Authors Unbound: Nottingham Waterstones 6th October

As part of the ongoing crowdfunding-related shenanigans for my upcoming thriller East of England, I’m involved in a day-long writing event at Waterstones in Nottingham on Saturday 6th October.

Authors Unbound offers a keynote speech from award-winning author Alice Jolly, plus five themed panels with discussions - and audience Q&As on contemporary writing, genre fiction, historical writing, non-fiction and documentary writing, and on comic writing. There’ll be a few readings to round out the day also.

Here’s the running order:

6 Oct running order.PNG

All the writers featured have works either in-progress or published by Unbound. Tickets are £% plus book fee (the fiver’s redeemable against book purchases, which makes it almost free, really!), and can be bought here in advance from Waterstones.

Also, in support of the event, we’ve put together an e-book sampling a fair selection of those in Nottingham on the day. That e-book can be downloaded here (It’s free for a limited time, so gt in quick and you might snaffle a freebie!).

Lastly, many of the writers who’ll be there have been interviewed on this very blog in my 10 Questions series. Have a look-see here:

Eli Allison

Lulu Allison

Tim Atkinson

Stephanie Bretherton

Erica Buist

Sue Clark

Alys Earl

Eamonn Griffin (yes, I interviewed myself)

Maximilian Hawker

Paul Holbrook

Stephen Leslie

Miles Hudson

Patrick Kincaid

Amy Lord

Virginia Moffatt

John-Michael O’Sullivan

Emma Pusill

PJ (Philip) Whiteley

Hope to see you on the 6th October if you’re available, and if not, at least consider downloading the ebook (it’s free until the morning of Tues 25th Sept, 99p thereafter - that’s the cheapest it can be made), as well as checking out these fine author types.


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Harrogate History Festival

Last weekend I was over in Harrogate at the now-annual Harrogate History Festival that's organised by the Historical Writers' Association. That's three-ish days of talks over a wide range of history-related writing (both fiction and non-fiction are represented here). I didn't take session notes this time out as it wasn't a writing practice-specific set of events (there was one session on historical fiction writing, but I didn't go to it!).


These kinds of events are both fun, educational, and useful too. For a start, as a writer whose work tends to invoke the historical, they show that you're not alone; a big hall full of folk of all ages underlines the idea that there are people out there that are into the same sorts of stuff as you. And folk of all ages as well; Michael Morpurgo effortlessly filled the hall with three generations of readers.

So, over the weekend, I went to sessions on (deep breath) women in WWII, historical villains, WWII spies, on England's long and noble history of defeating the French, on Thomas Cromwell, on breakthrough historical fiction authors on King John and Magna Carta. Oh, and keynote-style speeches from Melvyn Bragg and Ken Follett.  A particular high point was outgoing HWA chair Manda Scott interviewing Kate Mosse - I've never been the biggest fan of Mosse's fiction, but she came across so well I went straight out and bought a copy of her novel The Taxidermist's Daughter...

So a good weekend was had, ta very much, plus I came away with a load of promo material that gave me heads-up on dozens of upcoming historical novels, and a goodie bag that included a proof of a new Alison Weir novel on Katharine of Aragon.  

The next job then is to get to the level in a year or so where I'll be on the stage! Best get cracking...


My historical thriller The Prospect of This City  - a new take on the Great Fire of London - is now out. It's available in paperback from this very website, and also in ebook and paperback via Amazon

Derby Writers' Day 17th Oct 2015 - part 2

This is the second half of a two-part post covering Derby Writers' Day. The morning's panels are here.  As usual, these are my written-up notes; they're not a verbatim record!

1pm: Historical Fiction panel.  Panel sponsored by Writing East Midlands.  Elizabeth Chadwick, Claire Harvey, James Wilde/Mark Chadbourn (chair)

Question: how did you started?

EC: I was writing from childhood, though not published until my thirties. 

CH: 15 years from first starting to be published.  As I am newly published, I still feel an imposter.

MC: For me, short story success led to an approach.

