Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Independent Authors

Since the invention of movable type until very recently, if an author wrote a book and wanted it published there were only two routes; either finance the printing and distribution of the book themselves or persuade someone else to invest their money in it in the hope of getting a decent return.

The first requires money - and that's just for the actual printing not to mention distribution. As not every would-be author is blessed with enough cash monies to cover this kind of outlay this necessarily means that the second option must be relied on. But again here is a problem because publishers can only publish so many books a year, which means that they must necessarily be selective. That selection is going to be based on the tastes and judgement of (usually) one person. Your book may be amazing but if that one person doesn't 'get' it, nobody will get to read it (the same thing happens in the music industry, which is why nearly all music on the radio is stuff Simon Cowell likes). There is also the problem of volume of submissions - not all manuscripts can be read.

Up until a very few years ago this had been the situation for generations. Either pay for a limited print run of your book or rely on someone else to actually give it a chance and like it and put it into general circulation.

Then came the eReader. The cost of producing a printed book from written copy is large. The cost of producting an eBook from written copy is essentually zero. So now the field is open for independent authors to get their work out there and be read. Maybe not by a mass audience but by an audience all the same.

Once the book is released it is then a question of promotion. This is going to be easiest by social media - Twitter, Facebook, whatever works - and get people to review the book wherever it is available, on reading sites such as Goodreads etc. Word of mouth can be powerful and a good word on social media and peer reviews are more highly regarded than professional criticism when it comes to something as personal and time consuming as reading a book.

And distribution is electronic, direct to the eReader or via eBook distribution sites (either independent like Libiro ( or commercial like Amazon) so there are no significant costs there either.

Which brings us to pricing. One of the great things about independent writers is that they don't have a whole paper book publishing and distribution arm and a lot of employees to finance. So the books can be inexpensive - a pound or two each - which also encourages sales. A great marketing tactic is also (if an author has more than one book to sell) to give one book away free to encourage a readership.

My eReading is almost exclusively 'indie' authors. I like reading these works that almost inevitably would never have been available previously. They may not always have the polish of a professionally (read: expensively) edited book but as with all works it is the core idea that is the point. Sometimes these are just slightly outside of expectation - and that is the real delight, finding a book that would not have been accepted for a large print run by a publisher but are nevertheless little gems of ideas well expressed.

Of course traditional publishing still has a large (major in fact) role in keeping the nation reading. But here's a shout out to those independent authors. Go and grab an eBook and enjoy something a little bit different today.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Newspaper musings

It must be tough for the print media. Since the World Wide Web took hold more and more people are consuming their news online and this has only accelerated as mobile technologies - pads, smart phones and unlimited mobile internet allowances - have become the norm. It surely can't be too many years before actual physical newspapers are regarded in the same way as town criers and merely produced for the novelty and 'olde worlde' charm.

I've been a regular reader of a few newspapers in my life. I started on the Independent when that was first launched. I found their balanced take on the politics of the news refreshing and showed that personal and party politics do not need to intersect.

When I started work I read Today (this was a while after its launch as the first colour daily newspaper). I can't think of any specific reason looking back but I think that it was always the underdog must have been an attraction.

As my time became more precious my newspaper reading was restricted to a Sunday; I would go to the shop on a Sunday morning and get the Times and the Telegraph. Weighed down considerably by their bulk I would proceed to wade through each and every of the many sections until my lounge resembled some sort of newspaper-as-snow Christmas scene.

I've not regularly read a newspaper for some years now; party because I simply don't have the time and also because I can get the news on my computer or phone whenever I want.
 I don't have the sort of commute or the sort of job where I have the luxury of a few minutes reading the news.

But it has to be said the newspaper content itself has to be significantly to blame. The lower end of the market is celebrity obsessed and the upper end is obsessed with politics and politicians. I have very little interest in either and absolutely no interest at all in someone's private life (which most of the stories boil down to one way or another). Of the so-called 'midsheets' the Daily Express is obsessed with the royal family. And then we have the Daily Mail.

