Author Archives: David Penny

Going Wide – Draft2Digital

I was going to leave Draft2Digital to last in this series of examples of how to use various platforms to take your books wide but then decided it should in fact be placed at the start. This does not indicate it is the best platform, but rather that it is a great catch-all solution.

WARNING: I have tried to keep this as simple as I can, and Draft2Digital is pretty straightforward, but be aware that this blog post contains references to websites, URLs and Metadata, as well as asides on eBook formatting and other esoteric matters. If you’re uneasy with any of that I’d suggest something good on Netflix and a nice Amarone.

Draft2Digital provides a clean, simple to use interface and allows you to select which platforms you want to upload your eBook to. If you want a really easy life you can select every platform – possibly other than Amazon, but you could if you wanted to include that as well. If you do this, however, you preclude the use of some platform marketing opportunities, and also reduce your royalty rate from the “native” percentage going direct might offer. Draft2Digital takes 10% of the royalty paid for your book – in effect reducing your net royalty by 15%. This might sounds steep, but considering what they offer I would say it’s worthwhile for some authors who don’t want the hassle of uploading to different platforms.

ASIDE: Want to try it? I’ve uploaded to four separate distributors as I write this series of posts about going wide. I’m a pretty techy kind of guy, having worked in IT as a programmer and manager for 35 years. It has taken me four full days to get all my shit stuff together and upload 11 titles. And each time there is a new one I’ll need to add that in as well. In each of these posts I’ll offer a time range to upload from expert to novice.

Before I dive in I want to point out that there are a number of alternative aggregators that might suit your needs better. You can find a section for these at the end of this post. Each of these posts will consist of standard sections to make it easier for you to make a comparison. I’ll also include a Pros and Cons at the end.

CREATING AN ACCOUNT

Draft2Digital makes this really simple, as do most of the others. Click on the Sign Up button and you are asked your first and second name, pen name if you use one, email address, password (twice) and whether you want to sign up for their marketing newsletter. Once you sign up approval is almost instantaneous.

HOUSEKEEPING

On some platforms you have all kinds of barriers before you can sell your books (and yes, Apple, I’m looking hard in your direction). Some of these will include bank details, Tax information and so on. Draft2Digital makes this as simple as or simpler than pretty much any other platform. In particular, you can receive payments direct into your Paypal account, which could not be easier.

ADDING AND UPDATING BOOKS

Time to upload one book: 10 – 40 minutes
Unlike some other platforms Draft2Digital defaults to a simple page with, at the top, a great big button that says Add New Book. Go on, click on it, I know you want to. The screen you get when you do is shown below.

Adding your book title and front cover art

Pretty much everything you need to set is here. Title, Series, Optional Series number, search terms etc. A nice feature that not all platforms provide is it remembers the Series names so you only have to spell them right once.

The BISAC categories are simple enough to use, even easier if you make a note of your category references in advance – which sounds like a lot of fuss, but it’s fuss you only have to do once, bearing in mind every platform requires these.

The next stage is to upload your book content and blurb for display on sales sites. Click on the Start eBook button to go to the next screen

UPLOAD YOUR BOOK AND BLURB

Draft2Digital is one of the easiest and most flexible platforms for uploading your book. If you have a Word document upload that. An ePub or Mobi, go with that. In addition, if you upload the Word doc it creates both ePub and Mobi file for you and allows you to download them so you can use these on other platforms. It is also able to produce a print ready interior for you, but I have not tested that as Vellum already does a great job for me with that.

Browse for your source document and upload it.

Go to your already saved Blurb and copy and paste it in here. No – don’t even think about making it up here and now. You need to spend, in my opinion, several days honing your blurb. My excuse for the one below is I made it up on the spot. Oops. You know … do as I say … Normally I work on my blurb as I’m writing the book, tweaking, honing. In this instance I didn’t do that. So double oops.

Uploading book interior and blurb

If you have your own ISBNs – and if you’re serious about your writing business you should have – enter it here. Otherwise you can choose a free ISBN. If you do, bear in mind it will show Draft2Digital as the publisher of record. This might be an issue, it might not. Personally, I like my ISBN to be linked with my publishing imprint.

Click on Save and the system will check your upload file. If it finds anything wrong it will tell you. I’ve never had that happen, but I know it can and does.

LAYOUT

The next page shows you where you can modify the layout of your eBook. If you have uploaded an ePub already you will generally skip this. If you have uploaded a Word document you might want to tweak the settings here a bit.

Adjusting the layout of your interior – optional

Because I use Vellum my other books get compiled into my Also By section for me. Interestingly, Draft2Digital let you replace that section with their own. While I don’t do that, if you have uploaded a file produced from somewhere else you should let Draft2Digital create this section for you. It will provide links to each platform. This means the Apple version will link to Apple books, the Amazon one to Amazon books etc.

You can now move on to preview your content.

EBOOK PREVIEW

The next screen doesn’t actually preview your eBook, but it does allow you to download a copy in either .mobi and /epub format. Do it. Doesn’t matter which, but do it. Never, ever assume your upload file was perfect. One thing I’ve noticed is that some eBook distributors are great at showing what your book is going to look like while others don’t even show it you (yes, Apple, what’s that all about?). Draft2Digital is somewhere in between in that it wants you to download a copy to preview it before confirming is all right.

