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Sunday, 3 August 2014

Seven years on


6a00d8341c39e853ef0177436c54ea970d-320wiI’ve been doing this for seven years now. Blogging. That’s a long time. There aren’t many people who’ve blogged consistently over that long a time. So allow me a moment to pat myself on the back.


I don’t normally celebrate anniversaries. A lot of people do. But my 100th post slipped by without mention and I’m not far off from my 600th which will probably pass without any fuss or comment. That’s just me. But I’ve been thinking for a while about what my expectations were like at the start and what I’ve achieved since I began devoting so much of my time to online activities and a seven year anniversary is as good as any time to talk about it.

A lot can happen in seven years. Eight years ago I was working myself into the ground and on the brink of a rather nasty nervous breakdown. The only thing in my life was work. And then my life changed forever. I was made redundant and Carrie decided—because I was in no fit state to decide anything—we could afford for me not to go back fulltime and so I never have. It’s a wonderful position to be in and I realise that many of you will be thinking Jammy bugger as you read this. Just imagine, the freedom to spend all day every day reading and writing and watching TV because that pretty much is my life. What could you achieve given that amount of leeway?

The thing is that breakdown I had to go through to get me to this point in my life was a doozy and I’ve never been the same since. I’m better but I’m not the man I used to be. I’m also seven years older for starters, seven years further away from my prime. It’s all downhill from here. This doesn’t mean I’ve been idle over the last seven years—far from it—but the legacy of the breakdown is that I’m nowhere near as efficient as I used to be. And I forget stuff. It’s not Alzheimer’s. I don’t think it’s Alzheimer’s. I went to the Glasgow Memory Clinic a few months back and was tested. I do have what they classify as mild cognitive impairment but my memory isn’t so bad that I don’t know what day of the week it is or what city I live in. But I do have trouble retaining information—holding three things in my head’s a challenge—which makes writing novels tricky.

The solution to that, after giving up on two or three ideas for novels (I really can’t remember if it was two or three), was the novella. I’ve completed two, Exit Interview and In the Beginning was the Word and both are written entirely in dialogue, the novel stripped bare. Other than that the only extended prose writing I’ve done in the last seven years was to finish my fifth novel, Left, after about a three year break. Poems come when the mood suits them and although I don’t write a lot—a dozen in a year is good—I’m happy with the quality and that’s what matters. A wee while back I was reading through the hundreds of poems I wrote in my teens and they are SO BAD.

Publishing is another thing completely. Things have changed radically in the last seven years especially since 2009 with the release of the Kindle 2. There had been e-readers before but for some reason—that mysterious ‘some reason’—the public started to show a real interest in electronic books and everything went to pot from there. Suddenly everyone and his cat could produce a book and have it out there within an hour or two of completion no matter what state it was in and the market was flooded. Publishing changed overnight and it really hasn’t found its feet.

The Internet’s also gone through a bit of a shake-up since 2007. Facebook existed back then and it was fairly popular but not like today. Twitter was a mewling infant and Pinterest, or whatever the next big thing’s going to be, didn’t exist yet. Interest in blogging’s also fallen off. People aren’t writing blogs like they used to, nor are people reading them, which is a shame because the reason I started this blog in the first place was because that’s what the people in the know said an aspiring writer ought to do: start a blog and blog regularly. At my blog’s peak I was getting about 10,000 hits in a month. Now we’re down to about 4,000 which is still nothing to be sniffed at. Okay I blog a little less than I used to but it’s still a heckuva a fall. At least I’m still attracting readers. What I’m not attracting—what I’ve never attracted—are book buyers. And this was the main reason for starting the blog in the first place. To establish myself. To earn people’s respect. And I think I’ve done that. I hope I’ve done that. I’ve certainly worked my butt off trying to do that. There are a handful of people out there who get me. And that’s great. The blog’s brought me friends some of whom I expect to be friends with until I die. That I didn’t expect and was an added bonus. But I did think I’d attract a few more actual readers, the kind of readers who get excited when they learn I’ve a new book out—it’s not as if I’m bring one out every fortnight. Okay, a fan base. I mean a fan base.

This makes me wonder why I’m continuing to blog and not putting my energy into book promotion. Now here’s the thing: I don’t think the majority of online book promotion works or at least the return on investment is measly. The exceptions are exactly that and we shouldn’t start thinking of them as the norm. There will always Making Sense 517 x 800be books like Fifty Shades of Grey and the reasons for their success will remain a complete mystery. There are plenty of sites out there reviewing books—although the standard of reviewing varies widely (don’t get me started on the girl who gave Making Sense 2½ stars because she mistook my collection of short stories for a novel)—but even a site like mine where I at least try to do a half-decent review, well, you’ve seen how many readers I get and that’s after seven years of consistently showing up week in and week out so as not to disappoint my readers. But even there, who exactly are my readers? Most of them are writers. Some self-publish or only post new material on their blogs and that’s enough for them. A few have published with small presses. One or two have even put out a book or two with a medium-sized press. Not many are just readers. Because just readers don’t subscribe to blogs like mine or any of the sites where reviews of my books have appeared except by accident. They wander into Waterstones and pick up the first shiny thing they see. Or spend a few minutes on Amazon seeing if anything catches their eye. But they don’t exactly trawl through the millions upon millions of titles looking for the book that no one else is reading because there are hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly readable books out there so they simply go with one of them. Besides who has the time for that?

