Join Writer Abroad as expat author extraordinaire,Stephen Clarke, talks about his newest book,1000 Years of Annoying the French, what he's learned about book promotion after self-publishing his first book,A Year in the Merde, and how to crack the vast conspiracy that is the publishing industry. Hint: put your books in a shopping cart and push them around Paris.
Can you explain what you call the “vast—and never before revealed—conspiracy in the global publishing industry”? Or are you not allowed to do this now that you’re a member?
It was a joke, of course. My first two novels were rejected, just like most people's, so I invented this conspiracy, although in fact it was simply the publishing industry doing what is usually does, rejecting books from unknown authors. That was why I self-published A Year in the Merde - I wanted to see what readers thought about my writing, rather than leaving it up to publishers. If a reader likes a book, they only have to invest a few Euros or Pounds. If a publisher likes it, it's going to cost them a lot more, so they tend to like fewer books.
After some failed attempts to get published by the Big Conspiracy, you self-published A Year in the Merde and went around Paris selling copies out of shopping carts. Three months later the Global Publishing Industry Conspirators came for you. Can you discuss your path from street vendor to bestselling author? What do these Conspirators want?
That is a very long story, but a fun one. The short version - yes, I hawked the book around door to door trying to sell it to bookshops, and finally found one who bought it. The wonderful thing was that while a friend of mine was in the shop doing the sales pitch (I was outside sitting on the curb, discouraged), a man came in and the bookseller said, "Would you buy this book?" The man looked at the title, laughed, read the back cover, laughed, and bought the book. The same thing happened five minutes later. And these weren't people I'd hired to go in the shop (unfortunately - I should have thought of that trick). A couple of weeks later, I did a reading at the shop, the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, and about 40 people came along, only 20 of them cajoled or threatened by me, and everyone laughed, including the ones who weren't under threat. The word of mouth thing built up from there, literally from the street, and a few weeks later I was selling 100 books a day online, taking them to the post office and annoying people with my heaps of padded envelopes to get weighed and stamped. That was when I found myself an agent, and she told the publishers, "See what you're missing out on", and because the book was already a word of mouth hit, they bought it. Publishers need to make money - they have printers, editors and sales people to pay, and I was offering them something that had already proved it could do that for them. Needless to say, I made sure that the contract included a "no more visits to the post office" clause.
A Year in the Merdewas originally successful through word of mouth and your biggest fans seemed to be French people. Did this surprise you? Who did you think would buy the book?
Yes, it was aimed more at English speakers, and I was really surprised when the French started buying it - a book in English with "merde" in the title? I actually received one email from a woman saying, "I am French but I have a sense of humor, I want to buy your book". It proves that the French are much more open to criticism than we Anglos - I can't imagine the Brits buying a book in French that suggests their country is sh*t (even though A Year... doesn't do that - the merde in the title is largely self-inflicted). For a start almost no Brits could read it. But the French tell me they like my books because I tell it like it is - I live and work here, so everything is based on observation rather than prejudice. Although secretly, I think it's because they're thinking, "yes, what better subject for a book than moi?"
What did you learn about marketing and promotion from self-publishing A Year in the Merde?
Lots. I learned that people can feel it when you put 100% into something, when you love what you do and aren't just cynically trying to sell something for the sake of it. My books are entertainment, they're written to make people laugh, so I love going out and doing readings and giving talks, and that establishes a rapport with readers. And I have realized that my publishers keep publishing me partly for that reason. They know I won't just sit back and say, here's the book, sell it - I'll be out there doing my bit, giving interviews, doing readings in public libraries in the middle of nowhere (well, Hertfordshire), as well as taking a real interest in the book covers and everything else in the production process. I've done it all before - editing, proofreading, cover design, writing blurbs, getting the isbn, everything - so I know what they're going through, I'm like part of the team.
No, sorry, it's much too complicated. I mean, yes, of course. The idea came from a question I keep getting at readings - why is there such a love-hate relationship between the French and anyone who is annoying enough to speak English at them? I agree there's a certain amount of (often unrequited) love, but I don't think there's hate. It's more of a mistrust and a rivalry. So I started to look into the reasons for this, and found that the last 1000 years have been one long series of squabbles, battles, betrayals and (fortunately for me) hilariously inaccurate retellings of history. The French love to change events to suit them. The Brits, for example, did burn Joan of Arc, but what the French don't tell us is that she was captured by a Frenchman and tried by a gaggle of hysterical Parisian clergymen who were so determined to have her put to death because of all her supposedly angelic visions that in the end they convicted her for wearing men's clothing, which I say in the book is taking the Parisian fashion sense just a little too far. The book tries to put the record straight on Joan, Napoleon (no, we Brits didn't poison him with arsenic wallpaper), Mary Queen of Scots (she was half-French and spoke French better than English, you know), champagne (the French were trying to kill its bubbliness before the Brits invented a strong enough bottle to contain the fizz) and a whole lot more.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors based on your experiences?
Write exacly what you want, about something you know about, and put everything into it. Don't stop until you're satisfied with every single sentence, every single word - it is right? If not, put it right. Is it necessary? If not, cut it. And most importantly, finish the book. Most people don't - they give up or show it to someone, saying, "It's not finished, but...", which is like saying, "Can you taste this omelette for me, it's not cooked, but..." I got a very flattering question at a reading once - "What's the difference between a bestselling author and everyone else?" I said none, we all share the same basic DNA, the only real difference is that the bestselling author finished writing their book.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Yes, my favorite sandwich is cheddar, sliced not grated, and branston pickle. You used to be able to get these in pubs but now every time i go back to England the cheese is grated (i.e. out of a plastic bag). Can't pubs be bothered to slice cheese any more? And the pickle is rarely branston's - it's raspberry vinegar chutney or somesuch flavourless nonsense. Sorry, this has no relevance to the interview - I'm just getting it off my chest. (Not that I spread branston pickle on my chest, of course.)