With the 9th Thomas Berrington book now published I am catching my breath before diving back into his next adventure, which will be set in England as Catherine of Aragon arrives to marry Prince Arthur. While that percolates in the back of my brain I have started a new series.
An Imperfect Future is a bit of a departure, and may not appeal to all my current readers, but might attract some different ones. It’s pitched as a World War 2 Paranormal Spy Thriller. The book is currently halfway through a first draft and going quickly. I’m planning on releasing it sometime early next year before starting work on Thomas Berrington 10.
The book is set in 1944 after the Normandy landings and features a small group of individuals recruited because they exhibit unusual talents that the authories believe may make them useful to the war effort. The main character is Calum Auger, who can see 1o seconds into the future. Not particularly impressive, until he finds himself as the bomb-aimer in a Lancaster on its 48th mission. Calum’s crew likes to fly with him, because he always knows where the flak is going to explode. Except nobody mentions his strange ability.
With the creation of Unit-13, Calum is recruited, together with others, and their training begins. Before they are able to fully come to terms with what they are their expertise is needed. Tracking down stolen documents that might yet save Nazi Germany from defeat, the group race through France to stop their adversaries handing over the secrets they stole.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Draft2Digital is a great way for any Indie author to get their books onto a wide range of sales channels.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Audio ISBN (none of them asked for it, but it’s worth including anyway)
Blurb (back cover copy)
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Between April 10th to the 12th the London Book Fair will be running in Earl’s Court, west London.
I have visited before a few years ago, but this year I am attending on two days. On one of those I am part of a panel of authors talking about the advantages of different routes to publish. You can find me as a speaker on The Agony and Ecstacy of becoming a Self-Publisher.
For the first time in three years I am actually in the country for the fantastic Hawksbury Upton Literary Festival, and will be speaking on a panel at 1pm on Six ways to be a writer. This LitFest is small, low-key, and totally free. So if you are in striking distance of Hawksbury Upton in Gloucestershire I would recommend you try to come along. If you do, seek me out and say Hi!
I was seventeen before I spent my first Christmas apart from family—and I shouldn’t have been there, in more ways than one.
Fairbourne sits in the curve of Wales where it meets the Irish Sea. It’s a small place, and lately getting smaller all the time. It’s also the place where most of my memories of growing up reside.
My parents were the proud owners of a static caravan on a small—some might say primitive—site on the very southern edge of the village. Trapped between the sea, soaring cliffs, a thousand foot mountain and a railway line, the caravan lay no more than forty feet from the sea at high tide.
My earliest memories are of lying in bed with the sound of surf churning and sucking at the pebble bank—the only thing separating us from the waves. Now, fifty odd years later, the bank is damaged and, if another tidal surge occurs the village will be left to its own devices. Sink or swim, as they say. Except, in this case, it will be sink.
Most of us have had a best friend. Mine was a kid called John Walford, who is no longer with us. We spent most weekends together between April and September, and also the long summer break from school. Six whole weeks. My father would deliver us to the coast, a two hour drive in those days and those vehicles, and deposit my mother, myself and my brothers at the caravan. We wouldn’t return home until the day before school started. And for the entire six weeks I was barely indoors. There were cliffs to climb, mountains to explore, fish to be caught, sea to swim in. And a railway bridge.
It spanned—and continues to span—the Mawddach estuary. If you don’t know Wales and don’t know the pronunciation that likely comes out as Mawdak, but it’s softer than that. More like Mowthach except the ch at the end is softer than you think.
The bridge runs for a mile or more, linking the Fairbourne side to Barmouth. It’s fashioned out of thick wooden piles encrusted with barnacles, and if you go there at the right time of year salmon hang lazily in the current before they foray upstream. It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful locations in this world.
The caravan site closes at the end of September and doesn’t open until Easter weekend. Between those dates it is cold, wet, deserted and out of bounds
Except that year when I was seventeen John Walford and I had plans. We were going to spend Christmas at Fairbourne. Whether we were meant to or not.
I took the train because I was only three months into being seventeen and not yet passed my driving test. John, a little older, came on his motorbike. A BSA with learner plates. In those days you could ride a machine up to 250cc on learner plates, so that’s what he did. We met at the caravan site, hoping nobody would discover us. Then we had to decide what to do with ourselves.
The railway line ran above the site, raised on a high boulder bank. When we were younger we’d put pennies on the line and wait for a train to come along. Somebody told us it was dangerous, the coins might derail the train and it would come careening down from its high position. But we did it anyway.
The train would come, roaring and steaming—yes, in those days they steamed—and our pennies would clatter up and outward.
Afterward we went in search of them. If we were lucky they’d be flattened, made twice the size. It was a challenge to put the coin on the line a second, third or fourth time to see how flat, how large they could grow.
But on this Christmas Eve, let loose from family control, we had to go somewhere, do something.
I was too young to drink. Here in the UK you can legally buy and consume alcohol from the age of 18. I wasn’t. But John was.
We both knew there was a public house on the station at the start of the long bridge. In those days it was Barmouth Junction, but now it’s called Morfa Mawddach. Remember the pronunciation? There might be a test later.
We could have ridden there on John’s BSA, but we knew we intended to drink pints of beer. As many as we could manage. It never occurred to us we wouldn’t get served, and in that we were right.
We walked. Along the railway line. Climbing the boulder bank and making our way through the darkness. The last train was due at 10 pm, and we started off at 9. More than enough time. The distance was no more than three or four miles, and that Christmas Eve boasted a clear sky with stars pricking holes through.
At the station we entered the bar, me tentative, John, as always, more confident.
I sat in a wooden chair at a wooden table. John went to the bar. Behind it stood a barmaid. Thirty years old. To me, then, that was old. How things change.
John returned, two pint glasses in hand, and we set to.
When we arrived we were the only customers. Then the last train came through. It stopped. It went on. Two men came into the bar. They glanced around, bought drinks, then took a table across from us. If I thought the barmaid old, these two were ancient. Grizzled men of the hills, farmers or fishermen, we never did find out. But, as the beer continued to flow, they told us the tale of the Ghost Train.
There was a film once, they said, back in the 1940’s. Not a great film, but entertaining all the same. And by coincidence some of the filming took place at the very station, in the very bar, we now sat.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” said John.
“Don’t matter,” one of the old men said. “They don’t much mind if you do or you don’t. They just am.”
John laughed and I, already the worse for wear, giggled along.
“‘Course—it were based on a true tale.”
John laughed again, but it came out uncomfortable this time.
“Line was busier back then,” the man said. “There’d be ten, twelve trains a day. And the station were busier too. People waiting on people coming home. Except one day they waited too long.” He looked at us both with rheumy eyes which had seen everything, including two kids who had no place in a bar on Christmas Eve. “One day the train went over the cliffs south of town. Went tumbling down, taking all the folks with it. Nobody survived. Except…” He paused, maybe for effect, maybe because his glass was empty.
I got up and went to the bar.
The barmaid eyed me. I more than likely looked even younger than my seventeen years, but she poured four pints of bitter anyway. I paid and carried them back, two in each hand.
The man sipped at his, smiled.
“Except,” he said, “the folks waiting saw the train a-coming. Heard it first, o’course. Always do, don’t you? Then the smoke, and finally the train. ’Cept this time she looked different. Not as solid as she should. But her kept on coming. Coming and coming. And then she roared through the station and out over the bridge, trailing smoke and sparks and wisps of grey… something. Until it was gone. ’Twas only later those folks waiting on their kin heard what had happened.”
“Ghost train, it was,” said his companion.
“That’s right. Ghost train.”
I sat back. I listened—for the sound of a distant whistle, for the rumble of something on the tracks. Nothing. But, on this first Christmas Eve on my own, the night felt different. I looked at John. He looked back. We nodded and drank our pints and stood.
The moon silvered the track ahead of us as we stepped from wooden sleeper to wooden sleeper, the distance never quite right, either too short or too long. Behind us silver light illuminated the languid current of the Mawddach estuary.
“Bollocks,” said John. “He was talking bollocks.”
“‘Course he was.”
Our breath plumed the air and white frost decorated the grass beside the line. We came to Fairbourne station and went on, little more than half a mile to go. We didn’t speak again. Our eyes followed the twin tracks of the railway line until they met in the distance. We were watching. Waiting for something to appear.
Of course, nothing did.
We came to the bridge over the roadway and John started down the bank.
I hesitated, feeling in my pocket and pulling out a penny. I knelt and laid it on the line, taking a moment to get it square. They always worked better if they were square to the metal.
John stopped and looked back at me, then climbed up and placed his own coin on the other rail.
We stood for a moment staring at them, the sound of the surf on the beach loud, then we scrambled down and burrowed under the covers and slept the sleep of drunken youth.
Except, at some time in the night, I turned over, disturbed by some sound. I was barely conscious, and more than likely what I heard was nothing more than a dream, but it sounded like a train running fast along the line, rattling and clattering, growing loud, louder, then passing to fade away. A distant whistle sounded and I fell back into sleep.
In the morning we woke late. Remembering the dream I climbed the line in search of my penny, only as I was almost there remembering it was Christmas Day and there were no trains. Except I was wrong.
My penny wasn’t on the line where I had left it, solid and squared.
I looked around. Sometimes they would lie close. Other times they were flicked away, sometimes so far you never did find them. This one I did. Ten feet from the line. My penny lay dull in the grass and I bent to pick it up, turned it over, turned it again. It was wide and flat and thin as a sheet of paper where something heavy had run across it in the night. It was wider and flatter and thinner than any I had ever seen before. And some kind of light clung to it in the grey air of Christmas Day.
I tossed it in the air, caught it and slipped it into my pocket. Good luck or bad? I still don’t know.