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Essential writing tools

Not so long ago, the answer would have been simple: all a writer needed was a good stout notebook and an Underwood typewriter. But now, where would we be without our laptops and smartphones, our iPads and internet-anywhere? Surely you can’t put words together in a coherent and entertaining manner without all these essential tools of the trade?

That’s bollocks, of course. Give a decent writer a pen and a cleanish surface and he or she would be able to do their job. But there are lots of tools nowadays that can make the job easier. And if it’s easier, hopefully it means we’re freed up to concentrate on writing better.

So for me, in no particular order, these are the tools that I could certainly live without, but would really rather not.

  1. Dropbox
    I do like this. Working on my main writing laptop, I save a file and instantly it’s saved to the cloud via Dropbox: instant back-up, instant availability from anywhere on the internet (as long as you have the account details). Switch to a different machine, say my day-job office PC one lunchbreak, and I can open up that file, work on it, and save it back to the cloud. I can open the file via the Dropbox app on my smartphone and see the latest version. Screw up, and Dropbox saves older versions I can revert to. No one should rely on a single back-up solution, but the Dropbox cloud makes backing up easy and instantaneous. They even give you plenty of space free to start with, and you can share folders with others. My only reservations are: security concerns (are my files really safe out there?); and the way Dropbox can sometimes chew up CPU resources when it’s running in the background, so much so that Windows Explorer becomes unusable and I have to close Dropbox down to allow me to work again.
  2. TextPad
    I use Word for my writing. I’ve used it for years, I know how to make it do what I want, and so I have no reason to change. A lot of my work involves writing HTML and other code for websites and ebook production, though, and Word just isn’t the best tool for this. There are lots of programs out there you can use, but I always come back to TextPad: a nice, clean text editor that makes it easy for me to streamline the often laborious process of, for example, stripping out all the junk-code Word generates when it saves an HTML file.
  3. Dedicated writing software
    I’ve dabbled, but I’m not really one for tools like Scrivener or Ywrite: story-writing programs developed specifically to suit the way writers work, incorporating story-planning, note-management, etc, into the more basic act of processing lots of words. As I say, I use Word and am happy that it does what I need, but I’m still open to the possibility that these specialist tools may offer a better way; I know a lot of successful authors who swear by them, and that’s enough to convince me of these tools’ merits.
  4. My netbook
    Mobile computing has made such a difference to my writing life. I have a pretty demanding day job, and often find that I have to fit my writing into odd slivers of time, and I need to take every opportunity I can. Only a couple of days ago, I found myself stuck in a motorway traffic jam for three hours, with the road completely blocked. While our driver took the chance to catch up on some sleep, I whipped my netbook out and worked on a story. Laptops are great, but a netbook is so much more transportable, and so I’m much more likely to have one with me when I’m out and about. Others might prefer a tablet like the iPad, but I’m happy with my netbook for now.
  5. iPhone
    Until a year ago, I kept all my notes in a hardback Moleskine notebook and I loved it. It made me feel like a real writer. But when I got my iPhone all that changed. Without planning to, I realised that I had stopped using the notebooks; instead I used the memo feature on my phone. It’s so handy. Now I have several memo files on the go at once: a to do list, notes for stories I’m working on, a general ideas file. When the memos get a bit long and I start to get paranoid about what would happen to them if I lost my phone, I can mail them to myself with the press of a button. It’s more than just a replacement notebook, though. With all my writing, editing and publishing activities I always have lots of projects on the go at any one time. I hate to be a slave to my email, but it’s great to be able to stay in touch with people when I’m on the road – literally, as I was in that traffic jam the other night!
  6. Social media: keeping in touch
    Not so long ago, writing was a solitary activity: we authors shut ourselves away for hours on end and might not talk to another human being for the entire working day. Now? Now I’m on Twitter and Facebook, I’m checking my email, I’m chatting to people on Messenger. It can be a tremendous distraction, of course, but it can also be hugely energising and inspiring. Writing now is a community activity: we may still shut ourselves away to write, but whenever we want a water-cooler moment we can switch to see who’s online and, blimey, interact.
  7. The wired world
    Near-constant broadband connectivity has hugely transformed how I work. Until a few years ago, even the shortest first draft would generate a scrawled list of research notes; much as I might research before embarking on that draft, there would always be gaps emerging as I wrote, blanks in the manuscript that I would need to fill in later with some detail, queries scribbled in the margins, facts to check. Now? Every time I hit one of those points I just switch to a web browser and Google it. Increasingly, you see authors tweeting requests for help when they hit these sticking points. Yes, it interrupts the flow, but for me, getting things right at that stage makes a big difference in the way I write: if the world is more vivid, less filled with gaps and queries, as I write, then I believe that it comes across as a richer, more fully-formed world to the reader, too.
  8. Kindles and other e-readers
    Perhaps not a writing tool, as such, but still a significant part of my armoury. I first came to e-readers when I was establishing infinity plus ebooks: I recognised the growing market and taught myself what I needed to know in order to start exploring it. And then I was given a Kindle. It completely changed my reading habits. I can take my Kindle on a trip and have access to any book I want – if I don’t have it with me, I can read the same ebook on my phone and it’ll synch with my Kindle so I never lose my place. When I’m reviewing, I greatly prefer to get a Kindle format book, so I can make notes in the text as I go along. I can even convert a story draft to Kindle format and read, and annotate, it on the go. Indeed, perhaps the boom in ebooks is starting to change my approach to writing, too. E-readers encourage people to dip into a book… and then out again. They encourage people to sample for free before they buy. Now, it’s even more important to hook readers, and keep them hooked. But equally, there are opportunities to write different kinds of books: a single short story can be packaged as a cheap ebook; story collections become viable, or shorter bundles of three or four stories; novellas and short novels have a revived market again; and there’s scope to experiment, as I’m doing with a kind of near-future, mosaic-structured, short novel I’m working on in between projects. So yes, my Kindle is part of the toolkit, and I’m still learning new ways to use it.
  9. A changed attitude
    Okay, maybe we’re straying away from actual tools here, but give me a chance. What I mean by including this is the way my whole approach to the publishing business has changed in recent years. Twenty years ago, when I was setting out, authors wrote, and only a small proportion actually treated their work as a business. Now, it’s a rare writer who doesn’t get involved in every aspect of publishing. Whether we’re published by the major commercial publishers or self-publishing – or far more typically, working with a complete portfolio of publishing modes within that spectrum – authors should be involved in marketing, promoting, designing and brand-building, as well as actually committing words to paper. That might sound brash and unartistic to many, and put like that, it does to me, too: but look around at your favourite authors – how many aren’t tweeting, Facebooking, publishing in a variety of ways, etc? You don’t look down on them for doing so: that’s how it is to be a writer in the early 21st century. And it’s exhilarating, and fun, and endlessly fascinating to be a part of. I’m writing some of my best fiction these days, and at least partly I put that down to the new energy that’s around in publishing now. So yes, attitude is a tool.

