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.