Accepting the eBook interior and format

When you’re happy with the book you can move on to layout and pricing. Please don’t ever skip on downloading and checking the files. Never assume what you uploadeded will look the same as you think. Always, always check.

When you are happy click on Approve and go to the next screen, where you select which Digital Stores you want to distribute to. If you are the ultimate non-techy person and don’t want anything to do with uploading anywhere else you can turn all of these options on. If you have even a small desire to earn an extra percentage on some sales I recommend you turn off Kindle, Apple, Kobo and Barnes and Noble. If you turn off Kobo check that Overdrive is also unchecked, as you get slightly better terms going to that directly through Kobo.

All right, nearly done. The final step is to set your price and submit the book for distribution.

PRICING AND PLATFORMS

There is a field at the top where you can enter your price in USD ($).

Pricing your book

Theoretically you don’t have to do anything else, but I strongly advise you click on the Manage Territorial Pricing button. At the bare minimum I would enter GBP (£) and EUR prices. This will cover your main marketplaces, but you can assign a price to any of the territories shown. This is a bit more complicated, but just wait until we get to … yes, you’ve guessed it, Apple Books.

In this instance you click into the box beside the territory you want to change a price for and overtype what is already there. Personally all my prices end in .99. It simply looks more professional.

Setting a price for other territories

Because Draft2Digital is an aggregator the lower portion of this screen shows you which platforms you can distribute to and what price you want to set on your book. In this section, as well as selecting direct sales channels you can also choose library services as well. If you do want to go to libraries, just note that if you intend to publish direct to Kobo do not select the Overdrive option here.When you’re satisfied you’re all done just click on Apply Territories.

SUBMIT YOUR BOOK

The final stage is to submit your book for publishing. You can come back at any time in the future and change anything you have entered.

How long does it take for your book to go live?

As you’ll discover when we come to the other platforms, uploading the book doesn’t mean someone can buy it immediately. Amazon KDP can take up to 72 hours, but generally much less. The other platforms depend. I reached out to Draft2Digital support and they got back to me within an hour with this response”

“Thanks for reaching out to us with your questions. Most vendors will have the book listed within 1-3 business days, vendors like Scribd and 24 Symbols can take 6-8 days to list, libraries take the longest to list usually taking 10-14 days.”

With Draft2Digital you’ll find the title published to each store at different times. For me Tolino – the German eBook provider – always publishes first. Some take an age, others not so long. You can’t hurry anyone up so be prepared to see your book appear over some time on various sites.

UNIVERSAL BOOK LINKS

At this point you think you might be done, but one thing Draft2Digital provides is a real game changer, and a fabulous feature. Once your book appears in your books list click on the cover and you can see most of the details. The one you want is Promotion, so click on this.

Ignore the next screen and find the button that says Edit this UBL.

UBL stands for Universal Book Link, and gives you the following screen.

Creating Universal Links

One really great feature of this screen is that when you click on Rescan for Links it goes away and searches for your book on all the platforms, whether you have selected them for distribution through Draft2Digital or not. On the screen above you can see it has found where the book is already for sale on Apple, B&N and Kobo. For some reason it objected to KDP, but all I did then was paste in the eBook ASIN and it found it the next time I asked it to scan.

You can also use a custom URL for this link. Personally, I do this, but there is no reason to as the one provided works just fine.

So – what do you get with this? Well, a link to a page you can provide to your prospective readers where they can select whichever platform they read on.

The Universal Book Link page

Even better, once they’ve done this once the screen will default to that platform the next time they go there. Great, or what?

SUMMARY

Draft2Digital is a great way for any Indie author to get their books onto a wide range of sales channels.

PROS

It has one of the simplest interfaces you are ever going to encounter
The Universal Book Links feature is fabulous.
The interface and set up is one of the easiest you will ever come across.
The support is very good, and I know from having met the main players heading the company that they are great people. They also write books.

CONS

You earn a slightly reduced royalty over going direct. Depending on how much work you want to do this might be worth it to you.
To some extent you are the mercy of Draft2Digital and their negotiating power over what new platforms get included.

OTHER AGGREGATORS

The following is a list of other aggregators. I have not used any of them, but know people who have and in general they all have a good reputation. This is by no means a comprehensive list but does cover the biggest players, and also some you may not know about which offer a slightly different range of marketplaces and offering.

Smashwords is the venerable old man in the room, and is still a good distributor, but its interface has not been updated since I first used in back in 2011. It works, but is quirky.

Bookbaby  is another option, but there is a fee to set your account up of $99. After that uploading and distribution is free.

Streetlib is another aggregator that charges a fee. I interviewed the CEO Giacomo D’Angelo several years ago for a post I did from Hamburg Book Fair on behalf of the Alliance of Independent Authors. They were a fairly new company then but have grown significantly since, which is always a good sign. If you want to publish to some of the more esoteric European marketplaces, particularly if you don’t write in English, then these might be a good choice.

Publishdrive is a relatively new aggregator but has a good reputation. I believe, but am not sure, that they also charge a setup or subscription fee.