That’s my list. Have I missed anything off? Tools that work for other writers? I’d love to hear what works and doesn’t work for you. My essential toolkit today is very different to the one I would have listed even five years ago. In five years’ time it’ll be different again, because I’ll be learning from everyone else and adapting as the environment changes. And hopefully I’ll still be writing my best work, just as I am now.


10k at Amazon, and still shifting: One Step Closer

I’ve written here before about experiments with ebook pricing and marketing, but some time last night we hit a landmark with one of our experiments at infinity plus.

Back in March we published Iain Rowan’s first collection, a set of crime stories called Nowhere To Go which included his Derringer Award-winning story “One Step Closer”. The collection received some excellent reviews and blog coverage and performed reasonably at Amazon and our other distributors, but Iain and I wanted to give it a boost and so we discussed various options.

We decided to take that Derringer winner and produce it as a standalone ebook, priced initially at 99 cents but with a view to persuading Amazon to drop the price to zero. At those prices there’s a very different audience: casual browsers making impulse buys/downloads, readers who may like the look of something but not want to buy the complete book, readers looking for a quick lunchtime read, and so on.

What we didn’t know was how much crossover there would be. Would a reader with a liking for scraping up the freebies also be the kind of reader who would spend $2.99 on a book by the same author if they liked the free offering? Would there even be that kind of author-recognition once the quick read has been read and put aside?

One Step Closer went free at Amazon in September, and very quickly overtook our other free offering, the infinities anthology (which, itself, had been a big success, hitting number two in the free anthology charts in the US, and holding the number one slot in the equivalent chart in the UK for several weeks, a position it still holds).

