Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Going Viral on Amazon. Some Hope.

You can read the 'some hope' in the title ironically or literally. It will be a while before I can see the lasting effects of the giveaway of my novel. It's now the 5th and final day, and downloads have averaged 100 per day. I'm now on about 500 and will see the grand total in the morning. The difficult task will then be seeing if the novel can stay high in the rankings when it's no longer free, and the only way this can happen for a book is if it goes viral in certain ways and takes off on its own.

When I thought about having a giveaway I was concerned about possible negative effects, but I hadn't realised what some of the good effects could be. Along with the pleasure of being able to give a book to so many people, the giveaway has also continued to lead to sales of printed books from various retailers and from me directly. These sales aren't huge, but all small publishers and most poets and literary fiction writers will know every sale is a cause for celebration.

This time last year we invested money in hiring a PR company for Ward Wood books in general and I can say this giveaway has achieved far more than the PR company did and without the £2,000 or more a PR company costs. I've compared notes with another author, and between us we have tried out two of the better known PR companies for publishing. PR agencies usually charge a fee that only covers one press release circulated and follow up phone calls, and this can lead to very little in terms of press and media coverage. I said I would give figures openly in these blogs, so this is what you can expect to pay and what you can expect to receive for your money. Sometimes they also circulate review copies for you, which is an easy task.

It worries me that the responsibility for PR could fall more and more to authors as the trend increases for self-publishing. As an author/publisher I can understand this as I'm a traditional publisher for our authors, but need to hire external editing and promotion for my own books if I choose to keep them with our company. For this reason I was thinking of going with another publisher for my next book, specifically because self promotion just isn't as effective as somebody else doing it for you, but the giveaway has made me reconsider.

The amount of work I put in as a publisher to promote books by our authors just couldn't be paid for if authors had to pay the £50 per hour charged by PR companies. It takes continual press releases tailored for each news item that could get coverage for an author and more than the 6-8 weeks that consitute a promotional campaign led by an agency. The work never ends, as bookselling is incredibly hard.

I really didn't expect the giveaway to lead to better results than the PR agency, but it wasn't hard perhaps.... In just 5 days the book has got to 14th position in the literary fiction ranking on Amazon UK, and has been in the top 10 on Amazon US, moving about between that position and the top 40. I've realised part of the reason the downloads are higher for Amazon US is that Ireland and India are also included on that site.

When I look at reports from PR agencies authors have used, they tend to lead to one or two reviews and maybe a broadcast. In just 5 days I've been asked to provide a reading to be broadcast on the popular Homegrown Podcast run by Nic Treadwell after he downloaded the book, and he has also asked to broadcast another Ward Wood author VG Lee.

There has been increased traffic to the Ward Wood site, leading to sales of books by our other authors, and small publishers particularly need people to buy direct from them. For some reason people always seem to buy from Amazon, so it's quite ironic that a giveaway on Amazon could help us achieve the sales direct from publisher we really need. I think the interesting discussion about publishing that has grown up around the giveaway has led to increased awareness and sales direct from the publisher.

Feedback from others during the giveaway made me realise the importance of encouraging people to click the Like button by books and to post reviews as this moves a book up in the Amazon rankings. I haven't been too successful at this as I don't like to harass, but was very encouraged by a review that turned up out of the blue from James Lawless, an Irish author, who I didn't know at all (which makes it even better) and who really 'got' what I was doing with the dystopian themes in the novel. You can see the review here and it will also go on my page on the publisher website.

If the book manages to stay high in the rankings it will have a chance of maintaining the high level of visibility needed to take off on its own. There's a limit to how much help a book can be given to keep people aware of it, especially when you have full-time work to do. Constant promotion by the publishers and authors could also put people off.

Anybody with a Kindle or other ebook could consider going onto forums, like Kindle Boards and Mobile Reads Forum. On these sites it's important to take a genuine interest in the discussions, but they do also give links to your books (especially Kindle Boards where they will help you put the covers of your books on all your posts with links to Amazon). They also have places to promote your book, and it's important to keep any self promotion strictly to the boards where this is allowed. I tested out the effectiveness of both of these sites on Tuesday night by posting after a long absence. Downloads of my novel went up by 21 in a matter of minutes, meaning that people were clicking on the links to my books from the messages even if I wasn't self promoting.

