Review: The Magpies by Mark Edwards

When Jamie and Kirsty buy a dream flat together everything seems like it is going to be happy ever after, but when unwanted parcels, junk mail, and fast food they didn’t order start arriving they slowly come to realise that everything isn’t quite right. For a start their downstairs neighbours, the Newtons, seem like an odd couple, but despite this they try to form a friendly bond with them. However, after a very suspicious accident leaves Jamie’s best friend in a coma they realise that the Newtons aren’t just odd they are bad and dangerous with it. As their relationship with the neighbours from hell goes from bad to worse, and their own relationship starts to fall apart, Jamie and Kirsty come to understand that their dream flat is actually a nightmare.

As part of a writing partnership with Louise Voss, Mark Edwards has had considerable success: their novels Catch Your Death and Killing Cupid were both big bestsellers. The Magpies Edwards’ first novel without Voss, is already a huge hit, and seems certain to stay in the Amazon Kindle UK bestseller chart for some time (at time of writing it is No. 1). But is it any good, I hear you ask? Well, yes, I certainly enjoyed it.

A creepy prologue sets the reader on edge and pays off later in the tale. Edwards’ prose is smooth and reads well, and the characters of Jamie and Kirsty are well-rounded. Edwards’ handling of the narrative is equally as smooth and the escalations in the story are done nicely. I wasn’t all that happy with the transformation of Jamie’s friend, Paul, following the accident; he changes from a likeable character to an arsehole very quickly. Of course, some people do have complete personality changes after major accidents, but the way it was handled felt like a minor stumble. The ending also felt slightly rushed, to me at least, which is a shame because it seemed like the set-up was in place for something a bit more grand. Still, these are minor quibbles, because overall The Magpies is a good tale, well told.

There’s no reason for you to read my books

The title above is neither a bitter statement nor a request for you to stay away, more a suggestion of a problem that I think affects ninety-nine per cent of writers out there using KDP or some other self-publishing system.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole self-publishing experience recently. I’ve learned a few things during my two-plus years on this merry-go-round; enough to know that my books will never be anything more than a sideline for me, much as I’d like them to be something more, because maybe I’m missing some kind of X-factor, because year-on-year my sales haven’t improved but declined. When fanciful dreams get a bucketful of cold, wet reality thrown in their face they often harden into ice. And although my heart isn’t icy-cold yet, there is a certain cooling of interest in the whole self-publishing rigmarole (from a business perspective, at least). I’m not sure if other writers are feeling it yet, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but I’ve come to realise that the reason Big Publishing has survived as long as it has is because it knows a few things about its audience – a damn sight more than many of us do.

They know that there’s no reason for anybody to buy their books (you see, there was a reason for that title), but they make an audience want to read the damn things anyway and they do it time and time again. In all honesty, how many self-publishers (or even small presses) can say they’ve done anything even remotely similar. Building a brand takes time, money, good contacts, good luck, and most importantly (although not necessarily the case) good material. Big Publishing generally has the best covers, the best marketing brains, the best contacts, can sometimes make their own damn luck and, most importantly, they have that big fucking cachet – most of the best writers want to be published by them. If you are published by Big Publishing you automatically have something that no self-publisher has – reputation. Before you start harrumphing and disagreeing, think about it.

I’m not saying that going through the whole gate-keeping process of agent selection, editing, publisher, more editing routine necessarily means that the books are better but, let’s face it, in the mind of the book buying public at large this is nearly always the case. Instant reputation. What writer wouldn’t want that for their work?

Self-publishers have to deal with an inbuilt prejudice amongst the reading public – their work is automatically inferior because they aren’t well edited, have shite covers, can’t spell, don’t have, like, good grammar, and stuff, like what those proper authors have – in short, we have no reputation. And it remains this way until we can prove otherwise – meaning it is already harder for us.

If you are really persistent, write the kind of novels the public loves well, and have a certain amount of luck, too, you might be able to succeed at this self-publishing lark (Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Joe Konrath, Stephen Leather, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, Saffina Desforges’ Sugar and Spice, and Bella Andre spring immediately to mind), but, for most of us, this kind of click with the public in order to create some kind of zeitgeist probably won’t happen.

If, like me, you write stuff that might be considered marginal (too violent, too downbeat, too much swearing, too many unpleasant characters etc.) then you’re screwed from the get-go – and unscrewing yourself is a major job in itself. It’s at this point that you’ll realise that the reason that Big Publishing doesn’t want to know is because your stuff just doesn’t have audience appeal. It comes back to the title – there’s no reason for you to read my books. I have to make you want to read them.

I’ve changed covers, thrown money at advertising, tried guerilla advertising techniques (flyers dropped in public places etc.), put up posters, joined forums (communicated with fellow readers and writers), joined social media outlets, given my books away, asked for reviews, slashed prices, and still every tiny sale feels like it has to be hewn out of a large rock of indifference. I’m doing more for less. And it is getting worse all the time.

Does it mean I’m giving up? No. I love writing, I love creating the kind of stuff that I want to read. But what it does mean is that I can’t be bothered trying to force or coerce people to buy my stuff any more. I loathe advertising all the time. I’m not a salesman, have no real feeling for it, and always feel somewhat embarrassed when sending out please buy my book requests. The only way I’m going to sell more than a handful of sales in a year is through the kind of effort I just can’t afford to do, literally. I’m a freelancer. My time is money. If I don’t work I don’t get paid. Every hour I spend trying to get one sale is an hour I spend not getting paid for my profession – and I get paid a helluva lot more for my profession than I do for my writing. So, from this moment on, I am giving up any kind of concerted marketing effort for my books.

When I eventually get round to releasing something in 2013 I will give it an initial push on Facebook, Twitter, my blog (two to three weeks, at most – because that’s when most sales and interest come in, anyway) but after that I’m going to let my books rise or fall on their own merits (or lack of them). There will be no more Kindle freebies, nor any please buy my book tweets several months after release, and I won’t be doing blog tours or anything of that nature. From now on, I’ll be solely about getting on with the business of writing (books, short stories, reviews, the occasional other blog post), but the sales pitches are a thing of the past.

I have found out that there’s no reason for the public to read my books, and I simply don’t have the time or the money at the moment to change that fact. And, do you know something, I’m actually cool with it.