What is it about the Scots? I’m not talking about the whisky, but rather about destructive fictional spooks. There are four recent novels I know of dealing with the misdemeanours of undercover cops. Kirsten Innes’ 2020 Scabby Queenfeatures one who is cynical and malevolent, seen largely through the lasting damage he leaves in the lives of the targets he sleeps with.
The unfortunately named Jimmy Bond in James Robertson’s 2010 And the Land Lay Still is alcoholic and disillusioned.
Khurrum Rahman’s 2018 East of Hounslow features as its protagonist a minor drug peddler dragooned by MI5 into penetrating a jihadi cell.
And then there is the emotionally damaged Vince/Zami, the central character of my 2020 The Tears of Boabdil, a police agent masquerading as a jihadi and sleeping with the sister of his targets. Of these four authors, only Rahman isn’t Scots.
Why might Scots be particularly drawn to the theme? In my case, I wanted to explore the question “what kind of person would do this?”. Like Innes, I deal with the crime of state-sanctioned rape. Robertson’s spook is much more a device to explore the ideological battles within Scottish Nationalism and the British State’s response. There’s no obvious connection between the three.
But is the underlying commonality, perhaps, a sense of grievance, of marginalization? Or perhaps, of a lie that has been told to us? There was, once, a truth that the idea of Britain represented, at least to the inhabitants of these islands—a common destiny of Empire and a common class identity forged in the coal mines, the steel factories and the shipyards.
The Empire has gone, followed rapidly by the heavy industry that created class solidarity across the lands. And that poses the question “who are we?” in a way that hasn’t been necessary since Walter Scott subsumed Scottishness into the Union with England by a romantic vision of a noble and brigand past.
So much to say about this one, but here’s the photo and story first, in case you want to skip the expo!
The Fourth Third
Dad would call it an inauspicious entryway. A narrow staircase ascended between dirty red walls into darkness above. Clutter covered half the bottom step. It was a long way from the ranch back home.
But if all went well, this was home now, and its occupants like a new family. I make free adults from children, the university motto began. Faye felt so old to be here, and yet so green to be just beginning. The others were all second years – her guides and chaperones.
A light came on and she recognised Grace from zoom calls.
“Our D’Artagnan has arrived!”
I glimpsed at today’s photo on my phone over breakfast this morning and was reminded of the old university…
Book discovery sites offer authors and publishers the opportunity to promote their books to mailing lists comprising thousands of avid readers. Readers subscribe for free, while authors and publishers pay to be included in a listing.
The largest of these sites, by far, is BookBub. But, is it the best?
BookBub is a book recommendation site with between one and four million subscribers, depending on the genre. They claim to distribute to 3.82 million fans of crime fiction, for example, and 2.1 million readers of romance. In my genre of literary fiction, they claim 2.61 million subscribers.
Promoting your e-book through the site would seem to be a no-brainer. But it doesn’t come cheap. To promote to their e-mail list for literary fiction costs $768 if you reduce your price below $1.00 So, to recoup the cost at $0.99 a copy, you have to sell 776 copies.
Don’t decide on which book discovery site to use based on its price alone. If BookBub gains you 1,000 sales at a cost of $776, the cost per sale is 78 cents. If another site sells 100 books at a cost of $90, the cost per sale is 90 cents.
This will be an underestimate of sales since it doesn’t cover all outlets and all countries but it will catch the majority. Amazon accounts for 72% of all e-book sales worldwide and Amazon US alone for 54%. Also, the Kindlepreneur calculator doesn’t register sales when they drop below one a day.
Since I examined only literary fiction, it is possible that other genres may perform differently. You can find the results of an analysis for non-fiction titles at Scribe Media.
BookBub claim that, on average, their promotions result in an additional 2,560 sales in the genre. The titles I tracked achieved less than half this on Amazon, at 1,090. But that’s still comfortably above the 776 needed for break-even. The effect is short-lived. After the boost on the first day, sales dropped sharply to an average of 10% of the initial boost by day five.
But, like anything, success is not evenly distributed. Twenty nine per cent of the titles experienced no impact on sales at all. For the remaining 71%, sales rose, on average, almost two-hundred-fold compared with the level before the promotion. So that’s pretty good, but for individual titles it varied from 12,910 additional sales (which was for Tracy Chevalier’s A Single Thread) to just 1.
Around half (54%) of these titles achieved more than the break-even sales figure of 776. On average, they racked up 2,761 sales. The other half sold an average of 364.
In summary, the odds of covering the costs of a BookBub promotion are 54% of 71%. In other words, 38%.
What kinds of books do better?
Analysing the performers (those that achieved sales) and non-performers (those without sales), some differences stand out
Performers have a higher rate of reviews. On average, they each had 522 reviews, compared with 400 for non-performers
Non-performers tend to be more recent publications. The average publication date of non-performers was 2008, compared with 1994 for performers
Non-performers have a higher percentage of foreign and translated titles, accounting for almost a quarter of the total, compared with 13% for performers. This difference is even more pronounced when the performers are divided into those that recoup the costs of the promotion with those that don’t. Only 6% of those that covered their costs were foreign or translated, compared with 15% of those that didn’t cover their costs.
These differences were not repeated in other book discovery sites. A comparable analysis of BookGorilla showed that titles that achieved no sales had more reviews than the performers. And the group with no sales were, on average, published earlier. None of the BookGorilla titles were by foreign authors or in translation, so this comparison cannot be made. However the role of reviews did show up again in the distinction between the titles that covered their costs and the group with sales that did not cover their costs—those in profit had three times as many reviews as those who did not recoup their costs.
Are other sites better value for money?
BookBub is by far the largest book recommendation site, but there are many others. Many are too small to be of great value, but some of the intermediate-sized sites offer the prospect of significant impact on sales at costs lower than BookBub. I compared three of these sites, BookGorilla, Bargain Booksy, and Fussy Librarian. I also looked at one free site, Book Angel. In all cases, I compared the effects on titles classified as literature.
BookGorilla looks like a contender for BookBub’s crown. It is possible that some sales are due to “stacking”. This occurs when a title is advertised simultaneously on multiple sites. To check that sales on BookGorilla were not really reflections of promotion on the much larger BookBub, all titles that appeared simultaneously on both sites were stripped out of the BookGorilla figures. There were 10 such titles. Removing them reduced the average sales on BookGorilla to 1,498, reduced the number with no sales to 15% and increased the chances of break-even to 60%. BookGorilla’s performance was therefore not caused by overlap with BookBub.
The BookGorilla results were so surprising that I ran them again after the Christmas period on a smaller sample of 28 titles. The numbers were comparable for break-even (54%) and for no sales (21%), though sales were lower at 435. A repeat of the BookBub analysis for 30 titles showed no evidence of a post-Christmas slump, averaging 1,353 sales. The proportion who showed no sales was consistent at 30%, though only 30% broke even, a smaller proportion than previously.
The numbers seem clear. BookGorilla offers an equivalent sales boost to BookBub, a dramatically lower price, and a better chance of achieving break-even on the cost. BargainBooksy and Fussy Librarian did not perform nearly as well. The free site (Book Angel) achieved almost no growth in sales.
Two notes of caution about the comparison.
The sales on BookGorilla may have been artificially high because the first numbers were tabulated in the run-up to Christmas, while the data for BookBub was collected a couple of months earlier. Sales did fall in the second sample of BookGorilla titles after Christmas. There was little evidence of a seasonal boost though for BargainBooksy or Fussy Librarian.
The sales on BookGorilla, though apparently higher than BookBub, are boosted, in part, because many of the titles were already achieving high sales before the promotion, perhaps due to stacking. As a result, while BookBub saw an elevation of sales by an average 179-fold over the baseline, BookGorilla yielded a more modest average boost of 17-fold.
“Stacking” book discovery sites
Up to this point, I’ve talked about book discovery sites as alternatives. But this isn’t necessarily the best way to use them. You can stack several promotions together. Don’t think of them as being simply additive. 1+1 can be more than 2. This is because of the way the Amazon algorithm works. To get best value from the promotions, you want to kick-start Amazon into recommending your book to more potential buyers. The algorithm notices a successful “spike” in sales. But, as seen, this tails off very quickly. So, if you can maintain sales over time (say 5-7 days), the algorithm will notice the “consistency” and interpret as organic buying behaviour. This will increase the chances Amazon recommends your book.
So, you want to plan a promotional campaign that creates an upward sales trend over the 7 days. You want to come off the promotion at your peak Amazon ranking. Combine all the firepower you have available. For example, you may start on day 1 with a promotion through social media, your website, newsletter or mailing list. You may want to combine this with advertising on Amazon and other places. Around day 3, bring in the first of the book discovery sites, and introduce the others over the succeeding days, ending with a bang on the penultimate day. If you’re lucky, Amazon will give you a long “tail” of sales after the promotion is over.
It’s also important not to think of an individual promotion as an end in itself. Think strategically. Your short term goal is to sell more books, sure. But, longer term, your success depends on building a sustained relationship with fans and subscribers. It also depends on learning what promotional tools work for you. Think about how an individual promotion can help you towards the goals of building your skills in promotion and reaching out to a wider audience.
Opting for the biggest and most expensive site may not be your best option. BookBub performs dramatically, but not for every title. BookGorilla performs equally well, for less cost and with a higher chance of recouping your costs. Think about “stacking” the sites to achieve greatest effect.
What, for example, if the organizing principle of a story is homologies? Homology just means a likeness in structure. For example, we might say that confectionary with a liquid centre is a homologue of our planet with its molten core.
This idea of homology might seem unusual in our era of scientific understanding of cause and effect. But it’s a very old idea. For much of the Middle Ages, scholars attempted to understand the universe using this principle. For example, believing that there was a principle of homology between the earthly and the heavenly realm, healers felt that God had created a medicinal plant for every ailment, and that these plants could be recognized by their “signatures”.
The white spotted leaves of lungwort were used to treat tuberculosis because they were thought to look like diseased lungs.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy is a good literary example of the use of this principle of homology. The narrator is charged by a mysterious multi-tentacled consultancy firm to create a report on the codes governing the present age. He finds connections and patterns everywhere, and therefore perhaps, nowhere.
Connections and patterns everywhere. That’s a characteristic of fractals. Fractals are mathematical entities, repeating patterns. Whatever level of magnification you look at them, they go on and on forever.
There are various ways in which stories can have this fractal-like effect. Let’s consider them, one by one.
The reader’s experience of structure. This is different from the writer’s conscious use of structure, in that it is not usually deliberative. Let’s look at this first in an analytical mode, the mode the writer uses. Different writers follow different conventions about how a story is structured. But common terms include scenes, sequences and acts. Some include the notion of beats as the smallest atomic unit of dramatic writing. What all of these have in common, is a change in tension. There is an incident, a rise in tension and a resolution. This creates change and movement. This general formula can be applied from the smallest unit of story (the beat or scene) all the way to the arc of the entire narrative. In a sense, this repeat pattern is fractal. Maslow’s famous triangle illustrates this at the level of the whole story.
Now let’s examine the reader’s experience of this structure. There’s a rhythmic rise and fall of tension building to a crescendo. Though the reader may not be aware of the units of the rhythm, the body experiences it.
The most literal fractal story would be one which exactly repeats at every level. Nancy Fulda describes what this would be like: “Having a novel about a Father who loses his son, in which a father loses a son in each chapter, is not going to go over real well unless it’s some sort of an artsy/literary thing.” But she says, at the level of thematic similarity, something like this is possible: “A novel with a theme of loss might have an overarching storyline that addresses that theme, coupled with several subplots that address it in different ways, coupled with word choices at the sentence level that also emphasize the theme. That’s a pattern that starts to sound distinctly fractoid.” We might also explore an idea at different “scales”. Are children learning the same lessons as their parents? Is the family going through the same seismic shifts as the country they live in? I’m indebted to A.C. Blais for this idea.
Symmetry. Our brains like and respond to symmetry. Stories that loop back to their beginnings (either as a circle or a spiral) are very satisfying. The Hobbit is a classic “there and back” tale. The widely-used, if rather mechanical, Hero’s Journey format is full of symmetries in which different segments mirror each other.
A more complex mirroring occurs in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a nested series of two-part stories.
Echoes and motifs. This is a more subtle (and less geometrical) example. When themes and images recur throughout a story, our brains register the pattern (though not always consciously). Pattern is one of the main ways in which we understand the world. In the case of echoes and motifs, the pattern is not an exact repeat, but it creates an atmosphere laden with meaning. Consider, for example, The Great Gatsby. Arguably, the novel charts the hollowness of The American Dream. Recurring motifs underly this—the parties, the conspicuous consumption, the transactional nature of relationships, the optometrist’s eyes, the valley of ashes.
Counterposed to these is the green light, which represents for Gatsby all that is unattainable and all that he has lost.
A fractal story grid
How might we apply these ideas to the construction of a story? This must start with the fundamental pattern that will be repeated and echoed. Let me take the premise of the novel I’m working on: Sol must learn that boundaries do not provide safety, or he will never make it home.
With this, I can set up a grid: bounded vs unbounded and safe vs unsafe. This is the primary pattern that will repeat again and again at smaller and smaller scales.
Next, I identify some of the plot elements. Sol, the central character, is a clever boy who will grow to manhood over the course of the story. He will transgress boundaries and discover things. And he will struggle with his feelings of loss and detachment. So, within the basic grid I can place a further four elements: knowledge, activity, time and feeling.
And I can break each of these four elements down into four sub-elements, as you can see below. This approach is modified from the system promoted by Dramatica.
In each grid and sub-grid, the top left will have the valency of bounded and safe, the top right of bounded and unsafe, the bottom right unbounded and safe, and the bottom left unbounded and unsafe. So, for example under Feeling (which is predominantly unbounded and unsafe), secure is safe and bounded, while insecure is unsafe and unbounded. There is a dramatic tension between elements in each grid and sub-grid that are diagonally opposite each other. This tension will supply the rhythm of the story.
This is not the structure of the story. It’s a coding sheet. When the plot points are superimposed onto the grid, it shows the valency of each point and the connection with other points. This helps guide the sculpting of the piece to achieve the desired effect.
For example, in the beginning of the novel, Sol is evacuated during a war to his uncle’s house in the country. He desperately misses his parents and believes he has found the sign of a way to get back to them. So the story begins in the bottom right quadrant of feeling with a sense of detachment. He fails to bond with his uncle, Zand but, when he crosses the boundary wall of the estate, he encounters a beekeeper, Bernard, with whom he forges a relationship.
There is a recurring theme of boundaries. Zand tells him he is free to go anywhere in the house, except in the study. Sol is fascinated with the beehive with its many chambers. In the field by Bernard’s hives he discovers what he believes to be a shape under the ground. We have moved to the top left set of quadrants dealing with knowledge. Is the shape really there? Or is it an illusion? Can he reason it out, or will he need to apply the less secure means of intuition? The shape escapes the boundaries of the present takes us into the past (bottom left quadrants dealing with time) when he comes to believe he is looking at the outline of the walls of an old Anglo-Saxon meeting place, a wintan. The assignation of the place to the past puts it in the sub-quadrant which is bounded and safe. It is the present which is unbounded and unsafe.
The final act of the book is where certainty vanishes. It takes place largely in the activity quadrant and is dominated by the contradiction between the discrete and the diffused.
New and different stories
So, it could be done. The question is why would anyone do it? Well, as a display of virtuosity perhaps. This is arguably the motivation behind David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. But, there are two more important reasons. The first is to give the reader the pleasurable experience of pattern and rhythm. The second, and most important, is that it carries the message of the book. The message is that there are no bounded spaces which are inherently safe for Sol. If the fractal pattern is self-similar all the way down to the smallest level of magnification, then no space is without peril. The advantage of considering fractals as a basis for story-telling is that it may open the door to new and different kinds of stories.
A final point. I’m not suggesting this as a grand scheme for the construction of stories. Grand schemes tend to lead to mechanical cloned stories. This is just the schema that I developed to help me tell this particular story.
There ain’t no pandemic. I seen inside the hospital. Empty. It’s all a lie. Probably, you’ll decide I’m one of those nutjobs. Think you’re better than me, don’t you?
You’re certain, right? You seen it on the news. I got a big shock for you—the media lies. All them wards full of sick people? Actors. They do that, you know.
Why would they? To stop us finding out what they’re up to, of course. I’m talking deep state here. The vaccine ain’t no cure, cause there ain’t nothing to fix. They made it up so’s they can inject everyone with trackers.
Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. I’m afraid I was naughty this week. Since Rochelle told us last week not to write a pandemic story to a toilet roll prompt, I thought I’d do one this week to a completely unrelated prompt.You can find other stories here
He is angry. But he curbs it well, speaking calmly and slowly. Or at least, I think he’s angry. Maybe he isn’t. It could just be my projection. I know there’s a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Why did you leave the seat down again?” he asks. “You did it to annoy me, right?”
Though I shake my head, I feel the dread of speaking, of contradicting him.
And he could be right. He says I don’t know myself well. That might be true. And what would I do without him to pay the bills?
Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here