Wishing On A Star 17

I have got my full fifth star back. This may mark me as a deeply sad person, but I feel just as happy as when the bell on the Christmas tree rang in Its A Wonderful Life to show that Clarence the angel had got his wings.

Murder in Samarkand now averages five stars again after 28 Amazon customer reviews.


It had been sitiing on four and a half stars for almost two years, when the 24th five star review, from a Mr Evan Hendrikse of Bombay, pushed the average up to five again. When you think about it, that really is quite a feat. Excluding children’s books, I cannot find any other book which has more than a couple of dozen reviews and which maintains an average of five stars.

OK, I admit I have been trawling, and you can think me a nerd, but it is remarkable. Of the 28 book buying reviewers, 27 are strangers to me, and the one I do know is an ex-FCO colleague who most certainly would not have given five stars if it were not his honest opinion.

I recall the agent who returned me the manuscript with the comment:

“I can understand why Mr Murray might want to write this book, but I cannot understand why he believes anyone might want to read it.”

I recall the very abrupt note from Penguin saying they would publish it only if I removed everything about my private life. I remember my horror when I discovered it was being given a publicity budget of nil, and most bookshops were not taking it. Despite all of which we have sold some 25,000 copies so far, entirely on word of mouth.

I realise, of course, this post might well prompt some trolls to put up some low rated reviews on Amazon. If they had actually read the book, I would not mind quite so much.

Which brings me to the horrors of self-publishing. My publisher backed down on publishing the prequel, The Catholic Orangemen of Togo and Other Conflicts I Have Known, because of libel threats from mercenary commander Lt. Col. Tim Spicer. So I had to publish it myself. You can buy a copy here – and I should be very grateful if you would!


So I decided to publish myself. I realised this would be hard work, but I thought that, with one successful book to my name already and numerous newspaper articles, it would be viable. I looked at print on demand, but found that, contrary to the claims, the resulting books were prohibitively expensive for the purchaser if bought other than through the POD company’s own site. So I set up Atholl Publishing, did all the hard work myself, and got the books printed. I had obtained an ISBN number, had it barcoded and had the book registered on Neilsen Booknet, the industry standard stock ordering system.

Then I had to get them on sale. I sold some 300 immediately direct through this website. But how to reach a wider audience? I got them sold through Amazon by enlisting Atholl on Amazon Advantage. Amazon pay me 35% of the cover price for each book – that is £6.30. They cost £6.50 to print. Other production costs such as indexing, photograph and lyrics copyright charges work out at around a further 80p per book on the number printed so far – and I have to pay for delivery to Amazon. So in fact I work out that I have lost £1.30 on each copy sold through Amazon.

Now for the bookshops. Waterstones are the dominant chain in the UK. Their branches have autonomous purchasing power – but can only purchase books which are centrally approved by Waterstones. To get approved, you have to register with Waterstones distributor, Gardners. I went through this process, which takes some weeks, but I was succesful.

Waterstones then sent me a list of all their 350 odd branches so I could mail them with details of the book. I did this. I was warned by a branch manager that the branches get several mailshots a day from self-publishers and that they go straight into the bin, so I needed to make it striking. So I had the letter done in colour on glossy unfolded A4, strikingly referencing Murder in Samarkand which had sold well in Waterstones, and the big name review quotes for that book from Harold Pinter, Noam Chomsky etc. And as my eye-catching coup I enclosed a dust jacket for The Catholic Orangemen of Togo.

As just the dust jackets cost £1.22 each, and the postage was large letter, this Waterstones mailshot cost some £710. In response, Waterstones 350 branches have ordered 28 copies of The Catholic Orangemen of Togo between them, at a marketing cost of £25 per copy sold. Except it is probably worse than that, because I suspect most of those copies were sold to people who had walked into a branch and ordered it, so my mailshot had nothing to do with it.

Part of the reason is those mailshots going straight into the bin with the other rubbish. But a major part is the pointless arrangement with Gardners. If the manager of Waterstones in Bolton wants to order a copy, I do not post it to Waterstones in Bolton but to Gardners in Bournemouth. Gardners unpack it, repack it, add a large markup and send it on to Waterstones in Bolton. With the Gardners markup added, Waterstones in Bolton can’t make sufficient profit on it to justify its taking up shelf space. Waterstones relationship with Gardners is a way of extracting still further margin for a completely unneccessary stage in the process, and effectively freezing out small publishers.

