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Survival By Numbers

     Making any kind of living as a novelist is rapidly becoming a real challenge.  Once upon a time, if you were lucky enough to be in print, you could pretty much rely on the publisher to do the heavy promotional lifting for you.  Your precious tome got a decent launch party, armies of reviewers – giddy on free Moet -  reached for their pens, and hey presto off you went.  If sales figures responded to this tide of free publicity, the marketing honchos would pile in and conjure all kinds of magic to hoist you into the Top Ten.  One bright morning, you might even arrive at Waterloo and find yourself looking at huge posters featuring – yes – your latest book.


     For lots of reasons, that world has gone.  The retail biz is staggering from crisis to crisis after twin uppercuts from Amazon and Kindle.  Independent bookshops are on life-support.  High Street chains, in that revealing phrase, are constantly “reviewing their business model”.  And all of this naturally has a huge impact on publishers.  Industry-wide, promotional budgets have been cut to the bone, and launch parties – with certain exceptions – are a memory.


     So where does leave the humble scribe?  In a word, nowhere.  In today’s marketplace, aside from producing the stuff in the first place, writers must become the authors of their own success, not because a particular book is particularly brilliant, but because you’ve managed to amuse, intrigue or blag enough people into buying it.  “Enough people” need to be measured in their thousands – so the light in today’s retail darkness is social media. Unless you’re savvy enough to climb the e-mountain and shout your wares from the highest peaks, you’re probably condemned to base camp for the rest of your brief authorial life.  I kid you not.  Tweet or die.


     To be honest, I think I’ve known this for a quite a while and – as a direct result – I have a lap full of messaging tools which I never use.  Take Facebook. Believe it or not, I have an account.  It’s the legacy of a long-ago book called No Lovelier Death which kicked off with a flash-mob party in a judge’s house in deepest Southsea.  I won’t bore you with the details but research into how kids spread social anarchy though the internet took me to a brainstorm session with a bunch of sixth formers at Portsmouth Grammar School. 


     One of them, aghast that I’d so far successfully ducked Facebook, signed me up.  It seemed a nice gesture at the time but I’d forgotten the password within days and never used the account.  Over the intervening years, a whole load of would-be friends – e-mail messages really – stacked up like planes in some eternal holding pattern, all wanting to make a perfect three-pointer on the landing pad that is my Facebook page, but my half-hearted attempts to engineer myself a new password always crashed and burned.  For that, I’ve been just a little bit grateful.  My oldest boy, Tom, treats his Facebook page like a spare room.  It’s stuffed to the brim with all kinds of family knick-knacks – and a million brilliant photos – but coming from the previous generation I’m not sure I want all those people in my house.  Privacy, I tell myself, is one of life’s more precious privileges.  Unless, of course, you’re trying to flog a book.


     For reasons every writer will understand, I currently feel a pressing need to connect with an-ever greater readership.  It may be vanity, or simply a need to keep the fridge at least half full, but it seems a real shame to let all that time and effort go to waste when people in the know tell me that the bright new dawn of scribedom is but a keystroke away.


     One of these e-prophets is my lovely agent, Oli Munson.  Oli has introduced me to the world of Twitter.  Twitter, he assures me, is just a brilliant way of getting through to new readers in numbers you’d scarcely dare dream about. 


     Oli himself, it goes without saying, is a genius at all this.  He performs hourly before a sizeable e-audience with the deftness of a concert pianist, firing off countless two-line trills of Twitterspeak,  commercial messages artfully camouflaged as gossip or breaking news.  For this I have nothing but admiration.  It’s like trying to learn a new language – not simply the lexicon of Twitter commands but the wholly new challenge of trying to package something funny, super-cool, and potentially profitable in less than 140 characters. 


     This shouldn’t be difficult for someone who started his writing career penning copy for an advertising agency but the more I peer into the world of Twitter, the more I suss that the guys who’ve really cracked it are the guys who are totally in tune with the Zeitgeist.  It’s intuitive.  They understand the fizziness of Twitter, the simultaneous firing of a trillion neural synapses that composes the world of 24-hour Twitterdom.  A Tweet, it seems to me, is the 2013 version of morse code:  purposeful, fast, efficient, and close to poetry in the right hands.


     Meet another of my boys, Jack.  Jack, like Oli, is a master at the game.  He authors a weekly blog called Questionable Time, a deeply subversive take on the BBC1 op-fest, and uses Twitter to marshal traffic in the direction of his website. This is basically what I want to do for my books but Jack, long fluent in Twitter, can come up with tweets of sublime silliness. 


     Take this, for instance, from a couple of days back.  Jack tweeted My local chippie has started doing fish masala and chips. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.  The genius, says me, lies in the capital letters.  To be frank, I doubt whether the e-world is a richer place for discovering that a Leeds chippie has gone all Bengali.  But the news that the mundane has – in some inexplicable way - become the stuff of revolution is brilliantly surreal.  I know Jack.  I understand which nerve he’s trying to touch.  And even in me, his aging dad, he’s fired a synapse or two.


     So how am I doing?  Early days, I tell myself.  I posted my first tweet a couple of days back then spent a fruitless hour or two trying to figure how to rub the thing out.  It happened to be about Blair, and I happened to believe it, but in the world of Twitter,  I now realise that simple belief isn’t enough. I have to be more guileful, more canny, more cool. I have to raise an eyebrow or a smile.  I have to master a certain kind of irony.  I have to connect.


     My followers,  and I dohave them, will be glad to know that I’m getting much much wiser about all this stuff but I still feel like the guy at the party who knows nobody, is terrified of making a prat of himself, and lacks even the confidence to get blind drunk.  Blog-length prose I can handle.  Novels have never been a problem. But finding something Tweetable to say in 140 characters?


     Lost.  One bewildered scribe.  Reward for safe return.   Retweet if poss.


     There.  Done it.


     PS.  You’ll find Jack’s weekly blog on