Fellowship of Kindle Writers: Ann Swinfen

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling book We Are Not Alone – The Writer’s Guide To Social Media makes the point that, in this new bright new world of e-publishing, we are not alone.

As writers we can use social media platforms like blogs, facebook, twitter, etc, to promote our own work and that of fellow writers to our mutual benefit.

It obviously works, because here I am plugging Kristen’s book on my blog. Again!

Given our ground-breaking novel  Sugar & Spice is now in the Amazon UK Kindle Top Five, it’s the least I could do.

Sure having a great story helps, but without Saffy’s tireless social networking (using Kristen’s methods!) to make sure the world knew it existed, it’s meteoric rise to the top could never have happened so quickly.

But the main purpose of the Monday blog is to highlight a fellow Kindle writers’ work, in the we-are-not-alone spirit Kristen advocates.

So say hello to Ann Swinfen.

Ann is actually an old hand at this writing lark, with four highly acclaimed books under her belt and with experience across the publishing range, from traditional (Random House, no less!) through self-publishing to e-publishing on Kindle.

Here’s Ann’s thoughts on the rapidly changing world of publishing in her own words:

Comparing my experience of publishing with a big international commercial publisher (Random House) and independent publishing? There were some good things about the RH experience – a lovely editor, the interest of working with the design department who actually listened to my ideas, hefty five-figure advances, and the glamour of being taken out to lunch by the divisional head, my editor, and so on. Where the experience was not so good was the fine print of the contract, which gave me very poor royalties if RH decided to sell my books to bookshops at 50% or more discount (which they did). I’m wiser now and would spot that. The other major disappointment was the marketing. Review copies were sent out and did attract some very good reviews, but very little else was done to promote my books and at the time I had no idea how to do more myself.

Things have changed so much in the last few years. My literary agent wasn’t able to place my latest novel, The Testament of Mariam, with a publisher, despite huge enthusiasm from editors. This was right at the height of the recession and the money men were running scared. I didn’t want to give up on this novel, as I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. I don’t think I would have opted for the kind of self-publishing which requires a huge cash outlay up-front. However, when I discovered the Arts Council supported YWO, which only required an outlay of around £50 plus the cost of a cover design (£130), I decided it was worth trying this route.

The experience has been almost entirely positive. The physical books are well produced. Royalties are good. Author discounts are not so good (RH gave authors 50% off, whatever the size of order) and shipping costs are high – I actually made a loss per book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as I had to give them a 50% discount (greater than I received) and paid the shipping charge from the printer.

On the other hand, I really enjoy being in charge. I enjoy the speed with which everything can be carried out, instead of the two years or so with a conventional publisher. I enjoy the camaraderie between indie authors. After my experience with The Testament of Mariam, I decided to produce a second edition of my third novel A Running Tide, as no more copies of it were available. A few copies of my first two novels, The Anniversary and The Travellers, can still be obtained through my website.

As an interesting experiment, I decided to produce a Kindle edition of The Anniversary, which has found a whole new group of readers as a consequence. It bobs about in the bestseller charts on Amazon UK, usually in the top 10 in Russian Revolution (which is a very small part of the story!) and somewhere in the top 30 or 40 for Literary Fiction. It was even in the top 100 of Literary Fiction for all Amazon titles, hardback, paperback and Kindle. It’s a rollercoaster, though, depending on how many sales you’ve made in a particular day.

The big problem, though, is MARKETING. As independent authors we don’t have the resources of marketing and sales departments. The major newspapers and magazines will rarely look at review copies if they don’t come from a major publisher. And major attention and sales become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the London Underground is plastered with posters for The Next Blockbuster, the papers will review it, bookshops will stock it, libraries will buy it, posters will be displayed in Waterstone’s windows all over the country, bungs will be paid by the publisher to bookshops so they will display it prominently by their front doors . . . and, hey presto! It becomes a bestseller.

How can we compete with that?

How, indeed? Bottom line is, as indie authors, we simply cannot compete at that level. To conquer the High Street stores requires a dead-tree publisher to produce a dead-tree version of your work. And it they cannot see a profit in doing so then friends, it ain’t gonna happen. No matter how enthusiastic an agent or editor may be about your work, the bottom line is the cash register.

But as we’ve shown with Sugar & Spice, a new and unknown author can compete in the e-book market, where the rules of engagement are slightly less biased against us. And of course Amanda Hocking in the US has shown that serious money can be made that way too.

But back to Ann.

Her first book, The Anniversary, has drawn wide praise, as we see here:

A gem of a book, involving the reader at every stage with each well-drawn character.

The Good Book Guide

Evocative.

