Today our blog puts the Spotlight on critically acclaimed Author Alexander McNabb. He writes Mystery & Thrillers about the conflicts in the Middle East.
Mystery & Thrillers, Romance
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Alexander McNabb has been working in, living in and travelling around the Middle East for some 30 years. Formerly a journalist, editor and magazine publisher, today he is a consultant on media, publishing and digital communications.
Alexander's first serious novel was the critically acclaimed 'Olives - A Violent Romance', a work that explores the attitudes, perceptions and conflicts of the Middle East, exposing a European sensibility to the strange and multi-layered world of life on the borders of Palestine. Self-published in 2011, the book found a receptive audience and triggered wide controversy.
This was followed by testosterone-soaked international spy thriller 'Beirut - An Explosive Thriller', which was published in 2012. His third Middle East-based novel, 'Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy', a thriller about a man dying of cancer unearthing his even more deadly past, was published in 2013. Together, the three novels form the 'Levant Cycle'.
Alexander's next novel, 'A Decent Bomber' is set in Ireland and published in 2015. It tells the story of a retired IRA bomb-maker forced to resume his old trade and pitches 'old terror' against 'new terror' in a battle of wits between an Irish farmer with a past and Somali extortionists with a questionable future.
Alexander's latest novel, 'Birdkill', published in March 2016. A psychological thriller based around a teacher who has lost her recent past to 'The Void', a terrible incident she can't recall and nobody seems to be in a hurry to tell her about. Her friend Mariam embarks on a race to uncover the truth before Robyn is driven over the edge into insanity.
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SPOTLIGHT Questions and Answers with the Author
Congratulations on your book: Birdkill. What do you have on the drawing board next? Can you tell us the timeline for its release and give us a little tease?
The next book took a little time to sort of bob up to the top of the ideas pile. Like Birdkill before it, the core idea had been around for ages until the time to write it just seemed, well, right . It’s called The Dead Sea Hotel and it’s about an old Armenian gentleman who runs a clapped out hotel in Amman, Jordan, who tries to keep things on an even keel despite his wayward daughter and a changing world around him he doesn’t much like. He draws great solace from talking to his dead wife. And then one of his guests dies, leaving a briefcase full of secrets in the hotel safe. It all sort of goes downhill for him from there on. I love the first four words of the book: ‘The Englishman was dead.’
I’m aiming to finish it by year’s end, but progress so far is slower than that. I’m letting it take its own pace, really. It was meant to be a comedy, but it’s coming out deeper than that so far. Like Birdkill , it’s a book I’m writing for me, not with any publisher in mind – and I do find that tremendously liberating.
You have a good following on twitter. Since you started before the social media buzz, what impact has social media relationships had on your current success? How did you build your following in your niche? How much has it changed your book launch process?
I’d say it has been fundamental to the way things have panned out. I worked out the other day I’ve written more words on Twitter than I have in my books, which is something of a worry! As far as actually selling books goes, social media is rubbish. I’ve tracked the results very carefully (because, as you know, with Amazon et al you can) and tweeting book promotional messages don’t cut the mustard at all. There are few things worse than the plaintive wailing of authors whining ‘buy my book’ repeatedly and few sights more tragic than authors trying to sell to groups of other authors.
I think the reputational and network effects of social media are enormous and the blog, Twitter and other channels have brought me ideas, opportunities, contacts and reach I otherwise would have lacked. Having said that, they’re not platforms to actually activate book buying and shouldn’t be used as such. I’ve worked out you need to touch people no less than five times, ideally at least one being a friend or social media contact’s recommendation and ideally the last time being when they’re actually in a bookshop looking at a stack of your books, where you’re on their shoulder whispering ‘That one. Buy that one.’
You ever see that visual gag about men and women, where men are an off/on switch and women are this ginormous panel of dials, buttons, switches and levers? Book buyers are like that. And social media’s too often used like the off/on switch.
You have great covers. They carry a theme and your brand with them. How does your book cover creation process work? Do you hand over the basic theme or do you have more of a hands-on approach? Do you get your readers involved in its development?
