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Thursday, 17 February 2011

Jake's First Page - An Unusual Week

February 2011

Jake Barton

...just happy to be here. In every respect!
Jake Barton, multi-talented writer and bon viveur of international renown, his only known fault being a surfeit of modesty, humbly craves your indulgence in an examination of the vagaries of the human spirit.
When I was asked to join Authors on Show, I immediately realized the dilemma facing this band of worthy and well intentioned literary glitterati: a sexual discrimination charge was surely only just over the horizon. Continuing to function as an all-female group is just asking for trouble in these politically-correct times and I can only imagine I was regarded as the next best thing to a fellow female yet possessing (just about) sufficient testosterone to redress the imbalance and thereby provide an alternative point of view.
Easily dominated, obsequious by nature, happy to obey orders, I was the obvious candidate. My only concerns are that it took so long to ask me – suggesting that other, better candidates had rejected the offer – and an obvious concern that I’d manage to ‘up my game’ in order to maintain the stratospherically high standards set by the existing grandees of the site.
So, here you are, stuck with me until wiser counsel prevails, a self-effacing Northern rapscallion, a notorious, but largely ineffectual attention-seeker who enjoys life, albeit with excessive zeal on occasions and pays dearly for it later. I’ll attempt to inform, divert, even entertain you, but trading standards legislation being what it is, don’t hold me to that rash promise of entertainment.
Here are a few thoughts about the background to a week in a writer’s life. Not a typical week. No, indeed. Very far removed from a typical week as it happens, but who’d want to know about the mundane nature of my ‘normal’ life?
An Unusual Week.
Many years ago – 2002 for those of an anal persuasion who need to know every precise detail – I started to write a book.
A novel.
Everybody has a book in them, or so they say.
Whoever ‘they’ are.
Sometimes, I wish ‘they’ could learn to keep their opinions to themselves, but that’s just me. Anyway, writing a novel. How hard could it be? I’d written poetry, better not mention that again, and had two stage plays performed in public by professional actors. Those actors are presently working as waitresses or kitchen porters somewhere wondering where it all went wrong for them. Best not mention the stage plays again either, not even when pondering the collapse of regional theatres whose artistic directors staked their future profitability on the work of an unknown playwright.
I sat down, wrote a novel. It was easy.
If you regard the loss of a year of one’s life as nothing of any consequence.
I picked the crime fiction genre. Not because I was a great fan of crime fiction, but simply because it was popular. Crime fiction books sold. People walked into bookstores, handed over cash, walked out with a book under their arm. I liked the sound of that.
So, job done. First novel completed. I passed the manuscript around to friends. ‘Hmm!’ they said. ‘Not what I expected’ they said. ‘Nastier than I’d expected,’ they said.
Author’s Note – I’m only picking out the positive responses here, why dredge up unpleasantness after all this time? Also, the ‘they’ referred to here are ‘real’ people, not the mythical ‘they’ referred hitherto.
I sent the manuscript, all done by post in those days, out to publishers, (agents? What would I want with an agent?), and waited. In the next few months the thrill of hearing a massive envelope land with a thud on the mat sustained me through a dark and gloomy winter. Yes, the manuscripts were returning home. Many of them still in pristine condition, unread and most certainly unwanted. The attached letters were brutal, but had one aspect in common: rejection. The cruelest word in the English language.
I pressed on, entered the novel in a competition I’d seen on that passing fad, the Internet., sadly long since closed down, awarded my novel their first prize, Another site, Golgonooza, also long since defunct, sent me a gold medal. Sadly, it was ‘fools’ gold,’ but the thought was there, I’m sure. The chief buyer from Waterstones, a major bookshop chain, read my novel, liked it. Liked it a lot. He picked out two passages, the suicide of my character, Clive, and a description of a fatal heroin overdose, (I know, gloomy subjects, but it’s a dark book), and said ‘they shook me to the core.’
Very promising. Even in face of a mountain of rejection letters. Naturally, I did what I always do in the face of adversity – forgot about it, moved on and did something else for a while.
About five years, actually.
I had houses to renovate, wine to drink. I was busy. Far too busy to write. When my knees started to fall apart, making climbing ladders with fifty roof tiles under each arm even less appealing, my long-suffering wife suggested I start writing again.
A three-line-whip would be more accurate. ‘Your body’s falling apart, your brain can’t be far behind, get on with it while you still can’ is an approximation of her exact words.
I wrote another book, then yet another. Sent the new books off to publishers, an agent or two.
The responses were as expected. Go away and don’t ever bother us again. Why not consider flower arranging? You get the general idea?
Enter, on a white charger, the Harper Collins site for deluded authors known as Authonomy. I was sat at home, sulking, both legs in plaster – the knees again – when my wife saw an article in a newspaper. Look, I didn’t want to admit this, but it was the Daily Mail – okay, just for now, hold that scorn in abeyance. I uploaded my firstborn book at only the seventeenth attempt, thereby demonstrating that mastery of technical skills for which I am justifiably famous, and awaited the inevitable arrival of my old friend, ridicule.
