“In 30-odd years of writing screenplays no-one has ever said to me: ‘This is a great moment to be trying to make a movie!’”
My exploration of the perils and pitfalls of epublishing is now onlinein the new edition of ‘UK Writer’. Read it here or below.
“…grinning at us from a corner are the blood-drenched jaws of the selfsame animal that, we hear, has virtually finished off the music recording business: the internet.”
In 30-odd years of writing screenplays no-one has ever said to me: ‘This is a great moment to be trying to make a movie!’
But writers are up against it as never before. Television drama commissioning is in recession and the role of writers who do get commissioned is being brutally challenged by the ruthless industrialising of development and production that in turn lies behind a widely-perceived decline in quality and ambition of output.
The British movie industry is to industry as such as is the Morgan Motor Company to car manufacturing; utterly magnificent, but not war as we know it.
Meanwhile, the Grim Reaper has been working his way through mid-list fiction writers and non-celebrity authors for years. I can find cries of pain in newspapers right through the decade.
The decline of independent booksellers, the supermarket approach to book retailing, the destruction of the Net Book Agreement (Terry Maher, then boss of Dillons, was very cheery about his achievement when I met him recently at a social event in the sunny Cotswold uplands) have all combined to erode publishers’ confidence in the sort of risk-taking that would seem to all reasonable people to be the precursor to invention and creativity in literature, as in drama.
But grinning at us from a corner are the blood-drenched jaws of the selfsame animal that, we hear, has virtually finished off the music recording business: the internet.
I have navigated the Amazon in both senses now (see my blog Approaching Amazonia at stephendaviswriter.co.uk). The first trip (down the river) was at the BBC’s expense, the latest at mine. Last month I published two simultaneous debut novels – The Secret Government and The Migrants’ Song – on Amazon’s Kindle e-books site.
The Secret Government is a cracking fast-paced thriller about the hunting down of a cyber threat by a covert military unit – led by a female officer from a very unlikely corner of the US Navy. Readers have been known to miss planes and tube stops while reading it. I suspect this is the secret-government-style reason behind the traditional publishing industry’s reluctance to expose global travellers to the story in the first place.
The Migrants’ Song is my homage to Los Angeles. It features sex, murder, gangsters, illegal immigration and the world’s first hallucinogenic trip. But it cannot be called a ‘thriller’ and so sits on the Amazon Kindle virtual bookshop as ‘literary fiction’, which is fine with its author.
So how was it for me? Let’s be clear; the internet was designed long ago by geeks. So even now, beware geeks bearing gifts.
The reward is a direct, near-unmediated access to the millions of potential readers who are converted to Kindles or other Kindle-friendly or Kindle-like screen platforms.
The risk is the instant obliteration of your personality in the wastes of cyberspace, with an ancillary risk to your sanity as you become a self-publisher, hurdling the considerable software file conversion issues, digital book (and dust-jacket) proofing and production, pricing and marketing.
So, having written a book or two, provided you have a gift for book jacket design or a good friend who does, all you have to do is master the art of converting a Word file into an HTML file with what is known as an ‘Active Table of Contents’.
This is because e-books have no page numbers, so that their text can be resized at will. They are mounted on their reading platforms in a file derived from a basic HTML file. HTML is the stuff you seen on a computer screen just before you pick up the phone to your tech support.
But the HTML file is not the end. There are stages beyond – files with any number of dot acronyms – .pub, .mobi, .prc, .azw, .migraine. Amazon Kindle offer to accept a variety of source files, but we ran into all sorts of challenges and went through much trial and error before discovering the definitive answer – .prc (.migraine comes bundled with it).
It took two months and more out of my writing life, and involved the close support of Ian, Ray and John, three loyal friends who joined with me in forming a not-for-profit pop-up epublishing house out of sheer love of my work. It was that or put myself in the hands of an expensive commercial operation.