Going Wide – Getting your ducks in a row

Gratuitous cute picture of ducklings – some almost in a row

I was going to start today by showing you how to upload to arguably the more important distributer, Kobo Writing Life (the other big one being Apple Books, at the moment, but who knows?) Instead, I need to cover a bit of housework first. When uploading several books you really need to gather all the assets you need into one central location.

ASIDE: Let’s be frank here, if you have only one, or maybe two books, I recommend you stay in KDP and KDP Select until you have more. If you write stand-alone books you might also be better staying in KDP Select. If you write a series and have a minimum of three books ready to go then wide might work. Give me six or nine months and I hope to have have a more prescriptive answer to give you.

So I have eight books and counting in my Thomas Berrington Historical Mystery Series, as well as two bundles, soon to be three. It may not sound a lot but each of the platforms you are going to upload to want to know a lot of information which, if it’s not all gathered together, can be a pain to find, if you can even find it.

Some of the things, in only a semi-rational order because each platform asks them at different points are:

    • Author name – nothing worse than having a series of pen names and then forgetting who you are
    • Title (duh)
    • Series Title – and if the platform doesn’t remember it (I’m looking at you, Apple Books) make sure you always get the spelling right
    • Date of original publication. This is a pain, but fortunately KDP or any other distributor will have it shown on the dashboard
    • EBook ISBN
    • Print ISBN
    • Audio ISBN (none of them asked for it, but it’s worth including anyway)
    • Blurb (back cover copy)
    • Search Terms
    • EBook (and potentially print) cover
    • EBook (and potentially print) interior

 

When I started to upload I discovered I had each these assets but they were scattered all over the place. I have a spreadsheet with all my ISBNs in and what book I used them on. I have blurbs but not held centrally. You get the picture. It’s a pain in the rear finding all this stuff, and then doing it all over again for the next book and the next.

So – I use Scrivener and love it (if you want to argue then this is not the place). It lets me hold all the assets I need in a section I call Metadata. It doesn’t look pretty, but it works. If you use something else then I suggest you open a Word document, or any other text document, or a spreadsheet, and gather everything you need together for each book.

I also suggest, and this even more strongly, is that you organise your folder structure to keep everything logical. Mine is all held on a local Dropbox folder that synchs immediately to the cloud so I always have a safe copy almost instantly (as well as a Time Machine backup). I have a folder like this:
WRITING -> Author Names -> David Penny -> Thomas Berrington -> Book Name -> Covers / Research Notes, Scrivener, Vellum, Images…

I know, they should be alphabetical but you get the idea. The point is, when I need to do anything I always know exactly where to find it.

So, in each Scrivener file, as I said, I have my metadata. It looks something like this (truncated)

Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries
Breaker of Bones
PUBLICATION DATE: June 26 2014
EBook ISBN 9780993076107
Print ISBN 9780993076114
Audio ISBN

SEARCH TERMS
spain
alhambra
granada
eunuch
private detective
moorish spain …

Spain, cordoba, granada, private detective, eunuch, moorish spain, islamic, castile, alhambra, malaga

If you’re wondering why I have two sets of search terms, really I should have three. KDP likes them in a list but only so many in each field, B&N and Kobo like them comma separated, I think Apple (but one of them, anyway) likes them separated by semi-colons (which I still need to do).

I then have a separate folder for my blurb and then everything is in that one location and I can refer to each for upload. If, like me, your series name is relatively long I recommend having that in the metadata as well. It’s really easy to make a typo and then you’re screwed until you fix it.

If at this point you are banging your head against the wall and your eyes are spinning in their sockets don’t worry, because gathering all this together will save you a whole bunch of time and trouble later on.

I’m fortunate in that I run a MacBook, so I use Vellum to compile everything into eBook and Print. If you can I recommend it. One major advantage is that it lets you check which platforms to compile for and creates a separate cover image and interior for each. This might not sound much, but each platform has slightly different requirements. Vellum also has a section where you can list your other titles – Also By. If you’ve ever uploaded an eBook to Apple you’ll know that if it has links to Amazon they scream in a high-pitched voice and make the sign of the devil at you. Vellum takes care of all of that for you. All you need to do is upload the correct epub or mobi file and the links work for each platform without you changing anything at all.

Bear in mind though that you might need all those extra IDs in your metadata. That’s next on my list of to-do’s once I finish uploading and the books go live.

All right – I’m done for today. This post might be considered boring! But, sometimes boring is sanity. Without gathering everything together you are going to curse as you open up a portal to upload your book and find you have to go hunting for almost every single item of information.

Get your metadata (and this is only a snapshot, not the whole thing), keep it updated, and you will be grateful. Calmness will reign – in your writing life, at least. Hey, I can’t work miracles. Not even me.

Until the next time…

 

Going Wide – Getting out of KDP Select

In this post I’m going to talk a little about how I managed to get all my titles pulled from KDP Select, together with a warning that this might not have worked and may not work for you. I talked about my reasoning for doing this in my first post, which you can read here.

I’ve decided to be up front about how I’ve been doing reasonably well on Amazon, and then show how my performance changes as time goes on. I am expecting to see a significant drop in overall income over the coming months as I lose page reads and it takes time for the other marketplaces to come on stream.

To start with though, rather than show overall monetary amounts I’ve graphed below the proportion of income from page reads and sales over the last two years. I chose that time period because hopefully it shows the effect of the Covid lockdown over the first half of 2020 where it seemed a lot of the people sitting at home decided to read more fiction.

