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Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Family Book Goes Online by Eleanor Updale

One of the great things about stumbling into the world of electronic books is to be freed from the lazy categorisation imposed by publishers.  I know it's not entirely their fault - the chain bookshops and supermarkets started it with their need for products that could be heaved onto the 'appropriate' shelves by staff devoid of knowledge or interest - but (as with discounting) late 20th century publishing houses yielded without a fight, and it is now so normal for a book to be a narrowly 'targeted' commodity that writing for a diverse readership seems downright perverse.

For years I have been running a spectacularly unsuccessful one-woman campaign for 'The Family Book'.  I truly believe that there is a place for writing that can be enjoyed by anyone, of any age, at their own level.  It's not really such a mad idea, surely?  We all know what a 'Family Film' is, and the best of them are among the greatest movies ever made.  But books?  Since the end of the last century they have been divided up into Children's/Young Adult/ Chick Lit/ Women's Fiction/ Literary Fiction/ Romance/Sci Fi/ Fantasy/ Magic Realism etc, etc, etc...

There's no doubt who is at the top of the heap.  It's the 'Literary' authors, who have, as a group, pulled off the spectacular feat of making us all think that if we don't like their books it's our own fault.

Then there's a steady descent through Crime, Sci-Fi, etc, till,at the bottom of the heap, you hit 'Children's', which despite being a real money-spinner is, in most publishing houses, the area with the least flashy offices, the most exhausted PR staff, and the most underpaid editors.

In bookshops, it's the unstaffed area at the back, with some fading mobiles of fluffy ducks dangling over many of the best written and substantial novels of our day.  At literary festivals, 'Children's' authors - even the most elderly and successful - are often treated like children.  They are the ones paid the least (if anything) for their appearances, regarded as useful for bringing in Council subsides under the 'educational' or 'outreach' banners, but often seen as a variation on party entertainers,childminding for an hour while their parents go to the 'real' events.

I'm exaggerating, of course.  [I don't think so: Sue Price.]

But now we have the web, and our books can go straight up there, for anyone to find.  And it turns out to be a great way to expand your readership.  I have been lucky.  So-called 'grown ups' have always been enthusiastic about my books (having been introduced to them by their children) but now, more than ever, they are buying them in their own right, and without the embarrassment of having to to slither into the pink and fluffy section of a shop, pretending to be after a present.

I recently took back control of my Montmorency series of historical novels, added a new one, and put the whole lot back on sale directly on the net. 

It's such a joy to feel closer to the books, which have better covers, paper and print than their UK publisher ever gave them.  And it's lovely that they repay me with money on a regular basis, and bring me new enthusiastic emails from people of all ages.  It helps that this has coincided with the release of all five books in audio editions, read by Stephen Fry and John Sessions.  Do look them up and download them!

There are some things I miss.  In the conventional publishing world I have been blessed with gifted and friendly editors over the years, and I still enjoy the collaborative side of working with 'normal' publishers.  But I don't miss that time after the final proof-read when a book goes on its 'gap year' at the publishers, only to return wearing unsuitable clothes, with few of the old mistakes corrected, and new ones inexplicably inserted and set in stone.  I don't miss the way that, by the time a book comes out from a conventional publishing house, most of the people who worked on it have either left, are on maternity leave, or are up to their eyes in next year's big thing (which may even be your own).  Writing a book is a bit like having a baby.  You need a midwife (the editor), but you also need a Health Visitor after the birth.  Publishers don't seem to have developed anyone to fill that role.

Obviously, going it alone has its downsides.  To be honest, I just can't be bothered to tend to my babies as devotedly as I should - (perhaps there should be a social worker too - poised to take the books into Care).

But at least I only have myself to blame about that.  I'm not wasting emotional energy getting all bitter and twisted about the shortcomings of a corporate marketing department machine.  Everything is my own fault.

What a liberation!

Friday, 30 January 2015

Serendipidity and Green Sheep by Diana Kimpton

Serendipidity is one of the delights of being a writer. It’s the name given to making a fortunate discovery by accident, and I’ve found that it can help with my research or point me in a completely different direction. More importantly, it gives me the feeling that fate (or whatever else you like to call it) is on my side – that the book I’m working on really wants to be written.

