Great and small

The call came out of the blue when I was between books, having delivered my last non-fiction work to Orion. Jonathan Lloyd, my agent at Curtis Brown, received a visit from Andrew Rosenheim, who runs the UK Kindle Singles store. Would I be interested in writing a Single—an oeuvre, fiction or non-fiction, that runs 5,000 to 30,000 words? The subject matter, the genre, were my choices.

To be honest, I was in two minds. I was concerned that if I signed with Amazon, I would be betraying my support for independent bookshops in their struggle for survival against the supermarkets and e-markets. I let the idea sit but as I was out of contract, I began to pen a short fiction story set in the south of France, The Girl in Room Fourteen. Andrew accepted it. No advance was paid, but a 70/30 split of of receipts in my favour was agreed. (I believe this is the standard rate).

From delivery to e-publication was a mere six weeks. Andrew, who has a very astute eye and suggested tiny editorial changes that really made a difference, organised an excellent copy editor, commissioned the e-jacket—which he sent through for my approval—and then asked me to decide on the sales price. This surprised me. It is an aspect of publication I had never been included in before: 99p, £1.59p or £1.99p? The story runs to 14,000 words. Jonathan and I felt 99p was fair and I opted for that.

Amazon launched and promoted it, and that same afternoon I posted the news to my social media outlets (I don’t tweet). Within less than 48 hours, it was number one in the Kindle Single fiction charts and number eight in the overall Kindle charts. To say I was amazed would be putting it mildly. I know I have a dedicated following made up of loyal “All Creatures Great and Small” fans (actress: Carol Drinkwater) and Olive Farm readers, but even so. The story went from strength to strength. It spent five or six weeks in its prime position in the UK, and within a short while was promoted on the Amazon US listings and jumped to number one on its charts Stateside.

This is where it gets exciting. Thousands of new readers were being introduced to my work—visits to my website shot up, emails began arriving from all over the world offering interviews on literary websites, two established agents offered representation, along came foreign rights scouts, translators, even an interview with a Korean newspaper . . .

By now my second Single, Hotel Paradise, was ready. Once published, it also hit the pole position on both sides of the Atlantic. The Amazon publicity machine is extraordinarily powerful. Its reach hits the screens not only of Kindle owners but anyone with reading apps on computers, phones, iPads.  When Amazon decides to promote you, you see the figures soaring within hours.

I equate it with an earlier professional experience. After “All Creatures Great and Small” was first televised, I was walking the Great Wall of China. An Australian couple passed me. “That’s Carol Drinkwater,” they said. “From ‘All Creatures Great and Small’”. I was stunned—the power of television! Today, it is the power of the internet; Amazon.

Amazon begins to pay royalties three months after publication and then every month thereafter. Both stories are earning now and I am receiving money every 30 days or so. It’s delicious! Most importantly—while it lasts—it means that, with bills paid, I am less stressed about the novel I am working on. The US payments are a little tardier. It seems the dollars are sent by cheque, which takes weeks to clear through Curtis Brown’s bank account. Still, it is faster and more frequent than the regular publishing system, and I am earning.

On top of which, Curtis Brown has created a company in association with Amazon to e-publish established authors’ backlists. Through this programme, known as Whiteglove, we have re-published two of my early novels, An Abundance of Rain and Mapping the Heart. Both seem to be selling moderately well following the recent Single successes. The sales for the Olive Farm books in the US have also improved significantly, though it is too soon to know exact figures.

The downsides? Amazon has opened (virtually speaking) a Kindle Single store in Germany, and it was keen to include The Girl in Room Fourteen and Hotel Paradise. However, the split is far less generous to the author than the terms offered in the UK and US. Amazon argues that they have translation costs, but Jonathan and I feel that once these are recovered, the royalty should rise. So we have said no, but we remain in negotiation. As much as I would like these stories to be translated, I know that accepting any deal would be short-sighted—not only for me, but for all writers in the long run.
Having deliberated at the outset, I have no regrets. It would be churlish if I had. Even so, I dream that these short stories, along with others with similar themes, might be published together in a physical book that sits in bookshops and captures the eye of readers who are not into e-reading.

Carol Drinkwater is the author of several books, including the Olive Farm Series. She acted in “All Creatures Great and Small” between 1978–1985.