Ghost Town: A brilliant and painful exploration of 1980s racial tension

“The trouble with self-publishing is: it’s too easy to do badly.”

This is a phrase I find myself saying far too often, on my travels as a self-publishing author. So, when I find an indie book that is well-written and well-edited, with a fantastic cover design and an author who has truly understood the value of building a platform for her books, I like to shout about it – and that is what I intend to do with the latest book I’ve read: GHOST TOWN by Catriona Troth.

GHOST TOWN is a unique and brilliant book. Set against a backdrop of the Coventry race riots in the 1980s – a period of British history I (shamefully) didn’t know much about – it was not just a compelling read for me, but also a learning experience.Ghost Town

Artfully alternating between the first person voice of Maia, a naïve and conflicted young white 20-something, and the third person viewpoint of Bahjan (Baz: ‘too paki to be white, too gora to be desi’), the story takes us straight to the heart of the racial tensions that erupted across Britain in the early 80s: not the much talked-about Brixton riots, but the persecution of Pakistani and other Asian communities in the midlands.

Then, as now, the mainstream media did little to cover the reality of events and it is clear that the author of GHOST TOWN did a lot of first-hand research to get to the bottom of what really happened. (There is a lot of this on her website.) Young people were killed on the streets in violent clashes. Letterbox fire bombs were commonplace. The police did little to protect Asian families from ugly violence that is seen at close range by Maia and Baz. I get the impression that the gradual ‘awakening’ we see in Maia – her views on race and what it means to belong – is an awakening that the author experienced during her time as a twenty-something in Coventry. The character is utterly believable, as is that of Baz, which must have taken a lot more research in terms of dialect, attitudes and background – again, very convincing.

The plot cleverly weaves the bigger social themes into the main characters’ stories without being clunky or too overt. Much of the plot centres around ‘the Skipper’, a homeless shelter in the heart of Coventry where the two main characters volunteer, and the intriguing range of frost-bitten down-and-outs who use its services. This choice of setting, like the theme of the book and the choice of voice, is unusual and different to that of most books I’ve read. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much.

Triskele Books: an author collective

Triskele Books: an author collective

It’s hard to liken GHOST TOWN to anything else out there, but there were certainly echoes of Alex Wheatle’s EAST OF ACRE LANE. I would recommend this book to anyone looking to step out of their comfort zone and explore a little-talked-about pocket of British history.

GHOST TOWN is published by Triskele Books and available in all the usual places e.g. Amazon.

Does Iain Duncan Smith Do His Research by Watching TV?

Middle-class Britain has been shocked by the ‘hidden reality’ of welfare ghettos apparently revealed by TV programmes such as Benefits Street, Iain Duncan Smith explained as he spoke at the Centre for Social Justice today about how his welfare-to-work reforms are apparently beginning to work.

“Whilst the middle-class majority were aware of the problems in poor communities, they remained largely unaware of the true nature of life on some of our estates,” he stated, perhaps giving more indication of his own lack of awareness than that of others.

True nature? Is this actually how the work and pensions secretary does his research? Does he sit in his office, with his back to the £10,000 taxpayer-funded portrait of himself, feet up on the mahogany desk, watching Benefits Street and learning about how poor people live? Or perhaps he watches from home, in one of the wings of the 16th-century Tudor mansion that he inherited in 2001. (Culture of entitlement, anyone?)

This is exactly why programmes like Benefits Street are dangerous: they appear credible. As anyone who has worked in TV will tell you, documentaries never simply ‘reveal the truth’; they tell a story. That’s what makes them interesting. The story in this case is: Benefits culture is out of control and it has become a way of life for all claimants.

Only it isn’t, and it hasn’t.

The vast majority of people claiming unemployment benefits in the UK do so as a last resort. The people I spoke to in my research for Feral Youth considered signing on as a shameful option – something they would do anything to avoid. This is the reality. Benefit fraud only accounts for a small fraction of our expenditure (roughly £1.2bn compared to an estimated £65bn in profiteering by buy-to-let landlords, subsidies to banks, tax-dodging by the super-rich etc.)

