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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Tiny Books, Wonder Books, and Anthologies, by Enid Richemont

To my great shame, and my almost certain loss, I have never read Thomas Hardy, but yesterday, feeling low, I took myself off to see "FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD" at the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. This proved to be one of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen, its images of the English landscape like a Nineteenth Century Book of Hours. The actual plot is extraordinary, with its peak moment coming about three-quarters of the way through (well that's my analysis, but others may differ).

I have often meant to draw a plot graph of books that impress me, as I'm sure many of you have. The (sadly, late) Ruth Rendell orchestrated plot lines like a symphony. I often likened her novels to music, and even painting - Paul Klee 'taking a line for a walk' springs to mind. Very recently, I've taken on a brief for fifty word stories aimed at four/five year olds -  the length of a medium-sized email (or, in musical terms, a VERY short exercise piece for the recorder). These things are really challenging, in the way poetry is challenging. Enforced discipline in writing, or indeed, any of the arts, is, but as far as a plot graph for the fifty-worders - well, the plot line IS there, but you might need a microscope!

Delighted to discover my book: "THE BIG PURPLE WONDER BOOK" currently featuring in ReadZone's Reading Pathway after dropping out of sight for far too long. This is a story based on the sheer magic of learning to read, which, surprisingly, was the main reason for it, initially, to be turned down by publishers - their logic being, I think, that if you're reading this story, you don't need to be told. However, many kids are still lucky enough to be read to, either by their parents or their teachers, so this might grab them. And for the ones who've already got there,well - it's quite a scary story.

I was one of the lucky kids who got read to. My mum had a collection of those wonderful children's anthologies from the Thirties - thin pages, fantastic illustrations and an eclectic mixture of stuff - no dumbing down for kids then. It was there I encountered my first Dickens (extracts), legends and fairytales, bits from Lewis Carroll, and all the funny stuff from Edward Lear complete with silly pictures. In my Purple Wonder Book story, a small boy called Tom discovers one of these dumped in a box in a charity shop, but this one has seriously magical properties (well, they always did...)

Talking anthologies, don't miss out on "A FLASH IN THE PEN", our own Authors Electric anthology launching on Midsummer's Day (June 21st, but I'm sure you knew that already). Dipping into an anthology is like going to a fantastic party full of interesting people. Some you may like, even love, and some may just not do it for you, but it's still a great party, so please come. My own short story: "GEMINI" is a fantasy based on hunger and famine - twins which are always with us even in the rich West.


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Beta-Testing Books - Andrew Crofts

One of the greatest by-products of the electronic publishing revolution is being able to keep developing and refining a book after its initial birth.

The traditional publishing business model loaded most of the pressure onto publication day, with a possible second chance of breathing marketing life into the project when the paperback came out a year later. If your book didn’t float on at least one of those launch days then it would almost certainly sink beneath the surface within a matter of weeks. Copies might possibly be washed up onto the shores of a few libraries and Oxfam shops over the coming years, and not much else unless it became caught up in a freak rights storm in Hollywood or as a foreign translation.

Now, however, we have more chances to get things right, more ways to keep a book alive while we try to work out the best way to alert potential readers to its existence and to tell them why they would enjoy it.

In other parts of the electronic jungle, such as on-line gaming, I believe they call this “beta-testing”, trying the product out on enthusiasts and specialists in order to check that it is good before launching it to the general market. I have found myself doing much the same thing with books, without fully realising that was what I was doing.

About 18 months ago I published my novella “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” via Amazon’s White Glove Service and United Agents. Sales were strong every time Amazon included it in a promotion and the book garnered around thirty good and thoughtful on-line reviews, (plus one troll, which seems a reasonable ratio). The signs appear to be good so I have now moved to the next stage, teaming up with the wonderful people at Red Door Publishing to create a beautiful hardback in the traditional manner, (although the POD paperback is also still available from Amazon, plus, of course, the e-book).

I commissioned a slightly refined cover from the same designer as before, Elliot Thomson of the Novak Collective, and Midas PR are working on the marketing. None of this would have been feasible five years ago and this is just one of the many reasons why I love what electronics have done for publishing.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

What You Really, Really Want by Ruby Barnes

So, tell me what you want, what you really, really want. As a reader of electric books and the like, what do you really, really want?

Why am I asking? Because me and my little publishing house, we give things away. Why would Marble City Publishing do that? To maximise readership for our authors and to reward readers for staying with us. This is nothing new, of course. Mail lists have been a mainstay of marketing ever since Baldrick started pushing Mrs Miggins' pies through letterboxes (ref. Blackadder for non-cognoscenti). Staying in touch with people is essential for a new book release.

