Wednesday 12 September 2012

How the Lion Got his Job

I don't know if anyone's ever wondered why I have a cuddly lion in my sidebar instead of, say, a picture of me.

If you know me from Twitter, you might recognise it. When I first made a Twitter account, I didn't want to put a picture of myself on it, partly because I don't like most of the pictures I have of me - any that are more than a few years old have a fairly unflattering hairstyle, and the one on my passport has my best attempt at a neutral expression. Slack-jawed and staring-eyed. In other words, I look utterly stoned on the photograph I go through customs with.

But I digress. It's also because I'm shy, and I felt awkward about appearing to the entire world in person. So I looked through the photos I had on my computer - because I'm a mathematician, and we're a lazy breed, and I couldn't be bothered to take and upload a new one - and found one of Simba. I like that picture. It's kind of silly and cute, and it seemed reasonable to use it as my avatar since it's of something that means a lot to me. I've had Simba as long as I can remember, and he's been my 'favourite toy' and shared my bed every night since I was ... not sure, four, maybe? That's seventeen years, which is as long as I've known my little brother. So I uploaded it to Twitter.

Then I started a blog. I wanted a picture in the sidebar, but for all the same reasons (the photo of me I eventually put in the About Me page, which I like, didn't exist at the time) I didn't want it to be of me, and for all the same reasons plus that I liked the idea of using the same picture as my Twitter avatar, I used the same picture as my Twitter avatar.

I've also used it on my brand new (and as yet very empty) Facebook author page. Only by now I've thought up some better excuses. I've decided to make it part of my brand. This is partly for much the same reasons as before: I still prefer to have him as the picture everyone associates with me than a picture of me. Maybe that's weird. Like I said, I'm shy. My secret ambition is to become rich and famous enough as an author that I can become a recluse without ruining my career and consequently starving.

But also I think he's more memorable than a mugshot. That's might be largely just me: I have face-blindness, so a head-and-shoulders photo is, to me, extremely generic and forgettable. Even if it's of me, unless I can see something I recognise like the clothes I'm wearing or the background. If it was of a perfect stranger, they'd have to be very strange indeed before I would remember it.

But then again it's not just me. There's about one in forty people who will struggle to pick my mugshot out of a lineup, and that feels like a fairly reasonable size for a target market. And even for the rest of you, there's a lot of authors' faces out there and not so many stuffed lions.

So Simba is the front-man for my brand. Unless I change my mind. What do you think?

Saturday 8 September 2012

I Think I Want to be Traditionally Published

If you're at all interested in writing and publishing - I expect most of you are, since you're reading a writing blog. Not that you're not very welcome otherwise - you are surely aware of the rise of self-publishing, and the biggest decision writers now face: self-publish, or get traditionally published?

Until pretty recently, traditional publishing was very much the thing. Self-publishing was fairly rare, and perceived as desperate measures by writers who'd failed to attract a publisher. I remember telling a friend about my ambition to become an author: he helpfully mentioned self-publishing and POD, which at that point I knew very little about. I was offended, and coldly told him that I hoped I would be able to get 'actually published'.

But now the self-publishing revolution has happened, and publishing your own work is fast becoming ever easier, and ever less stigmatised. Vive le revolution (or not)! And I've been working for some time now with he assumption that  that is what I will do.

The reasons to do it sound pretty compelling. You don't give up the lion's share of the profits to a publisher and there's no agent to collect ten percent of what remains. You don't give up control of your work: editing, title, cover, timescale. And you will never be rejected. Even the statistics comparing the measly pittance made by the average self-published author to the advance given by a typical publisher are easy to discount: the majority of the authors making practically nothing are the authors who would have made nothing from traditional publishing because they would never have been published at all.


There are a lot of buts.

But I don't know if my book's any good. Now, a lot of people will be scornful of the idea of needing someone else's say-so to feel your work is worth publishing. They have a point: I don't have a great deal of self-confidence. It's a character flaw, and one which I should probably be trying to improve, rather than indulging. And of course if you're professional and diligent about publishing your own stuff, you will have had it edited and read by others.

But still, I'm a new author with no track record, and what I publish now will be out there, under my name, for ever. I don't want to publish rubbish, and I can't, physically can't, be impartial about what I write. If someone who knows what they're talking about, and whose livelihood depends on only accepting books that will be successful, accepts my book, that's a pretty solid endorsement that I am, after all, ready to start publishing my work.