The documentary is carefully crafted to show only the extreme components of life for the inhabitants of James Turner Street: the neglect, the abuse, the lack of pride and of course, the sense of entitlement. In fact, recent research on this exact same street by Vector Research, painted a somewhat different picture. “None of us would have suggested that it was a cosy neighbourhood we would seek to live in,” said Paul Baker, who led the research, “but it was far from the hell hole portrayed on Benefits Street.”

What Iain Duncan Smith is doing, quite unashamedly, is using propaganda to justify his hideous reforms that serve to push deprived communities further into poverty, rather than lift them out.

young people

The loudest message that came out of my research, which involved spending time with young people in charities, schools and on the streets in the wake of the London Riots, was this:

They talk about getting us off benefits and into jobs, but what jobs? I been trying for two years and I can’t get no work.

Job prospects, especially for young people with little social capital, are dire. Unlike Iain Duncan Smith, most people can’t get away with fake qualifications on their CV and the longer they remain out of work, the harder it becomes to continue the search.

In fairness, IDS did reference his ‘visit after visit’ to deprived areas, which gave him a sense of how urgently ‘life change’ was needed.

“In neighbourhoods blighted by worklessness… where gangs were prevalent, debt and drugs the norm… families broken down… those living there had one thing in common; they were for the most part dependent on the state for their daily needs.”

I can’t help wondering how deeply Mr Smith conversed with the people who made up these deprived communities, as he was toured through in his expensive suit with his entourage of staff. Did he hang out on street corners and ask how young people spent their time now the local youth centre had closed down? Did he ask the teenagers in the shadows of the tower block whether they were still thinking of going to university, now that tuition fees would leave them £36,000 in debt? Did he get invited into homes on the estate to talk to desperate mums about how they were coping with paying the spare room subsidy, given that there weren’t any smaller properties in the area?

During a school visit in south London, I asked a bunch of teenagers what they would say if they had the opportunity to speak to David Cameron. They replied:

Try living our lives for a day. Just try it.

And that, I believe, is what Iain Duncan Smith needs to do if he really wants to end the ‘twilight world where life is dependent on what is given to you, rather than what you are able to create.’

Or, I suppose, he could just stay in his inherited £2m mansion and watch it on TV.

 

Polly Courtney is author of Feral Youth – the story of the London Riots through the eyes of a disenfranchised teenage girl.

Part 6 of Polly’s ‘Self Publishing Professionally’ series: Holding an Epic Book Launch

Right. First off, I don’t mean ‘epic’ as in huge, expensive, noisy and filled with explosions and fireworks (although it’s totally fine if you want to do that). I mean legendary in the memorable sense. I mean a book launch that will get people talking.

As I say in my video, I have two reasons for holding a launch party on publication day.

Firstly, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who helped me get to this stage. We’ve all got people to thank… not just the professionals (editors, cover designers and so on) but the people who gave up their time and head-space to read through early drafts, comment on book cover concepts and… well, just put up with us being us, throughout the writing process. (I don’t know about you, but I’m not the easiest person to live with when I get interrupted mid-chapter.) It’s nice to give something back to all those people, whether it’s a cup of tea and biscuit or an open bar.

Secondly, you need to make some noise about the fact that your book is out. Hopefully you have various ways of doing this. Perhaps you have a blog, or a big Twitter following, or you do vodcasts on YouTube… or maybe you use traditional press (which you can find out more about in my post on Getting Press Coverage). I recommend using multiple channels to get the word out, including holding some form of event to celebrate publication. An event generates photos, videos, quotes that can be used in the press… and most of all, word of mouth. Even if there are just ten people in attendance, if they each go away clutching a copy of your book and they each ten people about the event… well, you get the idea. Word spreads.

