Sixty second writing tip: covers do sell books

I don’t often blog about the books I’m working on – but today my publishers sent me the cover of a book of mine they’re releasing in September.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...

What I CAN reveal is that this author portrait is being published in the book too. May cause me to be recognised and have people take a poke at me for writing in their territory, but hey…

It’s been professionally designed and looks fantastic. Cover reveal? Sure. When the moment comes – this is a commercially published book and there’ll be a marketing campaign. Soon.

Keep checking this blog…daily… :-)

It got me thinking. Covers sell books, including e-books. The days when a publisher like Victor Gollancz could brand their sci-fi in plain yellow wrappers, or when Penguin could release every book with that classic orange-and-cream design – are over.

I thought I’d share the criteria for a good cover these days. It has to be:

1. Distinctive.

2. Modern – which can also mean retro.

3. Classy and professional.

4. Reflect the content, symbolically or literally.

My covers have all been handled by my publishers – it’s part of the standard contracts. The problem for self-publishers is that the cost of hiring designers and buying rights to photographs or commissioning artwork gets pretty steep. Few authors are also designers and artists and the DIY answer is getting harder to achieve as the quality bar lifts.

A knotty problem. I don’t actually have an answer.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

A lament to the lost world of bookstores

Another local bookshop has become memory here in Wellington this month. Bennetts Government Bookshop announced it’s closing its doors.

Roy Parsons’ window – a Wellington institution for over 50 years and still going strong in 2012. I had to take this picture on a Sunday, usually the street’s crowded.

It’s the sign of a new age. Five years ago there were seven bookstores down the golden mile of Lambton Quay – the top retail street in New Zealand. You could conjure with their names; Parsons, Bennetts, Borders, Whitcoulls and Dymocks, a second hand store packed with great titles and a Paper Plus tucked away in a micro-mall. Today Parsons are still there – and coming up for their 60 year anniversary. A solid shop with quality books. Whitcoulls – after restructuring – it’s operating from the old Borders store. Paper Plus is about to enter rebuilt premises.

And the other four are gone. Gone.

It’s the harbinger of a changed world. The name of that world is Amazon. Mass market paperbacks are on the way out. Coffee-table books – they’ll survive in print, I think. Expensively.

Trad bookstores still sell books… for the moment.

But as we sit there with our tablets, our Kindles, our Kobos and our phones, I cannot help feeling a pang of loss for books that are tactile, for new books carrying that smell of printers’ ink, for old books opening in a cloud of dust, carrying all the promise of much-loved reading.We live in an age of tech miracles, and the death of paperbacks and bookstores is the price of that change, I guess.

But I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss the time when buying books meant going into a store and talking to someone – an expert, a book-buyer.

I’m going to miss the way we used to be able to leaf through books on those shop shelves, musing, pondering. That tactile, physical experience of being able to select – then take that physical object, pass over other physical objects, and go home with the book in a paper bag – all the while anticipating the pleasure of reading.

I’m going to miss the way we used to be able to take our favourite paperback novel and read it, re-read it and re-read it again, while the pages got dog-eared and the spine bent and the cover battered. Sure, we can still do all that for now. But it’s a vanishing world.

Actually, I’m missing it already. Are you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Self-publish vs trad – who works hardest?

American crime novellist Sue Grafton got indie and self-published authors’ blood boiling the other week by suggesting that they were too lazy to do the hard yards – they hadn’t paid their dues.

That copped a broadside from British indie writer Adam Croft, according to a report in The Guardian. Self-published authors, he was reported as arguing, aren’t lazy; they have to do everything themselves, including proofing, finding editors, getting covers designed and all the sales and marketing. But it seems to me they were debating different issues. One point is not the rebuttal of the other, and I think both of them are right and wrong, to some extent.

Grafton actually has a point about the quality of some self-published stuff. But it is also true that much self-published material is good – and the author has to work as publisher, promoter, writer and agent. Equally, while some mainstream publishers look for commercial returns – lowest common denominator tripe they can spit out in fifty different shades of grey – many also publish good material, and they don’t accept rubbish.

