Guest Column: Ray Connolly: What Happened Next

‘So, how did you get on putting your book online?’ That’s what I get asked quite a lot these days, a reference to how in August I began serialising my latest novel, The Sandman, free on my website. A thriller about music, social networking sites and cults, I reckoned it fitted the moment.

Well, so far I think I’ve been proved right, largely, I must confess, since the Guardian published a piece I wrote outlining what I was doing and how publishing was changing. Until then my website had been attracting no more than 150 readers a day, but on the day the article appeared it got an astonishing 50,056 hits. Eureka!

Naturally the level of online traffic levelled off after a hectic week, but it never dropped to fewer than two and a half to three thousand visitors a day until the serialisation ended in mid-October. Since then the figures have returned to a regular couple of dozen more than where they were before it began.

Now, in terms of book sales a following of maybe a couple of thousand isn’t huge – although many a hardback novel struggles to sell a thousand copies these days. And it was interesting that when offered the choice between downloading the entire book immediately for £4.99 or reading the free serialisation, the serial won hands down. Readers clearly didn’t want to pay for instant access if they could get it for nothing as a drip-feed.

But most interesting was the geographical breadth of The Sandman’s readership. Obviously the greatest following came from the UK and the US, but there were also many readers in Russia, Japan, Australia, the Scandinavian countries and Germany, France and Switzerland – twenty-five countries in all. What was really surprising was to find people downloading the entire book chapter by chapter in Moldova and Ukraine. I hadn’t expected that.

I’m not a techie but over the last few months I’ve learned how to trace IP addresses, and the idea that someone is following my novel on his or her computer in the Carpathians does give a certain buzz.

My great worry when I began was that people would read the first few chapters and then miss and episode or two and lose interest. I’m sure that happened in some cases, but many readers stayed with the book, quite a few of whom, I worked out, were reading the chapters every morning at work.

I could almost set my watch by the time readers came to the website in the Lancashire County Council offices in Preston and the UCL department of medical physics and bioengineering, before, as the day wore on, regulars logged on to the latest episode in New York and Washington, later in Texas and Chicago, and, towards the end of my working London day, in California.

Having given the stragglers several weeks to catch up with the final chapters, the free The Sandman is no longer available on my website. I’ve now put it on Amazon’s Kindle, which means it can be bought and read anywhere in the world on Kindles, iPads, iPhones, BlackBerries and almost any Android device, as well as on computers. There’s been some interest from TV, too. We’ll see.

Like other authors whom, I now hear, are putting their books online, I would obviously have preferred it if a big publisher had snapped it up, given me an advance, sold foreign rights, put The Sandman into the shops, advertised it and got it reviewed in newspapers.  Because, although it’s now relatively simple to put a novel online, without a publisher’s marketing force it isn’t easy to let the world know about it.

But it didn’t happen. And now, as agents continue to struggle to sell fiction to publishers, things are changing on an accelerating basis. This Christmas millions are being spent on persuading us to buy easy-to-read electronic devices like Kindle and iTab, and with more digital books said to have been sold in the US this year than hardbacks we can all see that a publishing revolution is on us. Just this week Google launched its Google eBooks website in opposition to Amazon and Apple.

I don’t for a minute think the reader will be forced any time soon to choose between digital and print. Surely the future points to the two co-existing alongside each other. But for the writer it means a new avenue of communication has been opened.

Where any of this leaves The Sandman, I really don’t know. But it’s fun to be in at the start of something new.

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Ray Connolly is the author of fourteen books, including Shadows On A Wall and a short biography of John Lennon, the screenplays for the movies That’ll Be The Day and Stardust, the TV series Lytton’s Diary and Perfect Scoundrels, and several radio plays and short stories. He also wrote and directed a documentary on James Dean and worked with Sir Gorge Martin on a three-part BBC series about music, The Rhythm of Life. As a journalist he first became widely known for his interviews with the Beatles and other rock icons and more recently for his articles on popular culture. His latest novel,The Sandman, is now available as an eBook from Kindle on Amazon.