The virtual caf├ęs of the writing world are abuzz with methods to successfully build a mail list. Independent authors with prodigious output are presenting subscribers with such offerings as starter libraries of free novels. Phrases such as Reader Magnets abound. Online courses are being sold for hundreds of bucks to share the secret sauce of building an author's list. In this modern digital free-for-all of e-book marketing, however, Marble City Publishing is faced with a quandary.

Authors who are in a financial position or state-of-mind to give away some of their writing babies are doing something specific - they are building a brand around their author name. Reader finishes book, enjoys book and wants more from same author. That's how it works. Reader doesn't finish book, enjoy book and then want more from same publisher. Reader doesn't care who published the book. The target audience for a publisher's brand is not readers. A publisher's brand audience is the book distribution chain and current or aspiring authors. But that's not the audience that a micro-publisher, such as Marble City, wants to address. We want to reach readers. We could build mail lists for our individual authors but, unless that author is blazing a trail of quarterly or biannual releases as per the new generation of energetic indie authors, they won't have frequent enough new releases to maintain reader / subscriber interest.
So what's the answer? We could give a free book but, unless it's by the reader's preferred author then meh, there are plenty of free books around these days. No, we give away other stuff. So far Marble City has run free draws for a Kindle Paperwhite, a Kindle Fire and (in progress) another Kindle Paperwhite. But is that what a reader wants, really really wants? How about a $100 (or local equivalent currency) Amazon gift card? Or something else altogether? A year's Amazon Prime Membership? A gadget that goes whizzbang? A crate of red wine? A deluxe beer belly pack? A hive of honeybees for an African village? A vacuum cleaner? The samurai sword with which Ruby disposed of his first zombie? Would the nature of the prize determine the type of person who would enter and hope to win? Decisions, decisions. Help, please! What would you, as a reader, like the chance of winning?

In the meantime, here are some zombies.

Zombies versus Ninjas by R.A. Barnes
Ruby's upcoming novel

Monday, 25 May 2015

A Viking Voyages From CreateSpace to Kindle by Susan Price

Artwork copyright Andrew Price
I've just published my book, The Saga of Aslak Slave-Born, simultaneously as an e-book with Kindle, and as a print-on-demand paperback with CreateSpace.
          The book's been published before. It was first commissioned by the British publisher A&C Black, as part of their Flashback series of historical novels for children. The brief was to write an entertaining, exciting story which would persuade young readers to turn the pages for its own sake - while, at the same time, giving as historically accurate a picture of life in the Viking Age as possible.
          I took this very seriously, and, despite carrying a load of stuff about the Viking Age around in my head - which is why I was commissioned - I dusted off my books, checked facts and did further research. I've added a historical note to this new, self-published edition, called 'How Much Is True?'
          I tried hard not to put anything in the book for which there wasn't evidence. So when Aslak buys his way into 'a ship fellowship' and is given a token which identifies him as a member of that crew, and makes it easier for him to find a place in another ship, there is evidence of that being done in the Viking Age. (A bit like a modern lorry-driver showing his tachie-card to get lifts from other drivers.)
         When a rich, elderly woman takes a shine to Aslak, and decides that he is the slave she would like to take into the next life with her - well, there are several Viking graves which suggest that this was something which could, and did, happen. These graves hold one person placed in a central position, with grave goods, and a second person who is often decapitated, and who seems to have had their hands tied together behind their back.
          'Aslak' is the eleventh book I have self-published, but with all the others, I made an e-book first and then, later, published a paperback.
          The first book I made into a paperback was 'The Wolf's
Artwork copyright Andrew Price
Footprint', and I did it because so many teachers asked me where they could get copies. It's selling rather well. I thought 'Aslak' might appeal to the same market, since the Vikings are taught on the National Curriculum. (And my young cousin, who was one of its first readers, at the age of about ten, declared it, 'The best book ever written.' Hey, I'll take praise and good reviews wherever I can get them.)