I met serendipity for the first time more than 20 years ago while I was working on my first book, A Special Child in the Family. I was umming and aahing about whether to include school issues in this book for parents of children with special needs when a couple I had never met before turned up on my doorstep. They were on holiday in my area and, having read about my research project in a women’s magazine, they hoped I might be able to help them.

As they sat in my living room describing their son’s school problems, I watched the wife nervously twisting her hankerchief in her fingers and heard the anxiety in their voices. Their information helped me and I hope some of mine helped them. But most of all, they showed me that I needed to include a whole section in my book about education.

Time passed and I wrote many more books. Eventually, after concentrating on fiction for the under 9s, I decided write a horse book for pre-teens. I didn’t want to create a story about winning rosettes so I chose to concentrate on horse whispering and natural horsemanship. There was just one problem: I knew very little about it. So I dived into research.

I started by reading about one of the best known famous horse whisperers of all: Monty Roberts. Then Amazon pointed me at another horseman I had never heard of before – Mark Rashid. As soon as I read one book by him, I was hooked. Here was exactly the flexible sort of approach I was looking for. So I read the next and the next until I had worked my way through everything he had written.

Stuck for where my research should go next, I searched his name on Google and serendipidity struck. This Colorado-based cowboy was on my side of the Atlantic, running workshops in the UK. Better still, one of them was going to be in my area in just two weeks time. When something that amazing happens, I know I’m on the right track. So I went to the workshop and learnt a lot. Then I bought a less-than-perfect horse so I could try out his ideas for myself and eventually, after even more research, I wrote There Must Be Horses.

In both the above cases, serendipity happened during the research phase. For The Green Sheep, it came later. That’s hardly surprising. I couldn’t do much research into what happens to an alien who arrives on earth disguised as a green sheep because the transmogrification machine is on the blink. The only fact I needed to check was how many sheep there would be in 28 days if he duplicates himself every time he goes to sleep. (check it out –the number may surprise you.)

For this book, the serendidity came after it was published. That was late in 2014 which was so close to Christmas that I’m only launching the actual publicity now - in 2015. And, to my surprise, I’ve found that 2015 is the Chinese Year of the Sheep. Better still, the colour for the year is green.

So 2015 is the Year of the Green Sheep. That’s definitely a fortunate discovery made by accident. What better omen for my book could serendipidity provide?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Flirting with the devil: N M Browne