Most of the books I’ve read recently—those not send to be from publishers—I’ve found by chance. I’ve a review coming up of a book that I really enjoyed. It’s from a bloke in Maine and I just stumbled on it, just like that. I wasn’t looking for it. I would know where to start looking for it. You can find it in Amazon under Contemporary Fiction, Fiction and Humour. It has three reviews, two five- and one four-star. How was I ever going to find it? I could tell you the title. I could. I could even tell you the author’s name; that’d be a help. But that’s the problem and I’ve said it time and time again. The Internet is like a dictionary: it’s great as long as you know what you’re looking for. I’ll post the review in a week or two or three and maybe out of my 4000 readers, one or two, will buy this guy’s book. I have no stats to back that up but I’ll be surprised if it’s many more because we all have too many books to read as it is. I see my books on the to-be-read lists of people in Goodreads but none of them ever get round to buying the book. It’s for that reason I don’t keep a to-be-read list online because someone will inevitably end up disappointed and the horrible thing, the really horrible thing, is that I’d probably have enjoyed their book more than half of the books I did end up reading and gave preference to simply because they were people I thought I ought to be reading.

This year I set myself the task of reading one hundred books. It’s an arbitrary figure and I’m not normally one who sets goals but this year—for one year only as I’m starting to run out of thin books—I’m going to read a hundred books. As I’m writing this I’ve got five months left and I’m already around the seventy-five mark. So I don’t imagine I’m going to have too much trouble hitting my target. I could be doing other things. I have books written that only need a decent edit and they could be out there—my wife thinks there actually `might be a market for In the Beginning was the Word—but I really have lost heart over this last year. Which is why I think I’ve been content to do the bare minimum to satisfy my commitments—a post here every Sunday (three book reviews to one article), two shortish posts for McVoices on the first and third Wednesdays of the month and a five hundred word review of a poetry book for Elsewhere whenever Rob gets round to sending me something)—and that’s it. I’ve not been doing much promotion. I’ve not even been sending out stories and poems. The result was a second novella and I have an idea for a third but that’s all I’m saying on that count. Because I’ve allowed myself space to be bored. I’ve written about boredom at length here. Its importance to creative types cannot be exaggerated.

Reader (border)Everything will get published eventually. I have a book of poems that needs a bit of ordering and weeding but after popping into Tell it Slant a few weeks back and discovering all three copies of This Is Not About What You Think that I donated to help Ellen when she was starting up still sitting on a shelf and looking like they’d never been handled, well, that didn’t exactly do much to boost my enthusiasm. The next collection—which will be entitled Reader Please Supply Meaning—is a book of poems about poetry and we all know how popular they are so we’ll do a small run so I have copies for my friends to stick on their shelves and then I’ll maybe start thinking about editing my novel The More Things Change which I had planned to work on this year but that never happened.

I don’t like to moan (who am I kidding? I love to moan) but everyone needs a bit of a moan every now and then. It changes nothing. Moany posts tend to get a few more comments than most—others encouraging you not to give up—and they’re all sincere and well-meant and if you fancy spending two minutes offering a fellow writer a bit of solidarity then go for it. It won’t hurt.


As for the next seven years… Well, who knows? I’m running out of ideas for articles. I’ve enough to last to the end of the year and you never know I might get inspired but I’ve really added most of what I have to add. The same old subjects crop up again and again on sites like mine—is the novel dead? what is poetry? does the Oxford comma matter?—and mostly these are all questions where the answers aren’t important. What is poetry? Poetry’s what I write. I recognise it the moment the words hit the page. I have no need to define it. I just want to write more of the damn stuff. I likewise don’t care how many angels can perch on the head of a needle. Idiotic question!

I’ll keep reviewing books for now. I enjoy reviewing books. I pay more attention to a book when I know I have to talk about it and I get more out of it because of that. But I now realise that this is not the place to promote my books. I’ll mention when there’s a new one but I don’t know about you but I hate those author sites where all they go on about is their book, their one book, their only book as if it’s the only book in the goddamn world: Read my book. Read my book. Read my soddin’ book. Buddy: no one’s going to read your book. Or as near to no one as doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Not enough difference to get yourself in a tizzy. So stop getting yourself in a state and focus all that energy on something else. Write another book. Go for a walk. Something. My sales this year probably amount to something like 0.0000000273% of the total books sold in the UK, probably less, and so, seriously, if I sold ten times or a hundred times more than I’m selling right now no one’s going to notice the ripples; it’ll still round down to zero. Puts things in perspective. I’m doing better than Van Gogh did during his lifetime, let’s put it that way.