          For some time now, CreateSpace has been offering me the option to 'publish with Kindle' as I come to the end of the CreateSpace process, urging me to click the button and transfer my files to the Kindle site.
          Every other time, I was using CreateSpace to publish a paperback version of a book I'd already published as an ebook, so I always ignored the 'publish on Kindle' button. But, with Aslak, I thought I might as well send my Viking voyaging from the one site to the other.
          I'd started by scanning 'Aslak' into my computer, and creating a Word file, which is what I would usually upload to Kindle. To make the paperback, I downloaded a 6" by 9" blank template from the CS site, and pasted my book into it. I then went through checking that the paragraph indents and line-breaks were as I wanted them.
          Since a silver Thor's Hammer pendent figures in the story, I used a public domain image of a Thor's Hammer to decorate the book. I pasted it into the Word file, and shrank the size until it was as I wanted it. Once it was, I copied and pasted it at every chapter heading. (Amazon specifies that the image has to be at least 300 dpi - dots per inch. If it's less, it will flag up a warning that the printed image may be blurry.)

          You check the book's appearance with the online previewer (above.) This lets you see how the book will open. All the pages are down the right hand side of the screen, and you turn the pages by clicking on the arrows to the left and right of the large central book. When you've seen how your book looks in the previewer, you can go back to your master copy, alter it and upload again. Repeat as many times as necessary.
          I designed the cover using an image done for me by my brother Andrew, and Amazon's Cover Creator. When I thought it was all as good as I could make it, I clicked the button to send Aslak sailing over to Kindle. And I gave the go-ahead for the paperback.

          On going to Kindle, I found that all had arrived safely, without shipwreck. A new entry had been made on my booklist, and Aslak's cover was already there. I used the on-line reviewer to check how Aslak had held up in the passage.
          I wasn't happy. A paperback is not an e-book. Lines were broken in odd places - there were strange gaps. The silver hammer still looked rather good, though.
          So I had to go back to my original Word file, add the silver hammers to each chapter, and then upload it to Kindle - just as I would usually do to create a Kindle book, in fact.
          And, of course, the pricing and distribution are all different.

          Conclusions? It was useful to have the cover designed on the CreateSpace site beamed over to Kindle. Apart from that, it's nothing but a piece of advertising for Kindle publishing. I still had to upload the Kindle file, and I still had to go through all the usual form-filling.


The Saga of Aslak Slave-Born                         The Wolf's Footprint 


Sunday, 24 May 2015

On saying what we mean, even on Twitter. by Jo Carroll

I'm grumbling about sloppy language, again.

As writers we should be precise. We hone our sentences until each word says exactly what we need to to say, don't we? Or course we do.

But let's unpick this.

I'll play a game with you. Let's have a continuum, from a bit of a problem to disaster, looking something like this:

Bit of a problem<----------------------------------------------------->Disaster

Now, you've been out, having a lovely time, maybe a couple of glasses of wine, and you're looking forward to a cup of tea before crawling into bed - only to find that the washing machine has leaked, the kitchen is under water, and the cat has knocked one of your most precious books onto the floor and it is ruined. Where would you place this on the continuum, and what word might you use?

Again, you leave your bag on the bus. Not only does it contain your purse, house keys and phone, it also has your laptop containing the final draft of your manuscript. It is the best novel you have ever written and you are on your way to the editor where you expected champagne. Well, maybe not champagne, but some serious backslapping and general cheer. Where would that lie, on my continuum, and what word would you use?

Your son, aged six, is diagnosed with a serious and possibly terminal illness. You face months, and possibly years, ferrying him backwards and forwards to hospitals, and countless nights holding his hand while he pretends he's not in pain or frightened. Where does that sit?

The earthquake in Nepal ...

I accept that 'disaster' is an individual experience. But - if I were to believe Facebook and Twitter - lives are at stake if someone misses a morning coffee or burns the cakes.

I would argue that, as writers, we owe it to ourselves and to our readers to choose our words meticulously. Even on Twitter. Words are precious - if we devalue them we devalue the experiences that underpin them.

You can see if I practise what I preach on my website:

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Lev Butts Judges Books by Their Covers

KI have never been a fan of the People of Walmart internet meme. It seems to me that much of it simply stuck-up jacktards making fun of poor people by taking snapshots of them at their most vulnerable: shopping at  America's #1 haven of low-priced, cheaply produced crap (Seriously, who isn't going to look like a sideshow freak when trying to shop with small children in tow?). It's a way for idiots to feel superior by laughing at other people just trying to get in, buy some batteries, groceries, and ammo, and get out. The message is clear: We are so much better than poor, uneducated people. Clearly the only people who shop at Wal-mart are these freaks and the rest of us taking pictures of them.

