Sunday, 31 August 2014

Covering Spellfall – Katherine Roberts

One of the first things you learn when you self-publish a book is that writing a story and designing a cover for that story are completely different skills. Since republishing my backlist as ebooks, I have certainly felt much more sympathy for my publishers! Because the truth is, getting the right cover on a book is HARD, and yet it's one of the most important elements in selling that book to its readership. So I thought it might be interesting to chart the cover history of my book SPELLFALL, for which I am trying to find a new cover for the ebook edition… at the end of this post I’ll show you some of the premade covers I'm thinking might work, and since the author is not always the right person to judge I hope you’ll help me decide!

Spellfall is an interesting book to cover, since it contains a lot of different elements. It’s urban fantasy and takes place at Halloween with covens of Casters (i.e. witches and wizards) living among us. But there’s also a parallel world called Earthaven, accessed through a hole in a standing stone, where mythical creatures such as unicorns live and where spells grow on trees. The Casters use these spells, but the supply is strictly controlled by the Spell Lords of Earthhaven, as the only way of harvesting new spells is by killing the soultrees they grow on. Naturally, the Spell Lords have set up a spell recycling system to avoid destroying the magic of Earthaven - although the Casters do not care about the trees because they don't live there.

The heroine is Natalie, daughter of a Spell Lady - she has a telepathic white magehound/wolf familiar called K’tanaqui to guide her. She’s the main viewpoint, so the story has definite girl appeal. But there are also two boy viewpoints – Natalie’s sulky stepbrother Tim, and a Caster lad called Merlin, who becomes Natalie's friend when she is kidnapped by his father. Merlin's father, Lord Hawk, is the leader of a plot to destroy the soultrees and take control of the resulting spells. The readership is middle grade/teen, and the book's biggest fans in print were 12-14 year old girls.

So already we’ve got:
Fantasy – unicorns, magical trees, a parallel world.
Witches – Halloween, spells, ravens.
Science fiction – organazoomers, soultree root system, spell recycling
Girl and wolf – the magehound is Natalie’s familiar.
Boys – action/thriller plot based around the portal between worlds.

So what did my publishers make of it?

This was the original cover for Spellfall, back in 2000 when the book was first published by Chicken House. It picks up on the unicorns that live in Earthaven, and also gives an urban feel with the girl and the boy riding the unicorn dressed in modern clothes (for 2000). I’d say this cover was a success. I know I loved it on sight. It was picked up by WH Smith, and went on to sell almost 25,000 copies in the UK alone.

The Germans picked up on the unicorn ridden by modern children too - I believe the translated title reads "Natalie and the Spell Lords".
The Americans went down the enchanted world route as well, though they made the unicorn much smaller (he's hiding behind the tree) and focused on the soultree and my heroine Natalie, who they dressed in a romantic white gown - she does wear a nightdress at one point in the book. This cover is much more girlie and romantic, but it worked beautifully for the American market. Sales in the US were good, I understand, and the book was picked up by the American Independent Booksellers for their “Children’s 76” as the book most likely to replace Harry Potter that year (the year JK Rowling had a publishing break in her series).

Fast forward to 2007, when Chicken House decided to bring the book back into print and gave it this new more abstract cover that followed the fashion that year for sparkles on children's books. (You can’t see them here, but this was a paperback and the starry bits glittered.) Originally, this cover was pink… we compromised and ended up with purple. It sold an extra 4,500 copies. Not as good, obviously, but then the book was backlist and therefore not trendy any more. The unicorn is still there, and the spiral suggests a portal between worlds.

Spellfall went out of print in 2010, and rights reverted to me. Fortunately, that was also the year Amazon opened their kdp (then the dtp) to UK authors, so I decided my first ebook project would be Spellfall and begged Chicken House for use of their swirly 2007 cover, because I could see it would work well at thumbnail size. They kindly allowed this, and I published the Spellfall ebook edition in 2011 selling another 150 copies... tiny numbers compared to the thousands it had sold in print, of course, but still worth doing since financially one ebook sale is worth ten print sales to its author, making this the equivalent of selling 1,500 copies via my publisher.

It was by now 2013. I'd been working on my four-book Pendragon Legacy series (published by Templar) and rather neglecting my backlist, but I knew I couldn’t carry on using Chicken House’s cover forever. Struggling to find a suitable unicorn on zero budget, I decided to go the DIY route and paint my own. Using pastels, I came up with this cover (left). It turned out rather younger than I intended, but still has the unicorn and the sparkly bits. I wasn’t very happy with my amateurish painted title, though, so after discovering I tweaked this cover and came up with the version on the right. Since early 2013, with this cover, it's sold another 100 copies (the financial equivalent of 1,000).