Question: Agents?

EC: I have been with Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann for 25 years. She is especially good for foreign rights.

CH: I’ve had an agent for less than a year.

MC: I’m on my fourth agent, plus an agent for screenwriting.

Question: what makes a good agent?

EC: contacts.  Tact.  Stickability.  Someone who listens and advises.

CH: I sent work out to about seven; my agent is the only one who picked me up, but I am very happy.

MC: much depends on the individual agent’s taste.

Question: research?

EC: I have a good base line of knowledge after 25 years writing.  I now work on a need to know basis.  I use primary and secondary resources.  Plus I am a medieval re-enactor.  Research must be used organically in the novel though.

CH: I do it as I go along.  As I work in the 20th century, that means there’s an awful lot of audio visual material available, plus I can conduct interviews.

Question: trends?

EC: there were doldrums for historical fiction in the mid-1990s.  I took a cut in advances to keep published.  But there was a renaissance in the genre after the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl.  The genre is healthy at present.

MC: Roman fiction is still strong.  Also, historical fiction lends itself well to other genres.  We have not yet hit peak Roman.

Question: plot or pants?

CH: you have to write the book that you’ve got.  You can’t predict the market.

EC: in my biographical historical fiction, you have a map to follow.  I write a 16 page synopsis for my agent, and the blurb.

CH: I write a synopsis and a route plan but it’s all subject to change.

Question: what advice would you give your younger self?

EC: Edit!  Making the best it can be before it goes out into the world.

MC: I wish I’d learned more about the business side of publishing sooner.  Agents, income, genre considerations.

Question: can a writer make a living?

EC: Yes, and a good living too, in time.  You’re in it for the long haul.  Advances vary, but they are decent for me at present.  Some publishers give very small advances though, and poor sales records can haunt you for years.

MC: The trick is staying published.  There is a high attrition rate.  You have to publicise yourself these days.

EC: You have to offer more than the book.  Facebook etc.

MC: You have to treat social media as part of your business.  You are the product as much as your books.  There is an element of personal branding.

Audience Q and A:

Has steampunk impacted on Victorian?  Not sure, it’s just an aspect of Victorian.

Vocabulary? CH: my tip is to read it aloud. EC: use clear straightforward English.  The language should be a clear window to the story. MC: As long as it feels right, then the language will be all right.

Are there any publishers to avoid? MC: stick with the big five or six; that you can’t go too far wrong.  But be cautious always.  Always check out their economic model. EC: you can also check with the Society of Authors who will check a contract for you, as well and good agent. MC: small publishers struggle sometimes to get your books in shops, therefore they might make money but you might not.  The basic advance these days is 10 to 15,000.  For a big author, perhaps 50,000.  Small publishers will offer in the low thousands or perhaps even only a few 100 pounds.

When to stop?  After about six drafts.  Give yourself time and space between the drafts.  Always try to read it aloud.  Some use editorial services and get feedback.  Don’t rework part drafts; do the whole thing.


2 pm. Literary Fiction panel.  Alison McQueen, Alison Moore, Nicola Monaghan (chair).

First, the panel discussed definitional issues.  Literary fiction is that which might engage with weighted topics, privilege meaning over entertainment, feature an emotional journey, be judged primarily on the quality of its writing, or just a clever marketing device.

AM: Yes, real-world and online bookshops both love categories.

AMc: I dislike the term.  It’s also sexist.

NV: As well as focusing on the middle-class and the white.

AMc: Some so-called literary fiction can be verbose, dense, and portentous in its writing.

NV: Marketing loves categories.

AMc: Yes, there can be an element of snobbery.

NV: Genre fiction can address social topics and be as well written as any literary fiction.

AMc: Does your voice stay the same when writing literary/genre?

AM: Yes, though horror-specific writing will naturally lean towards a darker tone.

AMc: My five Housewife books had some of the darkness toned down by the publisher. You don’t want the reader running for a dictionary. Having a copywriting background helps.  I try to be as clear as possible. The industry loves pigeon holes. After the five Housewife books, I was done, and broke my contract.