I won’t go into the details of hiring a venue, budgeting, guest lists, goody bags, photographers and so on, as these are all covered in my video. But I will say this: You need to do a speech. Sorry. Most writers I know are introverts and not naturally drawn to public speaking, but this is something you have to do! Keep it short. Plan it out, word for word. Practise in front of the mirror or on camera. You might like to read a passage from your book – or, as I did with Feral Youth, get someone else to read it. (But you can’t ask them to do the whole speech.)

06 - Launch do pic

Make the event your own. If you’re a quiet person, hold a cosy launch do in a local café or book shop. It can be daytime or evening, black tie or jeans. Don’t feel obligated to hold an event that doesn’t suit you or your readers. (I have a feeling that my late-night parties don’t represent typical book launches.)

The morning after, the hard work begins. Along with any other post-launch marketing you’ve got planned, you need to follow up with everyone who came along – friends, family, strangers – and if there were press in attendance, send out a pre-written press release along with photos, to make the job of writing about the launch do really easy.

 

A book launch isn’t the only way of creating a buzz, but it’s a start. Whether you’re hosting a five-person cuppa or a red carpet event, it should be a lot of fun and it’s a great way of saying thank you to those kind people who helped you along the way. Good luck!

 

You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Part 5 of Polly’s ‘Self Publishing Professionally’ series: Making a Book Trailer

‘When’s the film out?’ ask school kids, when I show them the trailer for my latest novel, Feral Youth.

This is a fair question, as it looks like a film trailer. That’s deliberate. I wanted to bring the book to life in a visual form, which meant thinking like a filmmaker.

I should clarify: You don’t need to make a trailer. It can be a time-consuming project and if you think your time is better spent getting on with writing the next book, then that’s what you should do. But if you think your readers are hanging out on YouTube, it’s worth thinking about. Similarly, if you’re thinking of selling the film rights down the line, the trailer can serve as a calling card. For non-fiction books, trailers work surprisingly well, especially if combined with snippets straight from the expert on the subject (i.e. you).

Thinking like a filmmaker is actually more complex than it sounds. As I say in my video, there are three roles you need to fill: writer, director and producer. You might be fortunate enough to run into someone who actually works in film, who might fill one or more of these roles, but if not, it’s perfectly possible to do all three jobs yourself – just make sure you give yourself time.

05 - Book Trailer pic

The first job is to write the script. Even if your trailer involves no dialogue, it still needs a script to describe the locations and give stage directions to the actors. Check out IMSDB if you’ve never seen a script before. For a 90 second trailer, the script should only be a couple of pages long.

With your script written, you need to get your producer’s hat on. The role of a producer is to sort out the cast, crew, locations, props, release forms, shoot details and er, budget. I spent about £200 on room hire and the cast’s expenses. I sourced my cast and some of my crew from Casting Call Pro, Star Now and a local theatre for my youth roles. There are lots of great actors out there who will work on your project for free if they believe it offers them something compelling for their show-reel.

To choose your lead roles, you should set up auditions. I used a room above a pub for this and I filmed them to see how the actors looked on screen. Make sure you’ve got a challenging audition script. (It doesn’t even have to be a scene from the trailer; I used a different scene from the book.)

Your choice of location will depend on your script, but generally speaking there are plenty of venues willing to offer space at low cost; you might just have to use your imagination when it comes to decorating the place. (I found myself buying and borrowing a large number of peculiar things in the run-up to the shoot: textbooks, hoodies, camping chairs, brown boots, electrical tape, greaseproof paper and chocolate.)

Be organised. On the day of the shoot, you’ll be wearing both your Producer and Director hats (and possibly an Acting one too), so you need to know exactly what’s required for each scene, both logistically and creatively. I recommend having a friend on set as Production Assistant, for the little things like running off to the shop for water, holding down netting and stabilising wobbly tripods. (Thank you, Jo!)

Once the shoot is over, the hard work begins. Editing the footage is a time-consuming business and it helps if you can get someone to do the technical stuff for you. (If you’re doing it yourself, I recommend Sony Movie Studio.) Sound quality is really important and we ended up re-recording some of the voiceover indoors. (Interesting trivia: Most film dialogue is re-recorded in a studio and layered onto the action to replace the fuzzy version recorded on the shoot.)

Stay legal. You can’t just grab any old soundtrack or music from the internet. I commissioned a musician friend to write and record the music for the Feral Youth trailer. You could source it from Soundcloud, but make sure you have the originator’s permission.

It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun – and you never know where it might lead. As well as the obvious promotional benefits of a book trailer (which, for me, has proved invaluable when touring schools), you might find that the cast and crew play an important role in spreading the word about your book. Off the back of my trailer, the lead actor ended up recording the Feral Youth audiobook and another member of the cast has performed a series of his own original songs based on the book. Most excitingly of all, the film adaptation is now in progress – so you never know.

If you decide that a book trailer isn’t for you, then perhaps my next post on Holding an Epic Book Launch will be more up your street. No matter how small, you need to do something to tell the world your book is coming out. Until next time – good luck!

 

You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Part 4 of Polly’s ‘Self Publishing Professionally’ series: Getting Press Coverage

‘What’s the best way of getting people to know about my book?’ asked an author, at the end of a talk I recently gave on marketing.

There is no ‘best’ way. Every book is different, and what works for one author may not work for another. If you write in a particular genre, for example romance or sci-fi, then maybe the best form of marketing is simply to write more books and make sure they’re set up correctly on Amazon and other retail sites.

Personally, I find that traditional press coverage is a good way of marketing my books, because despite being fictional, they are all based on a real-world issues that I care deeply about (sexism in the city, fame culture, lads’ mags, disenfranchised youth, the London Riots and so on), so I comment on these issues in the national press, with the byline ‘Polly Courtney, author of …’. If your book also touches on real-world issues, or if you have an interesting back story yourself, then this technique might also work for you. If you write about zombies in outer space, it might be less relevant.

As I say in my video, the first and most important stage of getting press coverage is asking the question: Who’s my book for?

Please, don’t say ‘everybody’; it’s neither helpful nor true. You need to think really hard about who your readers might be – I mean those people who would pick up your book before any other, the ones who will tell all their friends about it. I mean your advocates. Perhaps it’s a demographic group, based on the characters you’ve written about. (For Feral Youth, some of my readers were young adults, as the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl.) Or maybe it’s a group with a shared common interest that’s aligned to the themes in your book: vegetable growers, skydivers, heavy metal fans… or maybe it’s an attitudinal group: liberals, right-wing types.

04 - Press Coverage pic

Once you’ve identified your target readers, think about what type of media they consume. Are they online all day, or out in the garden listening to Radio 2? Do they read The Guardian or do they skim Twitter for news on their phone? What do they watch? Note down every single programme, channel, publication, event and website you think they might like, then dig around for the contact details of the producers, editors and curators. This will take time, so set aside a few hours for searching.

Here’s the most common mistake people make when they publish a book: They think that this is news.

It’s not. There are 100,000 titles published each year in the UK. That’s an average of 275 books launched every day. Even the news desk of your local newspaper probably gets bombarded with ten press releases a week, saying ‘Local author launches book’. This is not a story.

Your ‘angle’ might be the story behind the book – the real-life events that led you to write it in the first place. Were you in the army? Did you work in a crèche? Or it might be the way you wrote it. Did you scribble it down in your lunch hour, or type it into your phone? My biggest success in this respect was the ‘inside story’ I wrote for the Observer back in 2006 about my less-than-glamorous experiences in the square mile, entitled My high-flying City job was not worth a life of misery. There’s usually something that makes your story uniquely interesting.

By the way, all of this thinking should happen long before you publish. Ideally, start to plan your marketing six months before publication. This may sound like overkill, but if you’re planning to approach print publications, you have to work with their timelines. Glossy magazines have a three-month lead-time and if you intend for people to read the book, you’ll need to send out Advance Review Copies well in advance.

The other reason you need to plan in advance is that ideally, your ‘angle’ should tie into another news story. Journalists are pack animals; they only cover a story if there’s a ‘buzz’ around the subject already. If you’ve written a book about alternative methods of parenting, it won’t make the national news – unless, for example, Victoria Beckham makes a statement about motherhood. This is your time to strike. You can set up a Google News Alert to tell you when your subject hits the headlines.

When you make your approaches, be professional. Use the journalist’s name, not ‘Sir/Madam’. Be succinct and state briefly who you are, what you intend to write and why you are qualified to write it. Check out the example email I use in my video. Oh and don’t harass them if you don’t get a reply! They receive hundreds of emails every day.

Press coverage is just one way of generating awareness of your book. Other ways include Making a Book Trailer (the subject of my next post) and Holding an Epic Book Launch (the one after that). Until then… good luck with that marketing plan!

 

You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Part 3 of Polly’s ‘Self Publishing Professionally’ series: Publishing Your Book

Writers are observant people – right? That’s why we write good books, because we notice the little things like the shopkeeper’s nicotine-stained fingers, or the puff of white smoke on the horizon.

Well, this is a fortunate trait when it comes to getting your book on the shelves, because frankly, the best way to publish is to replicate what the traditional publishers do – with a few improvements.

I’m assuming you’ve got a final draft of your book. (This means a book that has undergone all four stages of editing – see my Editing Your Book post.) I’m also assuming you have a full wrap-around cover for your book (see my other post, Getting an Awesome Cover Design). In addition, you need your back-of-book blurb, your ‘back matter’ and your ‘front matter’.

Your ‘blurb’ is what goes on the back of the book. It’s also the text that gets used on all the online retail sites like Amazon. It needs to entice people to crack open your book – that’s all. It’s a taster. A teaser. Don’t try and summarise everything that happens in your book. It’s totally fine to leave lots out. In fact, all you really need to do is identify the premise of the book, give a flavour of the theme and/or style, and leave readers gagging for more. As I say in my video, self-publishing is not about doing everything yourself. You’ll get a much better result if you collaborate with others along the way. This goes for cover design, editing and everything else, including blurb-writing. Get a friend to help – preferably someone who works in marketing, because that’s what this is.

03 - Publishing pic

The ‘front matter’ consists of all those pages you see at the front of a book before the narrative begins. Use your powers of observation; see what these pages look like in other books you have at home, or in the shop. The same goes for ‘back matter’. A quick tip here – and this is something that many publishers don’t think to do: Make sure the first thing your reader sees when he/she gets to the end of the book is a list of any other books you’ve written (or you’re writing) and a website link for them to register their interest. This way, you’ll catch them when they’re dying to read more of your stuff. If they drop their email address into your website, you’ll be able to alert them when your next book comes out. This is very important!

If you’re planning a paperback edition, you need to get your pages typeset. I don’t recommend doing this yourself, but if you’ve got the skills and software, go ahead. Otherwise, a typesetter will set you back about £100 for a full-length novel. (There are a few here, or the Alliance of Independent Authors lists a number of vetted professionals.) You might want to use a publishing house for this, as well as the printing and distribution. I use Matador, but there are a number of options. The DIY route involves uploading straight to Amazon using their print-on-demand Createspace offering, which is pretty much free and (if you tick the box) can offer distribution to all online retailers, not just Amazon.

Everyone should have an ebook. The only exceptions might be coffee table photographic books or those with lots of visuals, but for books that are mainly words, you need an ebook!

Making an ebook is just a question of converting the file you used to write the book – usually Word or similar – into a new format. There are various software programmes out there to do this, such as Calibre, or you could pay someone to do it for you. Beware: Many companies will charge up-front and then charge you more to correct any formatting errors that will inevitably have crept into the first conversion. Doing it yourself is free and allows you to convert as many times as you like, until it’s perfect – and it must be perfect! Check it a hundred times. Get ebook-reading friends to check it too. There’s bound to be a random blank page in there somewhere, or strange spacing between words. These things happen.