To some extent, Grafton’s point about dues being paid has merit. Being rejected by mainstream publishers forces authors to learn from mistakes. Experience counts. I’ve seen self-published material where the author is well aware of the theory of writing. But not to the point where it becomes unconscious – their material reads like a student exercise. Doing the publisher hard yards helps that transition from ‘conscious competence’ to ‘unconscious competence’. But self-publishers can do that, too. The trick is not to release early; and in this brave new world the single most important skill is self-critique.

Now, I’ve not just been a writer; I’ve also worked as a publisher. And I know what that involves. So in my experience of both sides of the coin, I think the self-publish road is the harder in terms of workload, because of all the things that go with publishing. There’s a lot of it. Authors with publishing contracts don’t have to do that. Self-published or indie authors do.

It is also the likely way that things are going to go, too – the difficulty now is not being published. It’s being discovered. And that’s true for established authors, too.

What are your thoughts on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright

How to make your story timeless – part 1

Author and blogger Susan Keirnan-Lewis posted the other day about the current trend among agents and the publishing industry to view books as having a ‘shelf life’. Even a slightly old manuscript is seen as dated – ‘trunk fodder’ – and unsaleable.

That idea, as Susan pointed out, is rubbish. The best stories are timeless. I agreed, and I thought it worth extending my thoughts in a post.

It seems to me that the best stories are timeless because they key into the human condition. That doesn’t change much over time or place – which is why we identify with Shakespeare. Irrespective of the differences in the ways that our diverse human societies express themselves, all the world’s societies are connected, at fundamental level, by the human condition.  The principle works across time, too. Past societies are effectively foreign lands in the sense of immediate up-front values, speech patterns, expressed ideologies or beliefs, even language.

That, essentially, is the ‘unity in diversity’ on which modern anthropology pivots. Getting there has taken a while, though – in fact, it’s an ongoing study. The problem early ethnographers, historians and philosophers faced was separating that human condition from their own prejudices. A fair number of beliefs about the nature of humanity were actually constructs of contemporary western thinking – highly culture-centric ideas which reflected the way that human condition was specifically filtered through western ideas. Look at Karl Marx, who thought he had found the answers but who (as Barbara Tuchmann tells us) was an unwitting prisoner of his own time and predjudices. But steady work during the twentieth century has helped. And we can see, in the work of Malinowski, Mead (a bit), Levi-Strauss and my own teacher, US anthropologist Ann Chowning, a winnowing away of social blinkering in favour of deeper truths.

Historians have tackled the same problem in different ways, and so have philosophers such as Karl Popper. All these disciplines offer angles on the problem, giving us a better picture of that elusive condition. There are lessons for writers in this – when it comes to world-building, settings and to thinking about how stories might be constructed.

I’ll go into what I think basic human condition is in a later post. But I’m sure you have your thoughts too – and do share them!

The point here is that all human societies, if you look deeply enough, reflect shared truths. Writers can illuminate them. And must! What better way to explore the deeper realities of humanity than through tales that capture our imaginations? That is why Shakespeare is so long-lasting. That is why Tolkien is so iconic. They knew.

To me there is no question; authors must tell that deeper story – the authentic story. It can be told in fiction, as metaphor and tale; it can also be told through non-fiction, with the right topic. We succumb to the temptation to merely scoop a short-lived tale out of the superficialities around us, with all those murky shades of grey.

What do you reckon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

The authors’ copyright dilemna

There was a bit of a shuffle in the corner of the blog-o-sphere I inhabit this last week. An author reported that she’d been pinged for using a photo on her blog which she’d found via Google but which, it turned out, was copyright – and the photographer chased her for it.

The photographer was correct in law, and the blogger pointed out that a lot of the mythologies circulating about ‘fair use’ are just that – myths.

Even so, I got the impression the photographer was being unreasonable; he’d got his take-down, but went for compensation – and once lawyers start getting involved, any return the copyright owner might get is likely to vanish in fees.  Sure,  the photographer had a right to pursue; but the blogger hadn’t infringed deliberately.

Writers need to think about this. We create intellectual property. What happens if it’s stolen? Is it a matter of honour and pursuing the letter of the law to its end irrespective of cost, or should we focus on practical outcomes? I thought I’d share my experience of having my stuff ripped off.