Recent events have got me thinking about self censorship. I am hardly alone in that, nor are my thoughts particularly insightful, but bear with me if I share them anyway.
As the product of my largely liberal education, I am in favour of free speech. There are inevitably a few politicians I would love to gag, a couple of radio pundits, and pretty much everyone on day time television who would greatly improve the quality of my life by never speaking in public again. ( This goes for a few people, I actually know too.)  
I hate everything that suggests that a woman should only be concerned about her hairy underarms, wrinkles, cellulite, and ‘greys’, that suggests that without shiny straight hair and perfect toned physiques we are somehow failures, that we are less competent, more emotional, manipulative and hard to understand than the other half of the human race. If I were a person of colour, disabled, gay or transgender I would no doubt be as sensitive to any speech which denigrated me, belittled me, made me a butt of jokes, suggested that I was somehow less than human, less worthy of respect and consideration, as I am of the many kinds of anti women discourse which currently lights my fury fuse.
 Yes, I hate quite a lot of speech, particularly the online kind that makes your eyeballs burn and your blood pressure rise like some cartoon steam engine about to blow. Yet I reluctantly accept that it would be unreasonable if only my voice and that of others I agree with were free to speak our minds. To control and censor speech is the first step in a brisk walk towards totalitarianism, towards oppression and thought control. Moreover words are too powerful to drive underground. If they are out there, they can be refuted, ridiculed, reduced, if hidden they become special, sacred, inviolate.  A culture that cannot cope with ridicule, that cannot refute a false argument that cannot use words and stories to persuade and mock,  is one that lacks any kind of confidence in its own prevalent values.
 I firmly believe that a writer, even a children’s writer, can write about anything.  I tell my students so. Yet in reality, I self censor all the time and this is the heart of my problem. I want kids of all shapes,sizes, colours, abilities, gender and orientation to feel that they could be the hero of their own narrative. In consequence I try to excise anything from my text that would suggest otherwise. I would like to include more diverse characters in my narratives. I have written about an overweight female warrior, black fairies, self doubting were wolves and Welsh freedom fighters, but I’m not sure they count as culturally diverse.  I am fearful of inappropriate cultural appropriation, of getting things wrong, of making anyone feel less and being criticised for it  and I think this hinders me.
 Over the last few weeks I have come to believe that this second guessing of the imagination is perhaps a mistake. My father’s daily paper espoused views that were in diametric opposition to his own: he got a little bit angry every day. Maybe he was ahead of his time. In this internet era where  unexamined search engine algorithms personalise the news and views we see, it is more vital  than ever to expose ourselves to antithetic views, to raise our dander, to be obliged to defend our own prejudices.  Maybe we all grow a little from having our sensibilities affronted and our world view challenged. Self censorship is a form of condescension: I can deal with this idea, but my readers can’t and where it isn’t condescension it can be cowardice: people might not like me if I say this.                               I’m not sure either vice is to be encouraged. A writer who cannot cope with criticism probably should not be a writer at all. So, from now on, I might just ‘publish and be damned.’

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Dictators, little gods, laughter, and Virtual Weapons

I'm opening this post with a seriously silly Christmas image of my totally anarchic Cornish family, very expertly photoshopped (they don't actually look like this!) There's something Lizzie Borden and rural America about it, and I do feel that one of the adults might be about to run amuk with an axe! I haven't yet played with Photoshop, but must, one day.  The possibilities it presents for serious mockery, or even libel, are endless.

 The subject of serious mockery inevitably leads to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. We lived in Paris for two years, and have good friends there, so it felt very personal. Ruthless dictators, and the nastier of the invented deities, have one thing in common: they cannot bear to be laughed at - which is why we have cartoonists brave enough to do it. What a murderous, unfunny thug Hitler was, and such a gift for another Charlie - Charlie Chaplin.  Charlie Hebdo picks on everyone, not just Islamic extremists, and its style is brutal - not a style I warm to, but I wouldn't commit murder to stop the magazine. I'd just not buy it. However, the extremists needed the publicity, which is precisely what they got. They also love the word 'spectacular', which we normally apply to musicals, or firework displays - how in love with 'celebrity' they are.

My totally inoffensive book for very young readers came out this month - the story of a spider's increasingly frustrating attempts to construct a web, with delightfully funny illustrations by Gabriele Antonini. And, once again, this month, I'm working to a brief, which is always challenging - I much prefer setting my own agenda.

Back to murder - the fantasy kind. I do have a couple of (nameless) publishers on my hit list. There are the ones who never respond, no matter how impressive your track record, and even having an agent seems to make no difference. There are those who, due to delicate feelings, or, more likely, forgetfulness, cannot bring themselves to say 'no'. One of mine, a very major publisher, put a novel out of print, and then proceeded to republish it in a tiny, low-quality version. They are big, and I am small, so no point in pursuing it, but I do have a large arsenal of virtual nuclear weapons some of which I'm more than happy to donate to any mistreated author.

Finally, there are the small presses that get taken over by slightly less small ones, and who, in the process, seem to lose a book entirely. The fate of this one, I think, I shall never know, which is rather a shame because it's good. Indie authors may have their problems, but at least they are in charge of their own work. And, happily, none of my re-published ebooks will ever go out of print.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Secrets of Claudia Winkleman's Charm - Andrew Crofts

A couple of months ago I wrote about the hiring of Midas PR to launch “Chances”,  the erotic memoir which I had ghosted for an anonymous European lady who was going under the names of Penny.

