Thursday, August 23, 2012

'We Can Improve On You'

I've just had a standard rejection from a well known children's publisher for a novel (with the above title) I submitted over a year ago.

Conventional publishing sometimes seems self-destructively inefficient, and unable to respond quickly to events and to changing demand; why is it so hard for them to change?

Publishers are debating how they are going to move forward and adapt. Simultaneously they are struggling to cope with the weight of received manuscripts from authors.

This is why, of course, most of them have stopped taking unsolicited manuscripts. Writers therefore need agents to approach these publishers, and agents are struggling too.

I think it should be possible for authors to be part of the debate that publishers & agents are having amongst themselves.

For example, one of my new commercial publishers for my non-fiction work, Do Sustainability, is adopting an entirely new business model.  I am currently writing my second e-book for them.

Both Cambria, the publisher of my recent ebook, and this publisher have the advantage that they can move quickly and respond to a new market demand, or process manuscripts, more cheaply and faster.

I believe that traditional publishers should be looking at doing the same thing.

Is it any wonder, if publishers are taking so long as a year to respond, that more and more authors are turning to self-publishing, through e-books or print-on-demand?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Let’s see this Olympic spirit change politics for the better

The world's greatest athletes have packed and gone home after the most inspiring and emotional of Olympic Games.

The spirit that they generated throughout most corners of this motley land has infused in it a renewed sense of optimism and self-confidence, channeled by Sebastian Coe into his hope that it will inspire a generation.

Galen Rupp's act of self-sacrifice so that his training partner, Mo Farah, could win his second gold medal and enter the history books, exemplifies this spirit, and the best of human nature.

Everybody now wants a share of this Olympic spirit. If they could bottle it, it would sell by the tanker load.

David Cameron hoped that some of this euphoria and excitement would rub off to the economic benefit of the country; this was the motivation behind UK Trade and Investment's business summits held concurrent with the Olympics.

It is also the motivation behind the Downing Street Hunger Summit, which Cameron hopes will secure sufficient commitments from leaders and multinational firms to help improve the nutrition of 25 million children by the time of Rio's 2016 Olympic Games.

This has been backed by many Olympic stars. They have urged the prime minister to go further and make alleviating hunger the top priority for the UK's presidency of the G8 next year.

Mo Farah, whose story is perhaps the most inspiring of many inspiring and humbling stories to emerge from the Games, has lent his support. He has already set up his own Foundation to give aid to the Horn of Africa. Merely by tweeting about its first fundraising ball on 1 September to his many new followers, he caused the server that hosts its website to crash.

It does make you wonder why a similar sense of global togetherness and teamwork cannot come together at other times; like the Rio+20 sustainable development summit, or the annual United Nations efforts to find a global agreement on ways to limit climate change.

Anyone who has attended these gatherings as a campaigner immediately senses a similar coming together of thousands of people from all over the world, and their enthusiasm for a common cause, and knows full well the origins of the blocks to attaining these goals.

The Olympic opening ceremony, depicting coal-smoke belching factories functioning with the indentured labour of millions of workers, reminded us all that Britain began the industrial revolution, thus inaugurating the process of climate change.

Mo Farah's campaign to combat famine in Africa should also bring to our minds that it is this continent which stands to suffer the most from climate change.

The closing ceremony, in turn, by having a children's choir sing John Lennon's Imagine, attempted to make us think that if we all come together we really can save the world. As the song goes: “it's easy if you try".

It may be easy if you try, but as every medal winner at London 2012 will tell you, it's the trying that is hard: years of painful effort. But the result is worth it, even for those who do not succeed; they will cherish forever the joy of participating.

So, if the Hunger Summit succeeds, why not, in four years time, when we are back at Rio de Janeiro, home of the Sustainable Development summits, be even more ambitious?

If we do not have a global agreement by then to tackle the most pressing problem facing all life on earth, then we should use the opportunity, the euphoria and optimism, to force world leaders to sign up to one: an Olympian pact to limit emissions.

Never mind how, or who gives the most. Cease this useless bickering and destructive posturing. Show us the same generosity of spirit we have witnessed in East London.

We need from our world’s politicians displays of teamwork, cooperation within competition, and self-sacrifice, like those that have mesmerised us this last fortnight.

