Novelists thrive on reviews. Even the occasional snotty ones – you can’t please everyone!
You’ve probably seen the heartfelt plea at the end of many e-books: “If you enjoyed this book, please click here to write a review.” But the fact is that only a small percentage of readers will actually write a review.
So here’s how my readers can invest five minutes in reviewing any of my novels:
Method 1: Find me on Goodreads here and rate/review my books.Here’s what the page looks like:
Method 2: Go back to the link where you bought the e-book (e.g. Amazon, Kobo, Apple) and hit the ‘review’ button. My vendor links are here.
I’m currently immersed in the history of Sydney in the late seventies as I work on my current novel The Impeccables, which touches on police corruption. What a treat, then, to get a second chance to see the 1995 ABC production Blue Murder last week (SBS OnDemand). Set in the 1970s and 1980s, the two-part mini-series follows the grisly careers of criminal Neddy Smith and corrupt cop Roger Rogerson, and the swag of gangsters who ran Sydney’s underworld. It’s totally gripping TV, delivered with a grittiness that we rarely see in the high-gloss era of Netflix.
Watching Blue Murder triggered a confluence of memories. My late father, detective-turned-barrister Donald Campbell, had a lifelong aversion to police corruption, dating back to his days as a young constable in London when stealing lead from roofs was in fashion. He was (like me) addicted to writing, and authored a three-part book on police corruption in the UK, New York, and New South Wales. The book Police Corruption, now out of print, was published by Barry Rose Law Publishers in 2002 about a year after his death, with the final editing tasks being shared by some of his sons.
I recall him writing to me in around 1998 to obtain a copy of the Wood Royal Commission report, which provided much of the background on the NSW section. I bought the CD of the report in a government office in George Street, and mailed it him in London. On a visit to my old family home not long after, I was woken by the fax machine in the early hours of the morning; it was from a very senior source in Sydney answering some point of detail.
I dipped into Police Corruption after watching Blue Murder to fill in the background to the mini-series, much of which I had forgotten. I hadn’t looked at my dad’s book for a few years, but the writing was as crisp and readable as I remembered it. In fact, I’m keen to make the book available to the public again, and I have the outline of a plan in mind.
So, back to The Impeccables, with a much sharper feel for my setting and a reminder of how rotten the state of NSW was in those days.
If you look hard enough, lockdown has its upsides. Here in Manly, my daily exercise walk takes me around quaint back streets I’d never normally go to. The glorious beachfront is too crowded for safety, even if the walkers are in singles or pairs as prescribed by the Public Health (COVID-19) Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020.
The other upside of being locked down is the extra time I have for writing. After completing my socially isolated morning schedule (news, balcony exercises, daily deep cleaning project, family and work Zoom sessions, walk) I get to spend a fair chunk of the afternoon working on my next novel.
Now, here’s a nice confluence of things: This novel (working title The Impeccables) is set in Manly in 1978, and when I walk the quiet back streets my town looks pretty much as it did in the late seventies when I first lived here.
I have a habit of ‘prewriting’ a lot of my work while I’m walking, so I stroll around the empty lanes immersed in the story, and recalling fragments of life in 1978 Manly that I can weave into the setting. These are some of the things that came back to me yesterday:
rented black and white TVs
improvised car aerials made from coat hangers bent into the outline of Australia
Yesterday I discovered this ingenious mural* on the back wall of the Salvation Army premises in Kangaroo Lane, and I returned this afternoon to take more photographs of this forgotten corner of my town. I’ve printed the picture in monochrome in sympathy with the fact there were still plenty of black and white TVs in the late seventies. It’ll feature somewhere in the new novel.
Here’s the draft opening of The Impeccables:
Pierre Farag was woken by a thump and a clatter. He took his hand out of the sheets to touch the wall of the tiny ground-floor flat. Their rented home was in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach. The bedroom wall was still warm. It would be this way until March, when autumn released Sydney from the ravaging summer heat.
