July 2013

Eight weeks later

by Suw on July 30, 2013

Eight weeks ago I had my partial oophorectomy, so I thought it was worth writing a little update. Obviously my story is just my story, it’s not medical advice or anything. I write it because there seem to be so few first person accounts of an op like this online, and it might prove reassuring to someone or helpful in some way. 

The first two weeks after my op went pretty much as expected. I napped a lot, watched a lot of tennis, and spent a lot of time curled up with two very snuggly kitties. The pain was manageable with the painkillers I’d been given, so long as I didn’t let the cats sit on me in the wrong place. By the second Sunday, almost two weeks to the day after the op, I was starting to feel as if I was back to normal. That Monday was my first day back at work, though I intended to take it easy. 

As it happens, that first week “back at work” turned out to be anything but easy. The Monday, I didn’t do too badly at getting work done, but did need two naps. That Tuesday morning I had a meeting in London at which I at least managed to look alert, even if I wasn’t entirely feeling it. That afternoon, though, Mother Nature visited the seventh level of hell upon me, also known as menstruation. 

It really was hideously painful and I was grateful that I still had some of the powerful painkillers left over from the ones that the hospital gave me. The pain was easily equivalent to that I’d felt directly after the op, and I felt rather as if the past fortnight hadn’t happened. That week was basically a complete wash – I had no energy, spent a lot of time back in bed or sitting on the sofa, and eventually decided to just let it go and let myself recover.

I could have done without needing to take that extra week off, not least because two work leads that had come in either just before or on the day of my operation evaporated because people couldn’t wait for me to recover. That’s one of the biggest downsides of being self-employed and needing to take time off for whatever reason – if you miss an opportunity, it won’t come round again. (And if you want to hire me for anything social media related, now’s a good time to get in touch!)

By the third Monday, though, I was feeling much better. My wounds, which were very small, had healed nicely and the stitches were dissolving. I had made the mistake of buying sterile dressings and micropore tape to cover my wounds whilst they healed, just to stop my clothes from rubbing at them more than anything. Unfortunately it turned out that I was allergic to the adhesive, even though it said it was hypoallergenic, and my skin itched like fury for about a fortnight, sloughing off like I was sunburnt. 

I started back at the gym in week 6, though I am still staying away from any exercises that focus on the abs as I still get low-level aches every now and again. It’s not clear to me what causes my ex-ovary to give me shit periodically, but it does. It feels a bit, sometimes, as if I have a phantom ovary, that my body thinks that it’s still there and still very cross about being mucked about. Those aches are fading over time and I presume that at some point they’ll just go away altogether, but in the meantime they serve to remind me not to overdo it. I just hope that I don’t end up with a weather ovary that aches when it gets wet and cold!

Surprisingly, I noticed almost immediately after the op that my ongoing lower back pain had just vanished. I’ve had back problems all my life, and over the last few years I had had significant pains in my lower back. I had put it down to not being fit enough, to having tight hamstrings that were aggravating muscles in my lumbar spine. In the few months prior to the op, the pain had become really quite intense. Every day I would wake up in agony which would last an hour or so, until I had moved around for a bit, and which would then come back in the evening as I got tired. 

That pain has now gone, completely. It turns out that lower back pain, even pain reaching down into the top of the legs, is a symptom of endometriosis. I am more than happy to swap that daily agony for a bit of an occasional ache that’s annoying but doesn’t even need painkillers. 

Having everything done laparoscopically is deceptive, though. You walk away with these tiny little cuts that heal really nicely and you think that not much has happened. In actual fact, the surgery was really quite a lot more serious than I had imagined it would be and it was hard sometimes to remember that and adjust my expectations accordingly. 

I’ve been through my second period post op, and although it was more painful than usual it wasn’t a patch on that first one. And it’s nice to know that, as predicted, my remaining ovary is more than capable of picking up the slack. There’s really very little, day to day, to remind me that I’m running on one ovary, except the occasional tweak as scar tissue complains a bit. Oh, that and the fact that for about three or four weeks after I stopped taking painkillers I was a really cheap drunk! I seem to be back to normal now, though, which is a relief. 

My check up is late September and hopefully then I’ll find out what the long term prognosis is for my endometriosis. They couldn’t remove all of it – there’s still some left inside my right ovary – but I don’t know how fast it grows or how long it took me to develop an abdomen full of the damn stuff. But I’m certainly happy that I had the op when I did, no matter the cost to this summer’s work schedule. 