Sales and Page Reads 2019: Average %age of income from page reads 40%

Sales and Page Reads 2020: Average %age of income from page reads 38%

For both graphs the red block shows sales and the blue upper area the number of equivalent borrows. It also shows peaks where I had a book launch, and it’s clear that my sales have increased this year since last, which is good. As you can see from the percentages, getting on for half my income has come from page reads. Which raises the question – am I totally crazy giving this up?

Well, the answer remains to be seen.

I want to point out I’m not doing this through any prejudice against Amazon. They have always treated me well and treated me fairly. A case in point is how I emailed them four days ago and asked if they could remove all my titles from KDP Select. They responded within 8 hours and said sure, it’s done. Had they not done so this experiment would have had to wait until into December when my last title dropped out of Select.

I do want to point out, however, that this response is not a given. Amazon are perfectly within their rights not to remove you from KDP Select in bulk, but I’ve heard of others who have had success and maybe it depends on how you have interacted with them in the past. Anyway, I’m now out of Amazon borrows and need to replace them with something else.

As you can work out from the graphs, I need to sell almost 10,000 more books over a year through Kobo, Apple, B&N, Google books, all other vendors and libraries to make up the shortfall from borrows.

I’ll say it again – am I crazy? The answer is still probably yes. However, assuming the worst case scenario and I can’t get anywhere near those 10,000 extra sales a year, I always still have the option of going back into KDP Select. I’ve come out once before and when I returned my page reads picked up almost at once. I have also heard some anecdotal reports that book sales increase on Amazon if readers cannot borrow the title but do want to read it.

So that’s about it for today. I’ve set a marker in the ground against which to measure my performance over the rest of this year and into next. How long I’ll keep the experiment running I have no idea, but if sales totally tank outside of Amazon probably not much more than 6-9 months, unless I see some pick-up that offers hope the strategy is working.

As soon as all the titles are live I intend to apply for a Bookbub for the first in series as it should be easier now the books are more widely available. This should kick-start readers on each platform into the series and lead to read-through and hence more sales (Thanks to R who advised this – you know who you are).

Interesting times…

Next time I’m going to talk about uploading to Kobo Writing Life and what you have to do to get an account and upload your books. I’ll also come back in a later post and discuss the marketing tools Kobo offer for Indie authors.

Going Wide – an experiment in self-publishing

I’ve not posted anything on this self-publishing topic in quite a while. Oh man – a long, long while. The reason for posting now is because I’ve leapt off a high diving board and am still in mid-air. I’ve gone wide with all my books.
Okay – for those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

Going wide means I am now publishing all my books – the eight Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries plus one Thomas Berrington Historical Prequel, to the full range of eBook vendors worldwide.

And before you ask – is there something called Going Narrow?

Well yes, there is, and that’s what I’ve been doing my entire writing life since 2014. Some of you may ask why on earth I wouldn’t want to publish as widely as possible and the answer is because of these reasons two reasons:

Amazon KDP was and still is the biggest book vendor on the planet. They also introduced KDP select where you get paid for each page people read when they sign up for Amazon Kindle Unlimited, which allows them to download eBooks for free for a single monthly payement. Up until recently these page reads earned me around 40% of my income.

I was a coward and liked the security blanket of staying with KDP Select.

So why now?
Well, page reads have been falling off a little recently and I have many writer friends who have been saying to me I should be wide. That it’s not healthy for my career to stick with a single vendor, even if they do sell more books than all the others combined.

Finally I’ve started listening to their sound advice.

I intend to give myself six to nine months to see if I can make this experiment work. I expect to take an initial hit in income but will work hard to counteract that with marketing and special deals. I’ve also got the ninth book in the series coming out later this year and that always results in a significant boost to sales – this time it should be on a number of platforms.

I’ll be posting here fairly regularly so you can see how I’m making progress, or not.
Tomorrow I’m going to post on the mechanics of what going wide means, and offer some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
In the meantime I’ll tell you that for the moment I’m following the strategy set out below:
For Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Google books I am uploading directly through their portals. I also have all my books on Amazon still but now my page-reads will taper off, probably over many months.

For all other vendors I am going through the aggregator Draft2Digital.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the process of leaving Amazon KDP Select with a bang, and how I’m using a couple of these portals and any lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Hasta mańana.

The Message of Blood

I started work on The Message of Blood, book 8 of the Thomas Berrington series, in the last week and already the first draft is 11% complete. There’s a lot of work still to do, but I have a scheduled release date for 13th February 2020. It might seem a long way off, but I plan to complete the 9th book for release in June or July 2020. That will complete the Spanish phase of Thomas and Jorge’s story, but don’t worry because after a short – and relatively peaceful – hiatus in their lives they will return together to England in the company of Catherine of Aragon. And yes, there will be murders, and mysteries, and everything you have come to expect of the series, but by then Thomas will have returned to Lemster, the town he was born in.

A scene from the book, Columbus petitioning Queen Isabel, while she looks bored.

Tentative blurb for The Message of Blood:

Can you expose a killer when they are your best friend?

Spain: 1490. Cordoba, Andlusia

When Thomas Berrington is sent to Cordoba on the orders of a man he hates he welcomes the distraction of a crime, but is shocked when the evidence points to the killer being his closest companion.

When Jorge is imprisoned Thomas has to continue the investigation alone. His task is made harder by the distraction of two beautiful women.

As the truth is uncovered Thomas has to twist and turn through the confusion of Jorge’s past, uncovering a myriad of revelations each of which throws up a new suspect.

Finally reunited the pair come ever closer to revealing the culprit, only to be confronted with a more powerful adversary than they have ever encountered before.

Guest Post – Joan Fallon: The al-Andalus trilogy and the story behind it

Today I have a guest post from my good friend Joan Fallon, who also writes about the al-Andalus region of Spain during the time of the Moors.


The al-Andalus trilogy is set in Córdoba and its surrounding countryside. It is 10th century Spain, the Golden Age of Moorish rule, the time of the great caliphs, when Córdoba was considered the centre of cultural and learning for the western world. For many years I have been fascinated by this beautiful city and when I heard about the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra which were only just outside its boundaries, I knew I had to go to visit them. This was the city of al-Rahman III the greatest of all the caliphs and more than that, I was intrigued by the idea that a palace-city of such magnificence should have lasted for such a short time.  Civilisations come and go, as any reader of history knows but for it to last no more than 75 years seemed a tragedy.

It was the summer of 2001. I picked up a leaflet about an exhibition that was to be held in the museum at Madinat al-Zahra.  It was entitled The Splendour of the Cordovan Umayyads.  So we drove across from Málaga, on a blistering hot day to see what it was all about.

I have been back many times since and the place holds a fascination for me; so much so that it inspired me to write a novel.  I decided to tell the story of the city through a family that lived there; I had the bare bones of my novel before me, in the stone walls and paved paths, in the narrow passages ways, the ornate gardens, the artefacts in the museum.  All I needed to do was to make the city come alive through my characters.  I called the novel The Shining City because ‘Madinat’ (or medina) is the word for town and ‘Zahra’ means shining or brilliant.  It’s said that the caliph called the city al-Zahra because, at the time it was being built, he was in love with a slave girl called Zahra.  It could be true; there are certainly written references to a concubine of that name but personally I think ‘Zahra’ referred to the magnificence of the city itself.  As the principle character in my book, Omar, tells his nephew:

‘It means shining, glistening, brilliant.  Possibly his concubine glittered and shone with all the jewels and beautiful silks he showered upon her but then so did the city.  It was indeed the Shining City.  When visitors entered through the Grand Portico, passing beneath its enormous, red and white arches, when they climbed the ramped streets that were paved with blocks of dark mountain stone, passing the lines of uniformed guards in their scarlet jackets and the richly robed civil servants that flanked their way, when they reached the royal residence and saw the golden inlay on the ceilings, the marble pillars, the richly woven rugs scattered across the floors and the brilliant silk tapestries, when they saw the moving tank of mercury in the great reception pavilion that caught the sunlight and dazzled all who beheld it, then they indeed knew that they were in the Shining City.’

Of course today, looking at the ruined paths, the piles of broken tiles, the reconstructed arches and pillars, we need to use our imagination to see it as it once was.

The construction of the city of Madinat al-Zahra was begun in the year 939 AD by  Abd al-Rahman III and took forty years to complete.  Having declared himself the caliph of al-Andalus in 929 AD and with the country more or less at peace he wanted to follow in the tradition of previous caliphs in the East and build himself a palace-city, grander than anything that had been built before.  The site he chose was eight kilometres to the west of Córdoba, in present day Andalusia and measured one and a half kilometres by almost a kilometre.  It was sheltered from the north winds by the mountains behind it and had an excellent vantage point from which to see who was approaching the city.  It was well supplied with water from an old Roman aqueduct and surrounded by rich farming land.  It had good roads to communicate with Córdoba and there was even a stone quarry close by.

The caliph left much of the responsibility for the construction of the city to his son al-Hakam, who continued work on it after his father’s death.

One of the most curious questions about Madinat al-Zahra is why, despite its importance as the capital of the Omeyyad dynasty in al-Andalus, this magnificent city endured no more than seventy-five years.  When al-Hakam died in 976 AD the city was thriving; all the most important people in the land lived there.  The army, the Mint, the law courts, the government and the caliph were there; the city boasted public baths, universities, libraries, workshops and ceremonial reception halls to receive the caliph’s visitors.  But al-Hakam’s heir was a boy of eleven-years old.  The new boy-caliph was too young to rule, so a regent was appointed, the Prime Minister, al-Mansur, an ambitious and ruthless man.  Gradually the Prime Minister moved the whole court, the Mint, the army and all the administrative functions back to Córdoba, leaving the new caliph in Madinat al-Zahra, ruling over an empty shell.  Once the seat of power had been removed from Madinat al-Zahra, the city went into decline.  The wealthy citizens left, quickly followed by the artisans, builders, merchants and local businessmen.  Its beautiful buildings were looted and stripped of their treasures and the buildings were destroyed to provide materials for other uses.  Today you can find artefacts from the city in Málaga, Granada, and elsewhere.  Marble pillars that once graced the caliph’s palace now support the roofs of houses in Córdoba.  Ashlars that were part of the city’s walls have been used to build cow sheds.

