Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Borders bottoming out

I was in Melbourne today. Had lunch with a friend who works in a major publishing house. We didn't really talk about publishing, but the Borders demise was mentioned.

On the way home, I went to Borders in Highpoint. I bought $502.40 worth of books for $50.24. It felt uncomfortable. I felt a bit ashamed to be picking at Borders' carcass. Worse still, was the guilty feeling I had about buying books by two authors I love (Australia's amazing Margo Lanagan and Kelly Link) at 90% off the recommended retail price. Sorry Kelly! Sorry Margo!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Covers, speaking in public & the magic of Castlemaine

Design by Committee
The last two weeks have been filled with some amazing and fortuitous experiences. I drove to Castlemaine the week before last and stumbled across a really good book designer, Josh Durham of Design by Committee, who has agreed to design some templates for the interior of The Light Heart of Stone, my new fantasy novel.

The really amazing thing about finding Josh was that: a) I literally knocked on his door without knowing anything about the graphic designer within, only to discover he was a book designer; and b) one of the book covers that Michele and I had particularly admired, when we began discussing cover designs, turned out to be Josh’s design! (See the Hale & Hardy cover below)
Hale & Hardy by Paul Carter (Pan Macmillan Australia)

So, last week I sat down with Josh and we discussed my self-publishing project. I had the draft cover designs with me and showed them to him, along with some examples of fantasy book covers that I liked (so that he’d see what Michele and I were trying to achieve). I was pleased that Josh’s preferred cover was the cover Michele and I like best. I felt as though Michele and I were on the right track.

Our preferred cover design
(Oak tree image derived from an image by Rachel Wintemberg, based on a photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot)

Josh talked about the advantages of having a cover that brands the series, a cover that can be adapted to suit other volumes, which the preferred cover achieves. He encouraged us to play around with colour schemes – to consider something warmer and less stark. He also said that you need to be as careful with white covers as you are with black: they both damage easily.

Josh and I then spoke about the design for the interior and I learnt something in the process. I had thought that book designers designed the interiors of books and implemented those designs: inserting and managing the text, sorting out widows and orphans and rivers of white space. Josh had to explain to me that the text is dealt with by a typesetter, using templates created by the designer. For some reason, I thought typesetters had completely disappeared. I guess I was focusing on the original meaning of the name “typesetter” and not considering the specialised work that goes into managing text. I felt a bit stupid for not knowing, but “not knowing” is an inevitable experience if you are going to self-publish.

I asked Josh to design me a very simple, plain and readable interior and showed him my model book, Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares, which is beautifully designed and a real pleasure to hold and read.

Marketing in Libraries
About half an hour after meeting Josh, I walked into the Castlemaine Library to discuss the possibility of putting together some sort of promotional workshop program for The Light Heart of Stone. I came across Robyn Annear working on the loans desk. She is an author I admire and it was lovely speaking with someone so welcoming. She encouraged me to make a time to come in and discuss my ideas.

Public Speaking
The real problem with self-publishing doesn’t have much to do with editing, designing and printing your own book. The real problem involves distributing and selling your book. I haven’t yet tackled the problem of distribution, but I have been thinking about sales and about how vital public speaking and public readings are for any writer wanting to encourage readers to buy their book.

On Wednesday last week, I had the chance to speak at a regional Red Cross conference about my visual arts and writing projects. I talked about working full time as a writer, then giving it up to work in the visual arts, before returning to writing some ten years later.

I read a piece about family life and an extract from The Light Heart of Stone. I was nervous. I was worried that the piece of writing about family life was far too explicit given the age of the audience, but it was received with lots of laughter (as it was intended to be received). So speaking and reading ended up being a tremendously rewarding experience and it gave me the opportunity to begin collecting an email notification list for people who are interested in buying a copy of the novel when it comes out next year.

Remembering my mother and her mania for thanking people (thanks mum because that was a good thing to be manic about), I wrote to thank each person on the notification list and also wrote to the person who invited me to speak. And really, it seemed very natural to say thank you because it was a lovely experience, one that hope I get to repeat.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Novels Covers & Answering the Question: 'What's it about?'

'What's it about?'
Last post, I wrote about drafting a back cover blurb for my forthcoming fantasy novel, The Light Heart of Stone. The funny thing about back cover blurbs is that they tend to talk up a couple of opening incidents in the book, but don't really tell you what the story is all about.

When a friend posted that exact question, 'What's it about?' I opened up my files to cut and paste my existing synopsis, but found I didn't like it at all. I'm hoping this new version is does my story justice:

The Light Heart of Stone is a fantasy novel set in a speculative world and tells the story of the Stone Body, a continent on which plants and animals need human companions in order to thrive.

For more than one thousand years, the Companionaris and the Indidjinies have lived side-by-side on the Stone Body. The colonising Companionaris control the talent for growing plants and breeding animals. The colonised Indidjinies own the land. And so, it would seem, some sort of balance has been achieved. But what balance there is, is about to be shattered.