But it's clear Spellfall is underselling. On reflection, I don't think my homemade cover is selling the book to the readership - it’s too young for the book and turned out rather too girly. I also suspect it doesn't work very well for the American market... any Americans out there comment?

It's now 2014, and ebook covers have moved on. The time has come to invest in a more professional look. At my level of sales, custom design is out of my budget, and anyway I don't have a fixed idea of what might excite Spellfall's e-readership today. But recently I've discovered the world of premades, and PREMADES ARE COOL! In fact, I love some of the premade covers out there so much, I almost feel inspired to write a book to match the beautiful covers... but back to Spellfall.

Now it's your turn. Here's my current shortlist (obviously after I've purchased a cover, my title and author name will be inserted instead of the placeholders):

1. Unicorn Magic
A lovely old fashioned one keeping the enchanted unicorn feel. It looks like a boy with the unicorn who could be Merlin, suggests fallen spells, and has just the right sort of magical feel for a young readership. It doesn’t show the contemporary/thriller side of the book, though - does this matter? 

2. Wolf Girl
This one struck me right between the eyes! Even though Natalie is not a werewolf, she is blonde and her magehound is silver. I think it would work because magehound is her familiar and they have a telepathic link.

This one is good for the parallel world feel, and the woods are suitably magical. But the girl’s hair is too dark for Natalie and the dog is not really a magehound... however, there is a dog on a leash in the book, which belongs to Natalie’s best friend Jo, so this could be Jo entering the portal. I think this cover might work for boys too, since the girl is facing away from us?

4. Psychic Energy
A spooky feel suggestive of the Halloween setting for the book, and has a girl the right age for Natalie. Those are possibly spells falling in the background. I really like the drama of this one.

Which of these would you click on for your child/teenager/yourself? (And, having clicked, would you be expecting a book like Spellfall?)

Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award in 2000 for her debut novel Song Quest. She writes fantasy and historical fiction for middle-grade/teen readers. Her latest series is the Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur's daughter (Templar Books). Find out more at

Saturday, 30 August 2014

How to find and approach journalists - guest post by Alice Furse

What the hell do I know?

I’m very new to the literary world and only mid-way through publicising my first book so it’s a valid question. I’ve been the press officer for a national media company for the last four years, and I’ve sent out my fair share of press releases and also seen quite a few come in from other companies who are trying to get on one of our stations/magazines. I’ve witnessed plenty of PR slip ups from other people and, sadly, my own – so hopefully I can give you the benefit of some of that experience here!

Generally speaking, I’d say PR is about people. Journalists and editors aren’t just mindless robots that turn press releases into articles; they’re real people, and usually very sharp. This article is about how to find them and build a relationship that works for you both. 

I believe that PR is an art and not a science. You might disagree with things that I say here and that’s cool – it’s not gospel. It’s just like, my opinion, man. 

A few notes on etiquette

Start your PR campaign six months before the publication date to make sure you have time to focus on who gets a copy of your book and that they have plenty of time to read it before publication day.

If you’re just starting out, no blog is too small for you to consider approaching for a book review or a feature pitch. You might be the best thing since Dorothy Parker, but nobody knows your ass from a hole in the ground.

Don’t hassle. One polite follow up email is fine – more than that is probably pushing it. If they haven’t replied, they’re either not interested or bogged down in something else. Move on.

Never write tweets for a journo to pump out. As they write for a living, my guess is that they don’t like people telling them what to say and the same goes for hilarious ‘creative’ headlines on press releases (more on that in a sec)

Never lie.

Press release me

A punchy press release is essential. Yes, you’re a writer – but resist the temptation to embellish it with lots of unnecessarily flowery language, or wanky waffle. That doesn’t mean it has to read like an instruction manual, but it needs to stick to the facts. 

It should include: the facts (the publisher (if any), date of publication, book title, author), a paragraph of enticing blurb (I think most writers agree that this is harder to write than the novel you just slogged through), and your contact details.

The whole release shouldn’t be longer than a page of A4. Journalists will probably spend about one hot minute reading it, so use your minute as best you can by encapsulating exactly what the book is about and why someone would want to read it. The two first sentences are essential in getting across what you want to say, so focus most attention on them and make sure they’re working for you.

Proofread it. Proofread it again. Get someone with an excellent grasp of English to proofread it. 

Proofread it again.

This blog is written by a tech journalist in US, but gives a great insight into pitches and their various ills. It’s a good laugh to read and gives you a good idea of what mistakes to avoid.

Copy cat

Find a recently self-published book that’s similar to yours in the main themes, where it is available (i.e. UK/US), and the target market.

Read the book.

Then find out about the author and their journey to self-publishing. Preferably, they are now where you would like to be in about six months or a year’s time. 

Check out their website – does it have a press section? If so, you’ve hit gold because you now have access to a whole bunch of people and publications that are writing about a book that’s just like yours. 