To be honest, I don’t really understand why Iain’s short story has been such a big success. It’s a fine story, of course, and being an award-winner must help establish its credentials for anyone unfamiliar with Iain’s work. It has a great cover and is nicely put together. Iain has a strong social media presence, and has worked hard at promoting his various books. There must be lots of elements of good fortune involved, too, and a key thing is that success can be self-perpetuating: once a story hits number one, it becomes far more visible, which keeps the success going.

Whatever the reasons, some time last night Iain’s short story hit the landmark of 10,000 downloads through Amazon. It’s occupied the number one free story download slot in the UK for several weeks, and for that period has been a fixture in the top 20 free downloads of any kind at Amazon UK, against some tough competition.

What remains to be seen, though, is just how this translates into commercial success. What we do know is that more than 10,000 readers have liked the look of the book enough to download it. Some of those will have read it already; some will read it over the coming months; others will lose it among all the other freebies they’ve downloaded.

Of those who read it, some – a large proportion, I reckon – will like it a lot, because it’s a hell of a story. But how many of these will immediately follow up by clicking on a link to Amazon to find Iain’s other work? How many will intend to do that, but because they didn’t do it immediately, will become increasingly unlikely to follow through? How many will remember Iain’s name next time they’re browsing and so click on a link to his other books?

It’s incredibly hard to answer these questions, as it’s just not possible to track purchasing decisions back to their origins. Amazon gives us good reporting, but not that good!

After success like this, though, I’m certainly looking forward to trying to make sense of it all over the coming weeks and months!


Queen Bee: an experiment in cheap, short SF

Queen Bee - short science fiction by Keith Brooke

Continuing my exploration of electronic publishing, first started almost exactly 14 years ago with the online genre fiction showcase infinity plus, I’ve brought out one of my short stories as a standalone ebook.

Will people buy it? Priced at 99 cents, short stories have been successful for some e-published authors: tapping into the market of impulse buyers, people looking for a quick lunchtime read, and those looking to discover new (to them) writers.

I’m not expecting to retire on the proceeds, but what I am hoping to do, with this and other ventures, is try to find ways that writers can find their best audiences. It’s clear that there are a lot of people buying ebooks; what’s missing, or not yet complete, is the way of matching them up with the best writers. I’d hasten to add that I’m not making great claims for myself here: this is about exploring market mechanisms and seeing what’s emerging. It’s what I’ve been doing for 14 years, at least.

Anyhow… here’s the blurb:

Domed cities; a lost lover; alien lifeforms whose biochemical excretions might kill you or worse…

Colvin Stark must battle deadly jungle and primitive settlers to find his fleeing lover, and his destiny. Traditional science fiction with a contemporary spin, Queen Bee showcases the short fiction talent of an author described by Locus as belonging in “the recognized front ranks of SF writers”.

Available from:

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Smashwords


Seven things you can do to help the reader

Back in April I wrote about seven things readers can do to help favourite authors. But it goes both ways, you know. The online world makes interaction between readers and authors ever more frequent, more immediate, and often more intense. An arrogant, unappreciative author can do a lot of damage. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing: who likes arrogant, unappreciative people anyway? If the online world outs them, then that’s fine by me.

But it’s still useful for an author to pull him or herself up short occasionally, to make sure we’re not taking our position for granted. It’s easy to get lazy, easy to get carried away with the knee-jerk response, or the delete key.

Here are some of the things authors should consider. It’s all about being professional. It’s all about being appreciative. It’s all about being nice.

