Those of you who know me will be aware that I now travel extensively. Part of my work includes running literary courses for holiday retreats and cruise liners and includes both recommending reading material and organising seminars on creative writing. It has taken me away from the buzz of the literary world a little, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
As I reflect on the past 12 months it has dawned on me that the Bristol Crimefest event is once again nearly open us. Sadly I can’t attend, or if I can it will be fleetingly. However, last year I joined my friends in Bristol to catch some of the goings on.
I recall that the very first panel on the Sunday morning was the ‘Emerging Indie Author Panel’. I was glad to attend, particularly as I have spent much of the last few years advising writers on how best to approach agents and publishers. This has included practical guidance regarding getting manuscripts and final drafts ship-shape and using copy and line editors to be as professional as possible in all areas.
During those years I have seen the growth of ‘Indie’ writers and the rise of Direct Publishing, which has increased the awareness of new writers amongst industry professionals. There is still an element of snobbishness amongst some, but thank goodness it is now evaporating at a pace, and quite rightly so, as some fabulous new talent has emerged.
I have noted that authors such as Rachel Abbott, Anya Lipska and Mel Sherratt have gone from first time debuts via self publishing on Amazon to successful careers as agented writers with publishing backing.
Indeed twelve months ago Mel Sherratt was already on this journey when she appeared with three others on the inaugural ‘Emerging Indie Author Panel’ – and well done Crimefest for starting this up.
So I thought I’d take a look back at that panel and see how Mel and the others had got on. It was then that I was reminded that one of the panellists was Eva Hudson, who was tragically taken from us a few months back, way too early. I’m told she lost her battle against cancer with great spirit and dignity. Those amongst you who followed her on twitter will notice that she still tweets. This I believe is a tribute to her erstwhile partner, a marvellous gesture to keep her work alive and I understand a ghostwriter of her future.
I met Eva briefly last year at the Marriot Hotel in Bristol and I seem to remember we talked about birthdays, along with fellow panellist TJ (Tim) Cooke. I think they shared the same Gemini history and actually had their birthdays during last year’s Crimefest, which was more towards the end of May. In any event it is so very sad to think Eva will no longer be around. She was a very talented writer and I had tipped her to build a substantial following.
Of the other three panellists, I expect you will have heard most of Mel Sherratt. She really has gone from strength to strength with her pithy brand of crime fiction, which vividly reflects her own working class roots. This was something Mel talked passionately about on the panel. The first book I read of hers was Taunting the Dead and I was glad to see that the sparky DS Allie Shenton has returned in Follow The Leader. Mel Sherratt provides a marvellous model for what can be achieved. If you’ve read her blogs you will note that from time to time she refers back to her ‘journey’, involving many years of self doubt and rejection. However Mel always knew deep down that she was doing the right thing and once others showed their support there was no stopping her. Excellent stuff Mel.
I also recall hearing Carol Westron, a most pleasant and somewhat quirky South Coast writer who pens both Victorian crime novels and contemporary fiction. Since Crimefest she has written ‘Strangers and Angels’, featuring the intrepid Lady Adelaide. What really caught my eye though was the name of her next novel… Carol likes to create unusual and noticeable titles, and the author of ‘The Terminal Velocity of Cats’ has now come up with ‘The Fragility of Poppies’! Like it.
Carol, it appears, is not one to stand still and watch the world go by. I had hoped to have the time to interview her because I was fascinated about how she had organised the set up of a publishing company to distribute her work. Pentangle Press was instigated by her after recovering from a stroke. She and some writing friends decided they’d spent enough time trying to get published through traditional methods so started an imprint of their own. Now that’s dedication!
The publishing industry offers far fewer opportunities to new writers than before. The dwindling of budgets, slashes to advances and fear of anything ‘different’ has conspired to result in some absolute gems remaining virtually undiscovered. Some of yesteryear’s more maverick and creative authors in this genre would never see the light of day.
That brings me onto the last of Crimefest 2014 panel, TJ (Tim) Cooke. Both Tim and Eva, though thrilled to be on the panel, told me that they were not entirely comfortable with their ‘Indie’ status. The reality is that as an Indie writer publishing directly on Amazon, or even with the backing of a small publishing house, you are likely to be burdened with most if not all of the marketing onus. ‘It’s the ugly side of it’ Tim told me, saying that he just wasn’t the best person to promote his own work.
On pure writing ability it remains a mystery to me, as it does to some significant others, how Tim has failed to be taken under the wing of one of the crime fiction imprints. If you are a fan of Michael Connolly or Patricia Highsmith you will love his book ‘Defending Elton’. I was recently reminded of it with the huge heist at Hatton Garden. If you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t don’t worry it won’t be a spoiler. Judged on the reviews from some very respected sources I fully expected ‘Defending Elton’ to be a big hit, and perhaps his other work ‘Kiss & Tell’ to be the first of many adventures for feisty working class lawyer Jill Shadow – but it seems not.
I wrote to the author a couple of weeks ago to see if we might catch up whilst he was in Bristol and was disappointed to hear that he has ‘lost his mojo’ for crime fiction. ‘The ride was just too extreme’ he told me. ‘I’d been taken up to great heights with the backing of some of the most admired literary agents around, but it seemed like the publishers were too wary of my narrator protagonist Jim Harwood. They didn’t ‘get’ him. Was he a goodie or a baddie? Fact is I don’t know, or care. Why can’t readers judge for themselves? I always engaged with characters like Tom Ripley or RP McMurphy because they fascinated me. Sometimes it takes a flawed individual to highlight the flaws in the system, and that’s all Jim was really doing, to get out of an awful situation. I don’t think I ever stopped and thought is he a goodie or a baddie. I’m not sure I even believe in such concepts. Anyway, though I wrote ‘Kiss and Tell’ in an effort to create a more endearing lead, and a returning series, I think the stuffing was already taken out of me with ‘Defending Elton’.
Whether its choice or necessity Tim tells me he’s been concentrating on his advertising business. Indeed, on this very weekend of Crimefest he will be in Nottingham with a nomination for a national radio advertising award. It’s in the ‘best use of humour’ category so perhaps he’s not quite as despondent as he makes out! Seriously though I do hope his writing mojo returns, and that a publisher somewhere in the crime fiction hinterland backs him. ‘Defending Elton’ remains one of my favourite ever reads.
It leads me all to surmise that perhaps being an ‘Indie’ or ‘Self Published’ writer isn’t for everyone. Some writers however just have the knack of being able to promote their own work. Rachel Abbot was a past master at it, and Anya Lipska, Mark Edwards and others have all shown what can be done. Mel Sherratt has also shown that by investing in networking and adept social marketing much can be achieved. If you have a good product and a skill at both presenting and promoting it you can now go a long way in this business. That’s what some of these Indie authors have shown and I really admire their passion and perseverance.
So, my best wishes go to those debut authors at this year’s Crimefest, not just the ‘Emerging Indies’ but those on debut panels who may have small publishers behind them or are on tenterhooks with a one book deal.
With my readers hat on there is nothing more satisfying than finding an original voice with something to say. I do sometimes recoil from the ‘copy and paste’ brigade, who rest on their laurels with a narrative based on a serial killer and detective couple in a ‘will they won’t they’ relationship. There is so much more to the genre than that, and I’m always on the lookout for that something a little different. In my experience that often comes from new authors, with strong voices and bold narratives.
I dedicate this to the memory of Eva Hudson. You will find her still on twitter @Eva_Hudson, and I highly recommend her work.