Excavation of the site of Madinat al-Zahra began in 1911 by Riocardo Velázquez Bosco, the curator of the mosque in Córdoba.  The work was slow and hampered by the fact that the ruins were on private property.  Landowners were not keen to co-operate and eventually the State had to purchase the land before the excavations could begin.  The work progressed slowly but gradually over the years a number of government acts were passed which resulted in the site being designated as an Asset of Cultural Interest and in 1998 a Special Protection Plan was drawn up to give full weight to the importance of the ruins.  Today the site is open to the public and has an excellent visitor centre and museum.

THE SHINING CITY became the first book in a trilogy about al-Andalus and 10th century Spain in particular. I decided to write a second book about the boy-caliph, al-Hisham II whose life was dominated by his mother and her lover. This one I entitled THE EYE OF THE FALCON.

After some hesitation—I was unsure if I would find enough material for a third book—I wrote the third book in the series, THE RING OF FLAMES. This brings the story up to the end of the Golden Age and the demise of the Omayyad dynasty, and gives some clue to the eventual fate of al-Hisham II, the forgotten caliph.


Joan Fallon’s trilogy is available in paperback and on Kindle, and you can find out more about both her and her books on her website: www.joanfallon.co.uk

Self Publishing in Retirement

While I was attending the London Book Fair I got chatting with internet advertising guru Mark Dawson, and he asked if I would do a quick interview to tell my story of how I discovered FB Advertising. I said of course (who wouldn’t). It turned into half an hour with James Blatch and you can see the results here with Me being interviewed by James Blatch

SPF-122: The Self Publishing Retirement Windfall with David Penny

If you don’t want to wait, the interview starts around 8 minutes in.

The Fortunate Dead: Chapter 1 – WIP

For those interested I thought you might like to read Chapter 1 of the forthcoming Book 6 in the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries. This is a first draft only, so might change a little in the finished book.


CHAPTER ONE

Thomas Berrington stared at a wooden pallet, its surface stained by years of misuse.

“Tell me, how exactly did you manage to lose a body?” He wiped at blood-stained hands with a damp cloth but it did little good. Only a long bath might do that.

“I did not lose it,” said Lubna, her face set. “I delivered the woman to this pallet before noon and informed the mortuary officer of her location.”

“Perhaps the family collected it, then. Did you check?” He made little attempt to hide his impatience. He had been sent for as he was trying to save an unborn child, the mother beyond any need of his skills. She had been brought in by her husband after falling from the city wall. Thomas was in a bad temper after the man had refused to accept the infant he had saved because it was a girl.

“Of course I checked. Would I send for you if it was that simple? Nobody has come to claim her.”

“You are sure she was dead?”

Lubna cast him a glance that said more than words, perhaps not wanting to sour the atmosphere between them any more by speaking, and Thomas realised he was being too harsh on her. He had lost bodies in the past under similar circumstances. The infirmary in Malaka was both large and busy. He sometimes wondered how any body made its way to its family after it had stopped breathing. Thomas touched Lubna’s shoulder but she pulled away. Not forgiven yet, then.

He wondered if she was distracted by thoughts of the child she carried. Over six months now, beyond the time she had lost their first when they had visited Ixbilya for Thomas to attend the Queen. It had been on his mind of late, hers too, he was sure. He knew he may have been too attentive, too cosseting. Lubna was not a woman to be cosseted, even less so this last year. They had come to Malaka so she could attend the Infirmary, the place Thomas had learned his skills. That had been many years before, half a lifetime, and much had changed in the years since. Except Malaka was still where people came to learn the skills of a physician, ever since Persia fell to Mongol hordes.

It had not been easy for Lubna. As a woman she had not been made welcome, only accepted in the end because she was Thomas Berrington’s wife and everyone knew of his reputation. A reputation that brought respect but little fondness. The lack of the latter did not concern him and never had. Ability and an open mind meant more, and Lubna possessed both.

“What did she die of?” he asked.

“Does it matter?”

“I am curious.”

“In that case, I don’t know. There was nothing physically wrong that I could find. It was as if she no longer wanted to live.”

Thomas frowned. “Such a thing is possible, but rare.”

“Which is why I wanted you to see her, why I came for you. I have learned much this last year but not enough to explain what happened to this woman.”

“We’ll go to the Clerk of records,” Thomas said. “The body might have been mistaken for someone else and given to the wrong family. I have seen it happen before.”

Lubna fell into step beside him. “How often?”

“Not often, but four or five times over the years. It is surprising how many people do not wish to look at the face of a loved one once life has departed.”

The administration offices lay outside the Infirmary, requiring the crossing of a busy road and ascent of marble steps beneath the onslaught of a fierce sun. It was as they climbed the steps that a commotion broke out behind them, a man shouting at a group of musicians.

Thomas stopped and looked back.

“Leave it for someone else,” said Lubna. “You cannot heal the entire world.”

He glanced at her. She was right, the thought clear in his mind even as his body carried him back the way they had come. It was none of his business, but sometimes that made a thing more interesting rather than less. Besides, the missing body would still be missing an hour from now. Or would have been found.

As he approached the gathering Thomas heard laughter and jeering, and saw it was not only the musicians who were being accosted but a well-dressed man he recognised as Ali Durdush, grand master of the Malaka Guilds and almost certainly the richest man in the city, if not all of al-Andalus.

