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Friday, 1 June 2018

Hello My Name is Milly Johnson and I am a Writer of Commercial Fiction.

There is a rise in celeb-led book clubs.  And I did make a comment on social media that I hoped they would feature more commercial fiction in their choices.  And though these book clubs are starting to include books of our genre (two of my friends have their lovely books in them - Julie Cohen and Rowan Coleman.  Read them both and they're gorgeous and should be shouted about from the rooftops)... the problem is that there just aren’t enough of them.  And where’s the HUMOUR in the lists?  Where’s the books that make you laugh out loud?  They don’t feature.  

Humour doth not automatically a light book maketh, so said Shakespeare or maybe I dreamt that.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made me snigger in places, but it was also one of the grimmest books I ever read.  Life is full of humour, we need it to counterbalance the dark times.  But, in this world, give a reader something to laugh at in a book and it turns it into ‘a beach read’ ‘easy read’ ‘chick-lit’. Unless you’re a man and then your tome is an ‘amusing literary classic.’  I had humour in one of my books alongside assault, racism and kidnap.  ‘A light read’ so said Amazon reviewers.  Book by woman + laughter = froth. It would still have been judged the same had I thrown in a buggered Alsatian as well. 

 There’s a lot of snobbery in the book world.  Women writers of commercial fiction – and I include the saga and historical writers in this – feel it doubly.  Had a woman written ‘One Day’, it would be consigned to the file of ‘chick lit’ (not an original observation by me - I've stolen it as it's a brilliant one) but, guess what girls, we have a long way to go before the playing field is flat so just get on with your writing and forget the politics.  The broadsheets will favour literary books for a long time to come... sea changes take a while.  Still, I can’t think of any writer I know who has an inverted snobbery about those books.  We don’t look down on them because we don’t compare with them: they’re different. Which do you prefer: a fillet steak or a goosedown duvet?  It’s not right or wrong to prefer one to the other.  Steaks and duvets can co-exist happily in the world. It’s not a contest.  We can say 'we want more' without it meaning 'but we want you to have less'.

Predictable is another lazy insult if you favour a happy ending. A woman once wrote a review on Amazon that she could predict the end after reading four pages of my book.  I asked her for next week’s lottery results (naughty Milly, do NOT leave comments).   Well, yep, I ride that predictability bus.  I like to leave people with some hope that their dreams can come true.  Mine did. I dreamt of being an author.  I dreamt of having £10 spare at the end of my pay packet so I could buy a weekly video.  I dreamt of having my own office. I dreamt – big dream – of one day actually having enough brass to GO ON A CRUISE.  I’m dreamt of meeting Mr Right and I did. I’m there. It happens, dreams do come true – as Gabrielle so rightly foresaw.  Anyway – Agatha Christie is predictable:  There’s a crime, Hercule or Jane solves it and the bad guy gets put away in prison.  I can put up with that sort of bed-mate.

Commercial fiction holds its own against the insults and all those Japanese knot-weed rumours that it’s dying, that it’s ‘on its arse’.  Actually, never has it been so strong.  Never has the world, in such a total mess, needed commercial fiction as much to give our brains some respite. And, in case you’re wondering, what I mean by commercial fiction is: books whose main purpose is not to challenge you intellectually or show off how many synonyms for ‘sybarite’ the author can muster up but books which give hope and comfort to people who need some time out of their zone, books that entertain and sweep up the reader into their pages.  Books that celebrate friendship, community, love and family, that bruise your heart and then slap arnica on it, books full of characters that readers identify with – perfectly imperfect people who get their happy ending and make YOU realise you could have it too because carers of the elderly, teachers, dinner-ladies, people who work in Asda, stay-at-home mums all have a crack at a happy ending in life, it is not a prerogative of special individuals.  Authors write these books primarily for readers to enjoy and their readers are legion and they speak with their purses.  This is big business.  'It’s called commercial for a reason: because it sells' (quoted from Cathy Bramley).

Oh and just because something sells and becomes popular, that somehow serves to devalue it.  As if 'niche' only is desirable.  Well that might be the case if Van Gogh had churned out 10,000 identical Sunflower paintings but with books, I'm not sure it's quite the same. Even if it is, I don't care.  I write for the masses, not to have one book exhibited in a glass case.  I want to be like E.L. who must be so upset by the derision from lofty quarters that she has to take a break from counting her millions. She has so many critics she could build a mansion from their livers, but they're far FAR outweighed by her readers who love her. 