Thank you! Mind, don’t even get me started on the mistakes I’ve made, because you’ll be here all day. My first serious novel, Olives – A Violent Romance, was a WIP for something like six years before I decided to self-publish it. The book had always been called Olives and I just couldn’t change it, try as I might. I added ‘A Violent Romance’ because I knew very well that the SEO implications of naming a book after those wee green salty things you plonk into your Martini were woeful. I asked an artist friend to design my cover and she duly did and I loved it, truly loved it. Readers here in the Middle East like it, too – I guess because it has a very Arab aesthetic to it. But it’s not a strong commercial cover and Beirut – An Explosive Thriller (I had started the tag line thing so I reasoned I might as well carry on with it) had me thinking about that stark black text and central image idea. I struggled with Beirut’s cover because I didn’t want to reinforce the image of a country at war. The Lebanese civil war ended over twenty years ago and yet people still think of Beirut as a war zone and that’s a little frustrating if you know today’s Beirut.
I wanted something that talked to the violence and sexiness of the book (and indeed the city) and the lipstick bullet Lebanese designer Jessy Shoucair created was just the ticket. I’d found my book cover feet by now and had that theme of stark text and central image and stuck to it. Eventually, five years later, I’ve gone back to Olives and replaced the cover with a new treatment thanks to photographer Mary Jo Hoffman, whose fox sparrow image decorates Birdkill. Mary Jo’s
is a daily visual treat and her sparkle has given Olives
the cover it always deserved and which my wilful self-indulgence originally denied it.
Between your book writing, blogging, marketing, family and all the other things that can get in your way, how do you manage your time? Do you have a set schedule or do you sort of play it by ear?
I’m married to a teacher, so Sarah spends an inordinate amount of time out of school working. We sit happily in our study, back to back: she planning, marking and making worksheets and me writing or dreaming up PR stunts. Or wasting time on Twitter.
I think about my books on the drive to work, about an hour, and have another hour before the office wakes up which I use to write. And I’ll usually get a quick session in the evening. Fridays, the first day of the weekend here in the UAE, I’ll generally spend mostly on book stuff. If I’m doing 1,000 words a day, I’m pleased enough but I don’t let word count dictate whether a session has been worthwhile. A piece of stunning dialogue is worth 1,000 words. Or something like that…
What has been your experience in giving your books away free? Have you been involved in any other type of giveaways and how did that work out? What was your main goal in doing this? Did you run into any obstacles?
Free has been my most successful marketing tactic of all, without doubt. Amazon’s five day quarterly giveaway windows aren’t as effective as you’d think, at least they haven’t been for me, while putting a title on permanent giveaway has really livened things up. Beirut has far outstripped Olives in downloads, I think partly because Beirut is more definitely ‘on genre’ and partly because Olives had an awful interim cover I had used as a placeholder. Beirut was #1 free thriller on Amazon for a while, which was nice.
The next few weeks will show how Olives picks up with its new cover. Generally, I’d urge authors to put their strongest work up for free. How do you make a book perma-free on Amazon? You use Amazon’s Price Match. Set your book up as a 35% royalty (this is important, it’s a different contract with Amazon and allows you price flexibility with other platforms) and then use Smashwords (or whatever way you populate iBooks et al) to set your book price to zero. Amazon will then (or it can be prompted using the ‘tell us about a lower price’ link on the book’s page) set the book price to match algorithmically. Tada! Your book is now free full time and can enjoy the accretive effects the Prime five-day model doesn’t allow. Don’t thank me, just ask all of your friends to buy one of my books. See what I did there?
Do you maintain a reader list? What are the methods you use to find your readers and create the list and the relationship? Do you use social media, forums, newsletters and/or support groups to build your list?
Yes, I do, but I’m not nearly as active or creative with it as I should be. To tell you the truth, I have become a little weary with the relentless, Sisyphean task of marketing. And I’m a little uncomfortable with formulaically ‘using’ people as a book marketing tactic. Oddly, I’ve found more good stuff has happened to me since I stopped ‘working on my platform’. I’m not suggesting people give up marketing or building a following by any means. It’s just that it hasn’t dovetailed with me personally.
