How to win with writing’s digital revolution

There’s no question that the digital revolution has hit writing.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them).

Publishers are in a spin as traditional print-publishing – with its marketing and distribution model – falls away in the face of e-books and print on demand. A lot’s been driven by economic downturn. As discretionary spending falls away, people cut luxuries. But digital’s cheap. E-readers easily justify their cost.

To me the issue tells us a lot about how we think. It would be easy to  declare the death of print books. We’re conditioned to think that way as a result of Victorian-age progressivism, which framed our mind-set 200 years ago and hasn’t much shifted. You know the idea – the old replaces the new because it’s inevitable. The new out-competes, it’s natural, etc etc. Personally I blame Herbert Spencer, though realistically he was as much symptom as cause, back in the 1850s. We’ve been further conditioned by the way  ‘new models’ are sold on ‘superiority’ – actually a device to maintain sales, invented by car makers nearly a century ago when innovations became incremental. It’s so much a part of the commercial world that we don’t question it now. Of course the new is superior. Get with the programme!

The fact is that even biology doesn’t work that way, still less human social constructs, which is what we’re talking about when trying to predict the take-up of new technologies that’ll affect our lifestyles and habits. And yet we get puzzled when the future doesn’t happen as we imagine. What went wrong? Maybe it’s still coming. Er – er -

When trying to sort out the problem, we don’t ask the right questions – investigation usually pivots on why the original assumption that X will automatically replace Y didn’t happen. In fact, we have to ask questions based on different assumptions – such as ‘how has the new been received by society?’ We are looking at an interface, don’t forget, between capability and people. And people don’t behave in the shallow, automatic way imagined by nineteenth century observers who were wrestling to understand unprecedented social change.

Let me put it this way. Remember going out to the cinema? Killed in the 1950s by TV. Remember cash? Stone dead in the face of plastic cards.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

TV killed going out to the movies stone dead…didn’t it? This is the Embassy in Wellington, dressed for the premier of the first Hobbit movie in 2012.

Yeah, you get the picture. Plastic cards killed cheques; and certainly in New Zealand, usage of both cards AND cash have been climbing. If one was replacing the other, we’d expect cash to fall as cards rose. It isn’t. And less than 50 km from where I live, some guy named James Cameron has just arrived to stay, looking to spend several billion on – wait for it – movies that people will go to the cinema to see.

In all cases the new has taken its place alongside the old – which, itself, has adapted and changed. In many ways the new tech acts to improve the penetration of the whole medium into society. And that’s true of the publishing revolution. E-books have replaced ‘airport paperbacks’. But it isn’t either-or. It’s  ‘together’, as recent studies show. This one, for instance.  Or this one.

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Conceptually, we’re looking at complementary channels of communication; and we need to develop a mind-set that says ‘publishing’ means ‘publishing by any medium’. I can envisage buyers wanting to enjoy print but still buy an e-edition to have convenience on the move. Or an e-edition might offer additional content.

Publishers and authors alike need to be innovative, nimble, and open to change.

Curiously, I’ve got an example right now. Even a year or two ago, I’d supposed that large-scale books, such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, might not be amenable to e-treatment. But they are. It’s out in e-format as well as print. Which I think is tres cool.

Welcome to the future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Sherlock’s public domain – but will writing new stories be elementary?

A recent US court ruling that 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published before December 1923 are in public domain – hence free for all to use – raises questions about whether we’re about to be inundated with a flood of new Holmes adventures.

Holmes in action, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Holmes in action during the ‘Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It’s subject to possible appeal, I suppose. But it’s a tricky issue. Here in New Zealand, all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works have been public domain since 31 December 1980, the end of the fiftieth year after his death. But copyright terms and protections vary and his material has remained in copyright elsewhere. Some countries run 75 or 100-year copyrights after death, and the US has more than one term. The US court case came about, it seems, when a licensing deal with the Doyle estate tripped up.

To me, that raises a question. Sure, that ruling means any author can freely go ahead and use Sherlock Holmes and all the concepts and ideas that pre-date 1923 in stories of their own. This includes most of the classic Holmes imagery from the deerstalker cap to the pipe to the violin to the fact that it’s always 1895 and Hansom cabs are the way around London.

