Saturday, 5 December 2015

It's been a long time

Despite regularly tweeting photos of my dogs/cats/chickens, I don’t tend to write about personal stuff and I don’t plan to start now. However, my lack of blogging for an entire year needs to be explained, in case you all think I’m being opportunistic, putting up a new post in the same week as I publish a new book.

The past year has been horrible. My husband and I have experienced ill-health, sudden deaths of a friend and a relative, and business problems mainly brought about by an unscrupulous third party. We’ve even, reluctantly, put our house on the market. Something had to give, and I decided blogging was that thing.

Throughout all this, I’ve surprised myself by continuing to write my second book. I used to think I couldn’t write if I was troubled, but it turned out I was wrong. Some days I managed just a few words, others a lot more. I increased my daily word-count target from 500 to 1,000 and began to exceed that more often than I failed to meet it. Those words didn’t pour out, or even flow. It was more like a trickle, but it was a regular trickle. And Too Soon a Death gradually became more than the image of a body on the banks of the River Tweed I had started with.

Time passes, and things are looking a lot brighter on several fronts than they did at the end of 2014. I have not one but two books out. No Stranger to Death has a brand new cover to match its sequel, and as I write, both are in the Kindle Top 100 for Scottish crime fiction. And I’m already planning future blog posts.

I’m still looking forward to waving goodbye to 2015, though.

You can buy Too Soon a Death here.
(2015 pic courtesy of

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?

A year ago tonight I stood in the Reivers Fish Bar in Duns, waiting for our fish suppers and scrolling through Twitter on my mobile. Suddenly a tweet came in that mentioned me. It was from my good friend and fellow Borders writer Peter Flannery saying he'd just bought a copy of my first novel, No Stranger to Death. 

I paid for the takeaway and wandered out in a bit of a daze. I was a published author!

The last 12 months have been great. I've not made a fortune (I didn't expect to) but I’ve earned more than what I spent on the book’s cover design, editing and formatting. There have been more thrills than spills, far more highs than lows, and I feel optimistic about my future. So here’s a whistle-stop tour of what has happened and what I've learned.

A few things that have happened to No Stranger to Death
  • Has 35 reviews on Amazon UK, 32 of them 5 stars, and an average of 4.17 from 24 ratings on Goodreads.
  • Highest UK Kindle ranking at full price was 17 in Scottish crime fiction on 26th December 2013
  • Highest UK Kindle rankings on 99p Kindle Countdown Deals were 2 in Noir crime fiction, 5 in Scottish crime fiction, 7 in British crime fiction and 902 in the entire Kindle store on 27th July 2014.
  • Has sold enough copies for me to join the Society of Authors.
  • Has been awarded an Indie B.R.A.G. Medallion.
  • Has been reviewed on numerous websites and blogs, even being made Book of the Month by Crime Book Club.
  • Was the 14th most borrowed title in Scottish Borders libraries in May/June 2014.
  • Has gained me four appearances in my local paper, the Berwickshire News.
  • Has been read by a local book group who invited me to attend their discussion about it (they liked it ­– phew!).
  • Its wonderful cover, designed by Kim McGillivray, received a gold star and high praise in a prestigious ebook cover competition.
  • It has been read by my 80-year-old Dad, who never reads fiction and was a bit shocked.