But at least Waerstones are better than Borders/Books Etc. I telephoned their headquarters to ask how I could get them to stock my book, and the receptionist replied very curtly that they did not accept telephone calls from new publishers. She referred me to their website. After a very long search around their site (so difficult I can’t now find the page again) I came across a page which stated again that they did not take calls from new publishers, and added for good measure that they did not see personal callers either. But it did say new publishers should write and send in a sample book. So I did that, on 15 January. I sent a reminder letter on 15 February and 15 March. I still have heard nothing, and I imagine the sample books go to the same place Waterstones put the flyers to their branches.

I decided that independent bookstores must be the answer. Bookmarks took 27 books, Foyles 15, Daunts and Bertram Watts 5 each and WordPower 2. Then we came to a halt. I contacted the Booksellers Association and bought a mailing list of 630 bookshops. I did a new flyer, offering books at 10.79 with a RRP of 17.99 – a 40% markup. We deliver free, sale or return; if they don’t sell, we collect free too. Three months free credit. I didn’t enclose dust jackets, but the mailshot was booklet style with a beautifully printed A5 glossy reproduction of the front cover. I posted the first 400 then paused. The result – not one single order. I decided to save the money and not post the last 250 odd.

I asked a friend in the bookselling trade what the problem was. He said independent bookshops are not in fact deluged with marketing for books. But it was generally well known in the trade that the word libel had been associated with this book, and that would scare off independents who would be put out of business by the costs of a libel suit. But more than this, there was a general presumption that if a book was self-published, it was rubbish. Bookshops would only carry self-published books by a local man if they thought his relatives might be good for a few sales!

I think the “self-published books are rubbish” maxim has also prevented newspapers from reviewing The Catholic Orangemen of Togo. Every national newspaper which carries reviews, reviewed Murder in Samarkand. I sent out review copies of The Catholic Orangemen of Togo, but it has been ignored. The only major review has been in Rzeczpospolita, Poland’s equivalent of The Times. They liked it!


Murder in Samarkand recalls more recent events, and is newsworthy again now that the mainstream media has finally caught on to New Labour’s complicity in torture. But The Catholic Orangemen of Togo to me is important because it demonstrates that Blair’s contempt for international law, hunger for military action, support of mercenaries and above all his neo-conservative policy of imperialist grab for mineral resources can all be traced right back to 1997; they did not spring from Iraq.

Several people who have read both books have told me that The Catholic Orangemen is better written and a more entertaining read. It lacks the dark intensity of Murder in Samarkand, but still deals with some pretty fundamental questions. For those who do not know Africa well, it explains a great deal on development issues which are normally grossly over-simplified. It is funnier and lighter.

I am really sad that I have not yet found how to sell it. I shall console myself for the moment by looking at my five stars on Amazon.

For both books.

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17 thoughts on “Wishing On A Star

  • dreoilin

    That’s depressing Craig. I mean, about “Catholic Orangemen”. Amazing that people can so easily be put off by a hint of the word “libel” even though no libel case has been taken. And depressing that there is a notion out there that self-published books must be rubbish. I have at least two in my possession that are excellent.

    I’ve wondered about Norman Baker’s book on David Kelly. Do you think he came under any pressure not to publish? And if not why not?

  • Strategist

    I finished The Catholic Orangemen of Togo a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is well told, not in the slightest bit heavy going and well-judged for the mass market that is denied to you for it. It also allowed to me to amaze & delight a Ghanaian colleague at work with my detailed knowledge of Ghanaian electoral affairs…

    Regarding the libel risk, the fact that Tim Spicer has not yet sued should speak volumes. The bookshop trade and the publishing business should hang its head in shame if this is the problem for them.

    I’ll have another word with my local indie bookshop. If I fail, at least I can console myself that I am saving you money.

  • John D. Monkey


    This analysis and the figures are even more depressing than I had imagined. I think I’ll just create a website and post my own book on it as a PDF – cheaper than sending round flyers or traipsing round bookshops!

    Already got my copy of “Catholic Orangemen” but I guess I could buy some more as presents…

    Keep going, we need you!

  • Jon

    The only item I could find on borders.co.uk regarding advice for publishers was this one, but there’s no info on there about not calling. It says:

    > Q: I am an author / published – How

    > do I get my product on your website?


