I’ve had lots of good things happen to my book recently. Actually, they’ve been happening since Christmas, which is how long I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for. But today it was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award, and it has pleased my head clean off. They say the book “cleverly combines intrigue with comic, astute observation which made me laugh throughout.”
It was Viv Groskop who told me to enter, after she saw a tweet from them saying they’d like more comic novels. It was also Viv who put me in touch with Colin Midson, the book PR supremo who got me my Guardian review. Viv is basically a fairy godmother to everyone who knows her, and implausibly lovely. She’s also, as her funny book “I Laughed, I Cried” inadvertently reveals, superhuman. Let’s just say that if the Ukraine were friends with her, there’s no way it would be in its current position.
Anyway, my book started selling much better at Christmas. In fact, its Christmas present to me was to get into Amazon’s top ten bestsellers for humorous fiction. It’s been in and out ever since, and last month it sold its ten thousandth copy. With that milestone out of the way, I risked putting the price up, which seems to have increased sales slightly. Last week, for the first time, the book brought in a liveable weekly wage. That has finally made me stop feeling embarrassed about having self-published. (The nice reviews and messages have also had a huge effect. Should I admit that I re-read them when I’m feeling low?)
The result of all this is that I’ve been feeling confident enough to start a sequel to Perpetual Astonishment. I’ve got it planned out and have written three chapters.
I’m very grateful for all of this.
I think one reason I don’t blog more is that I’m not sure how much I ought to reveal, especially about my emotions. I’m of that peculiarly British type who feels everything extremely sharply, but believes he shouldn’t: completely ineffective stoics, you might call us. Anyway, I hope it’s all right to admit that there have been a couple of times recently that people have made me cry by sending me gratuitously kind messages about my book. I can’t express how grateful I am for them.
About a week ago, I did my first interview. It’s with Lee Strayer, who runs Atomic 27, a company that produces audiobooks, videos, ebooks and real books. Lee used to work in radio, and as well as running the company he’s now narrating audiobooks – the first of which is Prison Planet by Billie Sue Mosiman. Anyway, he’s starting a weekly podcast to promote the whole thing and he asked me to be in the first episode. Lee has one of those pleasing American voices that make you feel that everything’s going to be all right (except when he’s reading Prison Planet). Voices like that have always reminded me of the sound of biting into a crisp apple, which is odd, I know, but there it is.
I’m becoming increasingly like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (in that I rely on the kindness of strangers – I’m not living with my sister after being forced to flee Auriol, Mississippi for having sex with a student and destroying my family’s plantation). Lee is one of those strangers and he’s really remarkably kind. As well as the interview, he’s offered to help me with an audiobook version of Perpetual Astonishment. I liked him massively and have put him in my mental file of “People I’d like to do a huge favour for, if it ever becomes remotely possible”.
Lee lives in rural Indiana, which he tells me people in the US call “flyover country” or, more intriguingly, “Buttfuck, Egypt”. If anyone can explain this more satisfactorily than Wikipedia (i.e. even remotely satisfactorily) then please let me know. I’ve heard Americans in films say “Buttfuck” as an alternative to “the Boondocks” when they’re talking about little rustic places. That’s a bit weird when you come to think of it, but it’s the Egypt bit that’s really odd. Do they mean it’s so far away from anywhere that it might as well be in Egypt? If so, why? Surely there are more remote places than Egypt – Sudan, for example, or the Sandwich Islands. I was trying to think of the British equivalent and realised that we don’t really have one. We just have to say “somewhere in the countryside miles away from anywhere”. In this, as in much else, the Americans are both more inexplicable and much more efficient than us.
But I’ve strayed a bit from my original topic, which was the interview. Being interviewed shouldn’t be interesting, because you’re the one who’s meant to be talking, and you already know all the stuff you’re talking about. But it’s actually fascinating. It made me realise that I don’t really know my opinion on anything until I’ve heard myself say it. We talked about the strange way in which I wrote the book, about the ups and downs (and downs and downs and ups) since I self-published it, and about how writing it compares with my corporate work and live comedy. Afterwards we had a long conversation about this new world we find ourselves in, where Amazon and Audible make it possible for writers and narrators to make a living by reaching readers directly, and how that encourages people to work together.
Lee has diligently edited down the excruciatingly long pauses I leave between words, and the result is on Atomic 27’s website now.
Like many people, I tend to judge myself against those who have more than me. This practice – unfortunately but inevitably – means that I constantly feel like a failure, no matter how I am doing.When I decided to self-publish, I tried to avoid this trap by defining some milestones in advance. I decided it would be too difficult to define success, but that I could try to define stages of non-failure. At a point when no one had bought the book, I tried to imagine having sold various numbers of copies, and thought about whether I’d class each as success or failure.
The point at which I found it difficult to imagine being able to tell myself that the whole thing had been a failure came at 750 copies.
That was the magic number (or perhaps the not un-magic number would be more accurate), but there were some way-stations before that. I calculated that I wouldn’t sell fewer than 12 copies unless my mother and close friends turned against me. Thirty seemed the point at which sales purely out of politeness would stop. A hundred was an important marker because of the two zeros in it. Then I overheard a couple of authors at the London Library talking about a friend whose commercially published book had sold only 312 copies in a year, so overtaking that was important. Then there was my official break-even number of 476 (an underestimate), and then a long gap.
Finally, a week or so ago, I reached 750. I can report that, having set the number in advance, I feel less like a failure now. Of course I still slip sometimes. I know a few writers who have achieved out-and-out success, with award nominations, big advances from publishers and tens or hundreds of thousands of sales. But it is now a bit easier to let that go.