See where they have focused their PR efforts. Are they doing radio slots, festival gigs, magazine features? What do they tweet about, and who else do they regularly talk to on Twitter? Do they have a blog? A really active Facebook page? Do they do lots of stuff on Goodreads?

Spread ’em

Start a spreadsheet. If that sounds daunting, it really isn’t. Mine is nothing more than a few columns keeping track of names, contact details and the dates I approached them. Make sections for different areas of the media you want to hit: monthly magazines, newspapers, review sites, radio shows, etc.

Man bites dog

Journalists tend to like things that are topical – things that get people talking, or something they’re already talking about. Is there a news angle in your book? Suppose your book is about the adventures of a superhero who happens to be a woman. Great! So who’s writing about feminism?

Read up

When you come across someone who you think would be a good fit for writing or talking about your book or the themes in it, read as many of their articles/reviews as you can lay your paws on. 

If they have a Twitter account that might help you to get a sense of the type of person they are. Do they live in your area? Are there events that they go to or host that you can gatecrash? What can you tell them about your work that might pique their interest, and that of their readers/listeners? 

The more research you do, the better you’ll gauge their level of interest your book, the best time to approach them, and also the more personal your contact with them can be.

Charlie Big Potatoes

To take the woman superhero example above, The Guardian is great on writing about feminism as it’s a topic that interests their readership. However, they’re a national newspaper and all of their writers will receive an avalanche of mail and pitches and ideas every day. No harm in still approaching them – I’m a massive fan of aiming high – but are there any smaller publications you can target as well? How about local press or events that you might be able to get involved with? Once you start being open to ideas on who you can approach you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities you can spot. 

Being and Time

If all this sounds a bit time-consuming, that’s because it is. It’s your new full-time job. But hey, no one said it was going to be easy. And so you’re going to do it anyway. Good luck!

My first novel, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, is out in October – you can pre-order it from Amazon. I also have a blog on literary events in London and learning how to stand up and spit. I tweet at @alicefurse

Friday, 29 August 2014

An Interrogation of – Lynne Garner

1: What’s the daftest thing you’ve ever done? – Come on, admit it.
Lynne Garner and Tasha
Travelling to Uist and spending five nights searching for hedgehogs on the cliff tops armed with just a torch and a couple of pillow cases. It was damn good fun though.

2: Is global warming preferable to global cooling?
Oh don’t get me started. People who know me know I’m seriously into my wildlife and the environment (studied Environmental Geography at University – education speak for conservation).

3: What do you know about your great-grandparents?
Nan worked in the local ammunitions factory during the war and the boss allowed the women to have the large double doors open so they could keep an eye on the kids playing in the street. Granddad served in the navy and when he returned home he would sometimes bring home the ships old ropes and give them to my mum and her sisters. They then had the best skipping rope in the street.

4 If you could live in a book, which book would it be? – And who would you be?
Any of the Terry Pratchett Discworld books – his universe sounds so much fun. Perhaps the landlady of the pub Nanny Og frequented – you’d be sure of a good night.

5 Werewolves or vampires?
Vampires as long as my body became like those in the TV series and films. Who’d want to be a vampire with a bad back?

6 Is it immoral to spend £10,000 on a handbag?
Yes – spend £100 on the bag then give the other £9,900 to a small local
charity. That much money to a small charity would make a huge, huge difference and you’d be less worried about losing your bag.

7 Would your 16 year old self like you?
I think she’d like me but I’m pretty sure I’d not like her.

8 What’s the worst birthday/Christmas present you ever received? (If you’re prepared to tell.)
I’m not sure if this counts but when I was a kid almost every Christmas I’d get the same present from my mum and my two aunts (we used to say they’d used their witchy powers). They never spoke to one another about what they were going to buy, so my sister and I would end up with 3 pair of the same gloves or 3 similar purses or 3 scarves etc. Most infuriating.

9 If you could change one historical event, in any period, what would it be?
The discovery of oil and what it could be used for (conservation head on again).

10 “I don't care if anyone reads my books; I write for myself.” Is there anything wrong with this as a theory of art?
It’s a good theory if you’re in a position to cover your bills or don’t have bills to pay. Sadly I have bills so if you want to support a ‘struggling’ author then follow this link, or this link or even this link and download one of my books. (Oh no a blatant plug – oh well you’ll get over it).
Brer Rabbit
Trickier than ever

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Archived work, Aristotle and Adult novels by Enid Richemont

I'm juggling between two books at present. I found Jostein Gaarder's 'SOPHIE'S WORLD' in a charity shop. Originally written (in Norwegian), as a Young Adult book in 1991, and hugely successful in translation, I didn't read it at the time because my kids were grown up. It's a potted history of philosophy framed by an intriguing mystery - fifteen year old Sophie begins receiving  lectures delivered by a dog, from an anonymous philosopher. It's fascinating, and not in the least bit dated (unless you feel that Aristotle's no longer in your area of cool).