Olympic competitors have stunned us with their world-beating achievements that have exceeded our wildest expectations of what human beings are capable of. We expect it of our athletes.

How much more should we demand it of our political servants?

Monday, August 06, 2012

How I made my first e-book

Are you e-experienced? Until a week ago I wasn't. But, in the last three weeks I have made and published my first e-book.

It feels a bit like giving birth to, I don't know, some kind of strange mutant mongrel beast, some hybrid child whose destiny is unknown, who may grow up to mock me, betray me, give me glory (but only by leave of the wayward capriciousness of viral flukeiness) or, even worse, disappear completely without trace in the infinitely absorptive sponginess that is the e-thernet.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I thought I would share my experience. Some of you may be teetering on the edge of this mysterious pool of brave new publishing opportunities, debating whether to take the plunge. I expect many of you already are e-experienced swimmers with Olympian credits. If so, you can poke fun at my ineptitude.

I kindled thoughts of these waters for a long while. Some of my books had been converted into ebooks by my publishers, but they were like the offspring of alcohol-obscured one night stands; unknown and unclaimed. The publishers didn't even tell me they had been born, I only found out by accident, and I don't have a clue about sales figures.

In a tentative way, I had previously offered PDF downloads of one or two stories or chapters for sale through my websites, but they had languished as forlorn and undownloaded as an unfertilised dandelion in a meadow of opium poppies.

I own no e-reader; nothing I cannot read in a bath without fear. Every work of fact or fiction in my library looks dissimilar from every other, and I like it like that.

What persuaded me to dip my sceptical toe in these waters was partly the persistent encouragement of a local publisher, Cambria Books, whose manager, Chris Jones, is passionate about their new business model.

OK, I said. But I wasn't sure what content to offer first. Then, an old colleague and the series editor of some of my non-fiction, suggested that I republish an old novella of mine. (Thank you, Frank.) This seemed a perfect way of testing out the market, since I knew it would have an existing audience, and that there'd be a new one to which I wanted to introduce it. All I would have to do was find those readers. (The expected readership, by the way, is YA, most likely readers interested in humour, politics, science fiction, and comics/graphic novels.)

I still am sceptical, so I'm going to be watching sales with interest.

The whole process of preparing the content from start to finish took two weeks, which itself is very attractive: contrast this with the swimming-through-jelly tempo of traditional publishing - two years start to finish?

Here are the stages it went through:
One of the illustrations, by Rian Hughes
  1. Scanning in the original book using OCR (optical character recognition) software. I used ABBYY. The software is remarkably accurate but does need a bit of an eagle eye for spotting 1s that should be Is and Os that should be 0s.
  2. Scanning in the 12 illustrations, which different comics artists from Dave McKean to Simon Bisley had contributed to the original edition. This was the fun bit.
  3. Designing the cover, which included colourising in Photoshop a black-and-white illustration that had been on the inside. That was fun too.
  4. Adding a short story on the same theme to give extra value, that had been published elsewhere in another collection but not widely seen.
  5. Writing a new afterword. This involved a nostalgic and enjoyable expedition into overgrown verges along the side of my personal memory lane. I took my butterfly net for effect (a butterfly effect) to catch those extra special chaotic moments.
  6. Completing the whole thing in Word. Word, the software, is not my friend, although Word, the archetypal personification of language, is. But sometimes you have to dance with the Devil, since the e-book conversion process requires a Word file. How did Microsoft sew that one up?
  7. Making sure all the prelims were hunky-dory and accurate. That included researching and writing up short biographies of all the artists, updating them from the previous edition, and making sure I thanked everyone.
  8. Then I thought I ought to add some adverts for some of my other books at the back that readers might be interested in. Why not? 70-90 years ago, most books had adverts in the back - and the front, sometimes, just like magazines. Perhaps this is the way to go to finance this new form of publishing? Interactive ads for acne-banishing face creams in the back of YA novels, anyone?
  9. Then I got carried away and added a real ad from the 1940s for a chemistry set for boys that included real uranium! Most people don't believe that I didn't make this up.
I sent the file to the publisher, who checked it over, made more corrections, added the ISBN and converted it into the .mobi format, which Amazon likes.

I chose to go with Cambria Books, but there are many other companies offering similar deals. It may be worth shopping around, but I didn't bother. Some of them offer print-on-demand as another option. This may be worth considering as well. If you want to get reviews you should have a few print copies to send to reviewers. Also, if you don't think you will sell more than 1000 print copies, print-on-demand is generally cheaper than a conventional print run. Over this number, you should go down the conventional printing route.

The publisher then sent the e-book file back to me to check. I was horrified. I had designed it in Gill Sans font, which I love, and it came back in a frankly disgusting, evil, serifed font. All my lovely formatting was strewn about like weatherboard in a hurricane, and my unique work was reduced to the same common denominator as everything else that you see on a Kindle.

I had to resign myself to the fact that there is little you can do about this, except to control where some page breaks go. It's a bit like designing for the web, except you have even less control. That's the nature of this homogenising beast.

Then, holding a stiff drink, I muttered: “Go!" The publisher uploaded the file to Amazon and it was live - for sale - in less than 24 hours! Wow.

However, I didn't just want to sell it through Amazon and merely contribute to their increasing domination of the market. I wanted people to be able to read it on something other than a Kindle.

So the nice publisher also gave me a version in the .epub format, which works with other e-readers.

Cambria Books also made a Facebook page and a webpage on their company website for the title, to promote it alongside all of their other titles. For all of this Cambria charged £200, which includes £50 for the ISBN. The book is for sale at £1.84. So, I need to sell, bearing in mind the cut that Amazon takes, just 125 copies to get my money back.

I could also have chosen to do all of this myself, but I'm lazy, and I figured that it's worth it, especially since this was my first time.

But I wasn't finished yet.

I then chose to make the files available on my own website. I already sell books on my website through PayPal. Selling e-books is slightly different, because there isn't a physical product to ship, and you need to create a place where buyers can download the file, after PayPal has checked that they have paid for it successfully.

This place has to be completely inaccessible to search engines, otherwise people will just grab the files for nothing.

Here's what I did:
  • I made the webpages holding the downloads, one for each format, which just need to be very simple, and put them together with the files in a folder on the server. At the top of the web pages is this text: <meta name="robots" content="noindex" />.
  • Just to be safe, I also uploaded a text file to the folder named robots.txt, which simply contains the following:
    User-agent: *
    Disallow: /
  • Both of these little tricks should prevent search engines from indexing and making public the content of this folder.
  • The next thing to do is to get an account with PayPal, if you haven't already got one, and, once logged in, go to the Buy Now Button-making page (if you can't find it just type those words into the search function), which allows you to create a button for a single item purchase.
  • All you need to do here, is to put in the name of the e-book, a product code that you make up, and its price. There is, of course, no shipping cost. You probably want to check the button that says “Track profit and loss".
  • Then you come to Step 3, subtitled “customise checkout pages". This is the important bit. Answer the questions the following way:
  1. “Do you want to let your customer change order quantities?" No, because they won't order one more than one e-book.
  2. "Can your customer at special instructions in a message to you?" No, there's no need for that.
  3. "Do you need your customer's shipping address?" No, because messages will go to their PayPal e-mail address.
  4. Check the box saying “take customer to a specific page after checkout cancellation" and type or paste in the full website address for your shop page.
  5. Check the box saying “Take customer to a specific page after successful checkout". Here is the really, really important bit: type or paste in the full website address for the page they go to download your e-book. Make sure this is right! This is the complete address for the page that you made earlier and uploaded, the one at the otherwise secret place.
  • All you have to do now is click “create button" (don't worry, you can go back and change things if you made a mistake, as I did), and, when happy, copy the code and paste it on your page exactly where you want the button to be.
  • Save your page and upload it to your website.
That's it!

The things writers have to do these days.

But I still hadn't quite finished. I had to write a news item publicising the e-book for the front page of my website, in which I included a link not just to the page where people can buy my books, but to the exact part on the page where they can buy that e-book, to make it super-easy for them.

On that page, I include all the options for them to make the purchase: a link to the Amazon page, because most people will be comfortable doing that; and the two buttons for both formats that I made using PayPal.