Last week the mighty Midas machine picked up speed and I found myself writing articles and doing a succession of interviews to promote the book, culminating in an encounter with Claudia Winkleman on her late night Radio2 arts show.

Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was going to be meeting Miss Winkleman I always received the same response - “Oh, I love Claudia Winkleman”.

It didn’t seem to matter what age or gender the person was, or whether they were likely to be fans of reality shows like “Strictly” or cultural offerings like “Film 2015”, her puppyish glamour had somehow worked on all of them. It appears the woman is fast-tracking towards being a national treasure. What, I wondered, could be the secret of this magical spell she was casting over the nation?

Listening to so many paeans of adoration rang alarm bells too. How could the reality possibly live up to this awesome reputation? Was I going to have to report back to all these devoted admirers that in reality the woman was a monstrous confection of insincerity and vanity, propped up by armies of sycophants, hangers on and make-up artists? Could she possibly live up to everyone’s heady expectations?

I have to report that fifteen minutes in a studio with Miss Winkleman is like being enveloped in a particularly cosy nuclear explosion, flattened by a steamroller of charm and wit so overwhelming that you barely notice the pain when she skewers you with an unexpected stab of journalistic enquiry. All in all it was the most exhilarating and enjoyable quarter of an hour I can remember ever spending with a total stranger. I felt like we had been friends for ever and that, I suspect, is the secret of Miss Winkleman’s magic.

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Epub is Open! Mine's a Pint, Please by Ruby Barnes

When it comes to e-books I'm definitely a Kindle kind of guy. I read on my old basic Kindle, on my iPhone Kindle app and sometimes on my laptop Kindle app. When it comes to e-book formatting of new releases (the bulk of that sort of work at Marble City Publishing Ltd falls at the door of Mark Turner who is me anyway), I use the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) process to proof e-books. Those kindle editions of the Marble City books are as clean and shiny as I can get them. Hyperlinked contents pages (when they are needed), back matter with links to other titles, hyperlinks and QR code to the publisher social media platform etc.

But wait! There's a whole world of people who don't worship at the altar of Kindle. The ePub file is their staple diet. Nook, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play and a bunch of others all fire up on ePub files. Their readers deserve just as much care and attention put into the finished ePub product.

For indie-authors and independent publishers there are several ways to convert a manuscript from (what is usually) MS Word to ePub. The popular distribution hubs such as Draft2Digital and Smashwords have conversion software built into their process. There are also standalone software programs such as Calibre that offer ePub conversion.

The problem for me is how to view these ePubs to proof them. And also how to read ePub editions if a book I want to read is presented in that format. I do have an e-reader that takes ePubs - a Kobo Touch that I won online a couple of years ago. But it's not great to use, to be honest. I have an iPhone and various apps but that means side-loading onto my iPhone or emailing to myself. Not easy as I use a laptop which doesn't recognise the iPhone when I connect it. And my primary laptop has security restrictions that prevent me from installing e-reader apps on it (yes, it's a day-job machine). So proper review of ePub editions has remained a challenge. Until now.

If you use Firefox-Mozilla internet browser you may have periodically noticed the program telling you that it is "updating add-ons". My recent discovery (and forgive me if I'm the last to know) is that there is a new updated EPUBReader add-on for Firefox Mozilla. And it's great!

EPUBReader add-on for Firefox-Mozilla
Figure 1 - the EPUBReader Firefox-Mozilla addon

Once installed (and it installs without Administrator privileges!) it will add an ePub-Catalog entry to your browser Bookmarks. Any ePub file you download with your browser or click to open in your browser will feature in that bookmarked catalog.

 the EPUBReader ePub-Catalog in Bookmarks
Figure 2 - the ePub-Catalog in Bookmarks

The on-screen appearance of e-books with this add-on is similar to other apps I've used on our other computer (which I can't get near because the kids use it for gaming) but somehow clearer. If the e-book has an index then this is shown clearly to the left with a double page display to the right (these are the standard settings but you can set preferences).

layout of the EPUBReader add-on
Figure 3 - layout of the EPUBReader add-on
There's a save function which allows for saving of the opened ePub to a folder (local, cloud etc.)