The second book I rescued in a rainsoaked condition from a neighbour's front garden wall. It's Eimear McBride's 'A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing', and very 'now'. I had to wrap it in kitchen roll and then straighten it beneath a heavy RHS encyclopaedia of plants. It's a debut novel which seems to be doing very well, so that's a treat in store.

Mentioning debut novels made me go back to one of mine. Most people know me as a children's author, but I have written two adult novels, so I thought I'd paste in a small extract from 'COUNTERPOINT' - its opening paragraphs. A woman in a medically inexplicable coma has been brought into hospital...  

In the ward, the fondant smell of spring flowers is spiked with antiseptic. Daffodils of course predominate, their green stems stiff as sticks of angelica in the heavy, funnel-shaped vases, but there are anenomes, too, and freesias, delicate as dancers inside their ribbonned cellophane shrouds.

At the window a young nurse looks down at the black slush the cars have made of the snow; the trees are still lacy, though, and the car park is rimmed with white. She has been up since half-past five, her feet are aching and she is longing for a cup of tea. She wonders how cold it is out there; inside the hospital the temperature is always the same. Across the face of her watch the seconds flicker restlessly: one twenty-six and twenty-three seconds, flick-flick, twenty-four, but time itself is interminable. Behind the glass doors she sees staff nurse, bent over a pile of papers, sucking the end of her pen. If it's a report on that emergency, she thinks, it doesn't surprise me that she's having problems.

Mentioning archived work, I'd be interested to learn how other writers deal with theirs. I have things dating from the days of typewriters right up to the print outs I do from the computer, because I always need to see my work in hard copy, but cataloguing this stuff is a nightmare. I need a totally dedicated secretary. Recently I produced half a dozen little stories each, in response to two briefs I received from Franklin Watts. One story for each brief flew, so what happens to the other ten? Oh for more publishers' briefs....

I finally made it to the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern, but my visit was such a catalogue of disasters that you might be amused by it. I set off on the Northern Line to King's Cross, meaning to take the Overground to Blackfriars, but got on the Tube instead, so came out on the wrong side of the bridge in the middle of a massive thunderstorm, walked across the bridge (I had brought an umbrella), and promptly got lost. When I found my way again, and into the gallery, dripping and exhausted, I had to queue for a ticket. Then - at last! - the Matisse, which was amazing, except that, when I was about a third of the way through, a fire alarm sounded, so everyone had to be herded out via the TM's bowels which, I assure you, are neither a pretty sight nor easy to negotiate.

No relevant images to post this time, but  a stunningly irrelevant one - a medieval woodcarving from Poland, from where my family has just returned. Those faces are real faces - they were neighbours, family, friends and lovers, so it's a journey back in time. Amazing.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

An Interesting Month - Andrew Crofts

Well, that was an interesting month.

A wise old agent once said to me, “some projects, Andrew, just seem to travel on oiled wheels”, and that seems a perfect description for the birth of my memoir, “Confessions of a Ghostwriter”, this month.

The project began to show promise when the editors at Friday Project suggested almost no changes to the first draft of the manuscript. It picked up speed when their excellent public relations company, The Light Brigade, told me that Robert McCrum at the Observer had read the proofs and wanted to come to see me, followed shortly afterwards with the news that Nick Higham wanted to interview me on BBC News’s “Meet the Author” spot.

Within days of publication the Observer article was up on the Guardian website, had been picked up by another Guardian journalist, Hadley Freeman, and was being widely tweeted and commented on.

Even before “Meet the Author” had hit the screens favourable reviews had appeared close to home in the Telegraph, the Times and  the New Statesman, and as far afield as the South China Morning Post, not to mention a host of blogs and websites. Requests for radio interviews followed, plus a couple of speaking engagements and an interview for Italy’s La Repubblica. The Sunday Express followed up on one of the stories in the book.

So, the billion dollar questions are;

(a) Will all this exposure make people actually buy the book?
(b) Why did this launch go so smoothly?
(c) How can I replicate the experience with every book I write in the future?

The answer in all cases; not a clue.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Mortal Steps Amongst Leviathans by Ruby Barnes

Just before the start of my three weeks of summer leave from the day job, my leviathan employer decided to reorganize. Again. This is the third time in the seven and a half years I've been with them. 100,000 employees in a giant game of musical chairs, some running for the exit and picking up an envelope on the way, others looking to get a softer cushion and a nicer office. I've left my mobile phone switched on so I can see the e-mail indications of frantic energy expended by all involved without having to engage personally. These are decisive reconfigurations that result in us all singing a different theme tune and not daring to utter the unmentionable jargon of the previous regime. It seems like an Orwellian opera on a three year cycle. I quite like it and wonder what project-type job I'll do for the next 24 - 36 months until the next time. Here in my little house, on the sidelines, I can't whisper in the ears of the corporate architects or try to influence the senior stakeholders. If I could then that would be dangerously close to the hub of top bods who tend to be the first night of the long knives victims of cyclical change. No, I shall go with the flow. What will be will be. I look for the shadow of the leviathan's feet and make sure not to get flattened as they stamp the ground.