The period after a giveaway shows if people who have downloaded the book have enjoyed it enough to Like it on Amazon and to post reviews, or one sentence comments. If enough do, the book will stay visible in the top 20 or top 100. They might write about it in other places and ask the author to be interviewed or broadcast. Whether or not this happens for my book, it has become clear to me that it certainly can happen and the giveaway is well worth considering for authors and publishers.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Getting High in Amazon Rankings

It's Day 4 of the giveaway of my novel and I promised to blog openly about the experience with exact statistics. I've also been learning valuable facts along the way so I'm glad I did this. Sometimes it's only by experimenting that you find out how the publishing market works, and although I felt I knew about ebooks, the past few days have demystified Amazon and Kindle even more.

I woke up to find my novel in the Top 20 in the ranking for literary fiction on Amazon UK. It was also doing well on Amazon US but it's a bit harder to work out the ranking system there. I'll keep trying! You'll want to know how many downloads took the book to that position. Overall there were 307 downloads, with 113 in the UK.

The book continues to do much better in the US, despite me being a London author, with 187 downloads in the US by this morning. The remaining downloads were in Spain, France and Germany, where I have author friends on various social networks. I'm not sure whether the higher number of downloads in the US is due to more enthusiasm for ebooks and social network promotions there, or if it's due to the higher number of Americans in my social networks - probably a bit of both. I thought it was Brit Lit but it does seem to strike a chord with American readers, which I've been very pleased about.

Getting high in the rankings is important as a book needs to become visible to potential buyers if it's to take off on its own and go viral. For this to happen it does also have to be a good book, and I'll leave readers to judge that about my own novel. However, seeing the novel in the top 20 made me realise that the free ebook giveaway idea does let authors gain visibility for their books in a way that would normally be impossible without the high promotional budget of a major publisher.

It's not as easy to give a novel away as people may think, as I said in my previous post. But if a novel can get to such a high position in the rankings with just a few hundred downloads it's certainly possible to gain visibility. A book can slip down the rankings just as quickly, of course, and after the techniques described in my last post to invite friends and social network contacts to get the book an author can run out of fresh ideas.

One of the things I have found out is that it's important to encourage people to press the Like button by your book on Amazon and to add a review, even if it's only a sentence. This moves books up in the rankings, as I could see when I looked at the top literary fiction books on Amazon US, listed in price order from lowest to highest. Books that cost more could still appear higher than a free book if they had a number of Likes and reviews.

I have to be careful about contacting too many people asking them to press Like or to post a review, even if they give me feedback saying they enjoyed the book. As a publisher I'm more wary of annoying others and doing anything to damage the reputation of the company or the authors on our list at Ward Wood Publishing. But I think it's important for authors in general to invite readers to support them in this way. People just don't seem to do it if you don't ask. And people don't usually mind - I know I don't. Some may get annoyed with you but you just have to steel yourself for that, be polite back, and maybe go away and have a little cry!

The other way to make sure your book has a chance of appearing high in the rankings is to check you have it in the right categories in your Kindle settings. Unfortunately Amazon only allow two categories to be set so I chose Literary Fiction and Fiction/Humour. It's much harder to get high in the rankings for all fiction books, but it's possible to gain this visibility in your genres. Being in the right category also helps readers find you - readers who are looking for your type of book.

I realised the importance of this during the giveaway, as my book was in General Fiction and Women's Fiction (I hadn't chosen these settings). It isn't Women's Fiction, and General Fiction isn't specific enough to help people find it in the rankings. In fact Women's Fiction doesn't come up easily when searching genres either. So these two categories were useless during a giveaway and I realised they are useless in general in terms of helping potential readers find your book. When choosing categories for your book, it's worth taking a look at Kindle Books on Amazon and seeing which genres are easy to find.

We had to waste 12 hours of the giveaway period changing to the right categories but it was important. I didn't exactly choose to waste this time, but if you take a look at your Kindle settings by editing them, Amazon will take your book offline until you Save and Publish again. Once a book is offline you have to choose Save and Publish to get it Live and Amazon check it for hours first then slowly update each server for each country. So don't take a look at your Kindle settings during a giveaway - it's important to sort them out beforehand.

I have managed to keep the downloads going at about 100 per day without nagging people individually to download it or to support it in other ways. This is partly because there are people who will mutually support even without being asked too persuasively. These tend to be people who have a particular interest in ebooks or in the other technologies involved in ebooks, such as social networking.