My wife and I sat and watched an interview with Anita Desai a couple of weeks back. It was a good, long one. During the interview she talked about what life used to be like in India for natives writing in English. No one was even remotely interested. Following independence de-anglicisation became a matter of national pride. What were these writers thinking hanging onto a dead colonial language? Still they amounted to a handful of writers and you know the size of India. What harm could they do? Only from 1980—yes, that recently—when Midnight’s Children came out did Indian publishers there lift their heads up and go, “Eh?” Maybe there were a few rupees to be earned here after all. Change came quickly after that. Who knows what will happen in the next thirty years? I may still be around then. I’m not planning on it but anything after seventy-five is a bonus as far as I’m concerned and maybe by then publishing in the twenty-first century will’ve got its act together. I can wait. Books don’t go out of date. People treat them as if they do—such a stupid mentality—but most (satire and celebrity bios excepted) don’t; we just start thinking of them as historical fiction.

I never expected to—and I use the term loosely—“make it” quickly, or at all really, but it was disappointing to see the goalposts move. Now I’m not even sure what game we’re playing as people keep making up the rules as they go. There are lots of people out there offering advice (for a price) but the only real answer is: Write what people want to read. And if you’re unwilling to or incapable of doing that then just be grateful for the odd sale that comes your way. It was better in the gold ol’ days when writers wrote and that’s pretty much all they were expected to do apart from maybe sign a few books and there were only about six genres.

Lastly I should just like to say thank you to those who have hung on with me through the last seven years. I doubt any are still around from the very start but I can think of a couple who appeared pretty close to it. But even if it’s just been a year, a month or a week I’m still glad you’re here. And if this happens to be the very first post of mine you’ve read then please feel free to dip into my back catalogue. There’s some good stuff there. If I say so myself.


Ken Armstrong said...

Another of those moments of synchronicity. As I stuck up today's post (thanks, as ever, for having a look) I kept saying to myself, "you've covered all this before, in different context perhaps, in different words, but it's the same stuff as in 'x' post and in 'y' post from a few years ago.

Conclusion? I don't care. I enjoy the little stretch to get something different up there every week. I've never expected anything from it and it's never let me down in that regard.

Someday I reckon I'll just stop. No shout, no fanfare, just... stop.

But not yet.

It reminds of a line of two from 'Gladiator' where one slave says to the other, "We will die but not today, my friend. Not today."

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t like the idea of repeating myself, Ken—which is why book reviews are such a blessing—but the bottom line is I really don’t have much to say on the subject of writing (and poetry especially) that I’ve not said already. And neither does anyone else as far as I can see. There will, of course, be newbies arriving every day for which ALL OF THIS is new. All they know about writing is what they covered at school and they would’ve had precious choice as far as that went. And now they can write what they want, read what they want, do whatever they want. I remember being there. And there was SO MUCH to read. It was dizzying. There weren’t so many authors willing to talk about the mechanics of writing but that’s changed. But there I’m afraid I’m a bit of a one-trick pony. I’ve specialised. I know how to do what I do and I think I do it pretty well and I’ve no real interest in learning how to do things differently. The prose is a little different. Takes so long to write a novel that any learning is very slow indeed. But I can see change and growth.

I know in my blogs I come across as knowledgeable and well-read but I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable and well-read as I ought to be by this age. I look at my peers and half of them are ruddy professors. I’d’ve liked to have been a professor. If only to be surrounded by pretty girls fawning all over my genius. But I quite like where I am too. Pretty girls are exhausting. So this blog has really been my university course. I don’t get a degree at the end of it but that doesn’t matter. Degrees aren’t what they used to be anyway.

I never wrote to be famous or to make money. I had no agenda whatsoever. The words came and I wrote ’em down. It’s what I still do. And I’ll tidy them up and send out review copies and if I do happen to sell a book or two in passing then fine. This is a bad time to be a writer. Nothing we can do about that. I suppose I could start writing plays—basically my last two books are plays—but I know even less about the theatre world than I do about the publishing world. Maybe when I’ve stopped blogging and get bored I can maybe investigate that.

But for now, as you say, we will drop dead one day and won’t have to worry about any of this, but hopefully not today.

Tim Love said...

"I went to the Glasgow Memory Clinic a few months back and was tested. I do have what they classify as mild cognitive impairment" - my wife works in one of those places. She keeps wanting to do some base-line measurements on me. Now that I don't need to remember much (I blame search engines), I remember less.