Your choice of publishing partner(s) and formats will depend on your book, your likely readers, your budget and your aptitude for doing things yourself. These days, it’s possible to do this stage for almost zero up-front cost, which is great because it means you can invest your money in the things that really matter: editing and cover design.

So, that’s how to get your book on the shelves. Next time, I’ll be talking about getting your book flying off the shelves in my post on Getting Press Coverage.

 

You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.

Part 2 of Polly’s ‘Self Publishing Professionally’ series: Getting an Awesome Cover Design

First off, a confession: I didn’t do this for my first novel.

Bizarrely, it hit number 2 on Amazon anyway, due to various pieces of press coverage (which I’ll talk about in my Getting Press Coverage post), but I can’t help wondering whether it might have made it to the top-spot if I’d known then what I know now about cover design.

As I say in my video, authors should not design their own book covers. There are no exceptions. Even if you’re a designer by trade, you should get a fresh pair of eyes on the project – a designer friend, perhaps – if you can’t afford the £500-£1,000 it’ll cost you to get a professional to design the full wrap-around cover and thumbnail.

A word of warning up front: If you’re calling in favours from a friend who knows a bit about design, make sure he or she understands book cover design. There are a whole load of book-specific rules around fonts, layout, margins, kerning and other mysterious things that I’m not going to talk about here, which your designer should live and breathe so that you don’t have to. (You’re heading up the publishing house, remember – not doing everything inside it!)

02 - Cover Design pic

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to collaborate with a book cover designer. So… where will you find such a person? Well, one way is to wander round your nearest book store (or Amazon, if you prefer things virtual) and pick out a few designs you like the look of. Turn the book over (or click to expand the thumbnail) and you’ll see the name and/or website of the designer, somewhere near the barcode. Beware: Some designers won’t take on independent commissions and some might be out of your price range, but if you dig around, you should find someone suitable.

Alternatively, there are lots of marketplace websites, this being one of them, which aim to match authors with service providers such as cover designers. Make sure you get genuine testimonials from previous clients and of course, only go with a designer who has worked on books of a similar style or genre. If someone has spent their life designing sci-fi novel jackets, it’s unlikely to be a good match for a romance writer.

Getting the right designer is the hardest and most important part. Once you’ve done this, you need to get him or her to understand your book and the vision you have for it. In an ideal world, your designer would read the book, but at the very least, sit down and talk it through. Show him or her any examples of books in a similar style and share any thoughts you have on colours, themes, fonts etc. Don’t be too prescriptive. The designer should have the freedom to come up with ideas!

As you’ll see in the video, coming up with the perfect design is an iterative process. You will hopefully start with a few different options, then narrow it down to one core concept, which you can collaboratively hone until you have the perfect layout, colours, fonts, spacing and so on. One of the great things about self-publishing is that you can liaise directly with your designer, rather than being at the mercy of a committee of marketers, editors and other people who haven’t read your book.

Test out your concepts! This is a great way of getting potential readers to engage with your project ahead of publication. I often put the shortlist up on my Facebook page for fans to compare. You’d be amazed at how differently people perceive the designs and you might find that the artwork is giving off entirely the wrong vibes. It’s better to learn this now than when the Amazon reviewers are complaining about being misled.

As I say in my video, it’s only when you have the perfect front cover (which needs to work as a small thumbnail as well as at scale) that your designer will work on the full wrap-around cover. For this, you’ll need your back-of-book ‘blurb’, which I’ll talk about in my next post, Publishing Your Book.  In reality, you’ll probably do all these things simultaneously, working with your editor(s) to produce your final draft, collaborating with your designer to get the perfect cover, agreeing on your publishing and distribution while planning your marketing. It’s not as arduous as it sounds – promise! Next time I’ll be talking about the mechanics of publishing, i.e. getting your book on the shelves, both physical and virtual. Until then… good luck!

 

You can read all 6 parts of Polly’s #DoingItBetter series on Self-Publishing here, or here’s the link to the video playlist only.