The idea for Natural Causes came to me way back in 2005. At the time I was trying to reinvent a character I’d created some fifteen years earlier for a comic script – Detective Inspector Tony McLean. I’m a lazy sod, really; DI (or sometimes DCI) McLean has turned up in several of my comic scripts and two of my earlier, unpublished novels. I recycle characters the way some people recycle carrier bags, and when my good friend Stuart MacBride (who, incidentally, had collaborated with me on one of those early comic scripts) suggested I might stop writing dragon fantasy and weird SF and try my hand at crime fiction, I inevitably looked at my back catalogue to see what might work.
I couldn’t shake the comics and fantasy background completely, though. For all that I was trying to write detective fiction, I had to include that slight element of the supernatural lurking at the edges. I like the idea of something just slightly off-kilter. Not Vampires and Werewolves lurking on every street corner, but the possibility that there might be malign forces at work. How would an honest, everyday Copper cope with that when no-one else around him can see it? How would he write up the report? And how can you arrest a ghost?
Alas, publishers at the time were less keen on the subtle blending of genres. Despite Natural Causes being short-listed for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2007, it failed to find a home anywhere. Its sequel, The Book of Souls, was short-listed the following year and again failed to take the publishing world by storm.
Fast forward a few years, and I’d almost given up on writing altogether, concentrating instead on running the family farm. Then a chance conversation with Allan Guthrie at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival alerted me to the possibilities of e-books. I’d dabbled in self-publishing before, selling pdf versions of some of my novels through my own website in the days before e-readers existed. It wasn’t a huge success. My partner had bought herself a Kindle though, and seemed to like it, so I decided to bring out both of the DI McLean novels as e-books.
The plan was to give Natural Causes away for a while in the hope that people would like it enough to pay for The Book of Souls. I did very little marketing, but somehow when Natural Causes dropped from £1.99 to nothing, it shot up the free charts at Amazon. 50,000 copies were downloaded in the first month alone, and it went on to shift more than 300,000 copies in the UK and US over the course of about six months. The Book of Souls spent over three months in the UK kindle top 100.
In the meantime I had finally managed to find an agent – the redoubtable Juliet Mushens – and she was busy drumming up interest in the books. Natural Causes was the talk of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and then the UK and Commonwealth rights went to a five way auction. Penguin imprint Michael Joseph were the eventual winners.
Since then, the pace has sped up. The Michael Joseph paperback of Natural Causes comes out on May 9th, with The Book of Souls following it swiftly afterwards on July 4th. I’ve delivered the third book in the series, The Hangman’s Song, with publication of that due in early 2014. After waiting almost twenty years, I’ve gone from nothing to massive sales and three book, six figure deal in less than eighteen months. It’s been a hell of a ride.
Natural Causes by James Oswald is published by Michael Joseph