But should they?

Sherlock Holmes revisited has been done by authors. Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Percent Solution, for instance. Or Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File. And there have been innumerable adaptations of the stories for movies or TV.

Another Paget illustratioon for Strand magazine.

Another Paget illustration, from the ‘Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’, for Strand magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

As far as I am concerned, the only two adaptations that have come close to the spirit and intent of the Conan Doyle original were both by the BBC. There was the Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke adaptation of the 1980s, which was utterly faithful to Doyle’s work in essential details. And there was the 2010 Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman re-telling, which was so faithful to the spirit that we can easily imagine Conan Doyle writing it, were he starting out today. Don’t forget, Holmes was set in what was, when Doyle started, the modern world.

I question whether re-imagining the Holmes character is effective. There’s been stupid Holmes and smart Watson (Michael Caine/Ben Kingsley Without a Clue, 1988). Or Holmes as action hero (Robert Downey/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes, 2009). But Holmes, as Conan Doyle imagined him, is iconic – so aren’t these new characters? Riffing on the old, but really something else?

That highlights what, for me, is the key issue for any author writing ‘new’ Holmes stories. Sure, there’s a market. But Holmes stories are hard to do well – and really, it’s elevated fan fiction. Isn’t it better for an author to invent something new?

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The ethics of copying authors’ stuff online

It’s too easy these days to duplicate online material created by somebody else – and which is their intellectual property.

Quick - burn the intruding historian! Avenge ourselves!

“Someone whispered to someone else who had a grudge over that issue of your splashing mud on their boots that you were a witch, therefore you are guilty without defence and will burn.”

Corporates have responded by lobbying western governments into making copying a crime that, certainly under New Zealand law, works on a ‘guilt by accusation’ basis, breaking one of the key precepts of western justice in the process. Cases so far brought before the New Zealand Copyright Tribunal have all reflected music copying. Some have been fair cop. But the concern from the ethical viewpoint is that there have been repeated instances where innocent parties were brought before the Tribunal, including a soldier who was in Afghanistan on combat duties when the alleged infringements occurred, back in New Zealand. As another case report shows, if you are wrongly accused, you cannot prove your innocence. It is this situation that is the concern from the ethical viewpoint. We are back, in short, to the moral compass of the Salem witch trials.

Authors’ online material doesn’t seem to get copied in quite the same way. But it raises a slightly different issue, because in this age of self-publishing, authors often post their own material for sale – and copying it without buying is, in effect, stealing directly and personally from them.

Part of my list.

I took this picture of the spines of some of my books. It’s been duplicated by others across the internet, but the copyright is still mine.

Sometimes the author’s stuff is provided free, but even then I find there are misconceptions about the way that works. In my own case, the stuff I post on this blog is provided gratis for people to read and enjoy, providing it is not plagiarised or somebody copies it without crediting me – see the license terms down at the bottom right. I post photos I’ve taken with copyright notice. Some of those images earn income for me elsewhere.

What I am NOT giving away is copyright. Or the right to be associated with my intellectual work. I’ve had my published work occasionally infringed, but so far, my online stuff hasn’t been – shall we say ‘re-purposed’ – by others. It’s been copied, re-pinned, re-blogged and so forth, but politely with credit according to the stated terms.

What I have discovered is that some people who copy stuff have no idea what ‘copyright’ actually means. I often see disclaimers such as ‘No infringement intended, copyright remains with the owners’. Recently, someone pinched 38 of my commercial photos in one go and republished them without asking. I issued a take-down notice. They complied, but told me ‘I just copied them, I didn’t take your copyrights’. Actually, copyright gives the holder of that right power to act when the material is infringed. The infringement is the act of copying without permission (license). So by duplicating and re-posting without license, you’ve infringed.

I’ve also seen occasional infantile ‘holier than thou’ remarks like: ‘I will only accept your criticism for my copying, if you can claim you have never done it yourself’.

