His most recent works, Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD, and More from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD, written in the style of the original, have been listed as the top-selling Sherlock Holmes titles on the US Amazon site, and regularly appearing in the top titles of British Detectives, above not only Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but also above such great names as Agatha Christie, G.K.Chesterton, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers.
Since moving to Japan in 1988, he has self-published three novels, while writing reports on business and finance.
After graduating from the University of Cambridge, Hugh Ashton worked in a variety of jobs, including security guard, publisher’s assistant, and running an independent record label, before coming to use his writing skills to assist perplexed users of computers by writing explanations to guide them through the problems they encountered.
Majirox New’s Catherine Makino recently talked to Ashton at his house in Kamakura.
Did you ever expect to become a best-selling detective writer?
No, I didn’t. I might have hoped at some time in my life that I would become a best-selling author, but I never really expected it to be in the field of detection; I think I expected it to be in the field of thrillers. It’s a nice feeling, though, being a best-selling author, even if it is being a large fish in a small pond (British Detectives or Sherlock Holmes categories).
Is it true your publisher found you through Facebook?
Or rather, I found them through Facebook. On thing to remember is that if you live in Japan, there are few opportunities to use the local media to promote yourself. So I used Facebook and joined a few groups to promote my myself and my work.
I made friends with a writer, who told me she had been offered a contract by a publisher, Inknbeans of Los Angeles. I asked about them and looked on their site. Inkbeans had a pretty good lineup of writers, and real diversity in their list, so I sent off Keiko’s House, the first of my Old Japanese stories. They liked it, and we started to talk about plans to put it out as part of a collection and agreed on a publication schedule.
And then the Holmes came along, and I wrote Jo Lowe, the “Boss Bean” at Inkbeans, about it. On my birthday she made the offer to put out the Holmes book. That’s the first book I have out with them.
The terms were excellent, and it means less work for me in terms of preparation and promotion, so I am now commercially published.
What were the terms?
They are much, much better than what I would get from a big “established” publisher. More important than the money, though, is the great working relationship between author and publisher. The first cover they suggested for Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD captured my idea, but I thought I could do better – and I did. The design of the interior of the book is also largely a collaboration between author and publisher. And the editing has been gentle and constructive – no attempt to force the book to be what the editor wants it to be, but not letting me get away with sloppiness, either.
What are the pros of self-publishing?
The pros are that you are in total control. You decide the layout, the cover, the content, the timing and the pricing and distribution.
What are the cons?
The cons are that you do everything yourself. It’s a lot of fun – I described it once as “the most fun you can have with your clothes on” – but it’s very hard work to do it well. What I have with Inknbeans is a great symbiotic relationship, whereby I have control over what goes out with my name – with the advantage of professional back-stopping. Editing, opinions on design and covers, pricing, etc., as well as a US-based publicity machine working on my behalf.
As an independent self-publisher, it’s necessary to get your name out there. If you don’t do that, no-one’s going to do it on your behalf, and your work is going to join the “slush pile” at the bottom of Amazon’s 8 or 9 million print titles or 1 million Kindle books. So even if you are at about 29,000 overall with 28,999 titles selling better than your title (which is where Tales stands right now), which doesn’t sound too great, there are over 8 million titles selling worse than this!
How much money can you make by self-publishing?
Not a lot, unless you are really lucky. For me here in Japan, the killer is the cost of shipping. It adds a lot to the cost of each book, if you’re selling the books yourself. Returns are another headache – if you allow retailers to return your books, it kills profits. Amazon and the other distributors would love you to sell the books to them with a 55% discount off list, but you don’t have to listen to them. Too little discount, and you won’t get into bricks & mortar stores.
How did your interest in Sherlock Holmes come about?
I was given a complete set of all the Holmes stories at the age of about 12. Holmes works on so many levels – Conan Doyle could write a good plot, for a start. Sometimes he drifts too much into back-story – The Valley of Fear, or even Study in Scarlet, for example, but basically, the plots are good. Holmes is a great character – he is much more than Poirot’s “little grey cells” or Lord Peter Wimsey’s affectations (though I do enjoy the Wimsey stories a lot). He has faults – not just his cocaine addiction, of course, but bad temper, arrogance, impatience, etc.