That or "No matter how bad your life is, at least you're not
middle-aged guy buying crappy films in a fat ballerina costume bad."
Over the last couple of weeks, I have come across several internet articles showcasing what is rapidly becoming the publishing world's answer to these unfortuante sites. If you clicked on any of those links, I'm sure you picked on the unstated thesis of them as well: Self-published books are the moral equivalent of the people of Wal-mart: something to be simultaneously pitied and ridiculed because of how they look.

Don't believe me? Google "bad self-published book covers" and click on some of the articles. Then go to the images tab, find the worst cover and read the connected article.

I picked this one. Who couldn't pick this one?
Do you see what I see? Almost every one of them not only implies that self-published writers are pathetic wannabes, they state it outright in no uncertain terms. In each, the argument begins with the crappy covers.

The truth is, self-published writers don't have a monopoly on shitty covers. There is no shortage of horrid covers for great traditionally published books.

Caitlin Kiernan is one of the most talented writers I know. I can tell you
there is zero chance she had any say in these travesties of slash-fic book covers. 
Somewhere in New England, John Irving looks at these covers
and wishes he could die so he could turn over in his grave.
James, Shelley, Orczy, and Twain are just glad they are already dead
As self-published writers, though, we get all the blame for our covers. With traditionally published books, cover design is handled  by a committee that generally does not include the author.

In lieu of a committee, though, there are a few things we can do to make our covers better:

Hire a Professional

This option may get you the best-looking cover. There is no shortage of professional artists more than willing to read your book, and design a cover for it. The best options are going to be artists who also have experience in commercial design and/or advertising. After all, your cover, is your primary source of advertising for your book.

When Zack Mason published his Chronoshift Trilogy, he chose this option, and the result are book covers that look as if they came from the best traditional publishing houses:

I bought them from a local bookstore and had no idea they were self-published. I did not regret my decision either. These are good books regardless of their covers, but the point is I'd not have picked them up if they looked like this:

The downside to this method is, of course, that it is expensive, prohibitively so for most of us. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for a professionally designed cover, probably more. I can't speak for you, but unless I charge $500.00 a book, I'll never make up the cost of my cover in sales.

Fortunately, there are still other options.

Learn to Use Photoshop

This is probably the best solution of the three I'll discuss here. While you may get a better product paying someone to make you a cover, chances are they will be using Photoshop to do it anyway. Learn how to use the program (or any of the free alternatives) and you are one step closer to designing your own cover.

But, you may be thinking, I already use Photoshop.

Read that section heading again more closely
The key here is to learn to use the program. Understand the controls. Know what each effect does and when each is appropriate. Remember, just because many of the effects are interesting, you should not feel obligated to use all of them.

More importantly, understand what you want on your cover before opening the program. There are plenty of online instructions on cover design. Read them.

In general, decide on a single image that encapsulates your novel and work with that. This can be an image from a pivotal scene in the novel or an image/motif that runs throughout the narrative. Don't try to tell the entire story with images mismashed on the cover.

The original cover of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, for example has one image: an armadillo. This armadillo, though, is an image that runs throughout the novel as both motif and foreshadowing. Similarly, the background color and text of the cover resemble a granite gravestone, both referring to the title character who is the son of a granite quarryman and acting as more foreshadowing of future events:

It is simple, yet it still grabs your attention.

Brad Strickland, writing as Ken McKea, is a good example of using this technique in cover design. In each of these Photoshopped covers, he has chosen one powerful image that draws an audience in:

In the following example, the cover I designed for the re-release of Richard Monaco's Blood and Dreams, I found a public domain image of a painting that seemed similar to an early scene in the novel, then used to flip and alter the image to better fit the characters in the novel.

(Left) Original painting by N.C. Wyeth
(Right) Book cover
However, you may not have the time or inclination to learn image manipulation software. Perhaps you just want to write your book and get it on the shelves as quickly as possible. Perhaps you just feel technologically inadequate.

If so, there is still the final option:

Use Your Publishing Platform's Cover Generator

If you are publishing through, Amazon's CreateSpace, or Books-A-Million's new publishing platform, you have access to premade cover templates that are as user friendly as the rest of the platforms. In other words, if you can navigate your selected platform well enough to upload your files and publish, you can use its cover templates as well.

In each of these platforms many of the design decisions have been made for you: You may have little control over where your title or name appears on the cover. You may or may not have the option for an author photo. You may have a limited selection of type fonts available to particular page layouts.

However, you should still keep the basic rule of cover design in mind: a single image that stands for the the whole narrative. Keep your cover relatively simple.