A few things I’ve learned
  • Once the actual writing is done, self-publishing is about decisions on countless issues such as pricing, layout, cover design. And only you can make them. This is both empowering and terrifying. 
  • As with many things in life, publishing a book takes far longer than you expect, if you want to stand any chance of getting it right.
  • Amazon moves in a mysterious way, its wonders to perform. Trust no one who claims to fully understand it.
  • Small details are important. For example, ebooks are subject to VAT in the UK. If you input your price at £1.92, the price the customer pays is actually £1.98, whereas to achieve £1.99 you have to input £1.93. What difference does a penny make, I hear you ask. Well, a book can’t be on a Kindle Countdown offer if it’s priced at less than £1.99, so some authors (cough) have had to delay promotions because of that penny.
  • Self-promotion is hard. I do it with what a friend calls ‘a very light touch’ because I don’t want to annoy people, and as a result probably don’t promote my book enough. But I can live with that.
  • We all know not everyone will like our books. But knowing this and experiencing it are entirely different. I’ve not had a 1-star review yet but even that 3-star one, describing my baby as ‘pretty average’, hurt at first.
  • I’m already developing a thicker skin, or maybe I’ve gained confidence now that readers are telling me they’ve enjoyed my book. Not long after No Stranger to Death came out, I was kindly offered the chance to have it reviewed by an online book group, but turned this opportunity down. I wouldn’t now!
  • There’s a tremendous camaraderie between authors which transcends the published/unpublished and indie/traditional divides. I’ve been touched by the generosity of other writers who have supported me.
  • You can’t force people who’ve enjoyed your book to leave a review. However, I’ve found that giving readers other ways to show their appreciation, like putting my Facebook page and Twitter handle at the back of No Stranger to Death, has paid dividends. I’m thrilled every time I receive a message saying someone has read my book and enjoyed it. Sometimes they even use the word 'loved'.
  • I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many men have told me they enjoyed No Stranger to Death, including Nigel Adams who wrote a lovely review on his blog.
  • I don’t sell many paperbacks but I’m glad I went the extra mile to make them available. They are invaluable for signings, giveaways, thank you gifts and review copies. And I'm hoping a few people who've enjoyed the ebook may buy paperbacks for their crime-fiction-loving friends and relatives at Christmas. 

A few things I’d like to say
  • If you’re one of the many, many people who have supported me over the past year by buying my book, reviewing it, spreading the word about it or by any other means, I'd like to say ...  

  • If you’re thinking of self-publishing, go for it! It’s not easy and the results are unpredictable, but it is tremendously satisfying.  
  • And finally, if you’re wondering what’s next, I’ll be publishing my second book, working title Too Soon a Death, in June 2015. 

(All pics courtesy of

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Spoiled for choice?

Gaps on bookshelves? In my dreams.
I can honestly say that reading has made me the woman I am today. It's not a hobby, it's a way of life, something I do every day in a variety of places. However tired I am, it's impossible to settle down to sleep without picking up the book on my bedside table. The prospect of a train or bus journey without something to read is unthinkable. And yet recently I've had to downgrade myself from a 'voracious' reader to an 'enthusiastic' one, due to a lack of time. 

Taking all this into consideration, why is it that when I finish a book these days, I find choosing which one to read next so challenging? Am I overwhelmed by sheer numbers (500 or so on real and virtual shelves), like when I try to buy shampoo in a big branch of Boots? Or has my selection of what to read next become more critical because I don't have time to waste on a book which may prove disappointing?

I’ve experimented with different ways to tackle my vacillation. Sometimes I stand in front of the bookshelves, close my eyes and put out a hand. I’ve even resorted to asking my husband to pick a title, but for some reason I’m never happy with his choices. Most recently, I declared October my Scandi-crime month. And this seemed to work.

Pulling together all the physical copies of qualifying titles, many of which I'd owned for years, I piled them on top of the filing cabinet. Books by Sjowall & Wahloo, Larsson, Mankell, Indridason and Fossum stared at me every time I entered the study. And I started working through them.

This makes it sound like a chore but how could it be? I enjoyed some more than others, and haven't managed them all yet, but I've definitely read more this October than I have for a long time. So I plan to continue reading by monthly 'theme' for a while.

Inspired by this year’s Book Week Scotland (24-30 Nov), November is my Scottish Crime Fiction month. I've already started the Frederic Lindsay.

December’s theme is going to be friends’ books. I’m privileged to know a lot of writers yet rarely seem to get round to reading their books. Because Christmas will be spent lounging on the sofa reading while John cooks to his heart’s content, I should be able to make good progress through the list I’ve come up with for this.

And then in no particular order, I intend to spend a month each on:


Short stories:

Later on in 2015 I shall revisit old favourites and the few ‘Golden Age’ crime novels I possess, and take in some crime fiction debuts.