The Daily Mail seems to have collapsed into a sort of middle England singularity. Rather than informing its readership of the news and providing them some background and perhaps informed comment on it it instead works somewhat in reverse. Which of the current news items is likely to get its readership angry and frothing at the mouth and worked up enough to shell out their money to read about it? That's the story that will go on the front page. Not the most important story but the most provoking story.

And if there is no big story for the middle class to tut about over their muesli, they are not above creating what seems to be a huge story but is almost entirely a construct of the journalist's imagination, with a small core fact (often unchecked for validity) or rumour carefully spun out into something that looks like some great affront to the British way of life (whatever that is) but is in fact nothing of the sort.

So we have stories about EU laws insisting on straight bananas and cucumbers (they don't), repeated pieces on various councils banning Christmas as being offensive to other religions (they never have) and so on. I had the misfortune of reading one their recent lead stories. The paper claimed that some event had happened - spashed over the front page in a 2 inch high headline designed to raise the blood pressure of its readership - but strangely the story itself didn't actually discuss the alleged event.

Instead we had various spokespersons quoted for their reaction if something like this happened, not their reaction to the actual event. There are not eyewitness or official statements of any kind. The family involved were not available for comment - very wise - but 'one of their neighbours was quoted, presumably following the journalist describing the Mail's version of events and saying "what do you think of that?"

Creating news that your existing readership wants to read is obviously a reasonable survival tactic, but it doesn't attract any new readers and no doubt puts a lot off. It is also terribly lazy journalism. Rather than finding the facts and doing some digging this is simply spin, and of the sort the Daily Mail hates amongst politicians.

Thursday, 16 October 2014


I'm guessing I came to Twitter comparatively late. I used to use Facebook, mostly for keeping in touch with people I used to work with and that is still Facebook's forte for me. But in terms of constantly posting status updates Facebook seems a little self-indulgent; you are still posting what you want people to think is happening rather than what is really happening.

Then a friend suggested Twitter. Naturally I'd heard about it but didn't really 'get' it. Why 140 characters? I can post an essay on Facebook if I like. What's with all the hashtags (an innovation Facebook has since embraced).

Then I started on it, followed a few of my favourite authors (and the very very few friends on it that I could find) and didn't look back. The 140 character limit is liberating rather than restrictive. It encourages a quick, fast, instant post so what is posted is more what is really going on and can't really be dressed up too much.

I quickly realised the main trick is not to look at the number of followers you have or to stress about it. Obviously every extra follower is a good feeling - after all these are very nearly all strangers - although there are fair number of people on who only follow in order to get a follow back (a game I don't play - I'll follow you back if you look interesting)  But if the number goes down - well it doesn't matter at all. I don't post on Twitter because I need someone to read it. I post on Twitter because it's got to be said somewhere. I blog for very much the same reason (and after all Twitter is supposed to be about micro blogging).

The other mistake I made at first was to try to read every post that appeared in my feed. But after a very short time the number of updates makes this impossible, and it's not really necessary. It becomes a sort of stream-of-consciousness thing, ticking away with the occasional tweet grabbing your attention and deserving of a favourite, a retweet or - if you a feeling brave - a reply. Replying to a post by someone 'famous' you admire is just as daunting as asking for an autograph (for me at least). One of my early fond memories of Twitter is a conversation I had with the science fiction author and scientist (and someone with a fine taste in music) Alastair Reynolds (@aquilarift) about the vaguaries of Sky+ reliability,

The other astonishing thing was that I very quickly had a number of independent authors following me (and that spurred me into my blogging and book reviewing too). This brings us to another really strong point of Twitter: marketing.

I don't mean that in the sense of a huge company attempting to make some sort of promotion for their products go viral (which works so rarely you wonder why they bother) but rather the power if gives independent authors and small publishing houses to get their message out to a number of people. They can promote their books at pretty much zero cost. And once retweets and reviews are posted by others... well it can snowball into an effective campaign without any outlay at all. So next time a tweet comes from a small independent trying to get someone to look at what they have, give serious consideration to a retweet it could make a real difference to them.

So enjoy your tweeting and don't worry about how many people are following you. Although if you want to put my count up it's @PhilLeader. See you there

Monday, 13 October 2014

Reading multiple books at once

At the time of writing this, I am actively reading four books.

It is not unusual for me to read more than one book at a time; in fact it's pretty much how I work. I tend to have a physical book and an ebook in progress at all times. This is convenient simply because the ereader is handier when I am out and about and the paper book I find easier to read when relaxing. The real downside is that it just takes longer to read each book.

I've done this since at least University (where I would be reading text books simultaneously with fiction) and my record is seven simultaneous books. I finished six of the books, the other was a re-read of Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin which I didn't get to the end of (and the copy has long since wandered off to wherever unattended books go). I suppose technically I am still reading it but you have to draw the line somewhere and after nearly 25 years I think it's safe to say I'd need to start it again.

My wife doesn't understand how I can do this, she wonders how I don't get confused between the books. I suppose part of this is that the books are (usually) very different, or have a particularly identifiable style. And I have to admit I've not tried reading books which are close in story or style, or the same author. It might be an interesting idea one day to try it and see if I do get the books confused.

My reading list has doubled from it usual size at the moment simply because books come along that I have been looking forward to reading; when I get a new book I evaluate what I am currently reading and sometimes the new book ends up on top. The existing book is left - bookmark in place- until the new book is finished. Or as happened now, yet another book I have been even more impatient to read has come along so now the stack has grown larger. There are times when I have to avoid getting any new books because I know I will want to read them and I already have enough to read.

So now my worry is how to find enough time to finish my current books before the next 'must haves' come along to be read, digested and reviewed. There simply isn't enough time in the day...

Friday, 3 October 2014

Book Cover Blurb

I'm talking here about the little potted review of the book that is usually on the back cover for paperbacks and inside the front cover on hardbacks.

Clearly this is one of the most important marketing tools for the publisher; a description of the book to draw the casual browser in and decide to spend their hard earned cash monies on the product.


I feel these tend to give far too much of the story away. So much so that I don't read any of the blurb for books and authors I know I will like. I much prefer to read the story and experience the reveals, the characters and the twists as the author wrote them. So many times a vital plot point that essentially ruins at least one of the story threads (in terms of suspense and drama) it given away by the potted review. The worst examples I have seen give a basic plot outline up to as much as three quarters of the way through the book, or reveals that a key character dies about half way through.

So why is this the case? Is it possible to write something that is interesting enough to attract the casual browser and give them enough information to tell if they are likely to enjoy the book? When I write reviews I try my hardest not to fall into this trap; I try not to give any plot details away that I can help (or that aren't going to be obvious withing the first chapter or so anyway).

One example of this was when reviewing <i>Prince of Fools</i> by Mark Lawrence. The core of the book is a 'buddy buddy' story of two protagonists - the feckless Prince Jalan and the powerful and driven warrior Snorri Snagason. The thing is I found this pairing a real surprise - especially given Snorri's first appearance is essentially as an extra, then Jalan uses him in the fighting pits in a bid to clear his gambling debts. The way they are eventually forced to work together was a real joy to read as it unfolded on the page and I would have hated that to have been ruined by knowing ahead of time who Jalan's companion was. So my review simply does not mention Snorri by name, keeping the surprise for other readers to discover for themselves (of course it's ruined now if they've read this!)

And indeed the write of the 'blurb' for <i>Prince Of Fools</i> seems to agree on this, and it's a fine example of how it should be done... no specifics beyond those that are immediately obvious. Snorri is referred to as a 'fierce Norseman' and not named and although they are described as being magically entangled it's really not clear what that means.

Now compare to the text for <i>The Bootlegger</i> by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott. Here the villains are explicitly described as "Bolshevik assassins and saboteurs", a fact that takes some time to play out fully in the book and is probably not fully realised until a good half way through the book as his motives are kept deliberately obscure.

But this needs to be  tempered by the need to sell the book, to give enough details that someone might decide to pick <i>that</i> book instead of moving onto the next. It's got to be tricky to get this right but I'm sure a balance could be found.

So, writers of 'blurb' whoever you are, think about what you are giving away from the story and try to be specifically general in describing the content.