But we live in an age where 15% of adults in the country have the literacy age of an eleven year old.  Surely making people feel ashamed that they like a story that doesn’t make them reach for a dictionary every second word is wrong, isn't it?  Surely a life-affirming story about people that readers can identify with is no bad thing?  One that captures their imagination, has them reading on, improves their literacy levels because they’re so engrossed in a story?  There is NOTHING WRONG with a book that is easy to read or has a sparkly cover that calls to you from a shelf in Tesco.  Not everywhere has a swanky bookshop.  Buying a book from a supermarket is no different from obtaining it from ‘Jago and Dashwater’ with its mullioned windows in the centre of Oxford (I made that name up).  A book is a book is a book and commercial fiction books can change lives.  

Readers of mine will be familiar with a story of a taxi driver that took something from one of my books that made him and his wife quit the rat race and live out a dream existence in an Inn in the most gorgeous part of France.  And here are some direct lifts from many of the emails that I’ve kept from people.

 ‘The Queen of Wishful Thinking inspired me get away from my controlling husband, I won't go into details, so after a horrible 9 months divorce is nearly complete along with moving into a lovely flat on my own hurray!! Just need a couple of rescue cats for company!!’

‘You wouldn’t believe it but we just literally booked a cruise in the Mediterranean for this September....You can take full credit for that!’  (ahem… I do)

‘I am sitting at the side of my husband who has dementia and your books take me to a place where I can breathe. Thank you.’

And one hot from the press that came as a response to this article: 'Charles Dickens hasn't helped my mental health but your books have.'

I know that a couple of women quit their jobs and set up a business calling themselves ‘2 Woman and a Mop’ because they wrote and told me so.  Another set up a cafĂ© after reading my books. I’m not alone in getting these stories.  I know plenty of my contemporaries have similar stories to parade. So not worthless fluff then?  Not ‘lesser books’.  We write powerful, inspirational books.  Even the New York Times has a romantic novel round-up! (thank you Pernille Hughes for this.) And if it's good enough for them...

When a book in our genre becomes so successful that it can’t be ignored, it is reborn as ‘Up-Lit’.  It’s like the kid in school who writes an essay so good that he’s whisked off to the swanky grammar school up the road.  He isn’t allowed to stay in his friendship group, he has to learn to mingle with the cool kids.  Up-Lit is a new genre, they say.  Nope.  It might not have had the fancy moniker but I was reading Carole Matthews and Sue Welfare way before I’d even thought of my first plot and they were wonderful uplifting reads that left me with a smile on my face at the end.  (Presently waiting for one of mine to have the 'Hollywood' fairy arrive with her million pound contract.  Then I will be sanitised and relabelled 'Pit Lit'). It’s okay for a book to be a good read and still be commercial fiction. I’m not ashamed of what I write.  It’s okay for me to leave a reader with a sloppy contented look on their face rather than a ‘what the f – happened?’ and wondering if they’ve been sold a book with some missing pages.  As my friend Debbie Johnson points out: books about community spirit and heart and imperfect people overcoming personal struggles in life to rise victorious are absolutely nothing new.  Anne of Green Gables embodied that sentiment in 1908.  Aaaand the most perfectly imperfect heroine of them all (IMO) Jane Eyre - 1847.  Not new then. 

'I read commercial fiction,' a lady told me after reading the first draft of this article, 'but I've got a degree and I'm intelligent.'  NOOO... that's nearly an apology.  Just because you read 'genre fiction' does not make you thick, indiscriminate.  Where does this split in the world come from?  Literary fiction readers = art appreciation, business class travel, Waitrose, interest in lofty history programmes, Radio 3 listener.  Commercial fiction readers = watches Coronation Street on a continuous loop, holidays in Benidorm, wouldn't know Madame Butterfly from a Butterfly King Prawn, shops in Aldi.  (Incidentally one of the poshest women I know shops in Aldi and has a villa just outside Benidorm).  You can enjoy a chip butty whilst reading an Ian McKeown novel (incidentally the man is a God - I love his work. It's allowed). That's part of the problem, we've been made to feel apologetic for reading something that lifts our hearts, ashamed of our choices.  And I know many authors in our genre who can wipe the floor with most of the literary lot for their beautiful use of language.  Read 'The Man who Didn't Call' by Rosie Walsh and see what I mean - a masterclass of  beautiful prose.  Had Rosie been a man, she'd have...  I'll leave you to fill in the rest! 