Do you ever feel spoiled for choice and if so, how do you choose what to read next? And can you suggest any reading themes I should consider? Remember, my aim isn’t to buy more books (aye, right!) but to read the ones I already own.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Catching up

It's been a longish, hottish summer in Scotland, and lots has happened. I won't bore you with my holiday photos but here is some news I'd like to share.

I've declared October 2014 my personal Scandi-crime month, because this pile has looked accusingly down at me from my to-be-read shelf for long enough. And because I couldn't wait, I've started already, with Mankell's Faceless Killers. I've heard varying opinions on Twitter and Facebook about several novels in this pile. I'll let you know what I think at the end of next month.

No Stranger to Death has received two very different plaudits recently. Firstly, it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion, an award for quality self-published books. 

B.R.A.G. is an acronym for Book Readers' Appreciation Group, and books which are chosen for the Medallion go through a rigorous selection process. This involves an initial screening then reading by members of a global reader group who judge them on creative criteria like plot, writing style, characters and dialogue, as well as the professional aspects of copy editing, cover and interior layout. The required standards are very high: only 10% of the books considered are awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion.

One of the criticisms of self-publishing is that it's hard for readers to find quality books among all the titles being put out there. The B.R.A.G. Medallion scheme is helping address that.

Find out more at this link.

I've written here and here about the process which led to No Stranger to Death having a cover design by Kim McGillivray that I'm truly proud of. While researching cover designs which work (and ones that don't!) I spent a lot of time on Joel Friedlander's website The Book Designer. As well as offering invaluable advice on many aspects of self-publishing, Joel runs a monthly e-book cover design award. Competition is fierce and some of Joel's verdicts can be even fiercer, so I held off from entering for months. But I did finally pluck up the courage, and here's what he thought: 
"I love the way the designer has used a minimum number of elements, colors and fonts to create this high-impact, moody cover. "
He also awarded Kim's design a coveted gold star, which gives us the right to display this image: 

All this excitement hasn't let me forget the most important task in hand: writing the sequel to No Stranger to Death. I'm about a third of the way through now, and once the first draft is complete, I'll share a little about it. All I can say to those of you who have read the book and are anxious to know if a certain character comes back is . . . probably, though not how you might expect.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Who sold the most books?

And the winner is ...
The last time I blogged, I wrote about my decision to promote No Stranger to Death at 99p/99c as a Kindle Countdown Deal for a week in late July. I also mentioned that my friend Peter Flannery was doing the same with his already successful thriller First and Only. To make things really interesting, we wagered a bottle of champagne on which book would sell the most. We stayed in touch while the promotion was on, swapping emails and captured images of Kindle chart rankings, and met up recently to discuss what happened and share sales figures. Peter plans to blog about what he learnt from the exercise, and here are some of my observations.

So, who won?
Cutting to the chase, Peter sold the most ebooks overall. In fact, his unit sales were more than twice mine. However, I sold more in the UK while the majority of Peter’s sales were on, and although his daily sales peaked on Day 2 of his promotion, mine kept on rising until my book went back up to £1.99.  I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I could have held the price at 99p for, say, a further week.

What about Amazon rankings?
I checked No Stranger to Death’s Kindle store rankings twice daily (well, possibly more often than that – it did get addictive!).  Here are some of the book’s rankings landmarks on Amazon UK:

21st July (day 1)
27/7 (final day)
28/7 (promo ended)
Kindle store (paid)
Noir crime
Scottish crime
British crime

The changes in No Stranger to Death’s rankings on were pleasing too, despite the lower sales rate. From starting off just outside the top 100,000 Kindle books, on 25th July it peaked at an overall ranking of 9,298 and was at no. 5 in Noir crime, no. 57 in British crime and no. 50 in Murder. 

Other observations
During and immediately after the promotion I had a few Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) borrowings, so my book’s profile had been raised enough to generate these.  In addition, I notched up more sales in Germany, Canada and Australia than I ever had before (even though the Countdown Deal was only on the UK and USA sites).

What does all this mean?
This was a learning exercise for both Peter and me. Because it’s impossible to track every book sale back to what motivated the buyer (I wish!) we can only make educated guesses at what the data we’ve collected is telling us. Alas, as someone once said, ‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half’.  However, here’s how I have interpreted the results of my Countdown Deal.

Peter invested in a BookBub promotion which took place on Day 2. As this was the day his sales peaked, it seems like the market leader in book promotions does deliver increased sales, although with a heavy bias towards the US market. My book is still hampered by a lack of reviews on It was hard to get many promotional sites to even consider listing it (I didn’t try BookBub for this reason) and this has probably put off potential buyers too. 

I spent far less than BookBub would have cost on free/cheap ($10) book promotion sites like The Daily Bookworm, 99 Cent Mysteries and Awesome Gang, and more than made back my money. Although most of them carried through on their promises, I’m not convinced they generated a lot of sales for all the effort it took to register with them. However, given Peter’s experience, if I could get my book accepted, I would give BookBub a go in the future.

I value the friends I’ve made on Twitter and have such a fear of becoming an annoying ‘Buy my book!’ person there that instead of blitzing social media I paced myself with just a couple of promotional tweets each day. This seems to have paid off as friends on Twitter helped tremendously in spreading the word in the UK. (My thanks to everyone who retweeted on my behalf.) 

Even though I scheduled promotional tweets during the UK night in order to catch some Americans while they were online, I don’t have sufficient USA followers to make this work for me.

Despite my Facebook author page having 143 likes (not a lot, I know, but I’ve put little effort into promoting it), none of my promotional posts reached anything like that number of people, even when I liked and shared them with friends on my personal FB page. I didn’t pay to increase their reach because I’ve tried that once before and it was a total waste of money. However, all was not lost on the FB front, as I also posted details of my Countdown Deal on several crime/mystery fiction FB groups which allow promotional postings. I know these garnered at least a few sales, because I got comments from people who liked the sound of my book and bought it. That is one of the strengths of FB: it enables immediate feedback.

I’m not convinced that promoting my book as a Countdown Deal gave it much visibility on either of the Amazon websites. You have to go searching for the page featuring these books, unlike Daily Deals, books in the Summer Sale, etc which are boldly presented to everyone visiting the Kindle store and included in targeted emails. Does the counting-down element (‘Price goes up to £x in 5 days’) really motivate readers to buy? That said, books in Countdown retain the higher 70% royalty rate. If I promoted outside this, my royalty rate would halve.

What next?
Running the first price promotion for No Stranger to Death was informative and fun, although it involved a lot of work to maximise its effect. I’ve benefited financially, but not to a huge degree, and I’m hopeful that as people who downloaded my book get round to reading it, the number of Amazon reviews it has will steadily increase. I can now refer to its Kindle chart success, e.g. ‘A Kindle top 5 Scottish crime novel’, in other marketing I do.

Here are some plans I have for the future:
  • No Stranger to Death’s lack of reviews by American readers is holding it back, and I need to address this. Ideas I have include contacting US book bloggers (although many refuse to review self-published books) and using GoodReads to distribute review copies. I may even look at doing a short ‘free’ promotion solely on If anyone has any other suggestions, please let me know.
  • The temptation to throw everything at a promotion is huge, but maybe next time I’ll experiment with fewer marketing components to help identify what really works.
  • I must weigh up the pros and cons of simply reducing the price of No Stranger to Death rather than making it a Countdown Deal. I could then decide when to put the book’s price back up. If it was doing well at the lower price, I could hold it there for longer.
  • I have now gone way beyond the sales threshold required of self-published authors to join the Society of Authors. My application is going in this week.
  • By far the best thing I can do to sell more books is write more! So in tandem with my ongoing promotion of No Stranger to Death, I’m hard at work on its sequel, working title Too Soon a Death.

By the way, Peter declared our competition a draw (because of my UK sales success) and told me I don’t need to buy him a bottle of champagne. But of course I will. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

Throwing down the gauntlet

“Let’s see who can sell the most books.”

As soon as those words were out of my mouth, I couldn’t believe I’d said them. Least of all to my mate Peter Flannery, whose first novel, First and Only, has had over 60,000 downloads since 2011, received ecstatic reviews worldwide and is now in the process of being turned into a film. But when I discovered we were both planning a Kindle Countdown Deal at the same time, a bit of healthy competition – as if there isn’t enough from all the other books out there – seemed like a good idea. And so, from 21st to 27th July, Peter’s novel and No Stranger to Death will be slugging it out to see which can sell the most copies at 99c on Amazon USA and 99p on Amazon UK. The loser will buy the winner a decent bottle of champagne.

Why are we doing this? Peter has nothing to prove with First and Only, but he’s just given it a lovely new cover and there are still plenty of people out there who haven’t read his novel, although it did hold the Number 1 position in Kindle Psychological Thrillers for nearly two months during 2012. I’m very pleased with how well No Stranger to Death has been received in the UK, but it has yet to get off the ground in the USA. I’m also curious to test the theory which is now being bandied about that “99p is the new free”.

Unlike most of my writer friends, Peter lives in the Scottish Borders as I do, so we regularly meet up in real life. He was very generous with his time and advice when I decided to self-publish, and we have pooled our knowledge when planning our Countdown Deals. However, our starting points and approaches are very different, and this is where the results will be interesting. Will Peter’s investment in book promotion sites like BookBub trump my heavy reliance on Twitter and Facebook to publicise my book’s temporary reduction in price? Will more readers be willing to risk 99c or 99p on a relatively new and unproven novel which is clearly in the mystery genre than on one that has lots of reviews yet is harder to classify?

Like the entire self-publishing experience, the next week is going to be exciting and a bit scary as Peter and I try not to look at our sales and Amazon rankings too often. We’ll let you know how we get on. Peter is blogging about the experience over on his website too. You'll notice that the bubbly he's pictured there is Bollinger*. I look forward to holding him to that!

In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about our books, here are the links.

No Stranger to Death: Amazon UK or Amazon USA 

First and Only: Amazon UK or Amazon USA 

*My champagne photo is courtesy of

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Trust me, I’m a creative

The Scottish Borders, where I live, is full to bursting with creative people, not just writers, but visual artists working in a wide range of media. And in talking to some of them, I’ve discovered an interesting thing: the creative processes of those of us who work with words have a lot in common with those of artists who create images. So, as a change from blogging about myself and my writing, I shall occasionally invite an artist on here to answer questions (based on ones I’ve been asked myself) about how they work. I hope you’ll find this an interesting departure.

My first volunteer is Kim McGillivray, an illustrator and educator based in Edinburgh. I met Kim last year when he designed the wonderful cover for No Stranger to Death. Since 1993, he has been providing imagery for book covers and editorial features, created weekly satirical spots for newspapers plus illustrations for commercial graphics/advertising and the odd poster along the way. He also teaches part-time at Art College.

At what age did you realise you were creative, and what form did your creativity take?
I’ve always been keen on drawing, and was receptive to the feedback that my drawings received when I was 5-6 years old. I liked making images and I was a mostly visual child. My writing and academic progress elsewhere was perfectly fine but, in my leisure, I predominantly looked at picture books and enjoyed concentrating on my own pictures. This might sound bizarre, but finding paper wasn’t always easy and I would draw on the backs of envelopes and boxes.

Did you have any formal training?
I went to Edinburgh College of Art to study a degree in Visual Communication, which included Graphics, Film & TV, Animation, Photography and Illustration. I specialised in the latter two. I have mixed feelings about the experience. The institution was imperfect and the learning experience was full of flaws. I was also quite young, inexperienced, from an unsophisticated background and was learning a lot about city living. In retrospect, despite my appetite for new experiences, I was probably affected by culture shock. The good and the bad things were ultimately learning experiences and have been influential in my own teaching.

When did you decide that was how you wanted to make a living? How soon were you able to make this a reality?
Due to leaving art college with a bad taste in my mouth, I was motivated to make things happen on my own terms - I think I had something to prove. My first six months were spent working in a record shop re-finding some equilibrium after the intense conclusion to my studies. In January 1993, I started taking my folio around potential clients, I went part-time and gave myself 6 months to see if enough would happen to merit continuing. That was the extent of my business plan.

