Author Archives: cmsaunders

About cmsaunders

I write stuff. Pretty much any stuff. My dark fiction has appeared in Asphalt Jungle, Raw Nerve, Roadworks, Dark Valentine, Screams of Terror, Shallow Graves, Fantastic Horror, The Literary Hatchet, Gore and numerous anthologies. My first book, Into the Dragon's Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales was published back in 2003, and I've worked extensively in the freelance journalism industry, contributing features to numerous international publications including Fortean Times, Bizarre, Urban Ink, Loaded, Record Collector, Maxim, and a regular column to the Western Mail newspaper. I lived in China for over five years where I taught English during my search for enlightenment, before moving back to the UK in January 2013 to work as staff writer on Nuts magazine. Later, I was senior writer on Forever Sports magazine and associate editor at Coach magazine, before leaving to chance my arm in the world of pro freelance. In recent times I've devoted more time to dark fiction, my latest releases being Human Waste (Deviant Dolls Publications), Tethered (Terror Tract Publishing) and X4, my fourth anthology of short fiction. I also edit, copy write, proofread and ghost write, and drink far too much craft beer.

RetView #50 – Jaws (1975)

Title: Jaws

Year of Release: 1975

Director: Steven Spielberg

Length: 124 mins

Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary

I wanted to do something a bit special for this landmark 50th RetView, and you could probably count on your fingers the number of movies, of any genre, that have had more of a cultural impact than Jaws. In fact, these days it is widely considered one of the best films ever made. It was based on the novel of the same name Peter Benchley was commissioned to write by Doubleday in the early seventies, though rumour has it that he was ejected from the film set for making a nuisance of himself. To date, the movie has spawned three sequels despite declining popularity and commercial performance, the franchise reaching its nadir in 1987 with Jaws: The Revenge which, conversely, is generally acknowledged as one of the WORST movies of all time. The Jaws franchise is a prime example of how to go from hero to zero in four easy steps. It’s probably fair to say that by 1987, the killer shark premise was beginning to wear a little thin. They probably did well to take it as far as they did. But while the series ended badly, upon its release in the summer of 1975 the original movie was nothing short of a revelation, terrifying beach-goers everywhere, raking in an astonishing $470 million at the Box Office from a $9 million budget, and going on to win no fewer than three Academy Awards, making it one of Universal’s biggest ever triumphs. All things considered, it’s well worth a closer look.

If, by some miracle, you’re unfamiliar with the plot, it’s pretty easy to swallow (sorry). When a giant man-eating Great White shark starts terrorizing a nondescript New England town called Amity, threatening not only swimmers but local businesses much to the chagrin of the local mayor (Hamilton), police chief Martin Brody (Scheider) is called into action. After getting slapped in the face and shouted at several times by affected locals, he eventually enrols a grizzled professional shark hunter called Quint (brilliantly portrayed by Shaw) and a witty marine biologist (a pre-Close Encounters of the Third Kind Dreyfuss) and together the trio head off into the open sea on Quint’s too-small boat called the Orca (named after the only natural enemy of the Great White) to hunt down the pesky fish. Incidentally, if you didn’t get the reference, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” is a classic line from the movie delivered by Brody upon seeing the size of the shark they were dealing with and has been ‘meme famous’ ever since. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb later revealed that the line wasn’t scripted, but ad-libbed by Scheider.

The musical score, which went on to become a classic piece of music synonymous with impending doom, was composed by John Williams. Widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers of all time, Williams also wrote the music for Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones films and, er, Home Alone. During his distinguished career he has won 25 Grammy Awards, five Academy Awards (including one for the Jaws theme) and four Golden Globes. Discussing the piece that kick-started his career, he described the Jaws theme as, “Grinding away at you, just as a shark would do. Instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.”