Woman’s Journal

The Anniversary has a special touch of warmth.

Choice

A poignant tapestry of loves, losses, confrontations and family relationships in this warm, penetrating portrait of an era.

Woman’s Realm

Skilfully done.

Home & Country


Ann’s second novel, The Travellers, was equally well received

An original and compelling novel from the author of the highly praised The Anniversary.

Publishing News

I read and enjoyed Ann Swinfen’s first novel, The Anniversary, and was delighted when this new one [The Travellers] arrived. And I wasn’t disappointed, for here is another absorbing, deftly interwoven story which keeps the reader intrigued and interested from beginning to end…Swinfen is a skilled writer, creating living, breathing characters that leap off the page. A highly satisfying read.

Sandra Dyson, Hull Daily

Pity, remorse and embarrassment are common reactions in sensitive Western Europeans who visit the countries which used to be cut off by the Iron Curtain. How lucky we were in comparison to the deprived and oppressed people who emerged into a kind of freedom so few years ago. What a weight of terrible history bears down on those who live in the lands of concentration camps and communism. Did we deserve our good fortune, or must we take responsibility for failing to rescue Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968? Ann Swinfen has used all these complicated emotions in a novel with parallel strands of place (Hungary and provincial England) and of periods (wartime, revolution and the present-day)…I enjoyed this serious, scrupulous novel, especially the informative Hungarian sections…a novel of character…[and] a suspense story in which present and past mysteries are gradually explained.

Jessica Mann, Sunday Telegraph


Not satisfied with this, Ann gets further adulation for her third novel, A Running Tide.

The author of The Anniversary and The Travellers has written a powerful new tale of passion and heartbreak…What a marvellous storyteller Ann Swinfen is – she has a wonderful ear for dialogue and she brings her characters vividly to life.

Publishing News

This new book is remarkable in its description of places, particularly the long-ago farming & fishing life in Maine.

Penelope Fitzgerald

An exceptional novel…The details of life in Maine I found fascinating, and the whole story ran together so well.

Rosamunde Pilcher

A strong, engrossing read.

The Bookseller

Yet despite all this, and huge enthusiasm from editors, as Ann explained above, her fourth novel, The Testament of Mariam, has not found a main-stream publisher to back it.

Which seems to me to be a travesty of justice.  The premise of this novel is simply stunning, and Ann has proven herself a writer of ability many times over. So why the reluctance?

Not for want of praise, that’s for sure!

Compelling story, beautifully told

Hauntingly beautiful in both story and delivery, The Testament of Miriam will remain in your thoughts long after your first reading. Swinfen presents the Roman world of the 1st century with imagery and lyricism so compelling you are swept headlong into a closely plotted revelation of mysteries central to Western culture.

As Miriam nears the end of her life far from her native land, she reviews her early years in Judea, where determined loyalty to family and friends pulled her into events that changed the history of the world. Swinfen’s unique interpretation of these events is so plausible, so logical, that the reader is forced to consider them and, perhaps, to see the early years of Christianity in a new light.

The Testament of Miriam is a book to mull over, to read again, and to embrace for its fine writing as well as its clever and thought-provoking story. It is a book to treasure.

Janemac (Maryland, USA), Online Review

All that is wrong with the traditional publishing industry model, surely, is exemplified in this decision not to publish this book.

Ann’s agent loves it.

Ann’s editors love it.

Ann’s established readership will almost certainly love it.

But someone somewhere in the dead-tree world has decided we will be deprived of it.

Thank goodness technology is slowly removing that power from a handful of decision makers and is giving control to the reader.

For my money, this latest novel looks to be Ann’s piece de resistance, and I can’t wait to see it on Kindle so I can download a copy here on the African coast, where things we take for granted back in the UK,  like running water, electricity and a door-to-door postal service, are still aspirations rather than reality.

I leave you with this interview Ann did with Maria Grazia discussing this work in detail.

First of all, Ann, I want to congratulate you on writing such a wonderful novel : poetic, gripping, touching and at the same time so credible. How did you come to the brave decision of writing such a risky story? It wasn’t so much a decision as a compulsion. I suppose for many years there has been at the back of my mind the feeling that there was a real man, Yeshûa ben Yosef, a peasant from Galilee, behind the figure which is clothed in 2,000 years of theology and entrenched church doctrine. So many things have been done in the name of Christian orthodoxy, like religious wars, the Inquisition and the burning of heretics, which seem to me totally at odds with that real man’s intentions. However, I had never gone further than a vague unease until one day Mariam walked into my head and began to talk. After that, there was no going back, as she simply would not leave me alone until I wrote her story down. It is a common experience for writers to find that their invented characters take on a life of their own, but I did not invent Mariam. She simply appeared, fully formed, speaking to me both in her voice as an old woman and then reverting to the voice of the child and girl she had been. There was no escape!