I assume the people doing this are twelve year olds who haven’t yet learned another fundamental precept of western society in which it is assumed people can learn from past mistakes, accept they were wrong – and reform. It’s how the western justice system works – and if we lose that principle, as a society, we’re doomed. Is this really where the ‘me’ generation wants to take us?

Have you had problems with your material being infringed? What have you done about it? Or been able to do about it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why we must re-conceptualise writing and book publishing

Last month, one of the three remaining indie booksellers in Wellington, New Zealand, closed down. Roy Parsons has been an icon for 60 years – combining books with music and a coffee shop. A winning combination. Until now.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in a bookstore window, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Cool.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in Parsons’ window, Lambton Quay, Wellington, back in happier days.

One reason for Parsons’ demise, reportedly, was the downturn in the CD market. But it’s indicative, too, of where books are going. In 2012, New Zealand domestic book sales contracted 7 percent. In 2013, it was 15. That’s a compound drop, in just two years, of just over 23 percent against 2011 figures.

Small wonder the international houses have been fleeing Auckland in droves.

The New Zealand experience isn’t unique. It’s been a ‘perfect storm’ worldwide, a combination of reduced discretionary spending on the back of the general financial crisis, coupled with the explosion of e-book readers, hand-held tablets and phones. Their rise wasn’t coincidental – readers didn’t have $500 to fork out annually on books, but they did have $99 for an e-reader and $3 each for titles.

For New Zealand the issue was complicated by the implosion, a few years back, of the old Whitcoulls chain. The chain was purchased and has since been reconstructed under new ownership, but for a while it looked as if New Zealand might lose a third of its book outlets. That provoked some risk-averse decision making in publishers’ editorial offices. The change was palpable.

On top of that has come the typical Kiwi rush to technology – a requited love-affair with online shopping. Book retailers here can’t compete with Amazon or The Book Depository – it’s an issue of volume coupled with the fact that overseas purchases don’t attract local sales tax.

One of the casualties has been the old publishing model with its sales-by-rep to bookstores. As a distribution and sales mechanism, that was marginal here at the best of times – the New Zealand market was always miniscule, pushing up the cover price on books.

Growth is going to have to pivot on the new principles of book publishing and selling – nimbleness, presence through multiple channels – electronic and print, and an ability to adapt quickly. It’s going to demand innovation, lateral thinking, and creativity.

As for me? I’ve been told history is dead as a genre in New Zealand – yet my history of railways sat for three months at No. 3 on the Whitcoulls best seller list last year and my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand sold better than any of my other books have in years. Dramatically so.

At a time when some publishers are shutting their doors, I’m getting approaches from others wanting me to write for them. I have four titles coming up in the next ten months. Only one of them is history. The other two are on popular science. Which, I guess, won’t be too surprising to long-time readers of this blog. And there’s a biography.

As far as I am concerned the need for innovation has never been greater. We must not just re-invent; we must re-conceptualise. I think that’s not just true for me – it’s true for all writers.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Unravelling the mystery of making book covers

If you’re intending to self-publish – or supplying a picture to your publisher that might be used in a print edition, the three terms you’re most likely to hear are ‘bleed’, ‘CMYK and ‘resolution’.

A professional book cover.

A professional book cover.

They sound suitably mysterious but – as always – there’s no particular secret to them. And they apply both to potential cover photos and interior pictures.

Bleed – the printed content that spills over the intended final edge of the page, typically by about 3mm. This means pictures or background run cleanly to the edge of the finished page after it’s been trimmed. If you’re printing to a standard like A4, running ‘full bleed’ means using over-size sheets (‘supplementary raw format’/SRA, defined by ISO 217:1995 standard). That usually costs. But it’s worth it. The alternative is ending up with that “photocopier look” – the white edge where the ink doesn’t quite reach.

CMYK vs RGB – by default, images on a computer are RGB (red/green/blue) which displays by projected light on your monitor. Print, however, involves reflected light on paper and requires a different system – cyan, magenta, yellow and black. An RGB picture has to be converted to CMYK before it’ll print. Modern software often makes that switch for you, but be careful. Free utilities that can do it include GIMP and Irfanview. I use the latter all the time.