The one thing I would say is believe in Karma. I never say no, I never turn anyone down (well, almost never) and I always give my time to people who need help, advice or a shoulder to cry on – mostly because I remember my first five years as a writer when I treated it like a dirty secret and blundered around in a state of almost majestic ignorance. I do that with no expectation and am constantly delighted by the kindness of strangers.
You have a great blog. You do a great job keeping readers informed, marketing your books and providing useful information to other writers. What is your primary goal? And where in the world do you find the time to create great novels, take care of the social media and maintain your blog?
The blog’s a little neglected of late, to be honest. I used to post pretty much daily, but these days it can be weeks between posts. I started it in 2007 and still don’t understand it. I’ll post a witless half-thought and get a bazillion views and then put up a considered, thought-through piece of inspired clarity and sit by myself watching the tumbleweed. Book posts used to kill traffic but these days they’re not so bad and people seem to find them useful, which is always nice. I’m quite proud that one of my most popular ever posts was an analysis of what they put in Tim Horton’s French Vanilla Coffee. A couple of clues: it doesn’t include anything French or any actual vanilla. As for time, I just grab a bit of it when it floats by occasionally… But I’m glad you enjoyed the read!
Living in Dubai creates a unique selling and marketing situation. Where is your biggest audience? Does marketing online help in this situation? Are any of your novels published in a different language?
It can get pretty frustrating. My original strategy was to create a fuss here and try and move it over to the UK, but there’s a sort of glass wall between the two. Amazon doesn’t support the UAE (or anywhere in the Middle East), so I can’t even get reviews from my sizeable reader base here, because Amazon only lets you post a review if you have an account. And my readers here are mostly buying print books because Kindles aren’t really sold here. The UAE is a tiny market of about 8 million people, of whom most aren’t native English speakers and I’ve sold around 6,000 books here, which is nice.
I’d love to get my books into more hands in the UK and US, which would really mean a publisher and that’s not happening any time soon. We’re just mutually incompatible.
At the same time, my online audience is mostly in the UK and US although a couple of recent promotions have seen more readers in Europe and Australia coming through. I’ve played around a lot with online advertising, including Google, Twitter and Amazon. The results have pretty much followed
McNabb’s Law of Clicks:
you’re looking at around 25,000 impressions for $100 and a few sales if you’re lucky. That’s actually fine, with online marketing you’re looking at the long haul, so I’m currently planning a blended campaign of online promotion, ads and some giveaways. I’m not really in a hurry to get that together, I’d rather be working on The Dead Sea Hotel, but I’ll manage to finagle the two somehow.
What is your method of getting reviews for your novels? Do you seek professional reviews, use social media or do you rely on your reading audience to supply them?
I’ve got a mailing list of blogs but that’s a big job in itself. I’ve lost count of the book blogs I’ve seen starting with a breathless, “I love books, so…” and then just grind into the ground and die two years later. Book bloggers generally have a very long TBR list, anything up to six months and more. I find asking nicely goes a long way and once I’ve got a review from a blogger they’re keen to look at the next title. The problem is each time you make a convert, their blog does the grinding into the ground thing! I could do with rekindling my review program, to be honest. I’m not spending enough time on marketing generally, but then I am spending that time writing, which is all good.
You consult on media, publishing and online communications and include important information to authors in your blog posts. How can authors contact you for your services?
I don’t offer services to authors as such, but am always happy to lend a hand where I can, so please don’t hesitate to shout. I run workshops on writing, editing and publishing here in the UAE, particularly in conjunction with the Emirates Literature Foundation and Emirates Airline Festival of Literature both of whom have been wonderfully supportive of both me and my books. If you do need anything, you can easily catch me at @alexandermcnabb or alexandermcnabb.com where there’s a contact form.
Author's Book List
Robyn Shaw has amnesia, a recent trauma so great her mind has veiled her memory. When she starts a new life teaching at a research institute devoted to exceptionally gifted children, the last thing she expects is for those blocked events to be lying in wait for her.
Plagued by dreams of death and blood that threaten to overwhelm her, Robyn is fragile and vulnerable. When she meets student Martin Oakley plucking sparrows from the air and breaking their necks, she is pitched into a vicious battle that threatens her grasp of her own mind.