I’m doing well.  I’m a million quid short of the castle I want to buy but I’ve worked hard and long and I sell in bookshops and supermarkets all over the place.  But a lot of my contemporaries don’t because it’s harder and harder these days to sell into shops and you need sales to flag up your presence to buyers – a vicious circle. So celeb-led book clubs with their long reach are a gift.  They too could change lives by shining a well-needed spotlight on a new talent, one that might not even be with a mainstream publisher.  I have brilliant writer friends who left the ‘Big Five’ to self-publish. Sue Welfare, Matt Dunn (yes a man), Tracy Bloom amongst others. 

I did actually make the broadsheet papers last year.  Someone decided to clone my name and flood Amazon worldwide with fake titles.  In a crazy way it was flattering that my name was deemed big enough to pin their scheme on.  Even more bizarrely that means I’m appreciated more by a global criminal fraternity than I am by the book reviewer of the Sunday Times, even when I'm shining on the page in the number 5 Sunday Times bestseller slot. 

Oh and a couple of years ago, I made the top twenty books most borrowed in this country for libraries.  Above John Grisham - ahem.  Three women in the list - Paula Hawkins and her train, Harper Lee with her Watchman and there - at number 12 - me with my book about a bunch of cleaners in Barnsley sitting happily amongst the Lee Childs and David Williams.  What a chance to celebrate!  Women!  Commercial fiction! But nope - it was classed as an aberration, an anomaly, an Northern elephant in the room and conveniently ignored. Nothing to see here folks, let's move quickly on. Which might make me sound bitter... so read on friends to 'Bitter-gate' below.

On the strength of the Twitter comment about wanting a celeb-led book club full of commercial fiction, I was invited to go on the radio and talk with a high-profile male, and female presenter and I was delighted.  ‘Did I think that our books were the equivalent of bubble gum songs?’ asked the Producer before the interviewer.  Churned out, easily forgettable?  No, I bloody don’t think that.  (He actually said 'like Taylor Swift songs' which, as Lisa Jewell pointed out was not actually the insult it was meant to be because she 'is a hugely talented young woman who makes writing and performing high quality pop music look so much easier than it is.')  I was introduced as 'Now Milly, you're bitter...'.  Something, as least, I was prepared for just in case they couldn't tell the difference between a genuine call for a celeb-led book club with more of our novels in it and me  bleating that I'm not a Richard and Judy choice (yes it would be lovely if I were, but it won't ruin my life if I'm not).   

'Now Milly, you're bitter...' 

And it went downhill from there. For some reason the female presenter presumed I was on there for advice about how to get my books out there if I wanted to be successful.  

'If you look at a book it’s a product and I completely understand before social media it was very difficult to break into the publishing world but you only have to look at JK Rowling, look how many books got refused.  So my point is, if you are absolutely passionate about getting your books to be read by the wider audience then actually you have to be a business woman and you have to use social media and you have to get your audience because you can’t rely on TV celebrities and people like… you know… critics, you have to go out there and make it happen yourself.' 

Funnily enough, I broke into that publishing world in 2006 and I do run it as a business: vat, accountant, assistant, petty cash tin, BIG hole punch.  My books are read by a very wide audience - I even have my own shelf in Tesco. And as for social media... even my pet rabbit Alan tweets. But you're wrong, we DO need TV celebs and 'critics' in newspapers, that was the whole point of me going on the programme, not for tips on how to post a photo to Pinterest!  How come it's okay for other genres to need them but not us?  We all write books.  We all enjoy exposure because we have to sell those books, that's how it works, Mrs, whether you write crime, literary, saga, romance, historical, recipes...

Then my hopeful heart sank further...

Male presenter:   'I know, I know what you’re talking about, it’s just flashed up in my mind. Coming up to Christmas on Channel 5, or some channel, it’s always a Christmas channel, do you notice that, and they’re full of romantic films of a man who’s a lumberjack in a town, a teacher  who goes for a new job at a school and her husband has just been run over by a bus in New York city and she relocates out into the country and he’s hunky and she always has a teenage daughter or son who doesn’t like the lumberjack.  Isn’t this the sort of thing we’re talking about?'

