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

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

In which I discover someone’s selling a book of mine for $4896.01

The other day I was blown away to discover someone was trying to sell one of my books, new on Amazon, for $4896.01. Plus shipping.

Yes, it's a four-figure sum for one of my books. Amazing. Click to enlarge.

Yes, it’s a four-figure sum for one of my books. Amazing. Click to enlarge.

The Reed Illustrated History of New Zealand has been out of print nearly a decade, and I’m not sure where the vendor got their stock from. I don’t see a cent for it, of course – I’ll have fielded the $1.50 royalty (less tax and expenses) when it was originally sold. Thing is, I’ve got a couple of copies myself, new, and I’ll happily undercut that vendor. Let’s say $US4895. I’ll even throw in the shipping, free. Call me.

I discovered this while sorting out my Amazon author page. It was time. I’ve got an awful lot going on just now. My book Man Of Secrets was released by Penguin Random House at the end of January, and last week the first in a series of reissues from my military-historical back list became available. Next week my book The New Zealand Wars (Libro International 2014) will be released in print for the North American market. And I’m also contributing to an Australian science-fiction compilation, which I expect will be published later this year.

So it’s all happening, and I thought I’d better get my own online arrangements in order. Starting with my Amazon author page. Check it out for yourself.

My Amazon author page. Click to check it out.

My Amazon author page. Click to check it out.

Some authors are known for one ‘thing’ – a specific non-fiction subject or a fiction genre, and eyebrows get raised if they do something else. I’ve never felt limited by such things. My work breaks into three categories: (a) military-historical non-fiction; (b) social-historical non-fiction; and (c) fiction. I’ve negotiated a partial re-release of my back-list in (a), but new stuff is primarily (b) and (c).

I’ve also set up a Facebook author page – which I cordially invite you to ‘like’, if you haven’t already. It’ll be populated with the latest news and other stuff related to what I’m doing – or what I find interesting.

Watch those spaces. And this one.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Exciting writing news for 2015!

I have some exciting news.

Wright_Military History CoversFrom the mid-1990s through to 2009 I wrote 16 books on New Zealand’s military history, spanning the period from the ‘musket’ wars of the early nineteenth century, through the ‘New Zealand’ wars of the mid-nineteenth century, to the major campaigns of the First and Second World Wars, and some of the conflicts beyond.

They ran the gamut from standard campaign histories through to the development of the RNZAF, the story of New Zealand’s long involvement with sea power, the politics behind it, the adventures of POW escapers in the Second World War, and I wrote a psychological study of heroism. I looked into the wars as a social experience for the soldiers. I examined the ‘musket’ wars and New Zealand Wars from the perspective of sociological culture-collision. I also wrote a biography of New Zealand’s key commander in the Second World War, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg.

I wrote the lot on my own initiative, sold on merits to Penguin, Random House and Reed NZ Ltd, and funded exclusively through sales. Although I’d written principally for a commercial market, the scholarship I showed in these books was received at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, with sufficient acclaim that I was nominated to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London. And I was elected a Fellow, on the worth of my contribution to military history.

It is one of the highest accolades possible to get in history, anywhere in the world.

Most of my campaign histories – A Near-Run Affair, Desert Duel, and so on – were published by Reed NZ Ltd, New Zealand’s oldest and best known publisher, on the back of a multi-book contract they offered me in 2002. (This was unheard of in New Zealand, but they offered me one anyway).

Then in 2008, Reed were taken over by Pearson Group – Penguin. I had a close relationship with Penguin – they’d been publishing my social histories for a while. However, talk of reissuing my campaign histories as a Penguin omnibus edition fell through, and with the industry in general churn-over, my back-list – military and social histories alike – quietly fell into the out-of-print box. I began retrieving the licenses and seeing what I could do to have the highights of my back-list republished alongside my new titles. That led, among other things, to the reissue in 2014 of my Illustrated History of New Zealand in a fully re-written and revised edition by Bateman Publishing.

I also re-wrote and re-published one of my New Zealand Wars books for Libro International.

And now I’m pleased to announce another step. It’s taken some effort, but I’m delighted to say that at least seven, and possibly more, of my military campaign histories will be republished in 2015 and 2016.

heroesIt’s a true twenty-first century effort, embracing the e-book revolution and taking advantage of the way e-readers have exploded into life in the last few years. That means they can be bought with the click of a button – from anywhere in the world. Print will follow if demand warrants it.

The imprint is Intruder Press, and the first of my titles to be reissued is Kiwi Air Power, a history of the RNZAF originally published by Reed NZ Ltd in 1998. It’s been out of print for 15 years – and it’s going to be available in a few weeks. The second release will be my book on the New Zealand Division in the Western Front, in time for this year’s Anzac Day.

Watch this space for cover reveals and more details. Soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Does what we write define us as writers?

My book Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand was published late last year by David Bateman Ltd. It was my second science-oriented book in a month.

It’s not often that authors are able to publish books in quick succession with major publishers. In point of fact, my schedule included four releases between July 2014 and January 2015, and this is not due to luck. Such results have to be worked for. I sacrificed time that many perhaps take for granted to achieve it. Coal 200 pxCoal remains a particularly important title for me, because it sets out my views on climate change. To me, the deeper ramifications of the themes I explore are vital questions that must be answered if we are to ensure the long-term survival of humanity.

Both my recent science books have provoked some curious comments from the media in New Zealand – ‘how can a historian understand physics’, ‘I thought you were a military historian’ and so forth. As if I were a one-trick pony. A review of my science book Living On Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House 2014) in the New Zealand Listener referred to me as a ‘historian’.

I’ve published a lot of history – but if I have to wear a label of any kind, the word is ‘writer’. I write on things that interest me – and, for a long time, that was history. But it’s not an exclusive interest. I always regard my home field as the sciences, particularly physics, with which I was brought up and where, aged 15, I won a regional science prize for my interpretation of Einstein’s physics as it applied to black holes. I was taught, at post-graduate level, by Peter Munz, a student of Karl Popper – who defined the philosophy of modern scientific method – and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I don’t validate myself as ‘an historian’, still less by imagined ‘status’ in a particular topic. I just do stuff that involves thinking, and which carries my enthusiasm and allows me to express my thoughts on the human condition. To me there is no challenge or reward in repeatedly going over a single topic. And that’s true for all things we might write about. That doesn’t mean falling into the Kruger-Dunning trap – the supposition that a subject is ‘easy’. You know – ‘History – it’s just collecting data. How hard can it be?’ Quite.

The challenge is achieving an understanding of topic before venturing forth. It also means also accepting, given my experience with military history, that public-funded bullies probably exist in every field, and we have to accept their tactics as part of the human condition. Where next? Well, my next writing project has involved me sitting down and doing a lot of math, purely to make sure I got the background details accurate.

The term you want isn’t ‘geek’. It’s ‘intellectual badass’. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why only nasty people seem to win – and my book about one of them

It’s not often that an author gets to write a biography of someone who can only be described as a total and utter bastard. And rarer still to find a compelling raft of redeeming features in a such a character.

Man of Secrets 200 pxBut that’s what I managed to do – and the book in question, Man of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean – is being published today by Penguin Random House.

This book means a lot to me in many ways. Not least because it has to be the longest-brewing book I’ve ever written. I signed the contract with Penguin in 2003, only to discover – unbeknownst either to me or to them – that another biography of McLean was being written.

There wasn’t room in the market for two books on the guy, and so Penguin agreed to shelve mine while this other biography sold through. I found it very much a ‘classical’ academic biography, asking the sorts of questions that academics need to ask to earn status with other academics, all framed by traditional themes relating to Donald McLean’s place in New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century settler history as a major public servant and land buyer.

By 2011 I figured enough time had passed to tackle my own book. But I didn’t want to re-tread the ground that the last biographer and the Waitangi Tribunal had been raking over, exploring his competence, motives and actions as a public servant. A further biography wasn’t the right place to to add anything to those debates, even though by eschewing them I risked being targeted by ‘straw man’ worth denials pivoting on the assertion that these arguments were the sole arbiter of the quality of any book on McLean.

It was also important to find an organising principle – a theme. Despite the conceit that books should be ‘definitive’ (an assertion usually deployed by authors to validate their own self-worth, or by others to fuel straw-man worth denials in academia) the practical reality is that even the longest tome can only ever look at aspects of a subject.

I gotta love this clip from the back cover.

I gotta love this clip from the back cover.

I had just over 75,000 words available, which meant finding a very tight-knit theme and focussing just on that. I was aware of yet another manuscript out there, covering off McLean’s political life. So what else was there?

The obvious destination for any biographer is character. What sort of person is the subject – in all their depth as a human individual, irrespective of their place in history or their narrative deeds? And when it comes to McLean the answer, it seemed, was ‘nobody cared’. McLean’s character had always been simply taken as an as-read backdrop to the political and land-buying deeds that have usually formed the backbone of studies of his life. Nobody had looked much beyond the self-evident facts that he schemed, he was ambitious, he drank heavily, he beat people, and on the back of it played a huge role in New Zealand’s colonial history.

I thought it was worth having a crack at seeing what lay beneath all that. Some of the story was clear from his diary. And then I found McLean’s love letters.

McLean’s brief marriage to Susan Strang ended abruptly in 1852 when she died giving birth to their first and only son, Douglas. She has only ever been a footnote in his ‘traditional’ history – a paragraph only in the 1940 biography penned by James Cowan, and a single, short and asynchronous chapter in Ray Fargher’s.

But for my purposes, those letters were important because – along with his diary they revealed a very different figure from the mean-spirited, alcoholic, vindictive, egotistical bastard more usually known to history.

Suddenly, McLean leaped into deeper perspective, and in ways that hadn’t been considered before.

Man of Secrets: The Private Life of Donald McLean is being released in print – available in all good bookstores and for purchase online – and also as an ebook. Details soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Win one of two books here!

My book Man of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean is being released by Penguin Random House on 30 January.

Man of Secrets 200 pxIt’s an exciting moment for me, for a whole raft of reasons. And it’s a book that takes a different angle on this enigmatic, secretive, domineering Scot who made such a mark on New Zealand’s history.

I’ve got two copies to give away to two readers, by prize draw. To enter, please jump across to Facebook and ‘like’ my author page ( www.facebook.com/MatthewWrightNZ , or click in the ‘like’ widget down in the right hand column) if you haven’t already, and share this contest on your own Facebook wall. That gives you an entry in the draw. Please also send me a message, via Facebook, to say you’ve done it.

The contest runs until Saturday 14 February and will be drawn that morning, New Zealand time. I’ll announce the winner on Facebook. The books will be despatched by Penguin to the contact address each of the two winners provide me by private message, once I’ve notified them. Judge’s decision is final.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015