The wonderful Selby Evans, a patron of the arts in the virtual world of Second Life, blogged about the giveaway on his site Virtual Outworlding. I noticed the results in terms of immediate downloads of the book to his large and mainly American following. Downloads in the UK were given a bit of a boost by Anne Welsh's blog, and as she's a librarian with a following of booklovers, that really helped.

Even these quick blog posts support ebooks and authors, and in fact if bloggers use their Amazon Associates link to the giveaway they could earn commission on any other books the buyers get while there so it's worth their while identifying good giveaways and writing about them. I continue to be surprised by the way the giveaway has increased sales of my printed books, especially my poetry collection, but also the novel, so links to the giveaway could also have earned bloggers commission on these sales.

Contacts who share the link on Facebook and Twitter also help keep interest going in a giveaway, and again I haven't asked for this too much but would encourage authors in general to do so. It's human nature to need to be invited to do a thing and to be reminded. The amount of support authors could get is much higher than I've achieved but I need to be careful about possibly annoying others due to the other sides of my work.

With one day to go I still have some new ideas to draw attention to the giveaway and will report tomorrow on the final statistics, the additional tips and techniques used on the last day, and the way forward with a book that's high in the rankings once it has to start being sold again. And of course all of this has to be fitted in with a busy work schedule or perhaps all authors could achieve more with a giveaway.

If you have tips of your own about free Kindle promotions, please leave feedback. I'd like to gather as much advice together as possible.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Ebooks. You Can't Give 'Em Away. Or Can You?

This week I'm experimenting with the free ebook giveaway idea until Wednesday. So that this experiment will be useful to other authors and publishers I'm going to be completely open about the number of people who take the book, the techniques used, and the pros and cons of this idea. Some of this is hard to find unless somebody tells you, especially the number of books you need to give away in order to get to a good point in the Amazon rankings so that you're visible to readers beyond your own contact list.

I'll start with the figure you all want to know. In the first two days 220 people have downloaded the book. More than 100 were in the US, 85 in the UK, 1 in Spain and 2 in Germany. The higher figure in the US, despite the fact I'm a British author based in London, helps to show the importance of an engagement with social networks in order to reach out to international readers.

It also shows that ebooks are vital as it's almost impossible for many publishers to get their printed books stocked and sold in other countries due to the cost of sending them combined with the demands of bookshop managers for big discounts that would put publishers into a loss. In the US, Ireland and UK bookshops tend to want to buy only from their wholesalers, so unless you can get stocked by their wholesalers it's almost impossible to sell to some countries.

Although is excellent for supplying UK books to the US, Amazon only supplies books stocked by its wholesalers. We're stocked by the major wholesalers, but many aren't so it's a huge problem. So ebooks are the most effective way for authors and publishers to become internationally known and read. One problem is that potential readers don't realise they can only use the Amazon site for their country to download ebooks, which no doubt loses a lot of takers as it's complicated giving links to all regional websites. There are also some strange factors (such as ebook sales to Ireland going through the US Amazon website only).

Giving ebooks away isn't as easy as you might think, even though I'm a publisher with a track record as a published author. With so many people contacting me every day asking me to download their free ebook, my main fear was that nobody (or very few people) would take it. People are inundated with requests from their friends to accept and read a free book. This could be worrying for people selling printed books and ebooks, but one of the main surprises is that the giveaway has led to a flurry of interest in the printed books, and sales have increased. A printed book costs less than a visit to a coffee shop for a drink and a cake, so maybe this isn't so surprising. Paying or getting a book free isn't perhaps as important a factor in reader choice as we imagine.

But a free gift of an ebook people already quite fancy is going to tempt them to make that step and actually get it. The second question that will be on your mind is how many people I had to promote to in order to get about 200 takers. The maths for this seems quite simple. I have two main social networks I can promote to, both with contacts involved in books and writing, and the total number of contacts is just over 2,000. So, in the first two days I seem to have about 10% take-up of the offer. I'll keep you updated on the figures as I move into the second half of the promotional period.

To some of you 200 will seem like an excellent figure. '200 new people discovering your book' another author said to me. But in fact they aren't 200 new people. They are people who have been on my Facebook list because they have a particular interest in writing and publishing, and in the virtual world of Second Life, where I have been organising a large voluntary project for writers for 6 years. When you look at it this way, 200 might seem quite low and shows just how many 'friends' truly interested in our projects we really have on social networks. However, some only log on occasionally so it was probably a good idea to run the giveaway for the full 5 days Amazon allow in any season all in one go.