My bubble of hope burst.  I tried, folks.  Bitter?  Yes.  But only about a failed perfect chance to address a very serious issue that really does affect livelihoods. Ironic considering Marian Keyes was in the studio talking too about the snobbery of the book world as she was being hailed by said presenter as a superstar of fiction written by a woman, for women, featuring women.  Note to him:  Marian is us. I wonder if he realised that he was calling Marian's books Lumberjack Fiction too? (Pick-Lit?).  

But, in the words of that great philosopher Baldrick, we already had a cunning plan in place… Please keep your eye on this Facebook site.  And if you are a writer of commercial fiction, we may be calling on you.  It has a reach of 43 million people around the globe.  That limelight is warming up for you as we speak. 

Thursday, 31 August 2017


In a week where we have taken ownership of a pup who will be loved and cherished, it is a sad counterbalance that so many animals in the world do not receive the respect and happiness they deserve.  Mans' best friends - if we let them.  Loyal way past the point of no return.  The internet churns up so many stories of animal cruelty even the word 'caution' next to a link for a photo brings the tears to my eyes.  I can't open the stories.  A single sweep of my eye across a photo of animal distress seems to burn the image onto my retina.  I want to help them all and I know I can't.  So I'm always thrilled when big celebs with big voices, big clout and big money get involved in trying to change things.  Celebrity has power, using it for these causes makes all of us animal lovers rejoice.

But tomorrow - or today if you are reading this on Friday 1st September - I have an auction to try and raise funds for a little dog who really needs some help.  He's had a shit life in Romania, how he survived I have no idea, but he did.  The pics aren't nice (but doable - even for a wuss like me) so I use the word caution, but he has been taken in by a lovely couple with another rescue dog and they've spent thousands on him.  Thanks to some twat with an iron bar hitting Eddie over the head, he has a hole in it that needs surgery and a super vet will do it, but for a fee.  And the half-way mark has been reached which leaves another £3000 to raise.

Oh we have all spent a fiver on daft things - I have.  I blew £20 on da Vinci's Diamonds last week (my one and only foray into online gambling) so if you can forego a bottle of plonk or a paperback book in the supermarket (obviously not mine - buy those. Joke!) this weekend to help raise some cash for Eddie, then please do.  We cannot save them all, but we can give a little to a few, pick our causes and this is one of mine.

This is our lad, loved, safe... hopefully for all his days

...and this is Eddie, who is now loved and safe but he's had a rough time and deserves to live out the rest of his life with health and happiness.

Eddie, despite his history, is a loving soul who probably can't believe his luck landing with his new family who are fighting to save him.

So... you can help in two ways.  Firstly - there is the crowd funding page - where you can stick a bit in the pot for him.  No such thing as a little kindness, all those small amounts of cash add up.

Thank you from the family if you do - I know they are touched by the kindness that Eddie has been shown from strangers.

But also there is an auction to win a place in my book 15 - the Christmas Pudding Club.  It ends Friday 1st September at 19 minutes past 8 in the evening (20:19)

The winner will be able to pick the name of a character - or a business - in the book (there is a disclaimer that it can't be anything stupid like Mr Cheesy McKnob).  But I will confer with the winner so that it is a very personal gift.  In the past people who have won my prizes have had their loved ones honoured.  Bill Henderson in Queen of Wishful Thinking was a massive character and a lovely one and in memory of a lady's father.  Stripey the cat in Autumn Crush.  Even Cheryl Parker's character - whose husband was the winning bidder for her name to be in a book - took centre stage in Afternoon Tea at the Sunflower Cafe.  

People all over the world will read about the character.  The book will be published in October 2018 and the winning bidder will receive advance copies, personalised and 'all the gubbins.'  It will be the loveliest present I can make for someone - so if you want to surprise your wife/husband/mother - there are few more personalised gifts than the one that I am offering.

There are only 24 hours left for the auction so you will forgive me for asking you to spread the news far and wide because I need social media - Eddie needs social media.  I promise, whoever wins will not be disappointed.

I will - as an addition - put everyone's name who bids in the auction into a hat, make a draw and put that person - or person nominated by them - into the book too.  


And if the price for this is too high - then please, see that money pot link above.  Please let us, between us, give Eddie a rest of a lovely life.

Thank you - and much love folks.  It's wonderful that strangers can be so kind, with all the crap news thrown at us, we tend to forget there is still a lot of goodness in the world.

Milly xxxx