It’s not as a big as it was…reconceptualising publishing

I had to admit to my wife the other day the traditional publishing and bookselling industry isn’t as big as it was. Worldwide, but especially in New Zealand.

Retail book sales here have dropped a compound 25 percent in the past two years, driven by a perfect storm combination of downloadable e-books and the rise of internet-driven hard-copy imports. People aren’t ‘naturally’ moving to Kindle. They still want print. But why troll out to the bookstore when you can order a print book at discount rates from Amazon or the Book Depository, not pay local sales tax, and get it within a week or two? Combine that with the way the main book chain fell over a few years back – putting the shivers into the whole industry as it stood then – and you have a recipe for disaster.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. The sailors in the RHIB were sponging the hull. 'Tight and tiddly', I think it's called. Flag is "Kilo" - 'I wish to communicate with you'.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. I launched my history of the RNZN on her flight deck in 2001, a few years before I took this photo. Here she is flying flag “Kilo” – ‘I wish to communicate with you’.

The book chain recovered under new ownership, retaining 59 of its 80-odd original stores; but into that mix has come the shift to online purchase. It’s certainly hit the indie booksellers. Small wonder that the big publishing houses have been fleeing. The driver has been bottom-line accountancy as seen from the regional Asia-Pacific head office. Most of the New Zealand operations have retracted to Australia. However, New Zealand book sales are less than Australia’s, and the Aussies, as far as I can tell, don’t understand the New Zealand book trade. What it means is that (a) books with slow-but-steady trickle sales don’t get reprinted, and (b) that same sales pattern lets books that are still viable in the New Zealand market drop below the ‘pulp now’ trigger and get written off.

The old publishing culture has vanished. It used to be reasonably profligate; I remember one visit to Auckland a decade ago where She Who Must Be Obeyed and I had dinner out several nights running with different publishers – their cost, not mine. I was discussing business. Another time my publishers put us both up in a motel, got us a hire car, all so we could attend the launch of my 60th anniversary history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, at the big RNZN base in Devonport, on board HMNZS Te Kaha. For various reasons we locked ourselves out of the motel and I ended up with my wife propelling me, head first, through the kitchen window where I ended up with my head jammed into the sink. Just in case you think book launches might be glamorous.

These days, alas, catering at publisher meetings – which for me seem to always happen in the same cafe in central Wellington – have dwindled to cups of coffee. Sigh…

It’s as bad for booksellers, because instead of being able to get stock in overnight, if a customer asks, they have to wait five days or more. Usually more. That loses them sales.

Smaller local publishers are rising to fill the gap; but the repping-sales model has broken, and the number of retail outlets has shrunk. Those that are left are being cautious.

Of course we have to turn this around. Collapse? Maybe by the old thinking. By the new, it’s an opportunity. That, in turn, means thinking laterally. Thinking creatively. Not just reinvention. It means re-framing the issues.

The fact is that the online revolution has changed things, and not in the way we imagine. So to get a re-conceptualised answer we have to start by reconceptualising the problem. Are we really looking at the issue the right way?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

 

 

 

Nine steps to professional publishing

Ever wondered what happens when a main-stream publisher receives a contracted manuscript? It’s worth knowing because even if you’re self-publishing, the process is industry standard – I’ve been through it many times, and it’s followed by everybody from Penguin Random House to some of the smaller houses I’ve published with.

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A book of mine that went through the publishing process. Click to buy from Fishpond

It’s evolved that way for a reason – and you’ll need to follow it too, for the same reason. Two words: quality assurance. Here’s how it works.

1. The MS is read for quality. Most contracts (certainly every contract I’ve ever signed) has a ‘quality’ clause. If the book’s not up to par, it’s sent back for revision (and the contract usually specifies the time the author has).

2. If the MS is on spec (to length, to specified content, and up to par), the author’s paid their ‘delivery advance’, usually half the full advance-on-royalties. These days, this is often the last money the author sees for that title.

3. The MS is then sent to a proof-editor. This is a ‘high level’ read for sense, wording, style and content. The author is sent the proof-editor’s adjustments, for comment or further work.

4. While the proof-editing’s going on, designers are working up the cover and internal look of the book. These matters are wholly controlled by the publisher – by contract – but the author’s consulted.

5. The proof-edited manuscript is then typeset, proof-checked for literal errors (typos), and sent to the author for checking. At this point, the author shouldn’t ask for changes beyond any literal corrections (typos) – and publisher contracts have a clause in them levelling the cost of change on the author if it exceeds a certain point, usually ten percent.

6. The whole thing is read once more, sometimes twice, and corrections made. Sometimes the author gets a second check at this stage too, often in parallel with the proofing.

7. It’s sent to the printer. Meanwhile, the publisher’s marketing department is working up their strategy for selling the book.

8. Advance copies are received and sent to the author.

9. The book’s finally available in quantity and published. Of course, that’s only the beginning of the hard work for the author and publisher alike – especially these days. The main challenge, inevitably, is marketing.

More on that in a while.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

 

All about the ancient and modern art of book binding

Today I thought I’d reveal something about book binding. An ancient art – but also a modern one. And a subject that, really, authors need to know quite a bit about.

The cover of my next book.

My next book – being released on 29 July. This one is perfect bound with French flaps.

The basic principle of book binding hasn’t changed for centuries. The issue is simple enough; getting individual pages – which are often printed in multiples on large sheets of paper – to stack neatly and hold together. It has to be robust. The last thing a book-maker wants to have happen is an explosion of loose pages as the binding breaks. It also has to be cheap, the more so today in a competitive market where e-books are making sharp inroads.

Traditional printing methods usually print books on what are known as ‘forms’, multiple pages at a time. These are not in page order, but in what is known as ‘imposition’ . Because the form is folded and guillotined, the pages on it have to be arranged so that they produce the right order, AFTER folding. Exactly how the imposition is applied depends on the size of the book and the number of pages being printed per form, usually 4 or 8 but sometimes 16. That is why traditional print page numbers are always an even number, usually a multiple of 4, and why you sometimes see blank pages at the back. Digital printing is a little different, though not always.

There are three major ways in which books can be bound – each with their own costs, advantages and pitfalls.

Perfect Binding
Sometimes also called ‘burst’ binding or with a ‘drawn on’ cover. This is the way POD books are usually made. The pages are folded, assembled into the book, and the cover is wrapped around them (‘drawn on’ to the book) and glued along the spine. The book is then trimmed to size. Almost all books are produced by perfect binding these days, and it works well – even on large books such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, which topped 400 pages and 1kg in weight.

Saddle stitching
Magazines and a lot of reports are made this way; the book is folded and staples (‘wire’) used to stitch the pages together at the spine. The advantgage is that it’s cheap and robust. The disadvantage is scale. It works well up to about 80-88 pages, but after that, the outer pages have to be stretched too far and the spine-side of the book tends to bulge.

Case binding
This is the traditional hardback. It’s the same, generally, as perfect binding except that often a webbing is glued to the back of the pages, which themselves are frequently stitched – with thread – into place. The cover itself is then attached. It’s extremely robust. Curiously, board games are made exactly the same way – the board is, in effect, technically identical to the cover of a hardback, only without the pages. Often a case-bound book will be finished in un-patterned linen. Sometimes they are given a gold-leaf pattern. Usually they are wrapped with a printed dust jacket that carries the cover design. The wrap-around flaps, traditionally, have been used for author photo, jacket blurb and other useful material. Sometimes, a perfect bound book will also be given flaps – these, in that case, form part of the cover and are known as French Flaps.

Useful? I hope so. I’m open to questions…ask away…

 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

 

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

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

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.

Write it now: can authors review other authors’ work?

Traditional book reviews – as opposed to the instant reader feedback via Amazon and so forth that we now call a ‘review’ – have almost always been written by writers.

I’ve written plenty of them myself, professionally, for newspapers and lit magazines. The trick to it is abstraction.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comThe problem with the process, certainly in a tiny place like New Zealand, has been that editors often give books to a rival author to review, as the only person able to make an informed comment. Some of the authors then feel obligated to indulge in worth-assassination of their competitor. This is flat out patch protection, and I’ve been at the receiving end of it often enough in the past with my military histories – people whose equivalent ‘patches’ are usually defined by their employment writing books at my expense as taxpayer, and whose public portrayal of me as incompetent affects the income I earn from my competing commercial works. Go figure.

But in the ordinary course of ‘review’, in the expression of a professional and abstract view, authors should be able to review other authors’ work. If they do it properly.

How’s it done? My usual approach is to look on the review as a specialised feature article – to give the review a theme and argument of its own.The reviewer should write something informative – something that helps a reader judge the quality of a book, something that informs. A hostile trawl for any trivia on which to condemn the worth of the author isn’t the way to do it. Nor is simply regurgitating their content in pot-summary. Reviewers have to ask questions.

One question is ‘why’ –  why did the author choose the themes that they did? Why did they take a particular topic, angle or subject? What was their intent in writing the book? How did they tackle it? Where does their work fit with that of similar authors? This doesn’t have to be a worth judgement. Remember – the review has to inform a reader.

Do you write reviews? How do you approach them? Have you ever been reviewed? How did the reviewer approach your work?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Write it now: title – the most vital words you’ll ever write

I’ve always held that the two or three most crucial words for any author are the first ones a reader sees – the title.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medTitles have to be snappy, descriptive, catchy and short. With the cover design, they can make or break a book. They have to sum up the theme or aim – and that’s true of fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction books often have a subtitle that further describes the content.

The phrase I’d use is ‘emotional capture’.

Figuring out the right words is one of the hardest tasks publishers ever face. Publishers? Absolutely. A publishing contract gives the power to assign title to the publisher. They ‘consult’ with the author – but that’s it. The reason is that publishing is a business, and publishers are the ones who have the sales records and a feel for the way something is going to work.

In this age of online self-publishing, that onus drops back on the author – who becomes publisher.

My books have gone through the trad system. Usually my title’s been close to my intent, though there was one time a book appeared with publisher title that accidentally matched the title of a rival book.

Another time I got into a discussion over the subtitle of my book on New Zealand’s convict-era adventures. My publisher’s marketing department wanted to call it ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’, by way of improving sales. I couldn’t fault the motive, but I objected to the word. The fact that Aussie convicts escaped across the Tasman to New Zealand in the 1820s was extremely well known – what I was adding was an understanding. What’s more, nobody usually knows the role publishers play in titles, I’d likely be credited with it.

Eleanor Catton’s comment that reviews in New Zealand are often used as devices for bullying is quite right. A large part of that is because the field is so tiny that books often get given to rival authors to review. I’ve learned in the past not to leave ‘easy kill’ options for reviewers hostile to my writing books in their private territory or field of employment.

But this time I was over-ridden… and was duly dealt to by reviewers for claiming a non-existent ‘hidden’ past. Sigh.

Have you ever wrestled with a book title?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Some of the hard realities of writing

I didn’t do National November Writing Month, though I was happy to cheer from the sidelines. I’ve been writing professionally for decades, it’s thirty years since I wrote my first book for publication, and every month is NaNoWriMo month for me.

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). I wrote this one…

Fitting in writing obligations around everything else that has to be done in a day, including sleep, is a perennial challenge all authors have to meet.

It’s getting more challenging as the publishing industry tightens. Not least because quality MUST NOT get compromised for speed. That’s one of the realities of writing. It’s one authors have to know, understand and accept if they’re to get ahead. It’s also true for self-publishers.

Put another way, the age of authors being able to casually rise from their beds at ten thirty, drift across to the typewriter after a leisurely brunch and tap out a few words, then maybe go fishing for the afternoon, are gone. Uh…damn.

The money isn’t in it. Actually, the money was never in it, except for a lucky few.

Trad publishing is getting tight – which means authors have to write smart, and the onus is on more than ever to produce quality in ever-shorter time, to meet a specific commercial market.

Self-publishers are under pressure too. If you write something that works, readers want more – and in that sense the life-cycle of e-books is short. Yes, they’re available forever – but readers always look for something new. Soon. It’s up to the author to provide it.

Everybody, basically, has to learn how to churn out stuff at the same rate as Barbara Cartland. Without compromising quality.

It means working smart, it means working professionally – it means working hard.

It’s a challenge. But I’ve got some pointers as to how to do it. Soon. Who’s in?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, more humour, more science – watch this space.

Write it now, part 29: the fictions of history

I posted last week on the need for accurate research in both fiction and non-fiction writing. That’s particularly true for any historical novel where the research has to be not just accurate, but also the right sort of research.

Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Photo: 2012.

Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Something not quite authentic here. Oh yes. Photo, 2012. History as we wanted it to be – not as it actually was.

A detail that isn’t authentic blows the suspension of disbelief, and the details needed for fiction – the little everyday things, the background stuff that actors call ‘the business’ – aren’t the ones usually recorded in reference material. An eighteenth century letter-writer doesn’t describe how they dipped the ink, melted the wax and so forth, because that’s a given; unspoken parts of their lives. But a biographer might want to know that as they fill out the world of their subject – and so do novellists.

The same is true of a lot of little details about how people lived every day, what they did, even the technologies they used. Sometimes we might not even know enough to pose the questions. Anybody know what ‘dubbin’ was, for instance, or how they made it?

That’s without considering the differences in culture. The onus is on the fiction writer to understand the period properly before trying to cast a story into it. Their values are not our values; their motives, thoughts and if-then judgements will not be ours.

Some art deco street theatre - a 'movie' being shot on location. Fun stuff. I took this with an 18mm lens (see the distortions along the top of the memorial arch in the background) which meant I was bang in the middle of the action.

I leaped out of my TARDIS, and there I was, trapped in a movie set one day in 1938…(Actually I took this in 2012). Click to en-cinemascope.

But that stuff can seem very strange to us. There has to be a balance. Truly authentic ‘old stuff’ actually doesn’t work – because the past, like it or not, is effectively another culture. Some authors do it. The master, to my mind, was George McDonald Fraser, whose Flashman series captured the mind-set of the Victorian rake. Apparently the first of the series, Flashman, was mistaken for a genuine found memoir by one critic. It wasn’t.

To me there is a balance between exactly replicating the period and writing something that, to us, constitutes a good and compelling novel. It doesn’t mean bowdlerising or creating a hybrid. Too many novellists create a lead character that reflects modern values, in contrast to the period. I don’t entirely know why; perhaps they fear that their interest in times that by our standards were riddled with mysogyny, racism and licentiousness will be conflated with advocacy, perhaps?

The trick to finding the balance is being familiar with both the past world and our own, understanding the differences, and also knowing what constitutes the right detail to create that suspension of disbelief – to paint the real and genuine world of the past in appropriate detail, without rendering it in all its strangeness.  And that can only be done with a lot of hard work.

But that’s true, I guess, for all writing. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013