Sorry for this blunt one, Ann, but …didn’t you think your version of Jesus (Yeshûa) could anyhow be considered “offensive” by the rather  conservative Christian world?

Yes, I was worried. Really very worried. I’m not a religious person, though I believe there is more to life than crude materialism. However, I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But here is the really strange thing. Some of the warmest praise I have received has come not only from serious practicing Christians but from men of the cloth. Here is an example, from an Anglican vicar:

“I valued the way you allowed your novelist’s imagination to be controlled by respect for the sources – and for Jesus himself. I have been given a number of books recently about Mary Magdalene and early Christian origins whose failure to do so and ignorance of the historical development of the tradition infuriated me. The Qumran influence seems not unlikely since clearly Jesus had some Biblical – and ascetic? – training which enabled him to make such a radical re-interpretation of the Law and the Prophets…The long friendship with Judas Iscariot is an intriguing idea. Is there any suggestion of it in the apocryphal writings? The tradition behind the gospels cannot find a good word to say for him but I am puzzled about his motivation. Did you know that the Ethiopian Church has made him a Saint because he did God’s will in bringing about the crucifixion? Thank you too for showing the importance of women in the Jesus movement. It must have caused considerable scandal when even respectable women went off and used family money to support him. I am sure that women did occupy positions of influence and authority in the early church.“

I’ve been both astonished and gratified by many comments like these.

How long did you research on the historical, cultural and geographical contexts?

Altogether, the book took about a year to write. I didn’t spend a separate period researching and then a separate period writing. I did quite a lot of general background research, both in the New Testament and in modern studies of the period, and then, as I was writing and needed information on some particular topic, I would hunt it out. For example, what was the diet of peasants in Galilee? At what time in the year were the various agricultural activities carried out? What route would Yeshûa and the others have followed from Capernaum to Tyre, and what would the terrain have been like? I always had a map open beside me. (I tend to have a very strong sense of place.) I loved the research. Until I started, I had no idea that we knew so much, that modern scholarship had enhanced our knowledge of the period to such a great extent. As a former classicist, the background on the Roman Empire was very familiar to me, but – for example – the complex politics in the Roman province of Palestine were new to me, as were all the fascinating details of the practices of the Essenes, their medical knowledge, their philosophical and religious outlook, and their rituals.

Mariam is such an admirable female figure! So modern but living in such a distant time, so brave in a male-oriented society.  Was she inspired by other heroines you read about or to a great woman you met in your life?

As I’ve said elsewhere, Mariam appeared as a fully realised person. However, I was struck by all the women who followed Yeshûa. At the time, a woman in this culture was expected to remain at home, under the total control of her father, until handed over to the power of her husband. Yet these women left home, wandered about the countryside, some even bringing money to support the mission. They must have been regarded as scandalous according to the conventional views of the time (as my correspondent above observed). This is why I have Ya‘aqôb accuse Mariam of being a whore. That is how these women must have appeared. I think they were all extraordinarily courageous.

Your Yeshûa is very human and little divine.  A visionary  rebel, a dreamer, a healer,  a charismatic leader  with a mission: to radically change the world at any cost.  Where did the inspiration for such a fascinating credible character come from?

It perhaps sounds a little simplistic to say so, but if you go back to the sources, isn’t that the man who comes alive for us? He must have been quite extraordinary, with great charisma. We know that he was a healer and modern research suggests that he could well have spent time amongst the Essenes and learned their skills, though their intolerance of those outside their sect would surely have been anathema to him. He must have been not only literate but learned, considering the detailed knowledge he displayed of the religious texts. Interestingly, I discovered that Galilee had been for a couple of generations a hotbed of rebellion, producing earlier leaders who fought against the Romans and those of the Jews they regarded as collaborators. And if you read the New Testament attentively, you can see that Yeshûa often showed very human characteristics – he could lose his temper, become impatient or irritated or depressed, and, at the end, he experienced terror at the thought of crucifixion and death. As for his divinity, remember that we see him through Mariam’s eyes. One of the ideas I was addressing was: What would it have been like to be the sister of such a man? Could you believe that he was divine? Wouldn’t that be very difficult to accept? Mariam knows that her brother is exceptional, but . . . divine? At one point she becomes quite angry with him when he says his father is in Heaven. She points out that their shared father is in his workshop. It’s akin to the anger his fellow villagers feel when he tries to explain his message to them. “Who does he think he is, this carpenter’s son?” A very natural human reaction. Mariam keeps trying to rationalise his “miracles”. When she can’t quite explain things away, she edges away from the thought of them.