I take the same view of developments in the publishing world (described in entertaining fashion by Lev in his AE post of 23rd August below). As the Amazonian outlet wrestles with the big name publishers my faint voice will not affect the outcome. The publisher rallies its cavalry and they follow the beat of drum into battle. The outlet attempts to outflank the attack with large numbers of foot soldiers. The air is thick with propaganda. Amazon isn't very nice to its employees is one clarion call, an article originating from a book that is actually for sale on the Zon (although not doing very well in hardback, Kindle or audio formats!) From a safe distance I watch these monsters throw brickbats and I dart in for any crumbs that fall from their jaws. What interests me is that Amazon has opened up its pre-order facility to indie authors and micro-publishers using KDP. Also that the Zon has been beta-testing paid advertising for authors. Also that there is more to Amazon than books. A chap who lives across the road sells costumes. He took a consignment of several thousand lace gloves from a US supplier last year but the timing was wrong and they sat in his warehouse for months. Then he managed to get them on Amazon UK in time for Halloween and they flew off the shelves. A lot of small companies are leveraging Amazon's reach to achieve product exposure for everything from morphsuits to martial arts equipment.

Product exposure is the Holy Grail for micro-publishers and indie authors. For those with the cash flow to support an advertising campaign the challenge is to secure effective advertising placements. This currently means placing a title in a mailout to a large database of ebook customers. The big boys in this business are BookBub - an ad with them to sell a thriller at 99c will cost a cool $500. But it’s not easy to get a placement with them. Another reliable advertising platform is Ereader News Today (ENT). They used to charge a percentage of sales resulting from clicks through their link but have recently moved to a pay-up-front model. Kindle Books and Tips are another. Booksends is also in the running. The buzz on the grapevine is that these advertisers may be losing traction – some recent ads placed by indie authors have failed to break into profit. If Amazon does come up with an effective paid front-of-store advertising model then might that be the answer to the exposure micro-publishers and indie authors crave?

Monday, 25 August 2014

Your Books Are Cooked! - by Susan Price

          Earlier this year, we, the Authors Electric, produced a
Cooking the Books by Authors Electric
collection of pieces called 'Cooking the Books.'

Tasty treats and unusual eats from Authors Electric blogging collective!...Here’s a chance to cook from our books with e-readable recipes, or just get the not-so-skinny on what keeps authors stoked while they scribble: some of it yummy, some of it funny. An ebook to binge or snack on, where the calories are certified virtual. Dig in!
          As it was my suggestion, I did most of the production work - compiling the pieces sent to me by the others, formatting it, uploading. Though I should mention the help provided by other Electrics, especially Ruby Barnes, when the formatting all went pear-shaped. The title was supplied by Julia Jones, and the blurb above by Valerie Laws.
          As editor for an indie ebook, it fell to me to design the cover. I started out with an idea of having a cooking pot filled with various e-readers. However, I found the task of turning this idea into a useable image quite a struggle.
Andrew's work...
          I have to admit that usually, when doing anything arty on a computer, I rely heavily on help from my brother, Andrew Price, an artist who hardly ever touches a brush these days, using a computer instead. But Andrew, though long-suffering, was busy with his own projects and couldn't spare the time to pull my chestnuts (so to speak) out of the fire. I was also training to be a consultant with the Royal Literary Fund, which was head-nipping, so I'm afraid patience was thin.
           I tried taking straight photos of the only e-reader I own, a Kindle Fire, in a saucepan. Didn't really work.
        I tried downloading photos from the internet, and making a collage which (I thought) I could then photograph. Didn't work.
         Also, my stove is gas. Doesn't work for 'Authors Electric.'
         Andrew took pity and said that if I could get some good, high quality photos of an electric hob (ie: not from the web), some pots, and some e-readers, he would merge them in a graphic programme, and produce a final image.
         So I appealed to the others for photos. Cally Phillips sent photos of her electric hob (even though she isn't in the anthology - she was too busy republishing the entire catalogue of S R Crockett and running the on-line Edinburgh ebook festival.) Others sent photos of their e-readers. We were all set to produce a image of a pot full of e-readers on a stove.
         But Andrew asked me to look at a first 'sketch,' to check the placing of the titles - and what I saw was the cover at the top of the blog. White background, glowing orange rings describing part of a circle, and the title and 'Authors Electric.' My reaction was, 'Wow!' I thought it was a simple, uncluttered, powerful image, which would stand out because of its strength and clarity.. The electric rings tied in with 'electric' and with 'cooking.' I called a halt. I said, never mind about pots and e-readers - we'll go with that one.
          Because I was pressed for time, I was autocratic about it. I said, this is what I've decided on: this is the cover the book is getting.
         So the ebook was published, and all was quiet for a while.
         And then, this week, Kathleen Jones was forced to unclench
Kathleen Jones
the gritted teeth at last, and admit that she hated those electric rings. They reminded her, she said, of years of domesticity, of the slog of preparing meals every day. One or two of the others then piped up and said that they felt the same.