He’s fun to write about. And Watson – I have become very fond indeed of Watson. He’s not a comic foil or a worthless stage prop. Look at his actions in Hound, where he does an enormous amount of work on Holmes’ behalf, and pretty competently at that. And lastly, another thing about Holmes stories is the language.
Many people don’t know that Conan Doyle wrote historical fiction, set in the Middle Ages – it’s how he wanted to be remembered. And the long rambling sentences, with curious inversions, too many subordinate clauses and commas, and some really varied vocabulary, all point to this trait. It’s a great style to imitate, and I find it relatively easy. I’m a bit of a chameleon when it comes to style, anyway, but I can pick up Conan Doyle’s pen and write with it quite easily.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I suppose so – I’ve always written, at any rate, whether it be technical manuals, bad poetry (no, I am not going to quote any), short stories for my own amusement, magazine articles, or whatever. But being an Author with a capital A? A slightly unexpected turn of events, as I said earlier.
Do you believe someone can learn to write or is it a talent?
There has to be a native facility with language. I don’t mean long complicated literary language – writers like Hemingway have proved that you don’t need long words and complex sentences, but you must understand language, and how it works. Rhythm is the important thing, I think. And it’s a talent that you can hone and develop, though it’s like playing a musical instrument – if you don’t have the ear, it’s a waste of time learning to play the violin.
What advice do you give to writers?
Two somewhat contradictory pieces of advice. First, believe in yourself and what you have to say. There’s an awful lot of competition out there, and without an ego to promote yourself and your work, you’ll get crushed in the crowd. That’s at a macro level. Second, don’t trust your own judgement. That’s at the micro level. What I mean is that it’s often very hard for you to see the flaws in your style, characterization or plotting. Get someone else to edit, copyedit, proof-read, etc.
What is the future of publishing?
It’s clear that the current model of big publishers has to change somehow. I am not a believer in the idea that ebooks will take over from paper completely. There are large parts of the literate world, India for example, where ebook readers are just too expensive. There are also many readers who will never change from paper, and this is a very different matter to the move away from CDs to MP3s, for example – you hold and use a physical book or an ebook proactively in different ways – listening to music is essentially a passive, reactive process, the same no matter what the medium.
I do see a bright future for ebooks as textbooks and reference books – in fact, a reference ebook has more value for the user than a paper version of the same work. But ebook reader sales have plateaued – there is a finite proportion of any one readership market that will buy and use the gadgets, and we’re nearing saturation point at this stage of the business.
As to the relationship between publishers and authors… We are stuck, for better or worse, with Amazon as the 800-pound gorilla. If you don’t sell through Amazon, you’re dead. And Amazon have made it much easier for an author to get his or her work out there for sale, but at the same time they’ve opened the sewer sluice gates, and there’s an awful lot of crap flowing out (sorry about the analogy). This is not to say that all self-published or independently published work is bad – very far from it. But when you as a prospective book buyer are faced with 500,000 independent Kindle titles on Amazon, distinguished from each other only by 50 words of blurb, how do you, as a reader, know what’s good or bad?
The answer is that publishers can act once more as gatekeepers, but the kind of publishers I envisage are those like Inknbeans – small, nimble, and able to react fast to change. I often work with another non-fiction publisher in London, Searching Finance, who take the same approach as do Inknbeans to their authors; love, nurture and support them, rather than regarding them as cash cow profit centers. The economics are similar – reward your authors; use the Internet and social media to spread the word and promote the titles; see ebooks and print as complementary media, rather than as being in competition; and don’t hold stock – use print-on-demand technology for fulfillment. Maybe it adds a little to the retail price, but by having been through a professional editing and production process, the reader should at least be guaranteed some degree of quality in the product.
So the future – mixed media, and “boutique” publishing.