The most common infringement of my intellectual property involves one book – Quake – Hawke’s Bay 1931 (Reed, Auckland 2001, 2nd ed 2006). For some reason it’s been viewed as public property by readers. It isn’t, of course.

I had to take copyright action when this book of mine was infringed.

The cheekiest was a high school teacher who wrote to me after photocopying part of my book. He wanted to take my material – which he’d got for nothing by borrowing the book from the library – and use it as part of a resource he was building to sell for his own profit. To this day I don’t know whether he was being disingenuous. I declined. At least he asked.

Another time I found an article taken word-by-word from one of my Quake chapters. By contract I have to advise my publishers if I discover my copyright’s been infringed. I did. Their response? They wouldn’t act because the loss of income from the theft wasn’t material.

I was free to pursue it myself at that point, but the same calculation applied. It would have cost me more – a lot more – than any compensation I’d have been able to get.

So I found myself in a position where I was in the right, where my copyright had been infringed – but where I couldn’t do anything about it. Other than write to the offending author, which I did, politely. He was very contrite about it, too, and offered to take me out to lunch. He hadn’t really lost me income from his infringement, I was satisfied it had been due to incompetence on his part, he’d made nothing out of if himself either, he’d apologised - and that was a reasonable answer as far as I was concerned.

The main infringement of my copyright material is by Google, who have taken books I’ve written that are still in print, and scanned them without permission. That is illegal under New Zealand law (whether it is republished or not) and, depending on how things go, it’s got potential to reduce any income I receive from my intellectual property – why would people buy it from a shop if they can download it for nothing from Google?

Google couldn’t even properly identify me – they conflated me with an academic of the same name, this one at the University of Exeter. Insult to injury.

The problem is that Google might actually cost me income, and yes I do need to pursue that - but the issue is the practical side of enforcement. I could initiate proceedings in a New Zealand court, but the local intellectual property law firm charges around $4000 just to issue an opinion. That’s without hiring one of their solicitors to represent me. And it’s more complex than that, too, because the intellectual property rights for around 90% of my back-list are licensed, by contract, to two of the ‘big six’ publishers, who have their own policies towards the Google program. In practise I’m going to have to wait on US court cases to work through, a process likely to take years, and then accept whatever class settlement comes out of it.

Have you had any incidents of this kind? What’s your take?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Market slot and your publication – how, why and when

Self-publishing for writers is decidedly in these days, as we discover that 21st century computing isn’t about psychotic AI mainframes – it’s about connectivity.  A brave new world for those with a yen to write books. But some things haven’t changed – such as when to publish, and how often.

“Hmmn…books. New fangled rubbish. They’ll never replace scrolls, you know”.

This is about best exploiting a market which, when it comes to getting people to part with hard-earned cash for your product, hasn’t changed with the advent of e-books.  Exactly how the book is published – traditional, self-publish, print or e-book – is irrelevant. The issue is getting around the fact that books – even at 99 cents – are still discretionary spending. The only thing that has changed with the new e-book world is the price level, and extra sales from lower cost have to be set against lower returns per unit.The principles of market slot, timing and opportunity still apply.

So let’s look at how the main houses do it – they’re old hands and know how to make it work. Typically they’ll plan production ahead of time, often annually.  The schedule is guided by criteria such as:

1. Significant dates
Anniversaries, key national days or holidays can all be linked with a particular title. In New Zealand, there is always a rash of military releases around 25 April, our anniversary day. Mother’s Day gets – well, mum books. Father’s Day usually comes with a crop of blokish titles.

2. Market slot collisions
Market slot is defined as a price point, content and appearance.  A coffee-table picture book won’t be in market-slot competition with a trade paperback on the same subject. But two picture books will. Most publishers manage their lists accordingly. Typically a book gets six months or a year to sell through before a similar title is released.

Competition can derail the plan – both authors and publishers keep quiet about their intentions; and sometimes that market slot gets full.

3. Book series
Same principle as market slot collisions – each title in a series gets six months or a year. I wrote a series of transport books in the 2000s which were spaced variously 1 and 2 years apart. That’s typical.

