Saturday, 31 March 2012

Literary walks 2012

A number of people have been asking about my Literary Walks programme for 2012!  After mulling it over, I have decided that this year I won't advertise specific dates far in advance, since last year on assorted rainy days I was the only one who turned up!  Sometimes I just go for a walk anyway on my own and in the rain (!!)  -- but that does involve making plans around my scheduled walk dates and wasting time that might be spent on more creative pursuits.  So this year I will keep things very flexible.  If a family or other group would like me to do a walk, I'll do if for £50, regardless of numbers -- just ring me up and sort out a date which is mutually convenient, even if this involves very short notice.  Normally I suggest a start time of 2 pm and a finish time of 5 pm -- and the walk involves a short ramble (about 2 miles) taking in "Plas Ingli", Ffynnon Brynach and the mountain summit.  I always suggest a start and finish point as the car parking area on the Dolrannog Road.

So if you and your family or friends would like me to do a walk for you, just ring 01239-820470, and we will see what we can do.....

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Another Review of "The Strange Affair..."

The book, set in Haverfordwest shortly after the end of the Second World War, features the adventures of a gang of mischievous eight-year olds. An adventure story set in the year 1948, narrated by a heroic grandfather to his grandchildren.
A dramatic beginning plunges us into Grandpa Brian’s mystery story, told in vivid flashback images. Echoes of various children’s classic tales abound: rival boy gangs, gloomy woods, murky waterways, a dilapidated mansion, a ‘witch’, a slavering dog, an elaborate treasure chest, a servant from far away shores, and even a connection with a great historical figure – all this happening sixty years ago in Wales!

The conversational narration creates infectious energy to keep us turning pages, complimented by lively illustrations - especially the hastily improvised ‘Bloomers Flag’!

In the final section, Top Tips for Kids, today’s readers are encouraged to explore their practical skills. Maybe some might leave their computers for a while to return to a virtual bygone age when simple, creative skills were an enjoyable challenge to youngsters, keeping them occupied and in the fresh air for hours!

Hilary Cooper

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The new book is delivered

"Conspiracy of Angels" has been delivered -- on price and on time.  Two pallets with 100 boxes containing 2,000 copies of the book arrived today from Poland -- and the printers, Opolgraf, have done a first-class job.  Why Poland?  Well, I placed the work with them, through a broker called Marksprint -- because I liked the price and I liked the quality of the work they sent me.  This time the British printing firms just could not compete.

Luckily the weather was magnificent when the delivery came -- so this afternoon I was able to move the stock into the house at my leisure.  Now I have to get it all sold -- and out of the house as fast as possible.  Tomorrow, a trip up to Aberystwyth to drop off the wholesale stock with the Welsh Books Council -- and after that I need to get stock out and about to my outlets in West Wales.  A few days on the road coming up.........

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Sleeping Goddess

Further to my recent post, this is a photo taken the other day -- showing the profile of the Carningli summit as seen from the S or SW.  Call her what you like -- Sleeping Goddess, Mother Earth or the Earth Goddess -- but the female profile is unmistakeable,  and maybe this goes some way to explain why some people think of the mountain as sacred, and why it is held that this reverence for the mountain goes back to pre-Christian times.

Click on the photo for enlargement.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

General Picton -- national hero or sadistic thug?

 Jack Hawkins in the role of General Picton in the film "Waterloo"

 Coming soon in the April 2012 edition of Pembrokeshire Life Magazine:


In his new novel called Conspiracy of Angels, local author Brian John has created another complex tale about Mistress Martha and the rough and ugly world of early eighteenth-century Pembrokeshire.  This is the eighth story in the Angel Mountain Saga, set in the year 1810 and immediately following the narrative of Sacrifice.  Brian hopes that faithful fans of the series will be as entranced as ever by his heroine’s latest adventures, during the course of which she becomes involved in the anti-slavery movement and is dragged into a world of high politics and extreme personal danger.  She is as irrepressible and exasperating as ever, and her angels have to work very hard to keep her safe........

But running behind the narrative of the story and the complex interactions between the key players, Brian has embarked on an analysis of General Sir Thomas Picton, one of Pembrokeshire’s most famous sons.  He is lauded as a great military leader and as the most senior British officer to have been killed at Waterloo, but does he really deserve the uncritical praise which he gets from most local historians?  Brian thinks not.  “He was certainly an effective military leader,” he says, “but the Duke of Wellington thought of him as crude and foul-mouthed, and blocked attempts to have him buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.  The defects in his character came out most strongly during his time as the Governor of Trinidad, when he was a brutal and sadistic tyrant.  To this day, his memory is reviled on that island, since he showed scant regard for the law and used torture, beheadings, burnings at the stake and other summary executions routinely in his determination to maintain control over the colonial population of black slaves.  His methods would not have been out of place in the Middle Ages.  He claimed that he did not mind being hated, so long as he was feared.   My portrayal of him in the book may or may not be accurate, but I have tried to be reasonably faithful to what I have discovered through my research.”

General Picton’s nemesis was a 13-year-old mulatto girl called Louisa Calderon, who was accused of theft and who was then tortured (with Picton’s specific approval) in order to extract a confession.  Because she was a free member of the community and not a slave, this caused outrage on the island and further afield, and added to the pervading sense of disquiet about Picton’s behaviour.  He was relieved of his post, brought back to Britain in disgrace, and tried in a very famous court case, with William Garrow leading for the prosecution.  He was found guilty by a jury, but he was never punished, because wealthy slave owners and other supporters organized a retrial, at which he was acquitted on the absurd technicality that at the time of his Governorship Spanish law still applied!  But from that point on, his reputation was destroyed.

So is Brian involved in a piece of “character assassination” by bringing echoes of these events into his new novel?  He thinks it is perfectly valid for a novelist to address social issues, and to seek to throw light onto historical events and even onto well-known characters from the past.  He claims to have done just that in every one of the Angel Mountain novels.  “This time I have General Picton under scrutiny, and what I see under the cloak of celebrity and through the fog of history is not very pleasant.”

