Interview with Alexander McNabb

Published 2013-08-30.
When did you first start writing?
I have somewhere, on a Toshiba T1600 (just showing my age there), a couple of pages about a former French resistance fighter called Rene The Horse who hung out at a cafe near the Pompidou Centre in Paris. He eventually made his way into my first book, spoof thriller 'Space'. I guess it was about ten years before that first brief attempt to write a book turned into an actual book - I started Space in early 2002 after I had given up smoking. There were a lot of smoking scenes in the first draft, but it was a better way to find something to do with my hands than the risk of causing blindness through relentless onanism. It was a 60-a-day habit, after all.

Having worked as a journalist, editor and publisher - and then as a communications guy - I had written millions of words, from articles and reviews through to speeches and white papers for CEOs and kings. I reckoned if I could make stuff up for people like that, I could make it up for people like you and me too.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Yes. It's too embarrassing to revisit, thank you.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I'd picked up something like 250 rejections by the time I signed with London agent Robin Wade and he shopped my second serious novel, 'Beirut - An Explosive Thriller' around fourteen of London's finest.

His endeavours were, sadly, to bear all too little fruit beyond 14 variations on the word 'no'. It took seven months to collect those 14 negatives. Publishing worketh not at Twitter speed...

I subsequently sent 'Olives - A Violent Romance', my first serious novel, over to Robin but he pointed out, much as he had enjoyed reading it, if he couldn't make a sale with something as commercial as international spy thriller 'Beirut', he was never going to do it with a novel like 'Olives'. This point is fair enough, but what killed me at the time was how long it took to hear back from him with this opinion. It's actually what pushed me into self publishing - not the 14 rejections, but the fact the agent who had signed me took longer to read my book than any of the slushpile submissions I had made in the past.

The decision was a life-changer. Seriously. I'm so very glad I did it.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Readers. Seriously, I'm not BSing you. It's about the readers.

I have been amazed at how speaking at book clubs or meeting people who've read my books has transformed my approach to writing. Yes, of course, it's fun making stuff up or getting that scene right or stealing someone's soul or mannerisms (or both) and using them in your WIP. It's fun when you sit back and look over that chapter and it kicks bottom.

But there's nothing like facing twenty-odd readers over a glass of Chablis and having them question your characters' motives and personalities - telling you they loved reading your work or asking about how this or that scenario or twist came up. It's humbling stuff, but it reminds you that there is one relationship that matters in a book - the reader and the book. You don't actually belong in there, so you have to spend time cleaning up and putting the lights out before you leave, just so they don't even spot you were there.

If you know what I mean...
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
Smashwords is a vital platform to me - it lets me populate the most important bookstores all at one go. I actually prefer to manage my relationship with Amazon directly - and am quite impressed that Smashwords allows that quite openly. But for the rest, there's Smashwords.

I think Mark Coker is doing a splendid job and that's principally why I've resisted the whole 'KDP Select' thing for my serious books - I believe in diversity and choice for the reader and Smashwords supports that splendidly.
What's the story behind your latest book?
My third serious novel, Shemlan – A Deadly Tragedy, is about a retired diplomat called Jason Hartmoor, who decides to return to Beirut where he studied Arabic as a young man.

It’s a little known fact that in the mountains above the city, in the little village of Shemlan, from 1948 to 1978 the British government maintained the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, a school to teach its diplomats – and its spies – Arabic.

Hartmoor is dying of cancer and wants to rediscover the love he lost when the Lebanese Civil War forced the closure of the school. Instead his past catches up with him with such speed and violence, it threatens to kill him before the disease does. The only man who can keep Hartmoor alive long enough to face that past is maverick British intelligence guy Gerald Lynch.
What do you read for pleasure?
Breakfast cereal packets.
How do you approach cover design?
Cover art is, of course, critical. I love the cover of 'Olives', it’s a point of considerable pride that I could pick my own cover artist and that the talented Lebanese graphic designer and artist Naeema Zarif brought her unique style to the book’s cover. But compare 'Olives' to 'Beirut' and you’ll find I was being self-indulgent.

Is the cover of 'Olives' appropriate to the book? Definitely. Is it artistically valid? In spades. But that’s not what it takes. It takes immediate, in your face whambam. The stark black on white text and 'lipstick bullet' on the cover of 'Beirut' are standout elements and I've had to decide to bring all three books in the 'Levant Cycle' into line with a consistent cover 'feel' - even though they're standalone works.