Below are two different covers to my own Emily's Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories, one from, the other from CreateSpace. You will notice that in both, as different as they are, the image of an old cabin predominates since the cabin setting is important throughout the primary natrative.

(Left) cover
(Right) CreateSpace cover
Simplicity is key.

Whichever option you choose to create your cover, remember this:

Just as you should ideally have a beta reader for your manuscript to offer feedback and suggestions, you should also have others look at your cover ideas and offer their thoughts.

As embarassed as you may be having someone you know ridicule your work before it's published, it is nothing compared to your mortification when your poorly conceived cover becomes an internet meme.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A dream - or two - of Manderley, by Ali Bacon

For the last few months I’ve been helping with a teenage book-club and the breadth of reading of these 12 – 14 year-olds is awe-inspiring. Pride and Prejudice and The Help get equal billing with comic books, Harry Potter and Maze Runners. What was I reading at that age? Apart from school Home Readers and a few children's classics, mostly the novels loved by my parents and already on our bookshelves at home. I mean authors like Howard Spring, Nevil Shute, Hammond Innes, Alistair McLean. 

Those we have loved
This brought me to think about the lifespan of popular novels, books regarded as de rigeur by one generation and elevated to classics or simply neglected by the next. I mean is anyone still reading Rider-Haggard – adventure novels par excellence of my parents’ generation? Will The Thorn Birds, possibly the most popular novel of my twenties, still be around when my own copy has been consigned to the bin by grieving (I hope) offspring? Is there some characteristic other than literary excellence that gives a book longevity?

Sequel - or prequel?
Coincidentally my reading club theme for this month is the ‘spin-off’ novel, aka fan fiction. Already familiar with lots of Austen spin-offs (including Valerie’s!) and not particularly interested in sub-Bond confections, I hit on the idea of reading Mrs De Winter by Susan Hill which after reading some dire reviews I hastily amended to Rebecca’s Tale by Sally BeaumanAnd it occurred to me that if a book elicits tributes (or more cynically cash-ins?) by later writers this must surely be a sign of an enduring appeal. 
As luck would have it the library also had a copy of Du Maurier's original Rebecca on the shelves, so off I went to refresh my memory and work out why this story has been revisited so many times. 

For anyone who needs reminding, from its famously rhythmical opening, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," Rebecca is a humdinger of a read. I’ve read many great novels this year (i.e. interesting, engaging, engrossing, sometimes challenging!) but this was the first one in ages that has given me that longing between reading sessions to be curled up with the book. Yes it is dated now, a period piece in which everyone speaks like Celia Johnson (or Victoria Wood's version of Celia Johnson!) Nor is the description particularly brilliant, but there is a hypnotic rhythm to the writing and the voice of the hapless narrator never falters in a piece of simply awesome storytelling.

But in some ways I’m still surprised this book has spawned so many genuflections. Most ‘fan fiction’ draws on a series or body of work: a colleague of mine had a secret life writing sub-Brent-Dyer Chalet School adventures, and Jane Austen, although hardly a cult read, does at least give her Janeites a whole world and social milieu to recreate, not to mention characters we long to follow. But Rebecca is a one-off. Its narrator, the second Mrs de Winter, is more infuriating than lovable, and the other characters have little scope for development. And despite its abrupt ending, the questions asked by the story are pretty much answered. Chapter 2, "We can never go back again, that much is certain. the past is still too close to us" (heck, another stonking line!) tells us what happens in the end. The only real mystery is the name of the heroine (or anti-heroine) and surely her anonymity is non-negotiable.  I’m only a short way into Sally Beauman’s book and so far she is rightly, I think, telling Rebecca’s story through new characters or those who play a small role in the original.

Saved from obscurity?
What gives this book its iconic status? Hitchcock and co must have helped, just as he made The Thirty-Nine Steps the best known of John Buchan's cannon. The other factor is the location, the sense that the house itself has a character and a part to play. The whole first chapter of Rebecca is a description of the ruined Manderley. It is a novel of jealousy and obsession, which according to this article, might be the author’s as well as the heroine’s. Perhaps this is what gives it its pulling power. 

I think Beauman is going to prove a good choice for my spin-off theme, but although I’m enjoying Rebecca’s Tale I’m not sure I’m going to fall in love with it. More importantly, is the original Rebecca going to be as popular in the future, or has its come to the end of its natural innings? When I asked my teenagers, none of them had heard of the book or the film. But they have now! They‘ll be the ones to decide if this is an all-time classic or simply so last century