He padded out to the front yard. The Sun Herald – the New Year’s Day 1978 edition – lay on the doormat where it had bounced off the flyscreen. The paper van slewed around to serve the other side of Rialto Close, the driver steering with his left arm and lobbing the rolled-up papers into the front yards with his right.
Just give me a year and you’ll be able to read the whole thing!
Last thing: Thanks for all the wonderful feedback I’ve had for Bury me in Valletta. It makes the labour of writing into a pleasure.
*Update: A closer look at the mural shows that is signed by Manly artist Mark Budd and dated 09.
I’ve been experimenting with Bookbub ads over the last few weeks, basically gambling small sums to advertise my novels on this huge email-based book marketing platform.
Like many online ad platforms, Bookbub is based on an auction system: Bookbub puts your ad in front of eyeballs, you make a bid for the owners of the eyeballs to click on your ad, and you hope that the clicks turn into purchases.
Your success depends on a lot of variables interacting to hook the right readers. For example, you can target readers who like particular authors, who live in different countries, and buy from different vendors (e.g. Apple, Amazon, Kobo). You can vary your price-per-click bid rate, and the price of your book. You can advertise on different days of the week, and you can choose to release to spend your money quickly or slowly. And of course, you have to design an ad that will seduce those eyeballs. The ad on the left has been one of my most successful.
There are lots of whizz-bang guides on how to get the most out of online ads (even entire courses!), but the take-away message is that you must test multiple versions of ads to find the optimum combination of variables.
As a former academic who has crunched a lot of slippery data (my field is linguistics), this kind of testing looks very complicated; there are so many variables. It is made more difficult for a small player like me investing an average $10 a test because the scale of results is too small to be statistically reliable. For example, why was the clickthrough rate for Apple and Kobo higher this Friday than Thursday, but lower for Amazon? (See the graph at the top of this post.) If I invested $10,000 rather than $10, I’d be much more confident in the results.
So where to? Short of running hundreds of small A/B tests or performing a factor analysis on a $10,000 test, I’m falling back on the approach I used as a linguistics academic when I operated in the grey zone between qualitative and quantitative data: (a) Start with a rough working hypothesis (b) gradually modify the hypothesis as new data comes in, (c) test the modified hypothesis. In practice this has entailed about ten tests so far.
And what have I Iearned? Well, here are some trends, but bear in mind that context is everything: I’m a ‘mature’ male Australian hybrid author writing quirky espionage fiction, and psychological and satirical thrillers, not a young female American author of time travel shape-shifter romance.
AD DESIGN: A quote from a review works better than a summary of the plot.
REGION: Australia (and to an extent Canada) are less competitive than the US and UK.
VENDOR: Apple and Kobo sell as well as Amazon in Australia.
WEEKDAY: Weekend ads may do less well than weekday ads.
AUTHOR: Readers of Daniel Silva like my books.
Remember these are trends based on small stats, not firm conclusions.
The outlook? I’m getting close to a return on my investment on my ads. I’m planning to run my best ad with a bigger investment, but to test some variations with a simultaneous low-cost ad.
I’d be fascinated to hear from other authors who are treading the same path.
Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?
I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.
You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.
Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.
But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.
But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.
Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day.
There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.
Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill.
Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.
Like most writers I know, I have voluminous files of old drafts, abandoned chapters and even abandoned novels. It’s all part of learning the craft – knowing when to let go of something that just isn’t working.
Last year, I began writing a complicated dystopian novel. My writing critique group at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre (I couldn’t live without them) gave it a big thumbs down.
Undeterred, I brought it back a few weeks ago with a new beginning. Thumbs down again.
Another beginning. Another thumbs down.
But last week, with beginning #3, I got the seal of literary approval. The corpse has risen from the dead. It is walking. A twisted future world is under construction.
