Anticipating the next trend in book cover styles

I recently dug out some of the military histories I wrote in the late 1990s-early 2000s, largely because Intruder Books are reissuing some of them and I wanted to check out the old cover designs. Not to use those covers again – the license isn’t available – but to remind myself how they looked, way back when, and just how far styles have changed.

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 base artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF, which Reed NZ’s designer used as the basis for this cover. I still have the original painting.

A lot of that change, I think, flows from the way new technology provokes new styles. Actually, that was happening even before software oozed into the process.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 200 px

Same book – 2015 cover. Click to buy. Go on, you know you want to…

Way back, sci-fi book covers were bright yellow and plain, in which case they were published by Victor Gollancz. Or they were traditional for the day – a cover painting (sometimes full colour), usually by Ed Emshwiller, with often hand-lettered title at the top and the author’s name at the bottom. Just like every other book on the planet, except that the sci-fi featured a spaceship or googly monster or something.

Then, around the turn of the 1970s, a young British artist named Chris Foss cut loose with an airbrush and a new concept – multi-faceted, amazingly detailed fantasy spaceships floating on abstract clouds. And he set a trend. As in: Bam! A Trend! Three milliseconds after Foss’s artwork adorned the Panther editions of Asimov’s Foundation ‘trilogy’ (it was in the 1970s), every sci-fi book cover on the planet suddenly featured fantastic, multi-faceted, hugely detailed spaceships floating against billowing backgrounds.

This book of mine was pretty hard to structure - took a lot of re-working via the 'shuffle the pages' technique - to get a lot of social linear concepts into a single readable thread.

Superb, superb design

For me, the best cover ever designed for any of my books remains the one Penguin commissioned from an Auckland designer for Guns and Utu. Just awesome. (Want a copy? Email me.)

Today’s covers are all Photoshop layer blend and SFX effects, which I can usually spot from about half the distance of Jupiter (I began working professionally with Photoshop in 1988…) Every cover on Amazon has a sameness which I just know has been done with Photoshop layer blends in various flavours. Sigh…

I’m determined this over-use of glow won’t happen for the New Zealand Military series I wrote from 1997 to 2009, half a dozen titles of which are due to be re-released by Intruder Books over the next two years. Layer clipping paths? Sure. But not glow. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the next release is coming up in time for ANZAC day. Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18. A tenth anniversary reissue, in fact. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: editing ain’t simple

Every so often I see something on social media that makes me blink a bit. Someone’s just ‘finished’ a novel – they’ve hit a word target – leaving just a spot of editing to do, and it’ll be out on Kindle in a couple of weeks.

Wright_Typewriter2I kind of go ‘auuuugh’ when I read something like that. Not least because long-experienced authors don’t usually measure results in terms of word count. Nor do they suffer under any illusions about the amount of work to be done on a manuscript after the first draft is done.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Word count is a tool. It’s a device for identifying the scale of a book – for getting its structure right. It’s a way editors commission work. And authors do need to provide work to the commissioned scale. But it isn’t an end-point. Or even much of a way point.

What’s more, editing is a huge process. HUGE. Not least because there are at least three different types. It’s important not to mix them up. First off is author editing, which is the stuff the author does to get their draft manuscript to the point where the publishing process can start. This includes:

  1. Working over that draft for general content, potentially re-writing slabs of it (see what I mean about the word count being meaningless, other than as a guide to scale).
  2. Working over that draft, possibly several times, for proofing – grammatical sense, literal typos and so forth.
  3. Only then is the MS ‘finished’ to the point where it can be sent to the publisher. Or, if the author’s self-pubbing, put through the publishing process.

After that comes the publisher editorial process, which divides into two blocks – proof editing and line editing:

  1. That process begins with proof editing. This involves an independent proof-editor reading the MS for general content – consistencies, structure and so forth. Yes, the author’s done this too; but familiarity breeds contempt, and an expert oversight from someone else is essential.
  2. The MS also goes through a separate ‘line editing’ proofing process – line by line, word by word – for grammatical content, for literal typographical errors and so forth, all micro-scale stuff. Usually this is done before it’s typeset, and then again afterwards – sometimes twice afterwards. Again, the independent ‘fresh eyes’ principle counts.
  3. Only then is it ready for publishing.

All this takes time and – because it ideally needs to involve independent oversight – money. It’s not easy or simple. But it is important to the publishing process, whether a book’s being produced by a mainstream publisher or self-pubbed.

Why? It’s a competitive world out there: quality assurance counts.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The real difference between editors and authors

I am often intrigued by the number of authors who, for various reasons, believe they can also be good editors – and market themselves as such.