Resolution – Printing usually pivots on a resolution of 300 dots-per-inch (118.1 dots-per-cm), and you’ll often hear people ask for ‘print resolution’ or ‘300 dpi please’.  Actually that’s misleading – it’s not enough to simply supply a picture at that resolution. The photos I publish on this blog are typically 650 pixels wide, which translates to 5.5 cm. Not enough (and yes, I do that deliberately). In fact, the “dots per inch” is irrelevant. What counts is the number of pixels over a given linear measure.

It works like this. If you’re trying to make a picture meet a standard Royal Trade book cover (C5 = 16.2 cm wide x 22.9 cm deep), you’ll need a minimum of 16.2 x 118.1 = 1,913.22 dots wide. To that you’ll have to add 100 dots for the bleed. Conveniently, a 10 megapixel camera shoots roughly this along the short edge of the frame, so a picture of this size (about 4.5 mB) will print OK. Inconveniently, a cover also needs allowance for the depth of spine and any wrap-around to the back, if the design’s intended to do that. Most books do, these days.

Have you ever wrestled with this stuff? Does this post help? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion:

Also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Writers’ rights with Moral Rights – a quick guide

A reader asked the other week what ‘Moral Right’ meant. It’s an interesting area for writers.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Moral right differs from copyright. You own copyright on anything you create, by default. The copyright holder, alone, has the right to copy the work, but also has the power to grant a license to others to do so. When you sign a publishing contract, you – as copyright holder – are granting them a license to reproduce your material. Usually the copyright holder receives a royalty for each copy sold under that license. However, copyright is transactable – you can sell that copyright, along with the licenses, to somebody else. Then they get the royalties from the sales of the work.

That’s how the Beatles’ back catalogue ended up with Michael Jackson, for instance. It’s also how the film rights for The Hobbit ended up where they did, because apparently Tolkien sold that particular right in 1969 to pay a tax bill.

Moral right is different. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, issued in 1928,  defines it (article 6) as: “Independent of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation.”

In other words, you have a right to be associated as author of your work – and a right to object to derogatory presentation of it, even if you’ve sold the copyright or signed a contract in which the copyright is owned by whoever’s commissioned the work.

The thing is, that right has to be actively asserted, which is why you often see the line ‘The author’s moral rights have been asserted’ on the imprint page. Sometimes, it may reflect only partial assertion of that right, and will say so – ‘The author’s moral right to be named as author of this work has been asserted’.

Publishers are well aware of it – which is why many include a clause in contracts stating that a line like this will be on the imprint page. It’s important. Copyright can be sold; moral right cannot, and it is reasonable that authors are not subjected to derogatory presentation of their work, even if it’s reprinted later.

Although most nations have signed, or recognise, the Berne Convention, the specifics of moral right in law differ from country to country.

My advice? I’m not an attorney or lawyer, but I figure asserting moral rights is part of the writing deal. Check out the precise details in your jurisdiction. If in doubt, consult your lawyer on it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion: My history of New Zealand, now available as e-book.

Also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

The dark secret behind better book sales

People buy books for a lot of reasons. The main one is the emotional response they get from reading. And that’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold in shops, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

But that isn’t the only reason. Why buy this book and not that? Why buy at all? A lot of it, it seems to me, flows from word-of-mouth. And that in turn boils down to one factor – discovery.

I would say ‘discovery’ and ‘quality’, but I can’t help thinking that Fifty Shades of Grey rather gives the lie to the notion that ‘quality’ is a factor.

Discovery is everything. Sometimes readers take a punt on an author they know nothing about, but have just stumbled across. But that still demands discovery. If your books aren’t known at all, they won’t sell – which sounds like one of those idiot ipso-facto statements, except it happens to be the biggest hurdle any author faces these days. Discovery. Going from zero to almost-zero.

It’s hard. Social media equips everybody with the same tools. It’s hard to be heard above the ‘noise’.  Everybody’s self-publishing, spamming themselves across Twitter.  Why should a potential reader click on this one – and not another one? Or any of them.

Combine that with the new age of e-convenience – where a lot of book-buyers buy even hard copy books from the comfort of their home PC – and you’ve got a lot of weight riding on whatever internet presence you can scrape up.

Advertising outside that paradigm helps. Sometimes. But that’s hard too. Back in the late 1990s, my books were being advertised on TV, in major print journals – even the Woman’s Weekly (it was a bloke book on engineering – the idea was that wives would buy it for their husbands). But even under that old model it was hard. Publishers back success. An established author will attract a good deal more advertising clout from their publisher than an unknown one.

That, I think, is why J K Rowling’s last ‘Harry Potter’ novel was splashed all over Wellington buses at around $6000 a shot, and my non-fiction history books weren’t.

Can you do anything to tip the odds? Sure. My take:

1. Professionalism counts. Sometimes, that also means paying for professional skills where your own skill set lacks – proof-editing or cover design, for instance.
2. A solid and positive social media presence. You’re an author. Your social media presence is your brand, and it takes a lot of effort to build up. Don’t break it by doing something stupid – like blurting what you really think of Politician X, or ‘flaming’ people, or pulling sock puppet tricks.
3. Actually, despite the way Fifty Shades of Grey burst upon us, quality DOES count.
4. Hard work pays off. No really.

And, of course, there’s always that indefineable – dumb luck. You can set everything up, get everything geared to go – and still, things have to go your way. But that’s life generally, isn’t it.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion bit: My Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand is available as e-book from Amazon. Go on, you know you want to …

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Where now, book publishing?

In 2012, New Zealand domestic book sales contracted 7 percent. In 2013, it was 15. That’s a compound drop, in just two years, of just over 23 percent against 2011 figures.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

Small wonder the big international houses have been fleeing Auckland in droves – or reducing their presence to branches of their Australian office.

The New Zealand experience isn’t unique; there’s been a worldwide downturn in print books. It’s been a ‘perfect storm’, in fact – a combination of reduced discretionary spending on the back of the general financial crisis, coupled with the explosion of e-book readers, mostly in the form of hand-held tablets and phones. Their rise wasn’t entirely coincidental with the downturn – readers didn’t have $500 to fork out annually on books, but they did have $99 for an e-reader and $3 each for the titles that go with it.

For New Zealand, though, the issue was complicated by the implosion, a couple  of years ago, of the Whitcoulls chain. The chain was purchased and has been reconstructed under new ownership – but for a while it looked as if New Zealand might lose a third of its book retail  outlets. That provoked some heavily risk-averse decision making in publishers’ editorial offices; the change was palpable.

On top of that has come the typical Kiwi rush to technology – an explosion of e-readers, coupled with a thoroughly requited love-affair with online shopping. Book retailers here can’t compete with Amazon or The Book Depository – it’s an issue of volume coupled with the fact that overseas purchases don’t attract local sales tax.

One of the casualties has been the old publishing model. The New Zealand market was always miniscule – pushing up the cover price on books and making the overseas sales model always an ill fit anyhow.

Growth, when it comes, is going to have to pivot on the new principles of book publishing and selling – nimbleness, presence through multiple channels – electronic and print – and an ability to adapt quickly. It’s going to demand innovation, lateral thinking, and creativity.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

It’s a case of the quick or the dead. Anybody remember Kodak?

I’ll blog later on where I think society has gone – and what that means for books, including how they’re published.

As for me? I’ve been told history is dead as a genre here in New Zealand – yet my history of railways sat for three months at No. 3 on the Whitcoulls best seller list last year.

At a time when some publishers are shutting their doors, I’m getting approaches from others wanting me to write for them. I have four titles coming up in the next twelve months.

Still, as far as I am concerned the need for innovation has never been greater. And I think that’s not just true for me – it’s true for all writers. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing, publishing, science and other stuff. Watch this space.

Write it now: the twelve steps to traditional publishing

Although traditional publishing is in upheaval these days, there are lessons we can learn from its processes. The new age of e-publishing hasn’t changed the need for quality control – which trad publishing has had down pat for decades.

Part of my list.

Part of my list.

The traditional publishing process breaks down into twelve broad steps. They vary a little from publisher to publisher, but the intent is always the same; quality control. The steps typically go like this:

1. Manuscript (MS) submitted.
2. MS read and confirmed for quality – or returned to the author for amendments.
3. MS sent for proof-editing. Most publishing houses operate a ‘virtual’ editorial process – they’ll have a stable of contractors who are brought in as needed for this work.
4. Proof-edited MS checked back with the author to confirm changes. The author needs to avoid the temptation to re-write at this point (and will likely incur costs if they do – this is built into contracts).
5. MS line-proofed.
6. MS sent for typesetting. Usually the design will be run past the author for comment although most contracts give final say to the publisher.
7. Typeset MS proof-checked by publisher and run past author for final comments.
8. Typeset MS line-proofed.
9. Index usually implemented at this stage (if there is one).
10. Typeset MS checked again and sent for printing.
11. Printer provides proofs (lasers, ozilit or, these days, more usually high-quality inkjet) – these are carefully line-checked.
12. Any amendments implemented – book then printed.

Usually a handful of initial copies are sent before the main delivery – and it’s about this stage that the author finds a typo. Nature of the beast.

The main focus is on change control – on making sure that amendments are contained, and that they’re always proofed. Repeated proofing pays dividends, although in these cost-conscious days, not all the proofing steps are always applied.

Traditional publishing has gone down this track for good reason. It’s quality assurance. It gives a professional edge, and in this age where one of the biggest challenges is discovery, there are lessons therein for self-publishers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

Creating your own literary ‘ear worm’ – like Tolkien and Rowling

Ever had a song stuck in your head – usually, the catchy riff or chorus the composer deliberately engineered for the purpose? They’re called ear-worms.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington, December 2012.

It’s apparently been discovered that the way to kill them – for a third of us anyway – is to listen to Thomas Arne’s eighteenth century ditty God Save The Queen.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that dislodging mental wheelspin with something horrible is a discovery. Back in the 1970s, for instance, Kiwi gentlemen knew that if they became transfixed by posters of the latest glamour pin-up de jour (Farrah Fawcett or, given that New Zealand was still 98.5% British back then, Caroline Munro), all they had to do for instant antidote was glance at a picture of our Prime Minister of the day, Robert Muldoon.

For writers the problem is the exact reverse. We have to figure out how to create a literary earworm – a concept or idea that keys so deeply into popular psyche that it sticks. I hesitate to call it a ‘book worm’. It’s one of the keys to sales.

To my mind the guy who did it – in spades – was J R R Tolkien. Not intentionally. What he was consciously doing with his Middle Earth mythos was creating a new mythology for Britain. And for a long time, nobody noticed – he couldn’t get the Silmarillion published, and Rayner Unwin was dubious about the viability of The Lord Of The Rings. A judgement borne out by dismal early sales figures.

But then something happened. In 1965 – after nearly a decade of bobbing along in mediocre-sales-land – it took off. The break-through came with a guerilla edition produced via copyright loopholes in the US. Tolkien hastened to get an authorised ‘second edition’ pushed into the market. That sold like hotcakes.

But even the pirate edition wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t keyed into what society wanted, just then.

Tolkien’s rusticated Hobbit society – and his faerie imagery with Tom Bombadil – harked to ‘Merrie England‘ and, to some extent, the arts-and-crafts movement of the nineteenth century. But by chance it also keyed directly into the values of 1960s counter-culture, which drew from similar inspiration. Mix that with epic-scale setting, the huge operatic scenario of good and evil – imagery that ran to the heart of western culture – and he had a winner.

The Lord of the Rings, in short, became a literary ‘ear-worm’. J K Rowling did much the same thing – using, in this case, classic ‘magic’, blended with much the same epic-scale themes – with Harry Potter.

So that’s how it’s done. The problem is that in both cases, luck played a role. But, as I’ve said before, that’s always part of the calculation.

Have you ever read something that stuck in your mind – that impressed you hugely? And have you ever read a book that’s left you stone cold – the ‘anti-earworm’ of literature?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing and publishing tips, science, history and other stuff. Watch this space.