“What is going on?” he asked of an onlooker.

“It’s that idiot preacher, al-Antiqamun. Everyone is his enemy today. He has already torn Durdush’s cloak and now it’s the women he has it in for.”

Thomas watched as the ragged-robed man, tangled hair falling almost to his waist, berated two female dancers. Four others tried to continue their dance but the musicians were faltering. A few laid down their instruments and approached the altercation.

The rotund figure of Ali Durdush bustled away. He glanced in Thomas’s direction and offered a nod of recognition before moving on.

When Thomas looked back at the preacher he had grasped the arm of one of the women and was trying to force her to her knees. All the others had stopped dancing and gathered around. Voices were raised. And then a knife appeared, flashing sharp light from its blade, and al-Antiqamun staggered backward and fell to one knee.

Thomas pushed through the crowd. They had stopped laughing, but one or two now called threats. He reached the preacher and tried to find a wound, but before he could one of the musicians pushed him away.

“Let me finish it,” he said. “This crazy man has been following us for a week now and I will have it no more.”

Thomas watched a blade hang loose in the musician’s hand, the drip of blood from its tip. The man was short, slim, with corded muscle showing in his arms. His accent placed him from the north coast of Africa.

“Leave him be,” Thomas said, and something in his eyes gave the musician pause. Thomas turned back to the preacher and lifted sections of robe until he found the wound. A slash to the arm. Nothing serious, but it would need binding and a salve applied to prevent infection. He saw older scars and knew this was not the first attack on the man. Al-Antiqamun had no-one to blame but himself.

“I need to treat you,” Thomas said, steadying the preacher as he rose. He was tall, with a wild beard that matched his hair. His face was surprisingly intelligent, the eyes calm. Or empty.

“I need no heathen to mend me. Allah sees to his own.” He looked beyond Thomas and scowled at the musicians who were packing their instruments, about to move on.

“You must leave them in peace. They do no harm.”

“Allah forbids it. Music. Dancing. Women in clothing designed to reveal their bodies. It is against what is written.” He looked around. “And where did the fat fool get to, I’ve not finished with him yet.” His gaze returned to Thomas. “I know you.”

“Many do. And I know you, but not your true name.”

“I am al-Antiqamun.”

“I know that too, but it is not your given name, is it?”

“I am al-Antiqamun,” he said again, and Thomas knew it was all the answer he would get, perhaps all the answer the man knew. The child he had once been was long lost in his visions of heaven and hell. Or vengeance. For that was what his adopted name meant in Arabic. Vengeance.

“You are the stranger,” al-Antiqamun said, his voice as calm as his eyes now the dancers had moved away. “The butcher, they call you, do they not?” He smiled. “When Allah’s fire cleanses this land of unbelievers it will scorch the flesh from your bones, gassab.” His head turned, seeking new victims and finding Lubna waiting on the steps for Thomas. “But your wife is devout, I hear. She will live.” As if such was in his gift to offer or take away.

Thomas turned away. The man could bleed to death for all he cared. Those already dead were waiting for him.

The joy of Campo living in Spain

We are the proud owners of a house in Spain. I know, it’s tough, but someone has to stand up and say Brexit might be Brexit but some of us still believe in Europe. But this is not meant to be a political post, so no more of that nonsense. Please… no more of that nonsense.

My wife and I appeared on the UK television show A Place in the Sun in February 2017. More about that experience in another post, but it is enough to say we made an offer on the second property we saw. It was accepted, and within three weeks we flew out to take possession. Which is when our education began.

Our house sits on a hillside in a small hamlet that is unknown to Google maps. That should have been a warning, but not one we took any notice of. Not then.

Our house is also classified as “rural”. Which means it’s Campo.

What is Campo?

Look carefully – the little blue dot is our water meter!

Campo is anywhere that is not connected to the grid, likely has no paved road to it, no telephone service, and no postal service. Usually water is supplied from a well or a tank on your roof. It’s more than rural. And often times the house you think you bought is not shown on any official plan.

We were lucky.

When you try to buy anything or get anything delivered you will invariably get asked “Are you Campo? Even something as simple as your post. We take some things for granted in the UK and most of the rest of Europe, like a telephone line, the internet, water, electricity and so on. Except we are lucky. We have both water and electric. But no phone. And we have internet, but again that’s a long story.

Anyway – when we arrived our land was thigh high in weeds so I drove into our closest large town, Velez Malaga, to buy a strimmer. There was a Stihl shop. I had been told Stihl was the best petrol driven strimmer to buy. I’m not stupid. I went into the shop.

First question from the lovely lady behind the counter:

“Are you Campo?” Except it was in Spanish. But I had my phone and I had Google translate.

“Semi-campo,” I said.

She smiled indulgently.

I asked how much the strimmers were.

She extracted a thick catalogue. It contained no prices. But she went through four pages and wrote in the prices for me while I took sharp intakes of breath.

Then she smiled and crossed them all out and wrote their special prices.

Another smile. Another crossing out. By now she had taken 30% off the price if I came in on Tuesday or Thursday. Apparently if you buy equipment on those days, between certain hours, you don’t pay any VAT (IVT in Spanish). I don’t know if this is official government policy or not but it seems to apply to all agricultural and machinery shops we come across.