         Now this took me by surprise, I admit. Not by the fact that some people didn't like the cover - you're never going to please everybody, all the time, no matter how hard you try, and for 28 people to all feel the same degree of liking for something would be a miracle.
         No, what surprised me was how the image was interpreted: domesticity, drudge, slog, frustration, boredom...
         Whereas my interpretation (and the reason I chose the image) is: electricity, power, heat, simplicity, directness...
          Neither of these interpretations is wrong. The difference lies in the experiences of the mind making the connections. I'm very undomesticated. It's never been my lot to produce meals, day after day, year after year - so I don't make that reaction to the image. If I cook, it's usually for myself. If I don't want to cook, I don't.
          So the point of this blog is that, when coming up with your ebook cover, there's a lot to think about besides whether you not you, personally, like it. Quite without your knowing it, the cover image may be sending out a message that you didn't intend at all.
          This, of course, is why publishers and product manufacturers, spend a lot of time and money on testing covers and packaging. Cleaning products, for instance, tend to be packaged in bright, 'clean' colours because darker colours - though they would stand out among all the others on the shelf - suggest 'grubbiness.'
         Anyhow, comes the hour, comes the woman. Chris Longmuir, crime-writer and techie, stepped up and said she would design a new cover, along the lines first suggested. Here's her first, trial run, which I think is great stuff, considering that she was having to teach herself new skills as she went along.

          Some tweaks have been suggested. Some people don't like 'Authors Electric' being staggered - they want it centred. Someone suggested that the wooden spoon be removed.
          I'm lobbying for a light background, as I know designers are mad about 'white space,' and I think many people may, at first glance, assume something sinister is going on in this book.

          Any thoughts? - On this cover, or on covers generally?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Summertime, and the writing is ...

Some years ago I did a significant research project into therapeutic work with traumatised children - so not a topic to be taken lightly. Before setting the whole thing up I needed to do a thorough literature review and familiarise myself with research methods.

It was work to take seriously. I had a proper study, all the trappings of an academic. I had to give lectures.

And then my supervisor asked me how much work I was likely to get done over the summer.

'That depends on the weather,' I said.

I knew from the look on his face it was the wrong answer. He'd expected me to utilise all those days with less official work to knuckle down and get the reading done. After all, it wasn't as if I wasn't interested in it. Well, I can't admit to being interested in research methods. I've learned a lot, but goodness, how tedious most of those books are! But the rest of it was fascinating.

But it was work. It belonged in the study. And when the sun shone - how could I sit in there being studious when the birds were singing, the bees buzzing, and the garden was heady with the scent of roses? It felt a bit rebellious, but one hint of sunshine and off I went, outside, with a novel or short story and sometimes a glass of cold white wine.

Now, here I am again, writing beckoning me from the computer and the lure of the garden. This time I've only myself to please. So - outside I go. The summer is too short, and my love of sunshine too strong, to spend warm days closeted.

It's got me thinking. I've read (and I'm sure you have) countless blogs and snippets of writing advice, suggesting you find your most productive time of day to write. Climb from your bed at sparrowfart if early morning is your time, or keep the candles burning if you are a night owl. I nod and know I'll carry on, fitting it in as best I can.

But seasonal writing - that has had little attention. It's taken a long time, but now I can hold up my head and say I'm a seasonal writer. Spring and autumn are my most productive times. Why not the winter - when the days are cold and the nights long? Because that's when I go walkabout, to hot and sunny places, and spend a month or so pretending it is still summer.

I was chatting to an artist friend of mine about this, and was interested that she, too, is less productive in the summer.

'When the days are long I want to be outside, in the garden,' she said, 'and thinking about outside things. But when it's cold and dark, then I am more interesting in my internal world and am able to access unconscious processes which I need to inform my painting.'

I'd not thought of it like that - though it makes complete sense to me now. Does it resonate for you? Or are you linked to more daily rhythms?

(There's the remnants of a hurricane raging as I write this. With a few more wet days, I'll manage to edit it!)

(Want to know what happened last winter? I went to Cuba - and the story is here. Or drop by the website, to see what else I've been up to.)