    > A: We aim to list every book currently

    > in print in the UK for sale on our

    > website. As long as your publisher has

    > listed your book with Nielson

    > Bookdata, and is able to supply to

    > Gardner’s books it will be listed with

    > us as available to order.

  • researcher

    Another view on it would indicate that the book sellers in the UK are in effect totally monopolised. One party state again.

  • Bananas in the Falklands

    waterstones is now owned by whsmith, we all know that waterstones hates its employees and blogging.

    Libel sucks – i had to order a book on scientology that they didnt like from Ireland.

  • Craig

    The book which Borders has listed is the Mainstream edition which ultimately was cancelled when Mainstream pulled out. Despite what they say on their website, despite the fact that the book is indeed registered with both Nielsen and Gardners, and despite the fact that I’ve written to them three times, they still haven’t put the Atholl edition on their webiste – but I really want them to stock it in their shops.

  • Sam


    I’ve read both your books, and though Catholic Orangemen lacks the compelling narrative throughline of Murder in Samarkand, it was a fine read and absolutely deserves a much wider audience. I wish I could help you get it, other than by buying the book for friends, but there may be one small thing I could do.

    It’s only a small thing but it might help just a little in getting the book taken seriously and can’t do any harm. I’m a bit shy about explaining in public on the website, but if I’m right in thinking that you can see my email address from this comment then drop me a line and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking.

  • MJ

    “waterstones is now owned by whsmith”

    Correct. Have you tried dealing directly with Smith’s Craig? If you can persuade them to take it on the rest may follow.

  • stevie

    Just gave a new copy of Murder In Samarkand to a friend and will ask him to add a review after he has read it too. I often give copies of it as thank you’s to people (e.g. if they let me stay over or do me a favour) – it is an absolute gem and one of the best gifts I can think to give for the price of a couple of pints.

  • glenn

    Hello Craig –

    I’ve bought two copies of “The Catholic Orangemen of Togo” directly from you, and both myself and my dad thoroughly enjoyed it. Hopefully the couple of typos will be corrected with a second edition, but the fact there were only a couple shows (i) how well you put it together, and (ii) how little help you had from any publisher.

    As for publishing the book more widely – may I suggest attempting a tour of American progressive talk-radio and webcast outlets? I’m very familiar with these, and can provide pointers should you wish.

    Progressive radio in the US is a quite different media to just about anything we get in the UK. A number of them invite guests for serious discussions, particularly when they have new books out off the mainstream, and should love a guest of your calibre.

  • Rowdy

    I tried to post this a while back but it was intercepted by a ‘to be approved’ warning. I am trying again as there is some information on ebook publishing that Craig might find useful


    The most promising ebook format that I can see is epub which is the Open eBook standard from the International Digital Publishing Forum http://www.idpf.org/.

    Since you already hold the book in electronic format you might like to have a look at Bookworm http://bookworm.oreilly.com/

    Basically, from what I can see, you convert your book to .epub format, then upload the file to Bookworm.

    The book can then be read either online in a web browser or downloaded to a computer or handheld device and read using a suitable ebook reader such as FBReader http://www.fbreader.org/

    Quite how you get paid prior to reading or downloading I am not sure. A simple way would be to rely on people’s innate honesty and ask for a donation by PayPal of £5 or whatever amount you feel to be reasonable.

  • Evan Hendrikse

    Hi Craig,

    What a lovely surprise to see that my Amazon review has tipped the balance and made you a rare 5-star author. Wow, the world really is a strange place.

    This little piece of life gives me more confidence that even the smallest gestures — those that we think are lost in the turbulence created by 6 billion souls — do indeed count for something. I’m delighted that my little gesture brought you some joy.

    I’ve left Mumbai and I’m now living in Australia. I’ll buy some copies of your latest book and distribute them in Sydney if that would help. You can then be satisfied that the book is reaching an international audience, albeit a small one (so far).



  • Mike

    Sorry to read about the pitfalls of self-publishing.

    You’ve left me confused – if I suggest to my local library that it buys a copy of “The Catholic Orangemen…”, and they buy one from Amazon, does that end up costing you money?

    You might want to look at the ebook route via Amazon.com:


    Not sure if it would pay much, but at least the marginal cost should be > 0.



  • Mike

    Yes, it would cost me money, but only little that I’d make back on Public Lending Rights after a few lends. I am very keed to get it into libraries. As far as I am aware, apart from the statutory ones, the only copy that has made it to a library was dontated by George Dutton!

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