Finally, I need to say a huge thank you to Kevin, who really has been a wonderful husband throughout, looking after me with incredibly patience and tenderness, and a willingness to get me another cup of tea every half hour or so. It would have been a much harder slog to get better without him. 

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There’s a lot of advice on how to design book covers floating around the internet. Lots of it is very sensible: Your book cover should reflect the genre and cleave to its tropes. It should reflect the tone of your story, communicating to potential readers what they are getting before they even open the book. The text should be readable in thumbnail, so that it shows up well in Amazon, but it also needs to look good full-size in print. Plus it needs to work in black and white, or rather, the dark grey and light grey of eInk ereaders. What you’ll rarely hear is “And it need to look good when foil-blocked on to French silk bookcloth”.

Argleton is a short novella, possibly even a novelette. It is too short to print via services like Lulu without ending up with a lot of blank pages at the back or using very big type. The only way it will find itself in print again is if I do another and hand bound edition, so any cover I have for the book has to work well in that context.

Hand binding a book brings with it certain constraints, particularly if you are working with a minimum of equipment. For example, having strong, bold horizontal or vertical lines are a mistake, because then you have to make sure that everything is lined up perfectly. That can be done, but I’m a perfectionist and even if the book came out even a tiny bit skew it would drive me up the wall.

You also have to think about how you are going to transfer the design to the book. When I did the first edition of Argleton, I did one version with a paper cover, and one with a hand-sewn silk cover. I don’t think I’d do either again now. The paper cover was a pain in the arse to work with, and the hand-sewn silk cover took forever to put together – four separate pieces of silk that had to be bonded together then embroidered. Each one took about 20 hours to complete.

Silk book cover for the first edition of Argleton

Instead, future books will be foil blocked, ie the design is stamped on to the cover using a hot block and a metallic foil. Foil blocking looks gorgeous and I’m hoping to be able to find a small table-top machine that I can use at home to do this.

Now, I could have had two designs done for each novella – one for the ebook and one for the hand-bound book – but I didn’t want to pay for two covers for a book that is no longer really selling and I didn’t want to dilute the book’s brand. So one cover has to do double duty as best it can.

When I was talking to my designer, Thomas James, about what I wanted, it wasn’t just the constraints provided by the foil blocking that I had in mind. I also wanted a cover design that was typographically and graphically strong, something that looked a bit different to the usual ebook fare and would stick in people’s minds. For me, the key inspiration was the classic Penguin paperback design:

Day 286 by prendio2

Day 286 by prendio2

I also wanted a design that would grow as my own catalogue grew, with each addition of a new book adding more depth to the overall feel of the others. If you had these books lined up next to one another on your bookshelf, they should speak to one another in warm and kindly tones, they should look like they belong together, each bringing out the best in the other.

The design that Thomas did for Argleton was beautiful, featuring a gorgeous hare that I would just love to one day turn into a necklace:

Argleton cover design

If Argleton does ever get a second edition, this is roughly what it would look like (though smaller and slimmer – it’s just not that long of a book!):

Mock-up of a print version of Argleton

When it came to Queen of the May, I wanted to Thomas to work exactly the same magic, and he did. The design is based on an angrek, Angraecum magdalenae, a rare orchid that features in the story.

Queen of the May cover

And again, the mock-up for the hand-bound book:

Mock up of the Queen of the May print book

The chances of Queen of the May making it into print are reasonable. If there’s a good response to the ebook and I can get enough people interested in a print version, then I’ll run the Kickstarter that I was planning earlier in the year, though I may well strip it right back to basics so that it doesn’t become a massive time sink. (If you are interested, then subscribe to my monthly newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out on any news!)

Even without the print versions, I think the strong visual design and typography makes these covers work exactly as I had hoped they would. They don’t say much about the genre that I’m writing in, which is fine because I’m not even sure what genre that is. They don’t tell you much about the story that you’re getting either. But they do gives you a sense of identity, an idea of their sensibilities. I can’t wait to get my next novella finished so that I can see how the third design fits in with and speaks to the others.

Argleton and Queen of the May are available via my ebook store.

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I’ve written a piece for The Writing Platform on why I think all self-publishers should control at least one point of sale and sell direct to their readers

The self-publishing process has become pretty well established by now, a received wisdom that shapes every entrepreneurial writer’s secret dreams:

1. Write book

2. ???