So we published myself. Now there are only about 650,000 titles for my debut unreviewed novels to compete with. The most popular price-point is £0.00. Remember – Amazon is in this to sell Kindles. Fast turnover and volume are all. So the outstanding successes of self-epublishing are books of a calibre so modest that you are unlikely to spend more than a fraction of a minute sampling their opening lines before you reject the notion of reading them in their entirety.
So what stands between you and that instant extermination of your artistic personality in cyberspace? Is it really like flying towards the sun, Dan Dare-like, armed only with a glow-in-the-dark Timberland wristwatch?
Amazon will not mention your book as ‘newly published’, ‘just arrived’ or indeed give it any mention it at all until it is outselling or at least competing with the latest blockbusters from the publishers who turned you down in the first place.
So turn now to the websites you developed in your spare time during the previous couple of months.
Cyberspace quickly taught me that I had to add my middle name to my writing name to finally untangle these credits at least from the compound writing entity already known to the cyber world as Stephen Davis. How many movie assignments or royalties I might have lost to the other Stephen Davis’s out there I do not know. Now I am stephenleodavis.com. If you want to meet the real Stephen Davis there is stephendaviswriter.co.uk (see you there!).
And you have your new Facebook account, and your Twitter account, in case you haven’t made a sufficient fool of yourself online already – if you have children over the age of three, you can keep a running check through them.
Tweeting from the bottom of the deep dark well where your titles have now been dropped is an art, especially when Stephen Fry is tweeting ceaselessly back down at you with an army of A-to Z-list celebs who ensure that the air is impenetrable with useless and probably dangerous radiation.
Facebook is great. Every so often it might in the space of a few drop 300 referrals minutes on the home page of one of your websites. Be aware that these are probably tiny Chinese bots, not people at all. What they want of you and your home page has not yet been made clear, but it’s not e-books, palpably.
Amazon Kindle Support are terrific people (they’re mostly in the USA and they do great tech support in the USA). Even when they published The Migrants’ Song with a chapter ripped out and discarded into cyberspace I did not lose faith or abandon hope entirely. But I’m still waiting for them to tell the downloaders of The Migrants’ Song that there’s a new copy available. Because anyone who has bought a copy already and downloads it a second time gets the same version as they started with.
My advice is to allow about a month for beta-testing and triple-proofing your text after the initial, trial ‘publication’ to the site you choose.
Amazon Kindle Support are helpful with marketing too. They suggest you do some. The key seems to be to get readers to review your books (positively) on the Amazon – or other seller’s – web page.
Trouble is, readers tend to be shy of going into print in this way. So you need not only to turn yourself into an e-publisher but your loyal readers into e-reviewers.
I did not go into this entirely unprepared. For The Secret Government, I had to learn how to hack the military computers of a global superpower. For The Migrants’ Song, I had to re-imagine myself as the author of Brave New World.
But what have I learned that I wish I hadn’t?
I’ve learned to be two people, one who sits across the table from me and talks like my publisher. That Stephen Leo Davis tells me that selling my books has little to do with their quality and more to do with how many Twitter followers I have.
He tells me that it was a bad mistake to turn down the career options offered me earlier in my life that might have taken me away from my writer’s desk and put me in front of the world’s media, making it easier to become a brand, rather than a dull bloke who happens to have devoted a lifetime to researching and writing around the globe; who tells me that if my sales don’t meet expectations, he’ll be dropping me from his list any time soon; who is making eyes at my glamorous 20-something daughters, with their social media savvy and camera-ready looks, wondering if either of them has a piece of chick-lit in them.
Download, enjoy and review my books.
Strip joint-owner Jack Ruby, the Dallas Mob, the CIA and the assassination of JFK.
Starring Danny Aiello and Sherilyn Fenn.
Directed by John MacKenzie.
Screenplay by Stephen Davis from his play Love Field.
See Ruby at the IMDB
Tommy Lee Jones stars as CIA officer Steve Daley trying to unravel the riddle of high-level KGB defector Yuri Nosenko (Oleg Rudnik).
The real-life espionage case that started a secret war inside the CIA.
Screenplay by Stephen Davis.
View the details for the film at the IMDB