You can see the news item on the front page of my website here.

I then wrote a post on my blog promoting the book, which you can read here.

Of course, I also had to promote it on Facebook, on both my own page and the page made for the book itself, and on my Twitter account.

And, I launched the e-book at what was billed as the UK's first festival for e-books, in Kidwelly last weekend. My publisher had a stand there.

Unfortunately, this event was poorly promoted and badly attended (having it in a more accessible place would have helped), but there were many excellent speakers, not to mention, for children, our own Anne Rooney, plus Simon Rees and Mary Hooper, Clive Pearce and Nicholas Allan.

Several speakers told their own experiences of publishing e-books. Notable for me was Polly Courtney, who confessed her lamentable experiences with HarperCollins that made her realise that self-publishing was a far better route than being with one of the big five, and Dougie Brimson, who has sold over one million self-published e-books, because he knows his audience really well.

Listening to the speakers gave me confidence that it really is okay to do it yourself and publish ebooks. It doesn't mean you have to give up working with mainstream publishers. You can do both. But given that we all nowadays have to spend at least 25% of our time marketing ourselves and our books, in practice it is not that much more work.

As one of the speakers said, most readers don't care who the publisher is, as long as the book is good.

Did I leave anything out? Is there a better way of doing this? Perhaps some of you will share your experience. After all, I'm just a beginner, but at least I'm no longer an e-book virgin.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Doc Chaos - "a comedy of terrors" - lives again

David Thorpe Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect & The Last Laugh coverCambria Books and Hooligan Press have published a new ebook version of my 1988 novella, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect. 

I love the tag line:

Inside a nuclear reactor, no one can hear you scream - with pleasure.

"DOC CHAOS is one of the most exciting and refreshing pieces of graphic literature I've seen in a long time." said Alan Moore very kindly in his introduction to the original comic series.

As a love story, it makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like kindergarten games...

Doc Chaos, the scientific prodigy who sold the promise of nuclear power to the most gullible, power-mad people in the world - politicians - did so not just because he likes seeing humanity "trip on its own banana skins" (as Graeme Basset put it), but for a much darker, more erotic reason... to reach the ultimate climax.

David Thorpe Doc Chaos: The nuclear jokerThis new edition, (available here),  contains 12 illustrations that were specially created by prominent stars of the comics art world:

Simon Bisley (who did the cover, which has been coloured for this edition) ~ Brian Bolland ~ Brett Ewins ~ Duncan Fegredo ~ Rian Hughes ~ Lin Jammett ~ Pete Mastin ~ Dave McKean (who did the illustration on the right) ~ Savage Pencil ~ Ed Pinsent ~ Bryan Talbot.

It also contains a new short story, The Last Laugh, completing the Doc Chaos narrative at the coming apocalypse, and a new Afterword by me, which sets the two pieces in their creative context.

Doc Chaos by Dave McKean
I believe DOC CHAOS takes the literary genealogy of doctors Frankenstein, Faustroll and Benway into the nuclear age and beyond.

The tragic Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the world’s worst, happened in 1987, and, having campaigned against nuclear power for twelve years, while living under the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction during the Cold War, the absurdity of civilisation’s perverted fixation on this doubled-edged technology seemed to me to be a good fit for the story of the Bad Doctor.

Written in a post-modern frenzy, it provided me with a lot of fun, especially when I mixed in elements of my own personal narrative, which those who know me recognise without necessarily knowing where truth ends and fiction begins.  It seems obvious to me that there is a macho, psycho-sexual element in mankind’s love affair with nuclear power.

A special word of thanks to the artists who contributed original illustrations to this edition. Each of them was given a copy of the manuscript and invited to draw anything they liked based on a particular episode or scene. Every single one of them responded marvelously, getting totally under the skin of the project. Brian Bolland even contributed two pictures, in the style of the Mr Mammoulian strip he was sporadically producing at the time.

What amazes me is how each artist has their unique vision for Doc Chaos, but all of them encapsulate its spirit. I like every one of them. They really make this book come alive.

The virus that began in a 1981 journal, mutating to continue its survival, is still on the loose.

As the bad doctor says: “You can’t keep a good disease down.”