  1. Pricing
    If you’re with a big commercial publisher, you have little say in the price that appears on the cover of your books. Increasingly though, authors do have control over the pricing of at least some of their work. Readers… readers are smart enough to know that it’s far cheaper to produce an ebook than a print edition; and that it’s far cheaper to produce a print-on-demand edition than a nationally-distributed and marketed mass market edition. Don’t take the piss. Don’t reason that if someone’s willing to pay £9.99 for a trade paperback it’s reasonable to charge that for your Kindle edition. It’s not. Even if your fans buy it, they’ll resent it. They’ll resent you. That’s not a good way to maintain your beautiful relationship.
  2. Engage, respond
    It almost goes without saying these days, whether you have a mighty commercial publisher behind you or you’re doing it yourself, that as an author you need to be online. You need to blog. You need to Facebook. You need to tweet and get Linkedin and Google-plus yourself left, right and centre. So we do. And some of us SHOUT. When someone follows us on Twitter we have an automated response set to send a ‘personal’ message to the new follower, asking them to buy our latest book. Just to be sure, we tweet about that book every day or more. We Facebook about it. We blog about it. And about nothing else. Writer as Jehovah’s Witness just doesn’t work. I don’t want you knocking on my door to flog your latest book. Several times a day. As a reader I love being acquainted with writers online; I really am a fanboy sometimes. And I like to know what a writer is working on, and what is available to buy. But I want more than that: I want to engage. I want to get to know the writer and his or her preoccupations. I love to get a response to my own tweets and comments and emails. Being nice and considerate is far better marketing than marketing. And it’s fun too: it’s so much more rewarding for a writer to have genuine interaction with readers than just to shout at them all the time.
  3. Give it away, go on
    Back when I started out in ebook publishing, the lovely Steve Savile pointed out to me that for all the genre readers who know an author’s name, there are thousands who don’t. It’s galling, but true: most people don’t have a clue who I am, and why they should give me time of day. There are lots of ways to reach these people, and one is to give stuff away for free. This was the principle on which I founded the online genre fiction showcase infinity plus way back in 1997: a bunch of authors getting together to put fiction online for free, to draw new readers in and share them around. If someone doesn’t recognise my name, why not make stories available for free? At infinity plus ebooks we published a free anthology of fiction from our authors and friends in the hope that it would draw in new readers who might want to buy our books. It also rewards people who do know our work. For the last week or two it’s been in the top three most popular free anthologies at Amazon, finding a huge audience. Freebies are good. We all benefit.
  4. Don’t ever cruise
    I remember years ago reading an interview with an author in a small press magazine, where he said that he was assured of selling everything he wrote to small press magazines and so he was happy. He never made it to the big presses, and even though he was prolific, within a year or two he vanished. Complacency murders creativity. It’s every writer’s duty not to take the easy route: never cruise. Readers won’t hate you for it. They just won’t care.
  5. Attention to detail
    If your tweets are sloppy and ungrammatical, if your blog postings are rough first drafts, that says a lot. Some people won’t care. But remember: most of the people out there really don’t have a clue who you are. Who would bother to spend $2.99 or more on a book by someone who can’t even be botherd to proof-read? Sloppiness undermines your reputation. And nowadays, when – in addition to commercial publishing – most authors will be self-publishing or publishing through cooperatives and small presses, there are even fewer quality controls in place: pay attention to the detail. Get it right. Show you care. Or readers will assume you don’t.
  6. Pay it forward
    Communities build up around writers and writing. A lot of fans are aspiring writers. Some of them will make it. Back in 1989 when I went to my first science-fiction convention, the sorely-missed and total sweetie Rob Holdstock spent the weekend introducing me to people in the business and getting me set up with an agent because he knew that I was about to get offers from two publishers for my work. I ran infinity plus for ten years, and some of my most powerful memories of that time are the comments from writers who have appreciated the fact that I backed them and promoted their work. For me it was simple: if I loved a writer’s work I did my utmost to find an audience for it. Just like Rob did with me, back in ’89. Lots of people are surprised about how supportive writers can be to each other: it’s a competitive world, after all. But kindness repays kindness. Whether the people a writer meets at a con are fellow writers or readers, everyone benefits if we just gave a toss. I choose to give a toss.
  7. Boredom shows
    If a writer gets bored with what they’re doing it shows. Really. Publishers don’t help with this. If a book does well they tend to encourage the author to write something Very Much Like It. Again and again. Writers, even the very best of writers, will do this. They need to make a living. They know that if they compromise just a little, the publisher will probably take the book they really want to write too. And most writers finish a novel knowing just what happens next to their characters. It’s easy to return, easy to pick up the story. Which is all absolutely fine, unless it really does bore you. Most readers won’t hate a writer for doing this. They’ll be grateful for a return to a loved setting, to loved characters. They’ll rush to buy it and that book will be a success too. But even as this happens, most readers will be just a little disappointed; it wasn’t as good as the original. It wasn’t bad, as such. But when the next one comes out, fewer will rush to it. A bored writer doesn’t piss many readers off; she or he just bores them a little. Is that how you want your career to end?

In the increasingly devolved world of publishing, where everyone can be a publisher and everyone can be an author, everyone can also be an unappreciative, arrogant twat. I like my readers. I like that they appreciate what I do and that some of them are interested in engaging with me. So if I get it wrong any time it’s not deliberate: let me know. I’ll be sure to reply! I really hope I can avoid the seven sins outlined above, but I’m sure there are more. If so, tell me. Engage with me. And I’ll try to be nice.