MV: Voice develops all the time.  As does process.

AM: Process stays the same for me, the context changes.

AMc: Writing process is endlessly fascinating; the things that other writers do.  I’m always looking for tips.

Some people prefer chaos, whereas other.  Others preferred detailed Excel spreadsheets!

Question: how did you get your break?

AM: Through short stories; that's how I met my agent and editor Nicholas Royle.

AMc: Competitions can be really useful.  My original contract didn’t mention ebooks, so I didn’t get paid when Macmillan published ebooks of my first Housewife novels.  Rejection is part and parcel of the industry.  You have to get on board with the knockbacks.  Many authors are increasingly dissatisfied with the publishers.  Self-publishing is a real option these days.

NV: Yes, I’m sensing optimism from self-publishing circles.

AM: There are some good independents out there also.

NV: But distribution can be an issue for independents.  Also self-publishers may not face rejection and so not learn from it.

Question: what’s your voice?

AM: I’ve never been taught.  I’m guided by my characters, plus the time and mood of the piece.  Many writers have recurring themes.

AMc: I’ve had no training either.  Voice is ½ invisible watermark; it's always there somewhere.  Voice is recognisable in good writers.  Be honest and authentic and it will come through.  Strip away the bullshit.

Question: what about endings?  Is literary fiction less plot-driven?

AM: Yes, but if it’s good, there will be all the ingredients there.

NV: Genre doesn’t have to be closed.  The good novels carry on inside the readers.

AM: Screenplays need more plot.  I’ve supplied additional notes to clarify the ending of the book for the screenplay version of my novel The Lighthouse.


3 pm Keynote panel: Are writers thriving or surviving?  Emma Bamford, Elizabeth Chadwick, Alex Davis (chair), Stan Nicholls.

Q: What changes over time have you seen?

EC: The internet, the rise of small press and self-publishing. Also there are more people writing, and being enabled by writing.

SN: Nowadays you get one shot. Talent isn’t nurtured. Also, “bestseller” status has changed; it’s almost a meaningless term nowadays. You have to be versatile and adaptable. There’s a resurgence in short fiction, but there are fewer paying markets.

Q: What qualities do you need to be a writer?

EB: Perseverance, an element of luck. Also, you can’t afford to be precious. Everyone gets edited. Everyone gets rejected. You need marketing skills and a thick skin. You need to be able to operate in both the online and the “real” world.

SN: Publisher support isn’t there to the same extent that it was. Most books don’t turn a profit; it’s a bit of a lottery at times. Also, there are so many books out there. The publisher’s role as gatekeeper is still relevant, but it’s not the whole story.

EB: I agree. You have to give more than just the book these days – such as extras online and via social media. Structured interactivity, especially via Facebook, is important – you can build a community of readers via networking. However, you can’t do this cynically, and you must beware that you don’t oversell your books.

Q: are livelihoods being squeezed?

EB: I recall a 2002 survey that said that average writer earnings were around £10K. A much more recent survey estimated that figure to now be £8K. In other words, you need a day job.   

SN: The industry’s always looking for new blood, though, and large advances are out there for newish writers. In many ways publishing is a 19th century industry trying to take on board the 20th century while being in the 21st!

Independent presses are doing as good a job as the majors, but they can struggle to get distribution. I’d like my work to get to a readership, even if it’s not a huge one.

It’s best not to get into writing for the money.

EC: At the end of the day you have to reach your readers, so give yourself the best edge that you can.

Floor questions:

What issues should we be wary of as writers?

EB: Always check out publishers that aren’t household names. Check contract terms and conditions carefully.

EC: Both the Society of Authors and any decent literary agent, if you have one, will be able to give contractual guidance. There are also good sites like Predators and Editors.

SN: I’ve seen some shocking contracts being offered to writers. Be wary. There are vanity presses and sharks out there, and they prey on the gullible and the desperate. There are no short cuts.