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Big River Has a Little Axe to Grind: Making Sense of the Amazon / Hatchette Dust-Up by Lev Butts

I have always wondered about people who fight viciously over things in which they have absolutely no control or even stake in. I have seen families and towns torn apart by football rivalries (and while sports rivalries in the American South can be pretty intense, they apparently have nothing on the fanaticism of the United Kingdom sports fans: hell, you all even have your own Wikipedia page for your riots).

"What happened, officer? Terrorist attack?"
"No, sir. Manchester lost."
I have seen grown-ass adults brought to blows at pop culture conventions over everything from the ending of Battlestar Galactica to whether or not Batman can beat Superman in a fight. As the kid of a cop, I have heard all too often of normally kind, loving people spilling each others' blood over which political party has the most assholes (off-hand, I'd say they're about even).

In my naivete, I have always held myself and people of like mind above such frays. None of us would ever stoop to that kind of insanity. Sure, we may disagree, us writers and scholars, but we have the solid foundations of reason and critical thinking to keep things in perspective. We can rise above petty bickering, see both sides of any issue, and argue reasonably and calmly about....

Shut up. 
OK, sure. We all have our hot button issues, but in my defense, I don't really hate John Green. As I've said before, I'm sure he's a great writer. My kid seems to think so. He also does a helluva lot to promote literacy for kids and adolescents, and that's always to the good. I do take exception to his views on independent publishing, but at least that is something I have a stake in. 

Recently, I discovered the one an issue that has brought many of my fellow writers to levels of vitriol that rival that of the worst soccer fan or sci-fi fanboy. 

 I am referring, of course, to the ongoing dispute between and Hachette Book Group. Apparently, all through spring and summer, the two companies have been involved in pricing negotiations for e-books. This is the fallout from a class action lawsuit a few years ago in which publishers had made illegal deals with Apple to raise e-book prices. So now, according to the very in-depth research I have been able to do in the last twenty minutes, in accordance with the judgment, Amazon is involved in pricing negotiations with Hachette (as well as the Bonnier Group, a Swedish publishing conglomerate), the first of the five major U. S. publishers involved in the lawsuit having to do so.

"What happened, officer? Sports riot?"
"No, sir. Someone told a Hachette employee that e-books should be cheaper."
In short, Amazon wants cheaper e-book prices ($9.99 or less), and Hachette claims that such low prices cannot pay the costs of producing the book. 

Riveting stuff, I know, but here's where it gets weird.

Amazon, in a move worthy of Vito Corleone, decided to hold Hachette's books hostage.

"Make'em an offer they can't refuse.
You know, cut off the book covers
and put them in the bed while they sleep."
They have refused to add pre-order buttons to upcoming Hachette books, slowed the delivery of others, referred customers to other, non-Hachette books, and decided against discounting Hachette books (an admittedly odd choice given that their desire is to ultimately discount Hachette books, kind of like suspending a kid from school from truancy).

We'll fix they're asses. If they won't come, we won't let 'em!
So far, so good, though. Sounds like aggressive negotiation tactics, but nobody's really hurt. 

Except for, you know, the authors of the books Amazon has targeted. In early August, a group of 900 authors signed an open letter published in a two-page ad in the New York Times decrying Amazon's tactics. Amazon responded a few days later by posting its own open letter implying that Hachette orchestrated the authors' letter and accusing them of using their authors as "human shields." 

And then the rhetoric gets really surreal, with one critic even comparing (with a straight face, mind you) Amazon's tactics to "Vladimir Putin mobilizing his troops along the Ukrainian border."

I vill drop prices if I haff to kill every author Hachette prints.
As a more direct response to the Hachette letter, a group of writers and readers posted their own open letter/petition supporting Amazon on I urge you all to read all three letters. They all make valid points and do an excellent job of boiling this very complex issue down to its bare essentials.

Did somevun say bear?
The gist is this: Lines have been drawn. Not surprisingly, they have been drawn between traditionally published writers (who predominantly support Hachette) and independently published writers (weighing in for Amazon). Yes there is some overlap, but this is the most prevalent breakdown.

And both sides have shown a tendency to behave towards each other with all the grace and charm of a Klansman discussing genetics. I have even heard of writers (traditional and indie) who have been threatened by their opposition for having the unmitigated gall to disagree. 

Threatened. By other writers. For having other ideas. 

We may all cry tears of irony.
So here's where I decide to step in and add my two-cents-worth:

Everybody is right.

Amazon is right: Traditional publishing is afraid of new technology. The whole dispute reeks of the paperback dispute in the 1940's: 
With [paperbacks] being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution — places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if "publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them." Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.
Yep, that's Amazon playing the Orwell card (literature's own version of Godwin's law), but ham-fisted rhetoric aside, they are correct: e-books are simply the paperbacks of today, and their struggle for legitimacy is exactly the same.

However, the 900 authors are also right: Amazon has indeed
directly targeted Hachette's authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms [by]
  • Boycotting Hachette authors, by refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette authors' books and eBooks, claiming they are "unavailable." 
  • Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette authors' books.
  • Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette authors' books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.
  • Suggesting on some Hachette authors' pages that readers might prefer a book from a non-Hachette author instead.
Given that Amazon instigated these tactics to hurt Hachette through its authors, accusing the publisher of using its writers as "human shields" seems a bit disingenuous. Sort of like shooting a rival's kids and then accusing the rival of using the children as shields because they happened to be standing behind them at the time.

And the petition is also right on several counts:
  • You may remember a story from a few years back about the five major publishers breaking the law and colluding to raise the prices you pay for your e-books. These publishers were ordered by the Department of Justice to pay millions in a settlement. Their intent was to price digital books high, stifle innovation, and limit your freedom to read as you see fit. The pressure for this change came from bookstores, from major publishers, and from other online retailers. [...] Fortunately, prosecutors rescued us from this price-fixing scheme, and digital books went back to a reasonable price. 
  •  You may have heard that Amazon is making books unavailable. This simply isn’t true. Amazon has turned off pre-order buttons for Hachette’s books, as negotiations have broken down to the point that Amazon may not be able to fulfill those orders once the books in question are released. The books that are supposedly being made unavailable aren’t available for sale anywhere else because they aren’t out yet. 
  • Amazon pays writers nearly six times what publishers pay us. Amazon allows us to retain ownership of our works. Amazon provides us the freedom to express ourselves in more creative ways, adding to the diversity of literature. Unlike the New York “Big Five,” Amazon allows every writer access to their platform. 
  • Negotiations between publishers and retailers happen all the time. Recently, Simon & Schuster found itself in a similar deadlock with Barnes & Noble. Many authors were affected, but not by missing pre-order buttons or delayed shipments; their books simply weren’t carried at all. They were shut out completely.
This last point is particularly apt as it underscores, not only that these kinds of tactics are not unique to Amazon, but that they are fairly common and often far worse than Amazon's actions. (Yes, I know that a murderer can't be excused because someone else is a cannibal, but the petition's point is still valid).

Dammit, foiled again.
However, Amazon and Hachette are both wrong:

Hatchette is wrong to demand such prohibitively high prices for e-books. They cost next to nothing to produce (other than design and layout) since there is no physical material needed: no paper, no glue, no ink, etc. Unfortunately, most e-books cost as much if not more than the paperback of the same title. Hell, even Amazon's proposed $9.99 is too much to pay for a book that costs nothing to produce and that you don't really own anyway.

To which I will add, just as paperbacks ultimately prevailed without destroying hardbacks, it is fairly unlikely that e-books are going to destroy hardcopy books (of whatever back). In fact, cheaper e-books may possibly increase sales of hardcopy editions. I buy hardbacks even if I own the paperback if I really like the book. And if e-books were cheaper, I'd buy them so I could continue reading my books away from home without lugging them with me (I tend to read two to four books at a time).

However, Amazon is wrong to punish the authors for having the misfortune of being published by Hachette. While the author of the petition presents a very good explanation for Amazon's "failure" to offer timely shipping of Hachette's books, there are problems with it. The petition claims that Amazon is not stocking Hatchette books in case negotiations completely break down and they are no longer able to sell them. They do not want to have an unsellable overstock of books, so current Hatchette orders have to be filled by the publisher, not Amazon, a process that often takes weeks. My admittedly limited understanding of book selling, though, is that the books are bought from the publisher before hitting the shelves (virtual or otherwise). If negotiations break down, those books are still owned by Amazon and can be sold even if they do not purchase future Hachette books.

The petition cannot explain away Amazon's refusal to discount Hatchette books other than to state the obvious: Amazon is under no obligation to discount any book, and the high price is the one set by the publisher.

As for suggesting buyers purchase non-Hatchette books instead, that's kind of a prick move. That is, undeniably, an attempt to hurt Hatchette by hurting its authors, and that's wrong.

The long and short of it is publishers have set absurdly high prices for e-books, and I support Amazon's desire to bring those prices down, but not by punishing the authors.

Honestly, though, we are all armchair-refereeing a fight between two businesses who are both trying to paint themselves as the aggrieved party in a dispute that ultimately boils down to one company wanting to make itself more money and another wanting to save itself more money.

At the end of the day, neither of them really cares whether I save money, despite their rhetoric. At the end of the same day, if there's an e-book I want badly enough, I'm probably going to buy it regardless of the price, though I may complain about it like a fanboy critiquing the new Star Trek film while in line for his third ticket.

It sucks worse each time I see it. 

And both parties know this.