"At my blog’s peak I was getting about 10,000 hits in a month. Now we’re down to about 4,000" - mine peaked at the start of 2012.

"Now here’s the thing: I don’t think the majority of online book promotion works" - a few people at the local writers groups have done well with e-books. They work hard at promoting and price-adjusting. One of them describes herself as a "Racing Romance author" and seems to be doing well. Another's sales have jumped since she described her e-novels as "medical thrillers" rather than mere thrillers. I conclude that there's a market for genres - readers will find your books if you put them in a genre where people will look for them.

"the bottom line is I really don’t have much to say on the subject of writing ..." - Maybe you could assemble a book? Katy Evans-Bush has a book of essays coming out next year, I think.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve read a wee bit about how the Internet is affecting people’s memories, Tim, and you’re right. Why remember stuff when you can access it at the click of a button? I think that’s only part of the problem. We learn stuff for a specific purpose—i.e. to write a blog—and then we’re done with it and that’s no way to retain stuff. My daughter passed her degree recently and I’d be curious to sit down with her now to see what she can remember. It would probably embarrass her. I had a friend once who maintained that the only purpose a degree served was as evidence that its holder had the capacity to learn; he said he never used anything he learned at uni ever again.

2012 was probably when I peaked too. I used to spend time fretting about SEO and promoting my blogs in sites like Stumbleupon—I used to have a whole routine that took about half an hour for every post—but once I started looking closely at the stats I was picking up an extra dozen one-off readers and it just seemed pointless. It’s all to do with the return of the investment. If I could spend an hour of my time each week and gain a dozen actual followers or sell a couple of books then fine but I really don’t understand how other people use the Internet so I could be—and most likely would be—standing in some backwater talking to myself.

You’re right when it comes to book promotion. Genres are in. Big time. And, as you say, not just general ones. People want to be able to pin a book down before they buy and you just can’t do that with my books. I read a lot and virtually everything I read can be classified as General Fiction or Literary Fiction so people are writing the stuff and other people are buying the stuff but online at least these two classifications have been kicked into touch. That’s not what people search for. Fine if one of their mates tells them about this great book they ought to read but left to their own devices… nah.

A book of essays is a possibility—I’m sure I must’ve written enough for a slim volume—but, again, who would buy it? It would feel like a vanity project. I wish Katy well with hers but she’s established and that never hurts. Paul Auster and JM Coetzee published their letters a while back and I bet if someone published Beckett’s laundry lists someone would buy it (probably me).

Wolf Pascoe said...

It's the same with plays, sort of. You have to be willing to produce yourself. But producing a play is harder than producing a book, it takes more energy, and so is a younger person's game.

For a writer, I think writing in accord with one's values is as good as it gets.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve always thought of the theatre world as a bit of a closed shop, Wolf. Once you’re in you’re in but it’s getting in. And so often you see the credit “Written and directed by…” Yet there are people out there who just write the plays and somehow others do them. I’ve started to do research a few times—usually about this time of year when the Edinburgh Festival reminds me that there are venues for the kind of small things I’ve written—but half of the theatre companies look like they’ve been formed for the specific events and don’t exist at any other time AND are doing something they’ve written themselves. I just don’t have the energy to go round chasing people.

Kass said...

Jim - Here's a big congratulations on your 7-year achievement! This opera singer/home renovator has hung in there (on and off) for the last 5 years.

If I ever write a book, I would want you to review it. The amount of consideration you give to your projects is astounding. You're a careful person - FULL OF CARE. You count every picket on James Joyce's fence (not sure if you recognize the allusion).

Kudos to Carrie for allowing and encouraging you to pursue your dream.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m glad you’re still with me, Kass. It does help knowing that, believe me. Looking at stats is one thing but knowing the people who are following one makes a real difference. I really would like to think that there will a few people who will be genuinely disappointed when I go. Because none of us lasts forever.

As regards the care and attention I give my reviews… You’re right I do care. I know how much effort went into most of the books I get sent and there’s always something positive one can say. I’ve been quite lucky in the books I’ve been sent. A few haven’t been my cup of tea and my wife says she can tell when I’ve not been into a book but I try to be honest about that too. I’m being a bit more picky about what books I review. I used to take books regularly from Alma and they were all decent books but none of them were really my thing but I didn’t like to say no. I’ve a few reviews coming up over the next couple of months of books I’ve picked and really enjoyed. No one’s paying me to do this so I may as well ‘pay’ myself by promoting what I genuinely care about.

I actually get asked to do very few reviews these days with the exception of Canongate. No idea why. Maybe people are scared their books won’t stand up to my kind of scrutiny. I don’t know. I’ve never given anyone a bad review yet. If I hated a book that much I wouldn’t waste my time further. And there have been a couple I’ve left to the side.

Don’t get the reference to James Joyce’s fence (nor does Carrie) so you’ll have to explain that one for us.

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