3. Profit!

Amazon is the secret sauce that many self-publishers rely on to propel them to the authorial stratosphere, hoping that they will become the next breakout bestseller. But for the other 99.9% of us for whom the lightning doesn’t strike, Amazon turns out to be a double-edged sword. Whilst it gives you access to vast numbers of readers, it cuts you off from them too, divorcing you from your fanbase in a singularly unhelpful way.

Read the rest!

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This blog post started off as a comment on Glyn Moody’s Google Plus post linking to this post on Medium about ‘free culture’, and the discussion that ensued. You might want to read those first.

The biggest problem with discussions of how to financially support the artistic sector, as per the article Glyn linked to, is that although the landscape has changed a lot, and continues to change, our maps aren’t up to date. A lot of the conversations I see on this issue are based on ideology and assumptions, with very little in the way of evidence. And when we do get evidence, it’s not often generalisable beyond its original context. So it’s very easy to understand where we are, and where we need to be, but nigh on impossible to say how we’re going to get there or, more importantly, how a specific person is going to get there. 

I’ve long been a proponent of free culture. Indeed, whilst at ORG I ran a project looking at how artists of varying sorts were successfully using a free or pay-what-you-will model. However, they say that no military campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy, and no theoretical framework for earning money as an artist survives first contact with reality. 

My own journey as an author began with an assumption that free was the way forward, because that was what I believed. I recently did an analysis of my stats for my first novella, Argleton, and wound up with these figures: 

Free Downloads: 23,180 (% downloaded by humans unknown)
Sales: 782
Remittances: £210.86

I have more recently realised that the assertion that “If people love what you are doing, they will pay” is not entirely true. People can love what you’re doing, and be vocal about that to you, and still not pay even 99p to support you if they have the option to get your work for free instead. And really, why should they? In these economically straitened times, people want to and need to save every penny they can, so if you give them free, they’ll take free, even if they love your work to bits. 

Equally, the assertion that your fans will sell your work for you is overhyped in the extreme. Getting fans to promote your work is actually incredibly difficult. I’ve had people pledge up to £500 on Kickstarter, so clearly people do value what I do, but there’s a disconnect between their willingness to pay and their willingness to promote it on my behalf. When I tweet about my new novella, Queen of the May, for example, I get very, very few retweets. It is unrealistic for me to assume that others will do my marketing for me. 

The problem is that too often outliers are interpreted as indicative of the general case, and they’re really not. Most authors are not, for example, Amanda Hocking or John Locke or Hugh Howey. They are not going to have a runaway success, because those are extremely rare and we don’t live at Lake Wobegon

For the vast majority of authors, the road to success is long and very slow and, to start with, rather expensive. There is no secret sauce. Free is not a magic bullet. Obscurity is a problem, but a pure free model is not the answer. 

For Queen of the May, I’ve taken a long-term view and gone with a semi-free model. Argleton and my short story, The Lacemaker, are free and Queen of the May is 99p if you sign up to my mailing list. If you don’t want to sign up to my newsletter, the two novellas are £2.49, and the short story is 99p. This means that I’m giving people a chance to become familiar with my work by offering some of it for free, but I’m still getting some value from the transaction – I’m getting them on my mailing list. Yes, they could subscribe and then unsubscribe having downloaded the freebies, but so far no one has actually done that. 

In two and a half weeks since I released Queen of the May, I’ve had about 90 downloads or sales, and pulled in £38 after PayPal fees. It took me two years to reach £210 for Argleton. And my mailing list has 35 new subscribers, which will make promoting my next book much easier. 

Kickstarter, too, is not an easy option. It’s certainly a useful tool, but it’s very hard to get enough attention for your project to ensure it completes, and even harder to get it to complete at a level that pays you for your time. And if you don’t get paid for your time, you’re not on your way towards a financially sustainable career. 

The truth is that reality is horribly complicated with lots of confounding factors; no ideology can stand up to reality; and we lack the evidence to understand what really works even to the point of not knowing if, for example, Google or Facebook Ads have any worthwhile return on investment. 

There’s far too much cargo cult thinking going on. Far too many people trying to mindlessly duplicate what they see successful writers/artists appearing to have done without thinking about what exactly they are doing and why. Ultimately, ‘free’ is only a part of the puzzle, to be used wisely and as part of a broader strategy. 