The story opens at a time when the companionship system is failing and vast areas of land have become barren, causing localised famine and fracturing relations between the two peoples. Crisis looms when someone begins murdering Indidjinies in a ruthless attempt to generate a renaissance of the companionship prowess.

There are three heroes in the novel. The youngest is an Indidjiny girl named Fox who is forcibly adopted into a Companionari family. The next, an Indidjiny rebel named Mica, believes he can hear the desires of stones and can find the meaning of events in the Indidjiny story-telling rituals. The last, the Oak Companion, heads the family that controls the continent's oak and cork trees.

These three overcome traditional enmities and personal wounds to uncover the killings. Together, they discover an old form of magic that has the potential to avert disaster and will certainly reshape relations between the Indidjinies and the Companionaris.

The speculative themes in The Light Heart of Stone reflect a number of contemporary Australian concerns, including the inherent risk of relying on finite resources for prosperity, the precarious nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations, the possibility of revisiting historical narratives, the risks to agriculture posed by genetically modified flora and fauna, and the vulnerability of Australia's fragile biota.

Novel Covers
I've been incredibly lucky to have skilled help with some of the more specialised tasks that all self-publishers need to do. Helen Hunter has been working on the copy edit of my manuscript and Michele Winsor has been designing a cover for me. 

I suspect that getting the right cover is one of the most important tasks in publishing. If you are browsing in a bookstore, a good cover will prompt you to read the back cover blurb, which should then prompt you to buy the book. For a self-publisher like me, it can signal the difference between vanity publishing and commercial self-publishing. What's the difference between the two? Having readers and not having readers. In an interview with ABC's Jennifer Byrne, Lee Child said of any book, 'First it's written, then it's read, then it exists.' I agree. So, being read is incredibly important to me.

When Michele offered to help me with my cover, I decided to do some research so that I wouldn't waste her time being unclear about what I was after. I began the process by thinking about the work a book cover has to do.

The cover needs to attract your attention, tell you about the genre, and indicate whether the book is literary fiction or commercial fiction. It should also appeal the right age group and stand out from the crowd - without being unrecognisably avant garde. And if the book is going to be offered for sale as an e-book, the cover will need to be able to be 'read' as a black and white thumbnail on the small screen of a reader.

I began by looking at the books on my shelves, looking at my favourite novels and paying particular attention to the ones I'd first discovered because of their covers. I realised that my taste in art influences my reaction to covers and that I hate the awful covers many fantasy novels seem to have even though I'm a dedicated fantasy reader. Unfortunately, lots of fantasy novel covers are turgid, overdrawn, corny, and embarrassingly dramatic. There are too many long-haired warriors and maidens in misty, classical scenes. I knew I didn't want that sort of cover art, but I needed to be careful to ensure that fantasy readers would recognise my book as fantasy.

Next, I visited some book stores and talked with booksellers about covers.

There was the usual awful overwrought artwork in the fantasy/sci-fi section, but the shelves were also full of Eclipse look-alikes: black backgrounds with bright coloured text and bold, eye-catching images. The bookseller told me that bookstores hate these black background covers that have been so popular in the past few years. Apparently, large black areas print badly and damage easily and customers don't want to buy blemished books. No black backgrounds then...

The bookseller then showed some new editions of the Harry Potter and Eclipse series that had stark white backgrounds with bold and colourful cover art. The covers looked good, but we speculated that this stark whiter-than-white look could be dated by the time my novel was released.

Soon after my bookstore visits, Michele and I sat down and talked about covers, showing each other books we liked. I'm incredibly lucky that Michele and I have similar taste in covers and that Michele has read The Light Heart of Stone and loves the story - even though she isn't usually a fantasy reader. A shared understanding and sensibility meant that we also shared a language when talking about how to represent the characters and drama.

We decided to begin by focusing on some of the themes and imagery from the story and narrowed this down to: rocks and stones, handwork (sewing and embroidery), agriculture, oak and cork trees, and a fox (to represent one of the main characters who is named Fox).

There was one other aspect of book cover design I discussed with Michele: the size and position of my name. Last year, website designer Patrick Bonello suggested I watch Best Sellers and Blockbusters, an interview by Jennifer Byrne with a number of best-selling authors: Bryce Courtenay, Matthew Reilly, Di Morrissey and Lee Child. I was impressed with those writers' unabashed and serious approach to their commercial image. I decided then, that I would emulate their cover presentation by featuring my name as though my name was something to be proud of. I wanted to convey that I was willing to own my work - for good or for bad.

These are Michele's first draft designs, which feature the original novel title, which was The Oak Companion:
Concept 1 - Hiding a rock behind a lace handkerchief

Option 2 - Variation on Option 1

Option 3 - An oak tree on a stony ground

Option 4 - A fox in front of an oak tree

Option 5 - a darker version of Option 4

Option 6 - The sewing and embroidery theme