People on the site were kind. Helpful. Generous.
Best of all, I had access to a free library of books written by people in the same position as myself. I read the work of my fellow writers avidly. Some of them were very good. Some were exceptional – and I’ve been a prolific reader all my life; I know what makes a book work. Yes, some were not very good. Some were terrible. A few were beyond any previous conception of variations on the concept of awfulness. I’ll not name names here, but I enjoyed those the best.
After a nervous breakdown or two along the way, my book, then entitled, Mummy’s Boy eventually received a Gold Medal as one of the top five books on the site. I received a review from a Harper Collins Editor, which reduced me to apoplectic fury at their failure to see beyond the three chapters they’d read, but there were good aspects in there too.
Enough to make me press on.
Post-Authonomy, I submitted the book to agents, publishers, candlestick makers, anyone at all really, seeking the elusive publishing contract, that secret, or not-so-secret, yearning that lurks within a writer’s breast.
The responses poured in. United in their negativity, a rejection is still a rejection, but mostly couched in tones of deepest regret. Phrases such as ‘we liked it, didn’t love it,’ or ‘loved the book, very commercial, but in the present financial climate…’ were common to many of the letters I added to the pile I’d already collected.
In January 2011, a new year, I decided on a different approach. I still had the whole manuscript out, being looked at by an agent and a publisher or two, but I took the plunge and ‘made’ an e-book. It’s the future, isn’t it? Books that can be read on a Kindle, an iPad, a laptop, a PC, even on a mobile ‘phone. ‘Proper’ writers do it, why shouldn’t I at least test the water?
I had help. Poppet was a tower of strength and gave me wise advice together with massive technical assistance, the saintly Bradley Wind designed me a new cover, Mel Comley bullied me into uploading the book, which by now had reverted to its original title, Burn, Baby, Burn onto Amazon Kindle.
January went by. I sold a few copies. Nothing to get excited about. Although, of course, I did!
February was when it all went mad. I’d done no marketing, through a combination of my habitual lethargy and a complete ignorance of the concept, had no idea at all about publicity, still don’t, and yet the book suddenly took off.
I sold twenty, then fifty copies a day, then a hundred copies a day – one day I sold 151 copies. Yes, it was on sale at only 71 pence, or 99 cents, so there was never any prospect of buying a Ferrari, but my humble little book was getting noticed.
People were reading it. Strangers I’d never met.
Keeping life simple, I’ve now set the prices at $0.99 in the US and 99 pence in the UK. Sales have remained constant, despite the change, so far. Good to know.
My book hovers around the Top Ten in the Amazon Kindle Thrillers Chart, in the top 40 for ‘all books’ on the Amazon site. I’ve yet to crack the overseas market - am selling far fewer books in the USA so far - but almost all the writers surrounding my book in the upper reaches of the charts are household names: Lee Child, Stephen Leather and the like. Stephen Leather is the biggest seller, about thirty novels to his name, and he’s now one of my Face Book friends, sends me emails, etc! What were the odds on that a week ago?
I’ve just added a second book to Amazon; laboriously edited over the past three days, every comma scrutinized - surely every writer dreads this task. Job done, book uploaded onto the site and looking good alongside its elder sibling in my new Amazon ‘Authors Page.’ The second book is entitled ‘Blood,’ another crime thriller and in my wife’s opinion, is my best book. This makes it my best book, officially. Never argue with a critic who shares your bed, (but anyone else is fair game.)
Two books sent out into the world, healthy sales and mingling with ‘proper writers’ would have been reward enough, but there was more to come. One of the agents who’d ‘liked but not loved’ my book last year got back in touch, wanting a ‘second look.’ This was a major agency who turned me down last November, even though they thought the book was 'outstanding and extremely commercial' due to the 'current financial climate' as they were ‘not taking on any more clients.’ Ah, the value of never throwing anything away, exact quotes readily available! They now want to see what I'm working on as my next project having had an ‘opportunity to consider your work in more detail.’
Two small (ish) publishers, neither specialising in crime thrillers, both UK based, got in touch and expressed an interest.
Another notable agent, based in the US but with an international client base, requested the full manuscript of Burn, Baby, Burn and has just asked for the full manuscript of my next novel, due out on Kindle in the next few days.
Heady days.
Big changes.
There’s a message here for all ‘Indie’ writers. The publishing world is moving into new areas. Don’t wait for an agent or a publisher to discover you.
Be pro-active. Put your work out into the world. Let others see it.
You just never know.
Anything could happen.
Click HERE for Jake's blog.
Click HERE for Burn, Baby, Burn on the Amazon Kindle site
Click HERE for BLOOD on the Amazon Kindle site

1 comment:

  1. Heady days indeed! What a rollercoaster of success, Jake. Full marks to you for taking the plunge into Kindling. No marks to me for excited cliches - sometimes they fit the bill and today I'm very excited for you! Warm congratulations, and thanks too for sharing your journey with us in such an entertaining and informative way. Good luck as you fly through the ether - a brave leap! Can't wait till you land you in my local bookshop.