Attacked from without and within, Robyn struggles to maintain her increasingly tenuous hold on reality as journalist Mariam Shadid races to discover the dreadful secret buried in Robyn’s past before her friend is consumed by insanity.
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A Decent Bomber
Pat made bombs for the IRA twenty years ago. He doesn’t want to do it again today...
In a world where travellers are made walk barefoot through airport security in case there’s a bomb in their heels and we’re told 100ml of liquid is dangerous, what happens when a man capable of making bombs that weigh a tonne is torn out of retirement and forced to resume his old trade? Carnage. That’s what.
Pat O’Carolan has been a farmer these past twenty years, living on a remote smallholding with his ghosts and occasional visits from his beloved niece. When he’s forced by Somali terrorist turned extortionist The Accountant to make a series of bombs using materials stolen from forgotten IRA caches, Pat joins the War on Terror as only he knows how. New terror meets old terror in a deadly clash with only one winner.
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- A Deadly Tragedy
After a lifetime of service around the Middle East, retired diplomat Jason Hartmoor is dying of cancer. He embarks on a last journey back to Lebanon where he studied Arabic as a young man at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, the infamous ‘British spy school’ in the village of Shemlan far up in the hills overlooking Beirut.
Jason wants to rediscover the love he lost when the civil war forced him to flee Lebanon. 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 him alive long enough to face that past is Gerald Lynch.
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- An Explosive Thriller
Michel Freij is a powerful man. But he wants more. Two hundred kilotons more.
Michel Freij is poised to become the next president of Lebanon. The billionaire businessman’s calls for a new, strong regional role for the country take on a sinister note when European intelligence reveals Freij has bought two ageing Soviet nuclear warheads from a German arms dealer.
Maverick British intelligence officer Gerald Lynch has to find the warheads, believed to be on board super-yacht the Arabian Princess, before they can reach Lebanon. Joined by Nathalie Durand, the leader of a French online intelligence team, Lynch is pitched into a deadly clash with Freij and his violent militia as he pursues the Arabian Princess across the Mediterranean.
Beirut – An Explosive Thriller sweeps through Lebanon, Hamburg, Prague, Malta, Albania and the Greek Islands on its journey to a devastating climax.
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- Alexander McNabb
The fragile peace is holding. Behind the scenes, the Israelis are competing for dwindling water resources as Jordan and Palestine face drought. Daoud Dajani has the solution to Jordan’s water problems and is bidding against the British for the privatisation of Jordan’s water network.
When journalist Paul Stokes befriends Dajani’s sister, Aisha, British intelligence agent Gerald Lynch realises Paul offers access to Dajani - the man threatening to drain Israel’s water supply and snatch the bid from the British. Blackmailed by Lynch into spying on Dajani, his movements seemingly linked to a series of bombings, Paul is pitched into a terrifying fight for survival that will force him to betray everyone around him. Even the woman he loves.
Olives explores love in conflict, the pull of home set against the excitement of the new and a people trying to live alongside the conflict we see on television, the human stories behind glib media coverage that reduces the ebb and flow of existence to a few throwaway catchphrases. Forced to spy for his country, Paul finds himself embroiled in a struggle for survival between good and evil where the people he wants to see as the good guys are worse than he could ever have imagined.
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Ben Jonson is a doctor in Richmond, London. Life is peachy, perhaps the only cloud on his horizon being the problem of communicating with his incomprehensible housemaid. And then a roast chicken appears out of nowhere.
Ben Jonson never wanted to save the world. But with no warning, no final demand and certainly no invitations issued, Ben finds himself racing against time, the Russian Mafia and spooks aplenty. Driven to near-insanity by auto-manifesting incongruities, Ben is launched into a journey across Europe in search of the source of his problems by the charismatic Lysander Cullinane, the head of a shadowy government agency that specialises in telling awful lies.
Enter a catsuited blonde bombshell with a death fetish, a life insurance salesman on the run and some wickedly nasty Russians with very big guns. Add the world’s most effective computer virus, an imperious old lady with a gimlet eye, England’s most evil-tempered policeman and a dead man with a number of highly developed personality disorders. And then pop in a splash of sex worker with legs all the way up to the bottom of her basque.
The body count rises hourly and Ben’s on the run. But you can’t escape space…
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