An unexpected bonus was the feeling it gives to see so many contacts downloading the book, reading it at the same time as each other, and giving feedback to me. It's a time when many people are short of money, and those who love books tend to buy too many and try to cut down, so it's rare to have this sudden burst of 'book sales' and simultaneous reading by many. It's usually an experience that only bestselling authors can enjoy.

With 200 downloads the book got to 835th position in the Amazon sales ranking for free books in the UK, and just over 2,000th in the US. People in each country can only download from one Amazon site and the rankings are based on the total for each location. I'm starting to see the downloads starting to grow in Germany, Spain and France.

What are the best ways to promote a giveaway without making your friends and contacts feel 'spammed'. I sent out a notice to the publishing company group, inviting members to an 'event' during the giveaway. I also invited friends and contacts from my personal Facebook friends list to an 'event' with a link to the Amazon sites as the location. Apart from the problem of people clicking on the wrong Amazon site for their country, this did work well. The downside to this is that some people don't realise they should turn off group notifications if group discussions become active and start arriving in their email. During a giveaway a group wall will get active so brace yourself for people getting irritated and it's important to remind people how to turn off notifications. Luckily I only had one complaint, but he made it very public on my wall - in fact you may find that you get trolls.

I then also sent group notices to the writing groups I have on Second Life. I have to say, I found the Second Life bookloving community very supportive and this will be part of the reason the downloads are higher in the US than the UK. They also account for the downloads to France and Spain. People on Second Life tend to be technology lovers as well as booklovers, and many of them are enthusiastic about ebooks. It's a mutually supportive environment for writers on Second Life, and I was touched by the number of people who shared the news on their Facebook wall and also on blogs without being asked to help.

At this point I have done as much as I can with my social networks without driving people crazy with reminders to take the book if they would like it. I have to be very careful as a traditionally published author and a publisher as I mustn't do anything to damage my own reputation or that of the authors with Ward Wood Publishing. I didn't send reminders to the group, or to friends individually, after the first invitation.

A self-published author probably should go for it with even more gusto, contacting friends to remind them to download the book, and letting them know how and why it can help. This might be the only way many authors can head up the Amazon rankings during their giveaway period, and the book could then go viral if it gets into the top 100 or top 10.

It will also help if the book is in the right Categories in your Kindle settings. I hadn't selected these myself and you do need to check that your publisher has put you in the main categories you feel are right. Amazon only allow two categories and my book had mistakenly been put in Women's Fiction (which it isn't) and General Fiction. This lost me about 12 hours of the giveaway period as I had to have it changed to Literary Fiction and Humour. Being in the wrong category (and I really don't consider my book Women's Fiction) not only makes it hard for readers to find what they want, but the correct niches give a book a better chance of getting high in its particular category.

So this is the point I'm at. I need to use some additional methods for the final half of the giveaway and will explain them in another post and how effective they are. Any feedback on your own giveaways, and also ebook sales, with tips, pros and cons, will be very welcome. And thanks to all who have dowloaded the book! I would love to see links to any reviews and feedback, good and bad, and also any places you have shared news of the giveaway.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

If you haven’t heard about The Next Big Thing then where have you been? Each Wednesday, authors who have been selected answer ten set questions on their blog about their next book. They then tag five authors, give a brief bio about each, and it will be their turn the following Wednesday. The idea is to make some sense of the blogosphere by drawing attention to good author blogs. I’ve tried to choose a varied set of authors who will take The Next Big Thing out in new directions, and I’m sure all of you will find at least one author you haven’t encountered before – and maybe get some new ideas about the ways blogs can be used. You’ll find them all at the end of this post.

With thanks to Colin Tucker who tagged me. Colin’s blog is at

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Help required on this. So far it has had the working titles Charing Cross Station and then Everyone Can Sing. I’m also considering A Time to Sing. Any feedback on these ideas would be very welcome.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea for one of the main stories in the book came from a relationship I had with a character who seemed exceptionally kind and caring. A person of integrity. But it turned out he was extremely deceptive and hiding something important. I don’t like novels about couple relationships so I was waiting for something else I could add to the book. Then I discovered that a holiday cottage I had fallen in love with had been the scene of something horrific just before I stayed there. This gave me the extra inspiration I needed to build a story about how we make assumptions and how our perceptions about people and places can totally change when a single fact about them is revealed. I also wanted to write about feminism and love comedy, so meeting the stand-up comedian VG Lee inspired me to add a character based on her who has written a spoof book of extreme feminist ideas as a comedy but it becomes a bestselling cult manifesto.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