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The genesis of Queen of the May

by Suw on July 9, 2013

Gillespie Park, North London

Gillespie Park, North London

I started writing Queen of the May, which I published Monday, towards the end of September 2011, a week or two before Kevin and I were due to leave our flat in Arsenal for the quieter (and cheaper) environs of Woking. Kevin was working abroad and I was packing up the flat on my own, though we did hire movers to do the easy bits. The place became a mess as I tried to throw out as much stuff as possible and pack the office so that I would know which boxes to undo first in the new place. It was a week or two before Ada Lovelace Day and I couldn’t afford to spend time trying to figure out where the contents of my desk had gone.

I had walked past the entrance to Gillespie Park countless times as it was on the way to the Arsenal Underground station, and almost every time I had thought to myself that I really ought to poke my nose in and see what it was like. With less than a fortnight to go before I left the area forever I took advantage of a lovely, sunny autumn day to explore the park.

Rather cheesily, I now have to invoke the spectre of Led Zeppelin. I’ve always found Stairway to Heaven to be a serious earworm, but back when I was playing bass and writing for the Melody Maker, it was deemed passé. Plenty of guitar shops would ban anyone who came in and played even the slightest hint of the opening riff or solo. But the song is still a classic and it gets played a lot on the radio. I’d heard it that week and the two lines that had always bugged started bugging me even more:

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.

Who was this May Queen? I mean, yes, she’s the girl at the centre of the May Day parade, in her white dress and crown. If my memory serves, when I was very little I was chosen, once, to be in a May Day parade, not as the May Queen but as one of her attendants. And yes, she’s a personification of the Spring, but what does it mean to be the May Queen? To be Queen for one year, and just one year?

Furthermore, why is she bustling in your hedgerow and what is she cleaning? And why should I be alarmed?

These questions had circulated through my brain for the best part of twenty years, and whilst I was packing I realised that the May Queen was most likely a faerie, not least because may is another name for hawthorn and hawthorn is well known to be a faerie tree, marking the ‘entrance to the otherworld’ as Wikipedia puts it. It also has hermaphrodite flowers but we shan’t talk about tree sex here.

I had a feeling that Gillespie Park might be rather different to the nearby Clissold and Finsbury Parks and, when I finally visited, it became obvious that it was a soft place where the city overlaps with faerie territory. The idea of the May Queen as a human captured from the women visiting the park began to coalesce, and I started writing.


Add to Cart for just £2.49.

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I finally sat down and trawled through all my website stats and Kindle sales reports for Argleton, which I published in August 2011 on my website and then the next month on Amazon. The results are interesting, to me at least, because the numbers are far higher than I had anticipated. I counted downloads of the PDF, txt, mobi, ePub and HTML files, all of which were free, and the sales in all Kindle stores where the book was available. I also totted up all the remittances that Amazon sent me, which isn’t a true total as Amazon has minimums for each store that you must cross before it’ll send you your money. There are still a few dollars here and there in various regional stores.

Free Downloads: 23,180
Sales: 782
Remittances: £210.86

That’s actually a lot better than I had anticipated. The price on the Kindle store fluctuated a little, but was generally around the £1.20 – £1.50 mark. My average royalty was 27p per copy.

The graph of sales tells an interesting, if unclear, story:

Argleton sales

The free downloads (top line, in blue) behave very much as you might expect, with a big peak at launch followed by a slow ebb in downloads. I’m not sure what caused the peak in March 2012. They then settle down to around the 700 per month mark. It must be said at this point that I don’t know how many of these downloads are from actual people, and how many are from bots and other non-humans. Even if half of them are bots, the numbers are still good.

The Amazon sales could have behaved in one of two ways: an initial surge followed by a decline, or a slow build as the book gained traction with Amazon’s algorithms. The graph begins to show the second pattern, with a slow increase in sales up to a peak of 185 in May 2012. But then, beginning in June 2012 and completed by July, the numbers crash. This co-incided with two events: The book received three 1 star torpedo reviews* that slated the book as being childish, and Amazon changed its algorithm to effectively punish cheap books. It’s impossible to say which event killed my sales, but something did. By early 2013, I’m lucky if I’m selling 5 copies per month.