So, it being a Tuesday, I pointed. I’d like that one, please.

She smiled.

It will have to come from Madrid. Three weeks. Everything has to come from Madrid, and it always takes three weeks. It’s a good first estimate.

No – our weeds are thigh high, I said, I need something today.

Ah. You can have this one. It is a little more, but we have it in stock.

Yes, I said.

She then proceeded to take 20 minutes dismantling the strimmer in the showroom and re-assembling it for me. All the while there was a queue of other customers, but this being Spain they managed to amuse themselves while openly staring at the strange Englishman.

I got my strimmer.

It works very well. It’s a Stihl, see.

And then we went to find furniture in Ikea in Malaga.

We asked for it to be delivered.

Are you Campo?

It was becoming a familiar litany.

There are not many Town Halls with a view like this

Next we went to the local post office to see if we could get our mail.

Are you Campo?

Yes, we are bloody Campo!

We don’t deliver to Campo. You can have a post box, but for that you need form XY-double-de-dub from the Town Hall.

The Town Hall don’t know anything about the form, but they do ask if we are Campo.

We are so Campo that after an hour in the Town Hall offices we discover our house is not actually the house on the town plans, but that’s fine, this is Spain, they will correct that for us right there and then. It often happens, they say, houses are sold and sold again but nobody bothers to tell them about it. We will have to wait several months before it is official. Where should they send the paperwork?

But it all worked out in the end, and then as we were about to leave the very nice lady asked if we wanted to vote in the European elections. We could, because we owned a house in Spain, she said. It might not be the house shown on their plans, but we looked like nice people, so we now have authorised forms allowing us to vote in the next Euro elections.

Coming to Spain from the UK is a strange experience, one you need time to adjust to. In a few weeks I will try to explain the joys of shopping in Spain, and next time I’ll wax lyrical over the history of illegal construction.

And yes, if you’re Campo you need to be careful about that. We, it turned out, were lucky.

Why Andalusia – Part 2

So the question is: Exactly why did I start writing about Andalusia, and Moorish Spain in particular? I introduced this in part 1 of this post, but didn’t give any reasons why. Here they are.

Some years ago, probably around 2010 or 2011, I was sitting at home with my wife and two children when an idea for a book came to me. I have no idea where it came from, but I said, out of the blue: “Has anyone ever written a detective mystery set in Moorish Spain?”
They looked at me like I was crazy, and perhaps I was. But that germ of an idea stuck. I did a little research and found nothing that matched the idea I had in my head, an idea that grew and grew, until in the end it wasn’t going to be one book but ten.

Books 1-5… to be continued…

Each would be set during one year between 1482 – 1492. I’ll explain the time period in a moment. Each book features Thomas Berrington, an orphaned Englishman with a past, who has trained as a surgeon in al-Andalus and acts as physician to the Sultan of Granada. He is asked to investigate a series of murders.

Alongside Thomas is the six-foot eunuch Jorge, Watson to Thomas’s Holmes, an unlikely pairing but one that works. Jorge gets far more fan mail than Thomas ever does.

And the ten year period? Soon…

First, some people know, but many do not, that from 771AD Islamic invaders from North Africa moved swiftly throughout Spain. So swiftly, and so successfully, that within a short period of time they reached as far as Poitiers in France before being stopped, or perhaps deciding to stop.

For centuries all but small enclaves of the Iberian peninsula remained in Moorish hands. Only from the 11th Century onward did Spain begin to push the Moors back from the inland areas until at the end only a small but significant enclave remained. Al-Andalus. Protected on three sides by mountains, and on the fourth by the sea. It remained a beacon of culture in a Europe only slowly emerging from first the Dark Ages and subsequently petty wars and infighting.

Alhambra Gardens

This came to an end on January 1st 1492 when King Fernando and Queen Isabel walked through the exquisite gates of the Alhambra palace to accept the surrender of Abu Abdullah, Muhammed XIII, Sultan of Granada. It brought to an end the rule of Islam in Spain.
On January 2nd Christopher Columbus entered the palace seeking a final approval for funds to forge a new route to the Indies. He was turned away, only to stop at the gates and return. The rest, as they say, is history. In my version of history, it is Thomas Berrington who meets him at the gate and persuades Columbus to try again. That scene came with that initial idea for the series.

Without the decades’ long struggle by Spain against the Moors, which honed their fighting skills into arguably the finest soldiers in Europe, Columbus’s journeys and the conquest of the Americas would have been a very different thing.
This is the world in which I chose to set my books. Those last ten years of chaos and despair for the Moors, those ten years of growing exultation for the Spanish. A time of war, deceit and stupidity. Much like all wars.

So far I have finished five of the episodes, with five more to come.

There is a lot of history to cover.

And I have discovered that other writers have also fallen in love with this time period. It came as both a shock and revelation how others could forge such different books from the same material I was working.

I’m going to cover each of their work in more detail in future posts and ask them to guest blog along the way, but you can follow the links from their names here to find out more and read what are excellent additions to this small genre of Historical fiction. I will leave you, until the next time, with Joan Fallon, Lisa Yarde and John D. Cressler.

Next time I’m going to write about how we ended up living part-time in Spain, and some of the frustration and joy we discovered.