To celebrate, I dusted off a short story I wrote a while ago, did some more work on it, gave it a new title Unmasking Mr. French, and posted it on this site as the prize for signing up to my newsletter. I even invested in a Shutterstock image and made a ‘cover’. (My regular professional cover designer is busy right now, and will probably shriek in horror when she sees my work!)
Because I’m still in celebratory mood, I’m giving you the story without making you sign up since you managed to find my website. Just click here and pop in the password FREE.
The recent Guardian article on the increasing rates of foul language in literature got me thinking about my own use of the f-word and its derivatives.
I checked my f-quotient in my last three novels and – yes, my language is getting fouler with every book, rising from a demure 0.012 f*cks per hundred words in my first novel to 0.031 f*cks per 100 in Cairo Mon Amour, my latest.
Highly skilled at cursing
Confession time: I spent my early years on a council estate just outside London, and I Iearned to handle the f-word like an East End fishmonger. Later I became part of the Australian intelligentsia, and honed my skills so that I could out-f*ck any Professor of English Literature in the room.
But why do I use f*ck in my novels?
Here are the results drawn from the 26 f*cks in Cairo Mon Amour:
Sometimes I use it to locate a character on the British class scale:
Bellamy said, “If we’re right about this we’re finished when those f*ckers from Ealing work out that they’ve put us together.”
“How come you talk like a barrow boy sometimes? I remember that from Shemlan. It’s quite a turn on, you know!”
2. Here’s a similar example, where I contrast the restrained and courteous Pierre with a thug:
“It’s a .22 calibre model 70,” he grunted. “Israeli military issue. Good quality. Liberated from the enemy. Probably used to shoot some poor Egyptian f*cker. Haha!”
“Take it back,” Pierre hissed.
3. And here’s Pierre learning to swear in English:
“Well, sort of gallop like f*cking hell. We’re being shot at.”
4. In this example my Soviet diplomat Zlotnik is supposed to be speaking in Russian, and the f*ck is a translation of the common Russian curse:
“Where’s that f*ck-your-mother Englishwoman gone?” Zlotnik rarely cursed. It had all unravelled, all gone to shit. He sank into the sofa.
5. In this last example, I have a bunch of American diplomats fleeing Egypt on ship. There has been a stream of f*cks as they lose their cool. Here’s the last one:
As the Cynthia’s engines groaned rheumatically into life, an American in a suit and a baseball cap pointed at the Soviet ship and shouted, “Look, they’re unloading f*cking missiles!”
I’m actually very pleased with my self-diagnosis: Every example has been strategically selected. There’s not a gratuitous f*ck in the book. Obviously, I was well trained!
Let me know what you think!
Click any of these links to buy a copy of Cairo Mon Amour
Anthony Carilla’s debut novel Convergence takes on the core question of our existence. This audaciously ambitious book builds on physics, biology, pharmacology, brain science and theology to create a complex thriller that goes way beyond the mundane. That’s not to say that that the conventional elements are missing: There are dashes of romance and action to balance the slow-burn plot, and the settings are seductive – the jungles of Cambodia, high-tech laboratories in Europe, and the super-luxury playgrounds of a billionaire businessman.
Carilla takes some big risks with this book: A large cast of characters, attention to detail that can sometimes overwhelm, and a lot of science. But the gamble pays off, with compelling portraits of the main protagonists, and a sense of inexorable progress towards an ending that promises to blow the reader’s spiritual socks off. I confess I didn’t see the simple one-sentence conclusion coming, even though the hints – in retrospect – were there along.
Convergence is a book that will provoke a plethora of questions across the spectrum of readers from the faithful to the faithless. Some will question the science, especially the claims for quantum mechanics (but then it is set in 2038), and some will have reservations about the beneficence of big business and the US government in these days of the Trump ascendancy. But the sublime central message of the book will have universal resonance.
Convergence will be published by Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd. in the very near future.
I was given an ARC by the author and asked to provide an honest review.