Wright_Typewriter2Sometimes it works. More often it doesn’t. Several times, now, I’ve had manuscripts butchered during the publishing process by contract editors who, in fact, were obviously writers. One of them totally failed to ‘get’ what I was doing in one of my books and tried to totally re-write it, as if he were the author, sourcing his re-writes with stuff he’d pulled from a single other book, and sprinkling the MS with patronising comments along the way as if I were a novice in his field. (When I last looked, I had ten times the number of books published that this guy had managed, over a far longer period. Sigh…).

It happens, though. And my first port of call in such circumstance is to ask the publisher to find another editor and get the job done competently. Sometimes that happens.

The fact is that editing is a separate skill of its own, one that demands less creativity and more technical analysis than writing. Editors also have to be able to stand back and accept that the author’s voice is valid, even if it isn’t how the editor would necessarily express themselves. If the archetypes are to be believed, authors and editors are actually two different sorts of people:

1. The Archetypal Editor is…

– analytical thinking
– goal-focussed
– structured
– identifies boundaries
– word-focussed
– technical

2. The Archetypal Author is…

– visual/creative
– has original thoughts
– identifies boundaries in order to break them
– dreams
– relational/conceptual thinking

See what I mean? As I say, sometimes you’ll get an author who fills both categories. But not often. And that’s why authors really shouldn’t present themselves as editors – unless, of course, they have those ‘editorial’ analytical skills. And a red pen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

History you can touch – now available in North America

New Zealand has a short history by world standards – the first humans to even reach these shores did not arrive until around 1280. But it is unquestionably an interesting past – particularly once we get into the so-called ‘historical’ period after 1840, when British and Maori came into collision.

St Alban's Church at Pauahatanui, near Wellington - site of a major pa in 1845.

St Alban’s Church at Pauahatanui, near Wellington – site of a major pa in 1845.

Open warfare flared between 1845 and the early 1870s, from Northland to the northern South Island. That is virtually yesterday by historical standards, and that makes those events a history we can touch. The more so because many of those events were not in remote bush locations – but in places we can see and touch. The Battle of Boulcott Farm, for instance, was in the middle of what is today suburban Lower Hutt. The bush pa of Titokowaru, Te Ngutu o te Manu, became the Hawera District Council camping ground. Really! The Battle of St John’s Wood, in Whanganui, became a supermarket. Gate Pa is, these days, a Tauranga bowling club lawn. Te Rangihaeata’s pa at Pauatahanui became a churchyard. And so it goes on.

The cover of my next book.

The cover – click to go to Amazon

It is a salutary reminder of the way history gets forgotten that these places – used daily by ordinary Kiwis – have such a dramatic past. And that’s why I made a point, in my latest book on the New Zealand Wars, of highlighting some of the easier places to get to. We should. History comes alive if we can visit the terrain – and history this recent should not be forgotten.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history is my third book on the subject. And it’s been released this week, in print, for the North American market. Which I think is pretty cool.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writers – one-trick ponies or polymaths?

I have never accepted the notion that authors are supposed to only be expert in whatever their last book happened to be about, as if they are one-trick ponies. The issue was highlighted for me when I fielded a question from a journalist about my science book Living On Shaky Ground. I was known as a historian, so how had I been able to understand the physics?

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

The reality is that the sciences, physics particularly, have been so much a part of me that the issue never arose – the real question is how somebody who’d started in the sciences became a historian. And when I look at the unprovoked malice with which strangers in New Zealand’s historical academia have welcomed my contribution to their territory, I often wonder myself. But I digress.

In any case, I am, first and foremost, a writer. For me writing is about looking at some of the questions of human reality. That path leads into every aspect of human endeavour.

The supposition that ‘experts’ can only know about the narrow field in which they work follows the Western notion that people are only capable of achievement in one field. This is true of the academy, where it’s embedded to the point that personal validation is usually entwined with status in a narrowly defined topic, such as twentieth century military history. I’ve even seen that used as worth-denial within disciplines – one historian bagging another for being, allegedly, ‘outside’ a very tiny field of alleged speciality.

All this is an outcome of the way that Western intellectual pursuits, particularly, have been compartmentalised. But it’s classic false-premise, because it presupposes that somebody cannot be expert in more than one area; or if they are, their expertise is somehow ‘inferior’ to that of those who limit themselves to a single field or topic.

Actually, I remember a radio interview I did in which the interviewer was wondering how I, having been brought up in New Zealand’s North Island, could possibly know enough about the South Island to write a book about its history – I think he had the notion that ‘history’ was all about collecting funny local stories that you happened to know because you’d been brought up with them. I had to explain that it’s a profession and the research principles apply to any topic, irrespective of where I happened to have been brought up.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

That’s true for much more than just regional history in New Zealand. The thing is that true writers have to be curious about everything. Writing demands being able to intellectually synthesise, to get an overview of subject.

I think becoming expert in more than one area – and familiar with a very broad swathe of things – offers huge advantages. It is where creativity comes from – big-picture thinking. Too often, especially in specialist academia, studies focus on close detail and miss the wood for the trees.