4. Production resources
Most publishers run lean, scheduling production to fit resources. One of the bottlenecks in New Zealand, is printing. Local printing is expensive, and the main houses usually contract the jobs to Chinese companies. Lower cost, but has to be booked way ahead and time allocated for sea transit.

Best laid plans, of course, don’t always pan out. Sometimes something happens that is too good to miss. Last year, for instance, New Zealand suffered an unseasonal snowfall in August. Penguin New Zealand were on the ball, producing a quickie photo book of the one-in-50-year moment in just three weeks. It hit the best seller lists.

If you self-publish, do you ever plan your release schedule?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

This has to be the world’s stupidest publishing idea

A friend pointed me to this the other day. Someone’s come up with a way for print to compete with e-books.

“Hmmn…books. New fangled rubbish. They’ll never replace scrolls, you know”.

How? According to the report, they print the book in disappearing ink. Apparently that will FORCE the customer to read it quickly before their purchase becomes a worthless paperweight.

We have a saying about that in New Zealand. Yeah, right.

To me this is like bath towels for goldfish. For some of us, the pleasure of books includes having that tower unread by the bedside – in anticipation. To be savoured. Not gobbled down before it disappears.

Personally I think e-book and print publishing are both ways of the future. Together. Each has their own strengths. And one advantage a book has over any e-product, just now, is permanence. Books printed on acid-free paper last for centuries, if they’re properly stored. Dye-process DVD’s, magnetic media and silicon storage – well, the jury’s out, but signs are they’re only good for years or decades. In fact, the physics indicate that the denser your storage, the faster it decays (I just LURRRVE that Second Law of Thermodynamics). Then there’s that niggly issue of software to interpret the data.

Archivists have already learned the hard way that keeping computer data is a race against decaying media and changing standards. So we’ve already got ‘disappearing e-books’, if we’re not careful. Lost software can be fixed with talent and money. And science may offer answers to the storage physics as time goes on – but not just now (and you can’t beat thermodynamics, not ever  - only hold it off locally with even more energy.) As for deliberately printing a book in disappearing ink? That’s just dumb. What do you think?

*** Don’t forget – if you want to win a copy of my new book Convicts – published by Penguin and signed by me – check out this contest. Runs until 28 July 2012.***

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

How to build your writing voice and meet great people in one go

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – your voice, as a writer, is important. It sets the tone. And if you do it right, it will set your writing apart.

Sometimes a distinctive voice works even if other things are wrong. Take Hamish Clayton’s novel Wulf (Penguin 2011). It’s a fantastic read – up for an award in New Zealand.  He’s fictionalised a well-known story of piracy in 1830.

“Hmmn…books. New fangled rubbish. They’ll never replace scrolls, you know”.

The voice Clayton picked for his first-person narrator was literate, poetic, soulful and with a keen sense of metaphor. However, the character Clayton portrayed was a sailor. It is possible that intellectualised poet-sailors plied New Zealand waters, but I’ve never heard of one in all the historical research and writing I’ve done, including when I told the real story that Clayton fictionalised. And yet – yet the novel was fabulous. Why? Because Clayton held tight reign over voice.

So how do you get the right voice. How can you create different writing voices for different purposes – fiction, non-fiction, formal letters, blogging and so forth?

The secret is control. Control of your writing. Words must bend to your command, not the other way around. The ability to express an idea, in words, must become part of your soul. Writing classes can give you a great toolkit– but it’s only the beginning. The work follows. Write every day, without fail. Be self-critical; step back and ask whether you’ve really created a distinct voice, or for your characters. Don’t be afraid to throw stuff away – don’t get wedded to your words. Get wedded to your control over them.

It doesn’t happen overnight. But it will happen if you keep pushing – stepping back and reviewing where you’re at. And it doesn’t have to be too great a chore. In fact it can be fun – try blogging. Hone your writing skills and meet great people in one simple step.

What do you reckon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

The pros and cons of POD books. Er – pod what?

I posted a comment the other week on Roger Colby’s blog about print-on-demand book making. POD. A relatively new technology. It’s also an interesting technology, especially for writers – and, for that matter, small publishers.