The imperatives of marketing have overtaken artistic sensibility. It is, indeed, a shitty world out there.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
I ask Twitter. Seriously. It's given me some remarkable reads.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
The one critical lesson I’ve learned about book marketing is the lesson I learned when I first took a sales job in the early 1980s. AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. People don’t just buy books. They have to have their interest piqued in some way – something has to catch their eye. And that something has to evoke enough curiosity for them to want to look under, literally, the covers. What they find has to make them want the book, because only then (and I have been amazed at how much pushing it takes to take the horse to water) will they actually click on that link.

You need a ‘book hook’, something that makes the book stand out and attract attention. In 'Olives' for instance it was water rights and the drought gripping the Levant. Lead with this, build your content around it – and get that content out there.

Traditional media is key. Radio, TV, newspapers, magazines. Features about you and your book hook, reviews. Do signings, book clubs, conferences, book fairs, workshops, readings. Take every chance you can to get out there. Recruit supporters whenever you can. This can be exhausting, but it’s necessary. Build a media database and send out review requests to as wide an audience of reviewers as you can. The more you’re in front of people, the more attention you’re getting.

If you can’t bear the thought of all that attention, I’d consider whether you want to do this book thing. I fear in today’s world all authors are being forced blinking into the spotlights to face the audience and ‘engage the community’. And yes, that includes the conventionally published.

Talking of communities - I cannot over-emphasise the importance of communities in promoting books. If you're an active and contributing member of an online community, their help can get you off the ground in no time.(Anyone out there remember the deep joy of Klazart gaming Authonomy?)

A website for a book is critical – it’s somewhere you can point people (Twitter is great for attention, but you need to trigger a click somewhere – and that somewhere has to build interest) and tell them more about the book. The 'Olives' website is probably too busy and contains too much information - I think the 'Beirut' website is closer to my ideal. Remember the site’s not there to celebrate or justify your work – it’s there to trigger a link to ‘buy the book’. You also need to bear SEO in mind – the site is a discoverable asset: when I search your name, your book or even the topics your book is based around, I should find YOU staring at me.

But there’s NO more powerful marketing tool than third party endorsement - if readers like your work, get them to tell others. Encourage reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or Shelfari. Repost these to Twitter (not in a constant mindless stream, though!) and host them on your book blog. Post ‘em to Facebook. Get the good news out there. Because you won a click on ‘Buy with Whispernet’ and now the eternal, Sisyphean cycle starts again. A happy reader buys you attention. A happy reader makes you interesting. A happy reader builds desire. A happy reader can provoke action.

I love happy readers.
Describe your desk
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Books by This Author

Fake Plastic Souks - The Fear Returns
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 61,490. Language: British English. Published: March 1, 2014. Categories: Nonfiction » Entertainment » Humor & satire » Form / essays, Nonfiction » Entertainment » Humor & satire » Form / trivia
Alexander McNabb's Dubai based blog, Fake Plastic Souks, has charted an erratic little course over the years. Like a little pea green boat, it has bobbed on the waves of opulence and the stormy seas of the global financial crisis, throwing inane commentary and half-thoughts out to the benefit of a tiny audience. This irrelevant collection contains the second two years of Fake Plastic Souks...
Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 98,090. Language: English. Published: November 2, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Spies & espionage
Jason Hartmoor is dying of cancer. But will his past kill him first?
Fake Plastic Souks - The Glory Years
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 51,680. Language: English. Published: April 21, 2013. Categories: Nonfiction » Entertainment » Humor & satire » Form / essays
Alexander McNabb's Dubai based blog, Fake Plastic Souks, has charted an erratic little course over the years. Like a little pea green boat, it has bobbed on the waves of opulence and the stormy seas of the global financial crisis, throwing inane commentary and half-thoughts out to the benefit of a tiny audience. This wholly irrelevant collection contains the first two years of Fake Plastic Souks!
Beirut - An Explosive Thriller
Price: Free! Words: 97,240. Language: English. Published: September 26, 2012. Categories: Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Spies & espionage, Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Action & suspense
Michel Freij is poised to become the next president of Lebanon. European intelligence discovers he has bought two ageing Soviet nuclear warheads from a German arms dealer. Maverick British intelligence officer Gerald Lynch is pitched into a deadly clash with Freij and his violent militia as he pursues the warheads across the Mediterranean.
Olives - A Violent Romance
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 77,910. Language: English. Published: November 10, 2011. Categories: Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Spies & espionage, Fiction » Romance » Action/adventure
Starting a new life in Jordan, Paul Stokes is drawn to colleague Aisha Dajani but is blackmailed into spying on her brother by British intelligence. Uncovering a daring bid to save Jordan’s failing water resources at Israel’s expense, Paul is sucked into betrayal as he tries to protect Aisha. The explosions shattering the fragile peace are tied to Paul's struggle to survive.