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Jaws was the first major motion picture to be shot on the ocean, resulting in a troubled, prolonged shoot that far exceeded its budget. Among the issues the crew had to contend with were unpredictable weather, vessels drifting into shot, the effects of salt water corrosion on equipment, everyone getting seasick and problems with the life-sized mechanical sharks. There were so many problems the story goes that disgruntled crew members dubbed the film, “Flaws.”

So what made Jaws so popular? And why does it remain so?

In a nutshell, not only does it feature a great director, a solid plot, a memorable script, a brilliant cast, impressive special effects and an awesome soundtrack, but it appeals to our primal fears. People don’t belong in large bodies of water. We know this. The stuff living in there don’t like us and that particular environment is not conducive to having a good time. On re-watching the movie with a critical eye, it is noticeable how little screen time Spielberg actually gives the shark. This is testament to his unparalleled film-making skills and ability to ramp up the tension using only dialogue and, in one memorable scene, a drunken sing-a-long. Gottlieb would later reference the original 1951 version of The Thing, amongst other classics, where, “the suspense was built up because the creature was always off-camera.” This enabled the crew to concentrate on showing the ‘effects’ of the monster (or in this case, the shark) rather than the monster itself. Given the post-Watergate political landscape the movie was released into, it’s inevitable that critics drew certain conclusions. Perhaps overthinking things a bit, film critic Andrew Britton has suggested that narrative alterations from the book (Hooper’s survival, the shark’s explosive death) help make it “a communal exorcism, a ceremony for the restoration of ideological confidence,” and suggested that the experience of the film is “inconceivable” without the audience’s jubilation when the shark is annihilated, signifying the obliteration of evil itself. In his view, Brody serves to demonstrate that “Individual action by the one just man is still a viable source for social change.”

In perhaps the most serious bout of overthinking ever, Fredric Jameson went even further, highlighting the polysemy of the shark and the multiple ways in which it could be taken, from representing alien menaces such as communism or the Third World to more intimate concerns like the unreality of contemporary American life and the vain efforts to sanitize the concept of death. He asserts that its symbolic function is to be found in this very “polysemousness which is profoundly ideological, insofar as it allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently ‘natural’ ones … to be recontained in what looks like a conflict with other forms of biological existence.”

‘Kay then.

Trivia Corner:

According to Spielberg, the prop arm used in the scene where Chrissie’s remains are found looked too fake. So instead, they buried a female crew member in the sand with only her arm exposed. Simple, yet effective.


Misshapes, Rejects & Handmade Horror Stories

Every year when Halloween comes around, I wish I’d written a Halloween story. Obviously, it’s too late by then, so last year I surpassed even my own pre-planning capabilities and wrote one in January. Kaboom. That also gave me a few months to sell the fucker.

The story I came up with is called Misshapes & Rejects, and in a nutshell it’s about pumpkins. Not pumpkins in nutshells, that would just be weird. I’ve always thought there was something creepy about the treatment pumpkins get around Halloween. All the cutting and carving and stuff. I also wanted to make a bit of a point about isolation and anti-social behaviour, and like a perfect storm all these elements came together. It happened quickly, too. Once I had the germ of the idea, the story followed quickly and was finished in a single sitting. That feat isn’t as impressive as it might sound, in its entirety Misshapes & Rejects is less than 1000 words.

When I finish a story, I routinely go through it three, four, even five or six times, endlessly tweaking, polishing and modifying until there is nothing left to tweak, polish or modify. However, Misshapes & Rejects didn’t need much heavy lifting. Sometimes, you just know you’ve nailed it. It was accepted by the first place I submitted it too, a Halloween-themed anthology due to be released on [name redacted, like in the movies].

Then things got messy.

The would-be publisher refused to pay any contributors then eventually pulled the book from sale, but not before they pocketed funds they’d raised through crowd funding and pre-orders. Big scene. Long story short, the publishing rights on Missahpes & Rejects quickly reverted back to me and the dance began again.