Another character I like much is Yehûdâ. You redeemed him as a friend and as a human being. His apparent betrayal was inevitable, he accepted to love his best friend until the extreme act of loyalty and obedience. He will be forever  “the traitor”  to accomplish Yeshûa’s will. What are your sources in his case?

I was aware of the tradition of the Coptic church, that Yehûdâ was carrying out God’s will, and I had read the recently discovered and translated Gospel of Judas, in which Yehûdâ is not a traitor, but Yeshûa‘s dearest friend, carrying out his wishes. Above all, I’ve always felt that the traditional story doesn’t make sense. I tried to understand how the “betrayal” might have come about in reality, through a promise unwisely made and unwillingly fulfilled. By going to Jerusalem at Passover and deliberately drawing attention to himself, Yeshûa must have been knowingly courting disaster. As I’ve said, Galilee had already produced a number of rebel leaders. Passover was a time when Jerusalem was packed with excitable crowds and the Roman authorities always took the precaution of bringing in extra troops. An outspoken preacher, from the Galilee, leading a crowd of followers, and being proclaimed by some as “king of the Jews” would instantly have been seen as highly dangerous. I think Yeshûa was deliberately setting himself up for crucifixion.

The love bonds in your story are exceptional and lead to extreme sacrifice. Do you think real love  always implies  longing and sacrifice?

Fortunately, perhaps, most bonds of love are not tested to the point of sacrifice, but there are certainly situations where people will sacrifice much, even life itself, for those they love. Think of a mother confronted with choosing to save either her own life or her child’s. In most cases, she will save the child. Think of those who will give one of their own kidneys to someone they love, although it is likely to mean impaired health for themselves. In war, many men have died to save their comrades. Secret agents working in occupied Europe died under Nazi torture rather than betray their friends. So although most of us are not put to the ultimate test, I do believe that people will and do sacrifice themselves for others they love.

Something I couldn’t totally understand was… Mariam’s choices in her adult life. Her married life. She seemed to have led a totally different life, almost betraying her ideals. Why? (Is it just my own impression, Ann?)

Mariam has been so traumatised by her experiences, particularly seeing her brother crucified and being torn away from Yehûdâ and her homeland, that she just needs to smother the memories of her past life. She arrives in Gaul as a destitute refugee and settles for a quiet, kindly husband. She loves her sons and is content on the farm. Many people who have suffered greatly in their youth want to blot out that period of their lives. For example, men who fought in the first World War almost never spoke about it afterwards to their families. As for betraying her ideals, she has seen what happened to her brother. And she is not altogether happy with the path the new church is taking. She is horrified that the cross – which to her is an instrument of torture – should be set up as some kind of emblem to be worshipped. For someone who was present at the crucifixion, it would have quite different and appalling connotations.

I think you’ve done an excellent job at coping with such delicate themes and events. Did you receive much criticism from religious people? How would you convince a non-religious person ( I am not, actually) to read your book?

This really links up with your second question. No, I’ve actually not received any criticism from religious people. As for the non-religious, I would say that this is not a “religious” book. It does not preach. It does not try to convert anybody. It is an attempt to explore the historical events and the real people who lived through those events, to understand the human man who was a son, brother and friend to ordinary Jewish people living uneasily under Roman occupation.

What’s your next adventure in the publishing world? Are you working on a new project?I never talk about the work-in-progress – too risky! When a new book is still in that tenuous, fragile state, talking about it might just destroy it. Call me superstitious if you like!

Maria Grazia Interview

Advertisements
  1. What a marvellous article on Ann Swinfen, whose books I find superb. I find it hard to understand how any publishing house could ignore testament, but their loss may just be ann’s gain financially.

    To read what Ann had to say about mainstream vs indie publishing experiences was illuminating. As a fellow indie-author (with no mainstream credentials) I can only agree with the marketing difficulties. On the other hand, I think indie authors are becoming more and more savvy about what is required by the readers within the ‘new’ marketplace.
    Thanks Mark, for an illuminating post.

  2. Thanks for that.

    Maybe it’s the economic climate, or maybe the subject matter is the issue for some publishers. I guess we’ll never know.

    But I’m sure Testament will find an appreciative audience, whatever format it is made available in.

  3. I just want to tell you that I am just all new to weblog and truly enjoyed your website. Most likely I’m planning to bookmark your blog post . You really come with really good articles and reviews. With thanks for sharing your web page.

  4. nice site. I will be a regular visitor for a long time.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: