The Road to Waterstone’s

I will signing copies of my book The Green Bicycle Mystery in some book stores next month – more details in due course. It’s the culmination of a 35-year journey. I remember its first step.

It was taken in an English Literature lesson, studying George Orwell’s 1984. This was two years before the year would adorn calendars and diaries. I loved the book and Orwell’s style, both of which had a profound effect on my 15-year-old self. I sat there, with the penguin paperback edition on my desk, thinking how wonderful it must be to have a book published, to have your name on a cover, to be a writer. It was something I hoped I would be one day.

My schooldays, and then college days, soon passed me by. At university I discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories and became enthralled. I wondered if there were any real-life cases that had any resemblance to the fictional ones. I became interested in unsolved crime, especially interesting cases from that period in history. A time of Brougham cabs, gas lamps and steam trains. And afternoon tea with a spoonful of malice, normally arsenic, I found.

Then, like almost every graduate, I fell straight onto the treadmill of full-time work. Time’s accelerator peddle was pressed hard to floor. A decade zoomed by. I changed careers, becoming editor-in-chief of a US-based magazine. Life was more exciting, time seemed to slow because so much was packed in just a few years. Children came. The pace of time picked up again. Before I realised it, I was at the wrong end of my 40s, turning grey, and recognising more of the names in the obituary columns. How time had slipped through my fingers and, with it, unnoticed, those teenage dreams. Dreams, I feared, would never be fulfilled unless I did something.

So, I quit my job. I first took a masters in philosophy, to atone for the vapid course of management science I took at university decades before; how university is often squandered on the young. Then I attended an evening class called ‘Telling True Stories’ (see my post The Long Journey). This where the idea for Cold Case Jury was born.

I self-published four e-books, including The Green Bicycle Mystery, testing the concept of whether readers would deliver their verdicts online after reading an unsolved murder case in a book. It worked. I then approached some publishers and secured a publishing deal. In fact, I was offered contracts by two publishers but decided on Mirror Books. It’s easy to write in a few sentences but the whole process took over two years.

A publishing deal. It gives the impression that plenty of money is involved but, for the overwhelming majority of writers, including me, this could not be further from the truth. Unless you’re a successful author in a popular genre – like thrillers or cookery – writing pays well below the poverty line. Most books from a first-time author sell less than 3,000 copies. An author might receive 50p per book on a cover price of £7, and proportionally less if the book is discounted. A cheque of £1,000 might be a realistic return for over a year’s work.

So I think I can offer this morsel of advice: don’t write to become rich but only to enrich your life, and hopefully others too. Otherwise, the road to Waterstone’s is likely to be an arduous and unfulfilling one.

I Read The News Today

It is fascinating to see your book through someone else’s eyes. The overview of my book by the Daily Mirror didn’t focus on the things I thought it would have. It highlighted a solution to the century-old true crime rather than a mystery for which the readers can deliver their verdicts. There are three potential scenarios, each is reconstructed and analysed. I plump for what I believe to be the most plausible account at the end of the book, but my view is but one. The current verdict of the Cold Case Jury is available at my website. I’m hoping that by presenting new evidence and obtaining a verdict from the readers, a degree of closure can be brought to the case, which has interested the public ever since Bella Wright was tragically killed in July 1919.

Nevertheless, it is an eye-catching double-page spread. I particularly like the image of the police constable casually carrying the infamous green bicycle to court (it’s taken from the book). Is it just me, or does the constable look like Blakey from On The Buses? (Apologies, that’s a reference to a British sitcom in the 1970s). Now that would be a story…

Paperback Writer

The day has arrived: my book is published. It’s not a thousand pages long and it’s not based on a novel by a man called Lear, but I am a paperback writer. At last. I have wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember, so I have achieved not just a personal goal but a lifetime’s ambition.

Why is there no hardback? Did I not want to be hardback writer, too? A good question. My genre is true crime and, to be blunt, true crime titles do not sell that well in a firmer cover: this is a commercial fact. Why, I’m not so sure. There may be reasons that some market researcher could elucidate but this would only explain the fact, it would not change it. Many true crime books are published exclusively as a paperback, perhaps only the most established authors in the genre first come to market with a dust jacket. There is one advantage with the jackletless approach, however. I’ve lost count how many times a friend has said, “I’ll wait for the paperback”. So there is less likely to be deferred – and possibly lost – readers. And for first-time writers like me, every reader is so precious and important; they need to be embraced, hugged.

If the paperback does well enough, perhaps there could be a special or limited edition hardback. It’s an aspiration, a personal goal.

But, as I have found out today, it doesn’t hurt to have them.

A Century of Books

It’s a century-old cold case. During that time, at least five major books on the unsolved death of Bella Wright have been published, dozens of books have carried a chapter on it, and scores of articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers. The most famous article was written as long ago as 1922, when The Strand Magazine published Trueman Humphries’ account of how Bella was killed accidentally by a youth out shooting crows. This is one of three theories examined in my book, The Green Bicycle Mystery, published by Mirror Books later this week.

The case was widely reported at the time. Indeed, it was one of the most famous murder trials of the interwar years. Despite all the media attention and books on the case, today it appears to be less well known outside of Leicestershire. Paul Stickler, a fellow researcher of historical murders, conducted a snap poll. Before presenting the case to several hundred people at a special event on a cruise ship, he asked how many had heard of it. Only a handful raised their hands. Of course, this is not scientific polling, but it is suggestive. Perhaps most unsolved historical cases are known only to criminologists and armchair detectives, the exception being the Ripper, of course.

Whether the case finds a wider audience with the publication of my book remains to be seen. By examining new evidence, I believe it tells the complete story for the first time, but the writing of it was immeasurably aided by those books that went before mine. This includes one published as long ago 1930 by a reverend, which was the seminal work on the case for 60 years. It was only superseded by Wendy East’s book, yet even that was published nearly quarter of a century ago. All were the latest books on the case when they were first published; all are out of print now. How books reflect the inexorable sweep of time.

The Books Arrive

My book has arrived – well, several copies of it – barely a week before publication.  I have to say, the publisher has done a tremendous job – they look and feel beautiful! Having worked so hard for this day, I thought I would be elated, euphoric. Strangely, I feel a mix of subdued anxiety and vulnerability. With so much effort invested in the work, I’m putting an important part of myself into the public domain. What will readers think? Will they like it? Will it even be noticed?

Perhaps that is the greatest worry for any first-time author: your book will languish on the bookshelf, forgotten; the lines you wrote, and lovingly re-wrote, will not be read.

Only time will tell.

For now, I open a book and fan the pages, savouring that unmistakable new, just-off-the-press smell. It is the scent of anticipation for the reader and one of hope for the writer. Both want it the same thing.

A good read.

To Look Daggers

I’m delighted to have been accepted as a full member of the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA). The CWA was founded in 1953 and has been promoting and celebrating the crime genre, both fiction and non-fiction, ever since. It is perhaps most well known for its Golden Dagger awards, the ‘Oscars’ for anyone writing in the genre. As the picture shows, they are impressive awards – I’ve always wondered whether the dagger is actually a letter opener which you can remove. That would be a truly functional award trophy! The past winners lists contain some extremely impressive authors. In the non-fiction genre, it includes one of the finest British true crime writers, in my opinion, the late Johnathan Goodman.

But how does it handle cross-genre crime books? My own books are a blend of narrative and creative non-fiction. The latter is similar to historical novels, but with greater restrictions. In a historical crime novel, the setting might be from a bygone era, say the 1930s, with fictional detectives and a fictional crime to solve. Creative non-fiction involves real events and people from the past, but uses dramatic techniques of the novel to tell the true story. This sometimes involves imagining dialogue, intentions and thoughts, but always governed by the facts of the case. Or, as I like to say, the creative non-fiction crime author has to join the evidential dots with plausible lines of narrative.

Of course, ‘to look daggers’ means to stare with hostility. Unless you’re a crime writer, that is. Then it means to aspire to be the best!

Two Years Gone, Two Weeks To Go

The countdown has started. My first book The Green Bicycle Mystery is published in two week’s time and is now available to pre-order.

As I wrote in a previous post, it has been a long journey just to arrive at this point. Yet, I feel I have only crossed the third hurdle in a long obstacle race. The first is writing the book; the second is securing a publishing deal; and the third getting the book published. The rest of the hurdles are about marketing, publicity and promotion. And it looks an awful long way to the finishing line.

What is the finishing line? For me, it is a book that is widely read, within the limits of the genre, and liked by readers. With hundreds of new titles – many of them really good books – released each week, the difficult part is getting your book noticed. Of course, the publisher is there to help, but it feels like a daunting task. Your worst fear is that, despite the long journey so far, your book falls stillborn from the printing press, to quote the philosopher David Hume.

Over two years in the making. Now two weeks to go. Fingers crossed.

More later.