To my mind, expertise backed by a very wide general understanding is a better sort of expertise, because it is given context. Getting there demands several things. It demands a restless curiosity. It demands an ability to understand more than surface detail and to perceive the shapes and patterns that drive the wider world. It also demands abstraction. So in answer to ‘generalist or expert’, the actual answer, then, is ‘both’. The word for all this, I think, is ‘polymath’. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: handling the skill transition

There are no two ways about it. Writing is a learned skill, like any other. And like most skills it takes time to master – I’ve seen figures like a million words or 10,000 hours. On my own experience, that seems about right.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

That shouldn’t daunt hopeful authors. Writing is a learning process and there are points along that learning curve where the material’s going to be good enough. It just takes longer to produce.

The four main steps of writing are the usual ones – starting with ‘unconscious incompetence’. You don’t know what you don’t know, haven’t learned self-critique, and joyously plough in, making every writing mistake known to humanity but having a whale of a time doing it.

In the old days, that never used to see the light of day because the traditional publishing system provided a fairly high entry barrier.

These days, anybody can publish – and a lot do, creating what US author Chuck Wendig calls a ‘shit volcano’. (Gotta love the term).

But there’s much, much more to writing. Three more stages, in fact. And it comes with training and practise. The second-to-fourth stages are:

– ‘conscious incompetence’, where you realise how much there is to learn;

– ‘conscious competence’, where you’ve learned the stuff but have to think about it; and

– ‘unconscious competence’, where it’s become second nature and writing is part of your soul.

I think the second is probably the most challenging, because suddenly the writer realises how much there is to learn – and how difficult many of the techniques actually are. A writer has to have mastery of the words, of grammar, and of language; they need mastery of the field they’re writing about; and they need mastery of the form they’re writing in – be it fiction, non-fiction or whatever.

It’s daunting, and I think a lot of writers at the ‘conscious incompetence’ stage stress over it; they so want to write, they’ve pushed ahead and got this far – discovering  how hard it is, and they fear they’ll never learn or be good enough.

To which I say – don’t sweat it. There’s a LOT to learn, but it’ll happen! If you’ve got this far you’ll get the rest of the way, step-wise. The trick is to keep writing – but to do so in a meaningful way. My suggestion? Every time you sit down to write, try asking three questions:

  1. What can I learn from this that will make me write better? Is there something I need to practise?
  2.  Where can I discover more information about this aspect of writing?
  3. How can I apply that when writing?

These questions, incidentally, apply for all writers – not just those on the learning curve. As Hemingway put it, we are all apprentices in the craft. And once you have the answers, sit down and apply them. Write something that uses the lesson. Even if it’s then thrown away – this is practise, remember. Concert pianists don’t just sit down and chop out Beethoven piano sonatas. They spend hours, days, weeks, months and years practising. And writing’s the same.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Can you sell through social media? Not directly…

A while back I ran into a writer friend on the street, began chatting, and we ended up lamenting the complete disconnect between the popularity of our respective blogs and the number of books actually sold through them.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIn a way it’s an idle expectation. I don’t blog specifically to sell things. I’ve put click-to-buy links up (hint, hint), but to me the blog is more a place where I can publish stuff that interests me (and hopefully you), such as my science posts – and, more to the point, engage in interesting discussions with the people I’ve made contact with through social media.

Still, I’d kind of hope there might be the odd click-through – you know, those large book covers on the right. No?

I’ve found it’s not just a matter of indifference. If I put up a post that directly promotes a book just published, my readership disappears. Those posts simply don’t attract many views by comparison with the others (especially the science ones).

It’s not just a ‘books’ thing. My sister teaches about making craft wools, mostly online. Her main business is in the US, where she regularly tours and lectures (Florida, in April). And she runs a good deal of social media to support it. Same deal. Direct promotions simply don’t work, and if you DO hard-sell, your readers go away.

The reason’s clear. People don’t go to social media to buy things. They go to be entertained, distracted, make contact with people – all free. What’s more, the defining nature of this media is a constant stream, like a radio or TV broadcast. That means content is transient. In fact it’s becoming more transient as time goes on. When I began blogging in 2010, my posts typically attracted a fair number of views for two or three days. Now the ‘novelty burst’ is down to 24 hours.

I suspect the reason for that is the spread of media. We have Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Pinterest, StumbleUpon (check it out if you haven’t already), Reddit, Google+ and a host of other services competing for our time. I’ve seen some scary figures about the actual time people spend on any one post, picture or thing – and the number actually browsed in any social media session. What that tells me is that attention spans are down.

As for using it to market? No. And yet, I suspect, most authors will have ready buyers for their books; and that highlights the real challenge for writers these days. Discovery. In that, blogging – and other social media – can help. But it won’t sell directly.

Have you had similar experiences with blogging and books? How do you see social media? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015