Luckily, it soon found a new home, in the book Handmade Horror Stories put together by Frost Zone Press, the lovely people who just last year published my story Alone, Or… , and edited by the supremely talented MM MacLeod..

As the marketing material says, “Handmade Horror Stories is an anthology of art and craft-themed short horror fiction. From quiet horrors to chilling nightmares, these tales give new meaning to being creative.”


Harberry Close in Railroad Tales

I’m pleased to announce that my short story Harberry Close is included in the anthology Railroad Tales on Midnight Street Press.

Table of Contents:

THE TRACKS THROUGH THE FOREST John Kiste

AWAYDAYS Allen Ashley

THE HOOSAC TUNNEL LEGACY Norm Vigeant

RAILWAY MUTTON CURRY Nidheesh Samant

THE NUMBER NINE James E. Coplin

GHOST-WALKER Andrew Darlington

SPARROW’S FLIGHT Nancy Brewka-Clark

HARBERRY CLOSE C. M. Saunders

GEISTERBAHNHOF Saoirse Ni Chiaragáin

THE ANNIVERSARY David Penn

ACROSS THE VALE Catherine Pugh

WHERE THE TRAIN STOPS Susan York

THE NIBBLER Gayle Fidler

SHORT PLATFORM Gary Couzens

WILSHIRE STATION Caitlin Marceau

AND YOU HEARD THE RATTLING DEATH TRAIN Simon Bestwick

NOT ALL TRAINS CRASH Steven Pirie

BALLYSHANNON JUNCTION Jim Mountfield

CABOOSE Andrew Hook

THE TRACKS Michael Gore

THE DEVIL RIDES THE NIGHT TRAIN Curtis James McConnell

THE PIER STATION George Jacobs

THE SAMOVAR A. J. Lewis

Between 2013 and 2017 I lived in London. I was working long hours and commuting for up to four or five hours a day, so I didn’t have much time to write fiction. I think of Harberry Close as a good representation of my ‘London period,’ along with Vicar on the Underground and maybe Subject #270374. I don’t think its much of a surprise that two of those stories feature public transport prominently and the other is about an overworked and under-appreciated journalist who goes mental and decapitates his boss.

I wrote about the origins of Harberry Close, which was first published in Dark Harvest, in more detail here. Thanks to Trevor Denyer for giving it a new lease of life!

Railroad Tales is out now on paperback and ebook.


RetView #49 – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Title: The Curse of Frankenstein

Year of Release: 1957

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urqhuart, Valerie Gaunt

Like Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Curse of Frankenstein was another Hammer Films production and, along with Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), is now seen as a cornerstone of the British institution’s considerable repertoire. The premise is obviously based on Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 tale Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. It was the first of the Frankenstein series, the very first Hammer movie to be made in colour, and has retrospectively been dubbed the first “Really gory horror film” by Professor Patricia MacCormac. It has also been credited with revitalizing a stagnating genre. All things considered, it makes perfect RetView fodder.

The story is told in flashback form when, in 19th Century Switzerland, Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is on trial for murder and confesses his story to a visiting priest. The film then cuts to a newly-orphend 15-year old Victor who hires a private tutor, Dr. Paul Krempe (Urqhuart), to teach him science. Together, the pair start a sequence of experiments geared toward bringing dead animals back to life. The experiments are successful, but when his cousin Elizabeth (Court) moves in and Frankenstein suggests making a ‘perfect’ human being from scavenged body parts, Krempe opts out. However, he is brought back into the fold when the monster (Lee, who was awarded the role primarily due to his 6’5” frame and his modest £8-a day fee), now equipped with a damaged (ie defective) brain, escapes into the nearby woods and kills a blind man. What a blind man is doing in the woods by himself is anyone’s guess, but anyway…

Realizing it is out of control, Krempke shoots the monster and the men bury it in the woods. However, as soon as Krempke departs, Frankenstein digs it up again and reanimates it. The rotten bastard. Back at the house, his maid Justine, with whom he has been having an affair, reveals she is pregnant and threatens to expose his grisly experiments unless he marries her. This doesn’t sit too well with the rampaging Victor, and he quickly has the monster dispatch her which is what lands him in jail. The visiting priest doesn’t believe his story. Krempke and Elizabeth, who are now happily shacked up together, refuse to corroborate it, presumably in an attempt to stop the same thing happening again, and ***SPOILER ALERT*** Victor is led away to the guillotine.