AD: Also, self-publishing is increasingly an option.  

Question: Self-publishing – Yes or No?

EC: I like the idea of mixing and matching. Some of my backlist novels would be ripe for self-publishing, though I probably wouldn’t consider it for new work unless I had no other option.

EB: I like the idea of the control of self-publishing. But one would have to be really brave to walk away from a traditional publishing deal. That said, self-publishing can work really well for genre fiction.

SN: So many self-published books sell under a hundred copies though. I might consider self-publishing passion projects. There is still a stigma to self-publishing in some quarters.

AD: “Hybrid” authors who self-publish and are traditionally published simultaneously are growing in numbers all the time.

Q: What tips have you got for promoting yourself online?

EB: Be authentic

SN: Give bonuses – free shorts and extra chapters, for example. Also, involve people in some way. Devise interesting competitions.

Q: How best to grab readers while they’re young?

SN: Write something good! The challenge in the digital world is copyright protection. A whole generation is used to the idea of free content.

EB: Be cinematic. Jump cuts and short chapters.

EC: Short paragraphs. Be punchy.

Q: What good news is out there for writers?

EB: Writing is rewarding in and of itself. Do it for that reason. Not for fame or riches.

SN: When you get random contact from strangers saying that your writing’s had a positive effect on them or their life in some way. You can’t beat that. Also, you keep learning, so don’t be put off.

And with that, the session and the day ended. Thanks again to the event organisers and sponsors!


My historical thriller The Prospect of This City is out now in paperback from this very website and in Kindle ebook and paperback via Amazon.  

Derby Writers' Day 17th Oct 2015 - part 1

On Saturday 17th October I went along to the Writers’ Day held at Derby Quad that was supported by Writing magazine and Writing East Midlands.  The event was co-ordinated by Alex Davies from Boo Books (@BooBooksDerby).  As is the way when I go to these kinds of events I took notes for the talks and panels that I intended.

This post is the first of two. This time out, I’ll cover the two morning sessions that I attended, and next time out I’ll summarise the three afternoon sessions that I went to.  As ever, these are my notes only, and not a verbatim record!

10am.  Successful Self-Publishing with Tracey Bloom (@TracyBBloom), author of No-One Ever Has Sex On A Tuesday: interviewed by Alex Davis.

TB: self-publishing came out of not getting a UK publishing deal for my first two novels via UK agents.  I was inspired by Nick Spalding and his success story with Amazon.  I spent three months researching and planning before self-publishing.  According to Spalding, 99% of self-publishing sales are in ebook format.  Amazon dominates.  I read around self-publishing / pricing / advertising and marketing strategies.  I have a marketing background – it’s not rocket science – but you have to approach your books as though they are products.

My first novel was edited by my agent.  I always work with a skilled editor.  If possible, get a recommendation.

There is a Holy Trinity to self-publishing.  The title / the cover / the blurb.  Get these right.  The use of professional designer is important for your covers.  Remember that you are designing a thumbnail for Amazon and not a full size cover for a book.  Remember 99% of your sales will come from Amazon.

Look for other good examples.  Amazon has a White Glove programme that only literary agents can access.  To enables agents to sell publish directly to Amazon.  Otherwise, formatting your ebook is pretty straightforward their professionals will do this for you.  This costs me about £40.00.

Self-publishing led me to being picked up for traditional UK publication.  Publishers don’t like Amazon.  Commercial publishers are still biased towards physical copies and away from ebooks.  This has meant that I have gone back to self-publishing for the sequel to my first book.

The perception of self-publishing is changing but slowly, especially in the industry.

As for reviews and other coverage, book bloggers are gold but it’s a hard slog.  Bloggers need treating with respect, just like traditional journalists.  It is hard but not impossible because there although some bloggers do not touch self-published work, others do.

I spent approximately 20 hours a week over 3 ½ months marketing my first book.  But you need to keep writing as well.  You need to have more books for readers to buy.

Any advice? Do it. I learned so much by doing it. But be clear about a divide between writing and marketing.

Answers to floor questions

Agents?  I was dropped by my first agent, but foreign deals enabled a second.  I found my first agent through the writers’ and artists’ yearbook.  Some agents to work with self-publishing authors.

Editors?  Get a recommendation.  Writing East Midlands may have a database.  Look for people with previous experience.

There is always benefit to a self-publishing writer in having an agent.  Access to the White Glove programme, plus potential access to Amazon's own promotions etc.  The potential there is excellent.

Also there are more digital only publishers out there; people who are more attuned to ebooks.  Also sometimes a publisher will come to you if there are signs of success.

Pricing structure?  Models: seem to be very low for the first book and then build up from there.  99 pence for the first one then up from that point.  Also, you can do your own promotions via Amazon.

Amazon reviews? This can be good feedback and also useful for sales.  Is important to set up your ebook so that it is easy for people to sign up to mailing lists.

Amazon vs. traditional publishers?  Amazon have 80 per cent of the ebook market so you have to deal with them.  Plus the commission is a 70/30 split to you.


11am. Promotion and Publicity for Writers, with Julia Murday (@jules_murday) Campaign Manager, Penguin Books: interviewed by Alex Davis.

Debut hardback fiction sells about 400 copies.  We get involved us in as the commissioning editor gets an interesting prospect.  Lead times of 12 months plus.  Social media / online profiles / events / the cover / the look of the book – we’re involved in all this.

Big releases get the big push with Tube and rail advertising.  For new authors the challenge is to raise their and their book’s profile.  We give advice on GoodReads, book clubs, and non-traditional publicity means also.

Author led?  It's key for them to be invested.  Bookshop tours etc.  

Be objective.  Profile your consumer.  Who would buy this book?  Focus your attention accordingly.  Target your social media.  People want connection and conversation.  Social media can be great for this.

What not to do?  Don’t spend himself too thin.

There is a more cautious spend for new writers. The big players get the big spend. The new writer spend is on proof copies for review in advance of publication.  The goal is to create buzz and a domino effect.

The timescales are usually 12 to 18 months in advance. We put about 4/5 debuts a year. About half of these get a big push. To meet the sales budget and to break even is the key.

What defines a big buzz book? What strikes the right chord? A combination of the author themselves, a relatable story, the quality of the book.

Audience Q and A

Promotion - do I have to? If the author is unwilling to promote, then that can make things really tricky. It might even feed into a decision to purchase the book or not. So get some practice.  Do a reading, be involved with local reading groups, writing groups, and booksellers.

Is the paperback threatened?  Not necessarily.  Physical book sales are bouncing back (see also Waterstone decisions to stop selling e-readers).

Agent relationships?  A targeted agent is key. Their relationships with editors need to be in place and be strong.

What about anonymous authors and pen names?  It’s tricky but not impossible.  It’s not advisable for a debut writer.  Pen names are more common but total anonymity is difficult. Existing media and public profiles are useful but more so for non-fiction.

Brand name authors?  These are standout names within audience demographic that is clearly defined, for example Lee Child and Jodi Picoult.

Release strategies? Hardback and paperback release strategy depends very much on the book and the audience, but there is greater flexibility these days to model release strategies per book. Hardbacks are more profitable than paperbacks, so it makes sense to maximise these where possible.

Cross-genre? Cross genre books can be difficult.  Often we have to make a genre decision for positioning.  We do post-mortems afterwards though.  We work with the author regarding positioning.

Trends? Colouring books are a current fad, but book publishing is slow. Editors have to be cultural forecasters.  Unreliable narrators are popular at present, as are psychological literary thrillers.  Also we tried to predict and provoke trends for marketing purposes; the next Gone Girl, etc.

And that was it for the morning. I went off for a mooch round Derby, and was back in time for the afternoon's sessions on historical fiction, literary fiction , and the keynote panel at the end of the day. The notes on those will be up next time. 


My novel The Prospect of This City is available from this very website in paperback and also in ebook and paperback via Amazon