This is always hard to answer for me. It’s contemporary fiction, which says nothing about it except that the voice is very contemporary. It’s perhaps literary fiction, but I hate to say that as it sounds elitist and I think literary fiction can be an enjoyable read for most people. It’s definitely comedy but also has thought-provoking themes I hope. Like my last novel Everything is Free it’s probably a ‘state of England’ novel (as one reviewer said) as I like to write about our society, and it combines dark humour and light humour. It doesn’t get as nasty as Everything is Free, which I will be giving away for five days from Saturday on Kindle as a dark, alternative Christmas gift of a novel.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The deceptively over-nice character Robert looks a bit like Alan Titchmarsh, but I’m not sure if he would like to act. Somebody like that with a ‘butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth’ look who isn’t too handsome. VG Lee could play the comedian who gives feminism a kick up the pants with her comedy manifesto. Judith and her 18-year-old daughter Lydia look like a younger and a middle-aged version of Carole King, and there’s a very androgynous character called Viv who may be male or female. I’d need a very feisty actor for Viv. A young Tilda Swinton maybe. Then there’s Joe who is like a middle-aged Bob Dylan. And a mystery woman who Glenn Close could do well.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The people who seem closest to us can be strangers guarding secrets and the revelation of one fact can make us realise we’ve been living a lie for years: everything we hold most important can be taken from us in that instant.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I will approach agents with this novel. With my last novel I turned down offers from a major publisher and a good small publisher, thinking it would be good to support Ward Wood Publishing with it. But it’s not a good idea to be an author/publisher these days despite a long and important tradition of this in the UK. It’s much more effective for me to publish and promote the work of others. Unfortunately nowadays, with so many people self-publishing and setting up small companies to publish their own work, it has become harder to be an author/publisher in a professional way.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It isn’t completely finished but I’d say two years.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can’t really think of any. I seem to have developed a bit of an unusual style, and even if I start off not writing in it, it soon takes over again. My contemporary writing voice has been compared to Catherine O’Flynne but she writes about urban disaffection whereas I love the city and even some of the most dreadful characters.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

A person I met who seemed like one of the best people I had ever known, but who turned out to be the person who has treated me worst in my life. To him I send my gratitude, as it’s the most deceptive people who inspire some of the most interesting characters for me as a writer. The more successfully deceptive a person is, the more they surprise the reader, and the more the reader believes the other characters would have believed in them. An obviously deceptive person would be transparent to the reader and the people deceived would be demeaned as they would look too stupid and gullible. We all have to be conned by them, and in my life I’ve been inspired by two people who were excellent at the art of deception.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

I had to learn to sing as research for this novel and it has become a passion. I wanted learning to sing to be a way Judith gets rid of her inhibitions and as an echo of how Erica Jong used aerophobia in Fear of Flying. Feminism is one of the themes of the novel, with the teenagers researching the history of feminism and discussing the iconic books and novels, so I wanted to have a similar positive note and title. Sorry about the pun.

The Next Next Big Things

Here are the five authors I’ve tagged. I enjoy their writing and their blogs and it’s a delight to be able to share them with you.

Matthew Paul

Matthew has had poems published in a variety of places, including Fire, Poetry Ireland and Poems from Art (Tate Modern) and some are forthcoming at nth position. His first collection of haiku - The Regulars - was published by Snapshot Press in 2006 and the second, The Lammas Lands, will be published in 2013. He is associate editor for Presence haiku magazine and was joint writer/editor (with John Barlow) of Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2008). He is the UK contributing editor for the annual Red Moon Anthology of Haiku (USA). His haiku have been anthologised in - amongst others - the Iron Book of British Haiku, The New Haiku (Snapshot Press), and, more recently, The Humours of Haiku (Iron Press) and he has run haiku workshops for the Essex Poetry Festival and for Poetry South. His blog is at

Colin Bell

After a career making Arts Programmes as a producer/director and executive producer for British, American, Japanese and European broadcasters, Colin Bell (aka wolfiewolfgang), gave up television to concentrate on writing. His novel, Stephen Dearsley's Summer of Love, will be published in 2013 (Ward Wood Publishing). He has also published three children’s stories (Novello’s), film reviews (Mansized, the biggest men’s health online website), and poetry in the UK and the USA in The Blotter, Every Day Poets, Shot Glass Journal, Bittersweet, Prism and the Fib Review. His short stories have been published by Ether Books and performed by White Rabbit Theatre in London and he is a Writers’ Village Best Writers’ Award winner. He lives in Lewes, East Sussex, England and also writes a daily blog and other reviews as wolfiewolfgang on his website

Abegail Morley

Abegail Morley is guest poetry editor for The New Writer. Her collection How to Pour Madness into a Teacup (Cinnamon 2009) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection (2010); the title poem was previously nominated for the Best Single Poem. Her second collection Snow Child is published by Pindrop Press.