Do you mostly create what you choose or do you work to commission?
For almost 21 years, my work was always in response to commissions. I’ve been adept at interpreting and translating supplied material into imagery. More recently, though, I’ve worked on side projects where I‘m more central to what’s being developed and expressed. Nowadays, when teaching Communication Design, we’re more mindful of authorship - I think that can encourage young designers/illustrators to be less passive and more ambitious.

Where do you get your ideas from?
My work is about the act of translation. I love absorbing manuscripts, journalism, poetry, music (whatever form material comes in) and translating it effectively into imagery. The imagery need not be secondary to the text, nor merely replicating it. I feel imagery and text should complement one another in stimulating ways.

What’s your starting point when beginning a new piece of work?
I sketch and brainstorm. I’ll make written notes of what I understand of the material. I attempt to make associations between different elements and I will conduct visual research of particular items, themes, locations, imagery, whatever.
I will make many draft attempts at image ideas. Nothing is pointless. Making these steps is vital even though much of it might get discarded. Getting what’s in your head onto paper will help you organise the mental scramble and help you see the paths worth developing. That can be quite scrappy but it’s all about identifying and developing quality ideas and approaches rather than any appealing artwork style at that early stage.
The notion of inspiration striking is a myth. Startling connections or realizations can happen but they’ll only be delayed understandings of what you’ve already set up. It is about steady graft and persistent development of ideas and technique.

Do you have any rituals while working?
I’m reasonably disciplined at getting round to work. I do a regular working week and keep rather standard hours: Monday-Friday, 9-5. In my younger, free-er days I maybe did 11-7 with plenty of late nights. Conversely, I’m pretty bad at forcing myself to remain seated at the desk, even when it’s not helpful. I’m not very good at allowing myself walks or gallery trips when a mental break is probably what’s needed most. Having said that, I do distract myself a lot (I mean, do research!) on the internet. Rituals? I need a strong coffee and a banana around at about 11am every day.

What are your ideal working conditions, e.g. do you need complete silence or listen to music?
No other people (despite being a sociable person). Lauren Laverne on BBC 6Music is good. Silence when I need to concentrate, if that gets too isolating I sometimes play classical music. If I feel too lonely, then talk on Radio 4. One can absorb a lot of culture in these ways. Podcasts are helpful too.
Other environmental factors? I’m content with the study that I have in the house. I had a shared studio very early in my career that brought both good and bad experiences. All of human life thrives on interaction, but hell does sometimes feel like other people.

Can you remember the first piece of work you sold?
As a student, I got my first live project for a student paper. It was produced by David Shayler, who notoriously went on to become a secret-service-operative-turned-whistle-blower.

Do you ever abandon pieces because they aren’t working?
I don’t think of it that way. There’s no drama in developing avenues that don’t make it to the final outcome. The creative process shouldn’t comprise a single line of approach. I start many ideas, there will be branches, mergers, reflections and consultations.

How long will an average piece of work take to create?
Way too long, my cost-efficiency is akin to the minimum wage.

What are you working on at the moment?
A book cover for a self-publishing author plus some finishing work I did as Graphic Reporter. That’s an intriguing new direction that is opening up for me. I’m ready for new challenges and find that my skills from freelance practice and teaching are applicable in new and interesting settings. In fact, the understanding of illustration and design practice is changing and the necessary skills and mind-set continue to evolve amidst a media landscape that’s radically being affected by new technologies.

What professional hopes and ambitions do you have for the future?
I set myself the task of attempting to adapt and evolve to the changing circumstances I find myself in as an illustrator. It’s good that this challenge has come around, though, as one can’t do the same thing forever. Learning is fun. I’m enjoying finding out about how publishing is changing and seeing what creative and commercial possibilities might be developed from that. This has encouraged me to pursue side projects and the results could be quite rewarding. It’s all about changing models just now - and how (or whether) money can be made in affected industries. If I negotiate this correctly, enough people will, hopefully, continue to want my services in future years.

Thank you so much, Kim, for that insight into your creative process. Much of what you say resonates with me, especially in relation to the need to adapt and evolve, and creativity being a matter of hard work rather than flashes of inspiration.

You can see lots more of Kim’s work on his website: