Essential writing skills: knowing when to stop writing and start publishing

One of the biggest challenges for writers is knowing when to stop. When to let the book go and move on to the next. But it’s tricky. Even hard publisher deadlines don’t stop some authors from tinkering. Or even re-casting.

I had to scrabble over boulders to get this shot. Foreground is Denis Glover's plaque from the Wellington Writers' Walk; background, HMNZS Te Kaha at quayside, Te Papa national museum background (the Tracy Island look-alike).

I had to scrabble over boulders to get this shot. Denis Glover’s plaque from the Wellington Writers’ Walk

That’s why contracts carry amendment clauses. Once a manuscript’s been proofed, everything that changes adds cost to the publisher. The threshold I’ve usually seen for author amendments is five or ten percent of the book, after which the cost of re-editing and re-typesetting is levelled on the author.

The cost calculation is true for self-publishing too (you want to get paid for your time…don’t you?).

And that’s apart from the problems that follow when you’re interrupting the editing process with changes. Trust me – that’s how errors arrive. Unwelcomed. Unheralded. But they’re gonna crash your party.

The point to stop, then, is when the manuscript’s ready for publication. Then it can go through proof- and line-editing, typesetting and so forth without becoming a movable feast and without sending costs through the roof.

Of course it’s easy to say “just stop”. The harder part is stopping. The reason authors tinker is because the work hasn’t attained the conceptual perfection of the idea in their minds. And it’s an endless task, because these things never do. The point to stop, then, is where you are satisfied that your writing takes your reader on the emotional journey you intend. This point is true of all writing, not just fiction. My tips:

1. Starting right makes it easier to stop. If you structurally plan your writing, figure out what you want to say before putting finger to keyboard, you’ll know when it’s finished.
2. Command of styling is essential. That takes practise – and don’t be afraid to put the hours in getting that practise.
3. Get feedback – put your work out to ‘Beta Readers’.
4. Be confident in yourself. Don’t succumb to self-doubt.

What experiences have you had with ‘stopping’ – and how have you dealt with it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Some shameless self promotion:

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

Nook coming soon.

You can still 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

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: six secrets behind a compelling book cover

 There’s an old adage that we must never judge a book by its cover.

My "Illustrated History of New Zealand"

My “Illustrated History of New Zealand”

Actually it isn’t that ‘old’, really. Go back a couple of hundred years and every book had a tooled leather cover – you had to open it to get to the interesting design part. That’s what frontispieces are for.

Some of the classier books still present a frontispiece. But most don’t – the artwork has been transferred to the cover.

Covers are even more important for e-books, where they become the front-end icon – the visual object that sets an e-book you’ve discovered, cold, apart from the others, that makes you want to click on it and see what’s within. A book may well be better than its cover seems to promise, but unless we’re specifically looking for the author or that book, there’s no question that the cover is what draws us to an unknown author and book.

It is, in short, a key marketing and discovery tool. Which, in turn, means it’s amenable to all the usual marketing methods – it has to provoke, excite, pose questions that demand answers. In short, it has to appeal to emotion.

That’s a good news, bad news story for self-publishers. Good news is that professional designers are adept at translating those concepts into visual form. Bad news is they cost.

The other bad news is that everybody’s doing it, anyway – the quality of most covers these days, whether from the main publishing houses, indie publishers or self-published – is stunning. The bar has been raised very high, and if your book doesn’t meet it, then it won’t sell.

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

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

My take? It’s no different for self-publishers than it is for mainstream industry publishers. Indeed, even though mainstream publishers, by contract, have full authority over  the cover, they’ll often consult with the author over artwork. I’ve provided commissioned paintings or (more usually) my own photos for book covers in the past. Everything has to be planned out. Budgets have to be worked up, designers commissioned, and costs vs benefits assessed. The questions are:

1. What is the cost of the artwork – a bespoke painting, or license fees on a photo? Here in New Zealand, commissioned cover art starts at around $1500 and license fees for photos are $150 each, upwards.
2. What is the cost of a designer?
3. What returns do you require from the book to meet these costs – amortised across sales?
4. Think ahead. Design is part of brand; does this cover span a series, or is it part of a brand look to identify a particular author? (Typified for me by Isaac Asimov’s Panther paperbacks of the 1970s which all said “Asimov”).
5. How enduring is the design? Be careful. Totally up-to-the-moment designs key into an instant audience, but risk looking dated and cheesy in a year or two. The expected life of the book can help in this calculation.
6. What minefield/licensing traps follow?

Bottom line is that quality counts – and quality isn’t free.

Have you had adventures with book covers? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Write it now: licensing your blog and book photos

One of the biggest hurdles in publishing – whether commercially, online, independently or by the big corporates – is navigating licensing requirements.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. I still have the original painting. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

It’s especially true in this computer age, where we’re encouraged to copy – sites like Pinterest or Tumblr pivot on it. And, truth be told, a fair proportion of that copying WILL be infringement. The question is whether the owners object. Mostly, I suspect they won’t.

Other sites post content as an index/selector for licensed photos. That can be a trap for the unwary. I saw a story, a while back, about an amateur home web publisher who found a couple of images on the Getty library site. Used them, thinking ‘they’re on the web, therefore they’re free’ …and, about three months later, received an account at their commercial rate. Hideously expensive for an indvidual with a private website.

A lot of pictures are public domain – but it’s important to follow process to make sure. Copyright terms differ. In Britain it’s 75 years after author death. In New Zealand it’s 50 (counted at the end of the calendar year). In the US, it’s so complex you have to be an attorney to puzzle it out. Crown or government copyright is different again – in the US, for instance, government-created material can be freely used. But that’s not so in New Zealand or Britain, for instance.

Basically, if a picture isn’t public domain, you’ll need to license it. Or use your own.

It was easy to deal with the rights for the main photo on  the cover of my book Trucks. Why? I took it.

It was easy to deal with the rights for the main photo on the cover of my book Trucks. Why? I took it.

That applies to anything you publish – be it online in a website, or in a book (which, these days, is likely to be online). It’s especially important for book covers, where licensing fees are often special, reflecting the greater profile the cover has relative to internal pictures.

What’s more, even negotiating rights can carry traps. You aren’t buying copyright – you’re licensing the right to use a copyright image for a specific purpose. That can be time limited, or restricted to a specific publication. You don’t have free reign.

How to handle it? I am not a solicitor and this advice shouldn’t be taken to supersede or replace anything you may obtain professionally. Copyright laws also vary from country to country.

However, as a rule of thumb, there are basic principles it pays to follow. If you’re licensing a photo, make sure you have the rights you need. Some photo libraries also distinguish – even today – between print and e-publishing rights. Make sure you get both. Some online pictures also carry explicit terms for use with them – New Zealand’s online National Library collection, which runs to tens of thousands of images, does this.

If you’re commissioning artwork, make sure you have an agreement that transfers copyright to you. This is implicit in the act of commissioning, but it’s better to be explicit, these days. Also bear in mind that, if you use a separate designer, you’ll need the rights to that design too. That’s also implicit in any commissioning – but it pays to be explicit. A design using others’ licensed copyright material is, of itself, otherwise copyright to the designer as a ‘collage’. This is also why photographs are copyright to the photographer, even if they incidentally show material copyright to others within their composition (the key is ‘incidentally’).

It’s laborious and painstaking – and yes, it’ll cost. But it’s cheap by comparison with the cost of a post-fact scrabble to make good, when an aggrieved owner turns up with a copyright claim.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

A totally cool and exciting taunt

I post a lot on this blog about writing – but not often about the writing I’m actually doing myself. That’s partly because it’s often commercially sensitive. But also partly because you’d soon get sick of my blurting on all the time hard-selling my books. And I’d certainly get sick of writing about it.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Most of my books get a profile for a few weeks – and then I’m on to other content. But there’s a time and place for everything, and I’ve got a couple of exciting things happening this year which I’m going to share.

First one’s coming up in a couple of weeks. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: writing tips – tomorrow – plus history, science and general mayhem. And some news.Watch this space.

Write it now: professionalism pays hidden dividends

It has long been a source of frustration to me that writers sometimes act as if writing is a pastime, not a profession.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdYou know the stereotype. The author casually rises about ten, saunters off for a leisurely breakfast over the morning paper, then spends half an hour or so at the typewriter before the muse departs. Afternoons involve a relaxed hour or four sipping pina coladas by the pool, ignoring the impetuous jangling of the phone as their publisher tries to find out where the manuscript has gone. Life is so full of angst! Don’t bother me with details of….business…

It was highlighted by the contract I had to sign when I appeared in the 2007 Auckland Writers and Readers festival – in which I had to guarantee I’d be in the Green Room ahead of my speaking time and not asleep in my hotel room.

I raised that with the organisers. Bit of an indictment about my assumed conduct – why was it in the contract? Turned out that they’d been caught before with authors who had to be roused from their hotel. I explained that I don’t work that way – commitment means commitment.

The fact that ‘art’ is an emotional exercise doesn’t reduce or remove the need for absolute professionalism. Authors who work professionally get a repute with publishers for it – and publishing is a business. Professionalism helps them meet their bottom line, and they know it.

For me, professionalism involves four key principles:

1. Abstraction – removal from the emotional involvement.

2. Reliability – fulfilling commitments, on time and to specification, without fail. This also means evaluating a commitment before agreeing to it, and being confident enough to decline to accept if it’s going to be un-realisable.

3. Integrity – sticking to agreements, doing what you have agreed, without fail. Acknowledging your own mistakes – and figuring out how not to repeat them.

4. Confidence – not letting others’ success threaten you. And having the guts to approach others in the first instance if you have a problem with them.

These apply to any activity, as far as I am concerned – writing is no different. Professionalism pays up-front dividends. And hidden dividends, in the feel-good factor, in the way that your repute precedes you.

The nature of that repute? ‘My word is my bond’. The end.

It’s a good principle. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, history and more. Check it out.

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