I thought I’d extend those thoughts a bit. Digital print has been around a while. Basically, it’s photocopying – same tech – coupled with better flexibility in terms of the paper stock. Lately that’s extended into machines that will print to card, collate, guillotine and ‘perfect bind’ – the printing tech term for paperbacks. Which means you can spit out finished paperback books instead of loose sheets.

That’s the economic way to go for smaller publishers – I’m aware of several in New Zealand who use it. All that’s necessary is to print enough stock for first sales and to meet legal deposit requirements. The advantage is that the publisher doesn’t have to carry unsold stock, and a book never goes out of print. This is important for the publishing industry and authors alike.

Down side is the machinery is hideously expensive. This is less an issue for authors than publishers. What both have to consider, though, is that output is usually lower quality. A lot of these machines use the same paper as traditional offset printing (ink, with plates and rollers), but the quality of laser doesn’t come up to offset levels. It can’t – it’s a whole different tech.

What’s more, the running/production costs of POD are linear, whereas with trad print it’s a case of the ‘more the merrier’, up to around 20,000 units, owing to having to amortise the costs of plate-making and machine setup. Linear costs are great if you’re running one-offs or a print run of a few hundred. But if demand jumps, you’d better know where to move to trad print, or you’ll ruin the economics of what you’re doing. That isn’t always obvious if demand is high but comes in dribs-and-drabs.

There are also things that can be done with trad printing – embossing, gloss overprinting, spot colour and tricks such as five-colour printing which go beyond the CMYK colour limits. Those aren’t yet possible with digital POD. And if you want anything other than perfect bound, you still have to go to a bindery.

So – lots of plusses, lots of minuses. Which to me adds up to the usual story with new tech; it won’t completely replace the old. There will be a re-balancing, a shift; and it will take its place alongside offset print and case binding. It will also go alongside pure e-books. I think there’s room for all in the future. Time will show us where the balance point is. Certainly, I think, POD will make a dent in the pulp paperback/Royal Trade end of the market, if it hasn’t already.

What do you think? Would you use POD? Have you used it already? Do tell.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Giving your e-book the professional edge

I thought I’d share a few tips about page layout today. Professional publishers work hard to give each book an individuality, even if it is a text-only paperback.

Self-publishers should too. There are a few rules – which apply irrespective of software. These days most word processing software will do layout to some extent – Microsoft Word, Open Office, Scrivener and so forth. The up-side is that you don’t need to learn the technicalities demanded of a professional typesetting package like InDesign or XPress (usually misnamed ‘Quark’. which is actually the manufacturer). But there are still pitfalls even with word processors-as-typesetters. Here are a few tips

1. Font. Keep the choice simple. Don’t mix-and-match dozens of them. Two will do –  a serif for text and sanserif for header, or vice-versa (think Arial and Cambria, for instance).

2. Font sizes. Text has to be legible. Don’t go for a microscopic size. Typically, professional books use 9 or 10 point main body text, with 12 or 14 point leading (the space between lines).

3. Column widths. If you make the column too wide, readers won’t be able to track the line. It’s worse on screen than on paper. The font and size you select for your main text usually defines the column width; an e-book format re-feeds to suit the screen size; but if you’re preparing for PDF, figure out a width that gives you no more than 14-17 words (average word length is 4.5 characters, don’t ask about the half).

4. Margins. In traditional print, pages are offset left and right by a small amount known as the gutter. This is the space taken up by the binding. If you are aiming for print-on-demand as well as e-publication, you’ll have to account for  this.

5. Paragraphing. By default, programmes like Word work like typewriters – if you want to separate paragraphs, add a line space. Professional typesetting is different. You can make Word and most other software do this, to a certain extent. Often, a professional typesetter creates no extra space between paragraphs and differentiates, instead, with an indent.

6. Headers and footers. Most royal trade (C5) size paperbacks have page number and other information at the bottom of the page, or the top. Not both. Typically the information is perhaps book title (left hand side) and chapter title (right hand side) with the page number either centred or placed in left or right hand alignment with the columns.

Ultimately there is no absolute right or wrong, but applying these rules can help give a professional edge. Applying them creatively can help create a professional advantage.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012