Hold the front page: Eric Brown featured on Amazon UK’s Kindle home page

Angels of Life and Death on the Amazon UK Kindle home page

Angels of Life and Death on the Amazon UK Kindle home page, July 2011

Nice to see Eric Brown’s excellent collection of short stories Angels of Life and Death included in the selection of featured titles displayed on Amazon UK’s Kindle ebooks home page. This has been our best-selling title, and getting this kind of presence on Amazon’s site is yet another indication that our books are having an impact.

Recently, while I’ve been working on my current novel, I’ve stepped back from a lot of the active marketing for infinity plus ebooks. Partly this was to let me concentrate on the novel, and partly an experiment to see what impact shouting – and not shouting – about our books has. Sales have definitely eased off during this period, and I think this confirms for me that it’s all very well producing high-quality books, but  the big challenge is to make readers aware that they exist. Hopefully this kind of thing will pick up momentum, band one part of this that’s especially rewarding to see is where our readers help to spread the word too, with retweets, reviews, blog posts and so on. We’re already seeing reviews build up on Amazon and Smashwords for books like Iain Rowan’s Nowhere To Go, and hopefully this is a sign that we’re continuing to steadily build.

In the next couple of months we have another batch of ebooks to release, including our first non-fiction title. More on these soon.

But in the mean time, thanks for helping us to get established and grow. It’s great to see what progress we’ve made.


Alt.Fiction 2011

Just a quick note to say what a lovely time I had at Alt.Fiction over the weekend. Many thanks to Alex and the team for organising such a slick, content-packed event.

I took part in a panel on YA fiction, moderated a panel on the writer’s life, and did a reading with Guest of Honour Alastair Reynolds, which turned into a very relaxed chat. As ever with these things, what really makes them for me is the chance to catch up with people, and this was no exception: a wonderful mix of old friends, ‘net contacts I’ve never, or rarely, met, and new friends. The weekend was spent in the excellent company of the 1966 boys (Al Reynolds, Tony Ballantyne, Ian Sales), Roy Gray, Conrad Williams, Stephen Volk, Ian Whates, Kim and Del Lakin-Smith, and many more.

Another of the really good things about these events is the confidence boost. I went there having had a fairly shitty time in the day job, and I didn’t realise it but my confidence was shot to pieces. The thought of standing up and “performing” in front of an audience was pretty damned daunting; even the thought of all the meeting people was pretty challenging, when I could so easily just have stayed at home and concentrated on my novel; when I’m low it’s so much easier to retreat into my antisocial shell. But did I mention how nice everyone was and what a good crowd was there? I came away with a healthy boost of confidence and renewed enthusiasm for writing, raring to get back to work on the novel and all the other projects buzzing around in my head.

That panel on the writing life? I think the consensus was that the writer’s life is actually a lot tougher than most people credit, but when it comes down to it, a writer’s life is good, and none of us would want anything else. That was certainly my conclusion!


Top 100s

Well, that’s quite a landmark:  every single infinity plus ebook – that’s all 16 titles – is in at least one Amazon UK top 100 chart!top one hundred Amazon bestsellers

Now anyone involved in ebook publishing knows that Amazon’s charts can be a bit fickle. Sometimes all it takes is a handful of sales at the right time to boost a book into one of the many top tens. But still… For all of our titles to be up there is really quite something. What’s more striking is that many of these top hundreds are for all books in a category – they’re not just ebook charts.

In a very short space of time at infinity plus we’ve built up an impressive list of authors, and some fantastic books. Authors include top science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime writers such as World Fantasy and Hugo Award winner John Grant, British SF Award winners Eric Brown and Garry Kilworth (also a World Fantasy Award winner), and more.

One possible reason for the current surge in sales could be Paul Cockburn’s fantastic review of a number of our titles in the current Interzone, the UK’s longest-running and multiple award-winning SF magazine. Having said that, it’s always hard to make the connection between a particular piece of publicity and sales, as there’s usually a time lag, particularly as people will often download samples rather than immediately buying an ebook.

Whatever the reason, it’s good to see our authors being rewarded by chart success in this way: it’s a fine set of books, and I’m hugely proud to have been involved in getting them out to their audiences.

You can find out more about our range of titles at http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/books.


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