She was nominated for the London Best New Poet Award 2010 and won the Cinnamon Press Poetry Collection Award (2009), The Didsbury Arts Festival Open Poetry Competition (2011) and an Orbis Readers’ Award. She has won prizes in Agenda Competition; Nottingham Open Poetry Competition; The Frogmore Prize; Leaf Books; Kent and Sussex Folio; Aesthetica Creative Writing Competition; Canterbury Festival and Swale Life Poetry Competitions. Her work appears in a wide range of journals including Anon; Assent; Envoi; Financial Times; The Frogmore Papers; Ink, Sweat and Tears; The Interpreter’s House; Iota; New Walk Magazine; Other Poetry; Poetry Review; Poetry Salzburg; The SHOp; Snakeskin; The Same and The Spectator and is reviewed in the TLS; Other Poetry; Peony Moon; Ink and Sweat and Tears and Eyewear.

She is also in the following anthologies: Not Only the Dark (2011); The Forward Book of Poetry (2011); Balancing Act and Other Poems (2011); Did I Tell You? 131 Poems for Children in Need (2010); The Sandhopper Lover and Other Stories (2009). Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual (2012). Abegail’s blog is at

Mike Horwood

Mike Horwood was born in London in 1955 and grew up in Berkshire. He has lived in Finland, where he teaches English, since 1985. Mike has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and is currently working towards a PhD at Bangor. He has a poetry collection, Midas Touch, and a novel, The Finn´s Tale, both published by Ward Wood Publishing. His blog is at

Sharon Zink

Sharon says: I became a writer at five when my German-Brazilian-American grandfather gave me an Amazonian plant which he said could sense good and evil, thus dooming me to a life ruled by a vivid imagination. Having survived a sticky teenage hell by turning to verse, I became Shell Young Poet of the Year, my first collection, Rain in the Upper Floor Café, being published when I was seventeen.

After spending several years pretending to be a model, art dealer and bookseller in post-Velvet Revolution Prague, amongst other places, I studied English at Queen Mary, University of London and then read for an M.Phil. in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Jesus College, Cambridge, before returning to London where I gained my Ph.D. under the supervision of Prof. Lisa Jardine.

I taught at various universities before abandoning academia to work freelance and focus on fiction. Since then, I have received the title of Writers Inc. Writer of the Year and have also been short-listed for the Raymond Carver and New Writer story awards on four occasions, being named in the latter as the Editor's Choice.

Having been published in anthologies, newspapers and journals in the U.K., U.S. and in translation in Mexico, my work has also been the subject of editorial features in The Telegraph and The Guardian and various TV slots. In addition, I have read at venues such as the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall, a selection of my stories also having been produced at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival, winning an award from The Scotsman. keen traveller, I have wandered widely in Mexico, India, Thailand and Europe. I have also spent an extensive amount of time in America - the former home of my grandfather - most recently undertaking astronaut training at N.A.S.A. whilst researching Emptiness, my new novel about female astronauts – ‘The Log Flume’, a chapter from this work, was recently published in The New Writer. I currently live on the Sussex Coast with my cat, Muse.

My first novel, Sharonville, is currently under submission.

Sharon’s blog is at

Monday, 7 May 2012

Review: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

I had an odd reason for reading this novel. Somebody told me my novel reminded them of What Is Lost, as both are set in shopping centres. There are other striking similarities in some of the small details, but overall they are two very different books. I looked forward to What Is Lost and really wanted to enjoy it. It's in the kind of setting and with the kind of characters, themes, and storylines that appeal to me. The strengths of the writing showed at times when the story zoomed in with a clear focus on the individual characters and brought their experiences and thoughts to life. For me there were also some problems. The long opening third all telling the story of the child Kate Meaney trying to be a private detective around her depressing urban area and the local shopping centre would have failed to hold my attention if I hadn't read on the blurb that she was going to vanish. I would have liked it more if it had started with her and her father, as it's a very interesting lone parent depiction. More interaction with adults could have varied the focus on the child-like story in a way that would have held my interest more. It also felt much more old-fashioned than the dates suggest. In the school there are 'stationery monitors' and a general atmosphere that felt pre-1960s, rather than mid-1980s. The description of the shopping centre in 1984 with 'prehistoric supermarkets' and also tatty shops near the entrances from the bus stops doesn't tie in with my memories. It was always expensive for shops to be in these places and the shops near the main entrances were in the prime positions. The same big supermarket chains were in them then as now. The middle section moves forwards 20 years and to two new characters - the security guard Kurt and also Lisa, who works in a music shop. The middle section is the hardest part of a novel, and this is a debut - it does seem to get a bit lost at this point. There are too many mundane details that I think a good editor should have helped the author with. The story of the characters is also often narrated as backstory, or as the things they 'usually do' each day. Each time the author zoomed in and brought a scene to life this completely changed and really worked. For example, the moment the security guard feels somebody is walking behind him watching him in the isolatd service corridors. The book would have been strengthened by increasing the passages with this kind of writing. The author really knows about shopping centres as she worked in a music shop, but unfortunately the details about Lisa's working life in Your Music are too long and mundane. So the book could have been strengthened by cutting some of this detail, although some of it is needed in the resolution for this character. The long opening section also gets us involved with Kate Meaney, so it feels strange that her disappearance becomes such a small part of the rest of the book. It would have been good to have the focus brought back to Kate more often. All of the characters have reasons to be remembering her, and there is one truly spooky moment. More of those would have been great, in place of the more everyday comments. I liked the experimental nature of the book and the way the 'voices' of the people in the shopping centre pop up in italics here and there. Again, some of them are too mundane, but some are excellent. It would have been nice if the mundane ones had been replaced by others. It would also have been good, for me anyway, if some of the characters had not been depressed. Surely there would be some joy experienced by somebody? I can see that some feel the resolution didn't work. I think it does work in ways and not in others. The plot depends too much on coincidence - all the main characters have some connection to Kate Meaney, and then by chance they also find the clues and meet up with each other. They also forget things about her, like the fact she carried the monkey, which I think would stick in the mind if a lost friend or girl you have seen starts coming back into your memory when clues appear. Apart from Kate Meaney, there is a death that links two of the main characters and it happens in the shopping centre with one of the characters happening to be the person to make the discovery. I can't say more without spoilers, but there are so many coincidences needed to make the plot work that either it's a mistake, or it's a deliberate ploy to show it's fiction and not meant to be realistic. Again the scenes in 2004 felt old-fashioned - nobody uses the internet or mobile phones. Everybody uses a landline, and uses the post to stay in contact anonymously, when the internet could be used. Lisa from the music shop is using a Walkman. Each of the time periods seems about 20 years before the times given on the chapters. Dialogue was a bit of a problem, and even the final statement about what happened to Kate seems to be in a similar voice to many of the other characters. The lack of variety in states of mind, with little positive apart from the undying enthusiasm of Kate, is echoed in similar tones of voice and attitudes. Working class people are described as 'inbred' three times by different people (starting with Kate, which gives an idea that her voice often isn't that of a child), boys who work in the storeroom are described as lanky-haired and all called Matt or Kieron. I thought this might be ok as perhaps the narrative voice was also that of someone with a similar council estate background, but it seems to get more and more linked to Lisa's voice, and she describes herself as middle-class at one point. So an element of snobbery is one of the less acceptable flavours left by the novel. At another point one of the security guards is helped to learn how to read and takes up the Daily Mail and Jilly Cooper novels, which could be quite funny, but a point is made that the guard who has taught him feels he has 'created a monster'. We are all supposed to share the same views in order to agree with the narrator, who steps in at points like this, not letting the characters have their own opinions, or not letting the readers interpret for themselves. This can make the characters seem a bit too similar. I did like the stories of the characters lives, and would have liked a bit more about Theresa at the start. It would have been nice to feel more engaged with her and also with Kate. It was hard to have an emotional response to any of the characters and letting them come to life would have helped that, coupled with the removal of the more mundane passages. Having said that, I did really like what was being attempted and have a feeling I'll like Catherine O'Flynn's follow-on novels more. I must also be wrong to some extent as the book has won awards - something I didn't realise until I was halfway through it. I wonder if knowing would have changed my response.
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