But I don't know how to do it myself. Yes, there are plenty of guides and blogs on the subject out there. But they all say different things. Some, for instance, warn new writers away from self-publishing, and others virtually insist that traditional publishing is a massive no-no if your new to the game. There's very little that they do agree on. And if they do, it's vague, subjective, and broad.

And some seem focussed entirely on writing for profit, counting success purely in dollars and scorning the idea of trying to write the best book you can, or wanting to be read as as well as to be paid. They give what is probably good advice, but it's not advice about what I want to do.

A publisher knows what steps a book needs to go through. They know how they are all done. They either have contacts or in-house staff to get all of them done. I've never published anything, I don't know what to expect, and although I've been trying my best I still only have a vague idea how to go about doing it. To be published, at least the first time, would not only get the job done properly on that occasion, but having seen the process I hope I would then have some concrete, first-hand knowledge if I wanted to self-publish in the future.

But I don't think I have the money to self-publish. It's going to be more expensive than I had realised. With POD you don't need to finance an offset print run, and the setup costs sound pretty reasonable. For instance, £500 seems to be the absolute lower limit for editing, and I would be cautious about hiring someone who charged so much less than what seems to be the average. It looks like I'll be lucky not to have to lay out much more than £1000 for editing alone. There's cover design, and I'm now hearing that things like internal layout design and non-free fonts are highly recommended. And that's before you start on any costs of marketing - although traditional publishing doesn't absolve you from promoting your book. Figures of £5000 and higher are bandied about as typical self-publishing costs.

If I self-publish, I will do it properly and professionally, and produce a book that isn't the worse for not having a publisher's logo on the spine. And if I can't afford that, I won't self-publish. And I don't think I can afford it at this stage.

I'm fairly sure I could scrape together the money. But I could not afford to lose it. I would be relying on at least recovering the costs. If I'm traditionally published, I might still need to hire an editor, but what advice I can find on the subject seems to suggest that it's certainly worth a go without, and to only pay for editing if you're consistently rejected by agents. And I will still need to promote my book, and don't yet have a very clear idea of the costs of that. But the publisher will take a lot of the costs away from me, and if I get an advance that at least covers any editing costs, even if I never earn it out I won't be out of pocket.

But I want to be read, not just to make money. One of the biggest arguments in favour of self-publishing is that you make more profit on each book. But it still seems it won't be an awful lot. And it seems like you will be likely to sell less books, and even if that adds up to more money in total, I write for the love of it more than for the money, and I want my books to be read. And as a new author, I want to be read and recognised and build a following. I would love to be able to give up the day job (assuming I manage to get a day job after I finish uni), but mostly I just want to write and be read. And if I am successful I don't really care whether I make millions, or just enough to give up the day job and still live comfortably.

At least with my first book, I will be measuring success by how many books I sell, not by my bank balance, and I think that traditional publishing is the right option for that. For this one at least, the publisher can have the lion's share of the profit, and I'll take the recognition - assuming there is any of either.

Monday 3 September 2012

Self-Publishing: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I recently bought two books, both books that I'd been wanting to read for a while, both self-published by authors who I know. This was my first experience of  self-published fiction, and I glad to support the authors: it might be presumptuous of me to claim friendship, since we've only met on Twitter, but both are acquaintances and people I like, and I was hoping to write glowing reviews about their books.

The best laid plans of mice...

The Good

The first one I read was Bill the Vampire, by Rick Gualtieri.

he only difference between this and a traditionally published book is the lack of a publisher's logo. The cover is neat and professional - well, alright, it's glossy, unlike most traditionally published covers, but that's not bad, just different - the formatting is just fine, and there is nothing to complain about with respect to the quality of the writing.

It's original, despite being in a rather crowded genre - I won't give specifics, because I loathe spoilers, but Rick's made his vampires his own, and made them funny and convincing and interesting.

I liked the characters (especially James. He's probably not exactly nice, but he's fun.) I liked the plot, which was fast-paced and exciting. I read the whole thing in one day and wanted more. The writing maybe didn't stand out from the crowd, but said crowd is a crowd of good writers who write well and readably. So I enjoyed this book and will definitely be reading the rest of the series and probably the Bigfoot one as well.