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Carningli and Mother Earth

 Look at the profile of the mountain summit:  from the left, we see head, breast, rib cage, and finally raised knees.  Is this why we have a tradition that this summit is a reclining female, Mother Earth, or the Earth Goddess?  Or is all of that just a modern fantasy?  who knows?

I wonder how old the tradition might be that Carningli is a sacred female mountain?  The name -- Carningli or Angel Mountain -- of course suggests a tradition of sanctity maybe going back to Early Christian times; and indeed the tradition is still alive today that St Brynach used to climb up to the summit for periods of contemplation and prayer, during which he was deemed to commune with the angels.  But the FEMALE tradition?  Laurence Main thinks it is very old indeed -- going back well before Christian times.  So that takes us into the Iron Age, during which time the mountain was inhabited by a small village community.  The traces of the hill fort are still evident today.  to my mind, if the mountain was VERY sacred during the Iron Age people would not have lived on it -- but all is conjecture......

The "sacred female" tradition must have something to do with the profile of the mountain, which will not have changed very much over many thousands of years.  The skyline profile certainly does look like a woman lying on her back, as we can see above.  So might we have a tradition here that goes back as far as the Neolithic?

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is certainly rather strange that when the story of Mistress Martha Morgan came to me, her intense spiritual / emotional relationship with the mountain was a key part of the story and of her psyche.  As she says over and again, she is a part of the mountain, and the mountain is a part of her.  It is her cathedral, and the cave in the mountain is her special place -- and place of very powerful symbolism.  What does that say about Carningli?  What does that say about Martha, and about me?  Answers on a postcard, please.......

Gorse on the Carningli summit

I came across this painting of Carningli in an art catalogue years ago, and in spite of the watermark it's very appealing.  It's an interesting reminder, in the context of all the discussions about the management of the mountain, that the pattern of vegetation has not always been as it is today.  Notice that in this picture there is flowering gorse right up among the rocks on the summit and that there is a swathe of purple heather between Carningli and Garnffoi.  Nowadays, because of heavy grazing in the past and recent intensive burning, the vegettation is much lighter; bracken has taken over in some of the lower areas, and areas where gorse and heather were prominent have been taken over by grassland.

Nothing is permanent -- every generation has the mountain it deserves -- fashioned by changes in animal stocking density, burning frequency and other factors.  Should the mountain be sprayed to keep down the bracken?  No way!  It is after all an SSSI.  I think we should just let the mountain respond in its own way to climate change and changes in land-use practices -- and that we should not seek to over-manage it.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

About Mother Wales

From one of my Q & A sessions:

Many readers have remarked that Mistress Martha is really “Mother Wales.”   Have you set out to encourage that belief?

When I wrote On Angel Mountain I was simply intent upon writing a rattling good story with believable characters and enough twists and turns in the plot to keep readers happy.  Young Martha Morgan was my heroine, but I had no plan to develop her as an iconic figure.  But then I had to develop her character greatly in the story called House of Angels, in which she has to cope with the death of her husband and with other very dramatic events.  Then a good friend read the novel and asked me whether I had modelled Martha on Chris Guthrie in Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song.  I had not even heard of that novel or its author.  But I went off and read all three novels in A Scots Quair, and was bowled over by them.  I can quite understand why Chris Guthrie is viewed by many students of Scottish literature as Mother Scotland.  But she is a victim, and Martha Morgan is anything but a victim.

I have not tried to manufacture Martha's character, but I have tried to bring out different aspects of it in the eight novels of the Saga.  Maybe she does embody all that is best and worst about Wales.  On the one hand she is beautiful, passionate, feisty, strong-willed and fiercely loyal and protective of those whom she loves.  On the other hand she is prone to introspection and even deep depression and paranoia.  At times she becomes arrogant and manipulative.  She cannot keep her nose out of other peoples’ business, and becomes involved in great campaigns which can only lead her into trouble.  But she hates injustice and suffering, and is prepared to take huge personal risks in the rightings of wrongs. At times she seems unaware of the physical danger in which she places herself -- to the point of naivety, and to the exasperation of her family and friends.  She has an almost mystical relationship with the landscape in which she lives and the house which gives her shelter.  She belongs to Carningli, and the mountain belongs to her. She is also proudly Welsh and refuses to submit to any authority which she does not respect. 

The early stories have as a running theme Martha's sexuality and her passionate relationships with her husband David and then with Owain, the man to whom she is betrothed but whom she never marries.  In the second book she learns how to cope with both motherhood and widowhood.  In Dark Angel she faces up to insecurity and her own tendency towards depression and paranoia.  Sometimes she is a good mother, and sometimes she makes disastrous mistakes.   In Sacrifice and Conspiracy of Angels she is in her prime, still with a young family to look after -- but having to survive appalling brutality and personal humiliation as a result of her tendency to get sucked into affairs that a wiser woman would have avoided like the plague.  But every time she is knocked over, she bounces up again.  She is nothing if not resilient!  She is also very liberal and liberated -- and in that sense a very "modern" heroine, very different from the other subservient and suppressed women who belonged in her peer group.  In Rebecca and the Angels she is in middle age, and as the children fly the nest she needs to learn how to let go -- and how to find a new role for herself as a philanthropist and activist, espousing more than one great cause.  In Flying with Angels she becomes increasingly eccentric,  but she is in some ways liberated as the next generation takes over the estate -- and she has to learn to cope with THEIR mistakes and misjudgments in her role as family matriarch.  She has one last fling, and confronts the fact that even she will not live for ever.  And finally in Guardian Angel she is involved in a strange and allegorical adventure, with a new persona -- and has to explore in her own mind the meaning of identity.....

Throughout every phase of her life she is passionately WELSH, frequently expressing his disdain for  the establishment and the crachach and always siding with the poor and the oppressed in their battles with the government, the church, the mean-spirited gentry and the taxation system.  In every one of the eight books her relationship with Carningli and her own sacred territory is a strong theme --  so this strange thing called hiraeth is at the very core of her being.

 If all that makes her Mother Wales, so be it!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Author's Notes: Sacrifice

Brian John on Sacrifice

Welsh author Brian John explains the origins of the seventh novel in the best-selling Angel Mountain series.

How many times can you kill off a good heroine? Well, Mistress Martha Morgan of Plas Ingli has gone into her coffin twice, and that is enough to be going on with.  My old English master Fred Nicholls told me that to kill off a good heroine even once is foolish indeed.  “But if you have to do it,” he said, “make sure you leave some gaps in the story.”

I started writing the Angel Mountain saga ten years ago, following a viral infection accompanied by a delirious episode, during which I was “given” the adventurous life story of a feisty and imperfect woman called Martha Morgan, who lived on a struggling country estate in the early 1800’s.  Very strange.  When I recovered, the story would not go away.  I wrote down the first part of it and tried to find an agent and a publisher to take it on, with notable lack of success.  So I published it myself.  Ten years after the publication of On Angel Mountain it has become a Welsh favourite, reprinted seven times and with sales now above 25,000.  I was told the other day that anything that sells 700 copies in Wales is counted as a best-seller.  Does that make the novel a block-buster?

Buoyed up by the success of the first story, and with encouragement from a multitude of fans, I followed it with five other novels, written at the rate of one a year -- all featuring Martha and her family and friends, and all set in the rough and lovely landscape of North Pembrokeshire.  The key location is the mountain of Carningli, which has become a place of pilgrimage for readers determined to experience the serenity and the magic of Angel Mountain.  All the other novels have been reprinted; three of them have appeared in Corgi editions; and total sales for the whole series now approach 65,000.  And I take some pride in the fact that those sales have been achieved without any grant aid or publishing subsidies.

At the beginning of 2009, a new story came to me, slotting very tidily into a gap of nine years in the middle of the story entitled Dark Angel.  In the spring I did my research, developed the storyline, and wrote a detailed synopsis.  Then, on holiday in Sweden in June and July, I wrote the book.  In a long life as a writer, with more than 70 titles to my name, I have never before completed a book so quickly.  I was not aware of being obsessed in my writing this time, but my wife might disagree!  After much thought I decided upon the title Sacrifice -- for the first time leaving the word “angel” off the front cover.

From the beginning it has been part of my writing strategy to make each novel in the series unique in its style and “atmosphere”.  This is difficult to do in historical fiction, especially when each novel features the same characters (except for the villains, who are always disposed of) and the same wild and beautiful places.  But the novels are all written in a diary format, and each one deals with a specific phase in the heroine’s life.  So, for example, in the first novel Martha is a pregnant, suicidal teenager who has just been through a shotgun wedding; and in the fourth novel she is a mature and energetic woman whose children have flown the nest, and who decides to become involved, for better or worse, in the Rebecca Riots.  And in each novel I have been able to examine a different facet of her character.  It’s a great privilege for an author to be able to devote seven books to one heroine -- and because she is now so well-rounded and “comfortable” many of my readers refer to her as “Mother Wales.”

And so to Sacrifice.  It’s very different from the other books -- much darker, more distressing in its content, and containing a quota of drugs, sex and violence.  That’s where the story led me, and that’s where I had to go.  At the core of the book there are four very sinister and determined members of a secret society, who visit retribution upon a number of victims in a particularly brutal fashion.  Martha is at the top of their hit list, and at last she is drawn into their trap.  There she meets depravity on a scale that almost destroys her.  In her diary she describes her attempts to come to terms with what has happened -- and in the end there is a sort of triumph for love over evil.  In this book the story moves along very rapidly, and if I have to give it a label I think I would call it a crime thriller.  And the customer response?  On that score, I think I can sleep well, with 1400 copies sold within 3 weeks of publication and with a reprint ordered within six months.


Sacrifice is published, like the other six novels of the Angel Mountain saga, by Greencroft Books.  It costs £7.99.

On writing very fast.......

Five of the Angel Mountain novels were produced at the rate of one per year. That was a very ambitious schedule.  Do you write very quickly?

Yes, I do.  I work straight onto the computer, banging away with two fingers, making lots of mistakes, and correcting as I go along.  If I am working on a difficult passage I may keep going for twelve hours or more, with very few breaks;  but I do seem to have the knack of getting away from writing for days -- or sometimes weeks -- and then picking up again where I left off. The critical thing is to keep the creative process going inside my head even when I am gardening or travelling or doing building work.........  My greatest output in one day was about 11,000 words, but a more average output would be around 4,000 words.  On Angel Mountain took me about eighteen months to write, but the other books were written much more quickly -- in about four months each.  That was probably down to increased confidence, greater knowledge of my characters, and greater efficiency in my research and writing.

You mention research -- how much research and preparation goes into the books?

A considerable amount.  Because I am writing historical fiction I have to get the social history -- and all sorts of other things -- right.   For example, I have had to study folk traditions, the events of the farming calendar, beliefs, political issues of the day, the details of women’s clothing, and the timing of great events on the world stage.  If you get anything wrong in historical fiction, you can be sure that somebody will jump on you from a great height!  Luckily I have a considerable library of relevant books at home, and that has saved me from long hours spent in public libraries.  The internet has been a boon.   But a lot of the detail in the books was in my head already, from years of reading and writing about folk tales and local geography and history.  The background detail is enjoyed by many readers, and there is of course a “learning” aspect to the reading of historical fiction.   By the same token, as an author I enjoy the “teaching” opportunities that come in the quieter parts of the novels, and they serve a useful technical purpose too in permitting me to vary the pace of my storytelling. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Shortlisted for Children's Book Prize

One of Boz Groden's excellent illustrations for the children's book.  Click to enlarge

Had a cheerful bit of news the other day.  The Strange Affair of the Ethiopian Treasure Chest has been shortlisted for the Wishing Shelf Book Prize...

It's not exactly a vast and famous international competition -- but it has the great merit of being judged by children.  The readers' panels are made up of children from London Schools, for the most part, and if they like a story set in rural West Wales then that's fine by me!

The winner of the competition will be announced in April.  Watch this space.....

Monday, 12 March 2012

A walk in the Kelp Forest

Putting this up for no other reason than that it's very beautiful!  This isn't Newport's Big Beach -- the photo was taken at Abermawr yesterday, at a time of very low spring tides.  This area of kelp and rocks is normally well beneath water level, so it's a rare privilege to see it in all its glory..........

Friday, 9 March 2012

Writer living dangerously .....