This is behind my decision to pull Argleton from Amazon and only sell my ebooks direct through this very site. If I’m not going to benefit from Amazon’s much vaunted recommendation engine and have to do all the promotion work myself, then I may as well send people to my own shop. If I control the point of sale, then I can both track where people come from and invite them to join my mailing list when they buy my books. I can’t do that with Amazon and, at the moment, data and subscribers are much more important to me than sales.

Well, I say that, but sales are still very important! I spent £250 on the cover redesign for Argleton, and I’m only 16 full-price sales away from breaking even on it. For Queen of the May, I’ve so far spent £350 on editorial and cover design and I’d very much like to make that back. My new pricing structure is this:

Short story: 99p
Novella: £2.49
Novel**: £3.99

Those prices are higher than I was selling Argleton at on Amazon, but the average reading speed is about 200 words per minute, so it would take over three hours to read Queen of the May — you’d have to be really nursing a glass of wine or pint of beer to make it last that long. And, in this neck of the woods anyway, you’d be lucky to get a drink down the pub for just £2.49 so I think they are reasonable prices. For those of you who love a bargain, I will of course be offering deals via Twitter and my mailing list.

So let’s do the maths: In order to break even on Queen of the May, I need to sell 141 159*** full-price copies. Given I sold 782 copes of Argleton over two years, I feel quite confident that I will sell more than 141 159 copies of Queen of the May, not least because this is a much, much better book than Argleton. It might take a while, but it will happen.

Out of curiosity, I totted up the hours I had spent working on Queen of the May. Ignoring the Kickstarter stuff, I have spent a little over 150 hours writing and editing. We won’t mention that those hours have been spread out, embarrassingly, over nearly two years, but we will say that I’ve been finding it easier to focus on writing recently so I’m hoping my productivity rockets.

If I wanted to be paid minimum wage, ie £6.31 per hour, for the time I’ve already spent writing, then I need to sell 381 429 books, netting me £948.09. And if I want to be paid at a rate high enough for to be able to stop consulting and write full time, I’d need to sell 1000 books per month, or 1071 to cover the time I’ve already invested.

Were I still selling through Amazon at the lower price point that’s expected there, I’d need to sell 8185 ebooks per month to be able to give up other work, a number that seems impossibly high. If I upped my price to £2.49, which would hit the 70% royalty rate, then that number would come down to 1267. I think it’ll take me quite a while to build sales up to 1000 novella-equivalents per month, but it doesn’t seem like a ridiculous number.

I am, of course, excited to see what happens with Queen of the May, now freshly published! I’m literally just waiting for the cover art to arrive and then it’ll be ready to be published. But I’m under no illusions regarding just how much promotional donkey work I’ll have to do, with no Amazon algorithms to rely on or give me a signal boost, just Twitter, my newsletter and you, dear reader. So if you like my writing, please do tell your friends, and tell them to tell their friends.


* It’s worth noting that at least one of the 1 star reviews came from someone who had bought Argleton because it was recommended as an ‘also bought’ on Hugh Howey’s Wool and they were very disappointed that Argleton wasn’t Wool. The two books couldn’t be more different, and it was a rather stark reminder that Amazon’s recommendations engine can cut both ways.

** There is a novel coming, honest.

*** Update: Damn it, I forgot PayPal takes a cut. For every £2.49 you spend, I get £2.21, which is about 88 percent of list price and still better than what I’d get from Amazon. For every 99p you spend, I get 76p, which is about 77 percent of list price, dramatically more than I’d get from Amazon who, at that price point, would give me only a 30% royalty or 23p. All numbers have been adjusted to take that into account.

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I have been invited to read an extract from my upcoming novella, Queen of the May, at the Brixton Book Jam, 7.30pm, 8th July, at the Hootananny in Brixton. It’s free, so there’s no excuse not to come along!

Each reading is about five minutes long, and I’m hoping to be on in the first group of readers (so that I’ve time to make the trek back to Woking afterwards!). If you do come, please do feel free to say hi!

Other readers include:

  • Irenosen Okojie
  • Harys Francke
  • Howard Cunnell
  • Rosanne Rabinowitz
  • Tom Pollock
  • Ben Johncock
  • Martin Bannister
  • Cherry Potts
  • Helen Smith
  • Salome Jones

Unfortunately I won’t have physical books available on the night, but I am aiming to get the ebook out before 8th. In fact, the book is so very nearly done that I can smell it!

Date: Monday, 8 July, 2013
Time: 7.30pm
Location: Hootananny Brixton, 95 Effra Road, SW2 1DF

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