi is abducted and severely beaten by Efraim.

Paul succeeds in convincing Scotland Yard of the seriousness of the threat, and a thorough plan of prevention is set in motion.  The attack is expected on Sunday.  Paul decides that he and Naomi should visit the Eye on Saturday.  They find Efraim hurriedly laying out the shaped charges. 

(You’ll have to read the book to discover the conclusion.)

Wine and Literature

Last week my wife and I went to the Piedmont region of Italy.  There were several reasons for this trip.  First of all, my wife wanted to see two cousins whom she hadn’t seen in twenty-five years.  The cousins live in Turin, and they are the daughters of my wife’s mother’s sister.  As girls, the three of them used to be very close, but my wife is from Milan and we live in London, so there wasn’t much chance to get together.  I’m glad they did, because it was a very happy reunion.

We also went to visit two wineries, from which my wife’s business buys wine, and, since it is the time of the white truffle festival, we visited a major buyer and seller of Piedmont’s unique and most expensive export: the white truffle.  Last Friday night I had a plate of plain tagliatelle sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and seven grams of truffles.  It was so good that I didn’t mind the price of €45!

But for me, the highlights of the trip were the visits to the wineries, and our exploration of the Barolo family of wines over dinner.  The wineries we visited were Ascheri, a small, family-owned producer of a quarter of a million bottles per year, and Fontana Fredda, a large-scale, multi-brand producer of seven million bottles per year.  At each winery, we were conducted through the winery, and treated to a wine tasting followed by a very pleasant lunch.

As the wine connoisseurs amongst you will know, Piedmont is famous for the wines produced from its nebbiolo grape, and in the countryside, every available hillside is covered with rows of vines.  The vines may all be the nebbiolo grape, but, at this time of year, some of the leaves have turned red or yellow and some are still quite green.  It all depends on the subspecies of the grape and the all-important terroir – that French term which refers to the soil, the landscape and climate, temperature and precipitation profiles, and the exposure to the sun.  The most expensive wine (about €50 retail for a good bottle) is Barolo, but Barolo has several cousins: Berbera, Babaresco, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo – all from 100% nebbiolo grape.  The difference is down to terroir and the wine-making process.  It is not possible, either legally or practically, to produce a Barolo from an estate which produces Barbaresco.  The wines may look and taste slightly similar, but an expert (not I) can immediately tell a Barolo from a Barbaresco.

All of this got me thinking about the similarities between making wine and producing literature.  Of course most literature is simple trash, and most wine is cheap table wine.  In both cases, not much effort is required to produce it.  But the subtleties become apparent as we move up scale.  To produce a good Barolo requires a special terroir.  The production of a good novel requires a well-educated, experienced and imaginative writer.  There is considerable knowledge and expertise required to maintain the vines in a Barolo estate, and to manage the production of the wine.  How should the vines be pruned?  How long shoul the crushed grapes be soaked.  How long the fermaentation?  At what temperature?  How long to age in steel vats, in oak, in the bottle.  There is much that a good writer has to know about language, grammar, plotting, characterisation, setting,  etc.  Another point is  common is how the end product will be received.  One person may find a particular book or a bottle of wine to be excellent.  Someone else may find the book and the bottle not to their liking.  And some of the success (or the lack of it) is down to luck.  Too much rain just before the harvest can spoil a vintage; an initial bad review can spoil the prospects of a good novel.

Finally, in both producing a fine wine and in writing an excellent novel, both art and science  are required.  It has to be said, however, that making a fine wine is becoming steadily more scientific in the sense that causes and their effects are better understood.  It seems to me that the trend may be in the other direction for literature: less traditional and more artistic/innovative.

Your opinions on this subject are welcome!

Time Line

In many cases, when writing fiction, a writer does not have to be concerned, particularly, about the sequence of events.  One simply has to tell the story in time order, and all will be well.  Sometimes an author will want to interrupt the sequence of events.  For example, a flash-back can be inserted later in the story, and as long as the reader understands that the events refer to an earlier point in time, and they make sense  in that context, it should be fine.  Even a flash-forward into the future is possible.  Fishing in Foreign Seas begins with a prologue which is set it the future, and in it, Elena, the purported author and the daughter of the key characters in the book explains how she came to write the story, much of which is linked to the quite recent past.  The novel ends with an epilogue in which Elena tells the reader what happened to her parents and siblings after the main story concludes.

My two thrillers which will be published soon did not present me with a time line problem.  In each case the story unfolds largely in time sequence.  In Efraim’s Eye, the scene shifts back and forth between Efraim’s activities in preparing the explosives, and the other two (good guy) characters, Paul and Naomi, who will discover his planned attack.  The two streams run parallel and converge at the end.  Efraim has two dreams which act as flash-backs and help the reader understand his character and what motivates him.

The Iranian Scorpion has a somewhat similar structure, which  focuses primarily on Robert’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iran as he learns the means by which opium is converted to heroin and how it is exported through Iran to the US.  Toward the end of the story, a parallel stream opens in which Robert’s father, a retired US Army general, is assigned as a UN weapons inspector in Iran, and becomes involved in attempt to avenge his son’s apparent execution by the Iranians.

For these two novels, it was not difficult to keep the events in a credible sequence.

Apart from the prologue and epilogue, Fishing in Foreign Seas follows a sequential time line.  There are two aspects of the story that required attention to the sequence of events.  First, there are linkages to real events: the  first Gulf War in which Jamie was injured and decorated, and the evolution of the US power generation industry at the  beginning of this century.  Secondly, there is the growth of Jamie’s and Caterina’s children during the course of the story.  One has to be careful that a child who can be no more than six is not behaving like a ten-year-old.

Sin & Contrition had some of  the same challenges at Fishing in Foreign Seas: linkages to real events, and keeping the behaviour of the various children consistent with their ages.  In terms of linkages to real events, for example, LaMarr, as a Marine recruit, fought in Vietnam, and his  subsequent experiences in war zones have to match reality.  There is also the complication in Sin & Contrition that the novel is not structured on a simple time-sequenced basis.  Each chapter deals with a particular sin, and characters move in an out of the story depending on whether or not they are involved in a  that particular sin.  In a broad sense,  however, the characters age from 13 to 62 as the novel  progresses.

The novel that I am currently working on is the (fictional) autobiography of a man who believes he hears the voices of surrogates for God and the devil.  Gradually, he develops a philosophy about life as he experiences great joy and terrible grief.  For the first time, I’ve had to write down a sequential time line as part of my ‘blue print’ for the novel.  This blue print lists key milestones so that even when an event is reported out of sequence (as it might be when one is recalling his life’s events) the events – taken in their overall context – make sense.  Keeping the ages of the characters consistent, tying in real external events, and maintaining order in what might otherwise seem chaotic is my latest challenge.