While this is great for me when I'm reading an ePub for recreation, it's brilliant for the ePub formatting process. Currently I'm using Draft2Digital for all ePub markets. [Previously we've gone direct through Apple (needs a Mac), Kobo (horrible results) and via Smashwords (sometimes nightmares with their Meatgrinder) - and Barnes & Noble still doesn't give Irish residents a direct option despite Nook Press reaching Europe.] This Firefox-Mozilla add-on allows instant checking of the ePub file. Those intricacies of layout, style, spacing etc can be checked within seconds.

EPUBReader The Sadness of Angels by Jim Williams
Figure 4 - checking the formatting of The Sadness of Angels by Jim Williams

This is very helpful for texts which are relying upon layout to give a custom "look and feel".

Converting manuscripts to e-books can often be quite a challenge. Fonts and styles may disappear, white space in the original MS gets eaten up, page breaks don't occur where they are supposed to. Draft2Digital, for all its other benefits of ease and speed, is a particular culprit in these things. The EPUBReader add-on provides instant visual feedback on the success or otherwise of formatting efforts. This is particularly important if you want to add front or back matter in a controlled and managed fashion. (D2D hint - feature a section title in the Index in order to force a page change).

Marble City Publishing back matter on EPUBReader
Figure 5 - checking back matter in EPUBReader

So there you have it. A great way to read ePubs. A quick and easy way for authors and publishers to check their progress with ePub formatting. Maybe you knew about it already. Maybe you know of a better solution. Let us know.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Call Me Big-Headed - by Susan Price

     "In the Ghost World, beyond Iron Wood, lay all that was
Ghost Dance by Susan Price
left of the Northlands; and in that timeless Northlands' forest there is a gyrfalcon. It has been a gyrfalcon so long, it has almost forgotten that it was once a mortal baby, and then a shaman's apprentice and a shaman, and a Czar's black angel.

     And that is the end of this story (says the cat).
     If you thought it tasty, then serve it to others.
     If you thought it sour, sweeten it with your own telling.
     But whether you liked it, or liked it not, let it make its
own way back to me, riding on another's tongue."

This is from the ending of Ghost Dance, the third book in my Ghost World Sequence. I've just finished turning it into a paperback, so now all three books are available as paperbacks again.

I wrote these books a long time ago, and it's been a rather odd experience, going back to them.

When you first begin a book, and the idea is alight in your imagination, it's a wonderful, exciting time. New ideas and images spring into your head, seemingly unplanned, from some other place... They jostle and fight for attention, almost too many to get down on the page.

Then tying the images together and making the plot work becomes difficult and frustrating, a chore...

By the time you've finished rewriting it several times, you're sick of it. There are no longer any surprises in it for you. Passages that were meant to be beautiful seem merely mundane and dull. Surprising revelations are anything but - trite and well-worn. You lose all judgement about the thing.

With conventional publishing, the book may be taken away from you for several months - and then the proofs are suddenly sprung on you. With luck, this is rather cheering. The break from it has renewed your interest. You've forgotten some of the details, so it seems fresher. Your faith in it perks up a little.

By the time it makes it into the shops, you've usually moved on to some other fantastically shining, wonderful new idea, and you've done with the old book. If it gets reviewed well, that's rather nice - if it sells well, even better, because then you have some money to live on while you write - but you're really not that interested by then. Or so I've found.

But let twenty years go by... Then re-reading the book is like reading something written by someone else entirely. I was startled by Ghost Dance. The power of the occult scenes took me aback. I'd forgotten the chill of the descriptions of the dying Northlands. Did I really write this powerful book? - Well, that's my name on the title page.

Call me big-headed if you like. Maybe I am - but I'm being honest about the experience of re-reading this book, which I wrote a long time ago. I suppose it's one advantage of growing older.

    Paperback                                                                                            e-book

                    The Ghost Drum                                                                           The Ghost Drum

                        Ghost Song                                                                                     Ghost Song 

                        Ghost Dance                                                                                   Ghost Dance