The film was an immediate smash hit for Hammer, it’s comparatively low budget contributing heavily to its financial success as there were comparatively fewer costs to offset. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who adapted Mary Shelley’s book for the screen, was so anxious to keep costs down he didn’t write in scenes of villagers storming the castle as seen in other Frankenstein films, “Because we couldn’t afford it.” The ploy worked. The movie was produced on a budget of just £65,000, and some sources estimate the film recouped at least 70 times that figure. For many years, it held the distinction of being the most profitable movie to be produced in England by a British studio and has always been much-loved by the public, which is reflected in various contemporary reviews and its Rotten Tomatoes rating which currently sits at a respectable 77% from 3,815 ratings. However, it was given a luke-warm reception upon it’s original release, a review in the New York Times dismissing it as a “Routine horror film,” and the Tribune of London calling it, “Depressing and degrading.”

Okay, then.

A quick word on the fate of Hammer Productions; the company effectively ceased production in the mid-1980’s. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In May 2007 the company name, along with its entire library of some 295 movies, was bought by a consortium headed by Dutch media tycoon John de Mol which vowed to, “Take it back into production and develop its global potential.” True to it’s manifesto, the company financed a return to the fold in the form of contemporary horror Beyond the Rave (2008). That isn’t a typo, by the way. It really is a horror movie about a rave. That was followed by a steady stream of offerings including Wake Wood (2011) and, more recently, The Lodge (2019), which proved a surprise hit. In September 2019, hammer signed a worldwide distribution deal with StudioCanal for its catalogue, so after some uncertain times, the future is looking bright.

Trivia Corner:

Although Hammer’s two great stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had appeared in several pictures before, including Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952), their long-lasting friendship was cemented on the set of Curse of Frankenstein when Lee stormed into Cushing’s dressing room saying, “I’ve got no lines!” To which Cushing allegedly responded, “You’re lucky, have you read the script?”


Back from the Dead – The First Review

And it’s a cracker! The only problem is, the review appeared on the Spanish version of Amazon which most people might not see. Unless you happen to be in Spain. Assuming that isn’t the case because we aren’t all that lucky, I’ve reproduced the review for you here.


Highly original take on the zombie trope

5*


“As I said above, these are some of the most original zombie stories I have ever read which is hard to say nowadays considering how many there are already written. In these six stories you will find everything from sword-wielding zombies, a return to the Bubonic plague and all its consequences, possible alien zombies, an elderly couple starving to death with eyes set on each other, a different take on roadkill, and a private detective with an unusual request.

The whole collection thoroughly well edited making each story flow seamlessly, I read through this collection in just two days, and was left wanting more, much more. I hope the author returns to this trope and writes some more short stories because I enjoyed them all that much.

For zombie fans, definitely worth grabbing a copy-you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

– Justin Boote, Amazon Espana

Link to original review HERE

Back from the Dead: A Collection of Zombie Horror is available now on paperback and ebook.


It’s HERE!!!

In the market for some creepy holiday reading? Good. Your timing couldn’t be better, because my new book, Back from the Dead, has just dropped on ebook and paperback.

Here’s the blurb:

A collection of zombie fiction from British journalist and dark fiction writer C.M. Saunders, featuring two complete novellas alongside short stories previously published in the likes of Morpheus Tales, Crimson Streets and the anthology Digital Horror Fiction Volume 1, plus a brand-new novelette.

Also includes an exclusive introduction and artwork by the award-winning Greg Chapman.

Featuring:

Dead of Night: young lovers Nick and Maggie go camping in the woods, only to come face-to-face with a group of long-dead Confederate soldiers who don’t know, or care, that the war is over.

Human Waste: Dan Pallister wakes up one morning to find the zombie apocalypse has started. Luckily, he’s been preparing for it most of his life. He just needs to grab some supplies from the supermarket…

‘Til Death do us Part: When the world as we know it comes to an abrupt end, an elderly couple are trapped in their apartment. They get by as best they can, until they run out of food.

Roadkill: A freelance ambulance crew are plunged into a living nightmare when a traffic accident victim they pick up just won’t stay dead. He has revenge on his mind.

The Plague Pit: A curious teenager goes exploring the Welsh countryside one summer afternoon and stumbles across a long-abandoned chapel. What he finds there might change the world, and not for the better.

Dead Men Don’t Bleed: A gumshoe private eye is faced with his most challenging case yet when a dead man walks into his office and asks for help solving his own murder. Complete and unabridged version of the story previously published as ‘Dead Man Walking.

Drawn from a variety of sources, all these tales have one thing in common; they explore what might happen if our worst nightmares are realized and people came BACK FROM THE DEAD.

Back from the Dead is out now.


Retview #48 – Siren (2016)

Title: Siren

Year of Release: 2016

Director: Gregg Bishop

Length: 82 mins

Starring: Chase Williamson, Justin Welborn, Michael Aaron Milligan, Mayes Mercure, Randy McDowell, Hannah Fierman

As a rule, the RetView series focuses on movies a decade or more old, though I do break that rule from time to time for exceptional offerings. Siren (not to be confused with 2019’s THE Siren), a feature-length interpretation of Amateur Night, David Bruckner’s segment from the first V/H/S film (2012), is definitely that. You know the bit I’m talking about, where the three hopeless misogynists take a couple of chicks back to a hotel room for sex and shenanigans, not realising one of them is a scary AF supernatural entity which then proceeds to chase them down and rip them limb from limb. Coincidentally, Siren’s director Gregg Bishop made a splash in 2014 when he wrote and directed the Dante the Great section in V/H/S: Viral. Here, he takes the basic concept from the first V/H/S film and extrapolates it. There was always a danger that there might not be enough material to do this successfully, but I’m happy to report that isn’t the case. Reminiscent of the Species series, despite some indifferent reviews, Siren is one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years. Happily, I wasn’t the only one to think so, with the LA Times dubbing it a, “Clever and confident expansion of a terrific short.”

A week before he marries his childhood sweetheart, Jonah (Chase Williamson from Beyond the Gates) and his bros go on a last drink and ‘shroom-fuelled bender. They end up in a dodgy strip joint, where they meet a stranger who tells them about a secret underground club, where they will be able to indulge their wildest fantasies. There, they find a waif-like beauty called Lily (aka ‘the Lilith’) who they assume is an innocent girl who has been unwillingly trafficked into the sex trade, thereby proving that even misogynists on drugs have hearts. Sometimes. The well-meaning dopes free her, only to realize she is, in fact, a succubus. And not a very nice one at that. In fact, she’s pretty fucking terrifying. The tag line, “No man can resist her. All men should,” is scarily apt.

The first poor Jonah sees of her angry succubus status is when Lily sprouts a massive tail and brutally slaughters one the guards where she’s being held captive. He and his boys wisely make a swift exit, but then find themselves pursued by both Lily and the bad guys. Bummer, dude. However, the twist is that Lily doesn’t really want to kill Jonah. She just wants to kill his friends because she feels they are standing in her way. She is attracted to Jonah because he showed her kindness, and even tells him so. Right before she does some unspeakable things to him with that massive tail of hers. Of course, being a stand-up guy about to marry the love of his life, Jonah isn’t interested in a romantic hook-up with a succubus. However, he might not have a choice.

