My sole reason for opening Facebook and Twitter accounts in 2013 was to try and draw some attention to the fact that I was writing a series that I thought was “for bright children from 10-110 years.” Shortly after reviews of Book 1 started appearing, I added the words “That isn’t everyone” to cover the obvious fact that some ‘reviewers’ were not, and probably never had been ‘bright children’ in the sense that I was using the term.
Most reviews, however, were gratifyingly positive and have remained so. The 99 reviews of Book 1: A Wizard of Dreams posted on amazon.com yield an average of 4.6*, as do the 62 reviews on amazon.co.uk. The star ratings for reviews of subsequent books in the series are almost all 5*, but that is to be expected: readers who choose to carry on with a series must have liked the previous volume enough to do so.
At the beginning (January 2011), I asked myself why I wanted to write what has turned into the series I call Myrddin’s Heir. Now (August, 2018) seven books later, I ask myself why I want to go on writing it. When I began in January 2011, I was 68.5 years old and had some hope that I might write something that would be good and would prove popular. I am now 76 years old, and, like Socrates, wise only in that I know I know nothing. I am, however, again much like Socrates, willing to go on asking myself what seem to me to be important questions and learning what I can from answers that are at least plausible, if not definitive.
What do I mean by popular? That’s easy: to sell as many books as J.K. Rowling. What do I mean by good? That’s harder. The simplest answer I can give is to achieve a literary standard that will stand the test of time, as the work of major playwrights, poets and novelists have done in the English language since Chaucer (a poet with whose work I was particularly familiar, having spent three conscientious years (1964-7) on a PhD thesis entitled “Chaucer’s Poetic Uses of his Native Vocabulary”).
But is it still possible for a hitherto unknown author to write something of literary merit that might also proves popular in his or her lifetime? It used to be possible: Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Dickens and Eliot did it, to name but a few. But how about in this day and age, when the major publishing houses and ‘literary’ agents are only willing to consider sure-fire commercial successes churned out by those who are already celebrities?
In 2011, the “New York Times best-selling author” John Locke published a book entitled “How I sold 1 Million E-Books in 5 Months”. In it he asked the question: “What is the definition of a great book?” Here is his answer: “Seems to me it’s awfully subjective. Some of the worst books I ever read were considered world-class literature.” He goes on to give his definition as a businessman: “To me, a great book is one that sells. The more it sells, the better it is.”
John Locke admits he is not a great writer. With commendable honesty, he professes to be barely a good one; yet clearly, he is great at selling, and he tells you how to do it in this book. All you need is a blog, a website with a ‘contact me’ button and Twitter. Those are the basic tools, but of course it’s what you do with them that counts. He cheerfully admits his books are not for everyone, but adds with some justification (one million sales in five months) that they are for some people and he knows how to find them. In marketing his books, as in so many other of his business enterprises, he has been spectacularly successful. Hats off to him for that.
So, I duly set up a website and a blog, and enrolled with Twitter and Facebook. I did my best to spread the word about my books and to help my fellow Indie authors promote theirs. To be fair, quite a lot of reviews rolled in as a result. However, the last five years have taught me that I suck at two fundamental things.
I suck at selling. I can’t get interested in it. I’d rather devote whatever time and energy I have left on revising what I’ve already written and writing another book that I hope will be even better, according to criteria I am cosy with.
I suck at targeting a specific audience and entertaining it. I thought I was writing principally for keen young readers from 10+ but I wanted also to include the adults and teachers that I hoped would read the books with them and help them develop a love of learning that would be lifelong. I found myself unable to avoid the moral and ethical questions raised by the themes that underlay the main plot – such as the importance of respecting difference and looking after the planet. That increasingly meant challenging my younger readers to follow the story through episodes that would stretch them and open their minds to words and notions they might not have come across before and were therefore not expecting. It also meant asking them to face situations and events that were occasionally scary and brutal. (I’m not at all surprised that the Harry Potter books got darker and darker as the series went on.)
As book followed book, my story took on a life of its own: becoming more and more complicated and moving away from the target audience I had originally envisaged in some kind of ratio to the rate at which my memories of the classroom are fading. By the end of Book 7, I could no longer claim I was writing it for anyone other than myself.
I think I have tried in this series to sit on too many readership stools at once, and in consequence to some degree have fallen between them all. Yet I still think that I write well, according to criteria I’ve distilled through a lifetime of studying great literature, of teaching creative writing to thousands of high school students and of reading many modern authors whose work in my opinion has literary merit. In my chosen genre, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling spring to mind, but of course there are many others.
I will go on writing and independently publishing, and I’m enormously grateful to be alive at a time when technology has made that possible. I’m grateful also to Penguin Books for seeing merit in my first stumbling efforts in the 1970’s (see The Ice Warrior link under the homepage banner), thereby fanning a flame that I promised myself I would rekindle after I retired from a challenging career in education. But I no longer have any expectation that my work will ever be widely read.
I am most grateful to those people who have seen and may yet see merit in my series, but I’m realistic about how many of them will exist at any one time. As a psychiatrist once told me (in 1982) about the impossibility of achieving the best that could theoretically be achieved by me as the headteacher of Stoke Newington School in Hackney: “the trick is not minding.” It’s taken a lot of years, but it may be a trick I am finally learning. As I closed my Twitter and Facebook accounts, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders, much as John Bunyan did when he yielded to his God the possibility that He would turn His back on him if he wasn’t good enough.
I will carry on with my blog and my website and my ‘contact me’ button, should anyone wish to contact me for any reason whatsoever. But for now, after five conscientious years of interacting with my fellow Indie authors via Twitter and Facebook, I have strutted and fretted my final hour on the social media stage and will there be heard no more.