 Writer living dangerously.  On the left, the author who dared to write 8 novels using the "voice" of a woman.  On the right, his wife Inger, technical advisor on all things feminine.

A brief extract from the Q and A session on my web site:

Wasn’t it risky for you, as a man approaching retirement, to presume to speak as a pregnant, suicidal young woman from another age?

Very risky indeed.  But I had to do it, since that’s the way the story came to me.  So I swallowed hard and had to get on with it, for better or worse.  Luckily I seem to have got away with it, and many female readers have complimented me on the accuracy with which I have portrayed female moods and instincts.  Maybe that’s the female side of me coming out, or maybe it’s down to accurate observation of women over a long period of time!  But here I have to thank my wife Inger, who has been my chief critic and consultant on the female psyche.  She reads everything as soon as it is written, and does not hesitate to put me right on misjudgements large and small, and indeed on all things feminine.  I have to admit to some difficulties in writing the most intimate and erotic scenes in the five books, and also in describing a miscarriage as experienced by Martha herself.  No man can really understand the emotional turmoil and physical anguish involved.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Morrison v Konrath on the self-publishing bubble

Fine fun and games -- some weeks ago Ewan Morrison published an article in the Guardian which argued that the current mania for putting self-published books onto the Amazon web site for a Kindle readership should be seen as a typical boom-bust scenario.  On other words, there was an expanding bubble of E-published rubbish on Amazon, with no editorial or quality control, and which would eventually burst, having done a great deal of harm to the conventional publishing industry in the process.  I was quite taken, when I read it, with the image of a system overwhelmed by millions and millions of self-published Ebooks, most of them lacking in quality and in dire need of some serious editing, simply clogging up the system and making it impossible for the decent books to emerge at the top of the pile........

There was another article in the Guardian by Alison Flood, reporting on a talk by Jonathan Franzen at Cartagena, in which he bewailed the damage done by Ebooks, the supposed lowering of standards, and the decline of traditional published books and publishing houses in the face of the Kindle revolution.  He seemed to equate the process with the decline of civilization itself.............

Well, Joe Konrath has come out fighting.  The guru of Kindle writers has a post on his blog which slams both Franzen and Morrison, and effectively accuses them of being Luddites and alarmists.  He concludes his piece thus:

1. People fear change. When change happens, they dig in like ticks and try to defend their long-held and closely-cherished beliefs. (BTW, another term for long-held/closely cherished belief is
prejudice. And prejudice ain't good.)

2. The same memes about ebooks keep getting circulated again and again and again because folks are too lazy to do any kind of simple research to inform their opinions.

3. Ebooks are going to follow the examples set by the music, movie, and TV industries. The future is digital, and anyone who disagrees with that is seriously out of touch with reality.

So all you ebook self-pubbers out there: ignore the alarmists. There are always doomsayers and Luddites and nostalgia whores who bitch and moan when new technologies take over. But they don't matter. Because new technologies don't care if some folks resist them--they take over anyway.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Franzen and the Ebook Bubble

I am more and more convinced by the Konrath arguments -- not simply because the technology is here to stay, but also because the process of writing and selling for the Kindle is both subversive and empowering.  There is an anarchistic streak in all of us, and it is clear that those who do manage to notch up massive sales of Kindle books (admittedly they make up a very small percentage of the total number of authors competing in the market) take great pleasure in kicking the system and blowing raspberries in the direction of all those snotty agents and publishers in their past histories who turned them down flat......


These are the offending Guardian pieces:

The self-epublishing bubble
In August 2011, Ewan Morrison published an article entitled Are Books Dead and Can Authors Survive?. Here, he tracks the self-epublishing euphoria of the last five months and argues that we are at the start of an epublishing bubble
Ewan Morrison, Monday 30 January 2012
Jonathan Franzen warns ebooks are corroding values
Freedom author tells festival audience that the 'impermanence' of ebooks is incompatible with enduring principles
Alison Flood, Monday 30 January 2012

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The art of publishing for the Kindle

This is a post from Joe Konrath's blog.  He's the one who has sold almost 700,000 books for the Kindle on Amazon, and who hit the headlines with sales worth $140,000 in 4 weeks.  He works hard, writes books that people like, and manipulates the system.... best of luck to him!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Value of Publicity

I'm J.A. Konrath.

People consider me to be one of the mouthpieces of the self-publishing movement. As such, I often get interviewed. I've been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the Washington Post, Forbes, Newsweek, USA Today, etc.

You'd think all of this publicity has led to increased sales of my ebooks.

You'd think wrong.

I'm obsessive about numbers, as anyone who reads this blog can tell you. So when I appear in some major periodical, I watch my Kindle numbers, looking for the big spike.

I never see a big spike. In fact, I hardly ever see a small spike.

Huh? WTF? Does that make sense? We all know that publicity leads to sales, right?


I'm getting a name for myself in the self-publishing world. I get millions of hits a year on this blog. When people discuss self-pubbing, my name often comes up.

But the people who visit this blog, and discuss my self-publishing efforts, are writers.

Writers aren't buying my fiction. They aren't buying my non-fiction either--I have an ebook called "A Newbie's Guide to Publishing" and it is among my lowest-selling titles.

The people who buy me are readers, and the vast majority have never heard of me. Readers find me on Amazon, because Amazon has made it easy for my books to be discovered.

Don't believe me? Try to argue with these points.

1. I don't see any noticeable sales boosts when I'm mentioned in some major periodical. The best media attention I ever received didn't account for more than a few hundred extra sales. I've sold almost 700,000 ebooks. A few hundred doesn't mean diddly.

2. When my sales spike on Amazon, they don't spike on other platforms. If I were famous, I would be famous across the board, not to a specific format.

3. The List has been in the Kindle Top 100 four different times in three years. Each time was because of my personal efforts, usually playing with cost or doing some active promotion. Nothing has ever "taken off" simply because I'm famous.

4. When Amazon made Stirred a Kindle Daily Deal, it hit #1. They've done that with dozens of authors, many of them fresh-faced newbies. It was better than anything I've been able to do on my own, even though I have some name-recognition.

5. I get a lot of fanmail. Most is from people discovered who me on Kindle. Some is from authors asking my advice. But I almost never get email from an author asking my advice who says, "I bought all your ebooks." Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? If you want me to help you, the least you could do is buy some of my books.

6. Look at my Amazon reviews. I've got thousands. Count how few say, "I began reading Joe's books because of his outspoken views about self-publishing."

7. Dozens of other Kindle authors are having similar success to mine without any of the fame I have. There are also several other writers who prominently support self-publishing and are quoted a lot, but they don't have sales equal to mine. So I'm the one selling because of my name, but no one else is?

8. I have a good friend who is currently hosting a terrific TV show. He's also a terrific fiction writer. But despite being nationally syndicated, his book sales are modest. Fame in one area doesn't always translate to fame in another.

Here's the deal: Readers are my customers, not writers. Readers don't even know who the Big 6 are. They don't care.

I'm mentioned a lot in the publishing community, which is small, closed, and uninteresting to anyone who isn't in it. But because we're in it, and we care about it, we incorrectly assume that because writers know who I am, readers must as well.

The majority of my sales don't come from people hearing about my self-pub exploits. Nor do they come from my midlist legacy titles, which sold modestly.

In other words, my fame and my past have little to do with my current success.

The majority of my sales come from Amazon and my ability to use the tools they provide. So far I've played my cards right. I write fun books with good covers and sell them cheap, I have a lot of virtual shelf space, and readers like my writing.

Sure, I have longtime fans. And sure, some writers buy my ebooks to show support, or as a way to thank me for my advice.

But I didn't make $140k in the last 30 days because of thankful writers, old fans, or a mention in the Guardian. I made it because I positioned my titles properly. There were a whole bunch of new Kindles sold this holiday season, just as there were in 2010 and 2009. I was expecting this to happen, though admittedly not in such a big way.

What does this mean to you, the writer trying to succeed?

1. Don't sweat publicity. It can't hurt, but I don't think it will drive your sales unless the publicity is really huge. And even then, the publicity is only responsible for temporary sales, not long term sales.

2. Focus, as always, on writing good books and presenting them in a professional way. The more, the better.

3. Social media and word of mouth are helpful, but you have to reach a lot of people before these become a factor. Less tweeting, more writing.

4. Reviews don't have the gravitas they used to. Certain ebook review sites can help sales, but even better is giving away free books to fans in exchange for an honest review.

5. Study Amazon and how it sells ebooks. Experiment. Take chances. If one of Amazon's imprints offers to publish you, accept. Right now they are the only publisher who can increase your sales.

6. Avoid all legacy publishers. You can do everything they can, faster, and you don't have to give away the majority of your income.

Now I'm a genre writer. I don't have experience with YA, children's, non-fiction, poetry, or those long-winded books where plot is optional (literary fiction). But if ereaders are going to become the preferred way of reading (hint: they are) then eventually all books will make the transition to ebooks. I wish I could go back in time three years and erase all of those legacy publisher contracts I signed, so I'd have the rights now. You don't want to sign your rights away now, and in three years be kicking yourself like I am.

7. Don't give up. It can take years before you get to where you want to be. Luck plays a part. Stick with it until you get lucky.

And feel free to tweet this. It won't help me sell many ebooks, but it could help your peers.

Martha -- a classic tragic heroine?

Sarah Bernhardt -- really going for it in one of her many tragic heroine roles.  Martha was not quite so melodramatic as this.....

This is a short extract from the comprehensive Q and A page on my web site:

Did you intend Martha to be a classic tragic heroine?

Again, I did not have to work at this.  It was clear to me right from the beginning that as she travels through a long and exciting life she trails disaster in her wake.  Her beauty is the source of her strength and also her curse, and as she survives one terrifying episode after another she loves and loses not just one good man but five.  Many of her enemies love her too, or at least lust after her.  In some ways she is naive about her own power over men;  but her friends and family see it perfectly well, and do their best to warn her and protect her.  There is an inexorable momentum in Martha’s tragedy.  In some way it is surprising that she survives into her seventies, but it must be clear to all the readers of the Saga (by the time they get to Volume 4 or 5) that Martha will not die in her bed.  Nor does she.............

A much-loved map

This is the much-loved map which has been used in all of the Angel Mountain novels -- in effect, it shows Martha Morgan's Little World, and the territory in which most of the action takes place.  Click to enlarge.

Of course, Martha does stray off "her patch" occasionally, and in Flying with Angels she even goes off to Ireland.  In Guardian Angel she goes even further afield, on a tour of Continental Europe.  In "Conspiracy of Angels" she spends a couple of weeks in the Lake District, with dramatic consequences....... but I won't give the game away....

Conspiracy of Angels -- all sorted

COMING SOON!  Everything is now with the printers, and they are promising delivery in good time for the launch on 9th April 2012....

Volume 8 of the Angel Mountain Saga

In the year 1810, following Martha’s return from voluntary exile on the Isle of Skomar, a black man is shipwrecked on the shore of the island. He dies from his injuries, but two strange and powerful objects find their way into Martha’s hands.  Shortly afterwards,  she meets a freed black slave, and she agrees to become involved in a secretive anti-slavery movement.  At first all goes well, but then things run out of control as she desperately tries to stop a brutal campaign aimed, ironically, at her own enemies.  Inexorably she is drawn into a shadowy world inhabited by politicians,  gentry and assassins -- and it emerges that the security of the state itself is at risk.   This is a tightly constructed tale with many unexpected twists and turns.  The key characters will be familiar to followers of the Angel Mountain Saga, but marching through the pages of the story are others who are considerably larger than life -- including the famous dandy Beau Brummell, the portly Princess of Ebersdorf, a black villain called John Wesley Jumbie, and General Sir Thomas Picton, who has been cursed, and whose days are numbered.

Brian John is the master of suspense, though it is not all blood and gall.  His descriptive prowess is eloquent........  His characters as usual are full of colour and verve; they leap off the page. One can understand why the Angel Mountain Saga has become something of a cult.  Pick up any of the series and I guarantee you will want to read them all.  Gwales (Welsh Books Council)

Details:  Conspiracy of Angels (Part Eight of the Angel Mountain Saga), by Brian John, Greencroft Books, 2012, ISBN 9780905559933.  A5 paperback, 352 pp, £7.99.

Book launch party:  5 - 7 pm,  Easter Monday, 9th April, in the Commodore’s Lounge, Boat Club, Parrog, Newport.  Readings by Lis Evans; signings by the author.  Please come and join us for the occasion!

Monday, 5 March 2012

About Mistress Martha


About Mistress Martha

(This is an extract from Martha Morgan's Little World.)

When a character as exotic, beautiful and passionate as Martha Morgan walks into one’s life in the middle of the night, when one is at a low ebb, one cannot fail to be impressed! I suppose I fell in love with her there and then, and have remained in love ever since. (My wife Inger doesn’t seem to mind too much, since she and Martha might just be closely related!) An author MUST love his heroes or heroines if he is to inject passion and realism into his narrative and his portrayals of character. I love some of the others too -- especially Joseph Harries, Bessie Walter, Owain Laugharne, Patty Ellis and Amos Jones. Perversely, I am also quite fond of some of my villains, including Moses Lloyd, George Price and Alban Watkins. Nobody is all bad or all good, and I have tried to show that some of the villains who prowl through the pages of the Saga are also victims, pushed into the pathways of evil by force of circumstance. Even Martha, the matriarch of Plas Ingli, is anything but perfect.

Virtues and Vices

At the beginning of On Angel Mountain Martha is pregnant, confused and suicidal. She is suffering from morning sickness, and she has just been forced into a hasty marriage by a family obsessed with status and reputation. She loves her new husband David, but so low is her own self-esteem that she thinks he will be happier without her. From that low point she gradually struggles uphill to achieve some sort of equilibrium, and with the support of her new family (and new friends like the Wizard of Werndew) she discovers that she is loved and appreciated by others. As the very young mistress of a struggling estate she starts to assert herself -- then she loses her baby and plunges into a black and very prolonged depression. Is she a manic depressive? Probably not -- but then I’m not a psychiatrist! She certainly wallows in her misery, on that occasion and on a number of others later in the stories, but she does have a capacity for switching from misery to elation quite rapidly -- and as she grows older, she learns how to banish her demons. And she is anything but a self-obsessed introvert.

She has many virtues, as befits a heroine. She is more liberal, more tolerant and more free-thinking than she has any right to be, and in that sense she lives “outside her period in history.” But that’s how she came to me, and I had to be true to the picture of her which I held in my mind’s eye ever since that strange night of delirium on Gran Canaria. Over and again I pondered whether I was creating “a modern woman in fancy dress”, but repeatedly I decided that every heroine worth her salt has to stand out from the crowd, and has to be more beautiful, more passionate, more impetuous, more intelligent than all of the other women who wander in and out of the stories. Think of Lizzie Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, or Moll Flanders, or Jane Eyre, or Portia and Ophelia in the works of Shakespeare! If they were not “over the top” in some way, would we remember them?

One of Martha’s characteristics is her unpretentiousness. Most of the members of her class kept their distance from labourers, servants and tenants in the early nineteenth century, and worked hard at maintaining their status and protecting privilege and power. In the stories, Martha hates all of that, and is drawn instinctively to the underprivileged. She identifies far more closely with Patty the prostitute than she does with Mistress Maria Rice, and not just because the latter is mean-spirited and arrogant. Her biggest friends, as she goes through life, are Ellie Bowen and Mary Jane Laugharne, who share her instinct for philanthropy and her dislike for pretension. And then, in Flying with Angels, when the large and earthy Mistress Delilah Gwynne bursts upon the scene, she can hardly contain her delight at the discovery of a kindred spirit. Martha’s close identification with the poor is forced upon her to some degree by the circumstances in which the Morgan family finds itself -- effectively bankrupt, and brought low by the inferno which destroyed all the estate buildings and which killed five members of the family. But there was no gaping gulf between the gentry and the “lower classes” in Wales, partly because most of the gentry were less affluent than their counterparts in England and partly because there was much less cash in circulation. The estates were smaller and very vulnerable. “In kind” payments were common, and there was a complex system of debt recording and debt adjustment among members of the same class and among different classes too. Meals were shared, and work was shared. Very strong friendships were forged between the masters and mistresses of the smaller estates and their servants, tenants and labourers -- and the sort of social divide that we become aware of in Pride and Prejudice existed only on the biggest estates. In her relationships with those who might be below her socially, Martha is picking up on the easy familiarity which already exists in the relationships between Grandma Jane and Mrs Owen or between David and Billy. But she takes that familiarity and mutual respect to a new level, and makes bonds that are so tight as to make Plas Ingli a unique and wonderful place. If the house is inhabited by angels, then Martha clearly has more than a little  to do with it.

So for better or for worse, Martha is a nineteenth-century version of super-woman. From the beginning she is very beautiful and very sexy, and as she blossoms into womanhood she gains a reputation as the most beautiful woman in Wales. Little wonder that many readers have said that Catherine Zeta Jones has to play her when the film comes to be made! She is well educated, and has a very enquiring mind. She is a competent musician and a moderately talented artist. She speaks English, Welsh, French and Dimetian Welsh fluently. She reads widely, and is attracted to “subversive” or radical literature. Her liberal views frequently lead her into trouble, and it is quite natural that she should be concerned about the plight of slaves and convicts and all those who might be oppressed or victimized by the crown, the government, and impersonal institutions. She has concerns about voting reform and womens’ rights, and she sympathises with the Chartists -- at least until they start to split apart and lose control of extremist elements. She is immediately drawn to the Rebecca Rioters since she understands what their grievances are and sees (better than most of her peers) what happens to families struggling against poverty and disease. She is not particularly religious, but goes through the motions of being a worthy member of the established church and goes through life trying to be a “better person.” She flirts with Methodism for a while, and finds the devotion and kindness of the Non-conformists appealing. But at the same time she is irritated by their evangelical zeal and their unshakeable conviction that they are saved while others are condemned to hellfire and damnation. She is, as she admits now and then in the pages of her diaries, not averse to a little jolly sin now and then. She is also perfectly happy to shelter criminals, to drink smuggled gin, to tell lies, and to withhold her tithe payments in protest against the arrogance and insensitivity of the Church.

But Martha has a host of virtues too. She is brave, loyal to her husband and her family, and fiercely protective of those in her care once she is widowed and responsible for the safety of the Plas Ingli estate. She has enormous generosity of spirit, and makes spontaneous gestures of support when others might back off. Think about the welcome she gives to Patty the prostitute, or to Will the petty criminal, or to Zeke Tomos, who goes on to betray her. She often acts impulsively and on the basis of intuition and instinct. She makes huge self-sacrifices for the good of others. She puts herself in danger over and again, often because she is seeking to help those who do not necessarily deserve her assistance or her loyalty. For example, she plunges into the task of helping the sick and the dying during the cholera epidemic of 1797 without any thought  for her own wellbeing. She goes to Ireland to help the starving during the Irish Potato Famine, and becomes seriously ill in the process. She sees beauty all around her, and takes an almost child-like pleasure in simple things -- such as standing on the mountain-top in the wind with her hair streaming behind her and her arms stretched out wide. She loves her children and her grand-children, and welcomes back Daisy, the  black sheep of the family, when she returns after years of loose living in London. She fights to keep her family together when stresses and strains occur because of grief, or bankruptcy or other disasters. On those occasions she is a diplomat as well as a matriarch. In some ways she is also naive, and has a tendency to think well of others when suspicion might be more appropriate. But she trusts her family and her servants to look after her when she makes misjudgments, and indeed they do just that. She is a prudent and wise estate manager, and she knows how to inspire loyalty, give responsibility to others, and reward enterprise. She never stops learning, and wants others to learn and to better themselves -- to the extent that she becomes a great benefactor of the Circulating Schools. She is generous to a fault, and one of the ironies of the Saga is that having protected her precious treasure and left it in the ground as a “family insurance” for more than fifty years, she finally digs it up and gives most of it away.

As mentioned in Chapter 3, the thing that I love most about Martha is her sheer bloody-mindedness and her determination that she will not be overwhelmed by grief or misfortune, or even betrayal, and that she will bounce up again with a smile on her face whenever she is knocked down. That resilience is the characteristic that I admire most in other people. Martha is no victim and no stoic. And she is not exactly serene or gentle either. She is too much of a fighter to aspire to sainthood -- but maybe she does have some of the virtues of an angel. When readers say to me “Poor Martha! What a miserable life she has!” I have to remind them that she actually has quite a lot of fun. She has an active sex life well into old age, and enjoys the love and loyalty of all the “angels” who look after her. She makes opportunities for herself to do all sorts of exciting things, including riding out with the Rebecca Rioters when she is in her mid-sixties! And she never ceases to take pleasure in striding out over the common, climbing among the crags on her sacred mountain, lying on her back in the middle of a flower meadow on a June day, or watching butterflies and lizards with her children and then her grandchildren. She has jovial and influential friends too, and a busy social life surrounded by admirers. And more often than I care to mention, she seems to enjoy the freedom of being a “merry widow.” How many times, one wonders, was the episode on the last page of Rebecca and the Angels repeated, maybe in the company of other gentlemen?

And so to Martha’s vices. There are plenty of these. Her wild swings of mood make her difficult to live with, and her impulsive and erratic actions sometimes bring family and friends to the edge of despair. She does become very self-obsessed at times, and has to be reminded quite forcefully (by Grandma Jane, Bessie and Mrs Owen) that she should think more of the impacts of her actions on those who love her. She weeps a  lot for the sins of the world and for the suffering of others -- but maybe that is a virtue rather than a vice. She is economical with the truth when it suits her, and she is sometimes quite devious in her behaviour. She learns how to “use the system” and does it frequently. In House of Angels, when she comes to realize what a devastating impact her beauty has on almost all the men whom she meets, she becomes arrogant and manipulative -- and again has to be admonished for her insensitivity. In Dark Angel she displays other sides of her character of which she would not be proud. She becomes besotted and obsessed with little Brynach, and “loses” her own children emotionally. She does not even see their suffering for what it is. She becomes paranoid about The Nightwalker, and mistrusts those who are trying to protect her from herself. She interferes endlessly in other people’s business, and throughout her life she displays a tendency for getting involved in mighty issues that would be best left to others to sort out. In Rebecca and the Angels she tries to tackle the tollgate grievances by becoming an honest broker or go-between, working with the Turnpike Trusts on the one hand and the small farmers on the other. In Flying with Angels she even tries to end the Irish Potato Famine by travelling over to Ireland with nothing in her bag besides good intentions! As she gets older she becomes more and more eccentric, and by the time she strikes up her relationship with Amos Jones, in the last ten years of her life, she seems actually to revel in her irresponsible and unpredictable behaviour, to the embarrassment of children and grandchildren.

Occasionally Martha seems heartless when confronted by the suffering of others -- but we must not forget that Martha lives in an age which is brutal and in which death is very much a part of life. She kills three men (Moses Lloyd, Barti Richards and Zeke Tomos) with her own hands, and watches others die in horrible circumstances. She also sends many other men to the gallows and to the penal colonies through her personal determination to see justice done. Vengeance -- rather than the tendency to deep depression -- is Martha’s greatest demon. She agonizes about it in many sections of her dairies, wondering over and again whether she has allowed her noble and single-minded quest for justice to be transformed into a monster called “revenge”. At times she knows that she has taken too much pleasure from the sight of a judge with a black cap on his head, and she recoils from what she sees inside her own mind. She is indeed a heroine who is far from perfect -- and maybe that is why readers seem to love her as I do.........


Note:  three books have been written since this section was included in Martha Morgan's Little World.  These are Guardian Angel, Sacrifice, and Conspiracy of Angels.

Sir Thomas Picton -- more monster than hero

Purely by chance, just as I was putting the finishing touches to my new novel called "Conspiracy of Angels", I came across the furore on the BBC and in the other media (in November 2011) about the status and reputation of Sir Thomas Picton, who figures very prominently in the story. 

He was one of Wellington’s closest lieutenants in the Battle of Waterloo, and the most senior officer to be killed in the battle, on 18th June 1815.  (It's often claimed that he was Wellington's second-in-command, but that appears not to be true.)  

Although he did enter parliament for a while, Sir Thomas was never given a peerage, and after his death he was not accorded the respect of a burial in St Paul's Cathedral.  He was, eventually, given a memorial plaque in the cathedral. Wellington obviously disliked him intensely, and following his death his praise was decidedly lukewarm.  The Duke was not very supportive of the idea that Picton  should be treated as a national hero.  However, he was without doubt a very effective tactician and leader of men, and Wellington obviously valued him as a soldier who could be trusted to deliver on the battlefield.  He was uncultured, foul-mouthed, and short tempered, and was clearly very different in temperament from many of the other army officers of the time, who more often than not came from the ranks of the gentry.  If his men adored him, his fellow officers obviously did not.

Sir Thomas made his military reputation in the West Indies, where he was eventually appointed Governor of Trinidad -- which had been annexed by the British from Spain.  As Governor, he ruled with a rod of iron on the principle of “Let them hate me, as long as they fear me.”  He was sadistic and brutal, and used torture and summary executions without trial as a matter of course, to maintain peace on the slave plantations and in the mixed population of free people of mixed races, in which the white settlers were very much in the minority.  He claimed that everything he did was in the national interest and was designed for the upkeep of law and order, but a buildup of resentment against his brutal and sadistic regime came to a head when he authorized the torture of a mulatto girl called Louisa Calderon, who was either 13 or 11 years old at the time.  She was tortured by a method called “picketing” -- so as to obtain a confession from her.  She was tortured on two successive days, and then imprisoned in irons for a further 8 months.  Picton was recalled to Britain and prosecuted, and in a famous court case in 1806 he had to face the wrath of William Garrow, the most famous barrister of the day (as seen on BBC TV!),  charged with the torture of a free child.  Garrow used rather salacious images of the torture process and showed them to the jury -- this was a very innovative thing for a prosecuting counsel to do during a court case, and it had the desired effect.  He also renamed "picketing" and called it "pictoning" instead -- again with great effect.   Picton was found guilty, but powerful allies (including many plantation owners)  rallied to his cause and obtained a retrial, at which he was acquitted on the  technicality that although the British were in charge on the island, Spanish law still applied!  That was of course ludicrous, and Picton’s reputation was destroyed.........

Later on he sought to redeem himself through service to his country, and by invitation from Wellington, he resumed his military career, being closely involved in the campaign against Napoleon in Spain and Portugal.  But liberal opinion in Britain never forgave him, and for the last few years of his life he was something of a social outcast.

In Trinidad, and in many other places as well, Picton is reviled.  He is seen as a brutal thug who should never have held high office, let alone honoured in place names in Wales and on the island which he terrorised.   And yet streets and even the Sir Thomas Picton Secondary School in Haverfordwest are named after him, and of course there is the impressive Picton Monument in Carmarthen.......  So one might ask with some justification whether his achievements on the battlefield were sufficient for him to be accorded this level of respect.  There is a portrait of him in the Carmarthen court room, and some people who have a real respect for our principles of justice (including Carmarthen solicitor Kate Williams) want that portrait removed, in the light of the fact that in his lifetime he applied summary justice, terrorised a whole community, and showed a cavalier disregard for the law.  The campaigners have a powerful point. 

Others have argued that we should not seek to revisit history and seek to impose present-day values on those who held office a couple of hundred years ago.  I disagree with them.  History is full of good men, who used the powers given to them with sensitivity and grace;  and history is also full of men who were sadistic monsters, obsessed with their own power and seemingly incapable of recognizing the suffering of others.  In this case the word "sociopath" comes to mind.  I suspect that if Sir Thomas had been alive today, he would have been called a sociopath, since he displayed --as far as we can gather -- a callous unconcern for the feelings of others, a gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, difficulty in maintaining enduring relationships, a tendency towards irritability and aggression, an incapacity to experience guilt for the pain he inflicted on others, and a desire always to blame others or to rationalize away aspects of his own behaviour that brought him into conflict with those who sought to uphold the law and to create a harmonious society.

So in spite of the furious reaction from the right-wing press over the matter of "the Carmarthen portrait", I would argue that we should not expect our national heroes to be paragons of virtue, but neither should we be prepared to gloss over the evil done by deeply flawed leaders to their fellow men.  Sir Thomas has been given too much unquestioning respect in the past, even by some of our leading historians who should know better.  I'm not sure that we should name schools and colleges after tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi and Mussolini.  Time for Sir Thomas Picton School to give itself a new name?

Sunday, 4 March 2012

"On Angel Mountain" now available in Kindle edition

"On Angel Mountain" (which has now sold over 25,000 copies in various editions since it appeared just over ten years ago) is now available from Amazon in a Kindle format -- for just £2.43.   The story is still the favourite of all of the Angel Mountain titles, having been reprinted 7 times so far -- with stocks of the last printing already running quite low.

I have resisted the production of a Kindle version for some while, largely because of disquiet about the demise of the traditional paperback, but we have to accept that the Kindle is here to stay, and that maybe a Kindle edition will introduce the story of Mistress Martha to a brand new readership..........

In any case, I make no money at all by selling paperbacks through the Amazon bookstore, so it makes better financial sense to sell Kindle editions of my novels, since authors get 70% of the listed price.  It's a a bit of an experiment, so we'll see how it goes.

Please pass this message on to anybody who might be interested. Thanks! Brian

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Venue for the Book Launch

Newport Boat Club, on the Parrog, Newport, is booked for the book launch and signing session for "Conspiracy of Angels" between 5 pm and 7 pm on Easter Monday, 9th April.  A fantastic venue, whatever the weather and whatever the state of the tide.....

And Lis Evans has kindly agreed to give us some readings from the new book, assuming (not for the first time!) the persona of Mistress Martha......

Looking forward to a convivial occasion in the company of many old friends.  Everybody welcome!

An image for the new novel

This is a great image -- goodness knows where it came from.  I found it on Facebook some time ago.  Anyway, whoever it belongs to, thank you!

Imagine Skomer Island, a great storm, and a shipwrecked seaman buried on the clifftop, in a simple home-made coffin........  then read the first Chapter of "Conspiracy of Angels" (out on 9th April 2012).