A nice touch is the retaining of Lily’s character (again played by Hanna Fierman) which makes this film both a continuation and a spin-off of the original short. Despite her propensity for disembowelling people and eating their insides, you can’t help but root for her. She’s the archetypal damaged heroine. Actually, it’s quite hard to judge who the good guys and bad guys are throughout this film, something else that makes it more interesting than the usual horror-by-numbers. That and the sad fact that there just aren’t enough movies about succubuses (or succubi?). None of the bachelor party are what you might call likeable characters, and the club owners come across as a particularly cruel bunch, but in reality are doing a public service by keeping Lily away from the general populace. This, I feel, is a deliberate ploy designed to toy with the viewer’s emotions. Another example comes half-way through when some cops, who as we all know are supposed to protect and serve, turn out to be interested in doing anything but protect and serve. So yeah, Lily is the real star of Siren, which is why I feel we should have been treated to more of her mythology and back story. I bet she has a few tales (sic) to tell. An origin film would be brilliant. Maybe next time, eh?

Trivia Corner:

For the parts where Lily sings, the plan was to have Hannah Fierman lip sync to a guide track. But she impressed the producers so much they opted to stick with her vocals.


Cover Reveal – Back from the Dead

My latest release, a collection of Zombie fiction called Back from the Dead, is coming soon. More details, including a full table of contents, to follow shortly. In the meantime, I just wanted to share the awesome cover with you, as designed by Greg Chapman.

And here it is!

Back from the Dead officially drops on July 23rd and is available for pre-order now.


Retview #47 – The Grudge (2004)

Title: The Grudge

Year of Release: 2004

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Bill Pullman, KaDee Strickland, Takako Fuji

First up, let’s address the big fuck off elephant in the room and put to bed any lingering speculation; this is the 2004 Hollywood remake of the 2002 J-Horror classic Ju-On: The Grudge, not the original (though both were written and directed by Takashi Shimizu). I was torn as to which version to write about for this series, this one winning on account of having Sarah Michelle Gellar in it who, when this first came out, was riding the crest of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-shaped wave. Yes, I’m that shallow. This project came at an interesting junction in her career as she was trying to capitalize on her Buffy fame but in serious danger of being typecast as a modern day scream queen after earlier roles in the teen classics I know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2 (both 1997).

Hiring Shimizu for this project was a masterstroke, as the movie largely keeps it’s Japanese flavour. Being filmed in Tokyo and featuring several notable Japanese stars also helped. Yuya Ozeki, Takako Fuji and Takashi Matsuyama all appeared in the two Japanese films upon which this was based, reprising their roles as the doomed Saeki family. The movie is also notable for an appearance by Ted raimi, younger brother of Sam, one of the film’s producers and creator of the legendary Evil Dead series. This version of The Grudge distributed by Columbia Pictures was itself followed by two sequels in Grudge 2 (2006) and Grudge 3 (2009), the latter going straight-to-video, but has very little to do with The Grudge (2020) which is known in the trade as a sidequel, a totally different movie (with the same name) taking place concurrently with events in the original series. Is that clear? Good. Let’s move on.

Somewhat unusually, the movie is told in a non-linear fashion and features several storylines that end up converging. The first thing we see is expat college professor Peter Kirk (Pullman) jump out of a window to his death, which instantly draws the viewer in and makes them ask WTF is going on. It soon transpires that a local housewife, Kayako (Fuji), had fallen hopelessly in love with him and been murdered by her jealous husband as a result, along with their young son, Toshio. From here on in, Gellar steals the show as Karen Davis, an American expat living in Tokyo with her boyfriend (Behr) charged with filling in for another worker, Yoko, who seems to have neglected her duties in looking after dementia-suffering patient Emma. At the house, Karen encounters the ghost of Toshio sealed up in a wardrobe and witnesses Kayako’s spirit descending from the ceiling to claim Emma. All very unsettling. When the police arrive they find the bodies of the Williams family who had unwittingly moved into the cursed house in the attic, along with Kayako’s jawbone, and the family of vengeful ghosts set out to tear it up some more. Watch out for the infamous shower scene which is probably second only to the original Psycho (1960) in the all-time list of infamous shower scenes. Now, if you found the above synopsis confusing at all, critic Roger Ebert simplifies things massively in his scathing 1-star review, “There is a haunted house, and everybody who enters it will have unspeakable things happen to them.” There you are, then.

Despite this, and a few other negative reviews, The Grudge was a huge initial success. On its opening weekend alone, it grossed $39 million, becoming the first horror film since House on Haunted Hill (1999) to top the Halloween box office and, until the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, had the highest grossing opening weekend in history for a horror remake. On May 17, 2005, the unrated director’s cut was released on DVD. Notably, this version included several scenes that were cut (including one where Takeo drags Kayako’s body through the house whilst carrying a box cutter, implying this was the instrument he used to kill her) from the original in order to achieve a lower rating from the MPAA. Incidentally, this version of the film was used on the theatrical run in Japan, which only goes to show just how hardcore Japanese audiences are. If you are a fan of J-Horror you might appreciate this or this.

Trivia Corner:

Jason Behr and KaDee Strickland met on set and began dating due to their mutual interest in Japanese culture (which is why they accepted their roles in the film) eventually marrying two years later despite not sharing any scenes together in the film.


The Promotion Experiment

Like most hybrid or indie writers, the most difficult things for me is making sales. Writing is the easy part. They say you have to spend money to make money, so for the past three or four months I’ve been doing an experiment; instead of spending all my spare dosh on booze and kebabs (can’t go out in the midst of a global pandemic anyway) I decided to put all the money I make from writing during that period back into writing. Or more specifically, into marketing and promotion.

As you may be aware, there hundreds of promo sites and services out there and most of them cost money. Bookbub is the undisputed king, which I wrote about before, but as far as the multitude of others are concerned, it’s hard to know which ones are truly worth the money they charge and which aren’t. Hence this little experiment. There is little scientific basis behind it. I didn’t do a ton of research, I just looked around to see how much various promo sites cost and what people were saying about them, and tried a few. I’m going to be completely honest and transparent with my figures, so don’t laugh. Believe me, I’m well aware that some people out there sell more books me.

It’s a sad fact that one way to grab new readers is to get on your knees and beg them to read your work for free. Though it’s not really free for them, they’re still giving up their time and energy. Giving away free books is a controversial marketing technique in itself. Some writers feel it devalues the product, and makes things worse for everybody in the long run. If readers get used to being given free books, why would they ever bother buying another book again?

I can see their point, but in my experience giving away freebies has been hugely beneficial. To clarify, I’m talking about free Kindle promos here which run for a limited time, one to five days, rather than permafrees or books given away on newsletter sign-up. For starters, people who would never normally read my books are given the opportunity to check them out, and if they like my stuff it might encourage them to pick up another one and pay for it. They might even leave a review somewhere. Plus, an increase in downloads, free or otherwise, improves your author ranking and skews various algorithms in your favour, all of which adds to your visibility. For obvious reasons, if you’re going to run a free promo on one of your books you’re better off making it one of a series, or at least having a healthy back catalogue.

CONFESSION: I also write rip-roaringly, thigh-slappingly funny travel books under a super secret pseudonym. It’s difficult to promote something when you can’t even put your own name to it, so because THAT GUY had a new release a while back (book 3 in a series), I thought I’d invest the lion’s share of my budget into giving him a little boost. The Fussy Librarian is one of the better-known services but they aren’t cheap, and some strategizing is required to make it worthwhile. The series is about China, so to capitalize on the Western media coverage I scheduled the promotion to run during Chinese New Year. I made the first book in the main series free, left book two up at normal price (1.99) and put book three up for pre-order at a reduced 0.99. Then I paid a whopping $48 for a spot on the FL site and in their ‘non-fiction’ newsletter blast, and waited to see what would happen.