I’ve just been to visit the Guardian’s offices again and see their training rooms. Now I’m really looking forward to my Self-Publishing Step by Step masterclass. I’ve chosen a smallish room, to make it as easy as possible for everyone to talk, with a big window and a view over the canal, because I think everyone needs as much daylight as possible at this time of year. I should have taken a photo.
Everyone there is extremely nice, and there’s someone there for the whole weekend in case something breaks down – and also to give everyone a guided tour of the newsrooms at lunchtime.
I’m particularly looking forward to my two guests. On Saturday afternoon we have Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors (of which I’m a member). I’ll be interviewing her (and everyone can join in) about why she went independent and why this is such a good time to self-publish. And on Sunday we have Fiona Robyn, author of the bestseller The Most Beautiful Thing. We’ll be talking to her about how she marketed her book in a way that felt easy and natural.
Today I’m overjoyed by this review by the beautifully named Alfred Hickling in the Guardian:
Anyone suspicious that the publishing industry may be run by a small group of corporate-minded killjoys will applaud the DIY-ethic of Shevlin, who has published this quirky comic novel himself. The perpetually astonished hero finds himself in a conspiracy involving murder and the theft of cabinet-level documents, having done no more than give directions to a large man wearing a balaclava on the Holloway Road (mental note: men in balaclavas are either thugs or terrorists, unless they have very poor circulation in their ears). Shevlin’s offbeat brand of urban absurdism should appeal to anyone susceptible to Nicola Barker’s whimsy, though the penchant for made-up onomatopoeic verbs can become a bit trying: “scooshed”, “tocked” and “prunked” in a paragraph about parking a car. But you can’t help being tickled by Shevlin’s view of Covent Garden as a place “thick with mildly diverting notions which now had their own branded carrier bags”; or the Holloway Road afflicted by “the North London disease that turns any unwary building into a chicken shop”.
It should appear in the paper this Saturday, or possibly the next (i.e. the 13th)…
The Broadway Bookshop on Broadway Market in Hackney today became the first bookshop to stock copies of the Perpetual Astonishment. I took them a copy a couple of weeks ago, and when I went back on Saturday they said that their manager had really liked it. So, now they have two copies on the shelves. Coincidentally, I got my first order today from Bertram, one of the two biggest book wholesalers. (This might be for Foyles, who asked me for a reading copy a week or so ago.)
Used by thousands of bookshops across the country and carrying millions of titles, Bertram placed an order for one copy. And because my account with Nielsen is set up wrongly, I had to fulfil the order myself, which meant it cost me money. But if I get another order, Lightning Source will take care of it all.
Now I just need to summon up the courage to ask another nice local bookshop if they’ll stock the book.
Well, I’ve now read the Metro review. Here it is:
Self-publishing has its successes, as EL James’s racy ebook series, initially posted on a fansite, proved. Yet there are reasons why editors and publishers exist, as demonstrated by Christopher Shevlin’s debut novel.
That’s not to say that The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax isn’t a good book – it is and Shevlin was rightly picked up by the literary agency that represents the likes of David Nicholls. However, it could have been great: the comic hero is caught up in a murder plot that unravels into a political thriller, which is by turns absurd and engaging.
Although the plotting can be confusing, the perceptive one-liners reveal an author unafraid to laugh at the concept. At one point, Fairfax muses that reading a secret file makes him feel like he’s in a film, although only ‘the sort that would be on TV on a Wednesday morning’. Yet the same page has ‘she thought Kathy new what she was doing’ – the book is full of errors. Also, Fairfax’s bumbling astonishment at everything gets wearing – surely something an editor would have ironed out.
Well, here we are. I cycled and Tubed all over London this evening trying to get an early copy of Stylist, only to find that my housemate had one. Here is the (extremely nice) review from their Book Wars section at the back of the magazine. I’ll start with their verdict – but read on for the full review.
(You can also read the review of Perpetual Astonishment on Stylist’s website.)
Exuberant is the word that comes to mind when describing this book. It’s one of those reads you can take an age to get through – simply because you find yourself re-reading joyous passages of comedy and revelling in the carefully constructed characters. One scene involving a murderer, a gym manager and a copy of The Cat In The Hat left one of our reviewers giggling helplessly. It’s a rare book that does this. Utterly recommended.
(And here’s the rest of the review…)
Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, independent publishing is in the spotlight, so we’re putting two new self-published titles to the test
Stylist.co.uk’s online writer Anna Brech backs The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax by Christopher Shevlin
Not many books make me laugh out loud, but The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax is one of them. Like Comfortably Awkward, it stars a hapless and bumbling lead – Jonathon – who is struggling to come to terms with life in the urban fast lane. But while I found Albert Ferenzo’s never-ending neuroses over corporate life in New York grating, Jonathon’s foot-in-mouth persona is wonderfully endearing and acts as a perfect launch pad for the rest of the story. Continue reading
Twenty-four people have now bought the Kindle version and 15 have bought the paperback. Then there have been 212 downloads of the Kindle version on the two days when I’ve offered it free. Altogether, 258 copies are at large. At least two good bloggers have picked it up and say they plan to review it. It was mentioned on Quirky Girls Read’s first paragraph Tuesday. And there are some exciting things happening behind the scenes, which I don’t want to mention in case they fall through. Oh, and the other good review on Amazon has unaccountably reappeared.