The Bad

I'm not telling you what the second one was. As I said, I like the author, and I'm not going to name and shame them.

The cover was ringing alarm bells. In fact, it's a pretty nice cover, but the back and spine are blank. But I try not to judge a book by its cover, and I am aware that e-books are the main focus for a lot of self-publishing authors. So it's understandable, if a bit sloppy, that the e-book cover might be slapped onto the paperback as is. Although you'd think they'd at least put the name on the spine and maybe make the colour blend in with  the front, instead of plain white.

The formatting is ... odd. It's in a sans serif font, which (I've heard it's been scientifically proven) is harder to read than one with serifs. And the paragraphs are separated by double line breaks and not indents. Which is unusual in a fiction book and I at least find it a bit flow-breaking. But maybe it looks better on an e-reader screen and it's another side-effect of the paperback being a second thought. Even so, it's quite poor. Surely it could have been reformatted without that much trouble or expense.

But I tried to ignore all this.

The prologue was incredibly wordy and not very enjoyable to read at all. But that's just the prologue. Maybe it's deliberately meant to sound pompous and formal.

It couldn't possibly be like that all the way through.

If it was like that all the way through it would never have been published by anyone who could write worth a d*mn, because anyone who could write worth a d*mn might possibly have written something like that in a bad first draft. And it would never have been published by anyone at all diligent or professional about their writing, because even if they had produced it, they would have had it edited and listened to the editor, and no editor even capable of writing a decent enough bio to pretend to be worth their salt would have passed something in that state. And although I'd not read anything by this author before, I've encountered their marketing campaign and my impression was that they're pretty diligent and professional about their book.

It was like that all the way through.

I struggled through the whole thing partly for the sake of this post and mainly because I like to finish a book once I've started it.

I could cut it down by at least a tenth just by striking out bits that are entirely unnecessary - never mind restructuring and trimming down clumsy phrases and confusing descriptions - almost every sentence contained lists of three or more adjectives. Whole sentences were simply repeating each other. Dozens of clauses explained in straight terms what was already clearly implied.

And while I'm not exactly an expert on advanced comma placement, the best I could say about the grammar was that it's better than Captain Carrot's.

The characters sounded like they could have been interesting and relatable, if only they had had some semblance of their own voices. Each and every one spoke in the same verbose tones as the narrator.

The plot was pretty plausible and could have been pretty exciting if it had been remotely well handled.

The best I can say about the book is that I have seen worse. But in order not to deceive I would then have to add that I have read a good deal of fanfiction. Including the ones written by ten-year-olds and people writing in second languages.

I had a look for reviews on Amazon. The paperback has none as yet, but the ebook has plenty and they are without exception positive, mostly 5 star, brimming with praise for the brilliant writing, the likable characters, the enthralling plot, and how well it held their interest.

I suppose it's possible that the 11 rave reviews on amazon UK and 3 on the US site were all written or paid for by the author and their mother, although I don't like to think that of them. I'm left wondering, am I that bad a reader, or did the paperback, through some hilarious, hideous mix-up, somehow get made from the very first draft?

I asked my brother to have a look at it, in case I really am that bad. He glanced at one page and said that the book had at least three terrible paragraphs.

The Ugly

Is this it? The self-publishing revolution is in full swing, and is this what we're going to get out of it?

Will choosing a new book in future be as much of a pot-luck as picking a fanfic at random? The shelves bloated with thousands of books that should never, ever, have made it further than the author's BFF. Books whose prose has never seen an editor. Books that could be held up as an example of how not to write.

As I say, I've read fanfic. With nothing approaching editorial control, thousands upon thousands of fics are published that are absolute drivel. And some good ones. A sprinkling of decent ones and a handful of genuinely good ones and there is no way to find them without wading neck-deep in the creek - you know, the one you're up without a paddle.

If that's what reading will be like after the revolution, bring back the feudal system. Bring back the shackles and branding irons. Bring back the gatekeepers. Bring back hundreds of good books never seeing the light of day, and a pittance for the authors of the few that do, because even that is preferable.

One last thing: I said I wouldn't name and shame the author of the second book. But I also don't want to make anyone paranoid. So if you think it might be you, feel free to ask. I won't answer publicly, even to say no, but if that person asks I will tell them privately.