By the way, spots in different FL newsletters have different prices, related to the amount of subscribers each one has. But if you’re a first-time user, you can input the code 10OFF at check-out to get $10 off the regular price, which for me knocked the fee down to $38. Not to put too fine a point on it, the results were incredible. On the day of the promotion, my book was downloaded 1016 times, and a further 258 times over the next few days. Okay, the pessimists might say that all I succeeded in doing was give away over £2500 worth of books. But if only 1% of those who downloaded it leaves a review or even just a rating (optimistic, I know) I’ll be more than happy. In addition, during the same time period the second book in the series sold a dozen copies and I picked up six pre-orders for the third which off-set the cost somewhat.

Verdict: Hit

EreaderIQ have a list of requirements almost as long as your arm. Novellas and collections are ‘unlikely’ to be accepted, your books should have at least five reviews and should be free or deeply discounted. A place in their email blasting in the ‘horror’ category which, according to the site, reaches 9,500 subscribers, costs $10 (other categories have different rates). I put my recently reissued and revamped novel Sker House forward for this, which was duly accepted. The day of the listing it sold 9 copies, and the day after it sold another 3. Not bad. But because I had to discount the book so much, I made a slight loss on my investment.

Verdict: Partial Hit

Readfreely are less particular. $6 (gold level, again there are different options) buys your book a spot in their newsletter and promotion across their social media platforms. It’s difficult to quantify how big their reach is, but as they have less than 4,000 Twitter followers, which is a great indicator, I’m guessing it isn’t great. I put X4, my latest collection, forward for this one at it’s regular price of £1.99 (though I said it was being discounted from 3.99. Shoot me). X4 sold one solitary copy on the designated date, which sucks, but over the next few days sales of my other X books increased and I sold several of each, which may or may not be related. I’m not convinced either way.

Verdict: Miss

Because this is one of the most cost-effective options, I repeated the process with one of my pseudonym’s rip-roaringly, thigh-slappingly funny travel books. The results were similar.

Verdict: Miss

There are two connected sites, Freebooksy and Bargain Booksy. One is for free books, and the other, surprise surprise, is for bargain (reduced) books. I opted for the latter, and paid $25 to have X4 included in an email blast to 77,000 subscribers. On the day of promotion, X4 sold a dozen copies and, mirroring the pattern in the last promo, my other x books also benefitted from a sales bump and sold another dozen or so between them.

Verdict: Hit

The last, and most recent thing I tried was Amazon ads. I’m a complete novice at this. You need an effing degree in economics and marketing just to work out which key words to use. Like most things it’s a case of trial and error. Basically, you set a daily budget, choose your settings, and are then billed per click. I set a budget of $5 per day for 5 consecutive days on my psuedonym’s latest release, which resulted in just five clicks at a total cost of about $3.40 and no sales. Then I ran a similar promo on X4 with a higher budget over a longer period of time and got similar results but for a bigger outlay (around $18). It was at this pint I realized I must either be doing something wrong or Amazon ads, like Facebook ads, were a complete waste of time. I hear stories about people making a killing from Amazon ads. I might try it again at some point in the future after I learn more about it but for the time being, I think I’ll lay off them.

Verdict: Miss

So, all things considered, it was a mixed bag of results. I must admit that in the back of my mind I’d hoped all this effort would at least give my Amazon ranking a lasting boost. But the moment I stopped actively promoting, my sales virtually flatlined. Turns out worthwhile promotion of any kind is expensive, but if you don’t promote you don’t get any sales and you throw money down the drain anyway. There are, of course, reasonably effective ways of marketing your work for free using social media and cross-promotion, if you have the time and the energy. Maybe I’ll write another post about that at some point. In the meantime, I hope other indie writers, who may be as confused and bewildered as me, can get a few pointers from this post. It all boils down to doing your research, knowing your target market, and choosing the right places to invest based on your budget and readership.

I think.


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